He found her sitting in a tree. Her legs dangled over the edge, her dusty feet kicking back and forth. It had taken him a while to find her. It wasn’t as simple as it usually was. Each hourglass of life came with coordinates, of course. The tiny numbers ascribed on the bottom gave approximate locations. It wasn’t a perfect system. Humans weren’t as predictable as, say, ants. Things had gotten tricky when they domesticated the horse, for example. It had gotten worse with the engine. Obviously airplanes had kicked things into gear. But the hourglass makers, those bright-eyed creatures, were quick to adjust. They usually got it in the ballpark.
What they could not account for was Death letting an hourglass slip beneath his desk.
First, he brought it to his brothers and sisters, the others also known as Death. They passed it between themselves. Each Death took to their jobs differently, and each were assigned the appropriate hourglasses. The Death that came suddenly but quietly bent his long neck over the lost hourglass and frowned. He thrust it back and gave a quick shrug of his shoulders. The Death of sick children held the hourglass for a long time, cradling it in her warm and comforting arms, and smiled. “You lost it, huh? Just under your desk?” Her eyes twinkled. “Not such a bad idea.” This last part she said quietly, under her breath, as she made her way back towards her own office.
Our Death, This Death, brushed a bit of dust and looked again at the location. It was all he had to go on, after all, and so he set off to see what he could find. It took a while, but he was diligent. Death always is. So he found her in a tree, just before a sunset, the last rays of the sun warming her smooth skin. She watched him approach across the savanna. This was the first surprise. She could see him even from a distance. She could see him before he touched her.
The second surprise was, well, her youth. This Death was the Death of the fully lived. He usually came to bedsides, to wrinkled faces, often stealing in over the shoulders of family members. When he reached out to take his people they were worn with the gifts and ravages of time. This one was still young, her limbs were still long, and her eyes were as clear as the ones who long ago had forged her hourglass.
She greeted him in a language this Death had not heard in hundreds of years. He was not in the habit of apologizing, but he did, now. He was standing below her, looking up. She shrugged her shoulders in a cheerful way and accepted the apology as is if it was perfunctory. Death was not in the habit of explaining himself, either, but he started to. She shook her head and laughed. Here was the third surprise. Human laughter! This Death had never heard such a thing, and it moved the parts of him that were human, those sleepy and untended parts he knew were there but almost never thought of.
He would know in a moment. When he reached out to place his palm against her chest, the only chest of a child he would ever touch, all would become known, as it always did. He would see the moment the hourglass fell, suspending her story in time. He would see her grow from an infant until the moment just before adolescence, a moment when she was care free, running with her siblings through her village. He would see her stop, her youth remaining as everyone around her aged, and how her tribe began to regard her with awe. She was chosen, a symbol of happiness and mystery. But hers was a small tribe in an encroaching world and he would see her remain until it was no longer possible, and then, with a young heart, he would see her set out for the horizon, a girl among the wilderness, where time had patterns but few consequences. He would see her on night after endless night, with her head tipped up to the stars. But for a moment all he saw was the girl, the tree, the dying sun, and she laughed again as finally she pushed down to meet him.