MADA the REAPER by L. E. Archer Bare feet, soles worn hard by years of stone-walking and sand, feet the color of morning hibiscus or jasmine in shadows, each step pressing soft cracking noises into the knobby twigs scattered across the forest floor. The world was new then, at least new to man, and we, The First, born into a garden full of colors, smells and tastes, could easily believe all of it was made solely for our senses and our pleasures until eyes falling softly upon small beetles feasting on ripe fruit or thin-necked birds turning brightly plumed heads into the mayapple breeze told hearts that the world belonged to no one. This was the very beginning of Man -- an age long before mute hands first clasped charcoal and chalk in the crook of bony fingers and, spurred by the lonesome thought that deeds once done must be known forever, scrawled great, blurred things across limestone walls. Life in this earliest of beginnings was simple and unfearing, a thing performed between the rise and the falling of the light: hands clasping fruit to mouths, bodies lying in warm, golden pools that dripped from the very sky, tongues bathing themselves in the sweet, cool waters of bubbling springs and sighing themselves to sleep. In this time there existed perhaps one hundred of us, men and women both, and where any of us came from, no one could remember. Not a mind between us could say with any certainty how long we had existed or what had been before and what followed after. Days pouring in and out, always with the same sweetness and light, the only measure of time was the turning of light to shadow to light and none of it marking our faces or drawing lines across the skin. We were, though no one had told us as much, an ageless, deathless race. Ageless and deathless as the wooly-haired creatures that lived in the forests or the scaled fishes of the deep. Eternal. As far as any of us knew, we had been for a hundred years, maybe a thousand, and always the same: strong-bodied, tall and lean with dark and solid eyes that had the look of a doe’s about them, full-mouths, square shoulders. There were no children, no parents, not a soul older or younger. We seemed all creatures born of the same womb at the same hour, placed on this earth fully-grown, fully-contented, and unquestioning. Life, for us, was a great line without beginning, without end, without change or alternation. Not a creature was born and not one died. This way of life, I realize, is to you a foreign, strange and curious thing. I can almost hear the cogs of your mind pinging about briskly, flinging the alien and unlikely away as rubbish, though I assure you, all of it is true and there I was in the middle of it. Perhaps a decade old by your count, perhaps a millennia, I stood in the midst of a forest as lovely as a dream never spoken, as light as a thought never shackled to the weight of moving things and dirt, and despite the flowers, the ever-blooming flowers, despite the fruit so full of liquid sweetness that a heart sang and never hungered, I felt a thing brewing in me that I could not deny, an endless wonder that would not quit, a great, rolling and churning and foaming of questions that ran on forever answerless. It had begun so long ago I could not, even then, finger the beginning of it and say, “There you troublesome thing began!” but it had been with me for a long time, gaining weight and momentum like rocks in the midst of a fall. Maybe in some strange and twisted way about which only The-Great-All-of-Things can speak, space had found a loop in me and the thoughts and the wondering in my heart came from a future that I could not imagine, a world like the one now churning on beneath your feet. Maybe my soul was born in this Present but my body somehow found itself birthed in the Earliest of Times. I do not know. But the questioning on that day, as in all the days before it, was gaining substance, nearly becoming a being separate from me so vivid it was, so persistent. “From whence do we come?” I had once asked a Sister only to find her smooth brow turn crooked for a second, her eyes seeming to focus on something far away that only she could see, and then her shoulders flinging upwards into a shrug of I don’t know and it is not for me to know. That answer, as unsatisfying to my mind as the yellow beams of sunlight upon the forest floor or the endless trickling of streams from unseen sources, only fanned the flame in my heart to raging heat. Night, once a time of serenity and sweetness, now became a time for pacing and sighing above the untroubled, closed lids of my Brothers and Sisters nestled in their beds of grasses and flower petals. The questions woke me by the hour. I could not sleep. I was growing weary of it all: the sameness. Every day was the same. The same sun rising from the same angle every morning would find every soul that it awakened in its passing lulled to sleep by its sinking into the sea. I imagined one could set his heartbeat by the sun, knowing that at this angle one would hunger, at this one would sleep and day in, day out, only vague urges rising occasionally above the tender oblivion of our days would tell us that we were alive at all. To know every day I would feast upon the same flowers, drink from the same stream, find comfort in the same words and thoughts and hopes was sickening. What, indeed what, was the purpose of rising in the morning if everything remained the same regardless? And so, as if to answer my own question, I had stopped rising, for days, for weeks. Whole moons shriveled and regrew before my unblinking eyes as I lay in a mound of grasses, my eyes pinned as firmly to the sky above me as the branches seemed pinned to the trees. I refused to eat, to sleep, to speak to my Brothers and Sisters who floated past me, their eyes falling softly upon me, brows creasing slightly, then those eyes roving on to the flowers beyond me, smiles reforming. Months passed and beyond a dull ebbing and flowing of discomfort in my bowels, there was nothing -- no change, no upset. Refusing the fruits and waters, grasses, leaves and sleep that the world afforded me changed nothing, alleviated nothing and offered no answers. And so I had risen this very morning and found myself just now in the middle of a forest, warm, humid and full of the vapors of moist earth, ripening fruits and open flowers, and I was awake, suddenly too awake. I felt a surge of energy flowing through me, like the great squawk of a parrot startled by the sun, and it begged for release. Quite possibly the energy was nothing more than the great stores of Life that had accumulated as I lay, unmoving, beneath the sky, but I felt this energy, full of strength, need and something I could not name, throbbing in my veins like light threatening to burst forth and so I ran. I ran with great strides, legs spread as wide as I could throw them out, screaming for the energy to flow out of me, because my skin was starting to ache and grow weary. But the energy only curled around my brain and grew and regrew into the same questions that had plagued my mind during the greatliving-sleep I had spent beneath the sky. It’s the same, it’s the same! What’s the point? What’s the meaning? Why bother? Why do anything at all? And suddenly, as my feet churned on beneath me devouring earth, the answers struck me in the gut with a suddenness so forceful I thought I would wretch, though only words screamed out of me: There is no point! No meaning! Nothing! It’s all the same regardless! Nothing matters. And, oh, how the trees looked so dreadfully the same around me, all the branches bent at all the same angles, all the roots tied over each other just so. Fearing perhaps that I had run myself into a circle I ran faster, faster, so fast I could hardly see the earth beneath my feet until there was none... Nothing. No earth. My feet had carried me through the forest, out into the yellow, shivering sunlight beyond and over a narrow finger of earth that jutted out at the edge of a steep cliff. And I fell. This was nothing new, the falling. In earlier times my Brothers, my Sisters and I had played this game of falling. Leaping from the tallest peaks, we would fall just to feel our innards lifting up inside us like they had sprouted wings, before we landed upon the ground laughing, perhaps with a flourish of arms, a smile of small, white teeth and pink gums, and walked away saying, “It felt like flowers sprouting petals!” But this falling was different, faster or slower I could not tell. And I felt a new thing I had never felt before, a great clenching in my stomach as if fingers laced around it and squeezed and I knew this thing’s name as suddenly as if lips had whispered it into my ear: Fear. The ground was rising up faster and faster beneath me. I could see the pointed stones growing larger, could feel a pounding in my head growing louder like fingers drumming against wood. The ground was so close I could almost touch it and then the sun went out. ---------- I dreamed a dream of darkness and of sound. My eyes were as useless as eyes on nights when the moon is new and the stars are hiding. Only blackness, solid as a physical body with breath beneath it. But the sounds -- there were many of them, loud but quiet at the same time, each sound distinct, like a rising hum that fades and rises and falls. Blind as I was, I could do nothing but wait in the darkness and pick apart sounds as I used to pluck seeds out of the center of red fruits before eating. And the sounds, like those seeds plucked forth, grew clearer as I focused upon them, first becoming one word in the midst of an endless humming, and then many words, full sentences spoken in a voice that sounded like my own, but different in a way I could not say. And the voice spoke this: You are wise as mountains rising,
The greatest gift for you to keep. The last word, clear and strong as the blowing wind on days when the trees bend and speak to each other with the hush, hush, hushing of whispering leaves, hung long upon the air around me before fading from my ears, drawing along with it the blindness from my eyes. And light came drifting back to me through the darkness, light and vision, and I was once more in the valley, the cliff to my right, tall and rigid as the well of a giant’s palm. I felt no different, though perhaps a bit lighter, the wave of fear within my heart receding as quickly as the song in darkness. But rising to a crouch, I saw beneath me a great red something, bright, brighter than anything I had ever seen, brighter, more vivid than the feathers around a parrot’s beak or the tongue of the smallest of mice... And who was that? A Brother, perhaps a Sister, sleeping deeply where I had lain, brow as smooth as water, in the midst of a redness so bright it seemed to assault my eyes and I blinked.
But, what was it? My eyes didn’t close, or the lids closed but I could see through them as if they were nothing but air. I lifted my hand before my face, and I could see it, but could see through it too, could see the small, gray pebbles, tufts of grasses, sandy earth right through my palm. My eyes fell upon the Being beneath me, a Brother surely, now I reasoned. How he slept, so deep! But I was trembling, I didn’t like the way the light shone through my arms or the stones peeked through my feet against the ground, and I didn’t like the slick, red thing that ran and kept running out from under my Brother as I watched. I knelt, put my hand to my Brother’s face to wake him -- to shake him awake so he could tell me in soothing tones that I knelt before him as solid as ever! -- but when my hand stretched to his cheek, it met, not flesh, but air, falling straight down and through his face to the stony earth beneath his head. Fear fell back into my stomach like a great stone and I reached for his face again and again, each time only to find my hand falling through and through and through it. What is this!? A dream, it must be! Awake now! Awake! But Thought was moving behind my eyes in a creeping way and falling down and through me with a coldness that told me I neither slept nor dreamed. And that mark upon my Brother’s chest, small and brown like two seeds meeting at the bottom, spoke of a something else I tried to shake away but couldn’t. My Brothers, my Sisters and I were nearly, quite nearly, the same being in eyes, in hair, in height, weight and so on. But each of us had a different mark upon the chest, a mark that spoke our name in silence to every wondering eye, a way of differentiating one Brother from the next without words. Now, as I looked upon that mark, the mark upon the chest before me, the seeds growing together as they drew closer to the earth. That was my mark. My mark and so... my body. And I standing here, separate, distinct, above a body that would not wake. Now I wager that you, living upon the Earth in its present state, likely see through the mystery and know its meaning, but I, at that moment, standing above my own body, could not fathom it. You see, I was most assuredly dead, but the very state of being dead never existed before that minute and so, without precedent, I had nothing to know it by. Whatever being or mechanism or thought had brought it about, my soul had sprung free when my body struck the valley floor and I had died. Though I didn’t know it, the mystifying pool of redness about my physical body was my blood, the very Life Energy that had once existed within me and that I, and I dare say every other living being, had always felt churning within my body, but had, up until that point, never seen. And yet, standing there, I understood nothing of this. The only thing I knew with any certainty was that this situation was new and fearfully odd, that I didn’t like it and so I would distance myself from it as swiftly as I could. My feet guided me through the steep-walled canyon and into the grove of fruit trees and knotted yellow grasses beyond where my Brothers and Sisters always gathered, called together by the falling sun casting tones of peach-blossom and rose across the narrowing sky. And entering the grove, I saw them, as predictable as the ocean’s tide, huddling shoulder to shoulder in a circle, most standing, a few nestling down in the grasses to sleep. From the far side of the circle, out of those few faces pointing in my direction, several pairs of round, dark eyes darted out to me and stuck and I could tell by the tilting of their heads and the tightening of their lips that they saw me. I was overjoyed. Certainly if they could see me nothing could be the matter, my hands like mist or vapor, just a dream! I hurried to them, unaware of the earth beneath me -- doubly unaware of the stones my incorporeal legs swam through -- impatient to be by their side, impatient to be with them, like them, me. This is too fine! I thought, for though in the very First of Times, a time before minds knew of clashing teeth and breaking bones, the feeling of escape was still a feeling and it was in me. And now I stood before them, feeling like the Happiness in my breast would explode out of me just for being there. Joy left me blind to the creasing in their brows, to their eyes wide and searching as if the sun already sunk left them straining in the dusk, and I reached for the hands of those nearest me, for the warmth of their touch, for the feeling of strangeness to peel away and be gone. And as my hands clasped around the outstretched palms of my Brother and my Sister, I did feel the press of their skin, but there was something else in the touch, a new Thing, a coldness, or perhaps more exactly the feelings of falling and emptiness merging into a single, quivering sense of sorrow. Startled at this new strangeness, my eyes scurried upwards from the sight of our clasped hands to ask of their eyes, What is this?, but the darkness of their eyes was gone and only bright moons without faces stared out of their heads before the press of their fingers wilted in mine like a plucked flower losing water and fell away, their bodies drooping to the ground with the thump of a shoulder and the echoing thump of a head upon the hollow earth, their skin suddenly pale as desert sands in the light of a far away star. Wonder. Fear. Doubt. Questions, more and more of them, stumbling over one another, each full of the desperate need to be heard first. I didn’t understand! It seemed the world was slipping out from under me and I needed to steady myself or I would fall. My hand shot out and grabbed at the arm of the Brother who remained before me only to watch with the most putrid of horrors as his mouth began to sag, his eyes to roll, before his knees buckled beneath him and he crumpled on top of the the bodies already fallen. By this time, every pair of eyes lining the remains of the circle had landed upon the bodies at my feet. And now they were moving closer, whispering to each other, not in the sharp tones of alarm or fear, but in voices full of placid wonder, like doves cooing. The grass shushed and hushed beneath their feet as they drew nearer to the bodies whose thin arms and sinuous legs draped over each in the depths of the most sudden of sleeps. Several of those nearest the bodies offered up long, narrow fingers that pressed small indents into the pale, unmoving flesh, provoking soft chuckles and murmurs from others who watched with wide eyes telling of a thing that, though strange, was most magnificent for its novelty. A face, now two, now a dozen, drifted up to my own with a look of such profound curiosity that it was but a breath away from reverence. I couldn’t stand that look, it was unjustified and seemed, I could not fathom why, impossible. It was happening too fast, the strangeness only growing larger and deeper. Perhaps sleep would help, I reasoned. Yes, sleep. I would retreat to the furthest corner of the grove and morning would wake me to a world unchanged. But turning to leave, I found more Brothers behind me, great, dark eyes only inches from my own, eyes searching my face, seeing through me no doubt, and now their hands -- How many hands? -- reaching out for me, touching, prodding my face, my arms, my chest, and then one body, two, five, perhaps more, collapsing heavily to the ground where they lay unmoving with eyes, some shut, some open wide and locked upon my own. I wanted to scream, Stop! Stop! This is too much! This isn’t it! I didn’t want this! but no cry from my throat could drown out the multitude of sounds coming from my Brothers and Sisters around me, sounds growing louder, shriller, more urgent. They were whimpering now, some mouthing whispers tinged with hints of doubt and worry, others beginning the notes of the first chorus of howls ever uttered. As I turned towards them, they parted and retreated from me like tides ebbing away, some walking backwards slowly, unwilling to lose me from their sight, some running with swift leaps, mouths, eyes, wide with a feeling they were just beginning to learn the boundaries of. But I was running too, running away and away from the circle, from my Brothers, my Sisters, the grove full of bodies, but most especially, I was running from a Thing I could not fathom, would not fathom, though it was change and I’d prayed for it. ---------- That night, and for many moons to come, I hid myself away in the bowels of a forest so deep that light could not penetrate. Lying beneath the canopy of darkened leaves, the sun seemed a distant memory, an echo lost, like the feelings of hunger or thirst, which I had not felt since the fall and would never feel again. And yet, as old feelings dulled, new things reached me and gained a substance and a weight so heavy, I feared I might gag in their presence. Guilt was there, growing in the pit of my stomach, Sorrow too, and a great Loneliness the likes of which I had never felt in all the lengths and eras of my being. And so these things, like drear friends one wishes to unknow but cannot, were first born to this earth and it was I who bore them. And yet, though the creeping loneliness and this aching sorrow were in me, I would not leave the forest. I would not allow those remaining to me to draw near and fall beneath my touch, wide-eyed and gaping-mouthed, into that foul sleep that I hated as surely as the sky was blue. Somedays, creatures drew near me -- birds at first, or small, gray rodents with earthworm toes and twitching hops -- and I so still upon the forest floor. More than once they mistook me for a stone and landed, but a moment, upon a shoulder or a knee before their chirr-upping grew quiet and their bodies fell motionless upon the leaves, round eyes as deep and still as the horizon. Somedays, my mind so absent it seemed a thing never born, I would rest against a tree, only to wake to the sound of cracking wood and a shower of dried leaves to find a trunk, once rotund and living, split in two or in the midst of a noisy fall, brittle branches catching other branches in the air, the dread sleep seeming to spread from tree to tree until whole groves fell thunderously to the earth, all under the press of one, just one, of my weightless shoulders. Thus time drew on with the blind assurance of breath. Months, perhaps years passed, before I began to creep closer to the forest’s edge, to the thinning tree-line where the sun, shining through my vaporous form, could cast rainbows of dark colors only upon the quivering air beyond. And yet, though I had missed the light, it was the people, my people, that had drawn me. Perhaps loneliness overcame me, perhaps curiosity, but I found myself summoned by an indefinable urge to be near them. And so one evening, drawing near to the old grove, so full of the sweet odors of ripened fruit and wilting flowers pressed softly into the grass, I saw them again. The twilight, low and dusky, holding scents and light so close to earth, my face extending only a petal-length from the edge of the forest, pale and smooth like a stone cast up by the whispering hum of a river full of waters. My Brothers and Sisters were there, speaking to each other in mild tones that could easily have come from the very trees around them, so soft and fine they were. There was peace in me as I watched them, a peace and a serenity that I had not felt for all the moons I’d spent alone beneath the soundless trees. And so I watched them from afar, silent as the forest and nearly as contented. But as I stood there, inspecting every line of them, willing their images to remain forever etched into the wells of memory, I realized there was a newness to them, a something different, a something that at first I could not pinpoint. Without question, they were changed, but how? Their hair had grown longer, their bodies fuller or thinner (I could not decide which) but that wasn’t it. No, with a certainty it was the squirming, writhing movement that my eyes, leaping from one to the next, found in nearly every pair of arms. At first it seemed, or so I reasoned, that their arms had sprouted small arms and legs and it was to these new appendages that they now cooed, with faces serene and lids heavy. Only later, after witnessing similar scenes in the silken, doting movements of does, lions, cows, sparrows -- nearly everything with a heart to beat -- did I learn that the movement and the matter in the curved arms of my Brothers and Sisters were not outgrowths of their own arms but the tail ends of infants I could not see for all the swaddling of leaves and grasses. Birth. Birth. The grove was full of infants, children, the very first ever born to this Earth. And though I did not know it then, forests, seas, deserts the world over, bore witness to the same scene now unfurling before me. Change was in the air, for the first time since the First of Times, lives of every specie, shape and size, flickered to a flame upon this Earth. And I was there to watch and wonder at it all, lips sealed, tongue sealed too, as my Brothers and Sisters, pressing small hands into their own, swaying their bodies like sea grasses beneath the dusty sky, hummed quiet songs to small, sleeping ears. And so I watched and watched on as night lay down upon the Earth and upon the grove of blossoms and falling petals, moonlight and hushed breezes making silver fishes of all the trees. In later periods, I mused long and hard upon the makings of Birth and how it began. Many years I spent wondering if perhaps there is Another, a being, like myself but different, who sparks every life upon this Earth like a fire lit for me to wet when the light grows dull. If such a Being exists, I have not met him. And still, if I know anything, it is this: under the sky above us, deep as the heart of Life within each breast, not a thing exists without its balance. If there is a being such as I, the Other surely exists too. For when Death was unleashed upon the Earth, I imagine The-Great-All-Of-Things placed Birth here tooso that Life would not be lost within the breast of a sea that never returned the tides. But that is not a tale for these pages, even if my lips could tell it. And so we return to the grove and my soul within it. That night, and many nights thereafter, passed like a pleasant dream, a raft without sails or oars, adrift on a sea full of stars. The moon formed and reformed a dozen times and still I found myself unable to stray far from the grove so full of all the joys and wonders of my life as it was. So I stayed and the years fading in and out found me always there, forever watching, silent as the sky. And yet, though I allowed myself the indulgence of remaining near the grove, I stayed forever out of sight, ducking into tall grasses and bushes should a person draw nigh. But as the years passed, even this precaution became an unnecessary one as whatever visible form my death had left me with began to fade away, my arms becoming more sheer, my hands less recognizably human. Somedays, if I stared too long at my Brothers and Sisters and my mind was left to wander all visible signs of my body would disappear entirely, leaving nothing but a shimmering in the air, or perhaps the faintest of shadows upon the Earth beneath me. In this early time, I would not let these lapses of form linger long, being fearful of losing the last vestiges of my humanity. And yet, even these thoughts gave way at last, as everything must, to a mind that found the need to remember a body so tedious a thing that, today, my body is so far gone that failing memory could not reform the vision before you now. But the time was still early as I watched my Brothers and Sisters, and their children and their children’s children, grow before my eyes and change. Silent and still as the sun and the stars above me, I watched as the hair on every head grew gray, as the skin on every face sagged beneath the weight of the sky, as each body grew thin and crooked as reeds in a downpour. Slowly, but with the certainty of rain filling a ditch, the grove filled with bodies, milling about so close to one another that some days not a soul among them could lift an arm. There were children, so great a mass of children that I could not even count them all, and parents and beings so aged and broken that sometimes a limb would fall off one and not a soul seemed the wiser. And though the Earth then was as wide as ever, not one soul ever left the grove, not one being ever spoke of things larger than an anthill or deeper than the running streams. Worlds existed beyond the blossoming trees, infinite thoughts fuller and finer than the very sky, but these Beings merely cut paths as deep as kneecaps through the grove with their ceaseless marching, relinquishing every dream and thought and action to a thousand tomorrows that promised to be as aimless as today. For despite it all, despite my presence on Earth, despite my touch that made sparrows dumb and trees but dried wood, I feared that touch and so my hands never left my sides and Death had never entered the grove. Existence remained eternal for these Beings, though bodies dissolved into a mass from which the soul could not break free, and time was but a fruitless thing to be squandered for it ran on forever without end. This was the world as I knew it. This the vision I watched with unblinking eyes day in and day out and I was weary. And then the end of it came, sudden but yet not sudden, like a thought long in the making. I say the end of it came and it was I who brought it. That final night fell like a stone upon the Earth, full of a moon so red and low upon the horizon it was as an apple held at arm’s length, and I knew with a suddenness what that voice in the darkness so long ago had meant. Even now I cannot say where the resolve came from, how it sprang fully formed into my brain and taught my hands how to move. Nor can I speak of the morality of the thing for I know nothing of it. All I knew at that moment, the moon rising slowly above the treetops, every soul within the grove sleeping as soundly as the grasses beneath them, was that change was a thing as vital as air, as necessary to the formation of the Earth and to the souls upon it as water and the fruits of the trees and the beauty of the flowers. And so, for the first time since I fled from my Brothers and Sisters, I allowed my feet to fall beyond the forest’s edge and into the grove, smiling at the familiar press of the soft grasses against my feet in the moment before their tender stems withered and dried under my weight. The work itself went fast enough and the whole of it was over nearly as quickly as it began. Upon all the piles of flesh so broken that they could no longer rise, I lay my hands down. Upon all of the withered bodies full of aches, I lay my hands down. Upon all those with hearts so broken that the sun seemed nothing more than an echo of light and a sigh, I lay my hands down. And then upon others, beings I selected without any particular reason other than to give Reason, to plant uncertainty and the doubt necessary to motivate action in the hearts still beating, I lay my hands down. And when it was over I left the grove, now more full of bodies than of life, and returned to the forest. I spent the remainder of that night, and the full length of many nights to come, in the forest and the surrounding lands laying my hands upon plants and other creatures, slowly, but with the precision of a flood sweeping the land clear, delivering change. And so it was and so it has been for so long a time that I have lost track. Certainly, when it began, the work seemed loathsome and foul. For many years after the final encounter in the grove, I hated the touch, hated the deed, and hated, most supremely, myself. For centuries, I could not face the look distilled into the eyes of some who passed before my touch -- that look of instant clarity, eyes cast wide and dark and sorrowful with a realization that I will never know the sense of. But these things pass, or fade at least, and the work has become easier with time, easier still as more Beings were born and Life was distanced further and further away from The First, my original family, me. But even if the work has numbed me in a way, whispering words, cold and rational, into my heart telling of things necessary and most right, there are moments that are hard, stories, scenes, lives and deaths that can tear a soul, even my own, apart. Children are hard. Difficult too are those creatures with large, weeping eyes and a “Why?” so strong in their hearts that even I can hear it. And then there are ghosts. Everyone always asks about them and so I answer: ghosts are always, always the hardest. Now, as I’ve said, most beings just sigh away under my touch, their passing marked by nothing more than a greater stillness in the air, if that. But ghosts can look at a body. Ghosts can “see” me and I never, ever understand them. Sometimes they are angry, sometimes sad, sometimes they fling questions at me in screeching, bird tones and it is all I can do to pry their clutching fingers from my airy arm and fly. And then there are the quiet ghosts, the ones that can light things within you that you wish would remain dark. There was one such ghost, a quiet one, maybe a thousand years ago by your count, but I remember her so clearly even now. It was in one of those places, full of sandstone walls, petty rivalries and blood. Vicious times for a vicious people and I just cleaning the slate. I had taken her lover months before, called to his Being in the middle of a long, narrow hall, cruciform windows with no light at all in them, rushes upon stone floors smelling of lavender, dust and sweat -- some fool human had poisoned the wine. And so I took this man and a dozen others besides. And then one night, several months later, I found myself called to the same spot, called by an aching pulling in my chest that spoke of a need for a touch and a change. It was winter then, cold as the coldness in my fingers, the snow halfway up the chapel walls, snow blowing and gathering in mounds as deep as knees inside the door. And there she was, bent upon her knees before the sarcophagus of the man I had taken, her fine hands wound about his effigial fingers, peaked as a pyramid. The cold was deathly, the stone floor sapping the very last of the heat, and oblivion, or so I reasoned, was the sweetest balm to a broken heart. Gently, I lay my hand upon her shoulder and she sagged to the stones beneath, the wool of her garment winding into soft, burgundy pools about her. But as the last of her life ebbed out in the final, undulating wave of her chest, her spirit, translucent and yet focused and clear, rose above her body and looked at me. Her soul was quiet, her deep, sorrowing eyes sank into mine and if I had had human eyes as she did, they would have fallen beneath her glance in shame. But the glance was over, quick as it began, and she turned from me and knelt before the sepulcher again, laying her ethereal cheek against the stone and weeping. I stood there for a long moment, watching her, but she never moved and her airy tears fell on. To this day, I sometimes wonder if she lingers there yet, if her tears are still falling, if death and change are things that some do not know and certain hearts cannot fathom. But the quiet ones like her are rare and so it is a thing I need not linger on. Thus, save for an uncommon few, time passes on, my work continues like an orb at spin and change has become a rule that all hearts and beings and lives must follow. Whole eras of Man have melted into each other, drawing with them the visible parts of my body, leaving me with nothing but shadows and air to manifest in. Bodies, lives, beings, everything changes now with the ticking of a clock. But even after all of this time, there is still so much I do not understand about Change, about myself, about the Thing that lives in my fingers and brings stillness to each breast. How, for instance, the touch burrows into a body, how it selects which part of which organ to seize upon and still, is a mystery to me. Of course, sometimes it’s obvious, like a stomach pierced by a blade, but usually the workings of the touch are unfathomable, an impenetrable secret written in the stars. And like the touch, Time and the changing of it remain incomprehensible to me, like words within a breast never spoken. I do not understand these things and never hope to. For even Time, a thing I once considered as constant and unalterable as the stars, has changed in me, though I can’t explain the mechanics of it. Perhaps it grew wings and flew in me or perhaps the rest of creation ate stones and grew sluggish, but human “centuries” have slowed to what seem mere hours to me. And so it is not magic in me, but merely a difference in how I perceive time, that allows me to flit from space to space, from being to being, laying down my hands here, retracting them there, in what seems but the thinnest of seconds to mortal minds. But now I tread in uncertain waters with depths unsoundable and these lines are full of guesses and I stop. I have told the story of my life and of its beginning, moral or not, I know not which for morality was never a language I learned to speak. Simply said, I am as I have always been: Me. I do not walked with winged shoes. I do not unfurl great, black wings from out my back and fly. My hands are as bolts of lightning that brighten the sky for a second, but they are not the sky, nor the light within it. My eyes as blind to things working above and beyond as any human’s are, here I stand as ever, watching Life, never more than a stone’s throw away, because I know Life needs me in her way. Because once I knew of an emptiness so fearsome that all of Life seemed a feather caught in a gale. Because once I knew the depths of an eternity so long that a soul could float on, aimless and lost, forever. And because once a Voice in the darkness called this thing a “gift” and so I give it.