/ Language: English / Genre:sf

Reaper

James Gardner

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 80, #2, No. 477, February 1991. Part of Gravity Wells short stories collection (2005).

Reaper

by James Alan Gardner

I could tell this Call would be a traffic fatality. It was a Friday evening in early March, the pavement was icy, and the sun was low on the horizon, at the precise spot to strike drivers’ eyes as cars came around the curve. My compass pointed to that curve and my hourglass was almost empty.

A dozen of my fellow Reapers were already there — we were certainly going to make network news tonight. Most of the other Reapers sprawled indolently on the snow of the embankment beside the road; one boy who looked fourteen years old was showing off by pretending to make angels in the snow. (Of course, his ethereal body left no mark.) He thought making angels was very funny. I was about to instruct him on the way that sacrilegious flippancy can extend a soul’s period of penance when my eye was caught by another Reaper pacing anxiously on the highway’s median.

She appeared to be in her twenties, her eyes as clear as the eyes of doves, her body glorious in a Reaper’s celestial raiment. (Praise God I am no longer tormented by the hormones that inflame a man’s physical body.) Her gaze was fixed on the traffic speeding down from the north; from time to time, she leaned out over the lanes of cars for a better view, like a woman waiting for her lover to appear. Her scythe lay abandoned on the muddy snow behind her.

I thought to myself she must be a newcomer to our Calling, anxious to do it correctly. I do not wish to belittle the angels who supervised us, but they were not good at talking to mortals. They didn’t give clear and specific instructions; they failed to provide the firm guidance that most of my fellow humans needed. As in so many cases where Heaven spoke ambiguously, I was forced to step in and declare the truth more plainly.

“Greetings, sister,” I said in my most comforting voice. “Are you troubled?”

She threw a distracted glance my way, then turned back toward the cars. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine,” I said. “You look like a woman who’s worried she’ll make a mistake.”

She gave me another look, but this time surprised.

“There’s no cause for worry, sister,” I went on. “Heaven has made our jobs very simple. The compass leads us to our Charges. The hourglass tells us when to act. The scythe cuts the cord that binds spirit to flesh. Then we may joyously greet the freed soul in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ who judges most...”

 I had lost her attention. She took a few impatient steps away from me and peered out over the traffic again.

I was not upset. I have been ignored before. Human nature is devilishly proud and often spurns those who try to help.

“Are you worried about the violence?” I asked. She moved away from my voice, but I followed her. Many try to flee from unpleasantness when they would be happier facing it. “I realize most new Reapers are sickened by the blood,” I said. “I would guess you come from genteel society and have never seen the horrors of mutilation and disease. I promise you, though, you’ll get used to the ugliness. Everyone does. We may still find it distasteful but not intolerably repugnant. We—”

“Shut up!” she snapped, wheeling to face me. “I’m finding you intolerably repugnant. Blood is just blood. You, you’re—”

A truck horn trumpeted up the road, like Gabriel signaling all Reapers of Souls to their preordained missions. A tractor-trailer had been cut off by a lane-hopping sports car; then there was a chaos of brakes, ice, sun, the trailer jackknifing, the truck heeling over on one side as the driver tried to regain the road. The front grill of the truck passed through my insubstantial body as eighteen wheels of death crossed the median into oncoming traffic.

I forced my eyes to stay open. It was an exercise of discipline. I didn’t want to watch, so I did. The destruction had a brutal sort of grandeur, like a dance of giants: some parts dizzyingly swift, others slow but inexorable. Brakes squealed and horns blared a musical accompaniment on top of an ongoing percussion of metal on metal.

The spectacle was so dazzling, I came close to forgetting my purpose... but then I saw the fourteen-year-old Reaper scrambling into the overturned tractor-trailer and I remembered my duty.

The Reaping was routine — my Charge was a mousy sort of man in his forties, impaled on the shaft of his steering wheel. The sand in my hourglass was down to the last few grains even as I arrived, but I had been a Reaper for nearly a decade and was adept at my work. Reaching into his solar plexus, I found his silver cord, pulled it out, and levered my scythe under it. As the last grain ran out, a sharp clean jerk severed the cord.

I sang a hymn of thanksgiving, as an example to the other Reapers. I tried to raise my voice loud enough for them to hear over the thundering din around me.

The moment the mousy man’s soul slid from his body, he began apologizing. He assumed full blame for the accident... an example of self-centered pride, since he was not the cause, merely the effect. He also assumed blame for unhappiness in his own life and the lives of those he loved, and blame for various future miseries that would result from his death. In short, he was hysterical, and his remorse wasn’t worth a cinder. I left him to babble and went in search of the young woman I’d been trying to instruct.

I found her on the embankment, sitting beside the body of a sixteen-year-old boy. Apparently he’d been thrown from one of the cars in the pileup below us. (Boys his age defy seat-belt laws... more self-centered pride.) His head was bloody, his hair spangled with beads of safety glass glinting red in the sunset. The Reaper woman rested her hand on his arm in a tender way I thought ill advised.

 “It doesn’t do to become too attached,” I told her as I drew near. “It can only interfere with doing your duty. You aren’t even watching your hourglass. How will you know when his time runs out?”

“It already did,” she said. She reached around behind her back and produced the hourglass for my inspection. It was as full as a newborn baby’s. “I saved him,” she said, looking at the hourglass as if she could hardly believe it herself.

“I don’t understand.”

“I didn’t take him. The time came and I didn’t cut his cord. After a while, the hourglass filled up again.”

“Do you know what you’ve done?” I shouted at her.

“I’ve saved him. He’s already stopped bleeding.” The boy stirred under her hand. “He’s going to be all right.”

“Nothing is going to be all right! You’ve committed a monstrous sin, don’t you see that? You’re supposed to do penance; you’re supposed to do as you’re told. You’ve defied the will of Heaven. You’ve spit on our Savior’s mercy!”

“He reminds me of my brother,” she said, stroking the boy’s cheek. I turned my head away, sickened. “I’ve been following him for weeks,” she went on. “His name’s John. He hates being called Johnny, but his mother still does it to tease him. He plays hockey... tries different ways to comb his hair to impress girls...”

“He’s an ordinary teenager, nothing more,” I said, grabbing her arm and yanking her smartly to her feet. “You’ve jeopardized your immortal soul on a whim I can’t begin to understand. Don’t you hold your soul precious? Don’t you understand the risks? I had a sister... should I damn myself forever for some woman who merely reminds me of her?”

But it was too late to reason with her. The air around us grew suddenly warm and clean, scented with the breath of roses. I pushed the woman away from me and rushed a few steps down the embankment. For a moment, I glimpsed the radiant hand of an angel reaching out of nothingness to touch the woman’s shoulder. Then she was gone.

At my feet, the boy lifted himself groggily on one elbow. Slowly shaking his head, he took the Name of our Lord in vain.

That was the kind of boy she had chosen to save.

 For weeks afterward, I tried to put the incident out of my mind, but it repeatedly ambushed my thoughts. If I had one complaint about my role as a Reaper, it was my inability to affect the living world and guide it toward the path of righteousness. Now I had seen a way to have such an effect, but one I dared not use. Still, it fascinated me.

Standing at the bedside of a ninety-five-year-old woman, I suddenly wondered what would

 happen if I just walked away. Would her hourglass refill itself, her cancer vanish, her senility uncloud? Or would she remain a near-empty husk requiring a few more years of feeding and bathing? What sort of change would either alternative make in God’s divine plan?

Watching a fool and his snowmobile crash through thin ice in the middle of a lake, I asked what would happen if I left him. Would he be rescued in some unforeseen way? Would he make medical headlines: Man Survives Hours of Icy Immersion. Would his doctors believe they could work marvels, when in fact it was my doing?

As I kept vigil with a family around the crib of a fevered infant, I thought of how easy it would be to answer their prayers, to give them their miracle. I imagined their jubilation, their relief, their effusive gratitude. With scarcely an effort, I could change their lives profoundly. I could grant them joy.

Oh, it was hard to cut that tiny cord.

 In late June, I was relieved to gain a respite from the torment that lured me toward disobedience. I arrived on a Call in a quiet tree-shaded neighborhood, only to find my hourglass still gave my Charge abundant time to live. Three weeks, perhaps? A month? It was possible. Heaven sometimes arranged such interludes as vacations from the stresses of Reaping. Or perhaps it was simply a reward for me, recognizing my faithful ministry in death as in life. In the meantime, I would not be forced to choose between death and life. For a while, I had no tempting decisions to make.

My Charge was one Louis Gerard, a man who lived with his sister Anne in a grand house more than a century old. I already knew Louis by reputation: he was a celebrated pornographer whose photos of naked women sold as High Art because he used black and white film and cropped their heads from the picture. Sometimes he used Anne as his model — she was unflamboyantly lovely and worshipped Louis as a genius. More often, he would bring home sleek young bundles of ambition who were only too eager to flaunt their flesh if it would look good on their rйsumйs.

I say I knew Louis Gerard by reputation, but in a few days, I knew him by his very stench. I sat in on his photo sessions and watched him exhort his women to caper for the camera. The foolish ones let him have his way with them afterward; the more astute did the same, but extracted letters of recommendation first. I watched his insatiable animal rutting and was appalled to the core of my soul.

I watched Anne too: Anne cooking, Anne cleaning, Anne listening to the giggles coming from the studio and keeping her face blank. She developed all of her brother’s photos, making print after painstaking print until she was satisfied with the result. For hours, I watched her working under the red developing light, its glow softening the intensity of concentration on her face.

She worked diligently on her brother’s lurid photographs, but more happily on her own. Her subjects were simple: melancholy landscapes, rusted machinery, sometimes gravestones. She never showed them to Louis — he would certainly have mocked her for wasting film on such sterile material. She showed them to me, though, even if she never knew it; and I saw more worth in one of them than in her brother’s entire portfolio.

I often contemplated the gift I would be giving Anne when I Reaped Louis. She would inherit his wealth and build a life of her own. I fancied her as a cherished protйgйe whom I would launch on a

 photography career more wholesome than her brother’s. There was justice in that; and it led me to see justice in all acts of the Almighty. Could I interfere with that justice by refusing my duty? No. I would Reap those who must be Reaped, without questioning. That was the way of the righteous man. That was the path of faith.

Thus I reflected to myself as Anne quietly read photography magazines and I watched her lovely face. But I had forgotten it is a law of Heaven that every faith must be put to the test.

 One sunny morning, as I sat on the patio and Anne pulled up weeds from the garden at my feet, a Reaper walked nonchalantly through the back hedge. It was the snow-angel boy from the highway, and he gave me an impudent wave as he sauntered up. “Hey, Reap! How’s the scythe hanging?”

“Do you have business here?” I asked.

“Give me a sec to check my bearings,” he said. With a great show of rummaging through the pockets of his raiment, he located his compass and flicked the case open. “And our next contestant is... the little lady crawling around here in the dirt! Let’s have a big hand for her from the celestial audience. Yay!”

He applauded derisively under Anne’s nose. She continued to pull weeds calmly.

Inwardly, I shuddered.

 The boy called himself Hooch and he would not go away. I demanded to check his instruments, of course, but he was telling the truth. From all angles, his compass pointed directly at Anne. The hourglass for her seemed to have precisely the same amount of sand as her brother’s.

“Mutual suicide pact?” Hooch suggested. I tried to slap him, but he skipped away, laughing.

The serenity of my past few weeks quickly shattered into nightmare. Hooch proved inescapable. If I chose to watch Louis and his obscene photo sessions, Hooch was there, shouting, “Grind that pelvis, woman! Make it wet!” If I slipped into Anne’s bedroom to savor her quiet breathing as she slept, Hooch would barge through the wall and shout, “Hot damn, she sleeps in the raw!” He lewdly intruded into her most private moments; he mocked her face, her voice, her clothes, her walk; and when he saw her photographs, he burst into laughter. To his crass intellect, they were “stupid, ugly, and boring.”

In my heart, I cried, Where is justice? Why was Hooch not burning in hell? Why was he, of all Reapers, called to Reap Anne? And why did Anne have to die now, when the death of her brother would free her for a new and better life?

Then, in the depth of my despair, the answer came to me. Justice does not merely happen. Justice is made.

 The morning came when my hourglass showed Louis had less than a day to live. He was not making the best of his brief time — he sat at the breakfast table, holding his head in his hands and staring blankly at his coffee mug. His eyes were bloodshot, his face flushed and unshaven; if his woman from the night before could see him now, she would have laughed and shouted just to cause him pain.

Anne was at the stove, making French toast. I had watched similar scenes before and knew Louis would refuse to eat what she served; nevertheless, she always made the effort.

Hooch sat on the edge of the stove and watched Anne work, her hand occasionally passing through his body. “She’s burning this toast, you know,” he told me. “She’s standing right here, she’s watching it all the time, and she’s letting it burn.”

“Hooch,” I said, “let’s trade.”

“Trade what?”

“People. Just for fun. You Reap Louis. I’ll Reap Anne.”

“You have the most colossal hard-on for this broad, don’t you?”

“I merely think it would be interesting,” I said, pleased how I kept the anger out of my voice. “Doesn’t it bother you we Reapers have to toe the line all the time? We have to Reap who we’re told when  we’re told. That certainly annoys me.”

“Don’t try to con me.” He laughed. “You’ve got the salami blues for Little Arfing Annie, and you want to be there to sweep her into your big strong arms when she croaks. That’s cool, I don’t mind. She’s yours.”

I had my mouth open to protest, but I closed it quickly. Let him believe what he wanted; I knew the truth.

 The day continued badly for Louis. His model for the afternoon shooting session had too many ideas of her own. The two of them quarreled about poses, lighting, and the use of props. He finally threw the woman out of the studio, then spent an hour venting his anger on Anne: Anne couldn’t cook, he said; Anne had botched developing the latest batch of prints; Anne should go get a real life instead of sponging off him. Of course, she made no effort to argue — she let him rage for a time, then left him alone.

Without a target to strike at, Louis struck at himself. To be precise, he began to drink. Hooch egged him on. “Come on, Louis, belt back that gin. Be a man, make it a double. Yeah, a beer chaser, go for it!” As Hooch cheered, he stood with his scythe pressed to his cheek, his fingers avidly fondling the handle.

Near midnight, Louis got the urge to work in the darkroom. “I’ll show that bitch how to develop photographs,” he muttered. I looked at the sand in the hourglass; it had almost run out.

 Inside the darkroom, Louis fumbled with the chemicals and spilled them several times. His hands were shaking and clumsy. When he lit a cigarette to calm his nerves, Hooch and I exchanged smiles.

“Gonna have a hot time in the old town tonight,” said Hooch.

“I’ll see to the lady,” I told him, and started up to her bedroom.

 The explosion was less violent than I expected — we have all grown too accustomed to Hollywood’s excess. From Anne’s bedroom, the noise was barely audible: an airy whump that didn’t disturb her sleep. When I stuck my head out the door, however, I could see flames racing down the hall like unruly children, tearing through the aged building with hot glee. It was easy to see that brother and sister might well have died simultaneously.

I went back to Anne and sat on the edge of her bed. As the wood of the door frame began to smolder, I fondly stroked her hair. “Behold, I am with you,” I told her. “While I am here, you shall not perish but have eternal life.”

 Before the end, the roaring of the fire awoke her. She reacted unwisely: stood up, tried to run to the door. The smoke filled her lungs almost immediately and doubled her over with a wrenching spasm of coughing. She felt very dear to me then: so human and vulnerable, with the desperation of a lost child. When she succumbed to the fumes and crumpled to the ground, she looked as innocent as a baby waiting for my baptism.

Her hourglass emptied. I did not Reap her.

Her body burned with fire, yet she was not consumed.

In the course of time, the fire department arrived. Looking at her, they could not understand how she still lived. They sped her away in an ambulance.

 Soon after, Louis’s now-dead spirit burst into the room with Hooch on his heels. When the boy caught sight of me, he began to sing, “Fire’s burning, fire’s burning, draw nearer, draw nearer...”

Louis grabbed my elbow and shouted over the crackling and hissing, “Where’s my sister?”

“She’s been taken to hospital.”

“Thank God,” he said. “Thank God.”

I didn’t correct him.

Suddenly Louis howled and began dragging me toward the door. “My negatives! We have to save them!”

 “He still hasn’t figured out he’s dead.” Hooch laughed, prancing in the flames. I caught sight of the hourglass bouncing where it was tethered to his belt. Anne’s hourglass. It was full. I felt a surge of triumph.

Hooch noticed the direction of my gaze and looked at his hourglass in surprise. “That’s weird, isn’t it? Hey, what did you do with the bimbo’s soul?”

“I didn’t Reap her.”

He gave a low whistle and backed away from me. “You’re in trouble, man.”

“I’m not in trouble. She was your Charge.”

“Help me get the damned negatives!” Louis shouted, but neither Hooch nor I paid attention. Reapers are Reapers; Louis was merely another dead man.

With narrowed eyes, Hooch raised his scythe high, holding it as a weapon. He came slowly toward me. “You suck, man. You really suck.”

I laughed at his monumental arrogance.

Whether he would have struck me, whether it would have hurt, I do not know. I could feel sudden warmth in the air, smell the breath of roses. The glorious hand of an angel materialized between us and Hooch lowered his scythe slowly.

“Good-bye, Hooch,” I said. “Enjoy the wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

But the hand reached out for me.

 In a place of darkness, I asked, “Am I in hell?”

A voice said, “Should you be?”

I didn’t answer.

 After a while, I said, “I did it for Anne.”

The voice asked, “Did you?”

I didn’t answer.

 Much later I said, “I understand now. You make people Reapers to test them. We’re supposed to care so much for a Charge that we risk our own souls for their lives.”

 The voice asked, “Did you risk your own soul?”

I didn’t answer.

Author’s Notes

In 1989, I attended the Clarion West Science Fiction workshop. Each student was required to write a story a week. This was my first story of the workshop, written longhand in the depths of Seattle.

I’d had the idea of Reapers for some time before, but had never made a serious attempt to write a story about them. At first I thought the central character was going to be a brash teenager like the Hooch character; but after a page or two, I realized it wasn’t working. That’s when I switched to the current despicable narrator... and the story practically wrote itself.