A Desert Lily

By Maneesh J., Iowa

2020 Write Now Special Edition Winner - High School: grades 9–12

They call me Death. I've seen it all.

My vessel goes back and forth, carrying souls from their moments of demise to the afterlife. It has been that way for so long. I don't even remember when it began.

Over the eons, my shape and the shape of my vessel have changed ever so slightly, drifting with the collective consciousness of the myriad deceased. Sometimes I recall my wolfish face from ancient Egypt, the noose I carried in India, my days on a ferry in Greece.

Recently, though, I've tried to modernize.

My vessel takes the form of some kind of transportation—for that is its nature. It's the path every human takes to the afterlife, and people envision that in a way their minds can comprehend. Some souls still see the old vessels, but for most people in modern times, when they die, I pull up in a black bus and offer them a ride. I find it quite acceptable for my tastes. A bus: public transportation, so ordinary and underappreciated. It suits me.

Besides the change of vessel, I find modernization very uninteresting.

The cycle of life happens as it always did, only with larger numbers. More births, more deaths, longer lifespans. I'm bored, but I don't mind.

I've always been bored.

Then the heat begins.

It comes so swiftly that humanity has no time to react. Suddenly I feel a drastic change of appearance. I find myself clothed in scorching winds and raging storms and plastic bags drifting in the ocean. I find myself smelling of chemicals and smog and petroleum. I find myself present in every ray of sunshine beating down on this lonely blue planet.

Mass deaths sweep across the world like a flood.

I make more bus stops in those years than I ever have before.

Every soul I meet tells me stories of the suffering. Wars are waged for drinking water. Cities are submerged and lost to the sea. The skies are filled with poison and smoke.

And after it all, after I make billions of stops, after I begin to think my work will never end, the flood recedes to a trickle. I make fewer and fewer stops.

Before I know it, the river of deceased souls is all but dry.

Months and years pass between stops.

Finally, I receive the longest holiday I've ever had. For three years, I waste away, bored out of my mind. I wander in the eternal darkness, waiting for the next job.

I wait, and wait.

Eventually the day comes. I feel the call, pulling at the core of my being like gravity. I start the bus and drive out of the darkness. I find myself in a desert.

A shelter stands before me, halfway buried in the earth.

The body lies on the steps leading from the door to the surface. The soul rises above the corpse, waiting patiently. I step out of the bus, setting foot on solid land for the first time in years. It feels good to be back to work. I walk forward and offer a polite wave.

"You've passed away," I say.

"I know." The young woman smiles. "I've been waiting for you."

She wears ragged robes, made to cover every inch of skin up to her neck. A torn coat hangs around her shoulders. Her face is hidden beneath a hood and a metal oxygen mask—tubes snake from the mask into a machine she carries on her back. The apparatus holds many glass cylinders, each of which houses a little plant.

I look closer. All the plants are withered and dead.

My gaze returns to her eyes. "Are you ready?"

"Ready?" She tilts her head curiously. "Were there people who weren't?"

I shrug. "There are many who insist on staying. I don't force them to go anywhere. They linger here with their regrets and sorrows. Eventually, they fade away."

She frowns. "That's so sad."

"It is," I agree, "but it allows me to appreciate those who are prepared." I nod at the bus. "There's our ride. Before we go, is there anything you could give me?"

"Give you?"

"Consider it a toll, or a gift to a lonely old ferryman, or a letting go of something that tethers you to this world."

She hums in thought. "What would you like?"

"Something of value that you have," I explain. "I hold onto the treasures of the dead forever. Some people have given me coins, rings, crowns, money. Others have given me words or artwork or music. Many gave me nothing. It's alright if you don't." I sigh for a moment. "To be honest, I would appreciate having something to remember you by. After you leave, I have a feeling I'm going to be alone for a long, long time."

The young woman smiles kindly. "I might have something."

She takes off her oxygen mask, revealing chapped lips and dry sunburnt skin. She's younger than I thought. The girl unstraps the machine from her back and sets it on the ground, kneeling before it. She opens the glass cylinders one by one.

Finally, she finds what she's looking for.

The girl swiftly pulls something from a cylinder and stands.

With a warm smile, she holds her hands out to me, presenting a pale white flower. Its petals shiver like living fire, stark and clean against the black smog of the wasteland.

My eyes widen.

"Isn't it beautiful?" she murmurs.

I nod silently.

She holds it out, her gaze insistent. "Here, take it."

I reach out and grasp it in my shadowy fingers, feeling that it is nothing but memory. The true flower is already long dead. Even so, it's still beautiful.

The girl's smile widens. "I hope it keeps you company in the years to come."

"This is your treasure?" I ask.

She nods.

"Why? What is its value?"

Her eyes shimmer with sorrow.

"It's the last one," she replies. "The last of its kind."

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