An Etiquette Lesson

Death wore a sensible coat and shoes as she made her way through the ice-rimed streets of London. The chill of the grave was nothing compared to the burning cold of England in the dead of winter, nor were the sidewalks as slippery. After all, her realm had plenty of salt and ash to spare.

Snow piled up on her bonnet, its plain black ribbon matching the coat and shoes. Unlike passersby, it did not melt; the downside to having no heartbeat or blood to warm her body.

In spite of the snowfall, she walked with her head held high, her back ramrod straight. Bad posture was an unforgivable sin in her opinion, the first on a slippery slope into all manner of debauchery and lawlessness. It was nothing less than weakness; the mutable fallibility of the flesh. There was little she could stand less, dealing in absolutes as she did. Flesh was unreliable, sloughing away after a few decades. Practically any time at all really. Here today and gone tomorrow.

She stopped in an alleyway for a moment. Her schedule was tight, but she had time. She was never late, though her clients invariably were. A young girl huddled against the side of a brick building, shivering in rags.

The waif looked up at Death, her pinched blue face mostly hidden under matted blond hair. Their eyes met and, in that moment, they understood one another.

“’Allo my girl,” Death said. “Let’s get you some place warm.”

When Death beckoned, the little girl did not flinch. Some people clung to life, others departed the mortal coil willingly; those who had known nothing but pain and hardship in their tragically short lives. The homeless waif was no exception. She took the outstretched black-gloved hand without hesitation, wilting instantly, falling to the slush-ridden cobbles.

Death went about her business.

A passage from Hans Christian Anderson, only vaguely recalled, sprung to mind as she walked. Something about a little match-girl frozen in the snow—written back before disposable lighters put paid to the profession—taken to Paradise by angels.


She was down here, walking the earth since life began, granting respite to those whose suffering would otherwise know no end, and a mob of winged men in pajamas took the credit.

The old city on the Thames was in fine form this evening; coal stains and soot hidden under a dusting of white, firelight cast from every window; little islands of warmth and cheer amidst the closing gloom. Every cobblestone she trod and brick building she passed had its story to tell. She’d been there for all of them: Ratcliff Highway, Commercial Street, 10 Rillington Place, Fleet Street, the list went on and on. Those were great days, truly great days.

Her thoughts soured as she ruminated on the present. She gave peace, dolling it out with loving care to prince and pauper, murderer and innocent alike. And what did she get for all her efforts, all her devotion to her charges? More work, of course; pandemonium and chaos on a scale she’d never known. Sometimes she found herself wishing for the solid reliability of the Black Plague!

War, Famine, and Pestilence ran amuck, having the time of their lives (metaphorically speaking) and, as usual, she was left to clean up after their fun.

Predictability. There was the crux of it. Lives used to be predictable. There were rules of conduct, manners, laws, and regulations; all designed to smooth the transition of the intervening years from womb to grave. It seemed that in these times the living had forgotten such core beliefs, going wild in an orgiastic frenzy of worldwide destruction.

She intended to give them an etiquette lesson.

Her sensible black shoes took her to a large two-story brick house. A Christmas tree glittered in the window. The fairy topping it reminded her of those damnable angels, with its gauzy wings and pristine robes. Still, the tradition of it told her it was an ideal place to begin her work.

She lifted her parrot-headed umbrella and rapped its beak against the front door.

Promptly, a squat, heavy-set woman in a no-nonsense black dress opened the door. Death smiled, and before the maid could inquire, Death spoke.

“Good evening ma’am. I understand you’re in need of a governess.”


Editor’s Corner

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