Another English project for the housemate, converting a poem into a short story. As a disclaimer: the original poem, lines taken from that poem, and the key themes of this story belong to the original artist. My work is in the conversion into a short story, and the character of Death.
Poem converted: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot
It felt strange to not be alone, but he could hardly say it was an unwelcome change.
“Come then,” the elderly man whispered as he shrugged on his morning coat and pulled up the collar to brush his chin.
His companion remained silent, face hidden beneath the shadows of a wide rimmed hat that still did not appear big enough for the darkness shading him. Only the clear blue eyes could be seen piercing the black. The man could feel that stare settle on him like a weight across his shoulders while he led the way.
They ventured out into the evening with its pale strings of pink across the darkening sky, like a patient etherized on a table.
“Let us go through certain half deserted streets…” he appeared to be muttering to himself.
He hated these streets, stained with his predictable steps. They silently followed a familiar path that passed by the muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants, half empty with only ghosts left to discuss simple things like the weather.
The footfalls at his side were his only indication that he was not alone as the path led him with its dreadful certainty of an overwhelming question waiting at its end.
“Please no, don’t even ask. We must go and make our visit,” he had felt the intense stare, begging for an answer he was not yet ready to give.
Why must the sidewalk communes so clearly with the stranger at his side?
They came into the same gathering that he had repeated each night for too many years to remember a number. His life was built around making the necessary appearance and listening to women passing by who talk of Michelangelo as if the artist were some kind of social code for their prestige. As he stood awkwardly with his cup of coffee in one hand and the other in his pocket, shaking, his mind tumbled with words that painted beautiful images behind his eyes. He turned from the room to watch instead the yellow fog outside the window press softly against the glass while he wondered if this last night would be the one when he could share those marvels hidden in his mind.
But he knew better. It needed more time. More time to evolve, to tumble into perfection, to build on his tongue.
He sipped his drink, preparing his face to greet the mask that came to smile at him, as if he didn’t know the friendly character was a lie built by the demands of this party just like him. They were all simply playing roles in a grand scandal of social signals and meaningless talks of paintings they don’t understand, and who did he think he was to dare change that?
His companion silently observed the crowd, seeming oblivious to the way the man was struggling with a tight scraping taking over his chest. Anxiety rose in the elder as he worked over and over whether it was ready, this writing, this beauty hiding inside of his mind.
There would always be more time, though. Even on a night like this, with it’s finality dragging closer, there would be time to prepare before the taking of toast and tea.
His chance was lost, though, and he knew he could not open his mouth, not even tonight. So, they took their leave, his head bowed deeply in solemn resignation. The stranger ever observant fell in behind him. He swore he could hear them whispering,
“Look how his hair is growing thin!”
“But look even his arms and legs are thin!”
He felt the words sink into his ribs. No, they would not listen to one such as him; a meaningless cretin trapped by a universe spreading across his mind. Too large for its confinement, but too beautiful for him to disturb. He could not touch that place. He could never bring it to life.
It needed more time. He would not dare to disturb the universe: neither in his mind, nor around him.
“And why not,” came the stranger’s hoarse whisper with that million dollar question that he so loathed.
The man gravely whispered his confession:
“Because, I know how it ends. I’ve measured my life with coffee spoons and I know the sound of dying voices behind the music each night I take my leave down those stairs. I know each possible version of this night under every possible light. I know who these people are. Each one has a place and I know that mine is not even here.
“Each night they will pin me down with those waiting, judging eyes as they ask pointless questions about my day and I know they expect some significant answer that I cannot give. How should I begin to spit out the butt ends of my days and ways?”
The man was shaking slightly, his face contorted into an agonized grimace that seemed nearly permanently set into his graven features. He speared his companion with a dead stare, continuing with more inflection than before.
“How would I ever lead that conversation into this beautiful thing behind my eyes? How would I pass the formulated small talk and finally touch this hidden world, gently ease it out, and show it off? With my stumbling words degrading it with each sentence if I should get so far, is it not better being kept there in hiding?
“I am an artist, but I am hardly a man. I should have been some ugly, clawed thing under the ocean’s crippling weight. I am pathetic. I can’t ruin this last piece of beauty left to me. It must be protected.”
“You are a fool,” his cloaked acquaintance responded, shaking his head and letting out a cold laugh. “Ah, but you are not the first. It seems that artistry tends to enjoy the company of the weak. I wonder why that is?”
“So, now even you will laugh at me. And on a night like this of all times? I’d have thought one such as you would know more courtesy,” came the quiet voice, much too meek for the words to hold meaning.
“I have met many a man on nights like these. Each of difficult importance and strange emotions. My respects are reserved for those who fight against me, rather than lead me through one last night of the same old misery. You are peculiar, but also foolish. Let’s move on,” the stranger’s voice remained cool and harsh in its whisper.
He couldn’t help then as they continued but to wonder. Would it have been worth it to try? If he could have only stumbled further ahead in those carefully crafted conversations and finally admitted, “I am an artist. A writer. I have a beautiful world trapped inside my mind…” Would he have changed even a morsel of his wasted existence?
Among all the tea, the cakes, and the ridiculous, repetitive discussions; if he’d only had the strength to reach out once those official niceties were over… would someone, anyone have turned to him with a smile and allowed him to share? Would anyone have bothered to care? Would this night be ending differently with less finality, and more promise to a future?
Perhaps it would have been different. If only he were a different kind of man, and not the one with so little to offer.
“You’re right, you know,” he admitted, earning piercing eyes of pity glancing back.
“I am the Fool. I do not play a leading role in this social performance. I do not save the day and become the hero. I stumble onto stage for comedic relief, if even that. Perhaps I’ll make an appearance here and there to move along the plot a little. But I cannot change this world. I am only a fool.”
There was a long silence that followed, the two watching the other, each with analyzing gazes locked.
Finally, his companion turned away, watching their path as they came to walk into the soft sand of a beach.
“Fools are self designed when a man decides to make a choice that he can undo at any time. In all these years, I have yet to meet one who was a fool by accident,” the stranger responded tiredly, resigned and knowing that his words would fall on deaf ears.
“Would you tell me about this universe, at least? Or do I frighten you as well,” his tone was almost amused if not for the edge of that ever-growing pity.
“Why don’t I show you instead?”
They had come to halt at the edge of the water. Gentle waves blackened by the night beckoned the strange pair further. The man held out his hand and after a moment of sinking realization in his companion’s gut, Death reached out to accept it.
As they came to the call of the waves, he began to release those words he’d kept trapped for far too long:
“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.”
The water reached only their knees and Death’s long cloak floated atop its surface.
“I do not think that they will sing to me.”
Death could hear the tears screaming down the man’s face.
“I have seen them riding seaward on the waves, combing the white hair of the waves blown back when the wind blows the water white and black.”
The chill was creeping into his old, tired bones and the water lapped at the stubble of his quivering chin. His companion remained silent as he continued.
“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea…”
In the short pause, Death understood the silent request to take him there and nodded his head as if to assure the elder it would happen.
“By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and –“
They came beneath the surface and he had not sucked in a breath to stave off the end before they’d descended. Death pulled him close, as if to comfort a crying child. He began to take them deeper and deeper while the man remained eerily calm. The weight of the water would take him if his lungs did not betray him first. But could it truly be known as betrayal in a situation such as that?
There came a moment when instinct overrode the man’s decision, but his dear friend, Death understood and did not release him to rise to the surface. He tightened his hold as the body began to squirm and struggle as if it could fight off its own chosen doom. Further and further, deep into darkness the immortal and the man went.
The body grew heavy, still, and limp. Death could have sworn the man was still whispering one last line as he passed:
“Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”