Every autumn it seems that Vagabond Death stops at my house uninvited, attracted perhaps by the proliferation of Halloween masks and stale candy,
He appears at my door flashing his sheepish wolf’s grin–teeth bared, incisors sharpened. His eyes are quizzical, dark pools drowning in mystery.
He’s wearing the same coarse black, horsehair robe–a little dustier, perhaps, and threadbare around the elbows than last year. A bright calico sack tied to a hickory pole is slung over his boney shoulder. Sometimes the sack squirms. Four years ago he stole my favorite cat. I have never forgiven him.
Now I block the doorway, denying him entrance as he leers, leaning into my face. His black hole of a nasal passage exudes a foul odor stinking like a maggot-infested skunk.
“Can you spare a sandwich?” His voice sounds humble. “I’ll work for food.”
Fumbling in my pocket I find a dollar and press the wad into his white-boned hand. His fingernails are long and slightly curved, delicate. I doubt that he’s ever done a day’s work.
“Bless you.” His grin broadens as I cough and turn away. Swinging his sack over his shoulder, he ambles down the street, heading for the next house.
Still coughing hoarsely I shut my door and set the dead-bolt lock. All that night I am wracked with fever–the delirium of countless plagues diffused by rancid breath oozing over abscessed teeth.
Death reappears in my dreams, smoothing a black silk handkerchief over my face to smother my screams.
My father died on Halloween … it seems like so many years ago, but also yesterday,
Come morning I am coughing uncontrollably and spitting up phlegm, yellow and infected. By the end of the bedridden week I have lost ten pounds, a malingering wish from healthier days that I willingly traded for cheesecake and sugar cookies. Now that wish is realized. Was this Death’s blessing?
Autumn days grow short as colors sharpen, merge from a misting rain. Breathing in, breathing out, is less of a torture. The chill electrifying my spine as Death peered at me with empty orbits of eyes has dulled. Now I no longer recall the precise, hard contours of his icy fingers touching mine, or his putrefying halitosis.
As the day warms, a squirrel dredges in the empty birdfeeder for forgotten sunflower seeds. Pulling on a sweater I brave the cold-tainted wind to refill it with birdseed.
Down the road a cloud of dust briefly swells, subsides as it turns the corner. When a shadow moves my heart palpitates, but it is only the neighbor walking his dog. Death has spent his dollar on cheap beer and moved on, although I suspect we’ll meet again.
Perhaps this time next year. That seems to be his agenda.
Published in Stories