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I saw Death take my one hundred and six years old great-grandmother. She was sleeping on the couch across from me. One minute, Great Grandma was breathing and the next, Death was in the living room. Great Grandma stopped whistling through her nose. I saw Death standing over her, passing a careful hand over her once, twice, three times. Then Death stood still, head bowed, as if in prayer. I was surprised and now, two minutes later and huddled into the corner of my loveseat, I am still surprised.
They say that Death carries a scythe and dresses in black. Death’s face is hooded and he is all shadow, all menace. He is the spine-tingling presence of dreaded nightmares.
They are wrong. Death is a girl, an almost-woman girl like me. She is short and not beautiful, but her skin glows with a soft light. She wears a simple, knee-length white dress. I might think her a ghost, but for the power of her presence. She is Death. She is an entity beyond my understanding. Yet she is not intimidating, precisely. She might even be sorrowful, but that’s not the main thing. What sticks in my mind is that she ignores me, but I keep gawking—and finally she glances up. Her eyes widen; she is stunned that I can see her. As we look at each other, curious and frightened, something in the air changes. This is an impossibility so intense, I can digest it only as something absurd: Death and a living mortal, caught unawares by each others’ presence, begin a staring contest.
Both are afraid to lose.
And Death laughs, silently. She has a smile that engages her whole face, but it is so fleeting I almost miss it. She looks down again, as if shy. When she steps away from Grandma’s body, her face is in a not-quite-anything expression again. She inclines her head to me, very slightly, and turns around, her dress swishing around her knees. She vanishes.
My name is Ria and I’m seventeen. I have seen ghosts all my life, but I’ve never seen Death until now. But then, no one ever died before my eyes, either.
I have seen ghosts all my life, and even talked to some. There are people out there like me—more than you might think. There are also fakes, of course. And yet it’s a funny thing. Many people can see ghosts, and so many others lie about seeing ghosts—but no one ever talks about seeing Death.
Great Grandma was asleep when she died. If she had seen that young, innocent girl come to collect her soul, what would she have done? Think it was only a dream? Snort in amusement? Maybe even hug her, because Great Grandma had been sick a long time and had come home waiting to die.
I don’t know what my Great Grandma would have done. I’m not sure who won the staring contest. Death looked down first, but that was after she had been brave enough to laugh.
I wish I had been brave enough to return her final nod.