The year: 1916. A shadowy little cemetery. Trees and grass all around. Snowflakes of every shape imaginable, fluttering down onto the hats and shoulders of the mourners. And the despairing young man, who had lost both his parents to Death in one fell swoop.
The service came to an end and all the people began slowly filing out, muttering condolences to the man, but he wasn’t really listening to them. It was all meaningless. The man was Hector Callum. A jeweller by profession, he had been taking good care of his ailing father’s shop for some time now. Once, in a happier time, he had been bright and cheerful. Now it seemed only a shell was left. Once, he’d had great ambitions of expansion in business. Now however, all he wanted to do was die.
True to this sinister new ambition, he became increasingly morose and depressed, and started looking for some way in which he might die; he didn’t want it to be quick, but long, and painful. To his morbid delight, two days after his parents’ funeral service, a house on the next street caught fire. His neighbour informed him that there were still people trapped inside. Hector ran all the way to the flaming house.
Once there, he made as if to run at the building to help save the last of the trapped people. He intended to push the man to safety, and remain in the flames. “Halfway to the house,” he thought, and then, “Whoa!?!”
Someone in the crowd that had gathered around the house, had tripped him up. He looked up in anger, but saw the culprit, a tall woman with long raven locks, in a black dress already moving away. As he watched, she seemed to melt into the crowd. Suddenly, he saw her kneeling beside the wheezing man who had just been pulled out of the burning house. She put a hand to his forehead, and gradually, the man stopped breathing. Somehow, nobody else seemed to notice her as she promptly turned on her heel and seemed, again, to disappear.
Back home, he was resigned to the fact that such an opportunity to draw out his death would not appear again soon. Resigned to a quick end, he tried hanging himself, but the rope snapped, old as it was. Then came poison, but it seemed that both he and the chemist had run out.
After a lot of thought, and a lot of beers in the local bar, Hector finally arrived on the last option now available if he wanted to end his life. He wandered the streets looking for the right location…..and then he found it. A building site with the first few floors already complete. He slipped around the hordes of sweaty workmen, and began climbing.
When he reached the top, he did not hesitate. He climbed onto the parapet, looked up at the clear sky, and jumped. He fell for what felt like eternity. Then, suddenly, he felt a sharp pain on his side. His fall ended…on the safety netting. As he looked up to see what had hit him, he saw a flash of black hair, as a woman closed a window, she had evidently just opened.The window had hit him hard and had diverted his fall; Hector ground his teeth with chagrin.
Back home in bed again and he thought of the fact that there could be no residents in an incomplete building.
The next day, he forgot all about the window and the lady. But not his desire for the end of his days; he knew the hard liquor would eventually kill him and so he turned to drink. The few months of his drunkard ways passed into 1917. And he had a brainwave. America had gone to war. Why not enlist? So he became sober, and began preparing.
Six months of gruelling war, had changed Hector. All his muscles had become more taut and he had acquired a beard, and several medals for his bravery. He’d saved his commanding officer from shrapnel once, by shielding him with his body. Somehow, each and every one of the little bits of metal had missed him. But his first medal for bravery hadn’t. The other time, he had jumped up from his trench to rescue a foolhardy young cadet, who was out in the clear and being shot at. The cadet was sent home intact, but not before ensuring a second medal for Hector.
He regularly thought of suicide, but apart from failing every single time he did something stupid-which his superiors declared was valour-the bloody war had shaken him severely.
Hector sat now, fresh from another brief but violent skirmish in the fifth jeep of the convoy, heading back to base. He was brought back to reality by the sudden deceleration of his jeep, and the resounding boom at the head of the line. Frantically, everyone jumped out, and Hector ran over to the front. The noise was explained instantly. The first vehicle had driven straight into a mine field. As the soldiers looked on , the last bits of metal rained from the sky.
Each person, looking out onto the mine field saw Death. One young colonel say a horrific monster, thirsty for blood. A major among the congregation saw black nothingness. Hector say a tall woman with long raven locks, in a black dress, with eyes so black that they looked purple. Just as he was about to ask what in the world she was doing there, she approached, and proceeded to blindfold him with a piece of black satin which she pulled out of thin air. Before he could protest, she led him forward, taking his hand in her surprisingly cold ones. A few seconds later, her grip on his hand vanished, and so did the blindfold. When he turned around, he found that he had just walked through the mine field–unscathed!
As the minesweepers started clearing the area carefully keeping to the path Hector had followed, the little group of people joined him, and started praising him, advocating his genius profusely.
The rest of the journey was uneventful, until they reached camp, where all out trench warfare was in action. Hector and the rest immediately joined in.
And Hector saw his chance.
At just the right moment, he jumped up out of cover and charged madly. He stopped just as suddenly for, in front of him was that Black Lady again. This time he approached her but when he was close enough, she took one of his hands in hers, put the other on his shoulder and began waltzing with him. Completely nonplussed, Hector had no choice but to follow by example. And what an example it was, for not only was the woman graceful and fluid in her moves, but all the bullets seemed to be missing them. As the woman twirled, a cannonball flew between them with inches to spare. But Hector had not heard it, a waltz tune filled his ears, rather than dying men and guns and war. Just when he noticed this odd phenomenon, the woman vanished, the sounds of bloodshed returned and Hector found himself in an enemy trench. He promptly recovered his wits and knocked out the two men in it. After that, the battle just seemed to degrade.
As Hector sat exhausted by the makeshift infirmary, having just had a bullet hole in his calf patched up, he found out that the men he had downed had been commanding officers of some sort. But all he could think of was that he had failed again, but also of the Black Lady. Then he saw her, moving between the wounded, stopping here and there, and then walking on. Wherever she stopped, the soldier would die soon after. At this point Hector understood something, and hoped to God she wouldn’t stop beside one Colonel James Remington who happened to be his friend. She did stop before him but when she moved on, he didn’t slump onto the torn bloodstained pillows, or any of it. He just seemed to drift off to sleep.
The following day Hector Callum retired from service, with a bullet wound to the leg and an inordinate amount of praise and acclaim. He was sent off with full honours; he had saved at least 26 lives during service. Back in New York, he began to put the jewellery business back in order and soon after, when the war ended, he took on an apprentice.
A lot of time had passed and Hector was now 56. The world was at war again, but Hector felt his time was finally near. His apprentice, a man called Ricky Small was at his bedside where Hector was lying. Ricky was not one for tears but Hector had turned his life around, so he couldn’t be less ashamed when he wept.
“You can’t die…” he said shakily.
“Well, Ricky boy, I can and I intend to. As you know, you shall be my sole heir. Do take care of the shop…You know…I’ve courted Death too often, but I shall have to enter her embrace now…” Hector’s voice trailed off, and a last breath escaped him.
Ricky was shocked into silence as Hector’s smiling eyes, open when he had died, closed of their own accord. An apparition, invisible to all then rose from Hector’s body: his soul. As Hector looked down at his ghostly self, he noticed he was 25 again. Death, the thing he had most wanted, which he had loved, stood as the tall lady with long raven locks, very black eyes, and a hint of a smile playing on her lips in front of him, her arms wide.
“Finally…” he said, “I know you loved me as I love you.” The Black lady’s smile widened slightly.
Hector walked into Death’s embrace.