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Beyond the Gates
Copyright 1992 by Lynna Landstreet.
Please do not reproduce without asking
Karen flung herself down on the bed and sobbed, releasing the tears
she hadn't been able to at the funeral. She felt vaguely embarrassed
at seeing so many people crying, most of whom had never had time for
Mandy when she was alive, while she, who had more reason to mourn than
anyone, was dry-eyed.
who had sat up all those nights holding Mandy's hand, doling out medication
when the pain got too bad, first codeine, then percodan, than finally
morphine. Who had bathed her, changed her sheets and bedpans and wiped
her vomit off the floor when the chemo made her sick. Who had told her
she was still beautiful as they removed first one breast, then the other;
when she lost her beautiful red hair to the chemo and the radiation
disfigured her face.
course, everyone had made the obligatory attempts to console the surviving
lover. Some had helped, most had just angered her. If she heard one
more person say, "I know how you feel," she'd deck them. How
could they know? Especially the gay men, who seemed to think
they'd invented grief. When they lost someone to AIDS, they had
dozens of support groups to choose from, healing retreats to go on,
and demos and actions to channel their rage and frustration into. Testing
HIV-positive was practically a ticket to an exclusive social club, these
days. Breast cancer killed ten times as many women as AIDS did men,
and what was there for them? Nothing. She was almost glad she hadn't
cried at the funeral, because she'd been spared the stupid things people
always said to her when she did. Like telling her it was all right when
it wasn't, and never would be again.
only person whose sympathy had really helped had been the nurse at the
hospital, who had been there when Mandy had died. She remembered how
the woman had appeared silently, at Mandy's bedside. She hadn't even
heard her come in. One minute, they were alone together, the next minute,
the dark-haired woman was standing at Mandy's side. As Mandy's tortured
breathing slowed and the jagged green line on the monitor became more
erratic, she had gently taken the hand that Karen wasn't holding. She
stood still for a moment, looking down at Mandy with what seemed like
infinite compassion, then leaned down and lightly kissed her as the
last breath trailed off into silence and the green line went flat.
still remembered how she had looked up and met the woman's eyes, eyes
so dark they seemed like wells against her milky white skin. The woman
had looked surprised for just a moment, as if she hadn't noticed her
before, then had come around to her side of the bed and put her arms
around her. Her face and hands had felt cold, but there was a feeling
of incredible peace in her embrace, so that when she finally did let
her go, Karen had felt more alone than ever.
she had tried to find her again, but the other nurses had insisted that
none of the nurses on that shift had long black hair. Maybe she had
just been passing through on her way to another ward. At any rate, Karen
had lost her to the stifling bureaucracy of the hospital.
looked at the phone. She wanted to call someone, but there was no one
she thought she could stand to talk to. Her life had become so tied
up with looking after Mandy that she didn't really feel close to anyone
anymore. During Mandy's illness, Karen had first withdrawn from her
various volunteer commitments, and finally quit her job so that she
could care for her full time.
few friends had stuck by them, but most had seemed to feel that one
visit per hospital stay fulfilled their obligations. Sure, lots of people
had said at the funeral that she could call them any time, but she knew
they didn't really mean it. No one wanted to be saddled with the burden
of a crying, hysterical lesbian. When Karen's parents had died in a
car accident five years ago, Mandy's support had been the only thing
that had kept her going. Now there was nothing.
she saw what was on the bed table next to the phone: the remainder of
Mandy's morphine elixir. There wasn't a lot left, but maybe... She went
into the bathroom and opened the cupboard. Yes, there were still a few
codeines, and almost a whole bottle of percodan. That should do it.
She returned to the bed, carrying the two bottles and a glass of water.
She swallowed all the pills, and washed them down with the last of the
morphine, then lay back. "I'm coming, honey," she whispered
as the world began to recede.
. . .
She was standing in the middle of a forest, on a narrow trail, dressed
for a cool fall day, with her backpack slung over her shoulder. She
had no idea where she was or how she'd gotten there. Last she remembered,
she'd been... where? She couldn't remember. Her thinking seemed strangely
muddled. She felt at peace now, though, listening to the sounds of the
birds and insects. She began to walk along the path. Once, she looked
back, and was startled to see that the path seemed to disappear into
the trees just a few steps behind her, almost as if the forest was closing
in over it as she walked. But for some reason, this didn't disturb her.
walked on for a while, until she saw ahead of her what looked like an
archway in the path, formed by two trees leaning together, their branches
intertwined. As she drew closer, two women in dark red cloaks stepped
out from behind the trees to block her way. She was bewildered. She
looked back again, but the trail vanished only a few feet away. There
was nowhere to go but forward. The women motioned to her backpack. Feeling
puzzled, though not afraid, she took it off and handed it to them. They
retreated into the trees and allowed her to pass. She hesitated. There
were important things in there. Her appointment book, her glasses...
But the women were already gone. She shrugged and walked on.
forest didn't seem quite so dense now, though the trees still closed
in behind her as she passed them. She continued on, until she came to
another archway like the last. The women who stopped her this time were
wearing orange, and motioned toward her head. She took off her hat and
handed it to them, and they melted away into the forest, allowing her
the trees were decidedly sparser and smaller, but still they blocked
her retreat, and there was too much underbrush to allow her to step
off the path. She could see the sky now, a misty gray. There seemed
to be a light fog lying over everything, so that despite the thinning
trees, she didn't see the next gate until she was quite close to it.
Two yellow-clad women indicated that she should remove her jacket, and
after complying. she passed on, feeling the chill of the autumn day
a little more sharply.
land she walked through now could hardly be described as a forest. There
were trees here and there, but mostly just scrubby bushes, which continued
to grow over her path as she passed. The fog became thicker, and a chill
wind began to blow. She began to feel nervous. What was she doing here?
Where was she going? She didn't seem to have a whole lot of choice in
the matter, but she wanted to know. nonetheless. Lost in thought, she
almost walked right into the green-cloaked women who demanded, wordlessly,
that she empty her pockets.
the fourth arch, there were no more trees, and the sounds of the birds
and insects seemed more distant. She felt lost, the path before her
her only point of reference. The wind blew colder, and she shivered.
It was getting dark now, and she could just glimpse the next gate through
the thickening fog, though she didn't see the women in blue until she
arrived. What else was there that she could give? They motioned to her
shoes, and she considered refusing -- the stony path would hurt her
feet. But she knew, somehow, that that would be futile, so she obediently
removed her shoes and continued through the arch, which was made of
dead branches lashed together, rather than living trees.
even the bushes were growing scarce on the plain she walked on. Stones
bit into her bare feet and the damp wind chilled her bones, but she
continued on her way. There seemed to be a strange sense of familiarity
about the whole journey. If only she could remember... Had she chosen
this? She wasn't sure. Everything seemed a blur. She had to think for
a moment to remember her own name. "Karen," she whispered
as she walked along. "My name is Karen."
half-closed against the wind, she didn't stop until she felt a hand
on her shoulder and opened her eyes to see two women in indigo cloaks
standing before a stone gateway. What more could they want from her?
She was cold and tired, her feet hurt, and she didn't want to be here.
She didn't want to go on. Even that thought seemed familiar, though
she couldn't remember why. She looked back, and the wind shifted direction
to blow fiercely against her, almost pushing her toward the women. No,
there was no going back. She looked toward them again, only to see with
horror that they were motioning for her to take off her clothes. She'd
freeze! But there they stood, implacable, until she finally took off
her jeans and T-shirt and surrendered them. But they still wouldn't
let her pass -- not until she'd removed every last stitch of clothing,
right down to her underwear. Naked, she passed through the sixth gate.
she walked across a barren rocky plain. She couldn't even see a path;
she moved forward as much by instinct as anything. Her feet were almost
numb, and she was afraid to touch them for fear they'd be bloody. The
wind howled around her and whipped her hair across her tear-streaked
face as she trudged on, clutching the little pendant around her neck
that was all she had left. The little black stone clutched in a silver
bird's claw was important, she knew that, but she couldn't remember
why. Someone had given it to her, someone important. Someone she had...
loved? It was so hard to remember, but it seemed she could remember
someone else wearing one, lying on a hospital bed... and then in a wooden
wind beat against her violently, and more than once she sank to her
knees, only to finally, painfully, rise to her feet and continue. The
sky was black now, and she could barely see, but she went on. When she
finally fell and couldn't get up, she crawled onward, blindly, until
she ran into the legs of the women in purple. She looked up at them,
and could just make out the massive stone archway behind them, barred
with an iron gate. The necklace -- she knew they wanted the necklace.
But she couldn't give it to them, and shrank back when they reached
to take it. There was some reason -- if only she could remember.
The necklace was her last link with -- with who? The twin pendant,
on its silver chain, looking out of place against the hospital gown
-- she fought the haze that clouded her memory -- gentle hands placing
the chain around her neck as she looked into the eyes of--
she screamed, clutching the pendant. "Mandy!" They were trying
to take Mandy away from her. She turned, blindly, somehow scrambled
to her feet, and stumbled back, away from the gate and its cruel guardians,
back the way she had come. The wind lashed her face and blinded her
with tears so that she couldn't see where she was going. Finally she
fell to the ground and lay there, sobbing, until she finally looked
up to see the women standing in front of her as if nothing had happened,
still stretching out their hands in mute demand. She struggled to her
feet again, and tried to run, she didn't know how many times, each time,
coming face to face with them again, until finally, between sobs, she
unclasped the necklace for the first time in the seven years she'd had
it and handed it to them.
they slipped silently away, she stepped forward and fell hard against
the iron gate, which was still closed. She looked for the women, but
they had gone. They had cheated her! Taken everything she had, and still
her way was barred. She struck at the gate with her bare hands, hearing
the metal resonate faintly. She hammered on it until her hands were
torn and bleeding, then threw her body against it again and again, until
finally she could see through the bars a pale shape approaching. The
figure drew nearer and finally unbarred the gates, and she fell forward
into the arms of a woman in a white dress, with long black hair, moon-white
skin, and eyes like two deep black wells.
woman sank to her knees, still holding Karen, and rocked her gently
as she sobbed, now with relief rather than despair. The peace she'd
only touched for those few moments in the hospital, and wanted so badly
ever since... The wind was gone now, and so was the cold, or else it
was so cold, she couldn't even feel it any more. She was no longer on
the rocky plain, but adrift in some kind of featureless, velvety darkness,
like that of the womb -- or the tomb? Was that it? Was she dead? She
remembered now, the pills and the morphine... But then why was the nurse
here? Was she dead, too? Was that why Karen hadn't been able to find
her? Had she seen... a ghost?
looked into the woman's eyes again, twin black voids like windows into
the darkness that was all around them, and knew the answer. This woman
wasn't dead. She was Death.
pushed her away with a shriek. The comfort she'd felt in this -- thing's
embrace had been a lie. Her relief turned to rage and she lunged at
the woman, grabbing her by the hair and clawing at her face. "You!
You did it! You took Mandy away from me, you bitch! You killed
her!" she half-screamed, half-sobbed, as she lashed out blindly
at the woman, striking her across the face over and over, kicking at
her body, wanting nothing more than to feel those perfect bones shatter
under her blows.
was too startled by the assault to react at first, but then the cold
hands which had so recently stroked the tears from Karen's face fastened
around her wrists like iron claws, as the woman leaned forward, pinning
her to the ground where she sobbed in impotent rage. No bruises or scratches
marked the beautiful face. She hadn't really expected they would.
wanted me." Death's voice was reminded her of the howling wind
that tore through the plains beyond the gates. "You kept her from
It's not true! She didn't want to die," Karen sobbed, knowing even
as she said it that it was a lie, remembering the times when even the
morphine couldn't dull the pain and Mandy had begged Karen to kill her.
"Not like that! She didn't want the cancer."
didn't give her cancer. Fate did that. I took away the pain and gave
her peace and comfort."
didn't want to hear it. "You've taken everybody away from me. You
took my parents! You took my friends Michael and Tony, and my cat, and..."
replied Death, "Age and fate. I have no power over these things.
I come when I am needed, to end suffering, to bring peace and comfort
and rest after struggle. You, of all people, should understand that.
You, who have the Sight -- you saw me when I came for your lover. Most
cannot, even when it is their time. I thought you had the wisdom to
go with it. Apparently I was wrong."
wanted me," repeated Death. "As did you, recently."
cried Karen, but knew that that, too was a lie. She remembered taking
the pills -- and before that, how in the hospital she had almost lost
herself in those dark eyes, and how, just moments ago, she had fallen
so willingly into that cold embrace. Of course she wanted her.
whispered Death. "Stay here with me. That's what you wanted, isn't
it? No more pain, no more anger. It's not often that I find one among
the living who can see and touch me. I wanted you, then, when I first
saw you. But you didn't give me a chance until now." Holding both
Karen's wrists easily with one hand, she ran the fingers of the other
lightly down Karen's body. The icy trail they left made her shiver with
longing. "You know you want me. Stay with me. Love me."
hated herself for feeling tempted. "No!" she screamed. "I
well." The silky voice abruptly turned cold and hard. "If
that's your choice. So you would have had her live -- as she was? Like
this?" An image sprang unbidden into Karen's mind, of Mandy writhing
in pain in the hospital bed, tears staining her face. "For how
long? Another 30, 40, 50 years? Forever, perhaps? And you think I
am cruel?" Karen could only shake her head.
it is only that you do not understand," Death continued. "Perhaps
you have never truly known pain. You have had nothing but the reflected
pain of others. Perhaps you need to know what it is like for those who
welcome my embrace."
suddenly it was her in the hospital bed. Agonizing pain wracked
her body, pain like she'd never felt before. Every breath seemed a struggle.
She moaned incoherently, wanting to tell Death to stop it, but couldn't
get the words out. The pain worsened. She didn't think she could bear
any more. She was on the edge of blacking out, but couldn't quite slip
into unconsciousness. She finally managed to gasp out between sobs,
"No! Stop it!"
you sure?" Death asked coolly. "After only a few minutes?
Your lover bore it for months before she began to call for me. Do you
want my comfort so soon?"
Karen spat out, and the pain became even worse. Death sat beside her,
watching her, her expression not one of cruelty or satisfaction, but
of infinite sadness; she even blinked a few times as if holding back
tears. Finally Karen could bear no more. "Stop it... she whispered.
She knew what she was asking for. "Please... stop it."
caressed her face with one pale hand and the pain stopped. Karen began
to cry, softly, as Death gathered her into her arms and gently stroked
her hair. Finally Karen looked up and was surprised to see that Death's
beautiful face was as tear-stained as her own. "Don't you see?"
Death whispered gently. "I feel it too. All the pain. Everyone's.
I can't stand it. That's why I come. To give release -- the only way
rested her head on Karen's shoulder and Karen held her, feeling her
body tremble as she cried. "They all hate me," Death murmured.
"No one understands."
understand," said Karen, and she did. Now she knew the gift that
Mandy had received from this woman, one more precious than anything
she could have given her. "I understand. Don't cry. I don't hate
you." Death raised her head and their eyes met again. "I want
to stay with you," whispered Karen. "Take me -- please."
don't think I can," said Death, her eyes full of pain. "I
can feel you slipping away from me already. Your body is fighting the
drugs. Maybe it's not your time."
I want you!"
whispered Death, as she held Karen in one last embrace. "Someday.
Fate decrees when -- I am powerless."
Karen felt a sense of lethargy numbing her body, and a burning, choking
sensation in her throat. "I love you..." she called out once
more as Death slipped from her grasp.
then she was lying on sweat-damp sheets, weak and sick. It took all
her strength to crawl to the edge of the bed so that she could vomit
onto the floor. After catching her breath, she dragged herself over
to the phone and dialed 911.
. . .
Many years later, two nurses met in a hospital lobby, one just coming off her shift, one
just going on.
"Anything big happen today?"
"Yeah. We lost her."
"Who -- oh, no, not the old lady in 206? The one who used to be a volunteer
in Palliative Care?"
"Yeah. Just this afternoon. I was there. It makes you wonder, though..."
"Was anyone with her? Family...?"
"No, she didn't have any family. She told me that once. But the strangest
thing happened. I don't know -- I keep telling myself it was just a
hallucination from the pain or the medication. But just before she died,
her face lit up in this big smile. It was like she saw someone come
in, but there was no one there. She said something -- I didn't quite
catch what it was, and then her lips moved almost like she was kissing
someone. Then she was gone."
"It's so sad. She spent all those years volunteering on that ward, sitting
up with all the dying people, the ones who didn't have anyone else,
reading to them and everything -- and then for her to be alone when
"That's just the point. I don't think she was..."
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