by C. Ikpoh
Along the path, Thomas strolled. His steps were heavy against the stiff dirt beneath his feet; as heavy as the weight of his heart. The gray sky mirrored his soul. Thomas' gloom was shared by the world, shared by the nature all around him and the nature of his journey as he embarked on a solo endeavor. The singular waves of sound made from his feet were left with no perpendicular noise to accompany them. His only companions were internal: fatigue, hurt and loneliness. His mind was ravaged by the relay of pain firing from the nerves in his legs. Thomas had been walking for the duration of the sun's display amidst the clouds, which was setting in the west directly ahead of him. The stars were already beginning to appear as blackness poisoned the blue umbrella, attempting to stifle its righteous serenity. Seeing this sight, Thomas knew it was time to give in, and upon finding a suitable place to rest, he did do so.
About a meter ahead, Thomas saw a slight depression off to the side covered by many branches. It appeared the newly forming stream along the path ran directly along side it as well. "A good place to wash up and drink," Thomas contemplated to himself. "I will make camp nearby."
The dwindling light peeking through the treetops sprinkled diamonds atop the bubbling waters. On the bank before the stream was a path of peculiar looking styx stretching as far as his eyes could see. Thomas slowly knelt, examining them as he grasped a handful. Immediately they turned to dust. His fingertips stared back at him, ashen like a pit of an old, extinguished fire. He was dumbfounded, for his feet just snapped the styx into wooden pieces beneath the soles of his boots moments earlier. It was then his nostrils detected the caressing scent of fire in the air, and Thomas became increasingly alarmed. "What sort of trickery is this?" he inquired inwardly, for no flames were in sight. However, before he deemed himself incompetent, he noticed a slight flicker between the trees in the distance. There was a fire after all, bringing a sense of relief to his weary and exhausted mind.
Thomas foraged through the brush before coming to a clearing. The open space was circular, surrounded on all sides by dense thicket and tall trees. The objects of attention were centered directly ahead of him: a cloaked man, the small camp fire, and a very peculiar looking tree. "Excuse me, sir," Thomas said calmly as to not startle the cloaked man. Yet, there was no reply. Thomas spoke again with a second attempt to gain the man's attention. "Hello?"
Still, there was no response as the cloaked man continued to tend to the tree. Prompted by curiosity, Thomas crept forward into the circle, and as he did, he felt a tingling sensation in his fingertips. Thomas turned his palm upwards and noticed something very odd: the black ash was evaporating. Following the traces of soot through the night sky, he noticed there were other floating objects rising towards the full moon above them. They were leaves from the tree. Thomas traced the path of the leaves down back to the cloaked man. "What in God's name?" Thomas murmured to himself.
It was then the cloaked man spoke in a smooth, deep baritone voice. "Death." Thomas froze in his tracks. He already was experiencing trepidation with each step he took into the circular clearing. However, that word - it paralyzed Thomas' movement.
"What about death?" Thomas inquired.
"You asked, 'What in God's name?' The answer is death," the cloaked man replied.
Puzzled, Thomas remained still. His rapidly beating heart and shaken nerves could not handle walking and deciphering the cloaked man's statement at the same time, all the while contemplating how the cloaked man heard his whispers. Thus, Thomas decided to tackle the easiest of the three tasks at that moment; he tried to figure out what the cloaked man's words meant. "Death in God's name?" Thomas queried.
The cloaked man stopped picking leaves from the tree. Slowly he turned around to face Thomas. "Come," the mysterious man's voice commanded through the hood hiding his face. Thomas tentatively walked forward, more dragging his feet than picking them up. When he reached the cloaked man, he extended his hand in a gesture to introduce himself.
With his palm shaking, Thomas said, "My name..." a lump leapt into his throat before he could finish his sentence. Swallowing it was as burdensome as consuming a rock. Thomas squinted as he forced the anxiety and fear back down into his stomach. He continued, "... name is Thomas, sir."
The cloaked man groaned lightly at the sight of Thomas' quivering hand. Without saying a word, the mysterious figure turned back towards the tree. Seconds of cold silence passed, which seemed like an eternity to Thomas. His shoulders began wearing from holding out his hand, leaving his entire arm trembling. Thomas' fear was deteriorating his body. Left with an open palm and outstretched arm, Thomas brought his hand back to his side while dropping his head in shame. However, before he could retreat as every fiber in his body screamed at him to, the cloaked man spoke again. "To touch me is to experience the answer you seek. I shall explain what is here before you instead," the hooded keeper explained.
Thomas looked at his hand once more, this time in relief. "Though I do not fully understand the greater scope of your words, I believe I comprehend their meaning. Thank you," he said to the cloaked man. "I have many questions I would..."
The cloaked man raised his arm, interrupting Thomas. "Just listen. Watch and listen."
Thomas fixed his eyes on the cloaked man's hands as they approached the tree. Up close, Thomas noticed leaves completely covered the tree; no bark was visible. As the cloaked man's hands neared them, he opened his palms. Instantly, leaves began shuffling quietly. They were rearranging their order. The ones in front slid away as leaves in back, up top, and underneath all migrated towards the cloaked man's hands. When they reached the spot on the tree in front of the two men, they gently broke their bond and floated to the mystery figure's hands. Once in his grasp, the cloaked man rubbed his thumb across his palm. It appeared unnatural to Thomas, so he peered his vision in closer. The cloaked man's thumbs were abnormally long, able to brush his entire hand without bending, and as he did, the leaves each glowed with a golden light. Finally, they floated into the sky and rose towards the heavens as Thomas had witnessed before.
"Remarkable," Thomas professed. "Simply remarkable." The cloaked man continued working without pause. Thomas watched in amazement as the leaves shuffled and proceeded towards the hooded keeper like a moth to a flame. "How..." Thomas began asking before being interrupted again.
The cloaked man's voice grumbled forth revealing more answers. "You ask the wrong questions." Thomas' puzzled silence triggered the mystery figure to continue. "Not how, but why."
Thomas took a breath and quickly heeded the cloaked man's words. "Why?"
"I shall explain," the hooded keeper answered. His words paused the leaves upon the completion of his retort. Next, he rotated his hands counter clockwise, forcing them to retreat from the space on the trunk directly ahead. Underneath them, dark brown wood was revealed. However, the bark quickly began to crumble, exposing another layer to the tree as a clear liquid emerged. The cloaked man extended his index finger, also abnormally long. His lengthy nail broke the surface of the liquid, penetrating it about an inch deep. Then, the mysterious figure removed his fingernail from the small puddle causing ripples to vibrate all throughout the tree. As the ripples flowed, the tree became transparent, and before them developed a giant, reflective liquid mirror.
Thomas' curiosity overcame his better sensibilities. He reached forward to imitate the cloaked man and attempted to feel the liquid upon his own fingertips. "No!" the cloaked man's voice rumbled with authority.
Dejected and feeling quite foolish, Thomas apologized for his action. "Forgive me."
The hooded keeper nodded in acceptance of Thomas' apology. Then, immediately after, a loud crack of thunder shook the sky. As Thomas glanced upwards anticipating rainfall, he noticed no drops fell upon their heads. No water fell anywhere within the circle. Rain did pour down all around them, but not one spec of water breached the circular clearing's boundary. The cloaked man then waved his arm around and around until a flash of lightning struck the liquid mirror. Thomas was jolted from his stance and fell on his backside. He looked forward in amazement as the mirror shone with an intense light. After it ceased blinding him, Thomas saw a figure appear in the mirror: a tiny shrub with one leaf. "Is that the same tree?" he inquired.
Again, the cloaked man nodded. He explained in his deep voice, "God created all from the Tree of Life. Each creation was to span the course of time. Whether the beasts and plants lived forever, or for only a day, was of no consequence." Thomas sat up displaying attentiveness as the mystery figure continued. "When He created man, however, He knew their time within this world must be finite as the process of cultivating a soul requires an end in order to receive salvation. Thus, the Lord decided there was a need for a facilitator to oversee such an existence. Consequently, he created Mal'ak d'mot."
Puzzled as to what the cloaked man referred to, Thomas inquired, "Mal'ak d'mot?"
The hooded keeper replied, "The Angel of Death." It was then in the liquid mirror Thomas noticed something striking. The shrub began to grow, and as it grew, a black mist grew with it. Slowly, the mist formed into an imposing figure. In front of him was the vision of an angel unlike any he had ever seen before. It was indeed dark - a brooding, menacing creature. Yet, it developed an ominous glow of white light all around it. Thomas could feel the warmth of the beams through the liquid. Instantly, he knew it was the Light of God. The cloaked man continued, "Of all the angels that existed, none were fit to handle the task of controlling death. They were all created to praise God and glorify all His creations. To facilitate the death of God's finest achievement was counterintuitive to the angels' existence. Therefore, a new angel had to be created, and it was."
"Could none of the archangels have done it?" Thomas asked.
The hood on the man's cloak gently swayed side-to-side. He answered, "No. The archangels are great and magnificent, but their place in God's kingdom could never be over life and death in this capacity. The Angel of Death had to be created."
Thomas continued to study the Angel of Death in the liquid vision as it matured along with the shrub. In no time, a massive tree was reflected before him along with a semi-familiar figure. The more leaves the tree dawned, the more familiar the figure became. The Angel of Death had transformed into the cloaked man within the reflection. "It - it's you," Thomas stuttered.
The cloaked man nodded in agreement. Grumbling, his voice sounded, "Indeed. It is I."
"What happened to you?" Thomas asked.
"My glory, my magnificence, it faded when my damnation settled upon me," the Angel replied.
Thomas was perplexed. "Your damnation?"
The Angel of Death turned towards Thomas. As he did, the liquid mirror dissipated, revealing the Tree of Life once more in its natural form. The Angel then began to speak as he slowly pinched the edge of his hood between his long, needle-point fingertips. The cloth was being dropped to make a great revelation. "Sympathy, Thomas," the Angel declared, "my spirit grew with sympathy for the names on the Tree."
The Angel of Death's face had been revealed. It was pitch black; blacker than anything Thomas had ever seen. The Angel's face lacked definition or true features besides that of a pair of eyes and a mouth. It was as if it was almost transparent. Unbeknownst to Thomas, this was the first time the Angel had ever revealed himself to any mortal. Yet, Thomas could sense the enormous gravity of the moment. Respectfully, he asked, "Sympathy did this to you? How can this be so?"
The Angel lifted his head and locked eyes with Thomas, sending a shiver down Thomas' body strong enough to revive the unconscious. The Angel replied, "I was created to process death, to facilitate and control it. In the beginning, I diligently worked at my duty. I never minded the creation of the leaves nor their departure into the realm of judgment. I only did as I was created to do."
"And then?" Thomas asked with great anticipation.
The Angel continued, "And then I was called home."
"Home? You mean to heaven."
"Yes. God sent an angel to me with a message. The time of Christ's crucifixion was at hand. Upon His death, the vale between this world and the next -- between the living and the dead -- would be broken. Christ's passing gave mankind the ability to obtain immortality."
"That must have been wonderful news. You served the Lord in completion and were being called home." The expression on the Angel's face was contrary to these sentiments though, prompting Thomas to ask, "What happened?"
"I did not want to return home," the Angel said in a somber tone.
Perplexed, Thomas scrunched his face and inquired, "Why not?"
The Angel of Death paused for a moment. Thomas could tell he was in deep contemplation. He was undoubtedly replaying the exact moment in his mind, and Thomas knew not to disturb him. Finally, the Angel spoke. "I became one with the Tree, with what it represented."
"But it represents death. You were being called home to live a life of eternal bliss. How could you deny yourself that?"
"This Tree does not represent death. It represents life and its fragility. Life is the most precious gift. Yet, it is taken away so easily. All that is required is a simple stroke of my digit. The Tree is the nest of souls walking the realm of the living. The Tree represents God's children."
A look of understanding was noticeable upon Thomas' face. It all was coming together. "I see. You became a sympathizer of mankind. You feel our innate desire to stay alive. You know our fear of death... of you."
"Yes," the Angel said while slowly nodding.
Thomas contemplated for a few more moments before continuing, "You decided to stay here, then? With the Tree and the souls of the departed?"
"And for my defiance of God's will, I was damned, eventually developing this grim form and a perpetual state of mourning and sorrowful sympathy." The Angel of Death placed his hood over his head before continuing. "I thought not of the consequences. I felt if I stayed with the Tree of Life -- with the souls of mankind -- that I would be able to offer some measure of peace above the immortality already promised to them. My sympathy birthed ignorance, for not only could I never improve on the righteous judgment handed down by the Lord, but I also did not see that by remaining with the Tree I was only continuing my own torment. Instead of returning home to welcome the souls upon their arrival, I fixed myself into a perpetual cycle of sadness created by my duty of separating humans from the lives they hold so dear into their unknown afterlife."
Thomas felt overwhelmed with sorrow for the Angel of Death. The hooded keeper harbored the kindest intentions, and for this he was persecuted. Nevertheless, he realized something within the Angel's story. "Your flaw," Thomas said, "or your transgression should I say, was not sympathizing with mankind. It was not having faith in God's will." The Angel turned away from Thomas and began shuffling leaves through his palm again, releasing more souls to the afterlife. Thomas stepped forward to expand on his realization. "If you would have believed in God's will, then your sympathy would not have damned you here forever. You would have left, reluctantly, but you would have returned home nonetheless. Then, you would have what you always yearned for: to see human souls through to immortal life amongst the saints." The Angel of Death groaned in hesitant agreement while shuffling leaves. Thomas pondered for a second and then continued. "Yes, that is it. I am sorry, my friend."
"It is I that is sorry," the Angel retorted.
Confused, Thomas replied, "For what?" As he spoke, the hooded keeper placed his hand on his own shoulder while still facing away from Thomas. The edges of his long, pointy digits wrapped down his back, and as they did, a leaf was released from between them. It floated about the air as if it danced with morbid trepidation. Twisting and turning while progressing closer, the leaf elevated into the air slightly before free falling directly in front of Thomas. He opened his palm to catch it, and when the leaf softly landed in his hand, it seemed to with the weight of one thousand stones. Thomas' eyes were seared at the sight, burning with a sensation of fire hotter than any he ever felt. Simultaneously, his core froze to a chill colder than the most savage winter night."It-it can-can't be," he stuttered. The leaf grew heavier in his palm, yet he did not drop it. Thomas simply stood still, paralyzed by the sight of his name adorning the soft, vibrantly colored surface of the leaf.
The Angel of Death spoke in a commanding tone. "It is."
"I am here," Thomas tried reasoning to himself in a logical tone. "I am alive. I was just walking through the forest and making camp. Yeah... that-that actually happened. I felt it all. I was-was tired and my muscles grew weak. That could not have happened if I was dead."
Amidst Thomas' frantic statements, the Angel interjected, "You crossed over in your sleep, Thomas. This is why you do not have a recollection of the moment you died."
Thomas was flabbergasted by the words of the Angel, and he still refused to believe what he was being told. "This is not real. This is a dream, or-or a vision of some kind. I am sleeping," Thomas said as he took a few steps towards where he entered the clearing while pointing away. "I must be laying down over there, dreaming this entire sequence. Maybe-maybe I drank some of the river water and it made me ill, which is why I am having this bizarre vision," he tried convincing himself.
"Come," the Angel of Death commanded, freezing Thomas and ceasing his bumbling about. "I will show you."
Thomas hesitantly took a step forward. His legs were reluctant to move for a reason beyond his comprehension. The hooded keeper motioned for him to come closer. This only produced one more step out of Thomas though. Patiently, the Angel waited while moving his hands, clearing away the leaves again. Lightning struck the tree, jolting Thomas from his stance. The blinding light subsided to reveal the liquid mirror once more. It was then Thomas saw the Angel's words held no fallacy. His heart was destroyed by what played in front of him, and Thomas stumbled forward with tears trickling down his face as he watched his lifeless body lay in bed while striking immense grief into his family surrounding him. "My God," Thomas' soft, quivering voice eeked out. "There I am. I really am dead."
The Angel grunted in agreement. It was not his normal, authoritative grumbling though. There was a hint of sorrow in it this time. As he watched Thomas weep from the sight of his loved ones mourning his passing, the Angel could not fight being overcome with somber emotion. He stared at Thomas through the black voids where his eyes once were, increasing the sorrow he felt through sympathizing with Thomas' grasp of the death bestowed upon him. This prompted the Angel to begin raising his hand toward Thomas to offer comfort. However, the Angel quickly realized what he was doing and pulled his hand back towards his side.
Thomas noticed the Angel's gesture and realized the hooded keeper wanted to console him but could not. He further realized the Angel's story of sympathy in that moment, and he said in understanding, "Thank you."
The Angel quickly replied, "Do not thank me."
The hooded keeper was visibly struggling internally with waves of emotions. Thomas contemplated on what he could say to ease the Angel's turmoil. "It is alright," he told the Angel. "You only wish to offer me solace in my death. I appreciate your sympathy." The hooded keeper remained distant and emotional though, and Thomas could not figure out why his counterpart was seemingly separating himself from his side. "What is it that troubles you?" Thomas inquired. Alas, there was no answer; only a more withdrawn Angel with a more staunch opposition to Thomas' efforts of bonding. Perplexed, Thomas began pondering why the Angel was so persistent to stay removed. Then, he remembered the hooded keeper denying his attempt to shake hands earlier. "To touch you is to know death," Thomas recited. "Yes, I remember." The air between the two grew more tense and thick, though, as Thomas continued to cycle through his thoughts aloud in a pensive manner while staring towards the ground. "But, I am already dead. Why would it matter if we were to come into contact..."
Thomas' inquiry was interrupted by a loud, blood-curdling groan. Startled, he looked up to find the Angel of Death charging towards him at a blinding speed. Thomas was instantly raptured into a force of energy, paralyzing him while he was suspended in mid-air. He struggled to move, but his attempts were to no avail. Thomas looked down upon the Angel in disbelief. Agitated but visibly torn by his actions, the Angel of Death answered the question he interjected only moments ago. "If we were to touch, I would absorb your soul, releasing you to your final resting place, and I cannot have that happen. I need you here."
Thomas was baffled by the Angel's words. "You what?"
"Believe me when I say this pains me immensely. You are a great man with a pure heart, but for the sake of my own existence, I cannot let you go," the hooded keeper explained.
"What are you doing?" Thomas asked excitedly.
"Your walk in the forest was the transition into the afterlife I chose for you according to the lifetime of history transcribed on your soul. You loved the wilderness and frequently went for hikes. I knew that scenery would lure you to me."
Speaking with fear, Thomas queried, "Lure?"
The Angel removed his hood and explained, "For all of time, I have been here facilitating the passing of souls. Since my refusal to return to heaven, my existence has caused me immeasurable pain. It has damned me; left me decrepit and hauntingly disfigured. I am rejected by God and terrify those I have sympathy for. Mankind fears me more than any other thing in their world or the afterlife. How do you think that makes me feel? To know that wherever my heart turns I am shunned, even by those I refused paradise for."
Thomas was at a loss for words and still stricken by terror as he floated above the Angel. "I-I don't..." Thomas tried to answer while stammering before asking again, "... why are you doing this to me?"
"When Christ was crucified, he was dead for three days before resurrecting. During that time, he was here with me, setting into motion the new spiritual covenant of immortality for all the living righteous souls. We bonded, as his infinite spirit blessed me with its grace and divinity. Never had I felt so warm, loved and accepted. Never had I understood or felt the power of everlasting life. When the three days passed and Christ was resurrected, I was called home. I chose to remain with the Tree as you know, trying to instill those same feelings Christ gave me into the departed. However, I have failed to provide them that, and all I have been left with is my sympathy, the Tree of Life, and the realization that no matter what I am eternally damned. I refuse to allow that to be my existence anymore."
Thomas retorted, "What are you going to do with me?"
"You identify with my story, Thomas. You believe as I do in the importance of having sympathy while being the angel overseeing the Tree of Life. Even more, you emphathize with my damnation. I have waited thousands of years for a soul like yours to come to me, and you have finally arrived. It is fate that you are here. I could not have prayed for a more perfect replacement."
"Replacement?" Thomas exclaimed angrily.
The Angel answered, "Yes, replacement. You shall have all of my powers bestowed upon you. Your body will be affirmed with angelic wings, and your spirit with all the divinity an angel possesses. You are the new Angel of Death!"
With his proclamation, the hooded keeper flew towards the energy force and placed his hands above Thomas' heart. Thomas writhed in pain as spiritual mist flowed from the Angel of Death into his being. Thomas' skin grew intensely hot as it expanded, increasing his size and height. Thomas' back ripped apart, releasing light into the air as wings expanded into their fully extended positions. The same light poured from every orifice of Thomas, instilling in him all the abilities the Angel of Death possessed himself. Then, the hooded keeper backed away as Thomas began spinning rapidly inside the force surrounding him. Light flashed all around them as energy pulsed from Thomas in waves that bent the grass and swayed the trees surrounding the clearing. Lightning flashed across the sky and thunder shook the universe. Thomas' metamorphosis grew to an extinction level event, consuming everything around them. His transformation felt endless, but just as Thomas thought he could take no more, the spinning and light waves ceased. The sky returned to normal and the nature surrounding them settled. Finally, Thomas was released from the energy force and dropped to the ground.
As he landed, Thomas' body heavily indented the dirt beneath him. A loud thud rang through the air. He stood up awkwardly, adjusting to his massive height and wings. Surprisingly, the newness of his stature subsided, as did his disbelief in the events which just transpired. They began to wane because these feelings were quickly replaced by anger. Thomas looked frantically for the Angel of Death, but the hooded keeper was nowhere to be found. "Angel!" Thomas shouted with ferocity. "Angel!" Yet, no answer was returned, and alas, Thomas' voice permeated through the surrounding forest without purpose. He was alone.
After many moments of panic and not knowing what to do, Thomas eventually settled into his new reality. Remembering the movements of the hooded keeper and recalling the powers he employed, Thomas traveled over to the Tree of Life. Circling his hands, he shuffled all the leaves away. Next, a flash of lightning struck and recalled the liquid mirror. Thomas realized he was able to bring about any vision he desired, so Thomas spoke the wish which dominated his entire being. "Find the Angel of Death." The liquid mirror rippled for a moment before revealing nothing but Thomas' reflection. It was then his dreaded reality finally began sinking in. There was no escape for Thomas. He was forever to command the Tree of Life and facilitate the passing of human souls, and as he stared at his reflection in the liquid mirror, Thomas realized he too had been damned by his sympathy just as his predecessor before him.