I have a pretty tough job. I’m a thief and, some may say, a criminal. I rarely return what I take. I can’t be seen and, yet, there are dozens who fear me. Have you guessed who I am, yet? Death. That’s right. I am death. It’s not as if I wanted this job, I simply couldn’t escape it. Before time began, before there was a god or an earth, I was destined to have this job. I can’t say whether I like my job or hate it. It has its highs and lows. Sometimes I come across the man whose soul I can’t wait to steal. We all know those people. The criminal, the rapist, the narcissistic mothers, or drunken fathers. It’s always a highlight to see those people go to where they belong, ain’t it now? But then, there are those few low moments of my job. Those are the rare moments when I come across a man that shouldn't die. I must admit, there aren’t many. Every soul I take I can examine, and with every examination I find a deep, hidden reason why they should die. However, sometimes, during that examination I get stumped. When I get stumped, I realize that I’ve come across one of those rare, few souls that truly deserve to live. Anytime I have a spare moment away from work, I reminisce about some of those people. There’s this one man in particular that I always remember. He’s the only man who truly brought emotion to me. He brought me guilt. He brought me sadness. I, who cannot feel. I, who have no heart and no human emotion, was brought to guilt and sadness by this one man.
It was the year 1872. In America. It was the post - Civil War era, and even I feel shivers down my spine to think of that time. Most would assume that war would be the most dreadful time for someone with a job such as I have. Yet, there is some good in war. In war, there is room for heroism and for love. There is passion and there is hope. No matter how terrifying war gets, there are always the heroes to look up to. There is always the unfailing love of the womenfolk back home for their husbands, brothers, and fathers. There is always an undying passion to do what’s right and, so long as a soldier is alive on the battlefield, there is always at least a pinch of hope. There is none of this after war. The heroes go home, the passion dies, the women take their loved ones for granted now that they are home, and there’s no need for hope. Thus, there is some good in war, but I declare that there is no such good in post - war. Because after all the heroism, love, passion, and hope is gone, there is an abundance of room for something ugly. Something hideous and grotesque slithers into sight when all the good of war disintegrates. That thing is Bitterness. The greatest evil in the world and one of the greatest reasons for death. I should know. I’ve lost count of how many souls I’ve received that died at the hands of their fellow bitter men. Yes, I repeat, Bitterness is the greatest evil in the world and it certainly unleashed its power during the Post - Civil War.
As I said above, it was 1872. I arrived a bit early for my job, at a tiny, farmhouse. There was no welcome mat on the door, but I welcomed myself inside anyways. I looked around the tiny house, where all the inhabitants were clustered in a tiny living area. There was an African American boy, huddled in the corner. Maybe ten years of age and coughing. Coughing. That’s how most deaths started during this time: with a cough. I figured it must be the boy that I’d come for, but as I got closer, it wasn’t him. I left the shivering, ill boy and went to the other child in the house. A little African American girl. Sitting on the living room floor with what may or may not have been a doll. It certainly didn’t look like a doll, it was far too dirty and filthy and plain. But she held it close to her like it was as precious as gold. She was hungry. I could tell from the sharp bones that poked out from underneath the skin and the look in her eyes. I figured it must be her that I had come to take. But as I drew close to her, I realized it wasn’t her time yet.
That left one man. An African American fellow, probably the father, sitting in a rocking chair. He pushed back and forth on a creaking, broken, rocking chair. Smiling at his children. Not at their suffering, but at his children. It’s as I looked at him that I realized I didn’t feel the presence of Bitterness. How strange that was, it seemed as if every man that I took during the Reconstruction era had Bitterness clinging to his heart. But not this man. I stepped towards him and I learned about him. A former slave, that’s who he was. As I stared into eyes that bore the scars of horror and pain, I recognized him. I’d seen him before. Yes, a long, long time ago. On a plantation. When punishment went too far and I went to rescue a slave from his misery, I saw that man. Working in the field. Dying a little bit, too. Slaves were always dying a little bit every day. I wasn’t looking for him. I was looking for Bitterness. Sure enough, he had the nerve to show up. Slithering through cotton fields and up the slaves and thrusting blood filled claws into their hearts, making himself a permanent home inside them as they stared at the man dying at the hands of his master. I felt anger at Bitterness, until I saw that he missed one man. The same man who I must take the soul of, was working in the fields. He was crying. Tears poured down his dark skin as he worked. He felt sorrow. He felt pain. He even felt me, and he feared me. But he didn’t feel bitterness. I had a funny notion to salute him as I saw Bitterness slither past him indignantly, wondering why this man insisted on shutting him out, when no one else did.
Then I saw him again. In the Civil War. In a segregated army unit, fighting as valiantly as the white man. Yet being ridiculed behind his back, by his fellow white soldiers. I had to come to get both his fellow soldiers and his enemies. I walked among the bodies, picking out the souls from the dead men. Bitterness slithered up, giving me a grotesque grin, as if daring me to stop him. Of course I can’t. I’m just Death, how can I stop something that is so much more terrible than I am? He slithered up to the living soldiers, both Yankees and Confederates and he clutched at their hearts. Killing them in spirit. For any man who is bitter is hateful. Any man who is hateful is dead inside, for he can feel neither love nor joy. Yet again, he passed this one man. The same man who I must take the soul of, didn’t welcome bitterness. Bitterness could only shake a grimy, bloody claw and slither away. Again, I felt the urge to salute the African American.
Then I saw him yet again. After the war. After emancipation. In his house. Yes, this same shabby house. But besides himself and his dying children, there was another soul. A dying mother. A dying wife. I came early then, so I followed the man to town. How fast he ran. Through the pouring rain and mud, all the way to town. I knew exactly where he was going. To the doctor. A bitter doctor. A doctor who hated this man, because he was an African American. I watched him. He begged on his knees in the cold and the rain for the Doctor to come save his wife. But, it was too late. I stepped inside the Doc’s home and the first thing I saw was Bitterness, clinging to the Doctor’s heart. Bitterness is what made the Doctor tell the African American to go home. Home to a dead wife. I had to go up ahead of him. I wanted to leave her until he could say good bye or hold her hand, but I can’t do my job late. I went up ahead and took her soul, but I stayed in the house. With her weary soul in my arms, I stood by the sobbing, dying children and watched their father get home. To my disappointment, Bitterness had followed him. As he touched his wife’s still face and closed her pretty eyes, Bitterness slithered triumphantly into his heart. I shook my head. That is until, the next day. I was in town, following around the Doctor, trying to get an idea of who my next soul would be, when the African American man walked down the street. He stopped in front of the Doctor, who looked at him with a mixture of disgust and hatred. But the African American man smiled at him. Yes, he smiled at him.
“My wife died,” He said simply to the Doctor. “But I forgive you. God bless you, sir.”
The Doctor sputtered in shock and hurried away from the man without looking at him. He couldn’t look at him. For Bitterness had momentarily lost his grip on the man’s heart and he would have been rejected if the Doctor had looked at this African American, who was more of a man than he was. Maybe the Doctor couldn’t bear to reject Bitterness, but the African American could. As he spoke the words, Bitterness was flung away from him. Bitterness snarled and growled in indignation, but there was nothing more he could do to this man. He slithered away and I again wanted to salute this man. But I never did, because I didn’t know for sure if he was deserving of it. To salute him would be to show respect and emotion, I knew not yet whether this man was great enough for that. Now I stared into his eyes as he rocked quietly on the rocking chair. He was not healthy, but there was nothing very wrong with him. Then I knew that he would die, not from natural causes, but from some other man’s bitterness.
The Klan. The Klu Klux Klan, would be the carriers of this deadly Bitterness. They started out innocent enough. Young men, draped in cloaks making night rides through the town as a joke. That’s all it was at first, a joke. Maybe it was cruel to scare your fellow townspeople, but it wasn’t evil. No, wasn’t until Bitterness slithered into the Klan and raised his ugly head, forcing to be recognized, that the evil began to stir in the Klan. Bitterness slithered around these men. Former Confederates. The losers of the war. The men who lost their slaves. Who lost their so - called Confederacy. What better host for Bitterness than these men? Bitterness had unspeakable strength in these men, for they were so susceptible to him, so willing to let him clutch at their hearts with all his filth and hideousness. Then the evil started. The lynchings. The tortures. The murders. At the hands of these ghoulish looking Klan members, hundreds of innocent African Americans lost their lives. They had never harmed anyone. They had never broken the law. No, most of them had done nothing more than be free. Like the man I must take the soul of. He did no harm. It was simply because he voted. Because he walked the streets. Because he owned his own tiny plot of land. Because he was free, he was hated. Nothing made those Klan members seethe like they did when they saw a former slave being free. Or supposedly free. By law he was free, but in reality he was in shackles, placed on his frail wrists by his bitter fellow citizens. On that night, as the man sat in his rocking chair smiling at his ill children, the Klan decided whom they would kill. They probably had a reason. They always claim to have a reason. But, I can honestly say, the only reason they have to kill him, is Bitterness. He is clutched tightly to their heart. Oh, so ugly. So evil. So hideous. Yet, they love him. They love their Bitterness and they feed him on Hate and Anger, so that he grows fat and strong. Now they can never, no never, escape his clutches. I know Bitterness whispered to them in his ghoulish tones, to kill the African American man. Bitterness hated that man, because he could not get a permanent hold on his heart. What better way to kill him, than through the Klan.
I sat on the floor, next to the little girl and the rocking man. I looked away from the man’s scarred eyes to the little girl. I knew that I wouldn’t be taking her that night. Neither would I be taking the boy. I turned back to the man. I would only be taking him. Oh, how terribly unfair it is when I have to take the father and not the children. Yet, there was nothing I could do. I sat and waited. The man stayed on his rocking chair, peaceful and calm. He had a peace that no other man during the Reconstruction era could feel. The kind of peace that is present only in the absence of bitterness. I waited until I heard the horse hooves outside. The man didn’t notice them, until they got closer. And closer. And closer. Finally he raised his head, as the horse hooves stopped outside his home. The little girl looked up from her doll and to her father.
“Pa,” she asked, “Who’s that?”
“I - I dunno,” he said, concern filling his eyes.
Because deep down inside, he did know. Knew of the tales. Of the horror. Of the Klan. And, deep, deep, down inside, he knew they were coming for him. After the sound of horse hooves had stopped outside the house, there was temporary silence. Then a knock. The man finally had to recognize his fears. He jumped to his feet and with an arm he grabbed the little boy and with the other arm he grabbed the little girl.
“Hurry, children,” he urged. “We must leave!”
The little boy stopped coughing long enough to stare at his father with bewildered eyes.
“Why, Pa?” He asked. “What’s happening?”
The man didn’t have a chance to answer. The door banged open and the ghoulish looking Klan members showed their ugly faces. Bitterness hissed at me from his comfy spot, close to the hearts of the Klan members. They stepped inside the house. The man huddled near the corner of the house, with his children behind him. One Klan member stepped forward and in a ghoulish, vile tone he said, “I want a drink of water.” The African American man said nothing. Did nothing. The Klan member stepped closer, “No?” He asked. “Because I could really do with a drink of water. I have had no drink since my death at the Battle of Shiloh.” The children started sobbing as they stared at the Klan members. The man desperately looked around for an escape, but there was none. He looked back to the Klan members. “Please,” He said. “Please don’t harm my children.”
The Klan members gathered around. “That’s a tall order,” hissed one member. The African American man looked with terror filled eyes from his children to the Klan. Then, thrusting his children farther away from the Klan, he stepped forward. He looked evenly at the men. “You can do as you like with me, if you only leave my children,” He said. The Klan members gathered closer around him. Then one member nodded his head, indicating that it was an agreement. In their minds they were being generous, but in reality it’s pretty rotten. No, it’s more than rotten. It’s vile. Gruesome. Terrifying. Hideous. No, it’s more than even that! Something so cruel, so inhuman, that even I, with my impressive vocabulary, can think of no word terrible enough to describe this evil. To agree to murder a man, but leave his children, is unspeakably horrible. Then it gets worst. The Klan clutched the man. They whipped him. They beat him. They tortured him. It’s not enough to just kill him. They had to make him remember his time in slavery. They made him remember the lashes and the horror. They had to torture him, just to make the point that he is not free. He fought for his freedom, he thought he was free, but these Klan members will stop at nothing to make sure he is never free.
Bitterness laughed. Hatred peered triumphantly at me with red eyes from the hearts of men. Evil wrapped around the house, suffocating the inhabitants. Horror entered the eyes of every inhabitant. I couldn’t stop them. I can’t stop Bitterness, Evil, Hatred, or Horror. Only the men they have in their clutches can stop them, but they don’t. They love them too much. I wanted to close my eyes. I wanted to plug my ears. I wanted to block out the sight of Evil triumphing and the sound of blow after blow being laid on an innocent man. It was almost time to do my job. To steal this man’s soul. But not yet. Not until Bitterness slithered to the floor. He circled the man, like a shark waiting to attack. Waiting to make him bitter. This African American had more of a right to be bitter than anyone else, so surely he would welcome Bitterness. He could fend off Bitterness when the white man killed the slave, when the Confederates killed the Yankees, and when one man’s bitterness killed his wife. But, surely, this is far too much. I turned away, not wanting to see Bitterness’s triumph. But Bitterness didn’t triumph. He slithered up to the man, but then drew back as if burned. He hissed and snarled, but then was slapped straight across the face by the African American. He was slapped by the soft, barely audible words, “I forgive you,” from the African American. Evil and Bitterness ran from the house. They, who have no fear, are caused to run. They had no place in a house with a man like this.
Then, it was time to do my job. To do what I do best: take away a soul. But I didn’t want to. Not because I wanted the man to suffer. No, it’s because I wanted him to live. I’ve never remembered wanting something. But, right there, at that very moment, I wanted that man to live. I wanted him to be free. I wanted him to taste the freedom that had been fought for him. I wanted him to vote. I wanted him to sing. I wanted him to be filled with joy. Of all the people I’ve met, not one of them has deserved freedom more than this man. But life’s not fair. No, it certainly is not. It’s wicked and cruel. It’s not fair that two screaming children have to watch their pa die. It’s not fair that the man who slaps Bitterness dies, but the men who embrace Bitterness live. It’s not fair that Evil smiles and Goodness dies. But nothing has ever been quite so unfair as not letting this man be free. I reached past his battered, bloody body, and I drew his soul away. I carried his soul away from the freedom that he so badly deserved. Just because of Bitterness, he would not taste freedom on earth. Then I realized I’d never saluted him and that it was now too late. I kept walking, farther away from the screams of the children and the Evil atmosphere. Then, I thought. I thought of the unfairness and I thought of the cruelty. I did not hate the war, but I do hate the Reconstruction. Because so long as Reconstruction goes on, African Americans will not be given their freedom, because of Bitterness. I looked at the man in my arms and am struck by the immense unfairness of life. Then, somewhere deep, deep down inside, farther down than all the emptiness and bleakness that is me, I felt something. I felt guilt. I felt sadness. I cradled the soul in my arms. I cradled the man who slapped Bitterness. Who made me feel emotion. Who didn’t let evil triumph. And I stole this great soul.
It’s the only time I cried on the job.