A short story by Manelle Oliphant
When you’re dead, memories work much the same as they do when you’re alive, except they don’t get churned around in the river of your life. The memory of your death is the last memory you ever have so it remains, at least for me, the most vivid.
I always knew I would die young. The midwife of our small town, Old Emmy, knew it too. I came into the world holding my breath, which, I guess, was all the evidence she needed. “This one is not long for this world,” she told my ma in her no-nonsense way. “Enjoy her while you’ve got her.”
Mother never volunteered the information that I might die young. She kept a closer watch on me than she did on my brother Joseph and sister Mercy, though. As an adventurous child, this made me feel like a dammed off stream. I often seeped past mother’s watchful eye to run through the town, climb trees and swim in the river.
When I was seven, I met death for the first time.
I was gathering rocks from the river bed one day when my feet slipped on a moss-covered rock. As I fell, I hit my head. The next thing I knew I woke up in our little cottage. Mother sat on one side of me looking relieved. Old Emmy sat on my other side. At the foot of my bed stood a murky figure in a dark cloak. I couldn’t see his face but he nodded at me before he disappeared.
Old Emmy peered at the foot of my bed and shivered. Maybe she’d seen the figure too. She leaned down and whispered in my ear, “You can’t outrun death, no matter how hard you try.” She shivered again and left the house in a hurry.
“What did Old Emmy mean when she said I couldn’t outrun death?”
Mother scowled, “Just some silliness, nothing to worry about.” It took much pestering before Mother told me about Old Emmy’s prediction. I didn’t tell Mother, but after the apparition I’d seen at the foot of my bed, I thought Old Emmy might be right.
After that, I sometimes saw the dark figure out of the corner of my eye, but he always disappeared when I tried to look right at him. As time passed, I made it into a game. I would try to see the apparition by spinning around in different ways. Sometimes I’d sneak my head to the side. Other times I’d whirl around to catch him before he could evaporate away. I never actually caught him, until I was 12.
I was climbing a tree in the rain when lightning hit it. I woke up on the ground with Death watching me. “Is it true what Old Emmy said, about me dying young?” I asked. He didn’t answer.
I moved my limbs and felt my head. Although mud covered me, I didn’t seem to be too battered up. I walked home. Death followed. He became my constant shadow for the next three days.
No one in the village noticed him as I went about my business until I met Old Emmy. She turned river-rapid-white and hurried away from me. I knew she’d seen him. I looked at death to see what he thought, but he’d melted back into the spirit world.
The summer after I turned 16 the spring rains didn’t stop as usual. No one in town could remember seeing that much rain. By the middle of June, the seedlings had all drowned in the fields. We all walked around town with mud caked on our boots, never feeling quite dry.
The river rose higher every day. Everyone in town took turns building barriers out of sand, rocks, and mud so the water wouldn’t reach the village. For a while, the river was kept on its course as it rose. Until the night it washed away half the village, my life, and in an odd coincidence, Old Emmy’s life as well.
I slept on a mat on our dirt floor next to Mercy when my brother Joseph shook me awake. Water rippled over the floor drenching us all. As I wiped the sleep from my eyes, it rose higher.
Joseph shook Mercy awake too. “We need to move to higher ground.” She was a small ten-year-old, so he lifted her onto his back, and we sloshed through the water toward the door.
Father was helping my mother onto the porch. I could see mother’s nightgown plastered against her pregnant belly in the sheeting rain. Outside the street had become a river.
The water pushed us one way, and we fought against it as we climbed toward the church, the highest point in the village. Ahead of us, Mother stumbled. The pregnancy had made her weak. Joseph handed Mercy to me and went to help father.
I lost sight of my parents and Joseph as other villagers joined us but I knew we’d catch up to them at the top. As we trudged up the hill I kept my eyes on my feet and my hand in Mercy’s. We were slower than the others and we found ourselves at the back of the group. The water continued to rise beneath us. I peered up to see how far we had to go. Old Emmy stood above me on the hill. She stared over my shoulder terrified. I turned, and met death face to face for the third time. I wondered how well she could see him. She started back up the hill in a run, but she didn’t get very far. A loud rumble surrounded us. The ground shook and fell out from under my feet.
I clung to Mercy as we fell. My other hand flailed about for something to grab. I caught some exposed roots and held tight. Water tried to drag us away, but I pulled Mercy forward. She grabbed the roots as well.
Above us, I could make out a head in the dark.
A hand reached down. “Grab my arm.” It was Joseph. Mom and Dad must have sent him back to find us.
No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t reach him. We clung to the roots and fought the water that threatened to wash us away. “Mercy,” I said, “climb onto my shoulders.”
“But what about you?”
I took a breath and turned around. Death lingered and watched. I turned back to Mercy. “Old Emmy was right. I’m not long for this world. You’ll have to live for the both of us.”
Mercy shook her head, “No, I can’t. Let’s hold tight while Joseph gets a rope.”
The water surged around our waists, growing higher every second. I shook my head, “There isn’t time.”
Mercy shook her head as I turned my back toward her, but, she grabbed my collar and pulled herself onto my shoulders.
I took a breath and stood up still gripping the roots. Mercy reached for Joseph, but they couldn’t quite touch.
“I’m going to jump.” I planted my feet the best I could with the water swirling around them and gripped the roots. “Ready? One! Two! Three!” I pushed off the ground with my feet and pulled up with my arms. Mercy’s weight lifted from my shoulders.
The river caught hold of my free-floating legs and dragged me away. My body tumbled in the current. Death followed in my wake. I thought about Mother, Father, Joseph, Mercy and the coming baby. A wave of disappointment settled in my mind and heart. Would I ever see them again? Ever since my first meeting with death, I’d be chasing him, flirting with him, and playing games. I should have avoided him with all my might. It was only now when I thought he might catch me that I realized I didn’t want to die, not yet. I kicked my legs and pushed at the water with my hands. My head came above the surface. I sucked in a breath.
I splashed and kicked. Rocks, logs and little pieces of our lives, like cook pots, and old shoes battered my body. I couldn’t feel the cold, or my body after a while, but I kept swimming. Finally, I tumbled onto the solid ground. I started to run.
There was a tug in my gut, and I lifted into the sky like a bubble rising in a glass of cider. The numbness in my hands and feet was gone. The river raged below me. My body lay on the ground in a heap. A few feet from it lay Old Emmy’s body. The mudslide must have caught her as well.
To my left, Old Emmy’s spirit rose along with mine. I smiled at her. She smiled back. Below us I noticed the washed out village, and the survivors camped in bedraggled puddles around the church. Joseph and Mercy sat with my parents.
I watched them until we moved to the spirit world and a veil clouded my vision. It’s an odd thing, life and death. When Old Emmy ran from me in the village and on the hill, I thought she was trying to avoid my death, but I was wrong. She was hoping to escape her own death. Had she known all my life our deaths would be connected? I’ll never know. But, she’d been right all along. No matter how hard you try, you can not outrun death.
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