“Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.”-Marcus Aurelius
“Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless,
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards.” -T.S. Eliot
The Hotel du Lyon was a small, unassuming, three-story structure off a village square in the French countryside, hardly remarkable except for its namesake. The common room was presided over by a large, carven head of a lion which hung behind the ancient bar. The bartender would tell you that the great cat's head was placed there in the Middle Ages, near the close of the Hundred Years' War, paid defiantly as part of the ransom of their knightly head to the long-dead lord of the abandoned, moldering, spectre-haunted chateau which brooded over the village, forest, and fields from its perch on a high hill.
On this particular night, shortly after the great Armistice of 1918, the tavern was filled with American and British troops fresh from the trenches. The bartender was busy that night, filling glasses with wine, bourbon, ale, and a plethora of other beverages while a phonograph at the back of the room played a merry marching tune. Robert McCarthy beheld this scene as he stepped inside, blending seamlessly into his joyous comrades mingling with townsfolk, farmers, and His Majesty's troops alike.
He walked to the bar and ordered himself something strong to steady his nerves. Never were quite right after Mark was shot, or after the shelling, or the charge, he thought as he took the glass of scotch. He took a bitter swallow, his mind plagued with scenes of bloody carnage on the front lines. Seeking to distract himself, he began looking around the room.
A feeling of foreboding broke over him as he did so, a thought that he may have done such a thing before. The fat lieutenant was leaning against the piano, chatting to a peasant girl over to his left, the thin man was busily scribbling away in his notebook in the corner booth, dead to the world as he had always been. When he looked back to the bar, the innkeeper was busy pouring a glass of wine, the bottle's cork resting but a few inches away from him. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he began to realize how many of the details were falling into place, how well he recalled them despite the fact he was witnessing them for the first time. He returned his gaze to the room, catching sight of her.
She sat at a booth off to the side, mulling over a pack of cards, an open bottle of wine beside her. Her dress was black, covering her from her neck down and her hands were covered with matching gloves. Her face was pale and her black hair fell loosely around her shoulders. She shuffled her cards, swaying slightly as if to the tune of a song only she could hear. As she turned, Robert could see that she was alluringly beautiful, with delicate features and brilliant blue eyes.
The room seemed to freeze in time as she looked at him. Despite his reluctance, he found that he was compelled to walk across the room towards her. As he walked, he saw that he was the only one moving. The other occupants of that crowded room were all frozen in the midst of whatever they were doing the moment the woman locked eyes with him. As he approached, her eyes never left his.
Almost of his own accord, Robert sat in the booth across from her. A quick glance downward at the table revealed that she had been shuffling tarot cards, arranged as if for a reading. The woman looked at him intently, and at her gaze, he felt a stirring within himself.
“Robert Stirling McCarthy,” she said with a sardonic smirk and a wink, “We meet again.”
Panic began to claw at his mid. What did she mean they had met before? He'd never been in this hotel before, let alone this town. He was on his way north to Calais, to take ship and sail back home to where his house and family were waiting in Pittsburgh. He had never seen her before. Who was she to presume to know him?
She chuckled, swaying and leaning forward. “But don't you remember? So did things turn out differently this time? Were you able to tell that fool Mark to put his cigarette out in time? Did he listen to you and was he not cut down in the prime of life with a sniper's bullet?”
Robert opened his mouth to answer, but he could form no words.
“Or what about Lillian this time around?” she asked, “Did you end up wooing her in the end? Were you able to marry her, perhaps? Or did she reject you as always? Oh, I could go on and on, but I don't want to take any more of you time than you already have.”
Robert's mind was awhirl with garbled memories of his life: his boyhood on the banks of the three rivers, his adolescence and his frustrated romance with Lilian, his time in training before being shipped to France, his meeting Mark Wellman, the man would would become his dearest friend in the ensuing years, his constant companion who comforted him during the bombardment, who helped him through his bout with shell shock, cut down for the crime of enjoying a smoke while on patrol.
These losses and the hell of the war, these are what left him like this: hollow, empty, unable to even enjoy the prospect of returning home and the end of the war. Lillian was married to a workman at the steel mill and dear Mark was lying in a grave on a god-forsaken battlefield miles away. Yes....the thought dawned on him, he had done this all before, the feelings felt oddly familiar. It seemed he had done this many times. A terrible feeling dawned on him as he somehow realized where he was and what would happen next.
“Wh-who are you?” he could barely manage as the realization dawned on him.
“I believe you know, darling,” cooed the woman, taking a hearty swig of her wine bottle. She reached forward with a laugh, turning the card at the center upward. It depicted a gaunt, desiccated corpse grasping a sickle. La Morte it read.
“So tragic, to survive the hell of the trenches, to live when your best and dearest friend you ever had in this life was killed before your eyes, only to meet your demise here, in peacetime. Tut tut...sadly poetic, don't you think? Though I'd say you were ready to go, otherwise, I'd look very different to you. Perhaps a terrible monster, or like this fellow.” She ran a finger over the card. “You don't see the point of living anymore, don't you? You want release...”
Robert felt strangely pleasant chills coursing down his spine as he felt her shoe sliding gently against his shin under the table.
“But no,” she said, with a little pout Robert found nearly irresistible, “You keep wanting to go back, to change your lot. I've lost track of how many times by now. Can't you accept my inevitability, darling? Don't you realize that by now you can't change what's already happened?”
Robert looked down at his hands on the table. They were trembling. Yes...now was when he would die, in a brawl with a drunken soldier who would spill his drink when he went up to the bar for another round. He would throw all his effort into the fight, having nothing to lose. How was he supposed to know the drunk carried a knife?
“Your fate is no different,” said Death, licking her lips in anticipation. “No matter what you do. Nothing will change what is happening. Hell, you've not been truly alive for ages now...why not just surrender?”
“But...I could...” he began, but he knew it was futile. What good would it do to go through everything again? He became cognizant of a thousand attempts before: he would live with small flashes of clarity here and there, realizations he had done things before: what the Frenchmen with which he had lived for the past two years called deja vu, until he would meet Death once more, and she'd make her proposition, to view his life over, or to go on. Yet he would always choose the former.
“Will I go to Heaven, or to hell?” asked Robert, face pale and a sheen of sweat beginning to pool on his brow.
Death gave a musical titter and fixed him with a sarcastic look. “Oh, but that would be telling my dear!” She swayed, flashing her sardonic grin. “I may be the bastard daughter of creation and call all to their end, but I'm not omniscient. Perish the thought! Humans' puzzled and dismayed expressions when I tell them this are far too amusing. No; I don't know. That's beyond my payroll, as they might say. All I know's time's up.” She took another sip of her wine.
Robert sat before Death, pale and trembling. He felt exhausted and drained. How long could this go on, he wondered, how long could he resist Death's call? Living his life over once more, oblivious, experiencing all the joy, all the pain and despair...Robert shook his head as he thought of poor Mark lying with half his head in a gelatinous puddle in the mud. Could he live this again? Or Lilian's tears as she lashed out at him in despairing desperation as he persisted?
“Fine,” he said, blurting the word out before he knew what he was doing. He stood up, “I'll go. Now hurry before I lose my nerves.”
Death gave another drunken laugh as she also rose. “Wasn't that easy, love? Now come here...”
She reached out, drawing him close to her. He could smell the wine on her breath as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, drawing him across the table. She kissed him. Robert gasped, but slowly moved his lips against hers. Her lips were soft and sweet with wine, her embrace warm and comforting after all the cold, lonely, mostly sleepless nights he'd been having of late.
She broke off the kiss, smirking at him, her icy eyes ablaze.
“There,” she said, taking him by the hand and guiding him out from the booth. “Best of luck wherever you're headed darling.”
Robert nodded, feeling oddly light and peaceful. He began walking back to the bar. He paused and looked over his shoulder. The booth was empty. It had always been. Frankly, he didn't know why he was looking back there anyway. He'd come here for a drink, to drown his sorrows and steel himself for the long journey home. He went back to the bar and ordered another scotch.
“Oi! That's mine ya yank!” came a booming voice behind him. A mountain of a British soldier towered behind him, his eyes wild and unfocused. “You show up late while we all suffer in the trenches! Bah! You owe me yank!”
.Robert turned, frustrated at this drunken lout.
“I don't give a damn what you think you owe me!” he shouted back.
The man pushed Robert against the bar, causing the small of his back to collide painfully with the edge and upend his scotch. Robert snarled and threw a punch.