Kaj Tanaka


Do not be afraid when you see Death’s daughter walking home with your own daughter after school. If you look at your daughter’s recent posts on Instagram, for example, you will see pictures of your daughter and Death’s daughter together, smiling like cats: your daughter’s perfect brown arm affectionately wrapped around Death’s daughter’s black shroud and shadowy visage.

Don’t interfere in your daughter’s affairs. Trust that you have taught her well enough. Don’t go into her bedroom and sit down on her pink bedspread while she is on her computer. Don’t say that the apple probably hasn’t fallen far from the tree, vis-à-vis Death and his daughter. Don’t forbid your daughter from seeing Death’s daughter, whatever you do. She will respect you less for trying to control her. She is growing older, and you know that your daughter’s hatred is not something you can handle.


At fifth grade graduation, Death asks if the seat next to you is taken, as if he doesn’t know you are here alone. No, you say, please sit. He gathers his black robe around his bony knees. When he sits, it is the sound of falling snow. You wonder if you should say something to him. I think our daughters are good friends, you finally say. Death goes on for a long time about how artistic his own daughter is. You say that you’d rather see your daughter play basketball, and then the program begins and here is your beautiful daughter walking across the stage. You feel as if—maybe because of the lights—she seems like an adult already. Death turns to you. Ten years, he says. It’s exactly what you are thinking.

As you are getting up to leave, you feel you must ask if there is a Mrs. Death—or, you know, someone. Death shakes his head. So, you say, you must understand the difficulties of being a single parent? You are unable to mask the bitterness in your voice. Death nods but he doesn’t reply. You both just stand there. Finally Death says that having a daughter is the best thing that has ever happened to him. Don’t you agree? He says. You agree. Of course you agree, but that isn’t the point.


You end up crossing paths with old Death a bit more often than you would like. You see him at parent-teacher conferences, you see him running the apple bobbing station at the school carnival. He chaperones for field trips. He runs the after school chess team. It is frustrating that, for all of the souls he must deliver from this life to the next, he seems to have a lot more free time than you do. Your daughter notices this too and she uses it against you. She says that Death must have a better job than you do. He certainly has more time for his daughter. Your daughter prefers to spend her afternoons doing her homework at Death’s house because it is a huge mansion with secret rooms and a hot tub, and Death is always at home making delicious snacks and telling funny jokes like some kind of perfect sitcom dad. You cover up your daughter’s complaints by buying her the things she wants. To pay for those things, you take on more hours at work. The things shut your daughter up for a while, but they don’t make anything easier in the long term.


When your daughter and Death’s daughter turn thirteen (their birthdays are only a few days apart), they plan a slumber party together at Death’s house, just the two of them and some of Death’s daughter’s friends from out-of-town because (your daughter explains to you) the other girls at school don’t treat Death’s daughter very well. Lots of parents encourage their children to stay away from her, which is cruel, she says. Clearly, your daughter doesn’t quite understand anything. You have been feeling this more and more lately, in a number of ways. She knows so much less than she thinks she does—she isn’t stupid exactly, just inexperienced. You tell your daughter to be careful with that kind of thing—slumber parties and strangers from out of town and such. You try to gently encourage your daughter to spend her birthday at home with you, like she always does. She takes offense at this—says she is a teenager now—says you are just like those other parents who are afraid of Death and his daughter. You back off because you cannot lose her. You tell her not to stay up too late and to make sure she doesn’t watch too much TV.

When you drop her off at the front door of Death’s huge, gothic-style mansion—your only daughter—you say a silent prayer, and then you drive home to your empty house and you cry. You count the things you have, and you only have one thing and that thing is your daughter, and you fall asleep with the lights on and your work clothes on. And when you pick up your daughter from Death’s place the next morning, she is smiling and happy and tired. She says she stayed up too late, even though you told her not to. She hugs you and tells you that she had a wonderful time with Death and Death’s daughter and all of Death’s daughter’s out-of-town friends. You wish her a happy birthday, and tell her that you love her.


You read in parenting magazines that “friends” are a greater influence over an adolescent’s development than “parents” are. You wonder if this is really true.


After the conference basketball game, Death approaches you through the press of bodies making for the exit. He puts his freezing hand on your shoulder and says that the girls probably deserve ice cream after such a big win, your daughter especially, after playing such a great game! Death insists on chauffeuring the girls over to the town’s traditional post-game ice cream meet-up place himself, in his car (which is an expensive luxury SUV), and you say you’ll be following along right behind them because you’ve always been a sucker. And there goes Death, walking away from you, his daughter on one arm, your daughter on the other.


One evening, you are running late to pick your daughter up from basketball practice, but she isn’t waiting for you like she is supposed to be. You are annoyed. You wait in the parking lot. After a few minutes, Death’s daughter comes running out from the school, up to your car window, panic written across her non-existent face. You roll down your window. She says that they’ve been trying to reach you since it happened—that your daughter took a fall during practice and it looks like she has either broken or dislocated her wrist. She says that her father, Death, took charge of the situation and drove your daughter to the hospital. I ask how Death was there when it happened. He always watches us practice, Death’s daughter explains.

Death’s daughter hops into your car and the two of you drive to the hospital. Death is there in the waiting room, wringing his skeletal hands with what appears to be genuine anxiety. You finally think to look at your phone, and you see that Death has been calling you for the last hour. He looks at you gravely and says that he has been so worried you wouldn’t have gotten his messages. He says the doctors don’t yet know how serious the injury is, but they were able to admit her without your consent, which gives you some pause—how? Death gestures toward the emergency room door, he has some pull here, he tells you. He knew you’d want her seen as soon as possible—no sense making her wait around in pain just because you hadn’t gotten the message yet. You thank Death sheepishly, and he says that it is no problem. He says that he feels your daughter is somewhat his daughter as well. He has known her for so long.

You feel this irrational need to make a joke after he says this—you say something to death like: at least, you know, worst-case scenario, if she dies, YOU’RE already here. Death looks at you kind of funny and tells you to just sit down for a minute. He guides you toward a chair, but you don’t want to sit down. Death’s daughter looks concerned for you as well and she leaves to gets you a glass of water. She says not to worry because it’s probably not even broken. It didn’t look so bad when it happened.

After his daughter leaves the room, Death tells you in this confidential voice that he knows you were only kidding, but it isn’t like that. He says he’s off the clock as far as your daughter is concerned, that if your daughter died tonight or tomorrow or three years from now or thirty, he wouldn’t do anything about it. He won’t do anything about it. He says that he plans to just let her live as long as she wants because it would make his daughter happy. You look at the dark shadow where his mouth should be. How is that even possible? you ask. Death doesn’t say anything. It is only the two of you in this small waiting area, and so you decide that this is your chance, the chance you have been waiting for all these years. And you grab Death by the shoulder, you twist him around, look at me, you tell him. Death looks at you. Somewhere in the deep gelatinous darkness of Death’s hood, two faint points of light emerge. Two dull icicles you haven’t noticed before. They hang above your head like swords. And Death embraces you. He wraps his cold arms around you. Death pulls you close.


Your daughter’s wrist is fine. They discharge her after an hour with a prescription for some painkillers and a recommendation that she stay off of it for a week (though, of course, she won’t). That night, once your daughter is sleeping, you find yourself standing in your living room holding a glass of water, staring out your window into the darkness of your backyard. The light behind you makes the window into a mirror, and you see your own reflection thrown back in the darkened glass. And now it is your face, shrouded in darkness. You stare at your reflection for a long time. And, hard as you look, you cannot see your own face, only the darkness looming behind it.

Kaj Tanaka’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, The Master’s Review, Midwestern Gothic, New South and Joyland. He is the nonfiction editor at BULL Magazine.

Mark Cugini