The judge banged his gavel heavily against the wooden block.
“Order,” he said loudly, “Order! Let’s have the next case.” It was the case everyone had been waiting for, the reason the courthouse was so crowded that day.
Death was led into the courtroom, his head held high, his face defiant, his hands and feet shackled. He stood before the judge, silent and sure, powerful even in his captivity. All around, whispered gossiping of his crimes could be heard. There were muffled cries from the back of the courtroom, and some people were openly hissing. Again, the judge loudly demanded order by banging his gavel, and a hush finally came over the courtroom.
|New growth from the dead . . .|
“You have been accused of the wanton death of innumerable creatures of the forest, from the tiniest of insects to the largest of trees,” the judge said.
Death did not respond but stared stoically ahead.
“You may still request counsel at this late date, and the court will adjourn until such time as you have procured proper representation. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you at no expense.”
“I will represent myself,” Death responded.
“You are advised against this,” said the judge, “And the court again recommends that you seek counsel.”
“I will represent myself.”
The general counsel read a long list of Death’s crimes. The morbid deaths of birds and insects and animals were discussed. Gruesome photos of the dead were shown. The devastation of brush through purposeful fire and the ruin of stately trees by uprooting were shown to the court. Count after count, victim after victim, the general counsel painted a grim picture, indeed. To all of this, Death said nothing.
Witnesses, one after another, were brought forward to tell their sordid stories of the Hand of Death. After each one, Death was given a chance to cross-examine them, but after each one he merely shook his head and said, “No questions.”
At last, with the general counsel’s voice weary from extended talking and accusations, his expression grim, and with the stricken faces of the silent people in the back of the courtroom, the judge asked heavily, “Have you anything to say in your defense before your sentencing?”
Death stood. “Only this,” he said. “Yes, it was I who removed the life from each of the creatures spoken of in this courtroom. There is not one who died without it being by my hand. I am guilty as charged of each and every death spoken of today.
“It was I who killed the insects—every one of them—as sustenance for the birds. And it was I who took the lame among the birds and animals, those who suffered tremendous pain in life due to simple misfortune. It was I who provided the predators and the creatures of the night with prey, killing each one with joyful abandonment. It was I who did the slaying when the animals fought for territory and resources in their dwindling habitat. It was I who set the fires and killed the brush that was overtaking the meadow and draining the stream. It was I who felled the trees, uprooting them from the forest floor and crashing them down upon countless creatures.”
Gasps were heard in the courtroom, but not one person spoke.
“It was I who caused the decay of the once vigorous among the living. It was I who took the life of each creature as it aged and could no longer run in the forest. It was I who summoned the hidden flesh eaters from the Earth—the bacteria and fungi—and set them loose on the dead to remove all evidence of my heavy hand. It was I who called the mosses and the lichens and set them upon the decaying corpses in the forest.
“And . . . it was I who brought sustenance to the hungry mouths of the forest. It was I who opened the thickets so that new trees and brush might come. It was at my command that the necessary elements of life were sent to the deep dark of the Earth, only to return yet again to the land of the living in a new form. It was I who fed the masses. It was I who took the spirit of the living and gave it back to the Wind to redistribute before delivering the body to the hidden ones in the Earth. It was I who opened the pathways for the Sun to bring his energy into the woods.
“I am guilty as charged,” said Death.
A great hush came over the courtroom. Those who had angry accusations on their lips only moments before were now gazing uncomfortably at the floor. The general counsel was busy shuffling through his papers, perhaps looking for some long lost and forgotten charge to hurl anew at Death. The judge was stony-faced, staring into the eyes of Death.
“One cannot look too long directly into the sun,” said Death, a tiny smile bringing up one corner of his lips, and as he did so, he broke the trance between himself and the judge.
At last the judge was able to release his eyes from the hypnotic gaze of Death.
“The evidence presented to the court is incomplete,” the judge said, banging his gavel against the wooden block. “Although we detest the defendant and find his behavior reprehensible, we also find the defendant in full compliance with the Law, without which none of us would be here.”
The stenographer feverishly typed out the words of the judge as the bailiff removed the shackles from the hands and feet of the now free defendant. As he did so, Death brushed his hand against the bailiff’s chin and whispered in his ear, and what he said will never be known since the bailiff did not return home that night to tell the tale.
As Death passed through the courtroom on his way to freedom, each person sitting there felt his icy hand. Most were able to brace themselves against him, as they had always done thus far, and avoid the chilling cold. The bailiff was not so fortunate, and the judge found himself searching for a new helper the following week. The general counsel was buried in papers, as always.
Out in the forest, the joyful news spread far and wide almost instantaneously that the Dark One had returned. The trees whispered knowingly in their vast network, relieved that the overcrowding issue would soon be a thing of the past. Somewhere a terrible squawking indicated that a fox had found a bird’s nest. New green shoots sprang up in greeting from the old dead trees. And the scent of decay mingling with fresh growth was utterly intoxicating.