I was crossing the old red bridge over the river, picking my way over the cracked pavement, when the beggar came to me; and, from his tattered clothes and unshaven face, and the way he limped, I thought he was truly in need.
Though I had little enough of my own, I had more than he did, and what I had I no longer felt any want for; so I fished in my pocket, took out my wallet, and gave all that was in it to him. And he glanced up from the crumpled notes on his palm and up at me, and on his face was a strange look, the sort I have never seen before.
“You will receive what your heart most desires,” he said, and his voice was like an echo of something from worlds far distant; and, touching his hand to his breast and bowing, he turned and walked away. And as long as I could see him, I stood there, watching; and only when he had gone from view did I cross the bridge.
And I went back to my little room, where the sky was a dim grey streak beyond the curtain; and I lay on the cold hard bed, and thought about things, and what my heart most desired.
I thought of warm beach sand underfoot and a yellow pregnant moon in the sky; a well-loved voice in my ear, a familiar hand in mine; and I thought of how these things would never be again. And I thought of the thing inside me, the growing clot of darkness that chewed away without respite, day and night, the thing that would not be banished, that could never, ever, go away, until there was nothing left to chew. Then it was that sleep came like a shadow-tide, and drowned me in welcome depths where I walked again by the shore of a distant sea, with someone long gone from me.
It was sometime late in the night, and I woke; and at the foot of my bed was a woman dressed in stars. Stars in whirls and spirals draped her shoulders and breasts, dripped from her wrists and fingers, and dusted the floor around her toes. Her hair flowed like the darkness between the planets, her eyes held the black depths of infinity, and her skin was the colour of ice fields under an Arctic sky. And she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
“I am here,” she said, her lips not moving. “Will you come?”
I knew who she was, of course, though I had never seen her before; and though she is fearsome by repute, I felt nothing but relief. “I will,” I said, and rising from the bed had never been so easy before.
So she took my hand in one of her own, gesturing with the fingers of the other; and I saw the wall fade away; and before us was a path of stone, under a sky of smoke the colour of blood. And the smoke rose from leaping flames that rose on both sides, as far as the eye could see.
“What are those flames?” I asked, for they seemed to rise from bottomless depths, and rose until they merged with the smoke that filled the sky; but they gave forth no heat, and the blood-coloured smoke, though it lay heavy, did not rain soot or cinders on the path.
“It’s Time burning,” she said, and her voice had more sadness in it than I had ever heard before; “It’s the Future, burnt in the Present into the ashes of the Past. And it is gone, all of it; never to come again.”
And I thought about it, and looked back over my shoulder; but already the way behind had vanished into the fire, and I knew that it had been consumed, and there was no going back again.
Then I looked at her, and I saw that tears brimmed in her eyes and crawled down her cheeks; and I knew that she was sorrowing for more than the passing of Time. And though my hand was in hers, and her bare feet were firm and sure on the path, I stopped, so that she had to turn to face me.
“Lady,” I said, “I can see that you sorrow. Though you are by reputation the most terrible being in existence, yet there are tears that drip from your eyes, and I can hear depths of sadness in your voice that I have never thought possible. How can it be so?”
And she looked at me, with eyes so filled with grief that I could have done anything at all to look away. “Terrible?” she repeated. “Perhaps one might say that. It is terrible indeed, to be the bringer of a gift one can never touch oneself, a gift for which one longs forever.
“Can you imagine what I go through?” she continued. “I come to them when they are happy and when they are sad; I come when they least expect me, and when they long for me with a longing greater than for any lover’s embrace. I come for them in mansions, in hovels, in burrows in the ground, in the depths of the sea. I am there in the incandescent depths of worn-out suns, and the frozen seas of worlds a universe away. I am what has always been since the moment it began; and I can never lay this burden down, though I would love nothing more.
“Can you imagine what it feels like to take a baby from her mother’s breast, and hear the woman’s anguished cries? Can you breathe the blood-stink of massacred villages caught in a civil war? Have you the imagination to explain to a young man, pulled from a tangle of metal, why he will never see his lover again? And not just once, not just in one place, but over and over, each moment of this burning Time.”
And then I saw that we were not alone on the road; that all around us, and stretching as far onward as the eye could see, were others, men and women, animals that were not men and women, and beasts that were not men or women or animals that I knew; and beside each of them walked the woman dressed in the stars, with stars shimmering on her shoulders and dripping from her toes. And she who walked beside me looked at them and back at me again.
“Fearsome, they call me,” she continued. “Terrible, you said. And yet I bring the end of pain, the end of memories of lost love and things unattainable; I am the engine driving change and growth, the harbinger of the future. And I would give it all away, in an instant, if I could. If only someone would take the burden off my shoulders, and give me the gift that I crave for. If only someone would set me free.”
And I looked at her, and I thought of the thing chewing away, which would chew no more; and I looked from her to the path, and at the flames burning Time, and back at her again.
And before I opened my mouth to speak, I knew what I would say. I knew it, and tried to bite it back, yet I could not.
And I am become Death, the Destroyer of all.
I walk the realms of Sleep, I plumb the caverns of Dream, I surf the waves of Pleasure, and I trawl the depths of Despair. I lodge in the hearts of cooling suns, I dance on the winds of raw new worlds. I come to the sick and the healthy; I brood over battlefields, gathering up the harvest crushed under shells and incinerated in bunkers. I bring mercy to those cremated alive in burning tanks and disembowelled in trenches. I crawl through the corridors of hospitals in the dead of night, gently easing the passage of those whose exhausted bodies can no longer go on suffering. I hover over slaughterhouses, I drift over highways, I squat in the shadows of alleys, waiting for that which I know is to come. I ride the winds from blue-white suns, passing over worlds whose time has come to be consumed and turned to baked rock. I tunnel through primeval ooze, reaching out to gather up worms and things that might have someday been worms.
I walk the stone path now, and it is beside me that the men and women, and creatures that are not man or woman, walk; it is over my head that the blood-clouds drift, and it is I who must listen to their sobs and protestations, their frantic queries about those left behind. And I must do this, until the last red sun burns out, and leaves only the cosmic dark.
I am become Death, the Destroyer of all.
And when all is destroyed, when there is nothing left, I shall still go on.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017