Death Comes to Elisha
- by Iona Sharma -
The F train rattles through the joint and it’s a passage of glory. The windows shake and the crystals shimmer on their strings and under a sticky sheet and a hundred and fifty pounds of sweat-slicked flesh and beauty Elisha curls his toes and goes still. By the time the Queens-bound local passes in the other direction they’ve gotten untangled and Félix is standing by the open shutter, watching the train go by. He lets go of the sheet, toasts the oblivious passengers with a lit cigarette.
“Ass-naked for the whole neighbourhood,” Elisha says, like his mom would have. Félix laughs. Beautiful to the point of unearthly, but he’s the most real thing in this room full of tchotchkes. Healing crystals, incense sticks, long strings of beads: the things clients like. And a half-done tarot spread, abandoned on a side table.
“Hey, corazón,” Félix says, gesturing at it and scattering ash. “You never do that for me.”
A flutter of eyelashes, an aggrieved tone, like he was complaining that Elisha never made him eggs, or blew him. Elisha rolls his eyes.
“Put some pants on and I will,” he says, and Félix laughs again and pulls him in to kiss. Such a fucking hipster, Elisha thinks, tasting menthol, sweet as the affection washing through him. He sits down at the side table and reaches for the cards. Félix leaves his pants where they are but he sits quietly on the window ledge, feet swinging; this is a thing that belongs to Elisha, so he takes it seriously.
Elisha sweeps the cards up, shuffles, cuts, draws. A Celtic cross, some tellers call this. They’re imagining Tir nan Òg and shamrocks, maybe, and not Brooklyn under the elevated tracks, here in this sweltering godforsaken century.
“Ask,” Elisha says.
Félix startles visibly, although his attention has been focused on Elisha’s hands all this time. It’s like he forgot that it’s how this goes, that without the question the cards are just paper with pictures.
“Does it all turn out okay in the end?” he asks.
Elisha could curse him for it, that razor-gleam vulnerability. Lately they’ve all been asking that—the regulars, like the woman from the coffee place with the five kids and one missing, but also the one-time deals: a gawping tourist, looking for a genuine New York experience; a girl who kept using the words scientific method as talisman against her own belief; even the twink with “M.A.G.A” patched on the ass of his fuckboy pants. They all check their phones every minute, call their senators every day, and ask Elisha and themselves if this is how everything—the world, the American experiment, everything they’ve known—ends.
Elisha wanted something easier this time. A dark, handsome stranger, an unexpected gift, a long journey. But it’s what Félix asked and he has to answer, so he lays down the first card: the Ace of Wands. The second: the Seven of Pentacles.
And there it is, the guest from the major arcana: Death.
Elisha does the reading for Félix, not in a hurry, but in a dream. He talks about the Wands, the reaching toward progress; the Pentacles and the gift of distant reward. He picks up the Death card and explains that it can be frightening, for those who aren’t familiar with the deck, but remember that it can mean the little deaths, those that fall short of the end of all things. It may be the death of an outgrown self; or the death of an old order that can be remade better. When his own words fail him he reaches for Ecclesiastes: a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
Félix is comforted by his sincerity, and his presence. When Elisha asks, diffident but loving, if he would mind sleeping alone tonight, Félix only nods and kisses him. He grabs his phone and his hideous hemp sandals and heads out into the night, whistling cheerfully. Elisha hears him through the open window, the sound fading pleasantly into the susurrus of the city.
Elisha makes sweet tea, adds lemon and mint, sets it to steep. When the door opens, he stands—which is proper, for a guest—but doesn’t bow his head. And then he’s startled, bemused, as Death stumbles across the threshold, drops to their knees, and rises only with difficulty. Elisha gets them to a chair, murmuring, Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
Death slumps on the table, head balanced on their elbows, and lets out an exasperated huff. I’m not here to collect.
Elisha is unimpressed. “It’s still what I say when you come. You want tea?”
I don’t require your hospitality, Death says, the same way they do every time. Their coat gets thrown on the bed, their blue-flame blade propped up by the door. I do not eat or drink.
“Yeah, hi, I’m Jewish,” Elisha says, and pushes the cup over. Death hesitates, then warms their hands on the rim and shivers, huddling into the too-large hoodie, the tattered cloth falling over their face.
Elisha lets them be and moves the tarot cards out of the way. As far as he’s figured it out, the rules are this: It must be a random shuffle; a seven-card spread; a sincere reading for another. Money need not change hands, but Death will not come to those who stack the deck.
(Well. Not in advance.)
And perhaps not to everyone, Elisha thinks. But he wouldn’t like it to get around that for him, Death follows the cards. They’re just a means to ask a question. They’re nothing to be afraid of.
“So,” Elisha says, as deliberately calm as he can be at this moment. “You’re sick?”
Death rises from their chair and goes to perch on the edge of the window ledge, feet swinging. Leather sandals, chipped red polish on their toenails. Cute, like Félix. Death isn’t here to frighten.
Not sick, Death says. Something else.
“Well, you don’t look good,” Elisha says, hands around his own cup. His mom, who taught him the prayers and how to make tea, used the same blend of spices, in reverence of her own mother’s long-ago childhood in Cochin. Elisha’s grandmother came to Queens, thousands of miles from her beloved city by the sea, and never left again.
(And were Elisha another woman’s son, or grandson, he might be making a fuss right now. He might run out in the street, preaching poetry and prayer: And death shall have no dominion, and death itself shall die. But Elisha is thinking of every grieving client, every reading done in desperation, of every dawn that brought neither rapture nor resurrection but the real things of real people. Of his grandmother, who died beneath a window that looked over baked asphalt, far from what was hers.)
“All right,” Elisha says. “Then what? Why are you here?”
I am bound by the cards.
“Like fuck you are,” Elisha says. “They’re just paper.”
He’s annoyed. The illumination in the room is limited, tinted by the sodium of the streetlights. Elisha gets up, pushes back the hood. He looks upon the face of Death, and sees:
Exhaustion, mainly. Grief etched in lines as deep as time, eyes like febrile stars. Death sits still with their head propped up on their elbows, and sighs. In that sigh there is the chill of the graveyard, the crackle of the pyre. The shadowy echo chamber of the universe. And death, without the initial capital. Senseless and meaningless and inhuman. Easier to let it happen. Easier to let it all go.
Elisha’s hand grips the metal spout of the teapot. He doesn’t remember picking it up. It’s burning; it’s a welcome hurt, a willing surrender. “Shit,” he says, snaps back to himself and drops it with a hiss. It clatters hideously loud on the hard floor and the dead-leaf liquid begins to spread around his feet. “You made me do that.”
I apologize. It was not intentional.
“Fuck,” Elisha says, annoyed again, but frightened, too, by the apology—by everything passing strange through this place.
And by the look in Death’s eyes. Elisha has lived long enough to recognize despair when he sees it.
Do you remember the first time? Death asks.
Elisha nods. He was new, hustling, saw a Rider-Waite tarot deck in a bookstore. And it’s not like it’s some mystical whatever: you don’t have to learn it from your gypsy grandmother. “Gypsy” is offensive anyway, fuck that shit. He bought the deck, read about it, practised, and one night without fuss or ceremony, he did a reading for a client and brought some peace to a troubled mind. The second and the third time were different but the same: small easings of small, human pain. And the fourth time, once the client had gone and taken with her the blistering clarity of the major arcana, Death came to Elisha in stacked heels and glitter.
Elisha freaked the hell out, said his mother’s prayers, and cried in the morning when he figured it out. Death came high-femme to Brooklyn because Death was a friend. It was a friend who came to take them home.
There were so many, Death says, in Elisha’s third-floor walk-up, fifteen years later. There are so many.
A gesture, toward Elisha’s tarot deck.
Does it turn out okay in the end?
Elisha doesn’t think about what he does next. He kisses blood-red lips and pushes his hands under the hoodie, and of course there’s warmth beneath. Death, who comes in glitter to the queens and for the fearful in jeans; who kisses babies and bows to old men; who comes for an elderly Jewish lady with a cup of tea in hand, to take her where the sun sparkles off the water and the air bears salt.
When Elisha pulls away his ears are ringing and his mouth tastes of ashes. “I don’t know,” he says, and it’s the truth. The Death of the major arcana has fallen from the deck, face down. “I don’t know.”
Death nods, and pushes a curl out of Elisha’s eyes.
“But without you,” Elisha says, voice ringing out, “they just die. They just fucking die, okay? Do your job.”
Death doesn’t answer. But they get up, walk to the door on steadier feet, and reach for the coat and blade.
“It doesn’t mean the death of all things,” Elisha says, hesitant but earnest. “It can mean the death of an old world, something to be made anew.”
The door closes. The F train rattles through.
© 2017 by Iona Sharma
Iona is a writer, lawyer, linguaphile, and the product of more than one country. She's currently working on her first novel, a historical fantasy about spies. She tweets as @singlecrow.