One night Death came to take a woman’s only son to the Underworld. Just as he was drawing back the boy’s blankets, Death spied a light from the corner of his empty eye. He turned his creaking neck to see the boy’s mother clutching a candle to her chest. She recoiled from his skeletal gaze, tears flowing from her puffy eyes.
“Woman,” Death said, “there is no need for tears. The disease in the boy’s bones is done. I have come to take him from this place of pain.” The woman, still trembling in fear of the horror before her, drew a long breath and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I know,” she said, “but I will do anything for just one more minute with him.” “Is that so?” replied the Reaper. “Yes,” said the woman. Death asked, “Even if it means giving up all that is good in the thing you love most?” “I love my son more than life itself, and you’re taking him from me either way. Name your price, fiend, and I will gladly pay it,” said the woman.
“Very well,” said Death with a hollow sigh. “The currents of the river Styx are turbulent, and my boat must be carefully balanced or it will surely tip,” he continued. “Find another soul to balance my boat, and you will have your moment with the child.”
The woman nodded and turned away. She walked briskly down the hall, rounded the corner to the kitchen, and drew the longest knife from the block. The woman then spun on her heel to retrace her steps. At the end of the hallway, the woman stopped to think.
She peered into her son’s room at the robed figure hovering at her son’s bedside. Death slowly nodded at the woman. Clutching the knife in one hand, her candle in the other, she crossed the hall to her own chamber.
The light from the candle danced across the blade of the knife, casting terrible beams upon the drooling, snoring face of her husband. The woman gripped the knife handle so hard her knuckles cracked. “Please forgive me what I am about to do, dear husband, but I love my son more than anything,” the woman whispered as she approached the bed.
The first slash was deep and true, perforating the windpipe and opening the carotid. The second and third strikes decimated the remaining vascular tissues. The husband awoke in a font of his own blood just as the fourth, and final, blow caught his spinal cord. The now-paralyzed husband could do little more than stare in disbelief at his wife as his lips moved to suck in air like some beached fish.
The woman climbed into bed next to her dying husband. His lifeblood flowed freely, and a low whistle played in his mangled throat. The woman repeated a mantra in her husband’s ear: “For our son… for our son.” She stroked his hair and face until the whistling stopped.
Once her husband was dead, the woman returned to her son’s bedroom. Death let out a bony chuckle as the woman handed him the murderous weapon. Tears again wet the corners of her eyes. “There. You have your soul,” she said. “Now give me my son.” “My boat will certainly float well tonight,” Death said, “but there is another task I require of you.” “But I just killed my husband,” the woman exclaimed, “I thought…” Death interrupted the widow. “And I thought you said you’d pay any price.”
The woman cast her eyes down at the floor. “Yes,” she said. “Anything for my boy.” “Hmm, I suspected you’d say that,” said Death. “My task is lonely and thankless. For centuries I have searched for someone to share in my suffering,” he continued. As Death spoke, the horror of what was to be asked of her slowly dawned on the woman. In a whisper at first, then rising to a near scream, the woman voiced her objection: “No… no… no… no!”
“No?” the Reaper questioned. “I offer you that which you have asked for – a chance to share one final moment with your son – and eternal existence beyond that, and all you can say is ‘No?’” Death probed further. The woman, desperate now, fell to her knees before the robed specter. “Please,” she pleaded, “I know you will carry on as you always have after tonight, but my world has been destroyed. Give me my moment with my son, but do not ask me to betray my husband a second time tonight. It is more than I can bear.”
Death roared with hollow laughter. “More than you can bear? Imagine how he must feel,” he said. At this, the woman, crushed by her guilt and grief, wept silent tears.
After what seemed like hours, Death held his hand out to the woman. She took it and rose to her feet. “You have a choice to make, woman; become my bride and see your son live for a few more moments, or walk away and begin to rebuild the tatters of your life,” Death said. The woman looked up into the empty pits where Death’s eyes should be. “I love my son,” she said. With that, she reached down and pried her wedding ring from her finger. She placed it in Death’s open hand, where it melted away.
Death pulled the third finger from his left hand off, and twisted it into a gruesome ring of bone and sinew. “With this ring I thee wed,” he said, “Take it, and you will know my touch only once.” The woman nodded, and held out her hand to accept the token. Death slid the ring on to her finger. The woman clenched her left hand, the weight of this new ring foreign to her.
“Now, of course, the marriage must be consummated,” Death said. The woman nodded silently and unbuttoned her bloodied nightgown. She slid it off her shoulders, and it fell to her feet. Her nude body looked almost as gaunt as her new groom’s in the pale moonlight. As she gazed, unfeeling, at the pile of clothes on the floor, Death slid his finger down the front of his robes, undoing them as if zippered. His skeletal body nearly glowed.
The woman finally looked up from her nightgown to see the horrid figure before her. She began to ponder how he could take her without flesh and blood to fill his form, but before she could finish the thought, he was upon her and inside her. She expected him to be cold, but found his touch to be as a furnace. Pinned against the wall by her son’s closet, the fiend’s breath singed her hair. She opened her eyes for but a second, and nearly shrieked. The sockets of Death’s skull, formerly empty, now blazed like magma.
The woman turned her face from him, and his moans of pleasure burned her neck. Bony hand prints scarred her breasts, and her thighs blistered. Within minutes, it was done. The woman fell into a heap on the floor.
“Dress,” said Death as he callously tossed the nightgown at the woman. His robes had re-formed, and his eye sockets had returned to the empty pools of darkness they were before. “You have done all I asked as payment for a minute with your son before he is taken from this world,” the Reaper continued, “but he should not see you like this.”
The woman pulled the gown over her shoulders, and began to button it. Each movement now took tremendous effort from her abused body. The cloth’s soft, cotton touch felt as though wool on sunburn. She winced as she finished dressing.
The woman took her place at Death’s side as he reached down to open the boy’s eyes with his bony fingers. “Awaken,” he said. A fog rolled out of his mouth, and encircled the boy. The room grew noticeably colder. The boy’s eyes fluttered for a moment, and then he began to scream.
“Momma, it hurts! Help me, momma, please!”
The boy writhed in agony, thrashing in his sheets, and clenching his teeth until they cracked. Though she tried, the woman could not comfort her son; she could not hold him. She wanted to cry, but there were no tears left in her body. She wanted him to know she loved him, but her words were drowned in the child’s screams. Finally, after a minute had passed, the boy’s body fell limp, and his anguish was again extinguished.
With fire in her own eyes now, the woman turned to Death. “You monster!” she screamed. “I’m the monster?” Death asked, incredulous. “I, who came to take your son from pain; I, who gave you the chance to deny your selfishness and remain faithful to your family; I am the monster?” Death further probed. “I think not,” he said.
“And now you shall pay the eternal price for your selfishness and faithlessness,” Death said. “You will accompany your son, your husband, and me on the river Styx, and you shall explain your misdeeds to them. They will hate you forever, and you have earned their animosity. Further, whenever a child dies in pain henceforth, it will not be I who reaps their souls; it will be you. You will hear their screams, and in them, your son’s. And you will weep evermore.”
As Death chided the woman, her skin changed and became like gauze. The places where Death touched her darkened to pitch. Her hair grew thin and white. She turned from her son’s bed, and her nightgown dropped to the floor through her body.
Her transformation complete, she could now see the spirits of her son and husband, their eyes filled with tears and fury. She reached out to caress and comfort them, but her hands had become claws, and the glint from her bony wedding ring shamed her. She clasped one hand over the other. She opened her mouth to speak: to explain she was tricked, that she didn’t know – couldn’t know – what Death intended, but only the sound of wailing anguish could escape her.
Death ushered the woman’s former family to his boat. He did not speak to them, but caressed the boy’s hair as he climbed aboard the raft with his father. The woman took her place at Death’s side after a few moments, and he cast off. Silent they floated to Hades.