I saw him in the distance, walking down the sidewalk and paid him little mind. Pedestrian traffic on our street is not uncommon. Cold weather was coming and I wanted to finish the yard cleanup before it became too unpleasant to work out of doors. The dead reminders of a once verdant spring littered the landscape. These would become the mulch for next year’s gardens. When I looked up again, the man was a hundred or so feet away. I did not recognize him and his dress, a tweed sport coat with sweater vest, open collar oxford cloth shirt, and dress jeans, suggested that he was a visitor to the neighborhood. Most of the walkers I knew of wore sweats, although the more trendy of them sometimes wore running gear. He gave me a smiling look of recognition which confused me. I had left this type of familiarity between strangers in the Midwest; people on the east coast tended to ignore strangers, and I was certain I had never seen him before.

“John,” he said, “it’s good to see you.”

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “do I know you?”

“I’m Tod,” he said.

I paused at this. He did not say Mr. Tod or Tod anything, just Tod, pronouncing it as if it were spelled todt. It was a proper German pronunciation and, as my German kicked in, I wondered If he were using the name as a noun. Tod is the German word for death. I started to back away as I asked my self, “did he just call himself ‘death’.”

Although I am certain I did not voice the thought, he said “that’s right, Death. When I first meet people, I try to use a synonym, something not too off putting, to give the fact of who I really am a chance to sink in. Even though you know German, it took a few moments for the fact of my name to sink in.”

I started to get frightened at this point because, despite his friendly manner, his smile had no warmth, and I was uncertain as to whether I was talking to some sort of kook, a serial killer perhaps, who liked to toy with his victims before doing them in. Yet, despite his cold demeanor, he didn’t look threatening and, in another setting, he might have been taken for an academic out for an afternoon stroll. His eyes were dark and unblinking and I had the uncomfortable feeling that he was looking through me, not at me.

He continued standing on the sidewalk and I was prevented from backing up any further by the fence which suddenly started pressing into my back. He had the advantage over me because if I ran either left or right, he could easily cut me off.

As if to answer this latest thought he told me “no, you cannot run away from me. But that is not the reason I am here. Your time is not yet. I’m here because I sensed that you have had me on your mind of late. I am here to answer some of your questions, save one.”

“And that is?” I asked.

“Don’t ask me how much longer you have,” he said, “that is knowledge that I do not have and it shouldn’t matter to you anyway.”

He was about 10 feet away from me at this point but made no effort to come closer and remained standing on the sidewalk. It didn’t seem possible. Did Death really dress like a preppie?

“No,” he said, “people’s expectations dress me in various guises. In the Middle Ages I was most often depicted in a monk’s habit, the cowl obscuring my face, my bony hands holding a scythe. It is what was expected. I was more familiar to people in earlier times. Wars and plagues took heavy tolls and their view of me as the Grim Reaper seemed appropriate to the time. Priests, after all, often attended the dying and such a stereotype was familiar. Despite at least one recent television program, which depicted me as a loving, caring individual in casual clothes, the Grim Reaper image is the one that most people still associate with me. It is an overstatement of who I am. I am not indiscriminate in my calling, as the image of the Grip Reaper would imply, nor am I loving and caring. I am Death and my sole purpose is to call people from this life when it is their time. I am finished in the blink of an eye and I am gone.”

I had to confess that the Grim Reaper image was the one I associated with death. I had seen the television program he mentioned and felt the Death it portrayed was smarmy and too regretful.

“I always pictured you as Bergman portrayed you in the Seventh Seal, stern faced, business like, but no sense of cruelty about you. Can someone really bargain with you, wager his life over the outcome of a chess game?”
“No,” he replied, “I don’t have that power. My mission is non-negotiable. Your literature is full of such stories, stories where I am tricked or agree to take someone else, stories, such as Bergman’s, which have me delaying the inevitable by playing chess with the individual, one move a day until the inevitable result. Make no mistake, when I call for someone, it is his or her time. When next you see me, it will be your time.”

“If you saw me approaching you as Bergman’s Grim Reaper,” he continued, “you would have bolted long before I got to you. I chose to approach you in a manner that would not seem threatening to you. Television, you see, does alter your expectations. Many cultures have identified me as an angel since the beginning of time. I was named as such in Exodus.”

“A dark angel,” I replied.”

“You may view me as such,” he said, “many artists paint me with dark or black clothing. And there are hints in Christianity that I belong to the Dark Side, that there is an evil taint about me. You view death as unnatural and, hence it is evil. Death is neither good nor bad and favors no one. It exists as one of the constants of the universe.”

I pondered that for a moment as my foot stirred the pile of leaves in front of me. Christians are taught from the beginning that death is our punishment for rebellion against God. That had Adam and Eve not defied God in the Garden of Eden, we would never die. Then I remembered a Rabbi who told me that had Adam and Eve not broken the rules, there might have been only Adam and Eve for all eternity, living chaste and, in my opinion, rather boring lives.
“Procreation,” he said, “implies desire, lust, feelings which, according to Genesis, only came about as a result of eating that apple. Adam, after all, did not know that Eve was naked until he ate the apple. No apple, no carnal desire, no carnal desire, and our sexual nature remains latent.”

To not know true love, it seemed to me, would have been a very real tragedy.

Remembering myself, I looked up and asked, ”what about it, have you existed since the beginning of creation, has there always been death in the world?”

He frowned at this and his impatience with my question was obvious in his voice when he said “you already know the answer to that question. Look around you. Everything in creation dies. Every step you take, every breath, is responsible for the death of some organism. You know that the creation story is a myth, told to give your ancestors a sense of place, of who they were and where they came from. You have been millions of years in the making and the ground on which you stand holds their very bones.”

“What about now” I asked, “has death stopped in the world because you stand here talking with me?”
A slight smile flickered over his lips as he slowly shook his head. “I think you know the answer to that question also,” he replied. “I already told you that everything in creation dies, from galaxies to bacteria. Much as the one who sends me, I am everywhere at once and can act everywhere in an instant. Death does not cease because I pause here with you. My work is never done.”

“Do people see you when they die?” I asked, “do they know who you are?”

“All see me, but the context in which they see me is culturally dependent and not everyone, the Grim Reaper image aside, recognizes who I am. Earlier cultures saw me in the guise of some real or imagined animal, their totem if you will; others in the guise we have already discussed. Many whom you have known saw me as a loved one, a family member, most often a spouse, and they readily reached out their hand to me. Others resist me until the end, fighting to their last breath for the life they love so much. They know the party will continue after they leave and they resent being left out. You, I suspect, are like that.”

“What of ghosts?” I continued, “how can they remain behind?”

Impatient again, he told me, “remember, I only enable your crossing. I don’t conduct you anywhere. Where you go, is up to you. Some people get lost because there was something about their life that they cannot let go of. Not all ghosts are the result of unhappy endings, many get lost for quite different reasons. Some, as I said, resent leaving the party early and stick around for a while until they realize that there is really nothing left for them and they finally follow their ancestors. Some are afraid of what they will find at the crossing, afraid of the hobgoblins which dogged them in life, and remain as shadows, shadows you yourself have seen. There are too many reasons to speak of them here but all of those who linger, eventually, find their way to their proper place. In your terms of reference, some ghosts may seem long lasting, but from the perspective of eternity, their haunting lasts but a second.”

I frowned at this and, hesitating for a moment, finally found the courage to ask, “what can I expect,” I stammered, “what can I expect after?”

“Have you not been listening,” was his sharp rejoinder. “That is largely up to you,” he said. Some see it as an everlasting sleep and their desire usually is granted. They sleep on through eternity, untroubled by all things past, present or future.”

“But even Hamlet, when he said ‘to sleep, perchance to dream, ah there’s the rub,’ was questioning that particular state,” I said.

Death waved my rejoinder away with a quick flick of his wrist. “You waste your time on details, you want guarantees,” he said.
“But what of God,” I asked in a rush, “will I see God?”

Another impatient flick of the wrist. “Again, that is up to you. Remember, I am but the messenger, the power that sends me does not provide the details of anyone’s life. I can promise nothing but an end to existence as you know it. What happens after depends in part on your expectations and how you led your life.”

“You said it wasn’t my time?”

“No,” he replied.

“Is the time and manner of my death, everyone’s death, preordained and set in stone? Do we have no control over the when and the how or are we all doomed to follow a path set for us at conception.”

“The time and manner of your death is largely up to you,” he replied. You have been given free will and that means that the creator sees endless possibilities at the beginning for each individual. He knows the ultimate result, being outside of time, but when he acts within time, he must watch as I must watch. As you grow older, the number of possibilities shrink until that final decision which sets you on your path to meeting with me.”

“Dickens was right, then,” I said, “that men’s lives portend certain endings.”

“Dickens caught a sense of the truth,” he said, “but you see it elsewhere. In the Faust legend, for example.”

“The Faust legend?” I asked, “how so?”

“You’ve read the folk tale and know that Faust made a bargain with the devil that he might have everything he wanted and live as he liked for a year. At the end of the year, the devil could have his soul.”

I nodded my head and he continued: “when the time comes for the devil to return, the forces of heaven tell Faust to turn aside and repent, that forgiveness awaited even him. Afraid, Faust refuses. Three times the angel pleads with him to repent, but Faust cannot. He fears the wrath of Hell more than he believes in the forgiveness of Heaven. The devil is more immediate and Faust is incapable of asking for the forgiveness so freely offered to him and so is drug down to Hell.”

Again I nodded.

“Goethe,” Tod continued, ” prettied up the tale, as you know and has the bargain set that Faust will not die until, at last, he utters the words ‘now I am satisfied’. True to form, Goethe has Faust begin his search for satisfaction in his lustful affair with a young woman who has fallen under his eye. The affair ends badly with the young woman drowning herself rather than facing the shame of bringing a bastard child into the world.”

I nodded slowly because I was uncertain as to what he point was tending.

“We subsequently see an affair with Helen of Troy and other outrageous acts, but at the end we see Faust surveying his world, a world finally changed for the better because of his liaison with the devil. ‘Now I am satisfied,’ Faust says, and immediately falls dead. The devil arrives to claim Faust’s soul as his own when God intervenes and takes Faust up to heaven. The devil cries foul and God tells him that Faust’s ultimate goals, that he used the devil himself to bring about good, erased all of his past sins.”

Tod must have noticed the bemused look on my face because he went on to say: “some Christians tend to view all of this in black and white. You are either on the road to good or you are on the road to evil; stating further that one cannot travel the road to salvation without assistance, that you cannot do it alone. Dickens was closer to the mark; the divine assistance, as with Faust, would be nice, but it is not absolutely necessary. The believer and the non-believer both can make the right decisions and both will end up with the same result.”

I think I look puzzled because he added: “listen! You all make decisions, some good and some bad. The important thing is not to deliberately make the bad ones. Examples of this abound in human history and it seems that the more powerful the individual, the more likely that this will occur. As Lord Acton once opined ‘Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ The powerful forget that their position does not put them on a higher plain; that they are not above telling the truth. If I have one admonition for you, it is to remember this, so that there is more of Heaven in you than of Hell.”

I pressed on, sensing that this interview was about to come to an end.

“What of Heaven and Hell,” I asked, “do they not exist?”

“Not in the way that you think of it. If people are tormented after me, it is their own making. Their separation in this life separates them for all eternity. In a sense, they do pay for their sins, but the payment demanded of them is of their own devising. Dickens, again, caught a sense of it in his Christmas Carol when he showed Marley in torment, trying in vain to help someone. He is helpless and that helplessness is his torment. Another of your authors, C.S. Lewis, wrote that the gates of Hell are locked on the inside.

“Some,” he continued, “who expect nothing after death are quite surprised to find themselves in the presence of the numinous. It sometimes happens when one secretly hopes for that which he or she doesn’t really expect to find.”
I started to object when he continued, “heaven and hell are human constructs. They have no meaning in eternity. You are not eternal in the sense of your creator and, eventually, you will just fade away, you will cease to exist. You have no future when you die, but are part of the great All which is the universe. You are there for a time until you are absorbed by it and become a part of it.”

I looked at my hands holding the rake, the pile of dead leaves, as I tried to make sense of this. So many questions, each leading to another, an eternity of questions. Wanting to ask another, I raised my eyes from the silent ground and realized that the interview was at an end, no one was there. I looked up and down the street, but it was empty. He had, after all, addressed the more important questions. Understanding the answers was another matter and I had much more to ponder than before the interview started. I felt a chill as an imagined shadow passed in front of the sun.

“Are you OK?” my wife called out, “you’ve been standing there so long I thought maybe something was the matter. What did you do, fall asleep?”

“Maybe I did,” I called back, “because I had the strangest dream.” The last part of the sentence fell on silence. She had not waited for an answer but already gone back inside.