Amanda Grace Shu
She’s had many names over the years, but something about her presence—that or her sheer audacity—gives her away every time. Mention a beautiful stranger sashaying into a bar, buying drinks for all the ladies, and challenging the catcalling drunks to a duel with a smile that will give them nightmares for months, and historians will give their colleagues the look. Roughly translated, it means, “She’s shown up again, and you’ll never believe what she did this time.” And the colleague, whether young or old, will invariably respond with another look, one that simply means, “God help us all.”
Of course, there are other details that can point you towards her, if you’re unfamiliar with her style. The blade, for example—sometimes a sword, sometimes a scythe. The strange dialect that rolls off her tongue when she thinks no one is listening, words from ancient languages whose grammars and histories have been lost to time. The way she passes through towns, doing odd jobs, befriending the locals, always leaving after a few weeks, only for the townsfolk to discover too late that she’s also run off with a besotted son or daughter, or worse, both. But only amateurs rely solely on those details, for the Lady Reaper thrives on spontaneity, constantly reinvents herself, and never lets history place her in one role for too long.
No one knows for certain how she got the name Reaper. Poets say it’s because death follows her wherever she goes; scholars point to the early oral histories in which she appears as a farmhand for hire with a scythe in hand for the upcoming harvest. The oldest known story in which she appears is also one of the most cryptic, more of a fragment than a narrative:
One night, they say, when the full moon marked the halfway point of autumn, a young man who had fallen in love with the Reaper awoke to see her leaving the farmhouse where she had been lodging. He followed her down to the village graveyard and watched as she stood there among the dead, her scythe resting upon her shoulder. When the bells struck midnight and the graveyard was silent and empty still, the Reaper dropped her blade and let her shoulders sag, and in the hazy moonlight the youth who had followed her glimpsed something dark and sharp in her eyes—a sorrow kept buried within her for so long that it had calcified into a jagged blade itself.
The story ends here—no climax, no resolution, not a single word spoken. Only a glimpse of a woman in a graveyard, and the endless questions that follow—who is she? Where did she come from? What was she hoping to find among those tombstones? Something to fight, or someone to resurrect?
None of the storytellers can answer, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. The apocalypse has come and gone, shattering the world and tearing families and lovers apart. We pour our grief into our ghost stories, and survivor’s guilt transforms the narratives we tell. We no longer fear the dead coming back to haunt the living. Our greatest fear is that they will never come back.
The next generation belongs to the innovators, the explorers and adventurers, architects and engineers. The children of the apocalypse, too young to remember the old world, set their sights on the horizon and ask themselves, What will we make of this new world? They leave their elders behind and travel along the remnants of ancient roads, and the Lady Reaper is at their side.
Her companions know that she is old enough to remember what life was like before. She must be as old as their parents, or even their grandparents, and yet she doesn’t look a day over twenty-five. When one man asks her why, the Lady Reaper smirks as she replies, “Maybe it’s magic. Maybe it’s Maybelline.”
None of the other explorers understand her quips, references to a bygone age. But in the towns that they pass through, her words bring smiles to the faces of the old and dying. They ask her to stay awhile, to reminisce about the old days. She rarely does, and never for long. No one asks if she still takes the time to keep watch in graveyards.
One day, her party finds her at the mouth of a cave, arguing with someone in a language no one can name or understand. After a moment, the frustrated Reaper shouts in a more recognizable tongue: “And what good is staying in this cave going to do? We can’t change what happened! This is our reality now, and we have to live with the consequences!”
A deep, accented voice speaks from inside. “It was my fault that this world was destroyed. I will not let it happen again.”
“Yes,” says the Reaper, suddenly icy. “Yes, it was your fault. And if you barricade yourself in here and brood for a thousand years, maybe you can convince yourself to be okay with that. But the people out here need you.”
“They do not know me. They do not need me.”
“I need you!” she says. “I can’t find anyone else! They’ve all disappeared or died and they’re not coming back, not even on the one night they should! We are alone—” Her voice breaks into a furious sob. “And I don’t think I’m ever going to die.”
A pause. The voice replies: “When you have lived as long as I, you know that this is inevitable. Everyone dies, and time goes on, and only we remain. This is our reality now.”
For a moment, the Reaper seethes in silence. When she next speaks, it is a hiss. “I will never let myself become like you,” she says. “Never.” And she turns her back on the immortal in the cave, takes a deep breath, and goes out into the world that he refuses to take part in.
At the summit of the highest mountain, the explorers discover the barrier—an open rift of energy that splits the sky like lightning, marking the edge of the world. Those who journey beyond it are never seen again. Young scientists flock to the site in droves, obsessed with discovering the secret that destroyed our ancestors. They cobble together observatories and laboratories out of remnants of broken equipment and spin endless theories that they cannot prove. But none of them can account for the uneasy sense of timelessness that hangs over the world—the feeling that all the choices we make have been made before, and all we can do is tread and retread the same paths without going anywhere.
War breaks out, as it inevitably does when humans’ insecurity turns to fear and then to hatred. The Lady Reaper knows war. She knows the smell of blood, the clammy sweat that sticks to your skin, the roar of battle that jolts you out of all sense of time. She knows the adrenaline rush of putting your life on a knife’s edge, the thrill of a hard-won victory. What’s more, she’s good at war. If she entered the fray, hundreds would die beneath her blade and know her as the angel of death. But that would make her too much like the immortal she turned her back on in that cave, nearly a century ago. Leave death to the death gods. She’s here to live.
So instead of going to war, she moves to a town on the outskirts of the combat zone, builds a forge, and becomes a smith. She crafts swords and spears for those who wish to defend themselves, but she also makes also iron skillets and prosthetic legs and wedding rings that curl delicately around a bride’s finger, like a silver snake with a diamond eye.
In ten years of war, the town is attacked only once. A troop of soldiers, fresh off a humiliating defeat, decide to bolster their bruised egos by raiding local villages. They charge into the town square, only to find it and all surrounding buildings empty except for a woman standing in the center of the square, sword in hand.
The lieutenant gives her a wolfish grin. “Hello, sweetheart. Looking for a man with a big, long sword?”
She raises an eyebrow. “Do you really want those to be your last words?”
The other soldiers look nervously at the dark, empty windows and abandoned streets that surround them. They wonder how the townsfolk knew to clear out so suddenly. They wonder where the townsfolk might be hiding and what they might be planning. They look back at their lieutenant, who was never good at recognizing traps even when he wasn’t busy making threatening advances toward a beautiful yet disturbingly calm swordswoman—
—who moves so fast the lieutenant hardly has time to realize she’s attacking him. She slides her sword under his, leverages it out of his hand with a twist, then stabs clean through his leather armor and in between the fourth and fifth ribs.
He screeches and tries to kick at her before collapsing onto the cobblestones. She draws the sword out of him, looks up at the dumbstruck, now leaderless troops, and smiles angelically.
“Leave this town,” she says. They practically trip over each other to do so.
She herself leaves barely a month later, despite the best efforts of the townspeople who have come to consider her one of their own. She’s seen little girls playing with wooden swords in the street, swearing to be just like her when they grow up. Village elders have started coming to her for advice. And every day, young men and women stop by the forge to offer her flowers, their bodies, and their hearts. The Lady Reaper warns them that she cannot stay, that nothing lasts, but they don’t understand.
One day, she looks at their faces and realizes that all she sees are bodies waiting to be buried.
She leaves that night without saying goodbye. Better to leave when they are young and full of life, rather than stay and watch them wither. Besides, she has to keep moving, keep changing and chasing new experiences. If she didn’t, she would end up drowning in her own memories—caught in stasis, constantly reliving the moment the old world died and time shattered around her.
The first time someone asks her if she is a goddess, she laughs. One of her lovers, a young man with fine red hair and an eager embrace, sees her naked body for the first time and whispers in awe, “Are you a goddess?” She laughs and kisses his question away, though the last word clings to her mind like a burr, rough against her skin.
The second time, it is not even a question. An old woman on her deathbed beckons her forward and whispers in her ear: “When I was a little girl, there was a smith in my town who saved us all from marauding soldiers. We could scarcely thank her for what she had done before she left. And she was you.” The old woman reaches out and presses her hand to the Reaper’s cheek. She feels a spot of cold metal against her flesh and notices the woman’s silver ring, coiled like a snake around her finger.
“Thank you, my Lady,” the old woman says. “My goddess.”
She lets out her last breath, a smile settling on her lips. By the time the grieving family thinks to ask the swordswoman what was whispered in her ear, she is already gone.
This is how it begins: the cult of the Lady Reaper, swordswoman and smith, lover and wanderer. Some believe she is divine, taking her eternal youth as a sign of godhood. Others are scholars, folklorists and historians and scientists who find themselves drawn to this legendary figure. They research and record and pick apart her stories, hoping like those before them to unravel the mysteries of the universe. These are the ones who get into heated debates and even fistfights over whether or not any given quasi-historical figure was her—the thief who stole classified documents from the king and nailed them to the university door; the virtuoso who composed a single symphony, the greatest the new world has ever known; the sultan’s mysterious mistress who placed a venomous snake in his bed. A trickster heroine, they call her. Goddess of travelers, of transience, of fleeting joys and life lived to its fullest.
It frightens her, the way they speak about her. Sometimes, when she’s alone on the road, she asks herself exactly what she’s afraid of. The answer is always the same:
I’m terrified that being a goddess will strip away my humanness. That living forever means I’m losing the feeling of being alive.
For the first time in centuries, she visits the immortal she had once called a god, the master to her apprentice, who is still shut up in his cave. The years of darkness and solitude have not been kind to him. He is curled up in a corner, knees to his chest and hands covering his face, shrinking from the light. “Is this how it starts?” she asks him. “You live long enough, people start taking notice, and suddenly you’re a god?”
The immortal steeples his fingers and presses them to his lips. “No,” he says. After a pause, he amends himself: “I don’t know. The old world is gone, the other old gods with it—”
“Are they?” the Reaper scoffs. “Have you stepped out of this cave even once to go look?”
“I can feel their absence,” he says, bristling. “And I feel a new power as well—or perhaps a very old one, reborn. A force far stronger than myself, one which has made me obsolete. I was order. I was the clean break at the end of life. I was the linear progression of time and the rules that governed its passing. All that is gone now.” He grimaces. “I told you before. Humanity does not need me, and neither do you. Now leave me alone.”
“You’re a real asshole, you know that, right?”
“The lord of the dead is not meant to be nice,” he says. “The Reaper is meant to be feared.”
“Well, somebody never listened to Blue Oyster Cult. Maybe ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ should have used more cowbell.”
She gets nothing but a dead-eyed stare from the other immortal.
“Oh, come on! Only two people left in the world have the capacity to get that joke and you don’t—you know what, never mind. People don’t even associate reapers with death anymore. The stories they tell out there… they’ve changed.”
“I wonder who might be responsible for that,” the other immortal says, deadpan.
The Lady Reaper flips him off.
This time, there is no laughter, no reverent expression of gratitude. She bears down on an enemy in battle, sword against buckler, and her opponent growls, “What are you, a goddess? Why won’t you yield?”
He makes one last, desperate rush against the Reaper, hoping to knock her off-balance so he can retrieve his machete, which she had knocked into the dust. It doesn’t work. The Reaper steps out of the way and his own momentum causes him to fall. She stabs the back of his neck and wonders, not for the first time, if this new world still has an afterlife for him to go to. That had been her god’s domain before he fucked up the world, he and the other old gods who should have known better. Before they broke time and left her alone to sweep up the pieces.
A girl—maybe seven or eight years old, with warm brown skin and a mess of blonde curls—crawls out of a hiding space under her family’s caravan, the target of the raiders’ attack. “Is there anyone else who hid?” the Reaper asks her.
The girl gives no answer. Instead, she clings to the Reaper’s leg, and the Reaper gently turns her away so she can’t see the bodies along the road. “What’s your name?” she asks.
“Maddie,” says the girl. “Was he right? Are you a goddess?”
She hesitates for a moment before shaking her head. “I’m like you,” she says. “A survivor.”
She and Maddie arrive at a city after three hours on the road. Maddie’s eyes widen in awe at the brightly lit buildings in the central square. The Lady Reaper distantly remembers being that young and seeing a big city for the first time—entrancing and terrifying, chaos whirling all around her. She puts her hand on Maddie’s shoulder. The girl turns to her and smiles. The Reaper smiles sadly back and reminds herself that she can’t stay long.
They find lodgings in a local inn. The Reaper wakes in the middle of the night to find Maddie pressed up against the glass windowpane, looking at the stars. “You need to sleep, little one,” she says, ruffling the girl’s hair a bit. “The stars will still be there tomorrow evening.” She glances out the window, remembering different constellations circling overhead. Was it yesterday, or four hundred years ago? Time makes no sense to her anymore.
She coaxes Maddie back to bed. As the girl’s breath settles into the gentle rhythm of sleep, the Lady Reaper takes a moment to smooth down her curls with her hand. She closes her eyes and sees a little girl playing with a wooden sword, an old woman on her deathbed, a body to be buried. Herself, standing alone in the graveyard, where she finds herself again and again.
The Lady Reaper opens her eyes. Blinks. Then she laughs.
Fuck that, she tells the fatalistic voice in her head. Fuck it, I’m staying.
Over the years, she shares pieces of her life with Maddie—starting with her original name, one she hasn’t used in centuries, written in a thick black scrawl on the girl’s adoption papers. Sometimes, when Maddie asks for a bedtime story, she tells her something true from her past, though the details may be embellished a little in the telling. And piece by piece, Maddie learns what all the scientists and historians will never know:
The Lady Reaper once stood at the center of the apocalyptic explosion, sheltered in the eye of the storm as time itself shattered around her. She watched as history broke into shards of past, present, and future, colliding with such force that whole continents were launched into the sky, tearing apart the earth that remained—some fragments jolted into the future, others into the past, some caught in cycles of eternal present. That’s why the people of this new world feel unmoored, aimlessly drifting, obsessed with the past but unable to imagine a future. Time means nothing, they think, and nothing ever changes.
But the Lady Reaper knows the sheer vastness of eternity. It can either drive you into bitter solitude or teach you to live so deeply in the now that your memories still take place in real time. What is immortality but an eternal present tense? So she tells her daughter: impermanent things are what matter most. Joy lies in sex and laughter and the thrill of breathlessness, in dumb puns and inside jokes, in learning how to sling a sword or stoke a fire or swaddle a child. Joy lies in every life that ends and every new one that begins.
“You asked me once if I was a goddess,” she tells Maddie one night. “I could be, but I choose not to. Gods keep themselves apart from the world. They don’t love it like we do.”
Image description: A young woman in a black leather jacket with a blonde undercut, ear piercings, and icy blue eyes holds a sword with two hands. The blade is turned vertically so that it covers her nose and mouth. She stares determinedly at the viewer. Art by Amanda Grace Shu, © 2019.