Reaper Man – Seeing Life Through Death’s Eyes

One of the great joys of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels has always been how life-affirming they are. Pratchett loved to remind readers of how amazing it is to be alive and encouraged us to make the most of it. That theme is at its strongest in Reaper Man.

Death Takes a Break

Reaper Man starts with a very Pratchett premise. The character of Death, the anthropomorphic embodiment of how all things pass, has been changing. He’s becoming more of a person. The powers that be are unsettled by this and so fire him. It’s a comical mix of grand fantasy and mundane bureaucracy.

Removed from office and given a limited lifespan of his own, Death goes to find a place for himself in the world. He settles down on a farm, takes up work as a field labourer, and makes friends with his employer and neighbours. The very thing he was fired for – becoming more human – becomes the focus of his existence.

Meanwhile, across the world, people are failing to die. Life energy is sloshing around, causing chaos. Nowhere is this more true than in the ever-chaotic city of Ankh-Morpork.

Finding His Humanity

The most emotionally engaging strand of this story is the one that most clearly hammers home Pratchett’s central theme – Death’s new life. While living on the farm, Death gets in touch with his humanity. He learns about the little routines that make up people’s lives. The work, the meals, the jokes, the rounds in the pub, even the pleasure of sleep.

Seeing the world through Death’s eyes, these things are made new and strange. The odd quirks of humanity come to the forefront and are revealed again with fresh eyes. Death gives us, as readers, the gift of seeing our lives anew, noticing how odd, beautiful, and joyful they can be.

He gives us a fresh perspective on ourselves.

Stopping for the Small Things

Death’s life also gives us reason to re-examine the way we live.

As he spends his suddenly limited time in the world, Death doesn’t just rush from one task to the next. Because everything is new and wonderful, he takes the time to enjoy it. We see him pausing over the little things, enjoying the moment even if it’s mundane.

It’s something we’re far better at valuing in principle than in practice. How often do you actually stop to enjoy a sunset, to gaze out at the countryside, to just take a deep breath and smell the coffee or the roses? It’s easy to feel as though, because life is limited, we should be making more use of that time, cramming more activity into every second. But when you do that, do you really get to experience the small pleasures? Or are you distracted by the fifty-seven other things you’re doing at once and the long list of tasks you feel you should do next?

Death can be an example to us, a reminder that it’s just as valid to stop and enjoy these moments. Life won’t fly away any faster for it, and in stopping for that moment, we get to truly appreciate what we’ve got.

The Glorious Variety of Human Life

Once you focus on that theme of enjoying life for what it is, the rest of the story gives us a different angle. The characters we meet in Ankh-Morpork are a reminder that humanity isn’t perfect, but that isn’t a reason not to appreciate it. From the bullish Mustrum Ridcully to the increasingly nervous Bursar to the eccentric medium Mrs. Cake, each contains a mixture of brilliant and exasperating characteristics. They are both flawed and wonderful. They’re fun to spend time around as a reader, and that’s a reminder that the people in our lives work the same way. None are perfect, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stop and appreciate the time we have with them.

Coming back to Reaper Man after Pratchett’s death, there’s an inevitable extra sadness to the story. But there’s a joy to it as well. The story reminds us to make the most of life and the people we share it with. If Pratchett lived the way his books call upon us to do, then it was a life well lived, his death the final full stop on a beautifully written story.

Let’s hope that Reaper Man can remind us to live the same way.

The Midnight March – a flash fantasy story

Picture by Carl Milner via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Carl Milner via Flickr creative commons

Hank stood on his lightless porch, furiously trying to drag calm from a cigarette. He could hear Grace pacing in the kitchen, waiting for an apology or another round of the row. He wasn’t ready for either yet, or sure which it would be. The row seemed to be all they had right now, but it was better than nothing.

The garbage can fell with a clang, its lid rolling away as something scrabbled inside. Grace hated those racoons and the mess they left around the yard. Normally Hank chased them off. Today he was feeling more sympathetic to the critters.

Something scampered out of the garbage can, a piece of old bacon between its teeth. It had matted fur, a face like the world’s wartiest child, and it ran, hunched over, on two legs. Spidery fingers trailed on the ground. It was like no racoon Hank had ever seen.

Thoughts of Grace and their troubled finances lost to curiosity, Hank followed the creature out of the yard and down the street. It didn’t seem to notice him, focusing on where it was going, sniffing out a route with its long nose. As it emerged onto the deserted high street it was joined by a similar creature and a bearded man a foot tall. After a few minutes, Hank realised that the creatures’ shadows had grown, and they were now accompanied by seven feet of lumbering, ape-like darkness that strode to its own steady rhythm.

More creatures joined them as they walked quietly through town, including that beast the Hendersons had always claimed was a dog, which howled softly as it rose up on two legs and joined the procession. Hank trailed behind, unwilling to let them out of sight, but scared of what might happen if they noticed him.

They tramped out of town, up the hill to Epiron labs. Grace’s cousin Dill was a janitor there. He claimed to have seen pale, clammy men wandering the halls at night, bullet holes in the walls and fishmen bathing in vats of slime. But cousin Dill was thirty-four and still believed in Santa, so Hank had never paid him much mind. Not until now.

The motley crowd stopped at the lab doors, which were locked for the night. The shadow thing picked up the creature from the trash can – Hank had decided it was a pixie – and flung it up onto the roof. There was a creak of metal slats bending, followed by ten minutes of silence. Then the lights went out, including the red LEDs that flashed on alarm boxes around the building. The swearing of a distant security guard echoed through the night.

The Hendersons’ dog leaned against the door, which sprang open. Hank waited in the bushes as the creatures crept into the lab. The night was quiet and still, scented with pine and wild garlic. Then a rancid, sweaty smell returned as the monsters emerged. They were carrying a steel box, seven or eight feet long, and the twitchy quiet with which they had approached the building was replaced by solemnity. They processed in double file into the woods, and Hank followed them, trying not to tread on the noisy twigs. The moon spilt glorious white light across their path as it snaked between the trees, eventually emerging into a clearing.

There was a pit in the middle of the clearing, wide enough to bury the box and at least six feet deep. It was flanked by four pale men in black coats, hunched crane-like over spades. They doffed their top hats as the procession approached, then took the box and lowered it carefully into the ground. Their arms extended, flesh and bone stretching into the depths before emerging empty-handed and taking up the spades.

The creatures formed a ring, facing the trash-can pixie at the head of the grave.

‘He weren’t nice,’ it said, voice scratching through the thud of falling dirt. ‘He drank their blood and kicked our butts, and blamed everyone but himself for his lonely, bitter life. He hated most things, and cursed ’em all. But he was one of us, and losing him lessens us. I doubt we’ll miss him now, but someday we’ll miss every last lost bit of magic. I won’t say you should weep, but mourn while you can, ’cause it could be you next. Some day, they’ll get us all.’

One by one, the creatures took handfuls of dirt and cast them onto the grave before disappearing into the woods. At last there was only the pixie and a soft mound of mourning.

Hank stepped out of the treeline. Sadness drew him forwards despite his fear. He’d never seen these creatures before, but something about the dead guy and his lonely, angry existence struck a chord. It seemed right to pay his respects.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, taking his turn with the dirt. ‘For you and for your friend. I know it ain’t worth much, but I am sorry.’

‘Thanks.’ The pixie gave a half smile, looking up at him with watery eyes. ‘It helps a little, and sometimes that’s all we’ve got.’

It patted a last crum of earth onto the mound and turned away into the night.


Hank opened the kitchen door. Grace’s glare moved from him to the clock, then back again.

‘I’m sorry,’ Hank said. ‘I don’t rightly remember why, but I know it’s my fault and I’m sorry.’

She hugged him, tears welling in her eyes. Hank had missed that embrace, but even now it didn’t feel right.

‘It’s good you can say that, Hank,’ she said. ‘But it just ain’t enough.’

Hank nodded.

‘Guess this is how it feels when the magic dies.’

Across town, the Hendersons’ dog howled.

* * *


This story was originally published in Bards and Sages Quarterly in April 2012. Life got in the way of me writing a fresh story for today, so I thought is was time this saw the light of day again.

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A Mosaic of Stars – a flash fantasy story

Picture by Ruth Hartnup via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Ruth Hartnup via Flickr Creative Commons

I staggered through the broken gates into the great hall, the armoured weight of Elania almost dragging me to the ground. I was weary beyond belief, my arms aching from a battle that had lasted all through the night.

That weariness was nothing next to my terror at the sound of Elania’s broken, rasping breaths. She stumbled, her arm slipping from around my shoulders. I got her as far as the guards’ empty bench before she collapsed.

“We won.” She opened her eyes, streaks of purple and silver swirling as she smiled. “The city is safe. You’re safe.”

Trembling fingers brushed my cheek, the tips of her gauntlet cold on my skin.

“But you’re dying,” I said, looking around for any sign of help. The whole palace was deserted, every last servant gone to the walls. Those who still lived would be looking to their own wounds, or sleeping where they fell. “What can I do?”

I knew little of human healing, none of that of the elves. Why had she ever chosen such a dull creature as me?

Blood dripped from between the plates of her armour, each droplet glowing like sunlight. It fell upon the tiny black and blue tiles of the floor, gleaming against their darkness.

“Nothing, my love.” She cast off her gauntlet with a clang and took hold of my hand. Our intertwining fingers, which had always brought summer to my heart, now moved me to tears.

“I’ve stained the floor.” She looked down at the blood-spattered tiles. “Such a shame. It was a beautiful pattern, and-” She coughed, doubling over as more blood speckled her lips. “And elf blood will never come out.”

“You can’t do this,” I said. “You were meant to live for millennia. I’m the one who’s supposed to…”

“To desert me for death?” There was a mischievous twinkle in her eye. How could she be like this, even now? It made me love her more, a love that made the world more beautiful, and that made my pain even worse.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m being selfish. I just… I never thought that I would have to go on without you. I don’t think that I can.”

I glanced at the sword by my side. I would wait until she was gone to fall upon it. I could manage the courage to last that long.

Her gaze followed mine and she shook her head.

“What we did today will never die,” she said. “Not as long as anyone remembers it. The same is true of our love. As long as one of us is here to treasure those feelings, it will never be gone.”

I looked away guiltily, but she took hold of my chin, turning me to look at her.

“See.” She flicked her hand, her face crumpling in pain at the effort. Bright droplets sped across the room, spattering tiles all the way to the foot of the throne. Each tile the blood touched shone brightly against the darkness, like a mosaic of stars. “Now I will always be here with you. In every ceremony, every council, every tedious meeting, my beauty will be here to lift you up.”

From somewhere beneath the weight of my grief and exhaustion, a glimmer of our old light returned.

“Who said you were beautiful?” I asked, raising her hand to my lips.

“Your eyes,” she replied with her final breath.

Years have passed since then. I have lived a lifetime, with all the pain and the joy it brings. But every time I see those tiles shining on the floor of the hall, I hear her voice once more, a whispered wonder amid a mosaic of stars.

* * *


If you enjoyed this story then you might also like my collection of fantasy short stories, By Sword, Stave or Stylus, available now on Amazon Kindle.