By E.C. Haskell
“I am death,” said the little girl.
The big man in a stained apron turned. Lights from the cooking fire behind him gleamed on his brawny arms, and sent dark shadows flickering over the tattooed snakes that writhed there. He had a long line of people before him, waiting patiently in the night air. But, for this moment, he saw only the child.
She stood barely three feet high, with light brown hair tied back by a scarlet ribbon. She wore a pinafore made of denim and bright sneakers which matched the ribbon in her hair. The big man squatted down.
“Death, huh?” he said.
The little girl didn’t reply.
The big man leaned closer, staring into the girl’s eyes. Slowly his lips pulled back, his small eyes flared, his nose widened.
His look was that of a startled rhinoceros. The little girl giggled.
“Jeezus!” The man crossed himself. Shook his head. Looked back at the little girl. It was still there, in her eyes. The clear blue that he’d seen in the waters of Croatia, the deep greens of Australia’s Daintree forest, and then a blaze of multicolored neon, Hong Kong at its most tawdry.
“You got my whole Army career on tape or somethin’?” he asked, his voice loud and harsh enough to draw a reproving look from the scrawny Latina assisting him. The little girl said nothing.
The big man wiped one hand across his mouth. “Sorry kid. But how the hell do ya do that with your eyes?”
The little girl shrugged, the thin blades of her shoulders mirroring the sharp relief of her collarbone.
The man frowned. “Damn, girl. You need to eat somethin’.”
She shook her head. “I don’t have money.”
“Hell, kid. I wouldn’t take it if ya did.”
Rising, the big man turned back to the fire pit where he was making his famous blue-plate burgers, selling them for eight bucks apiece to the people in line. He slipped a sizzling burger onto a soft wheat bun, and handed it, along with a bottle of water, to the little girl.
Smiling, she began to turn away and said, “You’ve got to tell your doctor, okay? About the blood on your underwear.”
“Flamin’ jelly up my nostrils!” a desiccated voice rasped through thick fog, redolent with stale breath and mold-ridden soil. “What in the Devil’s name does she think she’s doin’?”
“I told you it’s no job for girls, you boot-licking ghoul.” A second figure came out of the fog. A mantle of slime and moss covered its bent form. Light flickered from one raised finger, a stick-like appendage, partially decayed. “Mark my words! This will end in disaster.”
“Huh.” The first figure turned, wrapping gray mist and slime around itself, a rotting cocoon leaking pus. “Damned committee, claimin’ we need a ‘softer approach’. Ba!” With a hawking noise, a globule of spit emerged to splatter on the ground.
The second figure stepped aside. “I told ‘em. This ain’t no tea party.”
“I know! But the archangels are up in arms. Say they’re tired of always being the bad guys. So we gotta try some new things, be patient.”
“Patience! A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” The second cackled, then snorted its disgust. “I’d rather piss hot lava.”
A grumbling issued from the center of the fog. “You and your damn quotes. Ambrose Bierce no less! You maggot-infested piece of dog meat.”
“I am death,” said the little girl.
The woman on the chaise lounge turned. Her long hair shone like polished mahogany. Dark lashes fringed her sapphire blue eyes; her lips pouted a perfect pink. She regarded the girl, then raised one hand and, with a diamond-tipped finger, wiped a smudge of white from beneath her nostrils.
“Goodness,” she said. “What a line! What’s it from?”
“Oh, never mind. I’ve been expecting you. But my,” she glanced at a gold watch on her wrist, “you’re awfully early. My agent said late afternoon. And you really should have your guardian with you.”
The woman giggled, a conspiratorial chortle. “Honey, anyone under eighteen needs a guardian to get on this set. I’m sure you know that. But you did a runner, huh? Decided to come meet me all by yourself. That shows grit. Initiative, and good for you. But come over here.” With one elegant hand, the woman beckoned to the little girl. “Let me see you close up.”
“But I’m –“
“Don’t be shy.” The lady leaned over to take the little girl’s hand. She pulled her closer, gently and with a smile. “You’re really quite lovely. I’m sure they’ve told you that. And I could definitely see you playing the role of Aynat. Such a sweet innocence, hiding a streak of evil.”
“Evil? No! It’s just –“
“Just play acting. Of course it is, darling. And you’re really perfect for it, especially with those eyes of yours!” The lady leaned closer, her own eyes reflecting the multicolored hues that flitted like bits of rainbow across the little girl’s irises. “That’s quite remarkable. As if you were a spirit from another world. How to you do it, anyway? Some kind of contact lens?”
“No lens, m’am.”
“Oh come on, sweetheart. I love the conceit, but really, I’ve been in this business long enough to know showmanship when I see it.”
The little girl stamped her foot once, annoyed. In just that moment, her eyes throbbed. A greenish blue light reflecting endless corridors and paths untaken.
The woman gasped, a rattle sounding from her throat.
The child clapped her hands over her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“What was that?”
“I told you. Death.”
The woman stared, her face paled to a colorless sheen, nearly transparent with fear. “Oh my god. My heart. My doctor warned me but …. Stay with me. Please, darling. I’m afraid.”
The little girl sighed. “I can’t stay. But there’s still time. Call 911.”
The lady dove for her purse, pulled a jewel-encrusted phone from it, stabbed in three numbers. Then looked to the little girl.
And saw only a slight shimmer, fading in the air.
“This! This is an abomination! An embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood. A –“
“So now you’re stealing from Shakespeare?” the first voice sneered. “Don’t got anything original to say?”
“I am disappointed. Exceedingly, exceptionally, disappointed! She came to us with the best references. I even watched her perform. When she gets those eyes going –“
“I get it. It’s a helluva show.” A snicker leaked out, an oily puff fouling the air. “Gives folks something to think about other than big, bad death. Guess The Committee thinks it’ll soften our image.”
“Soften?! She gives one mark a free pass from death. Tells another to call an emergency number! I say we yank her now and –“
“And what? Threaten the arch angels with more wing rot? All that’s done is turn ‘em into a pack of snivelers. Makes people want to vomit up their fright.”
“But this –“
“I get it, you snot-filled bladder. We need someone with passion, persuasive skills, creative delivery! Not a pocketful of get-out-of-death-free cards!”
“You said it, you insufferable sinkhole, not me.”
“Yeah, yeah. So here’s what we’ll do. Give ‘er one more chance. Just one.” The ghoul waved his boney finger in the air, leaving a trail of soot-colored slime. “And if she blows that,” he drew his finger across his throat, “curtains.”
“I am death,” said the little girl.
The old couple on the boardwalk turned. Their wizened faces showed surprise. And a sort of interest.
The little girl frowned. In her short service as an ambassador of death, she’d seen fear, revulsion, disbelief. But this? This was new.
“You don’t say?” The old man patted his wife on the shoulder of her worn burgundy coat. He leaned close to whisper in her ear, a wrinkled pink shell with a single white pearl at its lobe. “What do you think?”
The woman shrugged, her knobby hands clutching tight to a white cane. “Talk to her, Henry. But do be careful.”
The old man hobbled forward, his body shaking with tremors. As he approached, the little girl could smell a sickness coming from him, a faint rot wafting on its own chill. As he reached her, he bent down even further to put his face on a level with hers.
“You don’t look like death,” he said. “You look like a little girl.”
The little girl nodded her acceptance, the lights in her eyes dancing from blue to green, topaz, brown and lavender.
“Well goodness me,” the old man said. He turned to look over his shoulder. “I wish you could see this, Marianne. This child has a whole light show right in her eyes.”
“Well,” said the old woman, tapping forward with her cane. “Then she’s no ordinary child, is she?”
“No, m’am,” the little girl said. She watched as the old woman approached, taking note of her milk-white eyes, framed by spindly lashes.
“You really shouldn’t call yourself death,” the old lady said. “Your poor mother would be dreadfully upset.”
“I don’t have a mother. Least not that I know of.”
“Oh you little darling.” The old lady reached out, her soft fingers flitting over the little girl’s face, comforting. “But really … death? How could that be?”
“It’s my job, is all. Well, maybe my job. I’m kind of on trial.”
“On trial for what?” the old man asked.
The little girl put her head to one side. She’d been instructed on the dos and don’ts of her job and no one had said anything about explanations. But this couple seemed interested.
“I’m supposed to let people know when they’re going to die. So they can prepare like.”
“You mean write their wills and all?” asked the old man.
“Oh no! No time for that. It’s just so they can gather their senses and experience death.”
“Why on earth would anyone want to do that?”
The little girl sighed. “It used to happen all the time. Back in the old, old days. People were closer to nature then, most of ‘em anyway. Knew, like animals do, when it’s their time. That brought a sort of comfort, a feel for the cycle of life and death and the possibilities beyond.. But it, feeling it, went out of fashion. That’s part of what got death such a bad reputation.”
“A bad reputation?” The old woman laughed softly. “Not for me, sweetheart.”
The old man put one hand on her shoulder, reassuring. “Will it hurt?” he asked.
“Not if you’re ready like. Accepting. That’s the key.”
“Oh, we’re ready.” The old woman spoke with a kind certainty. She moved to put her arms around the old man. “My Henry, here. He doesn’t have long. That dreadful cancer from his days in the factory. And I can’t bear to be without him.”
The little girl opened her mouth to object. Her mission hadn’t included the old lady. But then she couldn’t think of any harm to that. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“Okay,” she said.
“No!” A voice thundered in her head. “That is strictly against the rules. Take him only!”
The little girl smiled at the old couple. “I’ll be right back.”
“Scum, wound rot and wildebeest turds!” The first ghoul jumped from one foot the other. “That is not allowed.”
“Told you so,” the second ghoul stretched the talons at the end of his fingers. “The girl is much too forgiving, letting people off, adding people willy nilly. We will need to eliminate her.”
“Pull her fingers off, one by one? Throw her in a bath of boiling oil?”
“First pepper her skin with small nails. Then throw her in that bath.”
“Oh no!” the second ghoul said. “We can –“
“I am death,” a small voice said.
The two demons turned.
“You!” cried the first
“Will pay!” cried the second.
The little girl smiled. Her eyes flashed. A hiss of electricity rolled across the echoing space. Blue serpents, sparking and cackling, wove their whip-thin bodies around the demons. With screams and curses, the creatures began to sink to the ground. Their arms flailed in the air as their feet, then their ankles and calves and thighs melted into pools of smoldering oil.
“You’re giving death a bad name,” said the little girl. “And that’s not right.”
She turned then, and held her hands out to the old couple. #
After focusing for many years on non-fiction writing (ads, magazine articles, documentaries etc), Ms. Haskell began to study fiction writing as a way to explore the realities that lie at the edge of human perception. A long time Colorado native, she now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family, three dogs and assorted wildlife.