[The following is another idea which has been developing for quite some time.]
HOW I DEFEATED DEATH
My story begins after my own death.
In life I was nobody special - far from it (my name, in fact, is John Smith). From youth until my demise I worked as a librarian in a small and peaceful town in Pennsylvania. The job suited my natural tidiness and love of order, as well as my extreme diffidence and timidity. I was undeservedly blessed with a wife (who predeceased me by some years), and a daughter, who was still quite young when she was left an orphan.
Upon my arrival in the afterlife I was judged to be unfit for immediate admission to Heaven, and therefore sentenced to serve a term in Purgatory.
It is a custom there to assign certain inmates to assist the Intelligences and other angelic spirits who, under the authority of the Lord, govern the material aspects of His Creation. I was one such and found myself enrolled in the service of Azrael, also known as the Dark Angel, the Angel of Death, or just Death.
Death occupies an estate on that side of Purgatory nearest the World, as most convenient for coming and going. His house is a rambling manor, built in no particular style, but well-proportioned and solidly made. It stands in the middle of a green park densely planted with flowering trees, of which several are sure to be in blossom at any given time. During my time there, clouds rarely hid the sun during the day, or the stars at night, and autumn and winter never came. (I asked Death about this once; he explained that he saw little enough of beauty or peace when he was out doing his work, and so was determined to have plenty of both when he was at home.)
Beyond the park a grassy plain extends in all directions. Far off in the blue distance can be seen a boxlike structure of immense height and interminable extent, rather like a stupendous warehouse, the nature of which will be explained later in my account.
At first I was given the most menial tasks, such as mucking out the stables where Death's pale horses were kept, or scything the grass in the park (yes, Death has a scythe - in fact, several - and all they are ever used for is the grass; although when he's home on All Hallows Eve he will sometimes take one and carry it around, as a joke). But as time went on I was entrusted with greater responsibilities, until finally I rose the post of Death's principal secretary. As such I received the notices of those whom Death was to visit, tabulated and indexed them by name, date, place, and so on, and planned the itinerary of each of Death's journeys into the World. (Time in Purgatory is neither commensurate with nor parallel to mundane time, so Death can complete his work in one place before moving on to another, rather than leaping like a manic grasshopper from Timbuktu to Trebizond to Toronto.) At this I proved to be extraordinarily competent.
It was my successful tenure as Death's secretary which led to a remarkable and extensive new role in his service. One day Death summoned me and proposed a visit to the vast and distant structure which I had often seen, but the purpose of which I had never learned. On the long journey there (the building was further away, and hence of even greater size, than I had realized), he said nothing to give me any idea of what to expect, but there was a certain excitement in his manner leading me to believe he was looking forward to revealing something astonishing.
At the entrance to the building was posted a subordinate angel-porter, who at Death's command opened a pair of lofty and massive brazen doors and ushered us in.
The light flooding in through the open doorway illuminated a cavernous interior, crammed with a chaotic and heterogeneous assemblage of artifacts. Bottles of every conceivable size, shape, and color were ranged atop irregular stacks of crates. Lengths of metal and wood were strewn about the floor. Swords and javelins stood propped against a row of barrels, the nearest of which were labeled "Greek Fire", "Deluge", and "Spoiled Butter". A rack of stoppered test tubes balanced precariously on a heap of bricks, clay roof-tiles, and shards of pottery and glass. Beyond were artillery and automobiles, billhooks and boomerangs, a guillotine, a stuffed giraffe, and a myriad of other objects.
I turned to Death, who stood looking over the conglomeration with an air of prideful complacency, and asked, "What is all this?"
"The results of many, many years of activity," answered Death. "A long, long time ago I became fascinated by the infinite variety of means by which my presence can be required, so I started to gather mementoes. I began with only the most striking, but, as time went on - well," and suddenly Death looked a little embarrassed, "you know how it gets with collectors."
I did; but as we threaded through the narrow passes separating mountains of accumulated lethality, I realized that this was collecting on a more than titanic scale. William Randolph Hearst or Charles Foster Kane could not have envisaged, let alone acquired, a thousandth part of lay about us in heaps towering to the ceiling high above (but then, I reflected, they had neither the opportunities nor the time available to Death).
Eventually I grew fatigued by the overwhelming effort of trying to take it all in, and Death, seeing this, led me back to the entrance and out again into the sunlight and fresh air. When I had rested, he said to me, "I suppose you're wondering why I brought you here."
"I suppose simply to be treated to the spectacle," I replied. "What you have in there is surely not something to be secretly gloated over. Does everyone in your service get to come here sooner or later, or is it a mark of special favor?"
"I suppose you could say it is the latter," said Death. I was beginning to express my appreciation of the honor, but he stopped me. "In fact, very few have ever seen my collection, apart from those of my servants who have helped me to gather it. No, Smith, I didn't bring you here just to show it off. I brought you here to put you in charge of it."
Death took me back inside. "Look about you," he said. "I have realized that I have put all my efforts accumulating, when I should have been giving some thought to organizing. Why, Himself stopped by to see it once, many years ago, and remarked that He hadn't seen chaos like this since the beginning of the First Day... Your work as my secretary has impressed me immensely - I want you to catalog and arrange my collection. I want this to be a museum, not the greatest lumber room in Creation. And you will be its curator."
"You must be joking. I was a librarian - what do I know about weapons and germs and poisons and all the whatnot you have in here?"
"Think about it. Everything in here has a story. If, instead of each item, you had a book or an article or a monograph of which it was the subject, you'd know what to do with it, correct?"
"Of course. I said I was a librarian."
"Well there you are, then. The principle's the same, whether you have just the story or the thing itself."
I could not argue with this, but raised another objection. "This would take years!" I exclaimed.
"Oh, more than that - centuries. Well, I exaggerate - your predecessor estimated a hundred and fifty years or so - but come to think of it, there wasn't nearly as much to organize as there is now. Mankind has grown prodigiously inventive since he was here."
"Yes. You're not the first I have asked to take on the job. He was a naturalist - a disciple of the great Linnaeus, with a genius for taxonomy."
"He doesn’t seem to have gotten very far."
"I'm afraid he proved unsatisfactory. Unluckily, he started with the alcoholic beverages and found them rather too alluring. When I found out that he had entirely drunk up an irreplaceable amphora of Falernian wine from Julius Caesar's time, I had to ask for his reassignment. I believe he's now an undersecretary on the staff on the Intelligence governing the planet Pluto. I do feel sorry for him - not much scope for a naturalist on Pluto… One thing that recommended you to me was that you had been particularly abstemious during your life."
"That is so," I said. "My only addiction is to the works of P. G. Wodehouse."
"I think somewhere I have a case of them which fell on someone's head - please, just put them back when you're done with them."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
And so I moved from secretary to curator. At first, though, it seemed more like a combination of junk dealer, pawnbroker, and archaeologist. Fortunately, I was not required to work alone - Death had placed a crew of subordinate angels at my disposal, and they did all the heavy lifting - but even the intellectual labor was Herculean. It took several years just to separate everything into some sort of rough grouping, and then years more to work out a cataloging system, for Death's simplistic argument proved wrong and neither Dewey Decimal nor Library of Congress was at all suitable. And then more years to work out the floor plan of the museum. And then more years to construct it. And then, when we actually started to put things in place, a thousand weaknesses, oversights, and incorrect assumptions in the initial designs became evident, and much had to be done over again, or torn down and rebuilt.
Part of the problem, of course, was that even as we struggled with millennia of accumulated artifacts, more were pouring in all the time. As Death had said, Mankind had grown prodigiously inventive. Also, Death had broadened his interests from actual lethality to potential, and I had to determine what to do with things like weaponized chickenpox, cat-borne incendiaries, and ever more powerful explosive devices - I particularly remember Death enthusing over the Berserker, a prototype 500-megaton fusion bomb ("So elegant a design! And such a simple controller! Push button one to activate, push button two to arm, and when you push button three - kaboom! Not, of course," he added hastily, "that I'd ever actually want anyone to use it.").
And part of the problem was that things were not always what they seemed. Some examples:
A box of arsenic-laced cookies - poisoning? No - the wife who baked them with murderous intent burned herself badly while taking them out of the oven, and died of a resulting infection.
Three empty whiskey bottles - legacy of someone who drank himself to death? No - they were part of the kit of a street performer, a juggler. A passing motorist, distracted by his act, lost sight of where he was going and ran into a telephone pole.
The stuffed giraffe I had seen that first day - one of a stampeding herd which trampled everyone in its path? No - it had belonged to an eccentric millionaire and was quite gentle. It had died of a sudden heart attack and collapsed on top of its owner.
And then there was the paper bag of confetti. I had no idea what to do with it, so I took it to Death and asked him. He looked puzzled for a moment, then burst out laughing and said he'd forgotten about that one. He told me that he would keep it for now, but promised to bring it when the museum was finished and tell me the story then.
It is here that my account turns, I fear, rather melodramatic. I had perforce relinquished my secretarial duties to take up my new job as curator, and they were taken on by a series of new secretaries. There would sometimes be a gap between the departure of one secretary and the arrival of the next, and at such times I was asked to fill in. I welcomed such occurrences, as they provided a refreshing break from my endless labors at Death's museum.
It was during one such period, just before the museum was complete, when a notice reached my desk. As I said above, Purgatorial time is not at all the same as worldly time, so the reader should not be overly surprised to learn that this notice was of the death of my daughter, nor that she was still a young girl. That she was to die was upsetting enough yet might have been bearable, but when I looked at the details, and discovered how prolonged and how agonizing the event would be, I could not allow it. The notice went into a drawer at once, and came with me when I returned to the museum.
For days and weeks thereafter, as I put the finishing touches to my work and passed it in review to ensure that all was ready and in order, that notice was continually in my mind. Try how I might, I could not think of a way to convert the delay I had so desperately contrived into a permanent respite. And yet for all that time I had to keep up a bland and businesslike façade, concealing the frantic turmoil behind.
The day came at last when everything had been done. Death had planned the ceremony of a formal opening, but asked for a private viewing first.
I guided him for miles through halls and galleries, chambers and vaults, past thousands of cases, shelves, and mountings displaying instruments and mementoes of every imaginable immediate or proximate cause of someone's demise.
At last we reached the central chamber, wherein were ranged those devices which most elegantly combined ingenuity, intricacy, and concentrated lethality. For many minutes Death wandered through the room, inspecting its gleaming and glittering contents. Returning to my side, he was at first too overcome to speak. Finally he mastered himself, sighed, turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, "This is magnificent, Smith. This is an amazing piece of work. You have gone far beyond my hopes; you have accomplished more than I dared to dream. This is, simply, the completest thing."
Our journey out was slower than our journey in, for Death was forever noticing one or another item particularly memorable and we would pause while he spoke to me of its history and significance. It was when we were nearing the exit, in the Hall of Gunpowder Weaponry, XIXth Century, North America, that the blow fell. Death had strolled across the hall, his attention caught by some souvenir, and as he did so he spoke casually over his shoulder, "By the way, Smith, I need that notice you took."
To my astonishment, I head myself say, "No."
Death gave no sign of having heard. He went on a few paces, stopped, and took down from the wall a Colt Navy revolver. Looking fondly at it, he said, "This one has a very interesting story. I was at the Battle of - "
"No," I said again, more loudly.
"- Cedar Creek, in 1864, when - "
"No!" I said again, louder still.
"- the 93rd Pennsylvania - "
I happened to be standing by a mounted Spencer seven-shot repeating rifle. I seized it and fired into the air. The sound of the shot echoed and re-echoed through the hall while a cloud of dust and plaster flakes floated down from the ceiling. Death stopped talking, looked at me quizzically, and resumed studying the Colt.
I fired another shot into the air, and when Death looked up again fired a third past his ear. He turned and looked at the hole the bullet had made in the wall. But all he said was, "You need to be more careful, Smith - you might have damaged something."
I felt at this point that I might as well damn the torpedoes and go full steam ahead. Taking aim this time, I fired three more shots. Two connected: one smashed the lock of a Model 1861 Springfield rifled musket, while the other left a deep score across the shining barrel of a mint-condition Napoleon twelve-pounder.
This finally got Death's undivided attention. But as he started to cross the hall back toward me, I shouted, "Stop! I've got one bullet left, and I really don't care where it goes!"
Death chuckled. "Are you threatening me? Do you actually think that you can injure, let alone kill, an angel?"
"No," I replied, "but do you see that powder barrel? What do you think would happen in this room if a slug of hot lead hit it?"
For the first time Death looked a little discomposed. Putting his hands in the air, he said, "Let's not get carried away and do anything we might later regret. Say what you have to say - I'm listening. What do you want?"
"You know what I want. Leave my daughter alone!"
"I'm sorry," said Death, "but that's impossible." And he turned to go.
"Have it your way," I shouted after him. "Let's find out how loud the bang is." And I raised the Spencer and aimed it at the powder barrel.
Death stopped and turned to face me again.
"It really is impossible, Smith," he said. "There is, quite literally, nothing I can do about it."
"What do you mean? You go to her, she dies; you stay away, she lives. Listen," I pleaded, "I'll do anything - anything. Name the price, I'll pay it."
"It doesn't work like that," answered Death impatiently, "so stop this foolishness and come along. I tell you, there is no price you can pay for your daughter's life."
Inspiration came to me. I exclaimed, "All right. But there's a price you'll pay for her death!" I leapt to a pyramid of roundshot and, using the Spencer as a lever, pried out one from the bottom. The pyramid melted into a tide of iron balls clanging and ringing over the floor between Death and me. As it did so I turned and ran back again, deeper into the museum.
Death followed me as fast as he could. But I had the advantage of knowing the plan of the museum; and also, I knew exactly where I was headed. By the time Death found me, I was ready.
Once again we were in the central chamber. But this time I was standing beside the Berserker, holding the controller. The tell-tale light on the spotless white housing was glowing a steady green, and a soft, ominous hum filled the air.
"I've pushed button one and button two already," I said to Death. "Shall I push button three and find out how loud a bang this makes? And what will happen to your precious collection if I do?"
"Stop!" cried Death, now paler than any of his horses. "Let's - let's talk."
"What's to talk about? If you tell me that my daughter lives, you get to keep your collection. Otherwise, I start a very short countdown."
"It's not that simple! I say to you again that I have no authority in this - those above me do. They tell me to come, and I come; they tell me to go, and I go."
"Then I tell you to go - go to them and tell them what I want. And if they deny me, then - what was it you said once? - Kaboom!"
Death departed hastily and I settled down to a wait of unknown duration. But I was exhausted, and drained; the hum of the Berserker grew less ominous and more soothing; and I fell asleep.
The sound of my name being called broke into my dreams and roused me. Before I was fully I awake I realized that I was no longer holding the controller. I groped about madly but could not find it. Finally I looked up and saw Death standing over me, the controller in his hands. The sickening knowledge of failure swept over me. And then Death spoke.
"You've won, Smith," he said, smiling. "They changed their minds. Your daughter will live. Let's go home."
When we got home, Death informed me that I was being reassigned, adding that if he had any say in the matter, my successor would have no living relatives closer than a fifth cousin once removed, or maybe even twice.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
It's very peaceful here on Pluto. There's not much for a second deputy assistant undersecretary to do, so I have a lot of time on my hands. I've taken up acrostics and indoor croquet, and Death was gracious enough to give me the case of Wodehouse as a going-away present.
My only regret is that I never found out about the confetti.