When did death enter Lenny’s life? When did she slide from the domain of fruit trees and storytelling into the sphere of silence? Did it happen all at once, the night of the killings? Or did death enter stealthily, sliding like a serpent from some moss-covered well, grey and white tessellations camouflaged against the smooth pebbles of the formal rock garden?
Lenny had known death. She’d loitered by death’s door, then crept forward quietly and sat by its bedside. It looked out at her through her grandfather’s eyes, and it fixed her in its gaze. She recognized death for what it was: finality. Death, somehow, misidentified Lenny.
“Edie,” said Death, speaking through her grandfather’s thin, scaly lips.
“I’m here,” she replied, taking Death’s hand. Her grandfather’s fingers were mottled flesh and bone.
“Edie,” the ventriloquist voice of death repeated. “You’re here.”
“Of course I’m here,” said Lenny, holding Death’s gaze, holding her grandfather’s fingers. “Where else would I be?”
“I thought you were gone and now you’re here. I still have you.” Death smiled at Lenny.
“I’m always yours,” said Lenny, and now her voice was not her own. “I’m always here.”
The body on the bed was long and lean. If it raised itself up, it could run marathons.
“You’ll never escape me,” it whispered.
“I’ll come to meet you,” Lenny said. Silence smothered the room.
Silence filled the space and squeezed out the air. Lenny couldn’t speak. There was nothing she could say.
“I met you under a plum tree,” the living corpse said suddenly. “You were maybe thirteen. You look just the same.”
The death’s head turned towards her. Its face flushed pink and her grandfather’s eyes animated its eye sockets.
“You are unchanged, Edie,” her grandfather said. “You will always live.”
“Tell me the story, grandfather,” Lenny pleaded. Time stretched forever on that bed but now she felt urgency. Her grandfather was with her.
“You were just thirteen,” he smiled. His tongue moistened his lips. It was not quite blue.
“You stood beneath the plum tree and the petals showered down. You were laughing. You were beautiful and I knew you were the one. The one who would live. The one who would live always.”
“What was I doing, under the plum tree?” Lenny asked.
“Doing? You were being. You were being the eternal one. The one who cannot die.”
“But grandfather,” she said. “I know I must die. I’ve seen it. I’ve dreamed. We will all die. Buildings will burn and my family will be torched. There was blood. Blood everywhere.”
“Petals were falling. Stars burned in the sky.” Her grandfather’s words were suspended in air. His mouth hung open. Lenny was afraid the silence would return.
“You were standing in the moonlight. You shook that tree and its blossoms fell. You laughed at the sky and then you saw me. You put your fingers to your lips and told me ‘Shhh. Don’t tell.’”
“I said that?” Lenny laughed. “A storyteller telling a storyteller to hush? What was I thinking?”
“I have no idea,” her grandfather smiled. “I never understood your stories, Edie. But here’s what I think. I think you knew the end was coming. I think you had dreams. You woke up screaming. But I know you always laughed at death.”
Lenny felt abrupt grief. Her voice fell flat. “How can I laugh, when I’m not allowed to speak? How can I live, when the silence rules?”
The bones entwined in her fingers squeezed lightly. The bones were lightly padded and lightly veined. She could feel their faint warmth, feel their faint pulse.
“You will climb to the heights and hide in the depths. You will cloak yourself in silence. You will learn to use the silence to punctuate your tales. You will bury yourself in your heritage and live forever through it. You know who you are.”
“The one who cannot die.” Lenny breathed the words.
“The one who will not die. The one who refuses.”
“How can you know this?” Lenny demanded. “How can I know who I am? Even you don’t know me, grandfather!”
“Of course I know you, Lenny.” It closed its eyes. “You are the one who evades and confronts. The one who lives.”
Lenny stared at the death’s head and knew her grandfather had gone. Where had he gone, her grandfather and Edie? To what night-land of star-lit plum blossom had their spirits flown?
She let go of the bony hand.
“Grandfather,” she said softly. “Can you hear me? Is it silent where you are?
She paused, and listened. She thought she heard voices, soft murmured voices. She thought she heard laughing.
And she knew. She knew who she was.
“I am a story teller,” she said to the silent room. “I am the one who will not die. I am the one who tells.”
Here, in this hole in the ground, she lay in damp mud, a fugitive curled up alongside three survivor comrades.
“Chapin,” She said, grabbing Chapin’s arm. “I’ve dreamed. I know what I need to do now. We need to get out of here.”
Chapin, half asleep, nodded.
“We need to get back into the light to tell our stories. Not the mythic ones. The stories about what happened to us, about the killings, and after.”
She pressed her face close to his. “We’ve been in a hole. We’ve evaded and hidden. Now we need to confront.”
Chapin, now awake, rolled towards his rifle and rose to his knees.