The first time I met him was at my grandfather’s memorial. Dark round spectacles just covering his eyes, long black coat, steel-grey hair halfway down his shoulders. A whole room of handkerchiefs and downcast faces, but he was the only one smiling. I was only 8 at the time, and that seemed like a good enough reason for me to sit beside him.
“Did you know papi?” (I always called grandfather that)
“Better than anyone,” the man said. He must have been almost seventy – same age my grandfather was.
“Were you his friend?”
“His closest friend. I’m the one who killed him, you know. You can’t get any closer than that.”
I tried to ask him more questions, but the service was starting and my mother kept turning around to hush me. Mom gave the eulogy, and that was the first time I’d ever seen her cry. I guess I must have started sniffling too, because the man next to me put his hand on my knee and gave it a little squeeze. His fingers felt like he’d just come inside from a blizzard.
By the end of the final sermon they brought out some bagpipes to play Amazing Grace, and then I really did cry for real. I remember it being hard for me to understand why I’d never get to see papi again. Sure he was dead, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t still visit and eat his BBQ sandwiches, did it?
Once I started crying, I didn’t know how to make it stop. People must have been sympathetic, but just remember how embarrassing it felt to have everyone staring at me. I was the first one out of the room, running all the way outside the church to the big oak tree in the yard.
The man with dark spectacles was the first to find me.
“Hey there champ,” he’d said. “Bet I can make you smile.”
I shook my head and pressed my face into the bark.
“Watch this,” he said in a voice accustomed to being obeyed. I looked up to see him whistling at a squirrel sitting in one of the lower branches. The squirrel ran down the trunk until it was a few feet above our heads, then jumped without hesitation to land on his shoulder.
“How’d you do that?” I asked.
“I can do all sorts of things,” he said, crouching down to my level so I could pet the squirrel.
“Why’d you kill him?”
“Because it made me happy,” he said, standing to lift the squirrel out of my reach. “Run along now, I’ll see you soon. We can play another game then.”
“When I kill your grandmother. Not long now.”
Not long at all. Three weeks and she was gone. My parents told me that she just missed grandfather so much that she decided to follow him to Heaven. I knew better. One night I couldn’t sleep and crept to the top of the stairs to listen to them talking about it in the kitchen. Grandmother’s hands were peacefully folded over the knife in her heart when they found the body.
The man was there at the next memorial, just like he’d promised. I was afraid of him now, sitting as far away as I could. I wanted to tell someone what he’d done, but somehow my eight year old brain thought that I would get in trouble. It was my fault she got murdered. I knew it was going to happen and I didn’t try to stop him.
He found me again while I was waiting for my parents to leave. Out by the tree, this time he’d gotten there first. I could feel his dark spectacles trained on me as I crossed the yard, but I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to know who was next.
“I hate you,” were the first words out of my mouth.
“That’s alright,” he said. “Most people hate things they don’t understand.”
“I want you to stop killing people.”
“I’m not going to do that,” he replied, “but here’s what I can do: bet I can make you smile.”
He sat down on the grass and began to concentrate. Maybe I should have run, but it wasn’t a matter of fear for me. It was simply a choice between interesting and boring, questions and answers. I watched the tree as the squirrel scampered down the trunk.
“Come to me,” he whispered, and off it flew – straight onto his hand. Not just the squirrel either. Ants were swarming out of the ground to line up around his feet. Beetles and worms and unknowable monstrous squirming creatures thrashing their way through the ground to bow before him. Even a stray cat came sprinting across the yard, none of the animals the least perturbed by the other’s presence. They were all watching him expectantly like a dog waiting for his treat.
“Let us dance,” he said, and so they did. The squirrel hopped from one foot to the other, the cat stood on its hind-legs, and all the insects began to sarcastically twirl upon the ground. Despite everything, I couldn’t help but smile at the spectacle.
I wasn’t smiling the next time I saw him at my mother’s funeral. 31 years, and he hadn’t aged a day. I could feel those dark spectacles on me the moment I entered the room, like childhood’s imaginary monster come to life before my very eyes. The same grey hair, the same black coat, the same subtle smirk creasing the edges of his face. I couldn’t stand to sit in the same room as him. I felt hot and dizzy. I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t, only that I needed air.
My feet traced the familiar steps to the tree without intervention from my scattered mind. My mother had been found by her neighbor the same way – a knife in her heart. I wanted to hit him. To kill him. To wipe that smirk off his face, whatever it took. I was seething when he approached. Drawing close, all my carefully prepared arguments and threats blurred from my mind. I couldn’t understand how anyone could have the audacity to say:
“Come now, it’s not all bad. Bet I can make you smile.”
“Sometimes I wish I was,” he sighed, sitting down on the grass. I hesitated. Not the answer I was expecting. “But if I was dead, then who would have been there to kill your mother?”
I kicked him while he sat on the ground. As hard as I could. I jumped on him, grabbing a fistful of his long hair to fling him down into the ground. Everyone else was still inside the church. No-one but god was going to see what I did to him, and god would understand. He didn’t make a move to rise or resist. He just spat enough blood out to say: “Come to me.”
I kicked him again and he went down hard. And again – I heard something break under his coat. I would have kept going, but a piercing pain in the back of my neck made me spin around. A crow was diving at me, pecking me, its black eyes glinting with intelligence and purpose.
“Fight your own battles!” I shouted, batting the bird away from my face. “Or are you too scared? Is that why you only kill old people who can’t fight back?”
“I can’t kill you,” he admitted. I was on top of him again, pushing him back into the dirt. The crow wouldn’t relent, but I could suffer through any cuts and scratches it gave me to get at him.
“But here’s what I can do,” he said through his broken teeth. “Bet I can make you smile.”
“You know what? Fine. Make me smile. And if you can’t, then you’re going to turn yourself into the police and tell them about every person you’ve killed.”
“And if I can, then you’re going to help me with my next kill.”
That took me a second to process. Of course I wouldn’t do it. Of course I wouldn’t smile either. My face was harder than stone. I nodded. “Deal.”
I let him stand to dust off his jacket, which he did quite easily as though he had suffered no hurt from my assault. “I can’t kill you because you’re not ready yet. Your grandparents were. Your mother was, although she never told you. All I do is help them along their journey.”
“You’re insane. I’m not smiling.”
“I’ve got proof,” he said, forcefully popping his jaw back into place with a slight grunt. “It’s all around you. After I’ve helped them, they never forget me for what I’ve done.”
I looked around where he gestured. The tree? The squirrel crouching to spring at me. The thousands of insects even now gathering at his feet. The crow watching from the branches, its head cocked to the side.
The crow hopped down from the tree to land on my shoulder, brushing its head against my cheek. I swallowed hard. I felt more like crying than smiling, but I guess I was doing both so he still won the bet.
“Death is an evil thing only when seen in isolation,” he told me, “but death never exists in isolation. It’s just an abstract thought to imagine it that way. A single thread once woven may seem lost, but only until you step back and see the whole tapestry it helped to create. Come with me now, and I will show you how to weave.”
And as sure as any bird or beast who answered his call, I followed him. And I’ve been following ever since.