She loved the taste of it. The wheat and yeast. The richness of rye. The crunch of barley.
And the fragrance. Warmth, and fire, and sunshine. A family gathered around a table, telling stories. The scent of home.
She’d had none of those things, not really, particularly not the last. Doomed to wander, she was. Forever.
Oh, she met everyone eventually, it was true. Every human being, at least. She looked down upon them, sometimes bending close to hear the final whispering hopes and confessions, regrets and dreams. Sometimes she shook their hands. Other times? Vanth watched as thousands, sometimes millions, were slaughtered, regardless of age or station.
She hated those times.
There were other endings, of course. Vanth tended to subcontract out dogs, and cats, and microbes, certainly. And plants? They had their own ways. But occasionally, an elephant or whale wanted to speak with her, and she made the journey to walk or swim at their sides.
The last non-human species she had paid a call upon was a massive tortoise. She had wanted to hear the secrets cached inside it’s shell. That tortoise, Gordsong was its name, had shuffled off this coil at around about two hundred years of age. It had seen many interesting things. They had talked a long time that day, beneath the desert sun.
Stories were always the payment Vanth desired. For what was a world without them? Stories came from both imagination and from deeds. Some stories filled her belly with sustenance and fire, with the thrill of flight, or with the understanding of a thing long pondered. Other stories were briefly held, like sugar on the tongue. Every story had value. Vanth had a craving for them all.
But if she couldn’t get stories, over the millennia, Vanth made do with bread.
She truly loved bread. If only people were more diligent in their offerings these days.
I really wished I’d worn gloves. Rookie mistake. You’d think I was a tourist or something. Huddling in my favorite old peacoat at the top of this windy hill, peering through gray swirls, eyes trained on the glow of a coffee shop one block down, wishing I was there, instead of here.
Yeah. My fingers could stand to be wrapped around a cup of black coffee.
San Francisco winters seem mild to those who live with sleet and snow, but the cold here is deceptive. I should know, I’ve lived here for twenty-three years, arriving from Florida when I was eighteen years old.
You know that phrase, “It chilled me to the bone?” That’s San Francisco cold. The damp creeps in through every layer you own, through woolen coats, and scarves wrapped thrice around your neck, and those leather gloves you bought that the shopkeeper insisted came all the way from Florence, Italy, but you could have them at half price.
And then you left them on the dresser at home.
Yeah. That kind of cold.
And that’s the kind of cold it was today, November 27th, in the no-mans land between American Thanksgiving and Christmas. Or the Winter Solstice, if you prefer. And I do.
My name is Harry Stegner, and I’m a psychopomp. Meaning, I help people when it’s their time to cross over. “Death doula” is what some people are calling it now, but I don’t care for that term. Doula is what you call a midwife’s assistant. The word smacks too much of birth to me.
Death is not a birth. If you’re very lucky, and subscribe to such beliefs, death is a going home. Other times it feels like getting pushed from a moving train. Sure, you can look at death as a transition, and I guess a romantic soul could call that a “rebirth.”
I’m not. And I don’t.
I’m practical about it. Everything has to die. We know that. The world is crowded enough as it is, without people refusing to leave the room, so to speak.
Where the hell was Vanth?
Hands shoved in the pockets of my pea coat, I peered through the gray mist that wreathed Powell Street as it sloped precariously down toward the bay. This wasn’t the fat, rolling fog that streamed in off the ocean in the summer, rising from the water as it warmed. This was a creepy, spooky fog that hung in the air like a ghost.
God damn fog felt freezing cold, even though the temperature gauge on my phone said the air was only forty-eight degrees.
A cable car clanged by, half empty.
My phone also said she was late. Vanth was never late. If you could be in a thousand places at one time, would you ever be late?
Yeah. You wouldn’t. Not unless you were a lazy slob, which Death can’t afford to be.
They were out of her favorite rye at the Brooklyn deli. The baker, sweating in his fear, promised to make up a batch right away. He had it all ready, he said. It just needed to go into the oven.
Vanth had freaked him out when she showed up that day. She hadn’t had a loaf of proper Jewish rye in ages, and the old man in the tenement up the road had just kicked off, with barely a story at hand. He had told her about the deli, though. His favorite place to eat. Came here every Monday, noon. Best rye bread in town. Put it on his tab.
Almost no one left her upside down loaves anymore, except for children, playing at the table sometimes, until the most superstitious granny, the only one who remembered the old tales, flipped it quickly back again. Hoping Death hadn’t seen it. That she would not be stopping by.
Mr. Moscowitz, though, he said there would be bread for her here, so she had chanced it.
The baker slid the giant wooden paddle into the massive oven, dragging out one dark and perfect loaf.
“It needs to cool,” he said.
The smell hit her like a revelation. Like a deep, dark secret. A mystery made of flour, water, heat, and time.
“I’ll eat it now,” she said, then gestured to the loaf.
The baker wiped his nervous hands on a flour streaked apron, then picked up the loaf, juggling it a bit from palm to palm.
“No,” she said, and gestured again. This time turning her upright palm downward.
He looked at her, confused.
“You have to turn it over. That’s how I know it’s mine.”
I wanted to meet her down around Washington Square Park, across from the double white spires of Saints Peter and Paul. I could’ve stopped at the place on the corner for a latte. Or better yet, a meatball sandwich. Either way, I would’ve been inside, out of this godforsaken cold.
But no, the windswept, mist crowded hilltop with the cable cars clanging by was the only acceptable spot in the whole, goddamn city.
I even tried to tempt her, dropping in a mention of rosemary focaccia from the meatball sandwich spot. Two birds with one stone and all.
But here I was, looking down at the black, steel banded face of my phone again. Definitely late. And no texted explanation. No Facebook message either.
That’s a joke. Death hates Facebook. I do what I can to amuse myself.
“Come on…” I tapped my ratty sneakers on the concrete. Death was never late. Sometimes, much to my client’s chagrin, she even showed up early. No matter what, though, like any good psychopomp, my job was to wait around.
“Tapping your feet, Harry?”
I whirled at the sound of her voice. Smooth as silk, that one.
“We had an appointment,” I said.
“And here I am.” She swept one perfectly manicured hand down her perfectly proportioned body. Black wool trousers, nicely cut. Black cashmere turtleneck. Dusky golden skin. Lush hips. Lips I would be tempted kiss if it wasn’t Death Herself standing in front of me. Every psychopomp in the world is attracted to Death. Man or woman or something beyond or in between, she’s always just our type. Shapeshifter? Or we just see what we expect? I don’t know.
She says the skin tone is original though. Etruscan. I have no way to check.
Apparently, she’d taken over from some other Death-dealing-deity, and in another couple thousand of years, she’d hand the scepter over to someone else.
At any rate, I’ve learned three things in my years as a psychopomp.
One: Prepare yourself as best you can, because you never know exactly which moment you might get called away.
Two: Always take Death’s word for something when at all possible.
Three: Make sure your bread is fresh.
Death really likes bread, and too often people forget this step. I think a proper offering eases the transition. Can’t hurt, in any case.
You gluten-free, celiac prone people? You people on diets who clear your kitchen of any trace of starch? Figure something out. I hear there’s a lot you can do by leeching the proteins out of the grains these days. I even tried some gluten-free challah recently. It wasn’t bad.
“What are you doing here?” I blurted out.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Vanth clacked her tongue against her perfect, pearl white teeth.
Shit. I knew better, but the freaking cold was getting to me.
“Sorry.” I cleared my throat, and dug my hands deeper into the pockets of my coat. “What I meant to say was…I didn’t know we had an appointment. You know. Officially.”
She arched an eyebrow at me. A row of cars whooshed by. Down the bay side of the hill, the cable car clanged, ready to make it’s ascent back toward Market street. Every sound was muffled by the weird mist.
“I mean, sure we had this appointment, but I’ve got no one on the docket. Not until tomorrow, earliest, unless there’s something you know that I don’t.”
It happened occasionally. A blood vessel burst when I was in the middle of lunch, and I missed the exact moment of death by a minute or two. I try to be good about that, though, and make sure that if I’m pre-occupied, one of the other local psychopomps is ready to stand by. There are ten of us in the City itself, and another hundred or so in the larger metro area.
We still sometimes get caught with our pants down, so to speak.
“No,” she said. “No one’s about to pop off in the next hour, at least, not one of your people.”
The cold was making my right knee ache. I know I shouldn’t be impatient with Death, but…
“So what gives?”
“I need you to do something for me.”