Death Comes with Whimsy by Elvis Bego

Kamber stood at the front door beating mud off his clogs against the crumbling step. The sun, low now, threw a blue shadow of his bent figure on that whitewashed wall. He’d cut firewood all morning, then it rained a little, softening the soil, and when his better will prevailed he staggered in the fields doing slow hard work with a rickety old sickle and now thick balls of sweat camped in his grey stubble. He grumbled to himself of an array of things. It was years since he’d had good crops, back when his wife was still alive; months since he’d quarrelled at the inn with Karl, his childhood friend who then had a fatal stroke before they had reconciled; many years since his figure had drawn a female eye, even a widow’s veiled one. A sullen widower himself, all he could do was clutch his gut and resolve anew to shed the flab.

He was sure someone was watching him and when he looked up he saw a young man standing at the gate with a scythe—erect and with a brazen look and smile beneath a corduroy flatcap, his bony hand on the rusty gate. Kamber knew at once it was Death himself paying a visit so he legged it. Though barefoot, he made his way round the house for the orchards beyond.

Death yelled after the old man and when that did no good he laid the scythe down and ran after him. Kamber knew he was running for his life. Surely he must have pleaded with the higher powers. Help me saint Isidore, that kind of thing. Help me sweet Mary you don’t recognise my voice, you don’t, I know it’s been some time whole lifetimes since I called to you for help but I need it now come to my side it’s all real my eyes are well and this is so, this is so—, he must’ve muttered under his breath. He whizzed by the tiny, ramshackle outbuilding. There was a low old fence made of worm-eaten logs and he got his tubby torso over it and hurtled down the sloping path along the grove of plum and cherry trees.

‘Mr Kamber!’ yelled Death.

Kamber glimpsed the yellow church spire behind some houses girt in the crowns of trees in bloom.

In his mind he was at confession, probably saying disjointed things like: O good God how you mock me—sending such a youth to fool me because I am old and you send him now—now you send him, he misters me the coy devil, I say if I may that it’s no time for me, there were good things coming good seedlings and I admit I wasn’t always righteous and if there is a devil—there is Devil! I should not have done it and knew it then as I know it now it was bad and why make youth so beautiful and she stood in the pews and I I’d not been to church for months I had my reasons my pain of mind and only go now to look at her but is it a sin to admire God’s work you made her why make her so if she’s not to be admired and then yes desired too but is it my fault—it is, it is my fault she is young and green and I am an old gander look at my disgusting gut but I would have married sweet Nikolina if she would have dared give it thought I really would those full breasts how they came to me bared as I lay at night—away, away with that what would my poor old wife god bless her soul think of me what a pitiful life and Karl dying there on the path with his bicycle on the cold ground among frozen weeds over night with no one at his side in his hour of need and that poor gypsy in rags and face unwashed I pushed away and kicked when he came asking for something so hesitant and afraid as I was walking into town on some errand but was I not a boy myself then when I hit him and shouted him away how heartless was I then how cruel and he didn’t cry but he stood and looked at me with puzzled eyes and all these years I’ve hated the thought of it but I was so young and stupid I don’t want to die I beg I beg this one time will my legs carry me this hard path pebbles what did I do with my galoshes those bony white fingers mushrooms couldn’t grow where he passed I think it’s a corduroy cap that dapper monster it’s mockery god forgive me who is who here who is who here really and even if a whole—, and then he slipped on a bulging plum but he regained his balance somehow and plodded on down the path, heavy and fatigued and pursued still.

‘Mr Kamber what are you running from?’ shouted Death, edging ever closer.

But Kamber’s old bones had done their work, and though creaking from this unkind trundle, they allowed hope in the troubled man, for he perceived he was close to the end of the orchard where a swift brook burbled, shimmering.

He must have reasoned: If I cross the brook its furious stream might put Death off—what an idiot he’s death and he’ll be scared of water you stupid old numskull or maybe I should jump in and that way it would take me all the way to town or maybe you should be a man and stop and face him and let him say and do what he says what a way to die now in the dusk it’s gloaming pink and candy yes maybe it is time maybe it is time you old coward you’re running like that time when fat Ivan said he’d take me behind the school and give me a thrashing that I would never ever—, and now he slipped again on wet grass by the stream and his pate met a stone in the fall and it opened, numbed his skull and he rolled down the slope and the stream took him like he’d meant it to, but not to the life his rebellion had hoped to reclaim.

The young man stood and stared at Kamber’s limp body whirling away its final polka and he clasped his cap with both hands, diffident, shivering, knowing he had somehow frightened him to death.

In the morning the body was fished out of the sluggish water by a man who sold sugared almonds on the quay at the foot of the old stone bridge. The newspaper printed a brief article relating how the deceased’s son-in-law, a resident of the town, had secretly sent a new scythe as a present, knowing that the farmer’s own had become worn and useless.

The insufferable hack ended the piece with these words: Death comes with whimsy sometimes.

Elvis Bego was born in Bosnia, fled the war there at twelve, moved around, and now lives in Copenhagen. His writing has previously appeared in (the) Squawk Back, The Threepenny Review, Bookslut, Lacuna Mag and Electric Literature (online).