The Cauldron of Mourning

by C. W. Johnson

Benjamin rose out of his dream of being underwater and bobbed just below the surface of wakefulness. Stirring drowsily in the bed, the mothy wings of sleep flapping at his eyes, he reached out to touch his wife. Her skin was as cold as stone.

The moist memory of the dream evaporated and he touched her again. A stone. Panic surged through his chest and up his neck; he jerked upright, his heart drumming, as sleep flitted away from his eyes. Moonbeams dappled the bedroom and cast long shadows among the folds of the blankets covering the wife of his body. The body was face down, the hair cast carelessly across the pillow like an aura. She did not move. She did not breath. He tried to say her name. Susan. It wedged in his throat. He pushed at her shoulder; her body was inert, like a bag full of clay.

He told himself she was only in a deep sleep, that she'd wake in a minute and the two of them would laugh nervously about this ha ha boy was I scared. He waited, his breath stoppered in his throat. She did not stir. You can't be dead, he thought as panic fell upon him like a poacher's net. You can't be.

On Susan's side of the bed was the telephone. Benjamin swallowed. To pick up the phone would be to surrender her, to admit.... He hesitated for only a second, then wondered the price of that second. He felt as if coarse cloth was wrapped around his head and limbs: he was suffocating, he could not see, he could barely move, the plastic slid beneath his touch.

As he grasped the phone, he turned and saw at the foot of the bed a small boy with doughy arms, wispy hair and wide eyes. The boy, pale as the moonlight, jumped and gave a startled and furtive look. Benjamin stared, thinking at first this was only a trick of the light. He remembered the terrors of night that stalked him as a child: a shirt over a chair a ghost, an open door the yawning maw of a monster.

But his wife was dead and cold. That was no trick of the light.

The boy held in one hand a sack, inside of which shapes moved and strained against the cloth. A sudden door opened inside of Benjamin's heart and he knew this was Death come to take his wife away.

Benjamin's heart fluttered against his ribs like an insect's wings on glass; the vibrations rose out of his chest, through his neck and the convex plates of his skull and into his ear, climbing higher in pitch as well; and Benjamin recognized the dial tone of the telephone in his hand. He turned and punched the three digits and when he looked back, even before the emergency operator's voice came on the line, the boy was gone.


The ambulance took fewer than five minutes---but far too many heartbeats---to arrive. As the attendants wheeled Susan on a stretcher out of the house, Benjamin noticed on the perimeters of his yard his neighbors, the Meyers next door. Illumined by the red light, they nodded sadly to Benjamin as he climbed into the ambulance. The doors slammed shut behind him with ominous finality. Its siren a cry of grief, the ambulance tore through the night as Benjamin held his wife's cold hand during the long and swerving journey through the streets.

At the hospital it did not take long at all before the doctor told him his wife was dead.

The doctor, a young woman, recited for Benjamin the resuscitation procedures attempted. All had failed. Cause of death unsure: a brain aneurysm was suspected. She gently suggested an autopsy.

Benjamin stared at the doctor. He wanted to demand that she go back and try again. But the doctor's face was pale and lined from exhaustion; and as Benjamin stared down at her shoes, the emergency doors flew open and another stretcher was rushed in. The doctor said "Excuse me" and was gone.

Benjamin's wife was dead. He felt he ought to cry but the tears would not come, only the breath going in and out heavily. Sinking into a chair, he picked up a magazine with thick fingers: the words made no sense and he put it down and found his hands were shaking. He always dreaded hospitals, ever since his mother had died when he was eleven. He never went to the doctor despite Susan's prodding.

The wallclock marked the minutes as more ambulance gurneys were rushed through the emergency room and into an adjoining treatment room. People were dying at a steady rate, it seemed. Then after a maddening length of time Benjamin was allowed to visit his wife's body. A tube for oxygen was still strapped across her face. Her lips were bluish, her skin gray, but her expression calm. His heart squeezed as the sight reminded him of his own mother's body, felled by a sudden heart attack. He gripped his wife's limp hand, kissed her forehead, and then broke down, crying hard and silently.

Sometime later a doctor, the same young woman who had spoken to him earlier, lead him from the room, gave him an envelope containing his wife's wedding ring, her only effect, and introduced him to a policeman. Benjamin looked up into the wide, somber face of the cop. Over the man's shoulder Benjamin saw the door of a treatment room thrown open and a nurse rushing out. "Officer Shaeffer can drive you home, Mr Kelso," the doctor was saying.

For a moment through the open door Benjamin caught a glimpse of another doctor in surgical greens pounding on a chest; and then, before the door swung shut, he saw someone slip into the room. Someone carrying a sack. It had been a small, pale boy.

The sight jolted Benjamin. The cop was saying, "Unless you got someone else you want to call to pick you up, or something." Benjamin glanced toward the treatment room, then back to the cop. He opened his mouth but closed it without a word. A doctor came out of the room, pulling off a surgical mask and looking defeated.

Benjamin turned to the cop, nodded, and followed him out into the night.


After letting Benjamin out in front of his house, the patrol car pulled away and silence settled upon the street. The night air was cool, the moon had set, and the celestial dome above was pinpricked with stars. The constellations were familiar to Benjamin from childhood loves of astronomy and Greek myths. Scorpio hung over the horizon and Orion stalked it from above.

As Benjamin walked toward the house he recalled the first heady days of his love for Susan. At a dinner party with mutual friends they had met, making awkward small talk at first, until a chance remark revealed that they had each lost a parent suddenly in childhood. That small detail in common had broken the ice. They started talking. He confessed his fear of death and she her repressed anger at her father; by turns their hearts opened to each other and the conversation blossomed and, like many to follow, had lasted long into the night. And then one day they had discovered they loved each other.

Standing on the porch, Benjamin's hand trembled as he fit the key into the lock. Inside, the living room was small: three steps sufficed to cross it. He stopped at the threshold of the bedroom. He could not sleep in there. Not tonight. Benjamin decided to sleep on the couch; he saw himself sleeping there for weeks, perhaps months....

He went in the bedroom for a blanket. As he glanced at the tossed bedclothes, his insides squirmed and he turned to the closet. Choosing a quilted comforter from a shelf above his suits, he pulled it down and walked quickly across the room, anxious to leave. But his foot landed on something and his ankle turned and he stumbled.

Benjamin reached down and picked up the offending object. It was a toy locomotive, carved of wood, weathered and worn, small enough to fit easily in his palm. He spun the wheel with a finger and wondered where it came from. His wife's nephew? But that visit had been six months before. He put it in his pocket and took the comforter out of the bedroom.

But the living room was no better. He spread the comforter on the couch and stood up and everything reminded him of Susan. Of the plans and dreams he had for their future. Now the empty house ringed him like desert flatlands. He squeezed his eyes shut to imagine his future life. He saw nothing. Slowly sitting down on the couch, he picked up the sheaf of papers he had brought from the hospital. On the top sheet was a pencilled reminder: Call funeral home. That was all the future he could see. Standing under a hot sun for the burial, the smell of cut grass and freshly turned earth. Men and women in black. He'd have to call her mother. Her work. Their friends. Have to accept their words of sorrow, when he wanted nothing. And then the years of rattling around the house. Benjamin stood up. He did not have the strength to face it. Instead he walked out the front door.

After the stifle of the house the night air was cool and refreshing. He walked down the middle of the street, out from under the row of trees, so he could look up at the blaze of stars. Scorpio still hung just above the horizon, as if caught in the branches of a tree. Benjamin decided he would walk forever, the night would never end, the oceans would be paved for him and he would wander darkened streets on six continents and never meet another soul.

He stopped at the edge of the grassy field at a local school and looked across the flatness of the field into the edges of darkness that rose like columns from the ground and arched into the sky. The darkness suddenly oppressed him: it reminded him of the day his mother had died, how he had been swimming and diving deep into murky water and for a moment had gotten disoriented and could not see the surface and feared he would drown. But he came to the surface and swam to shore. When he arrived home, wet and cold, he was told his mother had died of a heart attack. She had gone gently, he was told, she had been taking an afternoon nap.

He grief rose up like mist from the ground; it was so palpable he knelt down in the middle of that field of grass and the grief ran through him like a keening wind, high and biting. As his fingers groped and plucked a blade from the black earth, his vision split: he saw himself from the outside, a cramped figure made small by the expanse of the field and smaller still by the stretch of stars above. For an instant a curtain was pulled aside and for that instant he truly believed he would never see his wife again, and the realization was like a cold tendril curling into his brain. Oh Susan---

Benjamin stood and turned. He was at a children's playground: the skeletal bars and swings loomed above the horizon of rooftops. He moved forward and touched a jungle-gym set. The smell of the metal stayed on his hand. Then from the center of his chest the grief lashed out and battered him again and he winced and gripped the metal and swore under his breath.

He turned again, outward, to face the darkness sweeping across the field. Leaning back against the jungle-gym, he jammed his hands into his pockets. One hand found something hard: the toy locomotive. Slowly Benjamin pulled it out and examined it and fingered the fine, smooth grain. Looking up, he shivered as the wind rose and rattled the leaves on the ground.

Out of the dark and from across the field came a small, pale figure. The boy who was Death walked toward Benjamin holding a palm up and outstretched. Benjamin watched as Death approached. A cold wind swirled inside Benjamin's head and his heart thumped rapidly.

With his eyes fixed on the wooded locomotive, Death stopped a few feet in front of Benjamin, the hand still outstretched. Benjamin started to give the toy to him, then stopped. The boy's gaze moved from the locomotive to Benjamin. Through his clothes Benjamin felt the cold steel behind him.

The boy squinted at him. "You got to sleep to forget."

"You took my wife," Benjamin says softly but with an edge of anger. "I won't forget her."

Death shook his head. "No, no. To forget me. When you sleep, you'll forget me. You got to sleep."

"Why?" Benjamin cries out. "And why did you take her?"

"Because." He did not look at Benjamin as he spoke.

"She didn't do anything wrong---I don't know a more wonderful person! Why?"

"Because!"

Benjamin trembled: his hands shook, his legs quavered. The boy made a show of holding up and squinting at his left wrist, which was bare. "Time to go," the boy says, holding out his right hand more insistently.

Slowly Benjamin lifted the toy train and put it into the palm of Death. His fingers brushed the skin of the boy and he recoilled even though the touch was warm and dry. Death's pudgy fingers wrapped around the locomotive and he smiled briefly and shyly.

Even as Benjamin released the toy he was struck by a vision, he knew what he should have done; a cold hand touched his brain and he cried out from what he had just lost. As Death turned to walk away, Benjamin fell to his knees. "Wait!" he called out, his hand still extended. "Oh, God, wait." He gasped for breath.

The boy halted and turned his head.

"Listen," said Benjamin, "I gave you, freely, that thing, your toy back. I could have tried to ransom my wife with it---but I didn't. I have it to you in good faith."

Death fiddled with his toy.

Benjamin licked his lips. "Can you, in return, do me a favor. Susan, my wife, please---"

The boy rolled a wheel with a finger. Benjamin, on his knees on the ground, the moisture of the damp grass soaking through the cloth and to his skin, felt light-headed. "I mean," said Benjamin, clenching his outstretched hand, "why her? Why not Mrs Meyer next door, she's old and lived a full life---." He broke off. The boy stared at him. Benjamin felt it as an accusation. His hand fell. He was very cold. "No. That's not right. I can't offer her up in Susan's place." He let his head slump for several long moments until the cold had crept into his chest. Then he lifted his head. The boy was still watching him. Benjamin, his heart fluttering, said, "Take me instead."

Death winced. Benjamin began to cry, the heat of his tears stinging his numbed face. "Or take me with her," Benjamin said.

The boy shook his head. "There's nothing. It's boring. There's no one to play with," he said, turning the toy train over and over in his hands. He got down on his knees and pushed the locomotive across the ground. "No one," he repeated. After a moment he looked up at Benjamin. "You wouldn't like it. You wouldn't like anything. And I can't take you both, anyway. One one. There are rules," he whispered.

"Then take me!" Benjamin cried out. "For God's sake, can you take me instead? Why else torture me, why else let me see you take my wife away?"

Death turned away. After a moment his spoke, his voice sounding older and weary. "I didn't want you to see me. But...I couldn't help it. You can feel my presence."

"I---"Benjamin swallowed. "Is that why I'm so afraid of you?"

The boy seemed to ignore this question. "You aren't the first. Not the first to trade." The wind rattled and cackled the leaves across the ground. "Your life was once ransomed by another, but you felt me then, and so you know me, and I tried to be quiet and I tried to be careful but woke you up anyway. I didn't mean to. I didn't."

The boy stood there, facing away from Benjamin, with his head hung low. Benjamin felt a cold pressure on his brain as understanding sank into him. "You mean...?" he whispered and for a moment he was eleven again and under murky water. "You mean...? For me?"

The boy said nothing.

"Can you take me instead of Susan?"

Death sighed. "Your life was ransomed, and so you can ransom another's."

In a small voice, Benjamin said, "I want you to take me."

Death turned around, his head still hung low. "Okay. Come on."

Benjamin caught the boy's arm at the wrist. "Will I be able to see Susan one more time? Say goodbye to her?"

Death sighed again. On his knees Benjamin waited, motionless. Finally the boy said, "You can't tell her anything." The icy voice warned of the consequences. He glanced at his still bare wrist, "Five minutes. Then we go." He managed a mischievous smile. "We'll take your car." He pressed his warm fingers on Benjamin's eyelids. "Sleep."


Benjamin sat bolt upright, his heart drumming, as the sleep that had started to creep into his eyes flitted away. Moonbeams dappled the walls of the bedroom and cast long shadows among the folds of the blanket covering his wife. Susan stirred and coughed in her sleep.

Benjamin's muscles jerked in unison; then he understood and the fear and grief drained from his soul and his body. He looked around the room but the boy was not to be seen. Only shadows and the slumping bureau remained. A bad dream, he thought.

"Ben?" Susan touched him, then broke out in a fit of coughing. "I don't feel too good."

Benjamin couldn't help but smile. His pulse had begun to slow. "You'll be okay," he told her, then touched her gently, delicately, as if she might crumble to dust.

She coughed again, then asked sleepily, "Could you look for some cough syrup? In the medicine cabinet." He kissed her forehead and went into the bathroom. The light was bright and stabbed his eyes. But it banished the fears he had. Amazing how the mind can torture itself, he thought, opening the medicine cabinet. He couldn't find any cough syrup. When he closed the cabinet he saw in the mirror the pale face of the boy. Five minutes, the lips mouthed.

Shaken, Benjamin leaned over the sink, his trembling hands gripping the porcelain. Then he went back to his wife, who was still coughing. "I can't find any," he told her, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

"God, I'll never be able to sleep coughing like this," she said. He stroked her hair. "Could you be a dear and run to all- night and see if they have any?"

"Sure, sweetheart," he said. His caress ran down to her slender shoulder, his hand marveling in the beauty of its design; then it slipped to the front of her nightshirt and cradled the curve of her breast.

"Honey, it's the middle of the night," Susan said, turning over and away, "and I have a killer faculty meeting in the morning."

"Yeah," Benjamin said, standing up. He pulled on his pants and a shirt. Then, on an impulse, he lay back down next to her and put his arms around her. He smelled the faint perfume coming off her warm body. He could lie there forever.... But a voice said, "Aren't you going?" and he did not know if it were Susan or Death.

"Love you," he said to Susan as he put on his coat, and she mumbled something in return. He stood before the bed for a moment, trying to think of something else to say. But he couldn't, and he turned to go.

Just was he was going out the bedroom door, Susan called out, "And don't forget to get the red stuff. You know I don't like the yellow stuff."

"I know."

"The red stuff."

Benjamin nodded and walked through the halls of their house, looking at the furniture standing in silence and awe. He touched each piece, as if saying goodbye. This is ridiculous, he thought. He looked at the drapes of the front window. As a child he always had to have the drapes pulled; otherwise if he looked out at night, something monstrous and slavering might throw itself against the window. He pushed aside the fabric and saw only the rhododendrons, which needed trimming, and the porchlights of the neighbors. At the door he paused to feel the cool brush of the night air; then he stepped out onto the front porch and locked the door behind him.

Death stood next to him, holding a limp, empty sack. The toy locomotive was jammed in a pocket. Benjamin felt only a slight bump of surprise. He sighed and looked up into the black canvas of the night. Scorpio was still caught in the trees and had not moved a degree; but even as he watched the red jewel of Antares started to glide across the sky. Benjamin was so startled he felt himself almost leap from his body. The other stars that made up Scorpio began to move. They danced and whirled around each other in complete silence, then flew apart across the heaves and disappeared over the horizon.

"Is this the end?" Benjamin whispered to Death.

"Only for you," Death said. Benjamin watched as Rigel, Betelgeuse, and the other stars of Orion followed the fate of Scorpio; then Sagittarius, then Taurus. Constellation by constellation the stars danced themselves away, leaving only more darkness. The moon shimmered and faded away, too.

The boy tugged at his shirt sleeve. Benjamin began to walk to the car. As they walked, Benjamin said, "So, am I supposed to make my car crash, or what?" The boy shrugged. He asked, "Or will there be a robber at the all-night who will shoot me in the heart?"

Death did not answer.

At the car, Benjamin fumbled with his keys and suddenly froze. "Oh my God," he said. "I forgot to tell her I love her."

"No you didn't."

"I didn't? Did I tell her?"

"Yeah."

Benjamin got in the car. He paused for a moment before closing the door, wondering if it were too late, if he could change his mind; but even as the fear reached for his heart he thought of Susan and he remembered his grief and he slammed shut the door. The noise was an ominous, final sound. Death was already in the seat beside him, playing with the seatbelt buckle. "What now?" Benjamin asked. He glanced at the house, then tore himself away. Above the stars fled like insects chased by an invisible net.

"Just drive."

He started the car and pulled out into the street. He drove slowly and cautiously, "Although I suppose it won't help," he said to death. The street lamps marched past him, each defending the sidewalks against the encroachments of night. "Will it hurt much when I die?"

"Not much."

There was a long silence. Benjamin slowed and stopped at a red light. There were no other cars around. It seemed silly to wait so mechanically but Benjamin does, out of force of habit if nothing else. He said, "Thank you for letting me go instead." Death did not reply. "Or was it me you were after all along?"

The boy said nothing.

"Why does it have to be this way?" Benjamin pleaded.

"You made the choice. Your life was ransomed, and now..." The boy breathed on the window so that it fogged, and wrote on it with a finger. Benjamin remembered one cold morning with condensation on the window of the study. He had thought of Susan then and wrote I love you. The water had dripped down like tears. Death turned his pale face to Benjamin. "Light's green."

Benjamin looked both ways at the intersection. Not another car in sight. He accelerated smoothly.

"What will happen to Susan?"

"I don't know."

"Why does it have to be like this?"

"It just does." The houses passed by, like pale faces sleeping.

Benjamin took a long look at him. "Are you doing this so I'll play with you?"

"You won't," the boy said, and Benjamin was startled to see he was crying.

"What's the matter?" Benjamin asked.

The boy sniffled. "You made it so hard for me, both of you. All this trading. But you've been given so much, I can't refuse."

It was so dark now nothing could be seen except for the headlights on the road. "Has this been going on for centuries, for--forever?" Benjamin asked. "Bargaining for a loved one's life, passing it down through the generations, to me from my mother---"

"She wasn't the only one," Death interrupted, "who bargained for your life."

Benjamin sat very still. And remembered. When I was ten, my father.... After a moment he whispered, "Susan?"

But the boy didn't reply. "No, you won't ever play with me," he said instead, perhaps with sadness, perhaps with petulance; Benjamin was not sure, he was only certain of the grief pouring into him and even so he did not know for whom he felt that grief. "You won't."

Benjamin drove down the road. The headlights pushed aside the dark. Through the windshield Benjamin saw the last of the stars swirl faster and faster and then dive over the horizon. Only a black bowl of empty night remained. The constellations helped the ancient Greeks to remember their gods and their loved ones. Now they were all gone, memories blown away. And there were no more street lamps, no more islands of light in the ocean of dark.

Benjamin heard his own voice talking about Susan, about how all these years that he hadn't really been afraid of his own death, but of losing her; and not even of losing her, but of not loving her enough. He wondered what happened to his headlights. His hands gripping the wheel felt tiny.... And Benjamin thought he was lying next to his wife, holding her in his arms, smelling the faint perfume of her skin, feeling the slow rhythm of her breath; "Aren't you going to go?" she asked sleepily, but already her coughing had stopped; "In a minute, love," he answered; he waited calmly, he could wait forever; he was no longer afraid; she drowsily stroked his arm wrapped around her; he was thinking about driving into the night; he loved her; he had already gone, and this, his wife's caress, was only his imagination.


Copyright 1991, Calvin W. Johnson. First appeared in After Hours August, 1991. Do not quote or reproduce in any form.

Back to CWJ's science fiction page | Comments?