by Riana Reem
The field just off the road was beautiful, with lush, vividly green grass and giant yew trees that shaded the ground beneath; where small critters roamed wild and free. Heaven on earth, Anderson often thought, more a painting than a field.
It was one of those rare days when nobody visited the field at all, Anderson being the exception. It was an unlikely situation; the field was usually never short of visitors, all drawn to its reputation for being unnaturally picturesque. Nevertheless, the persistence of rain the past few days had put people off open spaces, even if that day promised well with its clear blue sky.
The ground was a little soft, and Anderson could hear the mud squelching under his feet as he made his way into the field. No doubt it was saturated with rainwater from the day before, but Anderson was not bothered. In his haversack, he carried a picnic mat that he now spread out under his favourite yew tree, which was incidentally the oldest of the lot. It was also one of the few that actually allowed people to sit beneath it without getting hit by leaves and branches.
Anderson felt the rough bark scratch his back as he settled himself against it. Unlike the ground, the trunk was bone dry, as was the rest of the tree. He shut his eyes, the light from the sun filtering through the leaves and branches and shining through his eyelids. He stayed for some time that way, a small smile on his lips. The air smelt fresher than it had in ages, and the animals were quieter than usual. It was peaceful. He was determined to enjoy it while it lasted.
A sudden darkness fell over him. Anderson opened his eyes in surprise. Standing over him was a wizened old man. He sighed inwardly.
“Hello there,” the old man said in a cheerful voice. Anderson tipped his head in reply.
“Can I sit here?” the old man asked with a toothy grin. Anderson nodded, silently cursing the old man for his intrusion. With an agility incongruent to his appearance, the old man sprang to his side and sat down. Anderson’s eyes travelled unconsciously down to his wrist, where a cheap, black-strapped watch informed him that he had managed a good two hours of solitude before this interruption. It didn’t seem like enough.
He shut his eyes again and tried to take in the silence of the field.
“What’s your name?” the old man asked. Anderson groaned quietly and opened his eyes.
“Anderson,” he said, and promptly shut his eyes again. There was silence. Then he became aware of a tingling sensation across his face. His eyes snapped open and he found the old man looking at him expectantly. He sighed.
“Well?” he asked impatiently. The old man grinned.
“My turn. Ed.”
“Right. Hello Ed.” He turned his head away and shut his eyes again.
“So what are you doing here, Anderson?” the old man asked from behind.
“Sleeping,” Anderson replied without opening his eyes.
“Umm,” the old man said understandingly. “I had a terrible day today.”
Anderson didn’t bother to reply.
“That kid was a complete brat. I mean, do you know what he called me, Anderson?” the old man asked. Anderson groaned loudly and turned. His eyes fell on the old man’s large straw hat, which sat on his head like an oversized bird’s nest.
“Ed Hat?” he asked sardonically.
“Exactly!” the old man cried and Anderson started. He hadn’t expected it to be right. “But see, Anderson, I have a problem. I don’t want to be called Ed Hat. It’s a terrible name to have, isn’t it? To be identified by how you dress?”
“How would you feel if somebody started calling you Anderson Blueshirt? Or Anderson Brownpants?” the old man went on as if Anderson had not responded. “I hate my name. Ed,” he said bitterly, “just Ed.”
“You don’t have a last name?” Anderson asked.
“Of course I don’t,” the old man said.
“Why not?” he asked, brows furrowed.
The old man sighed and looked downcast, his fingers crushing blades of grass on the ground beside him.
“I just don’t. But Ed is ridiculous as well. I mean, I am Ed, yet I’m not Ed. I look like an Ed, yet I’m not an Ed. Do you understand?” he asked in earnest.
Anderson nodded sympathetically but kept silent.
“And the way I look. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?” The old man looked imploringly at Anderson, who didn’t know what he should say. “That old woman, just a month ago, all alone and looking so terrified. But when she saw me she laughed, Anderson. A wheezing laughter, barely able to stand like she was in pain, but she still laughed so hard!”
“Um, how about changing your name?” Anderson asked tentatively. “And getting rid of that hat?”
“It’s not that easy,” the old man sighed.
“Why not?” Anderson asked again.
“I just can’t. I have to keep the name and the hat. And even if I could, I don’t know what kind of a name I should take, or what I should wear.” He pulled up a few blades of grass and examined them closely. Anderson watched him for a while, and when he didn’t speak, turned away and shut his eyes again, supposing the conversion to be finally over.
He had a few minutes repose before he heard the old man’s voice. It was very soft, and Anderson could hardly make out the words, even though the field was quiet. In spite of himself, he strained his ears and managed to catch fragments of the old man’s mutterings.
“… stupid oath… mistake… should have followed them… need to fear… no place for kindness…”
There was silence.
“…no consequences… oath was just a formality…”
Another long pause.
“…easier to change the name…”
Yet another pause.
Then, audibly, “Anderson, would you be able to come up with a new name for yourself right now?”
Anderson didn’t understand anything from the old man’s mutterings, but something about it — perhaps it was the tone? — struck a rather unpleasant chord in him. He made a show of waking up and looked questioningly at the old man, who repeated himself.
“I don’t want a new name,” Anderson said in response.
“I’ve decided on a new name and a new look.” He then added forcefully, “And you’re going to help me find one.”
“Err –” Anderson’s stomach inexplicably clenched and he tried to avoid the old man’s disconcerting gaze.
“Well?” the old man demanded.
“What do you identify yourself with?” he asked, saying the first thing that popped into his head. To his surprise, the old man’s demeanour changed almost instantly.
“My job,” the old man said morosely, looking away.
“And what is it you do?” Anderson eyed the old man’s red checked shirt and khaki pants as his stomach slowly unclenched.
“I help people.”
“Right,” he said doubtfully. “How?”
There was a short pause.
“People always reach a stage in their lives when they need me. They call for me. Even you will one day, Anderson.”
Anderson doubted it, but he wisely kept that opinion to himself.
“So, what do you do when you go to them?” he asked. The old man took a long time before he answered.
“It’s strange how many idioms are attributed to me. ‘Hat in hand’–that’s how I walk into their homes; ‘talking through one’s hat’–that’s me trying to get them to feel comfortable right before… well, right before. And of course my profession, once known, it said to be kept ‘under my hat’. And naturally ‘hat in hand’ could also be interpreted as my ‘taking my hat off’ to them–matter of perspective, really. I suppose that’s why they call me Ed Hat.”
Anderson nodded uncomprehendingly, and just to remind himself what it was that the old man wanted, repeated, “A new name and a new look.”
The old man nodded at him.
“Yes, Anderson. What colour?”
“Yes, colour! What colour should I wear?”
A loud cawing came from overhead and he looked up to find a large black crow on the branch above his head.
“Black,” Anderson said confidently.
“Black,” the old man mused. “Interesting choice. I’d never have chosen dark colours.” The old man fingered his red checked shirt.
“Style?” Anderson asked blankly.
“What style?” the old man asked slowly. “Should I go with a shirt and trousers? Or a tuxedo?”
Anderson looked at the crow again. Its feathers were all painted the same black, almost as if it was wearing…
“A cloak,” he said.
“A cloak,” the old man repeated. “With the hood up?”
“Yes,” Anderson said, feeling laughter welling up within him at the sheer absurdity of his suggestion.
The old man broke into a huge grin. “I like that!” he cried as he stood up excitedly. “I knew it’d be a good idea to come to you!”
Anderson snorted, and quickly turned it into a cough.
“I’ll need props as well,” the old man added, ignoring him completely.
The laughter within him died as abruptly as it had begun. The old man was dressed in a long black cloak, his hands clasped around a large, golden alarm clock.
Anderson shook his head, his mouth gaping open. The clock disappeared and Anderson started. A bunch of red poppies appeared in its place.
“Did you –” Anderson shrank back against the tree. “How –” His eyes were wide as bemusement gave way to horror. “You –” He gestured at the old man.
“No, it’s rather silly, isn’t it?” the old man asked calmly.
The poppies disappeared.
“Come on, Anderson. Give me a suggestion. What props do I need?”
“You — what are you?” Anderson asked, half on his feet, edging away from the old man.
“Anderson,” the old man said warningly, with a small smile (evil, Anderson thought) on his lips. “Give me a suggestion.”
“Um.” Anderson cleared his throat. He moved even further from the old man.
“Give me a suggestion, Anderson. Or else…”
Anderson cast his eye desperately around the field. He was alone with the old man. “Something, um, long and, um, brown,” he said, looking at a tree branch, playing for time.
Anderson saw that the old man was now carrying a walking stick.
“Err –” he saw a worm poking its head out of the ground. “To dig…” he muttered, speaking at random and taking yet another step away.
“I’ve got it,” the old man cried triumphantly. In his hand he carried a scythe, a dangerous metal curving blade mounted on a wooden stick.
Anderson felt his body go weak.
“How do I look?” the old man asked.
Anderson choked and the old man grinned widely.
“It’s perfect, isn’t it?”
“A name, now. Come, what shall I call myself?”
“Ed?” Anderson said weakly. His knees gave way and he fell on the soft mud with a loud squelch.
“Not Ed! And definitely not Ed Hat either,” the old man said smoothly, his voice slowly deepening. The hood of his cloak began growing outwards, obscuring his features. “Do Charon, the Shinigami and Anubis have such ridiculous names?”
Anderson’s head was spinning and he fell on all fours.
“I’m Death! Death will never be known as Ed Hat again!” the creature cackled, his voice now resonant with an air of malice far from the reassuring tones of Ed. “A name, Anderson, a name!”
“G-grim R-reaper?” Anderson stammered.
The Grim Reaper cackled again, his voice eerily low pitched and grating. Anderson felt a coldness grip his insides as he saw it come towards him in a slow glide, the bottom of its cloak swaying gently around what seemed to be non-existent legs.
“I’ll be seeing you around, Anderson!” the Grim Reaper cried, before Anderson blacked out.