The sun dipped behind the mountains to the west, and all that was left was a blush on the far horizon. Already, the tourists were coming round the bend of Going-to-the-Sun Road, headlights reluctantly coming on against the night, and it was in those flickering lights and the quick blare of trumpeting car horns that anyone first noticed the stranger.
He was dressed in all black, the long flaps of an old overcoat rippling with the cool mountain breeze over the flanks of a tall white stallion. Horse and rider were on the shoulder of the two-lane road into St. Mary, and it would have been impossible for any of the cars going back in to have missed him on their way into the park. They were taking their time, despite the sound of the long line of cars and some of the drivers nudging around the corner and passing him. Cameras came out, trying to catch this relic of ages past on his horse, trotting into town, but just as quickly, the cellphones went back in, and anyone laying on their horn was quickly silenced. There was something about him, this tall, angular man, leaning a little into the wind as he nudged his horse on, even as it turned its head left and right in agitation at the sound of so many cars and so many people.
The man drew up to the edge of town, and there, leaning against the sign marking the entrance to Glacier Park was an old man who had been waiting there for a little while. Anyone driving by would have seen him checking his watch and muttering to himself. The man on the horse leaned down.
"Make sure the stove is lit when I get home, Cain," he said, and the old man spat before nodding.
The horseman nudged his pale white towards town, and Cain hopped into his truck, frowning out the rear-view mirror at the receding rider.
There was only the memory of day's light against the stars when the rider stopped outside the Red Eagle trailer park and motel, and slid easily out of the saddle. The bay gave a little nicker, and out in the distance another horse responded with a quick, high whinny that sounded a little out of fear.
"Easy, Ryder. Easy now," the man in black said, patting the bay's neck as he turned towards the doors of the Red Eagle Motel. Ryder nudged him in the back, nuzzling into his spine.
"Now. Easy," he said again, then sighed. "You stay put this time." Ryder nuzzled him and took a step forward to show how well he’d listened. The man placed his fingers against the bay's neck one last time and, mercifully, the horse stayed still, which was a small miracle.
The lobby of the Red Eagle was full. Two families were trying to check in at the same time as two married couples and another family of six was about to check out. But in the middle of swapping luggage to and fro, the whole crowd was suddenly still as the man in black came in through the front door. The bell, a staple of the Red Eagle lobby with its bright "Howdy!" charm, rang out like a panicked alarm, and everyone turned to stare.
This man had a face you could get used to looking at, Emma at the front desk remembered later. You could get mighty used to that face if it weren’t for how cold it seemed. Every angle looked more chiseled from ice than made of skin and bone. And his eyes; you wanted to get lost in them if it weren't for the fact that you'd be lost in them alone.
The man in black looked over each person in turn, and every one of them suddenly remembered someplace else they needed to look—either their watches, or each other, or the rack of pamphlets showcasing all the rapids trips and hiking trails out in the park beyond. Something about the way he looked at you made you feel time slipping away from you, time ticking away faster than you could even breathe in, and if you held that stare too long, it seemed you'd shrivel and die and the world would move on.
"Room 5A?" the man asked. Emma swallowed hard, and pointed.
"Down the hall to your right," she said, and even in her own ears, her voice sounded so very, very small. The man in black tipped a finger to the brim of his hat and walked past the two families crowded around their luggage, all of them doing everything they could to get away. It was only after he was gone that Emma realized he had never signed the guestbook, hadn't even checked in.
Garret Harris had stayed behind in the hotel that morning when his wife had tried to get him to come along and see Mount Siyeh. He hadn't been feeling well. Maybe something he ate. She’d felt his forehead and nodded, and made her way out, making a mental note to find out if there was a clinic nearby, just in case he wasn't feeling any better by tomorrow. But during the day, little by little, Garret had slipped lower and lower, his breathing slower and slower, his eyes glazed, staring at almost nothing at all. Nothing, that is, until the man in black stepped into his room.
"Garret," the man in black said. "Garret Harris."
For Garret, the man in black was all he could see, standing, it seemed, on the edge of some great white light. Outside, the wind had picked up a little, rattling the window in its pane.
"It's time," the man in black said, and in that final moment, it seemed as if the man in the long, black coat had sprouted lengthy, swooping wings as sharp and dreadful as razors.
But it was his eyes that he noticed most; eyes that flared red in the night. They were the last thing Garret saw, the last thing his living mind registered. The man in black laid a steel gauntlet on the old man's hand, and Garret went, following the red eyes towards the light and the long clarion call of Heaven’s hosts.
Alone now, the body beside him already starting to lose its blush, Azrael, the Angel of Death, sighed. There would be a commotion, he was sure of it. The man's wife was probably outside already, pulling in to check on her dear husband, only to find it was too late. Someone would start to scream. Someone would make a phone call. He looked out the window to the street beyond, where Ryder was stamping against the wind.
Time had been when this was the Angel of Death's best moment—that second of stillness before the world came rushing back with its chaos and furor. But more and more often these days, the only thing he could think in these quick breaths of silence, was how far from Heaven he actually felt, and how far he was from that light he guided others to.
How many months had he already been walking the world? Not, of course in his capacity as the harvester of death—he had been doing so since the Garden of Good and Evil, since the origination of life and death had first come from his Father's plan into the world. But how many months physically? And did humans always feel as tired as he did, as weighed down by their bodies as he did now?
The door to 5A opened, and Evelina Harris let out a quick yelp at seeing the man in black standing there, followed by a longer one that ended in a wail when she saw her husband slowly turning stiff in his bed. Azrael sighed, and touched the brim of his hat once more.
"Ma'am," was all he said before he slipped out of the room.
The screams behind him had grown louder, keening and full of pain. There was now a crowd rushing through the hall to 5A. It shrank from him as he passed, and that only made his lips draw tighter in a grimace.
It was, of course, for this reason, that he was here, bound in this skin and bone. Another of his brothers and sisters, Raphael in his grace, or Uriel in her stillness, would be able to talk to these humans, would be able to touch them with a word, and, in return, would be touched in some way by their grief. It was in their nature to ease the burden of man. It was in all of their natures, that is, except for his own. What was it Father had said those months ago?
"You've grown cold."
He remembered that voice all too well. And was it sad? And, if so, how could Azrael tell? At that time, it had only sounded quiet, steady. Azrael knew what sadness was and what sounds accompanied grief, but he himself hadn't felt such a thing in ages.
"You've grown cold, my child, and so you need to learn hope again, and loss again, and love again.”
But how did one love when this was what needed to be done? Through the crowd of people on their cellphones, some of them shocked, some of them afraid, all of them calling someone to get here as soon as possible, Azrael walked and thought perhaps his Father had been right.
Out in the night once more, he put a hand against Ryder's neck, and the horse leaned down, behaving for once. Azrael swung up into the saddle, and far off he could hear the wail of a siren as the mad rush of the world pushed its way into room 5A at the Red Eagle Motel to take away the body of a man the Angel of Death could already barely remember.
"C'mon Ryder." He nudged his heels into the bay's flanks, turning them both to point back into Glacier Park. "Let's carry on."
The lights of the cars coming back along the tourist roads caught them both—pale horse and rider, alone against the night sky once more. To a man and woman, each shivered and tried not to hear the unmistakeable sound of a clock ticking in their ears, endless and relentless.