first published August 24, 2018
In the final years of my life, I and most everyone I knew were burdened by the heavy yoke of existential dread, knowing the Angel of Death might have been around any corner. He could have appeared anywhere, in any number of forms. There were so many different ways to die which during better times had never even occurred to us.
In the days of trouble, even the very old didn’t die of old age. They might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or perhaps infected with whatever fatal disease that was killing everyone. Or maybe it was just the same slow starvation that weakened everyone. The Angel of Death sometimes swooped down quickly, and took his prey without notice, without witnesses. Sometimes he took his prey in smaller bites, tormenting his victim with pain and suffering for many months, or even years.
And yet, we fought on. There was no other choice but suicide. Some did choose that option. It was hard to blame them. The poisonous fear flowed through our veins, carried by our blood, infecting every cell in the body with its black toxin. It was more than many could bear — knowing that death would likely come soon, but not knowing how or when, not knowing how much suffering we might have to endure before the very end.
During those years, there was never complete joy. Here and there, we managed to grab a few moments of it — an embrace between old friends, a stolen kiss, some food in the belly, a familiar song or smell or taste that reminded us of better times — but they were always eclipsed by the shadow of the Angel’s ominous, black wings, and the taint of blood, ever in the water.
The dread gnawed at me, ground me down. Like an automaton, I kept moving, putting one foot in front of the other, but it no longer mattered to me where I ended up. It was pointless to make a plan, to have a goal or destination. I had no control over my life and eventually gave up trying to exert any.
One day, I was caught by soldiers. I didn’t care enough to resist. One of them pulled his pistol out and took aim at my head. In that brief moment between knowing I was about to die and actually dying, I had but one emotion: relief. At last, the anticipation was over. No more trying to hide, tensed for tragedy. The ending of my story was finally known. The tightly wound coil inside me sprang open and all the stress left my body. I was empty of it before the bullet hit my flesh.
Though I was gone, others managed to survive until it was all over. They lived, eventually, in peace and plenty, had children and grandchildren. But even in their many joys, they never forgot the shadow.