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Eleanor Arnason [] published her first story in 1973. Since then she has published six novels, two chapbooks, and more than thirty short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a Minnesota Book Award. Her short story “Dapple” won the Spectrum Award. Other short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Sidewise, and World Fantasy awards. Eleanor would really like to win one of these.

For the most part, the hwarhath do not think of death as a person. But there are remote regions on the home planet where education levels are low and superstition levels are high. In these places, people tell stories about Death.

This is one.

When the Goddess built the world, she worked like a good cook making a meal, tasting as she went along. She tasted the fruit to make sure it was sweet and the bitter herbs to make sure they were bitter. She tried other things as well: rocks, clay, water, bugs, fish, birds, and animals with fur. Cooked or raw, everything went onto her tongue.

In the end, the world was done and seemed more than adequate. As for the Goddess, she felt bloated and over-full. She made herself a medicinal tea and drank it. Then she had an enormous bowel movement.

After she had finished, she looked at the heap of dung. “Well, that looks nasty and smells nasty, too.”

The heap moved, and a voice came from it. “Don’t be too critical. I am a creation of yours, just as the world is.” The heap heaved itself up, assuming the shape of a man, though it was a badly formed man, lumpy and drippy. Its eyes were like two black fruit pits; its leathery tongue looked like a piece of skin pulled from a roasted bird; and its fingernails were like fish scales.

“I didn’t plan on you,” the Goddess said. “What are you?”

“I am the end of everything,” the man-shaped heap replied. “I am Death.”

The Goddess considered for a while and decided to let Death exist. Maybe he would prove useful. As he had said, he was her creation; and she rarely did anything that lacked point or meaning.

The dung-man dried, until he was smooth and dark brown. He became better shaped in the process, though he never grew fur, and he was always rather lumpy. Once he was completely dry, he took on his job, which was escorting life forms off the planet when their time was done.

Now the story turns to a woman named Ala. She lived in a cabin with her young son, a pet bird, and a loyal sul.

One night Death came to her door and scratched on it.

“Who is there?” Ala asked.

“I am Death, and I have come for Ala.”

“I’m her sister,” Ala replied.

“Then I won’t bother you, but tell Ala to come out and meet me.”

The woman hastily rolled up a quilt and tied it, then opened the door and handed it to Death. “Here she is.”

Death had poor eyesight, especially in the dark, but he could feel. The quilt felt round and comfortable, like a woman of Ala’s age. He thanked Ala and put the quilt in his sack and headed home.

You may think Death was stupid to mistake a rolled-up quilt for a woman. You are right. Remember that his brain, like the rest of him, was made of dung; and his job was comparatively simple. He didn’t need the intelligence and skill of a space pilot or a research doctor or even an ordinary person.

When Death got home, he pulled out the quilt. A fire burned on the health, and there were several lanterns, which he lit as soon as he got in the door. He could see that he held a quilt.

“I have been tricked,” he said. “But now I have a fine, thick quilt to put on my bed, which only had a worn sheet before. This is all to the good. Tomorrow I will go back for the woman.”

He spread the quilt on his bed and slept in comfort. The next night he went back to Ala’s cabin. “You tricked me, but you won’t do it a second time. I will feel to make sure the thing you give me is warm and living.”

Ala took her pet bird, which was sleeping on its perch, and handed it out to Death. Even his clumsy hands could tell it was warm and living. He thanked Ala and put the bird in his sack and headed home.

After a while, the bird began to sing: a wonderful, liquid music.

“That doesn’t sound like a person on her way out of existence,” Death said.

He stopped by a wayside tavern. Light shone from its windows. Standing in the light, Death opened his sack and took out the bird. “You aren’t Ala, and your time is not over. Go on your way.”

The bird spread its wings and flew to the top of a nearby mountain. There it sang and sang, until it attracted a mate. Together, they built a nest and raised nestlings, above clouds and mist and the troubles of the world.

The next night Death went back to Ala’s cabin. “You have fooled me twice, but you won’t do it again. I can tell if something is warm and alive and covered with fur rather than feathers. Give me your sister.”

Ala gathered up her loyal sul, which was lying by the fire, and handed it through the door. Sulin have scales as well as fur, as everyone knows. But Death felt only the fur with his clumsy hands, and he put the sul in his sack.

“Thank you,” he told Ala and headed home.

On the way, the sul began to growl and snarl.

“That doesn’t sound like a person on her way to the end,” Death said.

He stopped in a high pass and waited for dawn. Then, when the sun’s first rays lit the pass, he opened his bag and took out the sul, which snapped at him, but was afraid to bite.

“You aren’t Ala, and your time is not yet. Go on your way.”

The sul loped down from the pass into a thick forest. There it encountered a brave and honorable hunter. The two of them liked each other at once. In this way, the sul found a new master, who would never betray it. They lived together and hunted together in perfect harmony for many years.

The next night Death, who may have been stupid but was certainly persistent, returned to Ala’s cabin. “You have tricked me three times, but you won’t do it again. I can tell if what you give me is warm and alive, covered with fur and shaped like a person. Give me your sister.”

Ala looked around her cabin. The only thing that met Death’s specifications was her son, a boy of four or five, well mannered, obedient, and quiet.

She picked him up. “I am sending you with this man. No matter what happens, remain quiet.”

The boy inclined his head in agreement, and she handed him through the doorway to Death.

“Thank you,” said Death and popped the boy into his sack. Then he went on his way.

The bag was very dark, except for the dead people it contained, who glowed faintly. The boy did not see entire persons, but rather parts: a hand, a pair of eyes, a leg or foot, all glowing dimly. The ghosts took up no room, but floated through one another and through the boy, complaining in barely audible voices. For the most part, he did not understand what they said, though sometimes he made out a word or two or three: “Grief.” “Pain.” “Not now.” “Not like this.”

He was a stoic boy, but gradually he became frightened by the wisps of light and the sad, complaining voices. Nonetheless, he pressed his lips together and kept quiet, as his mother had told him.

Finally Death reached his house. He opened the bag and pulled the boy out. “Tricked again! You’re not Ala, and your time has not come. Go on your way.”

“Is your house near a town?” the boy asked.

“No. It’s far into the wilderness.”

“Then, I will die if you send me out alone; and you said this is not my time to die.”

Death frowned deeply as he thought. “You are right.”

“Why don’t I stay here?” the boy asked, glancing around at the warm fire and shining lamps. A fine quilt lay on the bed. The rug on the floor was badly worn, but still looked friendly and comfortable. “I could help you keep the fire burning; and I know how to sweep and wash.”

Death frowned some more, then tilted his head in assent. “You seem like a mannerly child, and one determined to be useful. I could use some company and help around the house. You are welcome to stay.”

So the boy remained in Death’s house, helping with the housework. At night, if Death was home, they played simple games together or the boy told stories as best he could. They were simple and childlike, but Death enjoyed them. Both were happy.

In the meantime, Death went back to Ala’s house a fifth time.

“You have fooled me four times, but this is the end. Send your sister out.”

Ala looked around her cabin. There was nothing more to give Death. She opened the door and said, “Your visits frightened my sister so much that she has fled south. Come in and look. You won’t find her.”

Death accepted her invitation, came in and looked around. The cabin seemed bare without quilt, bird, sul, and boy. He could find no second woman. “Very well,” he said. “I will look for Ala in the south. Don’t expect to see me again, until your time has come.”

He left, and Ala exulted. She had fooled Death five times and was free of him. Granted, she had lost her fine quilt, her pet bird, her loyal sul, and her son. Her cabin seemed cold and empty now, and she wondered if she could have found other ways to fool Death.

Wondering this, grief and sadness crept into her mind. But it was mixed with the joy that came from being free of Death.

At dawn she went down to the river to get a bucket of water. Mist obscured her way, and the wooden steps that led to the river were glazed with ice, which she could not see in the dim light. When she had almost reached the river, she slipped, fell into the water, and drowned.

Her bucket floated free, bobbing in the rapid current. She followed, her body turning slowly. At length, a long way down river, she climbed out.

Because Death had not found her, she was not entirely dead. Rather, she existed in a strange place between life and death. Her fur was drenched with water. Her teeth chattered, and she shivered all over.

She tried to gather dry vegetation to huddle under, but her hands went through the branches and leaves.

Next, she looked for people and their fires. She found a group of hunters around a roaring bonfire. Her old sul was among the sulin and growled, but no one else noticed her. She moved closer and closer to the fire, till she should have been roasting or burning. But the heat did not reach her. She remained wet and cold. Crying out in despair, she fled into darkness.

So began years of wandering. She never dried off or grew warm, though she tried over and over to heat herself at every fire she found. Even on the hottest days of summer, when everyone else was panting, she remained wet and cold.

People could not see her, though they sometimes felt her as an icy draft. Her only company was angry ghosts, who gathered around her complaining—not gently, like the newly dead, but in harsh, loud voices. Their deaths were unjust. Their families were ungrateful. The neighbors had been out to get them. Malice and bad luck had followed them all their lives. Their voices pierced her like knives of ice, making her even colder.

Finally, after years of wandering, she came to Death’s house. Her son was outside, sweeping the front step. By this time, he was nine or ten, a tall and promising boy. He looked at her and frowned.

“You look like my mother, though she was not soaking wet the last time I saw her.”

“What house is this?” the woman asked.

“Death lives here.”

“Then you must be my son. I gave him to Death years ago.”

The boy paused, considering. “It hasn’t been a bad life here, and Death has always told me to be courteous. So I will welcome you, though I never liked the way you handed me over. Come in!”

She entered the house and sat by the fire. Her son pulled the fine, thick quilt off the bed and folded it around her shoulders. At last, she stopped shivering and her teeth stopped chattering. The boy heated soup and gave it to her. At last, she was able to eat, though she hadn’t eaten or drunk for years.

Hah! The warm soup felt good going down! The quilt felt good on her shoulders! The fire’s heat felt good on her face and hands!

“Who is this?” asked Death, coming through the door.

“My mother,” said the boy.

“I am Ala,” the woman said. “I tricked you five times. Nonetheless, I died.”

“You haven’t died entirely, but you are mostly gone, as I can see,” Death replied. “This is why a stupid person can do my job. No one can escape the rules of physics and biology.”

“I died by accident, not physics,” Ala replied angrily.

“All living beings die one way or another,” Death replied comfortably. He helped himself to a bowl of soup and sat down to eat.

“What happens now?” Ala asked. “I can tell you I don’t like my current existence. I have been cold and hungry and tired for years, unable to warm myself or eat or sleep.”

Death gave her a considering look. “Usually, people die the moment I pop them in my bag. They may make a little noise, but they are gone. When I get them home, I take them out of the bag and divide them in two. The good parts go off to another place. I have no idea what happens there. The bad parts remain here as angry ghosts, complaining about their lives and deaths. Gradually, their anger wears them out. They grow thin and vanish entirely.

“But you are something new, neither alive nor dead. If I popped you into my bag, you might well become entirely dead. Then I’d have to divide you into good and bad. I’m worried about what would happen. You gave up a pet bird, a loyal sul, and a son to remain alive. This is bad; and it leads me to believe that most of you would become an angry ghost. Maybe I could drive you away; but since you tricked me five times, I’m not sure. I don’t want an angry ghost screaming and crying around my house at night. It would be unpleasant and likely to bother the boy. What do you say, lad? Do you want the ghost of your mother screaming outside our door?”

“No,” the boy said. “You have taught me to appreciate quiet. I don’t want to hear my mother screaming in the night.”

“I think I can see a few glimmers of good in you,” Death said to Ala. “The good is small and dim, and it’s tightly tangled with badness. It would be hard to pull free. Maybe this could change in time. Do you think you have learned any remorse?”

“I have learned there are worse things than death,” Ala replied.

“That’s a start,” Death said. “Why don’t you stay here? I would enjoy some grown-up company, and your son would enjoy his mother; and neither of us would have to deal with an angry ghost.”

“Yes,” said the boy slowly. “I think I would like to have my mother here, in spite of everything.”

Ala frowned. “It’s wrong for men and women to live together, unless they are members of the same lineage.”

Death laughed, showing his dung-brown teeth. “You are thinking of mating and reproducing. I represent undoing rather than doing. That being so, I can neither mate nor reproduce. Think of me as an old uncle or great-uncle, an eccentric member of your family, tolerated and possibly loved.

“In any case, you are in no position to talk about right and wrong. There is a lot about morality you need to learn, though I do admire your cleverness. It might prove helpful the next time someone tries to trick me.”

Ala looked at Death. He wore nothing except a cape, pushed back over his shoulders, and seemed to be a smooth, hairless man, though lacking any genitalia. She knew he was frightening, but at the moment he looked harmless. “I will stay,” she said.

Death laughed again.

Ala kept her word and stayed with Death. For the most part, she was happy. So long as she stayed close to Death’s house, she felt alive, able to eat and sleep and defecate. If she moved any distance, she began to feel herself grow thin and unreal. So she returned to the house.

She cooked meals and sewed clothing, told stories and helped raise her son. When Death came in with his bag, she tried to ignore the sorting process. Gradually, however, she began to watch. The boy had seen the ghosts in Death’s sack as glowing body parts. But when Death took them out, they looked like badly snarled tangles of thread or yarn. They came in all colors, but most were black, white, gray, or red. Using his clumsy hands, which were surprisingly deft at this task, Death pulled the filaments apart. When he was done, the gray and black threads rose into the air and wove themselves into an image of a person.

“Thank you,” the person said, rose to the ceiling and vanished. That was the good part, going to an unknown place.

As for the white and red filaments, they wove themselves into the image of an ugly, angry person with burning eyes and a mouth full of tusks. Saying nothing, it stormed out through the door.

What about the threads of other colors? They lay on the floor awhile, then faded and were gone.

“Most people have fur that is either black or gray,” Death told Ala, “and these are the colors of ordinary virtues, such as thoughtfulness and cooperation. Red is the color of rage and greed. White is the color of selfishness and indifference. These are the traits that destroy families and societies.”

“What a moralist you are,” Ala said angrily.

“I am the being the Goddess made,” Death replied. “Maybe she shat her morality out, after she finished making the world. It isn’t always clear to me that the universe is moral now. But I am. I have to be, in order to divide the dead.”

“What are the other colors?” Ala asked.

“Yellow and green and so on? The ones that fade? They are the parts that have nothing to do with morality. A liking for flowers. An ability to sing. Good reflexes. They go back into a general pool of traits, from which they are taken by future generations. Nothing is wasted here.”

When the boy was twenty, he left to find his own life. It is never easy to be a man alone, with no kin. But he found a job as a soldier, working for a large and contentious family that quarreled with all its neighbors. He was good at what he did, being strong and quick to learn, with an even temper and the good manners Death had taught him. In addition, he was not afraid of Death, though he certainly respected him. His calmness and lack of fear made him a very good soldier.

He and Death met from time to time on battlefields and in field hospitals. The man could always see his foster uncle, though no one else could, except those who were actually dead. They chatted before Death put the man’s comrades and enemies into his bag and carried them away. Both Death and the boy, now a man, took comfort from their conversations.

As for Ala, one day Death said to her, “I think I could divide you now. You seem to have learned something about morality over the years. There is more good in you, and it’s less mixed with the bad.”

Ala considered. It seemed to her she was as selfish as ever, though she liked and respected Death, who had a hard job and did it carefully. “I’d rather stay here. I have no desire to leave the world; and I am terrified of becoming an angry ghost. Even though I am not entirely—or even mostly—alive, I can still take pleasure in flowers and food and in telling a story.”

“Very well,” Death said after a long silence, during which he frowned mightily.

They remained together like two old relatives.

Ala’s son became the leader of a war band, respected by all. When he was sixty-five, a stray arrow killed him; and Death came for him. The man’s spirit rose from his body, looking no more than twenty. “It’s good to see you,” he said to Death and embraced the old monster. “Do I have to get into the bag? I didn’t like it the first time.”

“No,” said Death. “Though I will put the other soldiers there.”

They traveled home slowly, talking. In the mean time, many people on the edge of dying remained alive. Let that be as it was, Death thought. He treasured this journey with his foster nephew.

Hah! The forests they saw! The rushing rivers and tall mountains!

At last they reached Death’s house. “Your mother is inside,” Death said.

“Let her remain there,” the man said. “She is afraid of dying, and that is what I’m here to do.”

They sat down on the bare ground in front of the house. The man looked his age now, still solid, but no longer young. The long guard hairs over his shoulders were silver-white, as was the soft, thick fur around his mouth and along the line of his jaw. “Go ahead,” he said.

Death reached in and pulled out the threads that were the man’s spirit. Only a few were red and white, the colors of anger and selfishness. Many were gray and black, the colors of responsible behavior. Most were other colors: yellow, orange, green, blue, purple.

The red and white threads were too few to become anything. They faded at once. The black and gray threads wove themselves into the image of a person, who nodded politely to Death, then rose into the sky and vanished.

The rest of the threads wove themselves into another person, this one blue-green, dotted with yellow, orange, and purple. The person floated on the wind like a banner. “What am I?” it asked Death.

“I don’t know. I have never made anything like you.”

“Then I must find out, but not here. I will come back for a visit, if I am able.” It flew off on the wind, soaring and rippling.

Death rose and went inside, where Ala waited by the fire. Here the story ends.

Translator’s note # 1: The hwarhath live in large families. A few are solitary, mostly because of their jobs: a forest fire-spotter or herder, the operator of a lift bridge in a remote location. But women with children are always surrounded by relatives. A hwarhath reader would know at once that something was disturbingly wrong about Ala, though we never find out why she is living on her own, except for her son.

Translator’s note # 2: Several human readers of the translation have complained that the story does not close the way a human story ought to. Ala has learned nothing from her experiences and does not suffer any consequences for her really awful behavior. The hwarhath (and the translator) would reply (a) some people do not learn from experience and (b) Ala does suffer consequences. At the story’s end, she is trapped in Death’s house, unable to go any distance from it; and she is stuck between life and death, not entirely dead, but not really living. In spite of all her cleverness, has she escaped the thing she fears? Do any of us escape the things we fear?

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