The Choice of Stone
by Simon P. Clark
The grave was fresh, and the air was cold. Three figures stepped from the shadows. They looked at the empty headstone.
'He's young,' said one, an old man with grey eyes. He sniffed and looked up at the sky.
'No good for you,' said another, a young boy with pale white skin. 'No babies for you. This is mine, easily.'
Father Time raised an eyebrow. 'Easily? Come, now. I still have a claim. Time takes many, you know.'
Soul snorted and rustled his wings.
'Not this again,' he said. 'Not this. You don't get all of them just because they grew. This one's young and innocent. He's mine.'
They looked down at the grave again. Its bare, smooth stone was shining in the damp.
The third figure coughed and took off his spectacles, wiping them slowly on a black handkerchief.
'He was sick,' said Grim. 'Taken before his time. I think my claim is strong.'
Soul shifted uneasily. The wind blew leaves against the dark grey stone.
'No one's letting go, then?' said Time. The other two were silent. Soul flapped his wings. Grim watched them both, a thin smile on his lips.
'Fine,' said Time. He leaned upon his stick. 'We'll ask. It's the only way.'
'It has been a while since we all laid claim,' said Grim.
'They don't use this ground as much,' said Soul. 'It's being forgotten. The graves, the people.'
'And us,' said Time with a dry laugh.
'I think not,' said Grim. He waved his hand through the air. 'I cannot be forgotten. I haunt them all. They fear me.'
A dark cane, of oily smoke, appeared in his hand, and he tapped it sharply on the ground.
'Wake,' he said. 'And choose.'
Father Time sighed. 'They don't fear you more than me,' he said. Grim looked at him and said nothing.
'They fear age,' said Time, 'more than death.'
Soul laughed. 'Where they go is what matters,' he said. 'Up or down. That's the biggest thing. I'm the biggest question.'
'We will ask,' said Grim again. He tapped the headstone. 'Come,' he said.
'Getting impatient?' said Time. Grim scowled.
'Patience has no meaning for me,' he said.
'And death none for me!' said Time, raising his voice. 'Honestly - '
He stopped, catching himself.
'I think I shall reap even you, in the end, Time,' said Grim. A silver blade appeared in his hand. Time smiled and tutted.
'Everything rusts if you wait long enough.'
'Shush,' said Soul. 'He's here.'
A pale figure the colour of moonlight had risen from the grave and was standing before them, scared and timid, still clothed in his grave suit.
Grim raised himself up. 'Boy,' he said. 'Do you know where you are?'
The figure looked around, a pained expression on its face. It looked down and read the name on the stone. It swallowed. Then, 'The Old Yard,' it said. Grim nodded.
'Good. Your grave, however, is unclaimed. It has no marker. No skull. No clock. No angel. It must have one.'
Time stepped forward, a smile on his ancient face. 'You see these graves?' he said. 'They're all claimed. By me, or him, or him. It's an old game. It's an old law. And now it's your turn. Who will have you? Which mark will you take for your stone?'
The boy's eyes watered with tears as pale as shadows. 'Please -' he said, but Grim raised a hand.
'You have no choice,' he said, 'but this one, and this alone. Choose, and choose well. Time, Soul, or Grim. Which will you be? Which will mark your life?'
Soul, always the youngest, smiled a little. Time frowned. Grim was blank, as still as the stone itself. The boy looked at them, and down again at the earth, and up to the stars that shone through the clouds.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I don’t know.’
‘You’ll work it out,’ said Soul. ‘Everyone does, in the end. Take your time. But make your choice. Your grave belongs to one of us. We just have to work out who.’
‘It’s not fair,’ said the boy.
‘No, I don’t suppose it is.’
‘I want to go home.’
‘What happens next?’
The boy looked down at his grave again, at the blank space on the stone. He looked at the figures, the boy, the man, and ... he swallowed ... and the other one. Grim nodded.
'You fear me most, don't you?' he said. Shadows pooled in his eyes. The boy whimpered and nodded.
'Good,' said Grim. 'Then you're mine.'
'Pff,' said Time.
'He was too young to be yours,' said Soul. 'Look at him. He doesn't care about aging.'
'Nor about his future!' said Time.
Soul stuck out a tongue. 'Either way,' he said.
'Another grave for me,' said Grim. 'Another stone to wear the skull. I think that puts me in the lead.'
'Don't gloat,' said Time. 'It's ugly.'
'Ugly? said Grim, and the wind whipped his cloak high in the air, and the moonlight shone among the graves. 'Ugly? Of course. How could this game be anything other?'
The graveyard was empty, silent and cold. The grave, still fresh, stood apart from the others. The stone was new, not touched by moss or snow. The name was clear, sharp and newly carved, and above it was a skull - a grinning, staring reaper.