The Not-so-Grim Reaper

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I was buying some treats at the Pastry Peddler a few years back when a charming stranger took great interest in me and my dog.  She struck up an animated conversation with me, although we had never met, and I recall being struck by the warmth of her nature and the translucent softness of her features, as if she was part woman, part watercolour painting.  Before we parted, she kneeled to tenderly stroke my dog’s coat, and that was when I suspected that our encounter might be far from what it seemed.

My dog was a strapping Rhodesian ridgeback, almost a hundred pounds of raw muscle and power.  Her ancestors had been bred to hunt lions.  She had never known fear, but under the gentle touch of that woman, she began to tremble and cower.  Her big brown eyes implored me to get her away from the stranger and after I closed the conversation, she could have been a sled dog for all the force with which she pulled me home.

That night I awoke to the sound of my dog’s laboured breathing and I rushed out of bed to her side.  She was struggling to sit up and as I gently eased her to the floor in my arms, she left us suddenly.

We grieved the loss of our beautiful friend and in my imagination, I could not help but wonder if there was a connection to the stranger.  Perhaps stories around the world of a Grim Reaper had actually started something like this:  with a touch from an unknown figure, followed by an unexpected passing that people had no other way to explain.  What if the black-cloaked, scythe-wielding villain who trick-or-treats at Hallowe’en and stars in our horror movies was really a sweet-natured visitor, not unlike the favourite aunt who slips you candy when your parents aren’t looking?  What if the Grim Reaper is someone you would typically be happy to see, if it wasn’t for the goosebumps rising inexplicably on the back of your neck?

I didn’t see the stranger again for some time after that incident, until last summer I was downtown and ran into a friend who was walking her dog.  She had paused in mid-walk to engage in conversation with someone and as I approached them, my stomach flip-flopped.  “Have you met?” asked my friend.  “We’re having the nicest conversation.”

A hard lump formed in my throat as I found myself face-to-face with the stranger.  I somehow resisted the urge to yell, “Don’t let her touch your dog!” and instead, in a show of courage that did not reflect my inner cowardice, I extended my hand to the woman.  “We’ve spoken once before,” I said, as evenly as I could manage.  “How nice to see you again.  My name is Anita.”

Was this it, I wondered?  Was this my time?  Instead, the stranger recoiled from hand as if it was a cobra about to strike.  I exhaled in relief, not having realized that I’d been holding my breath.

She recovered her poise almost immediately.  “No, Anita,” she said serenely.  “I will not be touching you today.”

WILL NOT BE TOUCHING ME TODAY?!   If I needed any confirmation that this was the Grim Reaper in the flesh, that was it.  Still, I had to admit I was glad not to be getting the icy handshake.  The woman made up a flimsy excuse about having spent the day cleaning out a filthy basement and being too dirty to shake hands.  My friend and I exchanged awkward glances:  the stranger was dressed impeccably in fresh white and pastels as if she had just come from high tea.  The explanation did not hold up.  Soon after that day, I received word that my friend had just lost someone dear to her, which added even more to the mystique around the stranger.

I have not met the woman again, although the other night she did appear in a vivid dream.  Her countenance was as lovely as ever, that same airy quality about her as an etch-a-sketch, slightly shaken.  She was telling me something in earnest, describing it with exacting detail.  When I woke up, I could recall the movement of her lips but not the words.  If she was telling me about my time, I can only hope it’s not anytime soon.

Babble by Anita Odessa

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