Death and Time were walking through a mountain pass in the waning light of a westering sun, a path they’d walked many times before.
As he walked, Time cycled between youth and age, but whether he skipped with youthful exuberance, or hobbled painfully along on his walking stick, Death’s tread was ever constant, and eventually, he would catch up to Time.
Whenever Time stopped to rest at the end of his age cycle, Death covered him with a new blanket, until the child shaped re-emerged, sticking out its tongue at Death, sprinting away as fast as it could, and Death would take the remains of the blanket, now full of holes and moth-eaten, frayed and rank, and pack it away in a satchel he kept on his back until the next cycle.
And Death would rise, patiently, and plod behind, the mountain winds snapping at the hem of his black and crimson robe, the bone handle of his scythe, serving as a walking stick, making puffs of dust, or crunching gravel, or click-clacking on stones, or making divots in the soil, depending on the paths they walked that day.
His rhythm never varied, but seemed random somehow.
Time never waited for Death, but Death always waited for Time, though there were moments Death grew impatient, and pulled Time along before he was ready.
Time wept the hardest when Death took him away, because sometimes he simply wasn’t prepared to go; there were more memories to share, more places to explore, but Death would not hear his pleading.
It didn’t matter to Death; his world was ever silent.
Where Time saw colors and seasons, meadow and river, flower and tree, birds and animals of all kinds, heard their songs and braying, saw them breed in the spring, saw them in the fullness of life and strength and beauty, Death saw only bones, twisted trees and blackened flesh; the only splashes of color in his world were scarlet and sepia, which turned to black when what he’d seen centuries before passed from being merely old into ancient, and from there began its long, slow descent into the Mire.
Death and Time worked in tandem then, to nourish the earth and comfort the living, but other than that, they went in slow, seemingly senseless circles around the earth.
These circles they made by land, walking trails or in the backs of wagons, tracking the migrations of animals, the turning of seasons; by air, flying through the dark, spinning inside the maelstroms of calamitous storms of rain, or sometimes, sand; by sea, riding the backs of drifting clouds across oceans and continents, Time all the while proclaiming what would be, and Death, watching, waiting, to proclaim when it would not.
Time was cycling now, coming out of the uncertainty of musky puberty into the more mature stability of manhood. His whiskers grew full and shiny, black as crow feathers, black as Death’s Mire.
His muscles filled out, and he was hard and rugged. Instruments of violence and building filled his hands at any given moment, depending on his mood. Sometimes the instrument was the same, like when he used a hammer once…
Today would be different.
Through a trick of the light in the shadowy canyon, Time saw a face inside the rock.
“Death, do you see?”
Death turned his eyeless sockets on the place, and nodded sagely, turning again to look at Time as if to say, “What of it?”
“There’s a face in it! A woman’s face! Someone is in the rock, Death. I swear! I can see it!”
Death, if he were capable of it, would’ve given a smile.
His bony arm swept in an expansive gesture, his finger pointing to the setting sun to indicate the twilight shadows playing tricks.
“Then it plays well, alchemist! She is in there…”
Death took out a broken hourglass; the sand sloughed off his fingers, and the shards of glass glistened like iced tears in his ivory palm as he slowly shook his head: No time.
Time threw back his head and laughed, and the canyon echoed, and so did the rock face beside him.
Death and Time stared at it then. It had moved ever so slightly, its mouth barely a gash, and laughed as Time did.
“The rock is enchanted,” Time whispered, and the rock whispered it too, softly, but there was no mistaking it this time.
A chisel and hammer appeared in Time’s hands, and with great patience and skill, he cut around the contours of the rock, following its grain.
Death gave up all hope of moving, and walked off, his walking stick scraping in agitation at the packed dirt.
On a large flat rock that overhung the canyon below, he waited, looking down into the wide and windy chasm, to see if there was anyone he knew…
There, in the valley below, by a dried up crater that once contained cool, still water surrounded by willow trees, a withered flower had grown through the bones of a man who died with his arms outstretched, as if embracing something that had pried itself from his desperate grasp.
The flower was where his heart would’ve been in life.
Ah, Death had known him.
What a vain and foolish boy…
Time’s whiskers, glossy and black in the evening, were now streaked through with white, and his body was becoming a bit rounder, his face a bit more full, the hard angles retreating.
The moon rose, full and pale and high, and clusters of stars glittered and flashed like celestial fireflies.
The figure was indeed a woman, and by the light of the moon her stony appearance melted, to reveal beneath its hardness a woman of great beauty, stunned by her new found ability to move and feel once more.
She touched Time’s face with a grateful hand, and kissed him for a long time.
He eagerly returned the embrace, and parting breathlessly, he thought she would thank him, but she did not. As she gathered herself, he questioned her.
“Can you not speak?”
“Yes, madam. Can you talk?”
“You talk?” She patted his chest, shaking her head in frustration.
“You can’t talk?”
Time seemed amused, but she wasn’t; she was trying to tell him something, but could not seem to get it out. She only repeated what he said, and in time he realized.
“Gods be…you’re…” he snapped his fingers, “Echo. The nymph Echo! You’re Echo?”
She pounded his chest again, nodding hopefully. “You’re Echo? You’re Echo? You’re Echo?”
“Yes, yes, all right then.” He tried to take her hands down, but she clutched at him and would not let go, but he finally got her in a firm grip, and lowered his head, and looked into her eyes to calm her.
Her manner was of a bird, set free from its cage, which could only walk trustingly into a waiting hand because it couldn’t fly.
She seemed to settle, and held his gaze, her breathing slowing, her liquid eyes large and luminous in the lunar light.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered.
“You’re so beautiful.” She smiled, and put her hand to her mouth, blushing.
Time also smiled at the unintended compliment, and then shook his head, frustrated now as she was.
Death grew tired of waiting, and they could hear the skritch of his walking stick scythe as it scraped the path, and emanated from Echo’s slightly parted lips.
Behind them now, he looked at Echo, and her skin went from blush to blanche.
Time turned to look, and keeping one face on Death, made another to look at Echo.
“Don’t worry, he won’t harm you.”
“He’s not here for you.”
“Not here for you.” Her face twisted, as if with a bitter memory; he saw the agony in her eyes that she could not speak on her own.
Time straightened his stance, and put his hands on her shoulders, looking down at her.
“I will give you a gift, a once-in-a lifetime gift. It can only happen once. Do you understand?”
Death was no longer motionless, however, and upended his scythe, and Echo fidgeted under Time’s hands again.
He tightened his grip once more. “Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?” she was nodding again.
Death’s scythe descended, but seemed to slow the closer it got to cutting them down.
As it whisked through where they’d been standing what only seemed like an instant ago, Time disappeared.
And there was no echo.
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
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