Share This Article
Safe Inside the Reaper’s Cloak} ?> Snow fell across the Chicago neighborhood. Acidic and tarnishing, the flakes punished paint jobs and stung exposed skin, keeping everyone inside on this blustery afternoon.
History recorded times when children built battle forts and carrot-nosed men from the white flakes, throwing icy balls and stuffing them down each other’s shirts. Even teens my age had enjoyed the fun.
I shook my head. A fantasy. Maybe two centuries ago, but not now.
Brushing snow from my hood, I marched on through a drift. I couldn’t worry about a little pain. I had to follow the death alarm, even during a snowstorm.
A tune reached my ears, riding on the swirling wind. The vibrating strings sounded melancholy, yet hopeful; a typical melody for Noah, the young musician who lived on this block. As street gossip had suggested, his sister Tanya must have generated the alarm. Her cystic fibrosis was, in all likelihood, flaring up again, and Noah was probably playing his cello to help her relax.
I followed the tune to a porch with a sheltering overhang. After brushing snow from my hair-and-flax cloak, I knocked on the door.
It flung open, revealing Noah, still holding his cello and bow. “Phoenix!”
I offered a solemn nod. “Noah.”
He waved a hand, a wide smile on his dark, pre-teen face. “Come in!”
Keeping my hood raised and my expression serious, I followed him through a narrow hall into a living room. Tanya lay on a tattered sofa with her head propped up, plaited locks spilling across an orange pillow. She wheezed and gasped through every breath.
Tanya’s mother knelt on the floor next to her, holding a compress on the little girl’s chest. When she saw me, she sucked in a halting breath and whispered, “When a Reaper comes, he rarely leaves alone.”
“Georgia …” I knelt at her side and laid my hand on hers, her skin roughened by labour and darker than my cloak. “There is always hope.”
Tears trickled down her round cheeks. “You mean … you didn’t come to take her soul?”
“I’m hoping for better.”
Noah sat at the opposite end of the sofa and began playing again. The music seemed to soothe Tanya’s struggles.
I reached into my cloak pocket and withdrew an inhaler. “Maybe this will help.”
Georgia’s eyes widened. “Where did you get that?”
“Bartering at the shroud. The fencer said it’s a mucolytic. It should help Tanya.” I set the inhaler in her hand. “Do you know how to use it?”
She nodded. “It helped her once before.”
“How long does it last?”
“Several hours. Maybe a day.”
I let out a sigh. “Is that all?”
“Don’t fret, Phoenix. I know how dangerous it is to get one of these. You don’t have to risk your life to get another. It’s not your job.”
“My job is to care for the souls in my district, both alive and dead.” Heat warmed my cheeks. My feeble attempt to smuggle medicine would not get lasting results, but I couldn’t let that dissolve my professional persona.
Folding my hands in front, I kept my voice calm. “I will stay long enough to see if Tanya survives this crisis.”
Noah stopped playing and looked at Georgia. “Should I get the cinnamon cider? We have enough, don’t we?”
She nodded. “Bring three cups. Little ones.”
When Noah disappeared into the kitchen, I looked around the room. Two green wreaths hung on a wall with a red streamer running between them. “What’s the special occasion? I mean, cinnamon cider? That has to be expensive.”
“Not if you know the right people.”
“A birthday? Anniversary?”
“You could say it’s both. It’s a December tradition in our home.”
Noah returned and handed me a small paper cup half filled with warm amber liquid. The delicious aroma of cinnamon wafted to my nose.
After we drank the smooth, sweet cider, Georgia administered the inhaler while Noah played the same tune on his cello. Whether from medicine, music, or a mother’s loving hands, Tanya settled into normal respiration and peaceful sleep.
As Noah ran his bow across the strings, he sang in a soft tone.
“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
As he played, my throat tightened. The words knifed deeply. Why? Was it the mourning? The lonely exile? Surely that was my life. Reapers had no friends. No hope. No bright future.
When Noah finished, he laid down his bow. “We’re celebrating a birthday tomorrow, Phoenix. Emmanuel’s birthday.”
My cheeks warming again, I rose and backed away. “I’d better go now. It looks like Tanya’s going to be fine for a while.” I ran out the door and into the cascading snow, huffing as I hurried toward my apartment. I needed to be alone—safe from songs, from families, from any reminder of real life that darkened my solitary estate.
* * *
A frozen December breezed into a frozen January. A new death alarm called me to the home where love and music flowed. This time a full blizzard hampered my journey, but a mother’s laments, riding heavy on the snow-laden wind, guided my way.
By the time I arrived, Tanya had already passed, the victim of pneumonia. While Georgia wept and Noah played, I reaped Tanya, extracting her soul through her eyes. As she coursed through my cloak, her essence felt sweet, warm, and full. Her suffering was over.
I rose to leave. “I’m taking Tanya to the Gateway now. She’s safe inside my cloak.”
Looking at me, Noah sang along with the strings.
“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
Stung again by the words, I hurried out and tromped through winter’s chill. A new and glorious morn? Maybe for Tanya, but not for me. Not for anyone who wore the cloak of a Reaper.