Life and Death Holding Hands – A Short Story

It was a life.

Born on the farm like a pig or a goat, worked like a horse or a bull or a dog, learning to steal like a magpie or hob.

Every day seemed to move so fast, tumbling like escapees down hills. Wars, successions, famines, the damn English and French fighting some stupid conflict that drew good men away to die on someone else’s shore—all of that was outside his life, outside his concern, outside his ken.

But then, the Black Death was born, and Inis Fál, the island of the stone, began to die.

Terrance was six when he first heard tales of bloated tongues and black eyes, and he ran and hid in the roundhouse while the images shuddered through him and away. But that was outside, unimportant; every day moved so quick, and fears did not matter in the light of the sun.

Until the days stopped on the edge of a sword.

The damned English did their thing, didn’t they, the Seanghaill, sneaking in and sliding over land like fungus over a beautiful stone, and they took what they wished and killed where they went, and Terrance’s father did some stupid little thing that angered someone and so was dead. And maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad except the Black Death took so many lives and so many towns that it left many desperate men. Desperate men were wicked men, or so Terrance’s mother told him.

His mother told him a lot. She taught him about the Sidhe, about the The Tuatha Dé Danann, about the Lia Fál and why it mattered and why that was where kings ought to come from, and about where to leave milk and what directions never to run, but none of it stop the deaths.

At ten, Terrance was orphaned. Robbed. His lands gone, his family dead, only one limping dog that he hugged to himself and kept and kept as they walked.

In time, the English took the dog, too, by poison, because they couldn’t stand to share wild game.

Dead. Time was dead, the days were dead, his dog was dead, and nothing mattered anymore.

Terrance’s clever fingers, which his mother had sworn were blessed (or cursed, depending on the day), became the same as eating and living, because he stole to do both.

He stole well.

Time crept back a-pace, ceased to slow sluggish like mud in spring, and the days sped again, they ran again, they tumbled again but wildly, no longer running but falling and hitting and crashing and breaking, and Terrance became a boulder at gravity’s behest instead of a leaf on the wind.

And he stole.

And he hated.

And he watched happy stupid English families who still had their mothers and their fathers and their land, and he grew dark.

Fey may have blessed his hands, but he had no guide, and the darkness became his direction, his drive, the force behind his fall.

He picked the wrong pocket in Dublin one day, near the water, near where all the ships came and went and pretended things were well. He stole from a swarthy fellow, and there was something strange about that man and his wild curly hair, his arrogant blue silks, his strangely gentle eyes, and Terrance was bothered for reasons he did not know, but it was an instinct he ran toward, throat bared, daring it to get him.

A swarthy rich fellow without much care, it seemed, for social status or safety, for though he dressed like a lord, he walked alone—and Terrance took his money as easily as he ever had jewels from distracted ladies in their own homes.

But the contents of this purse made him pause, just a little, for they were strange—strange coins, strange gems, stones carved into unwieldy shapes with faces on them, round items like rings that tingled when touched, dried flowers he did not recognize and knew by instinct did not belong in his world.

He did not spend the purse. He did not sell it. He threw it into the gutter and fled, refusing to listen to his screaming instinct that it was too late and he’d already been cursed.

He never lost count of how many he killed, slitting throats and twisting guts and choking in the dark. He never forgot the homes he burned, setting careful fires and fleeing before anyone could think to look for a cause. Neither were done for pay or profit; he did them for rage, for long, lone years of hunger and tears, for his mother’s dead body and his dog’s cold, still form.

He killed for the darkness inside him, which seemed so strong he was surprised it didn’t come pouring from his eyes like tar.

He got away with it all. In the end, it was the damned cows that caught him.

The Pale was one of the English’s precious safe zones, where they tried to hide from the plague and the natives and from anyone else who might hurt them, and he liked to sneak across their ditches and over their walls and to their cows. Cow-deaths cost them money, but what they really cost was safety, was the illusion that all was well behind their ditches and dikes. That theft was worth the risk.

Until he was caught, stabbing cows in the dark.

And now lay, laughing, in a stinking hole without light, waiting to be hung for a cow he hadn’t even killed, just nicked a little. Of all things.

Why not die for murdering someone important? Why not die for an act that would cause tears and grief like he always carried with him? No, he would die for a cow, and somehow that just figured as the dung-filled cap to the narrow, poisonous life he’d led.

Time stopped there in the gaol past the midnight bell, lost its speed and power, crashed into a boulder or tree or ditch that broke it, and there in pieces it stayed.

The words came through the window, through the walls, right into Terrance’s head without bothering his ears, and when he sat up, the world held its breath.

Do you want to live?

Terrance knew who spoke them, but he could never have predicted that question, the strangeness of words without sound in the middle of the night. He groaned with anticipation.

If you come with me, you will live—but you will change.

Terrance knew those words meant meanings they couldn’t mean, but they rang in him like some dark bell. As every word sang, the strong, sharp blades of his soul snicked into place like a tang into a well-fitted hilt.

He asked one question of his own: What are you?

Death and life, holding hands.

And that sounded just right.

Terrance knew: he’d been running down the hill toward this moment all his days, as if some part of him never doubted for one second he’d end up here, staggering at this fate screaming and waving his arms. Death and life holding hands. That was him, that was what he knew and what he was.

The wait for fate was over and done. A thing inside him, a bleeding, twisting knot, came undone as he said Yes.

As he took that dark, slim hand with his own Fey-cursed one, he left the mortal world behind, and never in his long life looked back.