My Interview with Death

You know those nights, those ones where your mind refuses to calm and instead decides to wade into thoughts you’d prefer buried. As a child to try to get to sleep, I’d pretend to be a variety of different characters, each one stranger than the last. From a fireman, to a knight of old, to a Norse god, my dreams were never-ending. I’m older now and I’m forced to accept the fact that in these characters are virtues that I so woefully lack, I mean, nobody dreams of things they already have.

Though, I still enjoy the euphoria of being redefined as a new person, the childish glee of stepping into another person’s shoes. It allows me to try and understand other people, other things, that are far beyond the scope of Anthony. In these dreams, the world is my playground and I can do pretty much anything I want. Recently, these dreams have spun just a bit out of my control. I think it has to do with all the fears that plague us as we grow older. Will I succeed in what I’m doing? Will I ever be happy? Is clear skin something that’ll be mine in the near future? That sort of thing. These are feelings I never actually predicted. I, like many others, assumed that after secondary school, I’d settle well into a good university and from there get a good job, then a good wife, then good kids. But life is hardly ever that straightforward, for the working class anyway. So here I am, like an irritable customer who got a lot more than he bargained for at the misshapen store of Life. “This, is not what I ordered.”

A fear I’ve been struggling with particularly, though, is a persistent fear of mine, of yours, of ours. And in my little dreams I can portray myself as something different, something to soothe my thoughts, and lull me to sleep. It’s a new one, I think, since I’ve never actually been an interviewer before.

I look down and suddenly I’m sitting in a pleated chair and I’m wearing a navy-blue suit. The suit is okay but the tie is one of those wool tie thingies and I just hate the sight of them. I’m struggling to remove it by wrenching it above my neck as I look, for the first time, at the room I’m now in. It’s one with a pure white décor and the only piece of furniture are the chair I’m sitting on, another chair opposite me and a round table in between where a recorder is lying on. I think to myself, ‘maybe a little more colour?’ A dark red rose materializes from thin air just in from of the white painted metal door and floats in the air a little before crashes on the floor. I curse myself, resolving to have a word with myself and then cancelling the thought, realising how crazy I sound. I finally get the awful tie off and free my neck when the door opens, and the most beautiful person I have ever seen walks in. I try to explain it but I fall short, the figure is dressed in all black, taller than me at maybe six feet and three inches. I try to focus on the person’s face but it’s like staring at a kaleidoscope, I can’t fully focus on it. I can’t fully see as I can feel the grace emanating from this being. I stop for a moment, I know my mouth is wide open but I don’t really care, I’m just too shocked.

The figure takes a few steps forward and accidentally crushes the rose under their feet. The figure looks down curiously and crouches down and holds the delicate rose between gentle fingers. I’m lost in the moment, trying to comprehend how someone this amazing can exist when I notice that a petal falls from the rose and then another and then another. The figure rises and before they’re even upright, the rose’s warm red colour reduces to an ashy grey and before my eyes, it turns into dust, the particles falling on the white tiled floor.

Okay, then, no handshakes, I think to myself.

I look on as the figure walks on, and takes the seat in front of me, barely making a sound through all this movement. I don’t really know what to do next so I just reach in front of me and click the record button on the recorder. Might as well do what I came here for.

A minute in and nobody says a word. I hate silence, I always have, it feels so empty and perverse and it drives me crazy, so I take the leap of faith and say something.

“Hi.” I finally say, instantly regretting it, I should’ve said something cooler and more formal like “Hello.” But before I even attempt to rectify my mistake, I get a reply.

“Hello.” Damn, I knew I should’ve said that. Before I begin chastising myself, I note the voice, it’s masculine, but with feminine undertones, making me unsure of what exactly this figure is.

“You look confused, does this form make you uncomfortable?” the person says as he/she/it cocks their head to the side.

“Yeah,” I admit. “it’d be really nice if you can just pick a side so this can go a bit more smoothly.”

The figure nods in agreement and its features contort and shift as well as its body shakes a little too. And then, I’m staring right into the eyes of a middle aged dark skin man. He’s sporting that bald look which actually fits him really well. His cheekbones are angular as if sculpted with a chisel and it’s complimented with a round chin and the deepest brown eyes I’ve ever come across. They’re almost black, now that I think about it, the same colour of the abyss. His suit is the colour of obsidian, all through, black shirt, black jacket, black shoes, black trousers, the whole thing. I feel fear creeping up my spine but I stifle it, there’s nothing to be scared of. I look softly at the rose dust and gulp.

“Well,” he says raising his hands slightly, “what do you want to ask me?”

I swallow my fear and I push on. “Okay, let’s start easy, who are you? what’s your name?”

“A lot of different cultures have known me by many names, I have no name, I am who and what I am.”

“Okay… do you have a nickname or something, anything I can call you?” I say, fiddling with the loose thread on the side of my trousers.

“If you insist, you can call me, Mort.” He edges of his mouth crinkle a little, like he’s just made a small joke. I don’t get it. “Though, it doesn’t matter what you call me,” he continues, “you already know who I am.”

Death. it sends a cold shiver across my body, I had a feeling.

“Why are you feared across generations and centuries?” I ask again, trying to look away from his eyes.

“I don’t know, you tell me. You fear me, don’t you?” he says this with a smile on his face as he leans back into the chair.

“You’ve taken away loved ones from me, people I cared about. Why shouldn’t I fear you? You’re evil.” I say, suddenly angry. I look down at my hands and see that my fists are balled.

“Am I?” he says, his smile gone, replaced with a stern look. I realise that maybe I’m the one being interviewed after all.

“Yes, you are,” I say, almost shouting. “So many of those people you took were good people, people who actually brought light into other people’s lives.”

“I am not a person but simply an inevitable constant, child.” He says, a little angrily. “Why don’t you hate the sun rising or a child being born? All these things will always happen, regardless of your personal feelings.” He stands up and starts walking around the room, seemingly thinking of something out loud.

“That’s the thing about you humans, you’re ruled by fear. You’re scared of not succeeding, not being liked, not reaching all your goals, not completely believing in your dreams, leaving yourself a little space, in case it falls apart and you look foolish. And you end up being so scared that the fear rules you and stops you from actually doing anything with the lives you’ve all been giving. Tell me something, when your grandmother died, how did you feel?”

“Sad, angry, I never got to say goodbye.” The tears I didn’t know I was holding back, started to flow freely down my cheek.

“But what about her life, child, how did her life look?”

I think about it for a moment. “Everything she did, all her kind words and noble work, they all seemed magical. More inspirational. Her steps suddenly stopped becoming footprints and more of standards to me. The way she lived became so — “

“Admirable.” Death said. “That’s another one of the funny things about you humans that I find so amusing. Most of the time, you only truly appreciate beauty when it’s far away from your grasp, gone forever, reduced only to a memory.”

I’m quiet now, I don’t know what else to say.

“Let me tell you something. You are going to die. When you’re going to die, I can’t tell. But it can happen at any moment from now. One day, I will come and take you too and your loved ones will cry tears of gold but none of it will change anything. In about ninety years, everything you know and love, all these people, they will all be dead. Reduced to ashes, like that rose.”

I smile a little through the tears. “If this is your way of cheering me up, you’re failing. Terribly.”

Death finally sits back down and looks me dead in the eye. “One thing I don’t understand is this: you all know this and yet you go on, living timid lives. What is the fear of humiliation to the promise of demise? What is the fear of failing to the certainty of nonexistence? Why not take risks, live your life, do it on your own terms? Why instead, waste your time living on standards that’ll never give you the satisfaction you so desperately need?”

I wipe the tears out of my eyes. “I never thought about it that way. But it’s so scary sometimes. Life. It’s like there are so many things to do and it’s not like there’s an instruction manual or anything. Staying in one place is safer. Humiliation, looking stupid, those things can’t hurt me here.”

Death shakes his head. “But then you end up with a life you loathe. You end up living a lot less than you could have been. I can’t tell you whether you’ll fail or succeed but I can tell you this, you won’t know unless you leave your tiny shelter and go into the world. You will be hurt, you will fail, but it’s all part of it. You have a limited time and when I come, I will not ask you whether you are ready. You will be gone.

“You know, in some ancient cultures, like memento mori, the people would keep a skull close by, in their work place, near their beds, anywhere.”

“Why?” I asked, wondering why anyone would do something so strange and weird and before I even finished the thought, I thought of seven people right off the bat who I could imagine doing that.

“It was a way of reminding themselves of what was to come. It helped them keep things in focus. In this new age, maybe it’s needed.”

“So,” I said, “you want us to carry skulls around?”

Death looks at me dryly. “No, not that, but the concept. Keep the fear of death close. Because when pit against the fear of death, all other fears fall away leaving only the drive to continue.”

He stands up and dusts off his clothes. I feel like there should be more. “So any last words from the ever daunting death?”

He assumes his normal shapeless form and in his strange unisex voice he says his final message. I hear one word, one word which coming from that mouth seems strange but profound.

It was said in a whisper yet I heard it as clear as day.

“Live.”

Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.

Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.