“You’re late, Isaac.”
“You’re mistaken, Labe,” he said, raising a finger in the air as he sat down. “The Grim Reaper is never early—nor late. He always arrives just in time.”
Labe, the elder of the two, had a mangy red beard and eyes like fava beans. He curled his fingers around a cup of coffee, the steam somersaulting across his forehead. Isaac had a neat, close-cropped beard and rounded eye-glasses.
“You’re still late.”
“You really haven’t seen?”
“It’s all over the news. I was schlepping souls up off the street all afternoon! What a day, a night, a week, if it was a month!”
“The stock market crashed. Kaput! Nobody has money. Nothing! Zilch! They’re jumping out of buildings left and right.” Isaac threw up his hands as if tossing imaginary paper bills in the air. “The roof to The Bank of New York had an hour wait just to jump. An hour!
“That’s just the way these humans are. Such fickle beings. So proud yet prone to despair. But you, Isaac,” he said, extending an accusatory index finger. “Always with the excuses. Always late. We had a meeting. One you called, I remind you. So souls can wait. God knows they have an eternity.”
“Labe! I couldn’t help it, I swear. You don’t understand the difficulties of someone in my position! The angel of death, the man with a giant, terrifying scimitar. These are not positive things, mind you. A thankless job, if ever there was—”
“Welcome to Monk’s! Coffee?” a young boy sidled up to the table.
“Please, please.” Isaac wiped the sweat from his glistening forehead. “Oy. I’m famished.”
“Cream or Sugar?”
“Black, my boy, always black. I’m getting old, you know! Weight’s becoming a factor.”
“Black. Got it.” The waiter turned to Isaac. “And you, sir? Need anything else?”
“My coffee is still serving me quite well, thank you.”
“Let me know if you two need anything else,” the boy said. He disappeared behind a swivelling back kitchen door.
“Why do you do that, Isaac?”
“My weight. My age. These things aren’t real.”
“I like to play the part. It’s fun. What’s it matter?”
“Ugh…” Labe said, shaking his head, waving Isaac away. “I guess it doesn’t.”
“Anyway, what were we on about.”
“Your, as you put it, thankless job.”
“That’s right. A thankless job. One you wouldn’t understand.”
“My appointment is every much as difficult as yours.” He furrowed his thick red brows. “Some might say it’s more difficult, even. Let’s look at the facts, shall we? The crude birth rate, per 1000 people, is 19.4, while the mortality rate is significantly less, sitting at just under 8 deaths per 1000 people.” He slurped his coffee, his mustache coming back damp. “I have to usher into existence twice the souls you usher out on a daily basis, and you’re trying to tell me about difficulty. You have much to learn, Isaac.”
He raised a finger in the air. “Still, still. You’re held up in high esteem for your actions. A hero! Whereas I’m hated, feared, and misunderstood! The humans praise the lord every time you perform your little miracle, while they curse my name. It’s the most thankless job! One that I’ve been doing forever!”
“We’ve both been at it forever. This is nothing new to you.”
“That’s why I called this meeting. I’m fed up!” He collapsed onto the table, still talking into his arms. “When does it end? When do we get a day off? When can I go on vacation? How long are we here for?”
“I’ve never considered the question before.” He stroked his beard. “I would imagine this is our lot for eternity, my old friend.”
“Eternity!” Isaac stuck his tongue out in a mock-gag. “Bupkes! But tell me, Labe, in your infinite wisdom, what was before eternity? What did you do before this? What is after this? These people have their death, their escape, and what do we have? Are we human? Are we something else?”
“I do not know.” He looked up at the ceiling as if the answer were written on a poorly dusted overhead light. “I’ve only known life. This life. That’s it.”
“But you must know more than me! Life by very definition preceded death. What was I before this… whatever this is!”
“These are questions I do not have an answer for, but they are excellent questions, nonetheless.”
“Who does, Labe?” He leaned in closer and whispered. “The humans? Can we ask them? Surely, before they come to life or shortly after they leave it, they must have something to say!”
“An interesting possibility. I do not see why not. Where shall we begin our line of questioning?”
Isaac’s eyes glowed at the possibility of answers. “The beginning,” he said. “And the end. A hospital.”
“Just 12 blocks east.”
“Let’s go! Souls, those weary travellers, are waiting to be ushered into existence!” Isaac stood up and hopped, from one foot to the other, like a school boy playing hopscotch, out of the cafe.
Labe stood in a stiff, almost robotic, motion, brushed himself off, and left a $5.00 bill on the table. Shortly after, the boy-waiter brought over a pot of coffee, shrugged at the empty seats, and pocketed the change.
Despite the bodies raining from the rooftops, blotting out the sun as they fell through the air, it was a beautiful summer day in New York.
“Have you ever attempted to talk to the unborn?” Isaac said, stepping over a body.
“No, Isaac. I never quite saw the point.”
“What are they like?”
“They’re not really like anything. They’re quiet, I suppose. They arrive, from God knows where, these frail winged babes, to be ushered into a body. It’s an unglamorous activity with nothing of note to report. Have you talked to the dearly departed?”
“Talked? No. Listened? Not if I can help it! The damn things don’t shut up. They yap about this and that and the other. Always yapping.” A homeless man leaned into Isaac and asked for spare change. Isaac, ignoring the man, continued. “Yap, yap, yap. I rarely get a word in.”
“What’s the process like when you pull them out of a body?”
“More often than not, they’re confused before they fly off to, as you said, God knows where. Probably the same place they came from.”
“Have you ever seen a dead soul after the ushering? Say, walking around the street amongst the living?”
“Hmmm. That’s a good question. No, I can’t say that I have. I guess they don’t come back, then. Isn’t that odd?”
“I suppose it is. Where do they go off to?”
“Up there, I imagine.” Issac gestured towards the sky.
Entering the hospital, they lost their elderly exterior and took on the appearance of two middle-aged doctors. They carried with them an air of ease, comfort, and respectability as they walked through the narrow corridors of the hospital and towards the maternity wing. With their new skins, no one doubted their position or purpose.
“Where are we going, Labe?”
“Just a little farther, Isaac. At the end of the hall, on the left, up here, there’s a woman a few minutes from birth. A soul will soon be entering her. It’ll make a perfect specimen to question.”
They walked into the room. A woman, legs high in sternums, was red-faced and panting. No one seemed to care or notice the doctors’ intrusion.
“So what happens now?” Isaac asked.
Labe put his finger to his lips. He turned his chin to the sky. A small, wingless cherub floated through the roof, head first, and held out his hands towards Labe. Labe grasped the soul’s hands and gently set him on the ground.
“We have some questions to ask you, child.”
The bodiless soul blinked into the void.
“Ask him where he comes from!” Isaac said, a few feet behind Labe.
Labe glowered at Isaac, annoyed by his impulsiveness, then turned back to the small translucent soul and asked, “My child. Where do you come from? What came before this? Do you remember anything?”
No one said anything for several minutes.
Issac leaped forward. “Well, what is it, human! Where do you come from?”
If there was any effect on the child from Isaac’s outburst, it was not visible on its outward appearance. It remained lifeless and without expression, except for the empty smile on its face.
Labe tried his hand again. “Do you understand my words, child? Do you know what it is I am saying? We must know where you come from.”
Blankness. No response.
Labe knelt down. “Do you have any memory of anything before this?” He stared into the child’s eyes, hoping something would disturb its stillness, but the boy simply looked through him.
Labe stood up and turned to Isaac. “Its small cherub lips would likely not part for anything, man or beast.”
“I don’t believe it has the capability to communicate. This thing here is a blank slate. It has no memories, thoughts or desires. Before us is an empty soul, waiting to experience the life of a human and to feast on its many experiences. It waits to learn, to play, to love. As of now, it has no knowledge to give us because it has no knowledge.”
“Are you saying there is nothing to gain here?”
“Perhaps not. The soul prior to birth is as lost, if not more so than we are. It is only through life that it gains some knowledge.”
“Then perhaps we must question it after it has lived a full life. We must question the dead!”
“Indeed, Isaac. We must.”
Labe lifted the pre-born by the shoulders and laid him over the pregnant woman as if it were a clean bed sheet.
“We’ve got a head,” A doctor said, as they left the room.
Isaac and Labe walked through the corridors of the hospital until they came upon a small commotion of nurses and doctors.
“This should do nicely,” Isaac said.
They entered the room. There was a man on the operating table with his chest open, hooked up to a variety of machines, the ominous steady ring of a heart monitor, the 21st century calling of the dead and dying, still heavy in the air.
“Is he dead?” Labe asked. He had always been uncomfortable around the dead. He assumed this uneasiness was bestowed upon him, for his duties regarded the living, not the dead.
Isaac pinched the skin of the man’s shoulders and lifted up a soul, vaguely outlined by the shape of the man it came from. He placed it on the ground and it, as if Isaac stepped on a hidden air pedal, began to inflate. Fully animated, it judged its surroundings with the wide eyes of terror.
“Where am I?”
“You’ve passed,” Isaac said.
“Passed? What do you mean?”
“You’re dead. You’ve died.”
The soul looked around again, seeing its former shell laying, stiff and still, on the operating table. “I… I… I’m dead?” He looked at the pale feet of his old body with disappointment.
“Dead as the day is long.”
“My God,” the man said, throwing his hands around, pacing the room. “My friends. My family.”
“They’ll be fine. What’s your name, soul?”
“B-brian. My name is Brian. Brian Thompson. When will I see my family again?”
Labe walked forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Be calm, gentle soul, your family will be fine.” Labe stepped back behind Isaac.
“We would like to ask you some questions,” Isaac said.
An unnatural stillness, cased in confusion, came over Brian. “You want to ask me questions?
“Yes,” Labe said.
“I have a few questions of my own.”
“If we answer yours,” Isaac said, “will you answer ours?”
“Then go ahead.”
“First of all, who are you two? What are you?”
“I am Isaac. Some people call me the Grim Reaper, or Death, or the Angel of Death, or Michael, but I prefer simply Isaac.” Isaac looked back at Labe. “And my friend over there is my counterpart. People don’t call him anything. Most don’t know he exists. I take the souls out at death and he puts them in at birth. He goes by Labe.”
“Okay. Isaac and Labe. What happens now?”
“We were hoping you could tell us that.”
The soul’s face contorted, and he took a step back. “I don’t understand. Isn’t that your job? Aren’t you supposed to take me somewhere? What do you usually do with a soul?”
“We don’t do anything. My job is to pull the soul from its body and Labe’s is to place it in a body. Beyond that, we have no clue where you come from or go when you die.”
“And you want me to tell you where I’m supposed to go when I know nothing?”
Yes,” Labe said. “We’ve been here on earth for an eternity, and it appears we are stuck here for an eternity more. What we don’t know, and what we may never know, is what happens beyond death, and you lot seem to be free’d, upon death, from your earthly confinements.”
“Well,” the soul said, attempting to stroke his chin, but slipping through his bottom lip. “Let’s work this out together. What happens to a soul after you free it… Isaac, was it?”
“They’re usually out of their mind, or in shock, or overwhelmingly sad. They ask me questions, questions I can’t answer, then I tell them they’re free to go, to fly off into the sky, wherever they wish.”
“And you’ve never asked one where they planned to go?”
“Honestly? I’ve thought about it.”
“I can’t really say. Something always stopped me, I guess. Besides, they always find their way, wherever they go.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve never seen a soul return to earth. I haven’t seen them on the streets, or in the supermarket, or at the bottom of a bottle of milk.
“Do you know where you’ll go?” Labe asked.
“I don’t have a damn clue. Where would you go, if you suddenly found yourself free?”
“I suppose I would look for answers,” Labe said.
“Where would you do that?”
“Everywhere,” Labe said. “The universe is unimaginably large.”
“Maybe that’s why you’ve never seen one return,” the soul said.
“There are no road maps out there. Once you’re gone, it’s like finding a spec of dust in an ocean of sand.”
“You believe them—those like you—to be lost? All of them?”
“Or maybe this state gives way too, sooner or later,” he said, examining his opaque exterior.
“Think so?” Isaac said.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned on earth, it’s that nothing is forever.”
“What’s it like?” Isaac asked.
“That body. I’ve always meant to ask.”
“There’s a certain lightness to it.” Brian lifted a few centimetres off the ground. “But some things, physiologically, don’t make a whole lot of sense. I can feel, but I don’t have skin. I don’t have eyes, but I can see. I don’t have lungs or hold air, but something is producing a voice. My body has weight, but I’m floating here, seemingly unaware of gravity’s existence.”
Isaac smiled. “Maybe we were once human, you think?”
“Perhaps,” Labe said. “But I am not aware of any death of mine.”
“Did it hurt?” Isaac asked. “Do you remember it?”
“It hurt for a bit, but it was sudden. A heart attack, I think. I was watching my daughter’s school play—her head sticking through a hole in a tree—when I toppled over, digging my fingernails into my chest. Then I woke up here, whatever this is.”
“Whatever this is, indeed,” Labe said.
“So, have I been of any help?” Brian said.
“Absolutely none,” Isaac said. “But it’s sure been an interesting experiment.”
“This experiment has done nothing but double my questions.”
“Answers are a monkey’s paw—they always come with more questions.”
“Where to now?”
Brian looked up, hands on his hips, floating in the room like Peter Pan’s shadow. “Somewhere up there, I guess.”
“Don’t let us keep you,” Isaac said.
“Goodbye,” Labe said.
“So long my supernatural companions.” The soul floated into the ceiling, never to be seen again.
As they left the hospital, Isaac and Labe walked with their heads down and their voices quiet. They pondered the complex nature of the universe, so vast and untamed, a wild horse unbroken by man or ghost until they reached the Bank of New York. The ground was littered with bodies and blood ran down the sidewalk, emptying into a nearby drain.
“Looks like you have your work cut out for you, Isaac,” Labe said.
Isaac put a hand across his brow and looked up at the roof of the building. “Never a weekend, or a vacation, or a day off—an eternity of work—toiling for God knows why.” He pulled away from the roof and looked at Labe. “What difference does it make if I release the souls? Who would be the wiser if I took a month off?”
“It is our purpose for being, Isaac.”
“Maybe I don’t need a purpose. Have you ever thought of that? Maybe I just want to be free! Maybe I just want to wander the universe, a lost soul.”
And at that moment, a body came careening through the sky, splattering the being formerly known as death into a thousand pieces, like a bug on a windshield and Labe never saw Isaac again.
IAN CANON is the author of the novel It’s A Long Way Down (2018) and the poetry collection Before Oblivion (2017). He’ll be releasing his second novel What We Do On Weekends in 2020. His stories have been featured in The Sunlight Press, The Spadina Literary Review, Kyler Zeleny’s short story collection Found Polaroids, and he has been interviewed for Vue Magazine. He runs a small writing workshop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada through which he mentors young writers and helps them advance their work through both traditional publishing and self-publishing. For more, visit thisisallcanon.com.
Copyright © 2019 by Ian Canon. All rights reserved.