Ecclesiastes Survives a Mix-Up with Death’s Intern
A rollicking story of otherworldly visitors, mistaken identities, and even the bathroom sink...
Holy Wr*t! is a loveable collection of comic and fanciful short stories (this one’s for lovers of comic fantasy), reimagining the world of the Bible. Email subscribers get each new story delivered free. If you haven’t already, please sign up below!
Note to readers: Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books from the ancient world. Its author (sometimes called Ecclesiastes or “The Teacher”) discusses the ephemeral nature of life, and adopts an existentialist outlook in the face of death. How it ever made into the Bible is anybody’s guess, so I figured I’d write a story about it…
“Vanity, vanity,” said the Teacher, standing over his bathroom sink, which had convenient built-in cupboards and a handsome obsidian mirror. “All is vanity.”
Correction, he reminded himself. All my money is vanity. Sunk into this sink. Into this vanity. He had spent a small fortune—practically inventing indoor plumbing and the U-bend pipe along the way—and the stupid thing still didn’t work.
There was a knock at the door.
It was a young woman, dressed in a robe of blackest purple. She was standing directly in his doorway, and held a long black cane, tipped with carved bone. She cocked her head sideways and smiled at him.
“Poof,” she said, tapping him on the forehead with the cane. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls!”
“What?” asked the Teacher, somewhat taken aback.
“It tolls for— What?” said the woman, very taken aback.
They stared at each other.
“What the hell did you do that for?” said the Teacher, rubbing his forehead.
The woman squinted at him. “Hang on a second…”
He watched her mutter as she shook the cane. It seemed to him that she had too much eyeliner and lips that looked, even in this moment of minor distress, almost cheerful. “That ought to have worked,” he heard her say. She straightened up sharply, then exclaimed: “Swiftly flies the feathered death!” and smacked him again.
“Hey!” said the Teacher.
“Hmm…” said the young woman, with an air of vague disappointment. “I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to be dead.” She looked at him. “Do you feel dead?”
“How should I know?” said the Teacher. “How’s dead supposed to feel?”
“Clearly not,” said the woman, thoughtfully. “Well, goodbye!” She turned on one heel and walked away.
The Teacher was not the sort of person who followed strange women down the street. He considered himself an aloof malcontent; a high-minded pessimist; in short, a philosopher. A man of learning, not a child chasing after parade riders. It was beneath him, surely. And yet—here his hands twisted at the door handle as the thought passed through his mind—and yet his dignity had been affronted. Surely one did not get walloped on the forehead by itinerant occultists without demanding some kind of explanation.
One more look back at his vanity, and he dashed off after her.
Five minutes later the Teacher found himself drinking hibiscus tea and staring at the objects in her living room.
“It’s— ah— a very nice house,” said the Teacher, looking around.
“Thanks,” said the young woman. “Recent vacancy.”
Something about this made him slightly uneasy.
The room made him slightly uneasy. There was clutter everywhere: unwashed cups and olive pits and crusts of bread; piles of clothes flung everywhere except the places where clothes should be—such as the baskets, which were upside down, or the wall hooks, which were empty. But most of all there were the books: piles of leather-bound codices, stacked in precarious towers nearly to the ceiling; and scrolls everywhere, running loose across the workbench and jammed like hairpins into the furniture. They had such curious labels. “Book of the Dead, Egyptian”; “Mountain of the Dead, 1 Enoch”; “Dialogues of the Dead, Lucian.”
“Oh—that one’s funny,” the woman said, catching his eye.
He mumbled something, then added: “You sure do know how to work a theme.”
He watched her hide away empty clay bottles and place some sort of stringed musical instrument back on a shelf. “The collection is a little anachronistic,” she said over her shoulder, “But I’d like to think it’s fairly comprehensive.” She straightened up to point. “That one’s yours.”
Tucked way over on the edge of her desk, was a book titled: “Ecclesiastes.”
“Ecclesiastes?” he said. He didn’t recognize it.
“It’s Latin,” she said. “Transliterated from Greek. Translated from Hebrew.” She stuck out her hand. “You must be Solomon.”
He looked affronted. “I’m not Solomon. I would have thought Death would know that.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, gross. I’m not Death. I’m just his intern.”
It took a while to sort out. He explained that books sold better if they were attached to legendary figures of the past, and that he considered himself to be working in the Solomonic tradition, which meant it was perfectly fine to add in those lines about him being the “Son of David, King over Jerusalem,” and also the wisest man on the face of the earth. She asked if this wasn’t lying, and he said no, it was Pseudepigraphy. Besides, there were some borrowed sections in there, like the lovely stanza about there being “a season for everything, and a time for every matter under heaven.” He had come across it in his research, and so (who knows?) it really might go back to the real Solomon. She asked if this wasn’t plagiarism, and he looked offended.
For her part, she explained that the Angel of Death started out as a solitary figure within the celestial hierarchy, until the originator of the role couldn’t keep up on his own, and Top Brass decided the job required an entire department. Those had been the glory days, she said, that time between Enoch and Elijah. They got the red carpet treatment back then—lots of blood on the doorposts, and chariots of fire for special pickups. But like most things, it couldn’t last. During a routine review conducted by a minor subcommittee of a subcommittee of the Divine Treasury, it came out that almost all of the world’s death was happening organically, and that the Department of Death was simply showing up at the right place at the right time. After that, there was a lot of downsizing and outsourcing.
“These days,” continued the woman, “all we’ve got left is a couple of Watchers and one or two Reapers; all the rest are psychopomps. And the original Death, of course. He’s gotten kind of mopey.”
“What’s a psychopomp?” asked the Teacher. “And what are you? Just an intern?”
She glared at him. “There’s nothing wrong with interning. You have to start somewhere.” She bit her lip. “And a psychopomp ferries souls to the Hereafter. It’s an important job, otherwise you get lots of ghosts and things.”
She sat down and looked upset. Neither of them said anything for a while.
“That’s why I hit you with the Death Cane. I found your book and I liked it so much—really I did—but then you said all those things about death; about how life is inherently meaningless in the face of death because there isn’t any afterlife, so the only thing anyone can do is to enjoy existence the best they can—” She took a breath. “And anyway, it can’t be true; I won’t believe it. I thought it was high time someone did something about you saying all those awful things, especially when I heard they were going to put you in the Bible—”
“Really?” said the Teacher, grinning like a maniac. “The Bible?”
“Oh, shut up,” said the woman. “And you’ll be pleased to know that someone added in a nice pious postscript right at the end, to make you sound less heretical.”
“The Bible!” said the Teacher, rubbing his hands together. “Holy writ!”
“Shocking, I know,” she said dryly.
He settled down. “Hang on,” he said. “Don’t you know what comes next?” A look of self-doubt crossed his face. He had always believed that death meant the extinction of human consciousness—that in the grave there was nothing to fear, for in the grave there was nothing at all: no love; no hate; no envy; no reward. “Better a live dog than a dead lion,” he had always said. Depending on how she answered, he might have to rethink a few things.
“Don’t you know?” he asked again. “What happens when we die?”
“I’m ‘just an intern,’ remember?” She reused his condescending tone from earlier. “Actually,” she added, in her own voice, “it’s difficult to tell what happens next. We just move the souls along; the Hereafter part is someone else’s department.”
“Don’t you think that’s absurd? The fact that you don’t know? The fact that nobody knows? I mean, if it was so important, then—”
There was a knock at the door.
She held up one finger, then walked to the door and opened it.
There was a pause. “Holy shit,” she said.
The Teacher went to see who it was.
There, standing seven feet tall in the doorway, was Death Himself. A faceless apparition, robed entirely in black, with skeletal fingers and—right where one might expect a head—a black cowl draped over a void of infinite darkness.
“Pardon the Interruption,” said Death, “But I seem to be Missing my Cane.” His voice was the sound of mountains rubbing together.
There was awkward silence.
“Have you seen It, Samantha?”
“Er— yes,” said Samantha, for that was her name. “I sort of— borrowed it. Sorry.”
The featureless face of Death moved slowly from her to him, and then down to the cane, resting against the wall. A bony hand reached out and took it. “Thanks,” said the Angel of Death. Then he turned to go.
“Wait!” said the Teacher. He couldn’t help himself. “What comes next? Don’t you know?”
Death turned, and the Teacher suppressed a small whimper. “We were just debating the afterlife,” he said. “And I demand to know.”
“Why?” said the voice of Death, with a patience that had witnessed the end of all things since the very Dawn of Time.
“Well,” said the Teacher, summoning his courage, “Because it’s absurd. It’s absurd to have people running around believing in an afterlife; it’s a fairy tale and wish-fulfillment on a cosmic scale. Why should there be life after death? It’s preposterous.”
“Preposterous?” said Death, considering it. “Yes. It is Preposterous to Suppose there could be Life after Death.”
He extended his cane, for Samantha to take hold.
“Of course,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “It is Preposterous to Suppose there could be Life before Death. And Yet here you Are.”
The Teacher opened his mouth, then closed it again.
“Consider it from my Perspective,” said Death, with formal grace. “Here is a little bit of Life, telling Me there cannot Possibly be more Life, when It cannot even say how Life got Here in the First Place. When Once there was Only Death. No, not even Death; not even Nothing at All.”
Samantha took hold of the other end of the cane.
“Once you have gotten over that First Absurdity,” said Death, as he and Samantha began to fade away before the Teacher’s very eyes, “Well, It is all Downhill from There.”
The Teacher watched until the two of them had disappeared completely from sight. Strangely, and perhaps due to some small quirk of dimensional improbability, the Teacher could still hear them talking for a little while afterward.
“Aww, hell,” said the voice of Samantha, “I was hoping you would hit him with the Cane. Make him bite the dust. Or at least give him a little taste. A near-death experience or something. That would change his tune.”
“I Believe,” said Death, his voice fading almost out of range, “that you will Find that Indeed he Has had a Near-Death Experience.”
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