Alone on the dusty porch, the woman lightly rocks herself back and forth in her creaking chair, eyes fixated on the city lights in the valley beyond, lights competing against the spray of diamonds in the inky sky. Her hair is a brittle white, her brown eyes dim and sunken into a bony face. Layers of knitted blankets guard her from the chill of night. Her breathing is calm this evening; there is no noise on the plateau but the creak of her gentle rocking. The moon above makes silhouette spears of the garden to her right. To her left, the hunting shed slumps with neglect.
It is a perfect evening.
The woman’s eyes do not shy away from the radiant city. The lights remind her of another city, in another time. Eastern Europe, when the world bled and buckled under the strain of war. She remembers the bright lights of the facility where she brought the children of nearby villages for purification. She remembers the lights of the cities below her plane when she fled, the sporadic orange plumes of explosions marking the departure of more souls, the extinguishing of more of civilization’s luminance.
She still recognizes her past, but her present is a mystery.
She does not know this foreign land or how she came to be here. She does not know the beautiful young woman who tends to her from dawn until dusk, fussing at her clothes, her hair, ensuring that she is not kept hungry or thirsty. The climate is too hot during the day, too dry. Most days find her angry and confused. She finds escape in her Bible, understanding of its passages burned into her at a young age. She finds solace gazing out at the lights on the clear, cool evenings.
The lights keep the darkness at bay.
The wicked autumn chill creeps beneath the blankets. The woman stirs, and notices the stranger sitting in the chair next to her, rocking patiently, the groaning of the chairs a matching tempo.
“It has taken a long time to find you,” the stranger says. His voice is the slight rustling of sugarcane in a breeze, the warning hiss of a serpent just before striking.
The woman hears the words, but they are muffled in her ears. She cannot tell if the stranger is speaking her language, the language of this land, or all languages at once. But she understands. Her knobby hands grip the handles of her chair tightly.
“I looked for you at Bełżec,” the stranger continues casually, “but you weren’t there. I looked for you, later, at Nuremberg—”
“Geh weg!” the woman snaps.
The stranger ceases to rock. He is slender and tall, dressed in a dark suit and top hat, dressed in shadows. His leather shoes are immaculate. He has a cane the color of moonlight, its form a shaft of eerie light in the blackness of the night. He taps it gently against the dry boards of the porch.
The woman refuses to look at the stranger. She keeps her focus ahead, on the radiant city and all of the life flowing within it. As a little girl, she was told many stories about this stranger, stories that left her afraid to sleep at night. She has met him many times throughout her life, she is sure, there is something vaguely familiar about the face, the voice, but she can’t remember his name.
“Now that I have found you, it is time for us to depart,” the stranger says.
“Geh weg!” the woman barks again.
There is a shuffling inside the house. A lamp is lit. Footsteps approach.
“Mamá?” a younger voice calls out, full of concern.
The old woman sighs, closing her eyes to suppress her irritation.
A young woman steps out onto the porch, wearing only a white nightdress. She hugs herself to ward off the cold. Her mocha skin and raven locks stand in stark contrast to the pale woman; the only shared feature are their eyes, wide and brown.
“Con quién estás hablando?” the young woman asks, her words warm and soft.
The woman hates the familiarity with which this girl addresses her. She is the real stranger, the warden of this prison in the mountains. She is not her daughter.
The girl cannot see nor hear the stranger sitting before her, but the stranger answers her query anyways.
“I have been called by many names. Nergal, Batara Kala, Yama, Mictlantecuhtli, Ogbunabali, Thanatos, Arawn, Baron Samedi. Your people refer to me as—”
“Santa Muerta,” the old woman mutters. Saint Death.
The stranger inclines his head and tips his hat, though still unseen by the young woman. “I would have come as a woman, but you have always found this form most pleasing in your mind’s eye.”
“Mamá? Mamá?” the young woman repeats, seeking answers.
The stranger stands up, leaning on his glowing cane and buttoning his suit jacket with his free hand.
“Come,” he says to the old woman. “I have business elsewhere tonight.”
The old woman shakes her head vigorously.
“Come,” the stranger says, his tone betraying a hint of sharpness. “You are too fragile, too exhausted to continue eluding me. Already, you have lived much longer than the rest of the world would have permitted, had Mossad captured you in 1960.” He reaches out his hand and grasps the elderly woman’s bony shoulder.
Suddenly, a window opens within the woman’s mind. The fog rolls back, and she sees her husband, Raúl, dead now for three years. She sees back further, narrowly avoiding the Israeli operatives who caught Eichmann in Buenos Aires, the voyage from Genoa to South America, arranged by Bishop Hudal, the perilous flight from the Red Army, the mounds of children burning each night in the facility, the lights of their eyes stolen by death. The same death has caught up to her.
She rocks back and forth, agitated, trying to struggle free from the stranger’s grip.
“Fool,” the stranger says, striking her across the face with his cane. “Do not think you can fight me.” The woman sags back in the chair, clutching her bruised face. “You are born. You die. The length of time separating those two points is determined by chance, nothing more. All things must end with me. Now, come.” He holds out his hand.
The old woman scowls at the stranger and sits up. She turns to the young woman, who is kneeling beside her, sobbing. She remembers now, she remembers everything. “María,” she whispers. A single tear slides down her cheek, a small mark of acknowledgment for all the secrets withheld, the frailty of the human mind, and the judgement to come.
The old woman pushes out of her chair, the blankets sinking to her feet. Still glaring at the stranger, she reaches out to his offered hand. “Hoffnung und Reich,” she spits, defiant, and clasps the stranger’s gloved hand.
She crumples back into the chair and lays still. The chair rocks three times before slowly freezing. The young woman pulls her hair and wails to the darkling sky. The old woman’s eyes rest on the stars, millions of points of light in the dark, cold nothingness of space. A spark is held within her eyes for a moment, but as the seconds tick by, the spark withers and fades. Her eyes grow dark.
The lights are going out.