Adolf Hering, Der Tod und das Madchen (The Death and the Maiden), 1900

The dark was getting deeper and deeper inside the dense forest as the time was passing and the woman could not find what she was looking for. She had lost the sense of time. She couldn’t remember how long she was wandering among the large trees, stumbling on roots, getting her long dress hooked on spiny shrubs and her hair tangled on branches. Maybe it was minutes, hours or maybe days, months. She had to find what she had come for and she would not leave that place before she succeeded it. Her feet were aching but she would not stop; hanging on the tree trunks she was moving further in the woods. At some point her ankle got tangled for good in the undergrowth making her lose her balance and land on the wet soil. She tried to get up but she had no strength for it so she stayed down. She crawled with effort and leaned her back on the trunk of a huge oak. She lifted up her eyes to the sky. She could not see any light, it was a night without a moon and the clouds were hiding all the stars. Suddenly she noticed a figure suspending above her, a figure darker than the dark itself. It landed right in front of her and now the woman could clearly see its shape. He was wearing a black, long cloak with wide sleeves and a hood covering half of his face so she could not distinguish any characteristic. He slowly lifted his hand and pointed towards her, revealing his bone finger.

What are you doing here? he spoke in an eerie and unworldly voice.

I was looking for something that I just found, she answered calmly.

The dark figure came closer and leaned towards her in order to better observe her. She felt his cold presence that gave her a shiver down the spine.

You are so young. Do you know who I am?

-I do.

-Then you must also know that is not I what you are looking for. You better leave this place, he said and turned his back to her.

No, said the woman determined and got up with a great effort. I am not leaving. I was looking for you for so long in this gloomy place and now that I found you, you will take me with you. That’s the only way I am leaving from here.

-Go away you fool! he growled. Get out of this damn forest before it is too late and never come back!

-Do you think this is my first time here? I’ve been here before… many times. I know this place very well. But I never got so deep inside the woods, I was always scared of what I would find and sooner or later I was leaving. Yet this time is different. I am not afraid anymore. I understood it was you hiding in here, you are the answer to everything that torments my mind and my heart so I came to find you. I want it all to be over.

-You are not afraid?! There is nothing if you come with me, the only thing you will find is the absolute void. Are you not afraid of the void?

-I ‘ve lived with the void for years, she said and touched her chest. I am not afraid of it nor of you.

-Yet you should be. Only the crazies and the fools are not afraid of death.

-Call me crazy, call me a fool, I don’t care, I am not going back. I am tired there. I am tired of my empty life. Take me with you, I beg of you. You don’t know how much I suffer, take me with you.

-How much you suffer?! You think you know what suffering is, what pain really feels like? You know nothing! What you feel is only a drop compared to the storm I carry. I am pain! said the Reaper and lifted from the ground with arms wide open.

Lightings ripped the sky and a cold wind started blowing. His black cloak spread in the air and covered with its darkness everything the woman could see in front of her.

Do you have any idea how many souls I’ve taken in the centuries? Said the Reaper with a horrifying voice. Men, women, children, an abyss of souls. Souls that came to me from wars, epidemics, diseases, hunger. And souls like yours that came by themselves, of their own free will, infinite souls. But I don’t only take the souls with me, I also take their despair, their pain. I drag them along with me in the same way a prisoner drags along his chains, making him heavier. Why do you think I am dark? Pain is dark, he said and with a single move he turned into black smoke.

Smoke that surrounded the woman and started choking her. The woman could not breathe.

Is that what you want? the Reaper’s whispers sounded. Is this what you really desire? You think this will save you? Answer to me, is this agony of death what you are seeking for?

The woman sensed his cold touch getting tighter around her neck. Agony and despair in a degree that she had never felt before in her life overflew her. She started crying and squeezing her arm with her nails.

Yes, this is what I want, she managed to mumble in between her cries and her effort to breathe.

The Reaper set her free and turned back to his dark, human-like being. The woman was once more on the ground, crying, weak, trying to get herself together. He approached her, kneeled next to her and wiped her tears with his skeleton fingers.

You are so beautiful, he said. I want to take you with me, if only you knew how much I want it. I envy the life that is still inside of you, your pink cheeks, your red lips, your sparkling eyes. The dreams you make when you are sleeping at night, your laughter, your cry, your passion, everything that you are able to feel. Yet with me all these would be lost. You would wither and nothing would be left but an empty body. I would have your pain inside me and an empty body in my hands. Leave. You don’t belong here, with us, go back where you came from.

The woman surprised by his words looked into the vast darkness under his hood with tears still in her eyes.

And what to do back there? she asked him.

Live, he answered and disappeared along with the dark forest, once and for all.     



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