Raphael von Ambros
oil on canvas mounted on panel, ca. 1895
In the final days of a long life, I found myself confined to bed more frequently. Constant illness, failing organs, and weakened sinews left my legs lame, and so I grew used to a nurse’s care. As a boy, I had known the pleasure and ease of a wealthy life, as had my children. My father, a stern yet charitable man, had made a fortune lending money at interest to trading companies. My mother, having suffered from a similar ailment to myself now, had passed in the early years of my life. I find myself now where she did in her final days. It was in the midst of a lonely night, consigned to my bed, that I was visited.
As night fell, I relieved the nurses and servants to their chambers to give both myself quiet solace and them reprieve. Having snuffed the tapered candle at my bedside, I sank into my pillow and sheets to great sleep once again. Just as my eyes had fluttered closed and my heart had slowed, I was startled awake by a knock at my chamber door.
“I’ve granted leave,” I said with a strained voice to a servant that perhaps had not heard, yet received no answer. Still, the door did not open. I became aware of the beating of my heart, the thump-thump-thump that pounded against my chest and into my ears. It echoed the sound of the visitor assaulting the door — high and eager. The knocking came again, and I relinquished; “Enter.”
I struggled to cover my eyes as luminescence flooded the room. A heavenly being entered, a thin, tawny woman in a flowing alabaster dress, train trailing through the doorway. Roses sat in a crown atop her inky hair. She introduced herself as Love, and I found myself smitten as she sat at the foot of my bed. Her hand, upholstered with the essence of cotton, trailed down my cheek.
“I have a gift,” she said with velvet in her lips. She turned and revealed a pomegranate beneath her hands. My lips curled upward as she pulled it apart in her hands.
“I haven’t tasted such since I was a boy,” I began to tell her, but she pressed a pip between my lips. I felt the bittersweet, the tang against my tongue. She spoke to me, and I allowed her to pass the pips through my teeth.
Her words were soft, ideal, and sweet. She filled my mind with hope and my body with the youthful vigor of young love. However, I remembered where I was at in my life — the end. That youthful vigor was no more. I began to see her for what she really was — superficial and vain. She was only the idea, not the substance. She called herself Love, yet I found her to possess none of the qualities of Man’s inevitability. As I came to this realization, I noted the grime on her dress. The pips became sour, almost toxic against my tongue. The roses in her hair seeped a putrescence into the room. Thorns grew from the stems, embedding themselves in her sable locks. I grimaced and pushed her hand, her gnarled nails, away as she pressed another pip to my lips.
“Leave,” I told her. “I won’t allow you to offend my senses any longer.”
And so she left.
Forcing my disgust from my mind, I settled back into my cradle and closed my eyes once more. I hardly slept when another knock came, this one rapid and rhythmic against the old wood. Each knuckle struck the door at a different pitch to create music. I grumbled, using my little strength to push myself up.
“In, damn you, if it is so important,” and so light spilled through once more — yellow that filled my chamber, illuminating it with the essence of day.
They came through, although I could not parse truly the sex of the individual that entered my room, sweeping a cane across their body with a wide grin and a bow. Their other hand held a stove-pipe hat — glimmering with silver iridescence as it found itself back on their head.
“Greetings, companion,” they spoke as they hooked the end of their cane over the back of my reading chair, pulling it to the side of my bed. I resolved to have none of their behavior and crossed my arm, turning my head away with a grunt. They grinned and reached forward with a hand, cupping my chin. Warmth flooded my body, and for the first time in my latter years did I feel the rush of blood to my feet and the curling of my toes. “Calm, companion,” and I felt tranquility and refreshment throughout my body.
They introduced themself as Life, and their words flooded me with renewal. Like their predecessor, the Liar Love, they held a gift. From behind their back, Life drew forth a single seed. I watched as it sprouted, and from the seedling came an apple. They offered it to my lips, but I found myself able to grab the item in my hand and tear a morsel with my teeth, the biting sour finding its way down my throat. The action filled me with satisfaction, as liquid food had become my chief diet.
They spoke elegantly, and I found a new sense of motivation and drive stirring inside my heart and mind. As they spoke, the drive soon turned to disappointment as I remembered where I was at my life — the end. In my current state, I could accomplish no more. The apple in my hands turned to rot, the unmistakable pungence of decay filling my nose, and I exclaimed as maggots rushed out onto my hands, the apple finding itself thrown to the other side of the room. I looked up to find no more glitter on their hat and no more gleam in their smile — their teeth had gone, rotten and molted. “Away with you,” I yelled. “I’ll take none of your baseless promises.”
Having forfeited the idea of sleep, and using the last remnants of Life’s touch, I shambled to the seated window to read until dawn. You’ll expect my anger as I heard another knock, this one slow and seemingly considerate to my conditions. My heart calmed when I glanced to the window to see the sun creeping over the horizon — surely it was the morning nurse to administer my medicine. “Enter,” I said to the being and returned to my book.
I was only vaguely aware of the true nature of my intruder until they stood beside me. Upon discovery that it was not the morning nurse, growled and raised my novel to strike them.
“Begone wicked trespasser, villainous fiend,” I howled to him. He remained calm, and his voice touched my ears with something that had become foreign to me — sincerity.
“Calm old friend,” he said as he moved a chair across from me. “I am Death. I come bearing a gift, like the two before me.”
He was an elegiac fellow, dressed in the plain black robes of a common man. He spoke not unlike a pastor; calm with honesty and reverence for fellow men. He was not beautiful like Love or young like Life, but sincere — his face showed his experience. The skin was mottled and sallow, sagging here and there. He took my hand. His skin was leathery with the calluses of a man who had worked his entire life, and leathery with his age. He pressed an item into my palm — a single almond. I hesitated briefly and placed the object into my mouth. Bitterness greeted my tongue this time, yet I relished in the meeting of my expectations. He regarded me not as Love had, an object, or as Life had, a child, but as a friend. He recollected my past, laughed and cried at the comedies and tragedies that made up my existence. I found a sense of peace in my body. Nothing artificial or imagined. Something wholly organic filled my soul with bliss as I spoke not with a visitor or with Death, but with the oldest and dearest of friends. The foulness of cadaverine filled my nostrils, yet it did not offend me. Instead, I found contentment.