Once there was a girl who lived alone, but she was not as alone as she wanted to be. She lived in the heart of a city, a middling city, a city of no great importance by the sea, and every day she walked through crowds and against crowds and around crowds, and heard the people’s conversations, and smelled their trash, and saw their children, and waited politely for their cars to pass before crossing the street.
So she took herself and she moved further west in the city, where the streets flattened out and the sun took its time setting in the evening and there was room for her. This was better, but she was still almost never alone. There was always someone coming around the next corner, always a car idling down the street, always someone’s voice echoing from a few houses over. Someone always needed something, someone always wanted something.
One evening she took a walk, and on her walk she realized that she had a chance. There was nobody else on the street. There were no cars coming around the bend. There were no conversations drifting in from one house over, and she closed her eyes and she closed her mouth and she held her breath and she wished very carefully and when she opened her eyes again everyone else was gone. She was the only one left.
She crossed the street, and she was the only one left. She wandered back up to her house, and she was the only one left. She called out the names of all the people she knew and a few she didn’t, and she was the only one left. The city was quiet and the city was hers. I am the only one there is, she said to herself, and she liked the way it sounded, so I am the only one there is, she announced to the city, and it sounded fine. So she went exploring.
The streets were hers, and the buildings were hers, and everything belonging to the yards and the parks and the public grounds were hers too. She spoke to herself and only herself. She walked further west until she came to the place where the cliffs poured into the sea and the sea poured back, and there she built herself a house.
It was a good house, and she lived alone in it. She fed herself there and she worked there and she slept there, and at night she waved to the lights that came on across the water.
And she looked out to where the sky grew thick and dense in the west, and she saw her enemies there. She could see them, and she laughed, because the fog was between her and them, and her enemies could not come through the fog, because they were only her enemies and she was her herself. And they were half blind and half deaf with hate, and they threw themselves against the fog toward where they thought she might be, but they could not reach her, and had to stay in the sea, where the crabs pinched them and the gulls bit them and the dark frightened them.
And she lived in her house for a long while, and never worried herself about the people who had gone. They were fine, wherever they were. She had her house, and she had the lights across the water, and she had the sea.
And sometimes there was a knock at the door, and death would come for her. And she didn’t mind those visits. What would happen is this:
The knock at the door (previously mentioned) and the visitor at the gate, and the darkening sky.
And the girl would say Oh, is it that time already and Death said a little sheepishly Yes, yes I suppose it is and she said Well come on in then and so he came in. And she asked if he would have a little tea with her first and he saw that she had already put the water on to boil and said Seeing how you were already making some I suppose I will. And she said Of course I’ll be ready to go with you afterwards, and he said that he would be sorry to have to take her but she said she understood.
What I mean is I would miss getting to visit this house, he tried to explain. It isn’t often I get to make it out to the sea.
It isn’t often that I have a visitor, she said. A shame, too, because the view is so nice, and there’s so much of it, from here. And he smiled, at her at first and then he just sort of generally beamed at the rest of the room because he couldn’t think of anything to say. And then the kettle whistled and he didn’t have to say anything, he just sat down.
And she said How do you find the place? And he told her how much he liked it, which was true. He liked the way she had arranged things, and he liked the way that she made his tea properly, strong and with plenty of milk in it but not sweet, never sweet. And she asked him how his travel had been, and he said Oh, fine, and she said Really? in a way that sounded truly and really interested, and he told her some of the things that he had seen, and she gasped at all the right spots and was quiet for just the right moments.
After he had finished another story she asked him about where he would be taking her when they left. She was sorry to ask, of course, she told him. Probably everyone asked. But it wasn’t her fault that she didn’t know. Death shook his head. I don’t know, he said, a little crossly, although he agreed that it wasn’t her fault. I don’t know where everybody goes. Everybody gets to find out but me. I just bring them to the door and send them inside.
Of course, she said. I’m sorry if it bothers you to hear the same question over and over again.
Of course it bothers me, he said, but not so crossly this time. I don’t know if there’s a room on the other side and I’m just filling it higher and higher and it gets hotter and more cramped every time I come back. Or maybe it gets colder and emptier. Or maybe it’s wonderful there, I don’t know. I don’t want to take you there anyhow.
I’ll make you another cup of tea, she said, and he didn’t tell her no.
After a while he told her again how much he liked the way she had placed things. Have you seen the birds outside? she asked him. The ones that make a ring around the house?
Yes, he said, and he had meant to ask her about them. He had seen them all in a dark, smeared line as he had rounded the coast at dusk, holding themselves perfectly still right above the sea, throwing themselves headfirst into the wind but not moving an inch either forward or back.
She laughed and put down her tea. They can’t get past my fog, she said, and the wind from the sea pushes them back, so they have to stay there. Every so often a new one blunders in and joins the rest. I call it my daisy-chain, she said.
Oh, I feel sorry for them, Death said, and she smiled but privately found it a little sentimental of him.
And they talked into the night of this and that until all of a sudden Death looked out the window and gave a little yelp. I had no idea it was so late, he said, I’d better be going, and he looked around for his shoes and he looked around for his walking-stick and more or less collected himself. And neither of them said anything about her coming with him this time. Another day, Death said. Another day, she agreed. I’ll have the kettle on, and leave the light on for you when you come up the path. And he said that would be nice.
I think he is a little in love with me, poor thing, she thought to herself as she closed the door after him.
I think she is a little in love with me, he thought sadly as he turned down the path and out of her woods.
And she is still there even now, and the lights are still on across the water whenever she looks up, which she does often.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]