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Life by the Words of Death
By Aiyana Shuler
Genre: Fiction Level: High School 10-12
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

When her mother died no one should have been speaking. She was alone and no one should have been able to break the silence. Yet, the words were there. Not coming from her own mouth but the mouth of another. Nova's first thought was it was something her mind created to deal with the shock.

 

Later, she realized that Death had always been at the edge of her sight. Now Nova could see she wore a black dress, the skirt flaring out from her hips. The fabric was patterned with tuberose, calla and stargazer lilies, chrysanthemums, and pearly shades of marigolds. Red ribbons wrapped themselves around her arms, waist, and throat. Another crimson ribbon pulled brown hair up and away from her face in a loose bun.

 

The times she had seen her before, her physical features were never the same for much longer than a second. A different pair of eyes with every blink, lips thin one moment and full the next, skin changing through a spectrum of shades.

Her skin was the same caramel as Nova's own, eyes a sparkling black, when she spoke the words into the endless silence. Voice soft, with comforting undertones, she posed a question to Nova.

"Would you tell me stories of her?"

And perhaps Nova was indeed delirious because she responded to the voice that should not have been. She told the stories of her mother's daring acts to keep them safe. Of how she had always wanted to see the redwoods she had finally died in. She told the stories her mother told of when the world contained more people than the two of them. Though some of those stories were actually ones Nova's grandmother had passed down.

Then, Nova must have started describing the way her mother's eyes squinted when she smiled. Or how comforting her arms around Nova's own body felt, because there were tears on her cheeks. Her breath caught in her throat, before she let out a choking sob. There was no stopping her turmoil once that first wet cry tore itself from her body.

 

She was lost to it.

She shook hard enough to hurt her chest, knees finally giving up on trying to support her weight. Tears dripped past her cheeks and chin, tracing paths down her neck. Her hands could not pick themselves up off the ground to wipe them away. It was not as if anyone would be able to see her in her misery anyways.

 

She was the last one.
She was alone.

Her head already tipped back to look up at the canopy of the giant trees, she let out a vicious scream. She let her chest fall to her knees, curling in on herself to lay in a fetal position on the dirt ground. Screams coming out in an unsteady rhythm.

Gradually, she stopped screaming. Whether this was because her body was too exhausted to scream anymore, or she decided crying was the better option at that moment, even she didn't know.

As her chest started to ache and her tears stopped flowing, she felt hands on her shoulders pulling her upper body into the lap of another person. Death cradled Nova's head in her lap, her bare feet curled up under her black and white dress. Using her fingers, she brushed away tears stains still left on Nova's cheeks. Deaths fingers were warm and soft against where they moved from her face to card through Nova's thick black hair.

"Can you see the stars?" Death asked, her voice still soft. Nova turned her eyes away from Death's own and stared up through the canopy of the redwoods. The sun was still setting, although only a sliver of it clung to the horizon. Could she see the stars?

She remembered her mother telling Old Stories of when the sky was always covered by a haze and no one could see the stars. But now? She peered up at the darkening sky, searching.

"Yes," she breathed out as the first glimmers of those lights twinkled down through the atmosphere. Nova could see Death's small smile in the edge of her eye as she answered.

"Focus on the starlight. Those stars have most likely been dead for millions of years, yet you can still see their light. You can still see their life." She paused, turning her head to look up at the sky with Nova.

"You can still remember your mother; you do not have to forget or lose the memories to pain." Nova blinked, breath slow and steady now, watching as the sky darkened before them.

"Thank you." Death looked back down at her at that, an almost sad expression on her face. She smiled softly, before resting her hand on Nova's cheek, then lifted her body out of her lap. Nova was still watching the sky while Death grabbed a thick blanket from Nova's mother's pack. Which she draped over Nova's still form.

Nova tucked the blanket around herself, still staring up at the now black and sparkling sky. They stayed that way for a while, Nova curled in the blanket on the ground and Death standing beside her, the both of them taking in the majesty of the night.

Nova's consciousness slowly faded, her body going limp against the earth. Death stayed only a moment longer, listening to the night sounds of the forest and the steady breathing of Nova. Then she too disappeared into the dark.

 

The plane on which Death, Life, and Fate walked was of a different world than the one of Nova. Time here was non-existent, a perspective. In a way it was a parallel of Nova's world. It held all of the same structures, roads, and even planets as the other. Here, Life and Death were able to carry out their respective jobs without hitches. No delayed lives, nor extended deaths. Things happened as Fate deemed would balance the world.

This world had once long ago, been a blur of activity. The vibrant rush of souls continuing, beginning, and in rare cases ending their journey. But now, the energy that had once been was gone. There were still the souls who journeyed through the bodies of animals and plants. But for some reason that even Fate herself did not know, those souls could continue with only a little added help from Life and Death.

It was to this empty expanse of space that Death returned to after comforting Nova. She had already helped Nova's mother's soul continue onto wherever it was meant to journey to after this life. The empty after a small flurry of activity was making her distraught.

Death has spent eons in this plane. Humans should not have made such an impact on her. Yet, the way souls took on a completely different form after having lived a life as one, was amazing. The sheer difference between souls first traveling to live on this Earth, and the ones that already had, amazed her. She knew that in different lives souls did not have a physical body, or conscious thought. Conscious thought lead to to questioning, and humans questioned. Then learned.

To know that this questioning, this learning, this radical change in souls, would end with Nova. That made Death hurt.

Bringing her hands to curl against her chest, Death smiled at this thought, the idea that death could hurt. Humans had thought up different versions of her and Life. In the majority of these ideas, death could not feel. It was either a malevolent being come to take lives, or an inevitable noun. It had always made her and Life laugh, the idea that emotions were something only humans felt. And oh; how humans felt!  Even anger had a passionate feeling to it. Sadness was deep, happiness light and bubbly. There was always another, more descriptive word for the emotions they had.

 

Lost in reminiscence, Death did not notice when another being walked through to this parallel plane of existence. The figure stopped when seeing Death, who was still staring out into the distorted, murky, landscape still resembling Earth. Shadows seemed to flow in a time lapse around the both of them. The newcomer spoke. Speaking words into a plane that would face endless silence.


"Death," her voice had a boldness to it, soft undertones harmonizing with the brash. Unlike Death, whose form would constantly be shifting into the features that would comfort whichever soul she was helping at that moment, Life's form was stable. Long black hair curling down around her wide hips, matching wide hazel eyes and full lips. Her sun kissed body was wrapped in several rainbow silks creating a long-skirted dress, with belled sleeves hanging off her shoulders.

Death jumped, bringing her hands down to her sides. As soon as Death turned to face her, she knew that Life could tell exactly what plagued her. Life's face showed an empathy that made Death go to her open arms.

It was a site that most humans' deemed impossible. Their ideology was that if Death and Life were physical beings, they would never be able to touch. Too different of concepts.

Yet, there they were. Death cradled in Life's arms. Death had her arms curled in-between their two bodies, her face buried in Life's chest. Life's arms held her close. A squeeze around her waist telling Death that she wasn't alone in these feelings. They stayed like that, in a plane in which time did not really exist, surrounded by twisting shadows.

 

Three days had passed since Nova had been visited by Death. She still wasn't sure if the meeting had been real, but her mother's death was. She woke the morning after the assumed Death left her, to return to the place she had buried the body to be completely sure. When she made it to the clearing in the mighty trees, her knees failed her. There was a mound of dirt in the center of the clearing. The soil newly turned.

The memories of dragging her mother's cold corpse to this spot, digging the hole with her hands, and covering the thing with her mother's face with earth, snapped back into her mind. She remembered the numbness that had fogged its way into her head, taking over her body, making her move that sickening dance. She did not remember shouldering her pack and walking away without a backward glance. Did not even register in her mind that her mother was dead. That is, until the birds stopped singing for a moment, and the wind took a pause from its breezing. The sudden silence became thick around her.

It was like being stuck in a small dark space. Her breathe stopped, before feeling like it was collapsing in on her. Pressure built up, the air feeling as dense as water. Her arms hurt as the muscles tensed, her packing seeming to hang heavier on her shoulders. Nova could not move, could not breath, was not able to think a conscious thought. She was stuck in an endless silence.

As sudden as the silence came, it went. The birds started up again and the wind seemed to meander back into the trees. But it was long enough. Long enough for Nova's mind to catch up with her actions. Long enough to realize no one would ever speak in her own tongue but her ever again. Long enough for Death to speak.

Nova sat in the clearing of her mother now. She lay on the ground closer to the edge of the woods than the mound of dirt in the middle. The grass beneath her created a soft cushion as she soaked up the rays of sun beaming down onto her. Her eyelashes flickered across her cheek, closed lids fluttering against the light.

She felt centered, could almost feel the gravity pulling down on the back of her wrists from where they lay spread away from her torso. One leg was bent up away from the ground, as if in resistance to this pull. Her breathing came in a methodical even pace, harmonizing with the fast chirps and calls of the birds.
A lengthy unit of time passed before Nova opened her eyes. The colors of the real world seeming too bright and too dark at the same moment. Sun flares caught in the lenses of her eyes for a second, before her focus made her glance off in another direction.

Nova's gaze caught the edge of a black dress, near the dirt that covered the corpse. She bolted upright, chest pressed up against one knee. Her breath hitched, the scene in front of her confirming her suspicions.

Death knelt on the ground, dress spread out around her, hands in her lap as she observed the grave in front of her. She looked up as she noticed Nova's staring, eyes finding her's, before standing up and walking to Nova. Her bare feet tread light on the ground, coming to stop next to Nova's own feet.

They stayed like that for a moment. Each staring at the other and taking in their presence. Then, Death knelt to the ground, reaching a hand out to Nova. She opened her mouth. Nova watched the movement, taking only a second to prepare herself for the silence to be broken.

"Hello. My name is Death."

Nova let out a startled sounding inhale. Then exhaled deeply to calm her nerves.
Her own lips moved, breaking the her endless silence.

"Nova." She shook Death's hand.   

 

Nova wondered how the few myths of Death she had been told were so wrong. Death was a skeleton in a long black robe, something to be feared. The Death in front of Nova in no way fit that description. She had warm flesh, a kind smile, and a laugh that filled the air. There was a gentleness that followed her not unlike that of a doe.

They had been talking for quite a long time, Death answering questions Nova had. She knew Death had simply become when souls started traveling into this world to live a life in the organisms. The same happening with Life. She learned how there was a Life, and Fate. And when humanity created them Good, Evil, and Luck. How they walked on planes warped and parallel to her own.

Death was looking up at the blue sky when Nova decided to ask the question that was pressing on her mind. One that did not have to do with Death.

"I am really the last human?" Death froze, still staring up at the sky. Nova waited, the answer already forming in her brain. Slowly, Death turned toward her, studying her facial expressions and her body posture. Her gaze rose from Nova's hands up to her eyes, the eye contact soothing Nova's nerves.


"Yes," the resolution fell softly from Death's lips. Nova stared at her for a moment, waiting for any telltale sign that might suggest she was lying. With none forthcoming, she sighed deeply into her belly.

"I thought so," she whispered, laying back down on the grass. Death laid down beside her, crossing her ankles while doing so.

Silence enveloped them for a time after that. It held no awkwardness to it, but it was silence all the same. They lay side by side, heads closer to each other than their feet. Death's hands were tucked neatly on top of her belly, Nova's spread above her head in the sun-warmed grass. The sun itself moved across the sky, before lazily dipping down to touch the tips of the trees on the other side of the clearing.

"What should I do?" Nova asked as the sun reached this point in the sky. Death turned her neck to look at her, blinking slowly as she tried to process the words.


"With this life you have?" Nova nodded her confirmation, and Death turned to look back up at the sky.

"Live. Explore the world, see, feel, and experience as much as you can whole-heartedly. Dance in the rain. Jump into the ocean. Take this life by its hands and run with it."

 

Nova was a strategic minded personal. Sure she could roll with improvisation if need be, but a rough plan always came first. The first step for this plan of hers was to obtain specific maps, and that required going into one of the Old Cities.

Her mother had tended to avoid the Old Cities as much as they could, but some supplies could only be found in them. Nova could count the times her mother went into one on both hands, herself having only gone five of those.

She still remembered the uneasy feelings that had accompanied the entire trip. Her mother said that the city they had ventured into had once been called New York, a densely populated area. The gigantic buildings rose to levels Nova never imagined being possible to build. The wide roads were cracked, and unleveled. The majority of them flooded with water from the sea or littered in the rubble of fallen buildings.

The city had such an eerie silence to it. A silence that was aching to be filled like it had once been oh so long ago. They had had to go into one of the tunnels to get to their destination. The road they would have used had the rubble of a building creating a large dam to the water on the other side. The underground was the creepiest part of the trip. The trains that ran beneath the city were powered by solar panels, and the trains themselves followed an automated route. They trains still ran, the solar panels still powering them.

The trains would rush past the station, then open their doors with an automated voice telling non-existent passengers the train had arrived. Then close again, rushing off into the system that would never had a use for them again. The insidiousness of it had made Nova feel sick to her stomach.

Given that this experience with the Old Cities, she was not fond of the idea to repeat such a journey. However, was unavoidable if she wanted the maps. It's true that she did not need the maps, but if she wanted to see the world as Death suggested she should, they were a necessity.

Nova was currently in the north eastern edge of the redwoods. The closest Old City was more north, near the border of what would be Oregon. Meaning she would have to go back the way her mother and her had come. But there was another Old City, farther south. Which allowed her to continue moving forward.

Nova sat back on her heels, looking down at the map in front of her. She was in another clearing not too far from the one where her mother was buried. She found this one after Death had left her for a second time. The sky had darkened considerably from the time she had first started taking the maps out of her mother's backpack, the only light source coming from a solar powered lantern resting on the ground next to the map.

Her fingers were resting against her chin in thought, staring holes into the map. Was it too much of a waste of time to backtrack to the city that she knew for sure still existed? Or should she move forward, with the risk that the second city would either not exist or not have the supplies she need?

She was still pondering the pros and cons of both when her ears alerted her to the warning silence of the insects of the night. She froze, closing her eyes as she tried to listen to any telltale signs of the enemy the bugs had detected. For a while only the still silence met her ears. Then, quiet enough you could mistake it for your own breathing, was the faint sound of a large animal shifting its weight.

Nova tried to control her breathing, not wanting to give whatever it was any reason to attack her. She rose from her crouching position in an achingly fashion, turning slightly toward the area the sound came from. Once she was standing, she allowed her eyes to search into the darkness. However, anything outside of the ring of light stemming from the lantern was too enveloped in the dark.

Not wanting to take her eyes away from that area of darkness, she crouched back down and grabbed the lantern. She stood for a moment with the lantern simply resting in her hands, making sure her breathing was even and controlled. Then she flicked the switch. Nova closed her eyes for several seconds, adjusting them to the sudden dark.

At first when she opened her eyes, there was nothing that caught her attention. She scanned the forest outside of the clearing, taking her time to look for offenders. She knew the consequences of prematurely assuming from firsthand experience.

Nova turned in a steady circle studying the forest around her. Once she had almost completed the 360°, she stopped. She forced herself to continue breathing calmly, even with the sudden fear racing through her.

The gleam of an animal's eyes was nestled between two of the tree trunks at the edge of the clearing.

The two beings seemed to be stuck in a staring contest. Nova not willing to move first and the animal seemingly trying to assess the situation.

In the end it was the animal that took the first step forward into clearing. Which sparked Nova to take three quick steps backwards. She studied the animal in front of her.

Its antlers were tall and spiraling away from its skull. The thick hair rippling across its hide was a sleek, dark brown, tinted blue in the night. It held a mightiness to itself that was not unusual in elk. However, the smaller skull protruding from the skin next to its right antler gave Nova pause.

It was rare to see animals that still had physical deformities from long-term exposure to radiation. The ones who did still carry the diseased genes were always something to be waring of. Nova's hand twitched toward the knife on her hip, her gun still in her backpack. Plus it would be unwise to waste any of the power now, before her journey even began.

The elk watched her through big black eyes, slightly cocking its head at her, gauging her. It seemed to make its decision and started slowly walking toward her. Then it went right passed her, never turning its head or even recognizing she was there. The silence it left in its footsteps and the haunting feeling that it had deciding to spare her, left Nova frozen with her hand on her knife.

She climbed a tree despite her bad ankle and slept in its branches hold that night.  


After her eerie encounter with the elk that night, she decided it would be in her best interest to go back to the Old City she knew existed. There were no other arguments in her mind, nothing that could convince her this was not more safe.

She took as much from her mother's pack as she could, throwing out anything that wasn't necessary- old maps, empty gun power cartridges. There was her grandmother's necklace at the bottom of the pack that she slipped over her head. An old silver locket in the shape of a heart, the faint etching of a rose on the front.

There were rocks in the side pocket of the backpack, ones her mother snatched for their colors, shapes, or something else that caught her eyes. Nova paused looking at her hands full of rocks from her mother. She would not be able to carry them, the extra weight not worth it.

She made a bag from one of her own shirts and dropped the rocks in them, going back to finish packing.

 


Nova stood at the foot of her mother's grave, dressed in a loose fitting tank top and short cargo shorts. Her backpack was strapped and zippered. But not buckled together, not ready yet for the backpacking journey. The shirt bag full of her mother's rocks was held in the fist of her left hand.

She stared at the turned dirt, the soil already starting to look old. She knelt down, unbuckling her pack, and sliding it off her shoulders as she did so. Nova untied the the shirt, spreading out the rocks on the clothe.

She separated the rocks by their sizes -small, medium, large. Then evenly dispersed equal amounts of the sizes into seven piles. Taking the first pile, she stacked the rocks on top of each other, largest to smallest, placing the rock stack where her mother's head would be. Nova repeated this, aligning the rock stacks in a straight line down from the first.

Once her task was finished, Nova stood up, buckling her backpack around her hips and chest, tucking the shirt into the straps on her hips. She stood for a moment, studying her handiwork. Then, she turned her eyes to the sky, deeply breathing in the late morning air.   

Without a word or a second glance back, she left the clearing.

She was going to live her life by the words of Death.


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