The winter day is at its close. The sun is slowly sinking beneath the layers of clouds and into its safe haven somewhere deep into the horizon. I sit alone in the open lawn of this dainty little cafe and wonder about the secrets that the golden orb holds; the secrets that die each day with the sunset. Death. I smile.
This little town is quite and pretty. Of all the towns, cities, villages and all other places that I have visited this week, this little town is the one that captured my heart. Neat houses bordered by trees and lawns at each lane; clean eateries and small cafeterias sprinkled thoroughly; departmental stores sitting quietly in each block, waiting to be visited; people loving and caring for each without an ounce of pretentiousness in their souls. This is a beautiful little town. Yet, I’m here.
I feel a tug at my robe. I look down. There is a little girl, of ten, standing at me feet. She is visibly awed at my appearance. Awed, not afraid. Well, to tell the truth, I was an oddball amidst the tranquility of the place. A man in the late twenties, wearing a billowing grey robe with head covered by the hood against the chilly winter. I have a bag too; one that resembles a grey, fat duffel bag. It’s really not a surprise that the girl is here, with curiosity twinkling in her eyes. She is not afraid of me.
“Who are you? What’s in that bag? Are you new to town?” The questions rush out of her mouth like a torrent of waterfall that calms your soul. She’s smart for her age; I have observed. But she’s still a child. My heart drowns a little. I smile.
“That bag,” I point a long pale finger to my bag, “holds secrets. I have secrets for everyone. I sell them. I’m a merchant; a travelling merchant.”
The girl looks at my bag for a fleeting second. She turns to me. “For everyone did you say? Can you show me? Can I buy?” Her over eager voice was slowly wrenching my heart.
“Now? No, dear. You see, I have a particular time to sell things to everyone. Right now, I cannot.” I see that she is not satisfied with my answer. I continue with a smile, “Don’t you worry. That’s your house across the street isn’t it?”
She nods excitedly. “Will you come by? Will you sell your secrets to me today?”
I muster another fake smile. She is so naïve it hurts. But then, most of you humans are, really. “Of course! Why do you think I’m having coffee right in front of your house? I’ll see you very soon. And you’ll get to buy my secrets too.”
She shrugs. There is a playful smile on her innocent lips as she hops along, across the street, to her home. If only she knew the secret I’d be selling to her. If only she knew the price.
It has been an hour since I met the little girl. The evening has settled itself comfortably on the peaceful town, spreading a steadily increasing chill over the town like gigantic wings. More people have come into the cafe now, but they prefer the warmth inside. Only I am out. In the open. In the cold. Not that it bothers me. I pull up my sleeve to reveal the watch I wear at all times. I cannot be late. Ever.
Tick tock. Tick tock.
Her secret awaits in my bag. Actually, I have two secrets for her. They are not pretty secrets.
Tick tock. Tick tock.
One more minute. And then I need to get up, sell my secret, collect my price and leave.
“He’s right there! I’m not lying! He’s there! He told me he’ll sell me secrets tonight! I met him only an hour ago!” Her indignant voice wafts through the air, slightly muffled. But I hear her clearly. I turn around and throw back my hood to reveal to the silky black sky a thick bush of black hair falling till my neck. She has come out of her house, her mother on her heels.
She sees me and points, “There, look!”
But I’m not visible to anyone but her. She runs out across the lawn, across the road. No. Not across the road. Everyone in the cafe hears the tires screech. Everyone hears the mother’s scream as it pierces and shatters the peaceful silence of the little town. Everyone hears her scream fall onto their skins and cut through like broken bits of glass.
I’m sure you’ve figured out who I am by now. And I’m sure, by now, cruel and harsh words are ready for me at the tip of your tongues.
I walk on towards the accident site and find the ten-year old girl, dead. Lying grotesquely, in a pool of her own blood. I also see her weeping. At the side of her own body. I see her soul. She has figured it out. I touch her shoulder. She shudders.
“H-how? Who are you?!” She backs away and stares at me through tear filled eyes. She is unable to understand why I can see her still.
“Who do you think?” I smile, wearily. I am tired.
She nods. More tears. She understands who I am now. She perhaps knew in her heart. She just needed me to reassure. Everything falls into pieces. She turns slowly to face me. Upright, tears still streaming down her cheeks, she faces me. My heart sinks. I am tired.
“Was this my secret? Death?” she asks gravely.
“No. Death is not a secret. I’m not a secret. Everyone knows about me. My secrets are unique. Only the dead know it.”
She looks on. Still crying. Yet, curious. I smile.
“Your secrets were Grief and Regret. You are grieving your death, regretting the age. You were unable to do anything. You were unsuccessful in filling colours in your dreams. So the things I sold you were Grief and Regret. My price is your life.”
I wonder if I sounded harsh. But this is the moment that I speak the truth. Break it down. Tell them I’m not who they think I am.
She wipes her tears. A fresh stream replaces them. “Who doesn’t grieve their death? Who doesn’t regret it? How are they unique to me? Are you joking?” There is an accusation in her tone.
“The ones who have lived full lives. Happy lives. The ones who are ninety and senile. The secret I have for them is Smile. The tortured. The depressed. They do not regret death. They do not regret the weeping of their family and friends – the ones who never bothered to care for them while alive. The secrets I sell them are more often than not Relief. I am usually a nice person for them.”
“And then there are the ones like you. Taken at an early age. Taken while living happy lives. I’m, quite unfortunately, an ominous presence for them. That’s how I am. And I’m sorry.”
Silence. She is still staring at me, trying to let my words sink in. “But you’re the one who takes them,” she says coldly.
“Me? No.” I smile. “I just come and collect. I am a travelling merchant; I told you. I sell my secrets in exchange for your lives. Your death is not determined by me. Perhaps, some secrets are even beyond me.” I look up at the sky. The crescent moon is peeping from beneath a sheer cloud.
I look at the girl’s face. A look of comprehension has spread over her sad face. The tears are still there. And I know they will be there for quite some time. That’s my curse. I make people smile. I make people cry. I am not all rosy. I am not all scary. I am not black. I am not white. I do not come as an angel. I do not come as the devil with a foreboding axe. The Grim Reaper is silly. He’s not me. I’m not him.
For now, I am tired. Yes, tired. I exist in a lot of places at the same time. From the beginning of time to the end of it. I do not like selling all my secrets. I’m Death, yes. But, I’m not a sadist. I’m just a travelling merchant. I sell. I buy. Some days I am happy and at peace. Others, I’m tired and drained.
I stretch my palm out to the little girl, standing and awaiting my orders. She takes it obediently. I lead her through the grieving crowd, away from it and into the silent night.