“I haven’t physically attacked anyone in a couple of years.”
War scrambled to a military posture. The waitress returned with their orders, and Death sweetly asked, “Iced tea, please and thank you.”
“Death,” Pestilence awed.
“Pestilence,” Death nodded. “And how are you, Famine?”
Death smiled. “And you, War?”
“Is it the End? Are we to ride?”
“And how are you, War?” Death repeated.
“Wonderful! I recently visited the old garden again: completely unkempt.”
Famine coughed, “Death, have you gathered us here?”
Death pursed his lips. “I assumed we’re all taking advantage of our paths finally crossing after so long.”
“Is it the End Times?” asked War insistently.
Death enjoyed his iced tea.
“We thought you would know. You are the eldest,” said a confused War.
“We’re here by chance,” Pestilence said. “We should leave before we trigger something too early in the plot.”
War contested, “But what if our gathering by chance is on purpose? Maybe the big man brought us together, and our respective feedings have grown so strong that we were magnetized to this pole, this leyline, this fault in the Earth to burn the skies and boil the water.”
“Well, I don’t hear Him saying that,” rebutted Pestilence.
“Nothing bad has happened yet. The Four Horsemen are at the same cafe, and there are no volcanoes of locusts. Maybe it’s fine,” reasoned Famine.
“It seems like you are avoiding us, Pestilence,” War spat, truly offended but also looking to get a rise out of anyone.
Pestilence blew up, “I’ve avoided you because I was told to! I don’t want the world to end, because then there will be nothing left to do! I just lounge around all day and feed on the suffering of others, and if that final element of my existence is taken away, I don’t know what I’ll do.” Pestilence sighed, and a single blowfly left his throat. “I’m already bored to tears anyway.”
“Who told you that you had to avoid us?” inquired War.
Pestilence opened his mouth, but all that came out was another blowfly. He dug back into his memory, past Egypt, past the iron gates of the garden and past the tree, “I can’t remember, but I knew I had to leave and wait.”
“I left after you,” said Famine. “It was a strange feeling.”
“Curious things. Tell me, who arrived before me?”
“I did,” War raised his hand. “So who came first: Pestilence or Famine?” War snickered.
It was unknown if Pestilence came before Famine. Is it not the disease and blight that strikes down the cattle that starves the villagers? War rages between two cities for resources, disease festers in the wounds, the enemy starves out their opponents and conflict sparks between neighbors. Death meets them all at the end.
In response to War’s joke, that was also hard to tell. The night shared by the two Horsemen would best be described as animalistic.
“He was here before me,” said Famine.
“You two aren’t still together, are you?” asked Death, motioning between Famine and Pestilence.
“No,” stated Famine.
Death frowned, “I see. In any case, our final ride was described as being led by Pestilence adorned with his crown, War stampeding by fire, Famine finalizing with the scales and me. If we were to assume that today is the day, then War would have met Pestilence here first, not Famine. So we can put a pin in that idea, but we have other things to discuss. Come, walk with me.”
Death rose from his seat and left the tip. War followed. Pestilence walked by Famine’s side. Eventually, the Four Horsemen found their way to Federal Hill. The park overlooked the Harbor.
War ran his hand along a revolutionary cannon on display. “War in America takes many forms. My kind of war though? I don’t feel it in the wind,” He sniffed the air. “Conflict and strife are everywhere here.”
“I wonder why,” said Death sarcastically. “You three don’t work full time. You’ve all been around the block, don’t get me wrong. But your involvement in day to day affairs?” His hands tipped to scale the difference.
“What’s your point?” asked Famine.
“You ask me if these are the End Times,” Death said. “What makes these circumstances different from any other era of human suffering? How is this year more rotten than any other?”
No one answered him.
“Is that the answer you’re looking for?” asked Famine
“I’m not looking for any specific answer,” Death said. “The conflict and strife generated by humanity is water in a bucket. The water fills up to the brim. Every so often the bucket overflows, and then refills.”
Famine threw her hands up defiantly, “First, you say there’s nothing to worry about, and then you’re throwing out bucket analogies. Should I be expecting my magic f-cking scales in the mail or what?”
Death smiled and rested against a tree, “Famine, educate me on the suffering you have witnessed in the world.”
Famine dug her heel in the gravel, “I saw a crop dwindle to nothing in Southern California. Oranges fell like rocks from trees. Drought coated the irrigation systems with dirt. Wildfires burst forth from the smallest weeds, and blazed through the desert.”
Death nodded, “And where did you witness this from?”
Famine craned her head much like a dog and furrowed her brow, “From an abandoned chicken coop.”
“No chickens?” joked Death. Famine blushed, revealing the smallest smile. Death turned to War, sitting atop the cannon. War radiated chaotic energy. He was a violent baby. A biter. “War, what was the last battle you fought in?”
War smugly reminisced, “Syria. I witnessed insurgents demolishing stone idols. Then soldiers arrived in jeeps wielding machine guns. I was reclining on rubble when battle approached on a heavy afternoon sun, and I drew my sword!”
Death was intrigued, and Pestilence felt his blood rise. “What happened after that?” asked Death.
War reached for the sun, but then dropped his hand on his thigh with a slap. “A drone. It’s always drones,” War snapped his fingers. “Hunger is a toilsome fate. Sickness makes one long for release. Now, wars are brief and automated. It all started when the atom was split. Instantaneous calamity.”
“The only thing faster is death.” Death moved so Pestilence could join him on the bench. “Africa, right?” Pestilence nodded. “You going back?”
Pestilence thought of the dead hippo throne waiting for him. “Pestilence is a constant there. Penicillin knocked me out of good standing here and most of the world, but I still feed.”
“I saw your Beetle on the way to the cafe,” said Death. “A lot of late night driving?”
“I get to see more of the state in a car,” answered Pestilence. “The last time I enjoyed walking around a city at night was London, but that was centuries ago. My Beetle also has a radio, which helps. I lost my phone.”
Death stared at Pestilence, edged closer, and whispered, “I saw you leave her.” To the group, Death said, “An old woman slipped on the cellar stairs carrying packages of spaghetti. I waited to see who would find her. I left after an hour.”
War was unsatisfied, “Did anyone find her?”
Famine rolled her eyes, “Obviously not.”
Pestilence grappled with what Death told him, and why he would have said that. Death looked behind him at the tree. “Does anyone remember the day we took our apples?” he asked.
“It was before calendars,” answered Famine.
“It’s today,” declared Death. “I’ve decided, and we can pretend.” Death stood up, patting Pestilence on the shoulder. “Come everyone, join me at the tree.”
War groaned and jumped off the cannon. The trio converged on the tree Death had selected, their combined presence causing it to wilt. Death loomed over the other three, and asked, “Anyone see an angel recently?”
“How about a demon?” continued Death.
Famine spoke, “I met one in Ostropol who had fled after his leader had been trapped in a pickle jar.”
“Hanukkah Goblins,” lamented War.
Pestilence flipped through his journal. “The only encounter I have recorded in here was a shimmering form under the Nile swallowing canoes whole. Didn’t catch a name, but I drew a little sketch for reference.”
“It seems they are not as rare as their counterparts,” Death mused.
War replied, “Aren’t we on the same side?”
“I assumed we were the first line of attack from the forces of Heaven, leading the charge before Jesus rides in shooting swords from his mouth,” Pestilence refuted.
“Some interpretations have you painted in Jesus’s likeness,” Famine said cheekily.
“As opposed to what?”
“Walking corpse,” compared War, framing Pestilence’s face between his fingers.
Death massaged his temples.
“I might be wrong,” he blurted.
This silenced the younger Horsemen. “Wrong about what? The End Times?”
Death rubbed the back of his neck. He looked up at the sky, which was slowly turning an ominous hue of purple. Death almost missed the tiny twinkling dot next to the sun. Suddenly, a dead tree branch fell and hit him in the eye.
“Crap! I’m fine, I’m fine.”
None of the Horsemen were quick enough to help the cursing Death. Pestilence noticed the knots spiraling inside the tree, seething a wretched sap. “The Son of the Beast is not a tree… but we do seem to be killing this maple.”
Death pulled at his eyelids, making them water. “Ech, it’s still irritated. Show me Eden,” ordered Death, fumbling in his coat pocket.
The horsemen hesitated, but shifted to their primal forms. The dying maple became the Tree of Eden, freshly plucked by man and woman. Pestilence delicately took out the ziploc containing his black, bruised mess of apple. Famine’s eyes were as large as dinner plates, dwarfing the skinny apple core in her hand. Both were distracted by the alluring glow of War’s golden apple, a prize that inspired greed and a want to tear throats with fingernails.
Death held out his hand. In his palm were four apple seeds. The grass became a yellow ring around the horsemen.The Horsemen craned their heads to the sky. The twinkling dot expanded to a green light.
Death stuffed the seeds back into his pocket. The other Horsemen followed suit. The star faded into obscurity.
“I need time to think,” said Death.
Pestilence flopped down into the crabgrass.
Famine knelt beside him. “Did you see what I saw?”
“I had a vision of our last night together.” She ripped the crabgrass from the ground, and absentmindedly wove it into a bracelet. “The sand around us turned to glass.”
Death reemerged, deep in thought.
“I was semi-wrong,” Death admitted. “We have an influence on our respective fields, and while us being drawn to one another is not the start of the apocalypse, it does not abet it.”
“Like anyone thought that,” interrupted War.
“I don’t know whose job it is to kickstart Armageddon, and personally I am in no rush,” Death sighed, exhaling a black smoke. “But I’m bored. Almost lonely.”
“Become acquainted with a mortal,” said Famine, attempting to grapple with Death’s new information.
“Maybe,” he answered. “No, I will invoke my leadership again. It was I who encouraged us to follow in mortal footsteps, so I make the calls. There are no more angels, and I can’t find the demons. All I know is you three, after a millennium. You three are all I have to connect me to the Garden. Next year, we will converge upon this spot to catch up. I look forward to seeing you all again but until then you must not seek me out. Goodbye.”
As Death turned back to the rotting tree, Famine stood to return Death’s amber glasses. “They look better on you.” Death placed one foot in the tree. “If there’s an emergency, find me in Hollywood at your own risk.” Death left.
Email Leo Sheingate at lshe[email protected]