A Grim Reaper’s Letter to the Editor, Miami Herald

The list and scythe are only a myth, and, though my given name is Reaper-1, my friends call me “Steve.” It’s less formal and more relatable, which is everything in this business.

Animals are the most accepting of my visit, particularly the reptiles. When I pick up the ball pythons, I simply tell them that they are going to a place that never runs out of mice, and they curl up in my arms with a contented smile and flick of the tongue.

It’s not a good career fit for everyone, though. New reapers are produced every so often to replace their predecessors. There’s a lot of burnout in the first months on the job, and everyone has their own soft spots. Mathieu quit on the spot after Dachau, and my last trainee, Shawn, quit the first week after gathering several thousand frogs who succumbed to chytrid.

My first case under Andrei (who insisted on being called “Reaper-13”) was in a small Russian village before Catherine the Great’s reign. The cottage floor was dirt—and cold—when we arrived for the little waif in the corner. Her blonde mops of curls covered bright green eyes, and she sucked the fingers in her mouth as if they were little breadsticks. She shivered under her patched shirt, shrinking from us. Nishka was her name. Little Nishka, followed by Alexei that spring (TB) and their mother in fall (TB).

spring snow on the roof—
drip, drip, drip, sizzle
fireplace ashes

The clients that always tug at my cloak-strings are the iguanas. Loyal and affectionate when they get to know you, iguanas really are simple folk—peeking around a bush, nibbling on a patch of “Mr. Grass” or a serendipitous freshly-planted hibiscus flow, or diving from their sun-drenched perch to the deep clue canal at the sight of a shadow. Of course, they’ll head-bob anything within 20 yards—minus me.

The year of 2010, rumors of snow circulated through the greater Kendall area faster than coffee in a Keurig. The iguanas were particularly hard-hit, ashen footballs falling like missed passes from their perches in the trees to the streets below only to be stepped on by a linebacker named Ford or Toyota. Many did miss the passing cars and revived in the sunlight, but I picked up several stragglers.

Their ashen hue revived to a healthy green when I stood next to them. They usually cocked their head to the right and to the left and back again before leaping into my arms with a glimmer in their eyes and a faint song on the lips.

reviving iguana—
tummy so happy filled
with lychees and warmth

It’s not always mass casualties in this business. There’s a lot of one-offs, typically the mundane stuff—accidents, disease, predations—but also more of the weird than one might expect—asphyxiation by orange slice, heart attack while pleasuring one’s self, a case of the bends, even a seagull who downed a ghost pepper off the dock and drank himself to death on seawater. Lizards, spiders, squid, and mice are frequent fliers, and amphibians are becoming routine these days.

A common misconception is that if a creature sees me, he’s a goner. It’s a myth that we are the ones who cause death. We simply appear in cases where death is probable and disappear after the case resolves itself. Some people—and animals, in particular—sense when I’m there. Blood running cold. A chill down the spine. Even a moment of breathlessness or an unseen shadow. Ever seen a jumpy gazelle or spooked horse?

Some people avoid death or prepare for a loved one’s death by heeding those signs. A twin sister feeling the chill surrounding her sister 1500 miles away. A Liberian nurse filled with dread when Patient 0 arrives and puts on her gloves, urging others to do the same. It’s a particularly common phenomenon amongst infantrymen. I remember a case in Ramadi—2007—where a young sergeant saved his unit from an IED and rooftop sniper in wait by heeding my heeding my warning.

So, the next time you see your neighborhood reaper, don’t panic; talk to us. Heed our warnings. We don’t want to carry you off any more than you want us to, and we’ll give you ample warning of the approaching danger. And, if you happen to make it, you can always thank us with freshly-baked cookies.

shadow creeping
behind house in twilight—
tornado siren

 Colleen M. Farrelly

A Grim Reaper’s Letter to the Editor, Miami Herald

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