Flop grimaced in disgust, keeping his eyes shut. He’d wrapped his black velvet cape around his body as tightly as possible so that it couldn’t flutter all over the place. This was no easy task, because his abdomen boasted a tremendous amount of fat. His cape, in turn, was of a substantial size to accommodate his abdomen.
You’d think that a reaper who could travel across spacetime could somehow manipulate his appearance as he pleased, but it wasn’t that simple. At least not for Flop. Part of what makes you you is your appearance and everything that accompanies that appearance. Memories, for example, build appearance. And actions that contributed to those memories also build appearance.
Such memories don’t need to exist in a person’s consciousness with any clarity in order to be influential. It’s just like that scar that a twenty-year-old got when he was three. After seventeen years, he probably doesn’t remember how he came to get the scar. Maybe he crashed while he rode a bike, maybe he smashed that part of him on the swimming pool wall, who knows? There’s no need for him to know the details for the scar to keep existing; it is already part of him.
In Flop’s case, the belly was what defined him. He guessed that in his beforelife, he must have consumed many glasses of fine wine and many more slices of smoked ham to obtain this particular shape of the abdomen. Therefore, he was inclined to believe Flip’s theory that he used to be a nobleman. Few farmers could have been able to afford this much fat.
Alternatively, Flop might have come from “the future”—compared to 1929, where he was now. Spacetime wasn’t as linear as beforeworlders liked to believe, so that was a possibility.
Of course, the mere fondness for a part of his appearance didn’t prevent Flop from trying to look like someone else. A movie star, for example. Wouldn’t it be nice to look like a famous movie star?
Flip altered her appearance to suit her tastes, all the time. So, in a way, she was aiming for an imaginary movie star. She didn’t alter her age, but was one of those reapers. She and all those reapers who looooved to be reapers didn’t let physicality get in the way of acquiring what they wanted. Looks, for example, or fashion, and in Flip’s case, a moderate amount of space-bending to make herself fit into a ridiculously narrow corset. (A torture device, Flop called it in his mind.) It didn’t matter that many of those reapers, Flip included, complained about the bloodier aspects of reaperdom. The fact was that they looooved it. They just didn’t want to admit it.
But Flop wasn’t Flip. And Flop wasn’t one of those reapers.
Occasionally, he admired Flip’s determination to modify herself, or as she put it, “to give herself a sense of control.” But Flop didn’t need proof that he was perfectly in control. So, he let Flip tinker with his attire.
As it turned out, Flip was quite good at it. Over time, Flop had grown fond of his velvet cape, but did he have a similar desire to take advantage of everything that reaperdom provided? To bend space and time, to modify himself?
He didn’t want to look like a movie star, no matter how handsome. He had no Imaginary Ideal Flop in his mind. To alter himself according to some sort of ideal required constant spreading out across spacetime. A redistribution of particles that formed him, so to speak. Flop, being the person who’d accumulated the belly fat in the first place, enjoyed taking it easy. He liked settling down in whatever time and space he happened to be in, as much as possible. Being a reaper in and of itself exhausted him tremendously—the existing forever, the watching people die, the constant travel—so why would he spend the extra effort to look like a different person?
And imagine you tried that appearance-change trick too many times. Are you sure you’ll know you’re you when you look in the mirror?
Some beings were above and beyond all that. The two women in black, for instance. Their appearances were infinitely malleable yet perfectly clear. The only thing that determined their look was that they wore black. Hence their name, “the women in black.” Pretty straightforward. Those women didn’t need any additional anchoring traits in the physical world to define themselves.
Flip probably wanted to call the additional anchors that the reapers needed “shackles.” But to Flop, reapers were beings unlike the women in black. Anchors were very real and very necessary. Reapers wore black but that wasn’t the only characteristic that made them them. Otherwise, all the reapers in black would’ve been basically identical to each other and also, identical to the women in black—but that wasn’t the case.
Every reaper was different from the women in black. Every reaper was different from the next one, too, the way every beforeworlder was different. This, because they all had distinct shapes. Such was the nature of being Homo Sapiens.
The day Homo Sapiens could exist without shape and form would be the day Homo Sapiens ceased to exist. That was to say, such a species would differ entirely from Homo Sapiens, just like the Neanderthals had differed from Homo Sapiens.
Flop wasn’t of such a hypothetical species. He couldn’t make himself thinner at random and simply decide that the core of him had remained intact. Flip thought she could—but could she, really? She certainly didn’t randomly change her appearance. That meant that even she knew that the mere existence of a reaper was a chore, though of course, beforeworlders would say that their existence was equally troublesome.
Anyway, Flop liked to keep unnecessary work to a minimum. Flip said that she agreed.
But she so didn’t act like she agreed.
Flip created work all the time. Like when they were looking down Carningsby from the storm clouds. And here, now, remaining in the Luminary Theater instead of getting the hell out of here. It was very strange, how she so eagerly observed that young pianist, given that she usually insisted on never settling down in one particular spacetime to maintain her ability to breathe in her torture corset.
Flop wanted to leave. But Flop couldn’t leave without Flip. They were partners. Flip and Flop; two sides of the coin; conjoined forever. If there was one thing Flip and Flop agreed upon, it was that partners stood by each other. Or at least, Flop wanted to believe that Flip actually agreed with him about that part. Otherwise, the fact that they’d named themselves this way would just be sad.
Which brings us back to Flop wrapping the cape around his belly “as tightly as possible.”
It wasn’t actually very tight by anyone’s standards, but what mattered was that Flop knew that he was trying hard to wrap the cape. His chubby belly felt extremely uncomfortable despite the humongous size of his cape, but he simply refused to make it thinner arbitrarily. He tried his best to ensure that the cape moved in unison with him. Then he twisted and hopped to the sides, front, or back to avoid colliding into the audience members who were leaving the main theater of the Luminary.
Not that he or any part of his noble attire could truly collide into them, or into anything of beforeworld. The beforeworlders couldn’t even see Flip and Flop until they were due to die.
But Flip and Flop could see them. And he didn’t know what she made of this whole mess, but he sure was going to be traumatized forever by the sight of those terrible blood clouds. He’d also seen these people’s reactions to the death of the pianist. The last thing Flop wanted was contact across spacetime with these monsters who’d aided and abetted a murder. Not just any kind of murder, but the murder of one person against—how many? At least a hundred? Two hundred, if you counted the muscles outside?
In fact, Flop didn’t even want to look at these lowly, dishonorable, treacherous beforeworlders. Reaping, no matter how taxing, was a noble and necessary profession, but when it came to dealing with murderers, Flop almost wished that he were one of those lawyers in afterworld instead. Oh, why, just why did Flip insist on creating more unpleasant tasks for the workday?
“Flop,” said Flip.
“What?” said Flop, eyes still closed.
“They’re gone and we’re here.”
“Open your eyes,” said Flip impatiently.
She grabbed Flop’s arms. He lost hold of the cape and it fluttered freely. He let out a startled squawk as he opened his eyes.
“Really, Flip,” he said, “if my cape touches any of these monsters, I will forever wonder whether the particles that used to make it up are following me around even if I were to disperse it and conjure up some other—”
But Flop stopped. He didn’t have to worry about the Carningsby people anymore. Flip was right. They were here.
“Here” was a forest clearing. From the Luminary Theater to this forest, they’d transitioned. It had taken no time at all to change the carpet to the damp, cool earth. A pleasant smell of grass and trees hung in the air, carried by the densely-clustered molecules of a fog. The fog barely moved. Air did circulate here, but only gently. This movement couldn’t be called a wind. It was more like a slow stir of the atmospheric jelly to prevent it from congealing.
Supple, flexible, adaptable—such was the nature of the forest. Consequently, it lacked a season. Spring, summer, autumn, winter—it was difficult to tell. And if you thought you could tell it in one moment, in the next moment that season had passed. Flowers bloomed; thick green leaves took their place; those leaves turned red, yellow, and orange; they fell and snow weighed down the branches; flower buds reappeared. And if this “natural” order of the change of the seasons was what you thought you saw, that, too, was only a sign of the habituality of your thinking, because sometimes autumn came after spring, and after that, winter came.
See. Truly see.
Then you’d realize that here, in this eerie forest of infinite possibilities, time doesn’t exist, therefore before and after doesn’t exist.
To this spooky place, Flip and Flop had transitioned from the Luminary. This meant that the women in black had heard Flip and Flop’s calling through the many universes and had stepped in.
“Can’t we leave now?” said Flop. “They’ll be here. We’ve let them know there was a murder. Let’s go.”
“Not yet,” said Flip. She fanned herself with a black feather fan as she nervously looked around. “I think we should testify.”
“They know what happened. They always know. What is there to testify?”
“How long have we been reapers, Flop?”
“That question doesn’t even make sense. How do you want me to measure time? From the hypothetical point of my death to the perceived time in Carningsby? Or should I consider everything that we know about the unreliability of the concept of a straight-line-shaped time? In the latter case, I’d have to count every possible detour into the past, present, and future whenever we traveled wherever to reap—”
“It was a rhetorical question. What I mean is that we’ve been reapers for eternity and more, and I have never seen a hundred people bullying one person into death like they just did now.”
“Yes, which is a very good reason for us to forget about this unpleasant business and move on.”
“Listen, Flop, I appreciate you being so honest about your feelings—”
“Me too. I appreciate me being manly enough to admit that I am terrified of what people are capable of and would rather not be witness to their every monstrous act. I’m glad that I’m not the women in black. We are reapers. We reaped by pulling that wonderfully artistic young man out of his unfortunate body. Now we can go reap someone else. Hopefully it’s a nice old person who was expecting us sooner rather than later.”
“Yes, well, I disagree.”
“Oh, Flip,” said Flop, exhausted, ”but we love a peaceful day, don’t we? Wasn’t this excitement enough for a beforeworlder’s lifetime? Don’t you want to take a break at the hotel cafe while listening to The Four Seasons?”
“Yes, but I think… There it is. It won’t take long.”
And before Flop could protest further, Flip grabbed the sides of her poofy black dress and scurried toward a table that had appeared in the middle of the clearing.
Four chairs accompanied the table: two on the left, two on the right. On one of the chairs sat that young piano player, Zacharias Steele. He looked barely older than thirty, completely flustered, and angry at the same time. That was totally understandable, considering that even those who weren’t murdered reacted with much flustration and anger when faced with their death.
A shame, truly, a shame that Zacharias had been murdered that way. But one interesting thing that Flop had noticed when they’d pulled Zacharias out of his body was that the man had accepted the Big Change surprisingly quickly.
You see, a common reaction to the switch was denial; not because the deceased denied death specifically, but because many deceased denied all kinds of change at all times. Habitual denial of change had been the default mode in their beforelife and death didn’t change that trait.
Flop sympathized with such reactions completely. He was a reaper and he didn’t like changes to his appearances. How terrifying the idea of another world must be for the beforeworlders, who’d so firmly believed in the tangibility of their physical surroundings for their entire lives!
But Zach was no regular beforeworlder. He had accepted that his body was suddenly free of pain. He’d wanted out, just hadn’t known how. So Flip and Flop had reached in and taken each of Zach’s long-fingered, beautiful hands. Lo and behold, Zach’s soul had exited his body, easily, elegantly.
Flop concluded that denial of reality wasn’t one of Zach’s shortcomings. And no wonder. This man had looked reality straight in the eyes and left his home to play the piano. This man then had faced the harsh reality once again when his career got mangled in New York City. He’d moved to a smaller neighboring city, then to an even smaller one, to a sort of big town, then a small town—to eventually end up in Carningsby. (Such life history was all in his case file, which the reapers had access to thanks to the sin researchers.)
If any of those life events had been traumatizing, Zach didn’t let it show, not in public. A fine quality in a performer.
This last thought made Flop go after Flip. If Flop had to stick around a murdered person and testify to whatever Flip wanted him to testify to, then it might as well be for this Zacharias Steele. Many lesser people were murdered and frankly, sometimes they deserved it. But in Zach’s case, Flop lamented his death just a little. That had been a beautiful rendition of Chopin’s Sonata.
Good thing that the man now had a fitting suit; fitting to his body, fitting to his talents. The imbeciles of Carningsby had abused the deep purple suit as a murder weapon. (What did those people think, that the goats had produced such exquisite wool just so that humans could apply poison dye and have an artist killed?) But now, having become part of Zach’s self-image, the suit couldn’t harm him anymore. It didn’t squeeze his arms. It didn’t press the air out of his lungs. It didn’t paralyze his legs. The suit adored him as much as he adored the suit.
Flop hastened his steps. He was a man who took a long while to reach a decision, but once he did, he executed it with determination.
Flip arrived by the table while Flop was still on his way. She tapped on Zach’s shoulder, at which he jumped, but quickly recovered his calm and manners by getting up and bowing like a gentleman. A fine young man, indeed. Flip looked flattered and curtseyed back. Zach sat back down. With the fan, Flip busily pointed at the two empty chairs across from Zach. She seemed to want to prepare the young man for what was about to happen.
Flop grinned. Few murdered people could keep calm during the next step of their journey. Just when Flop thought this, the two women in black appeared out of nowhere, sitting on the two chairs that Flip had pointed to.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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