“Life is a matter of death. Death is a matter of fact.”
Micah DeAtta learns this as he awakens with Death seated across from him, whetting his sickle. Micah has no choice but to converse with Death in order to figure out his own demise. As their conversations become a battle of wits, Micah is forced to relive prominent deaths of family and friends before learning of his own. Each death happens in real time, each correlating with the nine levels of the Aztec underworld. Before it is said and done, Micah will have been forced to face his fears, his losses, and the fact that although life may be too short, death is forever.
When Mama died, I died. Mama died of cancer. I can’t exactly remember how I died.
Now I’m sitting here with Death as he takes me back to these deaths. This whole experience is infuriating. He talks to me as if he cares while making it clear that he doesn’t.
I murmur, “You’re Death,” saying it more to myself than to him.
“I’m sorry?” he asks with confusion.
I quietly shout, “You’re Death. You—are—Death.”
I look up at him in anger.
He stares at me, blankly. Dead.
“What the fuck do you pity the lives you end for?” I point my finger and tap the air as if it were his chest. “You don’t know, do you? You don’t realize what you do to the family and friends of the person. You don’t know what sorrow feels like. Grief. What pain and heartache feel like.”
There’s no stopping me now. Not even his calm and bone-collected self. Sitting there nice and composed. Asshole.
“You don’t know what it feels like to have someone ripped away from you. You never held your sister in your arms while they cry violently, asking why God took her baby. But it was you. You took her baby. You haven’t watched a teenage family member on a hospital bed being kept alive with beeping machines and wheezing pumps. Being held away from you. Feeling helpless as you watch the Nurse’s assistant gently wipe away dried sweat and drool and blood from their inflamed face.” Sweat and drool and blood also smear my face.
I cut him off, “You’ve never sat and watched as your mother was lowered beneath the ground. No. You just do the dirty deeds, don’t you? You’ve never had to repeat ‘I’m okay. Hanging in there,’ to everyone asking how you’re doing.”
I grunt, “You’ve never listened to the broken record of ‘they’re in a better place now; they’re resting in peace now; there’s no more suffering where they are now’. You’ve never had to turn your back on those attending a loved one’s funeral to keep from blowing up on them because they’re there to be nosy.”
Death sits there as tears stream from my bloodshot eyes. “Do you know how many funerals I’ve been too? What about you? You may be the reason behind the grieving families at funerals, but how many have you actually been too?”
He stands, tall and erect. “You fool!” The boner’s voice enters my soul with loud impatience. He slams the butt of the scythe’s handle to the ground and I feel my world tremble like a tremor. “Do you know how many I’ve caused? How many funerals are of my doing? The funerals you’ve been to, they’re because of me.”
My eyes are forced shut, the force of his shouting reaching my core like an explosion.
As I hold them shut I sense a breeze brush along the beads of sweat on my forehead and forearms. I’m frightened to open them. I struck a nerve now.
I remember wanting life the day after pleading for my death, but right now I want nothing more than life and Mama’s warm, reassuring embrace. Besides an ominous breeze, I feel and hear nothing. I concentrate on my panicked breathing. My heart rate high, pounding behind my eyes. That’s when I hear the voice.
“We commend unto thy hands of mercy, most merciful Father, the soul of this thy child; and we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.—”
My body is still as a gambling addict whose life’s savings are wagered in the hopes of early retirement, awaiting the judge’s results for the boxing match.
What am I awaiting? Sitting here, eyes clinched. Body, clinched. Am I waiting for Death? Confirmation of Death? Something’s out of place.
“—judgement shall come which thou hast committed to thy well-beloved Son, both this child and we may be found acceptable in thy sight. Grant this, O merciful Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Savior, Mediator, and Advocate. Amen.”
I slowly open my eyes and realize that I am no longer in front of Death. Another memory. Now, I am tight within a crowd of people. People who are dressed mostly in black, or in dark shades. I nudge forward through the darkly dressed crowd.
My feet are inches deep in sod. As I stretch my calves, peering over shoulders, a priest comes into sight. He is closing a bible, placing a holy kiss on the cover, and hugs it tightly against his chest.
A man and woman make their way forward, leaning over in front of him. But they aren’t taking communion or asking for a blessing. They’re giving a kiss to a glossy, pink box. The box is about the size of a large sack of potatoes. I’m about as clear minded as those same potatoes.
This is all familiar. Even the man kissing the box. He is dressed in a charcoal grey suit. I recognize him as my brother.
Cheecho straightens and turns away from the box. It’s not just any box. It’s a casket. A casket holding my stillborn niece.
The box jerks immediately as it descends into the earth. Feet away from her angel-daughter—my angel-niece—my sister jerks in unison.
Behind her, my family, and others, lies a field of tombstones. Precious Moments sculptures decorating a few of them, crucifixes and Jesuses and saints and Virgin Marys adorn the majority of the rest.
A shadow meanders through them. It holds what appears at a glance to be a Johnny Appleseed knapsack.
I know what it really is, though. A sickle.
And I know who he really is.
He stops behind a tombstone and his head turns in my direction as if mourning alongside my family and I.
Some Taiwanese funerals have professional mourners. People hired to speak, and mourn for the deceased. Women with makeup streaking down their faces with tears.
The clinks of the gears lowering my niece are loud as an interstate highway accident.
My sister, she wails. Her makeup streaks down her face with tears. She attempts to tear her heart out through her black dress, mascara-tears clogging random pinholes in her black veil.
Then I look at the graceful pace of Death.
It was hard enough the first time. This time only reiterates the fact that I can’t help her. I know this isn’t real. Just another Death joke. I do an about face, allowing my feet guide me away. But they guide me into the backside of a woman.
“—earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.—”
The words enslave me. Over the shoulder of a woman before me I again see a priest with his hand sprinkling Holy water over a casket. This black casket is tailored for an adult.
“—Grant this, O merciful Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Savior, Mediator, and Advocate. Amen.”
I push forward again and see Ronnie’s mother wiping tears away from her cheeks. That’s Ronnie’s casket. This is Ronnie’s funeral.
My attention is returned to Ronnie’s mother and others from their family as they all wail a song of heartache as Ronnie descends into the earth. The melody is in Spanish. The singer is wailing, singing Entierranme Cantando. Sing while you bury me.
As turn away in anguish, and I see AJ texting away on her phone, her hands resting upon her fat belly that my child temporarily calls home.
I glance at the priest and his bible. Death peeks over his shoulder, looking at Ronnie? At me? It’s hard to tell with his empty eye sockets. Patches of skin flail with the misty breeze.
Panic turns to anger. Anger toward AJ’s ignorance. Anger toward Death. Anger due to me being forced to relive these moments, as if the pure memory and loss isn’t enough.
I do a half turn to escape Death’s sadistic joke. Maybe even Death himself. I stop before running into the back of another priest. Or is it the same one? I don’t know. But the casket before him is different.
The picture on the stand is one of Gabe. He’s dressed in a black cap and gown with crimson stitching and a sash and cord to match. It’s Gabe’s funeral.
I panic is turning into a frantic movements like a slow internet connection. I juke to my left and see another framed picture. This one of Artie standing next to his first car. I refrain a shout, turning once again to get out of here. Out of this moment- these moments. My past. My future. My Death. But I am stopped short by the sight before me.
A glossy, deep forest green casket sways upon thick green straps, hovering above a rectangular pit. Pictures of Saints adorn the sides of it. The centerpiece is a beacon of Mexican culture. It is a picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe. A beacon of Mama’s faith. It’s my mother’s casket.
A shadow crosses on the other side of Mama’s casket. My head jerks upward and instead of Death’s black shadow, I see a white owl with golden eyes perched atop a tombstone.
Gears crank and I look at Mama’s casket. Tears cascade from my eyes as my mother is lowered.
This is pure agony, although I know this has happened before. I know this is a part of Death’s torture. I also know that the pain I feel is real. Maybe even more painful because I am forced to relive it. Relive the fresh pain, peeling back the scab far enough that skin also rips away bringing forth more anguish.
This time, I involuntarily change a detail. While kneeling by the platform’s metal bars that support Mama’s body, my muscles contract, readying themselves. The green, thick, wide straps give way to Mama’s physical existence, lowering her to her final destination, I rise to my feet.
My core burns with the intensity of a forest fire. My weight leans forward. My feet part ways with the earth, where Mama’s body shall rest.
Earth to earth.
I chase my freefalling tears down into Mama’s resting site.
Ashes to ashes.
The damp air graces my skin, and I fall, closing my eyes, peacefully.
Dust to dust.
Death is inevitable. Some depart this world peacefully in their sleep and some pass on painfully. We’ve all heard stories depicting angels, bright light, but no one really speaks of “Death” himself. In Sugar Skulls, Micah has quite the lengthy conversation with Death. I agree with Micah, Death behaving more like Sigmund Freud than the thing of nightmares was quite unnerving. I can see why Micah mouthed off to him. Death was basically acting like a shrink and not everyone is comfortable with a head doctor, let alone one looking like DEATH. DEATH made Micah relive the best and, more importantly, the worst moments of his existence.
In doing so. certain points in Sugar Skulls proved quite informative and/or fascinating.
1.) Mictlan (underworld of Aztec mythology) and its 9 levels.
(Each level was described and integrated into the storyline very smoothly.)
2.) Death’s reaction to taking some lives but not others.
(Many have pondered the question if DEATH views all his “victims” the same. Does he regret any lives taken? No regrets whatsoever? His response might amaze you. Tapia clearly didn’t want DEATH to be a silent player in this story. DEATH certainly had depth to him.)
3.) The ending.
(The closer the end came, the less surprised I was by the turn of events. However, I must say, the end was pretty damn good.)
Heart Rating System:
1 (lowest) and 5 (highest)
M.R. Tapia has had his short stories appear in various publications including Schlock Webzine, Deadman’s Tome, Empty Sink Publishing, and Hindered Souls: Dark Tales for Dark Nights. His short story, ‘Stella Reign’ is a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee.