Death’s Gatekeeper

[Loosely based off the Romanian folktale, “The Voice of Death”]

Way outside of town, farther than most people dare to go, there is a cliff. If you look to the bottom of this cliff there is a plain. It is an empty, barren thing that stretches as far as the eye can see. Mist curls over the hard-packed ground, reaching toward the cliff-face with hand-like tendrils.

The only person still alive who has seen this plain is Dimitri. He is an old man who lives at the bottom of the rise to the cliff. Over the years, he has seen many people climb the hill to the top. None ever return.

When he first noticed this many years ago, Dimitri tried calling out to the people.

“Please! Go no further! It is too dangerous!”

But they could not or would not hear him and continued on their way.

He tried to stop them physically when he was a younger man, but only gained deep cuts and bruises for his pains. They fought ruthlessly, saying only, “I must go. They are calling me. Can you not hear it? I only need to know what they want. Then I will return.” He still bears the scars of those encounters.

He tried building a fence to keep people away, but they only climbed it or tore it down.

So now, Dimitri does nothing. When he catches a glimpse of someone through the window, he closes his curtain and mutters to himself.

Over the years, his conversations with himself have gotten longer, louder, and more intricate. What started as short mumbles or outbursts of things like “Fools!” has turned into a two-sided conversation—both roles voiced by Dimitri.

It is a lonely and sad existence, but otherwise pleasant. Dimitri does not need much. He has wood for fires and a garden for food. He spends his days whittling wooden figurines, carving bone knife handles, or tending his garden.

Once a month, he makes the ten-mile walk into town to purchase whatever he cannot grow or make himself. He trades his work to venders for coin and returns home with a sack full of grain, or blankets, or new socks.

The people in town like Dimitri though they do not know him. His eccentric patchwork clothing, kind and sorrowful eyes, and sardonic smile make them look forward to his visits.

Owning a piece of his handiwork is considered a rite of passage in the village. Children flock around him to see upon whom he will bestow a single gift of an animal figurine.

His visits are as regular as the cycles of the moon. People set their monthly calendar by his visit.

“Did we restock the larder last week or the week before?”

“It was last week. After Dimitri’s visit.”

Yes, the people look forward to seeing Dimitri.

But they don’t know him. As quickly as he comes, he is gone again until the next month. He can’t bare to look too long at their faces only to see them one day climbing up the hill to the cliff.

Dimitri often wonders who it is they hear calling. He wonders, too, if he will ever be called. Sometimes, he thinks it would be nice to hear a voice other than his own. After so much time spent alone, feeling called to something important would be a nice change.

One day, Dimitri had just finished covering all his windows to avoid watching the town baker walk up the hill. He sat down in the soft stuffed chair by the fire and picked up his work, intending to create a forest scene in the bone. There would be a tiny, ornate stag peering through the trees. He thought he might do a number of carvings in the forest theme and sell them as a set. People liked to collect his work. This would be the first ~official~ collection.

He let his mind drift, not looking down as his hands moved with the accumulated skill of decades. Some of the villagers had asked recently how he could still create such fine work in his old age. He had answered truthfully.

“No matter how old I get, my hands still seem to have the same youth and vigor as when I was a boy.”

He didn’t know why this was, but he didn’t argue that it was a blessing.

The design finished, he blew the ivory shavings away to admire the finished product and was astonished by what he saw. This was some of the best work he had ever produced, but there was a problem. The image was not of a lush forest and curious stag.

Instead, he had unwittingly carved out a depiction of the steep cliff face. Down to each jutting detail, it stood starkly against the bone that now trembled in his hand. The bit of plain visible at the bottom was covered in mist that seemed to form skeletal hands.

And at the top—

at the top there was a shadowy human figure, arms stretched out and reaching to the sky. Just beyond the human figure, reaching back to catch their outstretched hands, was another figure. It extended itself toward the human as if it would whisk them away into the air.

Dimitri stared at the flawless and baffling work.

“What does this mean? Why have I done this?”

Dimitri did not have an answer to his own question, so he did not open his mouth to respond.

But, someone else spoke in a voice he had never heard before.

“Do not worry old friend. I thought it was time we met face to face after all these years.”

One comment

  • Is the voice calling them to die? Or just to take a helicopter out of the “Grand Canyon”? Great short story.

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