Six Vignettes: Grey

The hearse is stopped by the press of pedestrians crossing the road in front of it.  There are no traffic lights granting them permission, no road-markings, no traffic policeperson standing there in pristine white gloves making arcane gestures.  Something has nonetheless spooked the crowd, and like pigeons taking wing they are now straggling across the road; eddies and knots of friends and relatives spinning around in the general flow.  The driver of the hearse lays a hand on the horn and then rethinks.  It is not seemly for the dead to be a greater hurry than the living: the body in the back has only one more appointment to go to and he won't be late, whensoever he arrives.

As the hearse waits, a shade detaches itself from the deeper shadows and slithers to the hearse, resolving gradually from an amorphous blob to a man-like figure draped in a heavy-cowled robe, carrying some farm-tool in one hand.  He enters the hearse without resistance, penetrating through metal and sundry fabrics as though they are ephemeral.  To the shade they are, to its perception of time and reality they last for so short a while that they may as well not exist.  The driver shivers as though a shadow has passed across the sun, and though the light dims a little it is not unpleasant.  It is like drawing a soft, translucent drape across a window in summer; the light is attentuated and softened, the room becomes subtly warmer and welcoming, and the harsh realities exposed by the raw light are beautified.  This shadow carries a charnel scent with it, and the lethal promise of permanence.

The shade perches itself on the coffin, unconcerned that its head and shoulders protrude through the roof the vehicle, content to be near a job done well, and rests an elbow on a shadowy knee, and then a chin on the hand supported by the elbow.  Adopting the pose of Rodin's Thinker, Death broods.

The crowd abates, and the hearse glides forward, incrementally inching along, and Death dwells on the piece of paper that Tony Alekhin took away with him.  It is the record of the moves of their game of chess.  The paper describes how Death lost to a mortal, a simple human; it is proof of falibility, and Death wonders what will happen if the game is published.

When the game is published, it corrects itself.  Who would not want to see how Death was defeated.  But then the moves will be studied, the game will be analysed, and chess-players everywhere will learn how Death played that game.  The next game it plays, its opponent will be far better prepared, perhaps even waiting for this chance to prove that they might be the better player.  Other mortals will seek to infer its inner nature, to make strong statements about the character of Death, to approve or disapprove of its moral fibre.  Death will become just another object of interest, and mankind will lose their fear.

The hearse approaches the cemetary gates and Death's mood darkens: it must retrieve the paper, the record of the game, and keep it away from mankind.  No matter what the bargain struck was, these are mitigating circumstances.

Only one mourner, standing at the graveside with a heavy heart and tear-filled eyes is looking up as the hearse pulls onto the cemetary drive and sees a vast, black-winged angel arise from the body of the vehicle, where the coffin is held, and launch itself upwards, blotting out the light of the sun for entire seconds.  The whole cemetary feels the breeze that it generates, the coldness that penetrates clothes and flesh and chills the souls of men.

The End

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