022. The Riddle

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

A man dies carrying a virus.

He is a pacifist. Correction: he was a pacifist. He had no children and no wife. He lived in celibacy. This was his contribution to the great smooth orb of life. He dies content that he has harmed no one, and that the virus has died with him.

A man dies robbing a store.

Correction: He does not die all at once. He is wounded by a shotgun fired by the store’s owner. The bullet enters his right shoulder as the man runs away. It makes a home for itself behind the man’s collar-bone. He dies later, in the hospital, the result of a surprising resistance to the painkillers he is prescribed.

A woman dies, very old, two streets away in the hospice wing of a retirement home. At the same moment as the robber, isn’t that funny?

Nine more like these come to mind, but you haven’t got all morning.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, shall we? You and I have nothing to do with these. We do not create death. This seems like a fact that one should take comfort in. Let us say that we leave our home, our destination a workplace of some kind, and our coffee spills from the cup-holder and we reach to wipe it up, and hear screeching tires aways behind us, coming closer and then too close. Yes, let’s imagine accidents, both realistic and improbable — a terrible game. There, perhaps we’ve slain someone today, if only in our minds.

But then, let us say that we sneeze at an inopportune moment, and a fellow with a delicate immune system catches the cold we said we’d shoulder through, and cannot produce the necessary antibodies to fight it. We moved ahead in a line of traffic that made it impossible for the robber to make his clean escape, several blocks away. We busied the bank teller with our questions just before closing time, keeping him from his weekly chat at his elderly mother’s bedside, and she, already ailing, slipped away in loneliness. Perhaps we will never know. How am I to take a step, not knowing? I am responsible for a sudden darkness in too many lives to count. So many lights sputtering out, so many more than these I’ve described to you, and I am still here. And that is a riddle indeed.