For 12,145 days, the woman Bianca lived as all the mortals live, with no notion that every moment is one moment closer to the last. On the following day, I knew it was time to pay her a visit. You, who walk still among the living, you who fear me, should not think me heartless. I am satiated only when I devour a soul as duty prescribes; no one will argue this, I think, but I do not always take joy in my work.
Bianca was young and healthy, but she was occasionally stricken with chest pains. She reasoned that the cause was stress and nothing more. Never once did she suspect I someday would come calling. Never once did she contemplate my existence and what a frail thread she truly was in the grand tapestry of the universe. She, like most humans, was oblivious.
Bianca possessed a good mind for a human but also had one peculiar shortcoming: a fondness for fortune-tellers. Few mortals understand and believe in those who peddle riddles from Beyond, like the crazed Delphi Oracle who spewed out half-coherent prophecies and the unscrupulous televangelists who promise to reveal the plan of God to their followers for a fee, but Bianca both knew all the signs from studying astrology, astronomy, folklore, mythology, and religion, and she suspected she had once or twice stuck her head out of the cave and perceived the truth through those same signs. In her search for divine knowledge and for God she was sincere, and she read the likes of Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas to learn. And yet, though she studied the religious texts fervently, I still eluded her every thought. Life and afterlife dominated her mind, but she always overlooked me. Intrigued, I watched her for years due to my peculiar shortcoming, a fondness for humans who try to rise above the rest of the miserable lot, and I resolved to reveal something of the truth to her as well.
It was nearly ten o’clock on Halloween evening when I encountered Bianca at a traveling carnival. I stood by a large sandwich board with silver letters painted on it that read Tarot Readings: $20. Wearing a long black hood, feathered mask, and dress, I yelled for merrymakers to come and learn their fate. As I expected, most passed me by with not so much as a look. Those that did look saw a haggard and harmless old woman, undoubtedly a scam artist, trying to rope fools into spending more money at an already expensive carnival. They gazed at me with contempt before they moved along. Bianca, however, found me while she waited for some friends, and, slightly drunk on beer, begged for a reading. She, like me, was dressed in accordance with the holiday. In a white gown, with white makeup on her face and powder in her hair, she resembled a ghost. She gripped my hand and shook it hard.
“My dear Bianca,” I said after she enthusiastically introduced herself, “this is a good night for a reading. The spirits are in a frenzy.”
“For twenty dollars, I hope so,” she replied.
“On Halloween, the living is terribly close to the dead.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she replied impatiently. “I know all about Halloween. So where’s your booth?”
“I have a trailer, actually,” I explained. “But I am not sure you really want me to do your reading.”
“Because I am not confident you will be satisfied with the outcome.”
“Is that your way of telling me you’re a scam artist?”
“No. But, I warn you, not all endings are happy.”
“But you haven’t even done my reading yet.”
“I see far.”
“Oh, please,” she begged. “There’s a ton of stuff I want to ask. I’ll pay you double.”
“I could not possibly take your money.”
“No, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she argued. “So, it’s settled.”
“Very well. This way,” I replied, pointing towards the west.
Bianca beamed and took my hand once more, and pulling my hood further over my head, I let her lead me towards my trailer on the outskirts of the carnival. Arm in arm, we waded through the happy, jostling crowd of reapers, devils, angels, and ghosts with the brilliant lights from the Ferris wheel illuminating our path. Bianca, amidst these laughing strangers, suspected no malice from me.
“What do you know of Halloween?” I asked.
“Well, it used to be a Celtic harvest celebration. Samhain. It was thought to be the day the dead could cross over and converse with the living.”
“Yes, the dead were able to cross over, and so was the thing itself.”
“What other thing?”
“ The Celts welcomed them all with open arms, and they even set places of honor for them at their dinner tables. Death was treated like a king.”
“I suppose so.”
“Does that bother you, Bianca?”
She shrugged. “I don’t really believe that people sat around having dinner with ghosts, let alone the Grim Reaper. But it is fascinating how superstitious the Celts were.”
“Perhaps they knew something we did not.”
“Every religion thinks they know best.”
“Every religion has at least one correct idea.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“I am much older than I look,” I stated firmly. “The Celts, for example, accepted Death but did not fear it, and they gave it a place of honor in their society. To them, it was the beginning and the end of things. Samhain roughly means ‘the end of summer’ in Gaelic. But is it not interesting that it was also the beginning of the Celtic year? Life is not linear, but cyclical. An end is also a beginning. When summer fades into twilight, the beauty of autumn rises. The Celts understood that better than anyone.”
She said nothing in reply and walked in silence thereon. As the crowd thinned out at the edge of the fair, Bianca stumbled on the frayed edges of her costume, the effects of the beer she drank earlier affecting her gait. With a loud thud she hit her face on a dirty curb, groaning and clutching it with both hands. A stream of blood oozed between her fingers and dripped carelessly on her white costume. I did not have to see it to know she had a bloody nose.
“Ow,” she muttered as she slowly drew her hands away. Her warm blood trickled down her lips and she dabbed at her nostrils with her pale fingertips.
“Oh, dear, you are bleeding,” I said. “I will help you to the first-aid tent.”
“No,” she snapped. “It’s just a bloody nose. I won’t die from it.”
“I suppose not,” I agreed. “But we really must go to the first-aid tent,” I insisted. “I would not feel right if the paramedics did not at least see you.”
Bianca looked at me in annoyance. “That’s ridiculous!” she muttered. “That’s the problem with everyone anymore. They get so worked up over every little thing. It’s just a bloody nose.”
“If you do not have your health, you do not have anything.”
“Can we move on? Please? The bleeding has already stopped.”
I sighed reluctantly. I wanted her to take the way out. I would rather kill the willfully blind than those who try to know the unknowable. But in the end, my victims have their free-will to guide them to whatever fate they choose. “Are you sure you want to continue on?” I asked.
“I’m sure. Let the paramedics in the first-aid tent worry about real injuries.”
“Very well.” I offered my hand to her, and after lifting her up, we continued. She was relaxed by my side. Maybe on some level, she had contemplated her fate, and she was unafraid. Although Halloween lost its religious implications in this commercialized world many years ago, it still had the power to stir morbid revelation in the most perceptive individuals’ hearts. Then again, perhaps it was the beer stealing her inhibition.
The carnival was large and the trailer, seemingly a permanent part of the traveling troupe, was nearly a mile from where I first met her. Nestled in the trees of some deciduous forest teeming with gnarled oak and elm trees, it was surrounded by an abundance of birds. Somewhere in the distance, a crow cawed over the raucous merrymaking behind us.
“Is that a crow?” she asked. “They make me nervous.”
“That crow must be saying the same thing about those of us here at this carnival,” I replied. “Many ancients believed crows carried dead souls to the afterlife. I believe it is an animal to be respected.”
“Let’s pray that it takes whoever’s soul it’s here for to Heaven,” she said and I nodded.
We arrived at the trailer a few moments later and found the offending crow from earlier perched on the wooden stair rail leading up to my door. It seemed to blend perfectly with the Halloween decorations; paper skeletons dangled in every window and candlelit skulls sat on every stair up to the door. On the door itself, a rusty old sickle was mounted. Its handle was short and the leather grip was worn with much use.
“I like your Halloween decorations,” Bianca commented. “And that —“ she pointed to the sickle — “is so realistic looking.”
“That is my favorite one,” I said as I stroked the crow’s head before I squeezed past it.
“Where did you get it?”
I looked at Bianca and chuckled. In many ways she was so innocent. “The truth be told, my dear, I do not quite remember where I got it. It seems like I have always had it.”
“Wow,” she said.
“Hurry in,” I said as I opened the door. She gazed at the crow apprehensively before she shuffled past and over the threshold. I closed it behind her. “Please, sit down,” I told her as I pointed towards a small table with two chairs around it, and she obeyed. “Would you like a glass of wine while I do your reading? I make my own. It’s almost like De Grave, but not as sweet.”
“Sure, why not?”
I nodded grimly as I produced two deep rounded wine glasses from a cupboard and poured them half full. As I placed them on the table, I slid a pack of tarot cards from my dress sleeve into Bianca’s hand. Having done this before, she automatically shuffled the deck and returned them, at which point I fanned them out so she could not see them. I instructed her to choose three. She did so almost nonchalantly while she took a long drink.
“That is pretty bitter,” she remarked. “Good, but bitter. How do you make this? I promise to take the secret to the grave,” she vowed, holding up her right hand in an oath.
“Of this, I have no doubt. But do not worry about that. Lay down your cards.” She did, and I announced each one: “The Fool in reverse: you have ceased to operate in the real world. The Tower: you are experiencing a great upheaval and change in your life, and your plans will be disrupted. Judgment: you must let go of something that you have been hanging on to.”
“But none of that applies to me,” she argued.
“I beg to differ. This is your fortune, Bianca, your future. The future is sometimes closer than you may realize.”
“Listen, you’re doing this all wrong-”
I looked up at Bianca and saw a film glaze her shocked eyes as she clutched her chest, unable to breathe, and a moment later, convulsions gripped her and threw her to the floor. Her wine glass broke beside her. “Help me!” she weakly choked. She lay on her back, helplessly clawing at her chest and struggling to breathe. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
“My dear Bianca,” I began, “you do not look so well.” I placed my chair beside her, sat down, and gazed upon her. “Would you like to go to the first-aid tent? Would you like to speak to the paramedics? No? I did not think you would.” I sipped my glass of wine.
“What…what did you do to me?”
“You should be thankful, Bianca. Not everyone gets to experience me the way you have tonight. I am not always this nice.” I set my glass on the table and stood.
“Who are you?” she asked, tears streaming down her face and taking the film from her eyes, but I refused to answer. She started to cry harder. The white paint on her face streaked. “Please,” she begged.
“Why are you doing this?’
“Were you aware you had a hole in your heart?” I asked, knowing she was not, as I opened the trailer door and retrieved my sickle.
“I’m sorry,” she whined, ignoring my question. “If I offended you somehow, I didn’t mean to.”
“Usually, that kind of hole goes unnoticed by the poor soul it afflicts,” I continued. “It seldom amounts to anything. But your hole, my dear Bianca, is another story entirely. Over the years, I have become adept at guessing what will kill someone. Yes, my dear, death is a mystery to me at times as well. God keeps me in the dark too. He has made me its master as well as its student. But experience has put probability on my side. I am occasionally surprised, however. Not with you. I knew about the hole in your heart from the day you were born, and I knew that it would someday bring me to you.”
I took another sip of wine, and Bianca’s face suddenly raged with fiery anger. “God damn you! You won’t get away with this.” She bawled harder.
“Would you like to hear a secret?” She did not answer so I continued. “Sometimes, I disobey my duty and spare a worthy soul.”
She writhed on the floor and clawed at her heart as if she could wrench it out of her chest entirely. Soon, the spasm passed though, and she croaked out, “I’ll give you everything I have.”
I sighed. “I am very disappointed in you. Everyone offers me money. It makes me feel decidedly unmerciful. I expected more from you.”
“Don’t hurt me. I swear I’ll give you everything you want,” she sobbed as she rolled onto her belly.
I knelt down beside her and petted her powdery brown mane; it was damp with cold sweat. “But Bianca, do you not know yet that the only thing I want is your soul?” Her blue eyes widened in realization and she closed her mouth. Drool dribbled down her chin as she struggled to look at me. I met her stare and nodded. “Yes, now it is all becoming clear,” I whispered. “Now you know who I am, do you not?” A resigned expression crossed her face then and for a moment, her chest pains stopped completely. I smiled and raised my sickle over her. A small shriek escaped her when she saw the rusty blade poised over her.
Panic and pain set in once more. “Oh, God!” she screeched.
“Bianca,” I began. “God is not here right now. He prefers that I do my work in solitude.”
And with that, I let down my hood and threw off my mask. In her eyes I saw that one moment of illumination, the moment she stepped into the sun and it was too painful for her to behold. Tears streamed down her face, and she gasped, not out of fear but out of surprise at my radiance.
“The light,” she muttered. “Oh, God, the light.”
“Yes,” I whispered. “I am the light. And the darkness. I am the balance.”
She watched me then as I slashed through her heart with my sickle and induced a heart attack. A moment of shock seized her and she arched her back as the agony coursed through her. Her skin and lips turned white, a genuine paleness that had nothing to do with makeup. She choked and gasped for air while cold sweat streamed down her face. Her iridescent soul swirled anxiously inside her chest.
“The real fortune-teller will find you soon, Bianca,” I explained. “But as for me, I must be leaving you now. You may take care of your defective heart now and live. It is my gift to a gifted soul. But I warn you, the next time we meet, I will not disobey again.”
“Why bother to let me live?” she struggled to speak as she clutched her arm so hard her finger nails cut little crescent moons through her costume and into her skin. Bloody semi-circles stained the cloth.
“Because the world would be a far less interesting place without you. Fortunately for you, I have free-will too.”
She gazed at me with a hopeful expression in her pained eyes as I bowed my head benevolently at her. Then I hid my sickle in the folds of my cloak and stepped out of the trailer without another word. The crow still sat on the rail and cawed unhappily at me. “Leave this one in peace,” I commanded. “It is not her time to go.”