I nearly drowned as a child.
I never quite trusted water after that. The sea was fine. The sting of a sprinkler, lashing against my shins. But pools were different. They were calm, still. An unbroken, light-dappled surface, somehow foreboding to me. I hated swimming, did whatever I could to get out of lessons. My cousins spent their summers in their pool, and I sat on the deck—hot, uncomfortable, but safe.
I didn’t trust life jackets, or snorkelers, or even my aunt, who promised she’d grab me if I went under. Death was in the cool shock of pool water. Death was in the smell of chlorine. Death was in the sound of laughter, splashing, the thwack of noodles against wet skin. Death was in the waves, their rhythm, crashing against the wood of the deck.
Death lurked at the pool’s bottom. Death waited for me in the depths. But sometimes, on a hot and muggy day, I floated.
Above me, the sun burned bright and distant, the blue of the sky perfect as a memory. There was silence and my heartbeat, silence and the water. No matter how many hands kept me upright—my aunt supporting my shoulders, my upper back; my cousins keeping my legs afloat—the hand at my ankle was stronger. If I relaxed, even for a moment, I could feel myself sinking.
“The touch of the sea is sensuous,” writes Chopin in The Awakening, “enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” I float, and the touch is relief from muggy August weather. I float, and the water laps at me—a thousand, light-dappled hands.
Sensuous, Chopin calls the sea. My ears fill with water, and death is in the silence, heartbeat distant as the sun. I wonder what death sounds like. I wonder if, when the time comes, death will call me by name.
I surface, gasping for breath. When the sun throws beams across the surface of the water, I see fingers crooked in invitation, hands tugging at me.
I have been dying my entire life.
A group of doctors thought they could predict how long I’d last. They were wrong, but not for lack of knowledge, so I live on borrowed time.
Whenever I fall sick, Death visits me in the hospital. I wake in the middle of the night, the room lit by the sliver of sky in the window, and see him in the doorway.
Now? I ask. Is it time?
Death shakes his head. Wait for me.
So I do.
In another universe, there is a pool of blood, skeins of red, a goddess of death and fate. She is the Raven Queen: a beautiful, lonely woman, with a porcelain mask and long, dark hair. She guards the moment between life and death—sacred, ritualistic, yet perverted when people bend the threads of fate to avoid their own.
The Raven Queen is a deity in the fictional world of Tal’dorei, the setting of Critical Role, a Dungeons & Dragons livestream. I find Critical Role after a few months of playing D&D. Transfixed, in love, I binge-watch hundreds of hours of content, sticking with the show until its season finale in October of 2017.
My favorite character is the half-elf rogue, Vax’ildan. Beyond our obsession with daggers and black clothes, we are nothing alike, but something about his story resonates with me. He is reckless, flighty, rushing headlong towards death. He would do anything for his sister, Vex’ahlia. When their city is decimated by a pack of dragons, Vax holds a crying Vex against his chest.
Do not go far from me, he tells her. Do not go far from me.
I won’t. Her voice breaks. I swear.
Later, Vex dies in a long-forgotten shrine to the Raven Queen. As the other members of his adventuring party, Vox Machina, scramble to resurrect her, Vax watches a dark form appear. Take me, you raven bitch, he says, clutching his sister’s body.
A moment passes.
The spectre nods at Vax.
Breath fills Vex’s lungs.
An infinite tapestry. A thousand black feathers. Vax falls into the palm of the Raven Queen, with her porcelain face, her flowing black hair. She holds a thread, Vax’s thread—pulsing, like a heartbeat.
This is you, she says, my champion. You are fate-touched. The choice is yours.
Choice: rebirth or ruin, maker or martyr. Conqueror, tyrant, or nothing.
Vax wakes up.
To commune with the goddess of death, first you must drown.
In the Raven Queen’s temple is a pool of blood. Vax walks in and is surrounded by darkness—a cold, numbing sensation, blood filling every corner and crevice.
He takes a breath. Holds it.
A moment passes. Another moment. Another.
Vax inhales, the blood filling him, his body, his seizing lungs. His instinct is to panic, to pull himself up, but he can’t seem to rise. Something keeps him in the water, the blood thick now, viscous. The pain—the pain of drowning, cold and piercing—fades, leaving warmth, a slow and steady spread. Even breathing becomes easy.
It’s natural. It’s like air.
I think of the pool, its hands, those tiny ripples of light. My ears fill with water, and death is in the silence, the rhythm of the waves. Beneath the surface I am cradled, like Vax with his lungs of blood—surrounded by darkness, yet the darkness is comforting, no longer a thing to fear. Even breathing becomes easy, which is to say not breathing, which is to say forgetting to breathe.
At one point or another, forgetting to breathe is as natural as living. The opposite of living is dying—both necessary, inevitable. Not something to be feared.
The sun dies above me. I continue to float.
I know that you hate me, the Raven Queen tells Vax. I know that you fear me. Most do, but only because they are without understanding. Without death, life has no meaning. Finality derives change, innovation, greatness.
There are those that wish to halt the process and live eternally. That is an abomination. There is also a difference between bending your thread around destiny, fate-touched, and perverting the thread entirely, for death is sacred. But not all deaths are destined. Some destinies require one to endure beyond the moment, to meet that moment many times before that final death is to come.
You, Vax’ildan. I’ve had my eye on you for some time. Your dual nature: rushing prematurely towards your end, wantonly throwing your life before the flames, only to pull away in those last moments. Instinct. You test your path constantly, without knowing you’ve been preparing for this mantle your entire life.
The mask falls away. Beneath it, a sad, beautiful woman, eyes cold and red. The sun is distant, pulsing, a heartbeat lost in water.
A kiss to Vax’s brow. My beautiful champion.
When he emerges from the pool, he emerges renewed.
It is difficult for me to float these days.
Migraines and vertigo, fatigue, chest pain. I rush from clinic to clinic, juggling appointments, emailing my doctors every few months with symptoms that, according to my latest research, suggest I have brain cancer. No one seems worried. I have a body, I am a body, my body and I fight—it’s all the same story, me and my death and the years between.
Still, I am worried. It’s not in my nature to accept things as they are. The Raven Queen calls it instinct; I call it human nature, the need to breathe, to break the surface of the water. As natural as death is, it is not as natural as life.
The difference between Vax and I is that, if I chose to drown, I would not become the champion of a god. I would be sunless. There would be no heartbeat in my ears.
But I am a romantic: I reshape the narrative until it fits my purpose. It is the only way I know to cope. So I read poetry, myths of devotion: “He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you / but he thinks / this is a lie, so he says in the end / you’re dead, nothing can hurt you / which seems to him / a more promising beginning, more true.” I conjure an image of death as a man. I imagine him a thread, red and throbbing, like the pulse of Vax’s destiny. When I look back, consider my life until this point, death is wound through—blurred, faint, but there.
I play D&D for the first time in a year. I base my character off Persephone, the girl from the poem, Hades’ child-bride, but there are differences. For Persephone, death comes quick; for Annet, my paladin, death comes in dreams, strange visions, an ache in her she cannot fill. The god of death has called her to be his champion; she travels to the ends of the Earth to find him.
In a way, Annet is fate-touched. The leader of my group, the Dungeon Master, often jokes that our characters fit the narrative perfectly—almost as though it were fated.
I am a romantic. Stories help me cope. I wrestle with this, the eventuality of it, my drawn-out dying. I’m terrified of death. But we dance, the two of us, as we have for years—a quiet, understated waltz, water glinting on the horizon. I feel myself soften, give into the touch at my ankle. I am not ready to die, but if death is my mantle, perhaps I can learn to carry it.
I still do not float.
Meanwhile, Vax wrestles his own deaths. Vecna, a lich, aspires to godhood, and Vox Machina works to defeat him. Desperate to prevent him from ascending, they attack the king on unfamiliar turf. Vax falls in battle, and is met beyond the veil by the Raven Queen herself.
Your body is ash, and your soul is steeped in the divine energies that uphold the paths between life and death. You’ve earned your eternal rest.
The mask of the Raven Queen fades away. Vax is left with a choice.
In the real world, I am preoccupied with death. I burst into tears at random times, have anxiety attacks over the smallest, most inane things. I spend hours in bed, imagining that moment, my final descent into water. I grasp the people I love like I’m about to lose them, sit with moments—my father’s laugh, my best friend’s voice—like they are my last.
Death feels closer than ever. I grieve prematurely, convinced I am dying. When winter turns to spring, the sun feels distant, cool against my skin. My heartbeat thuds in my ears.
Vax has a choice: resign to die, or fight to live.
He, like me, is not ready to leave the people he loves. The face of the Raven Queen, unmasked and beautiful, gives way to darkness, but Vax calls her back. I will not leave them behind.
I think of my mother, teeth bared and sparkling.
The Raven Queen gives him a choice: What I offer you is the power to see this conflict through to its end. You will be briefly beyond the very grasp of death, and I will hold back any attempt for you to transition. You will be a bulwark of my power in cold flesh, walking between heartbeats, unstoppable. But when it’s done and this foul, undying king lies dead or sealed, you will return to me, my champion, evermore.
In the end, there is no choice. How could there be?
Vax returns to the land of living, only he is different, changed by his brush with death. He is cold to the touch. He bleeds, but his wounds heal faster than normal, body untouched by the passage of time.
It reminds me of my own deaths. All the times I’ve stared up at the ceiling, the florescent lights of the hospital. As a child, I would leave school for weeks, sometimes months at a time, avoiding the fall colds, the spring flus. I always came back different: uncertain of my body, where my body should be, how it should act; flinching at the fire alarm, the sound of my own voice. It all seemed pointless—the tests and gossip, the social anxiety. Insignificant.
Some destinies require one to endure beyond the moment, the Raven Queen told Vax, to meet that moment many times before that final death is to come. Every time I’m hospitalized, I meet that moment: Death in the doorway, draped in shadow. The veil falls, and everything that used to matter no longer does.
To see Yahweh, Moses hid in the crevice of a rock so the glory of God would not kill him. Later, when Moses descended from Mount Sinai, having seen only a sliver of God’s true form, anyone who looked upon his unveiled face perished, for it shone so brightly. When Jacob—son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham—wrestled with God made flesh, he walked away limping.
To commune with Death, Vax drowned in a pool of blood. He surfaced the champion of the Raven Queen, gifted strength, flight, the blessings of a goddess. Later, when Death came to claim his life, he left with stolen time, assurance in his fate. All his life he’d been running from death; now, coming face-to-face with the thing he feared most, there was nothing left in him but confidence.
When you taste the divine, you are not just changed; you are touched by fate.
It’s a harder choice to come back, the bard, Scanlan, tells Vax. It’s easier to walk away.
The moments come quicker these days, or maybe it’s just that I notice them more easily; maybe I have finally learned the lines of Death’s face. I am always anxious, my body always ready for that final moment, my final death. When I am sick, I am dying; when I am healthy, I am preparing myself for the next time I am sick. It’s a cycle I haven’t yet learned to break free from.
It’s easier to walk away. To shut down. On bad days, I barely manage to get out of bed. I shower reluctantly, cringing at the heat of the water, the shock of cool air. I spend the day online, refreshing Tumblr, scrolling through Pinterest. Wait for me, Death said, so I do.
On bad days, the sea is sensuous. I give into the hand at my ankle, the water lapping at my ear. I close my eyes against the sun, sink into the waves, and float.
But then I think of Vax. I will not leave them behind, he said, looking up at the face of his queen. It’s a startling image: a wiry half-elf, staring defiantly into the darkness, cupped in the palm of a giant, pale hand. Compared to a goddess, Vax is nothing. Compared to eternity, I am nothing—my life a hiccup, a fraying red thread. How do you stand for life, I wonder, when you belong to death?
I will not leave them behind, Vax told the Raven Queen. His sister, Vex. Keyleth, the woman he loves, and Scanlan, his very best friend.
It’s a harder choice to come back. To live in the tension between life and death—to embody it; to reconcile the opposites in this body, my body, my living body that dies still. But I do it anyway, as Vax did, for my family, the people I can’t yet leave behind.
To be fate-touched is not to change the weave of destiny, but to see the web itself. To see the moments, all the little deaths, and resist the urge to pluck the threads—to pick, pick, until the web unravels.
To be fate-touched is to dance with Death. Together, we waltz between heartbeats, the music like water in my ears. The song ends, we return to our separate corners, and we wait.
To be fate-touched is not to die, but to live while dying.
Vecna defeated, his family safe and well, the Raven Queen comes for him. You have done well, my champion. Say your goodbyes, then come join my side.
Vox Machina ranges from devastated to defiant. His sister’s husband, Percival, is ready to fight the Raven Queen for Vax’s soul: I do not accept this. His lover, Keyleth, is already grieving: It’s not fair. His best friend, Scanlan, regrets: I wish I could’ve done more.
His sister, Vex, is lost: I don’t know how to live.
They plead with the goddess of death. Vax saved the world, they say. Doesn’t he deserve a few more years? Just a few, please, god—
A year or so ago, when I was experiencing unidentified, and ultimately unexplained, chest pain, things were bad. Things are bad now. But I remember staring up at the popcorn ceiling of my basement bedroom and thinking how very lucky I was to be alive.
I thought of Death, our quartets in the square. The day I almost drowned. Pneumonia, the flu, nights in the ICU. All the surgeries I thought would kill me, my vision blurring as the anesthesia took hold. The time I fell out of my chair. Anaphylaxis. Every breath I take, each one a potential death, yet none of them the final one. I have been dying this entire time, I thought, and yet I am here.
And yet. The fate-touched of phrases. I am dying, and yet I am happy. I will die someday, and yet I live now—no longer afraid of death, but confident in its inevitability.
I thought of my father, the rough skin of his palm against my own, his voice caught in my hair. I thought of my mother. How, when she’s happy, she snorts her laughter, head thrown back, hair gleaming gold. I thought of my cat, curled against my collarbone, whiskers in my nose. All the people who love me, all the people I love—
To be fate-touched is to be greedy with life. To ask for more, even if more means looking into the eyes of a god, means walking away with a limp.
Grog the barbarian asks if Vax is afraid.
The champion of the Raven Queen looks out over his family: his sister, Vex; his lover, Keyleth; his friend, Scanlan.
Vax shakes his head. How could he be? With such love in his life, how could he be anything but grateful?
How lucky I have been, he says, voice breaking, to have had all of you. How lucky indeed.
Vax dies his final death, walking into the light.
I am fate-touched, and so I float.
The surface of a pool is taut: a thousand drops of water; an interwoven mass of tension. I imagine Death and I in a similar position, the dance steps intricate, a push and pull. We meet in the center of the dance floor, we spin for a song, and then we glide apart. The music slows, the lights dim, and we wait for the next moment, the next death to come.
I float. Water fills my ears, tugging at me constantly. When the hand at my ankle tightens its grip, I let it. I sink into the water, knowing I will drown one day, knowing I will die—and yet, for now, I float.
The sun burns above me, white-bright, angry. I let it warm me. And when my cousins laugh, slapping each other with waterlogged noodles, I blink my eyes open. I see my parents: my mother, with her golden curls; my father, teeth bared in laughter. I see my friends, their threads glowing in my web of red—pulsing, like a heartbeat. I see the people I love, my family—
I think of Vax. Always running from death, only to find himself somehow unafraid.
How lucky I have been, I think, to have had all of you. Even the little deaths, walking between heartbeats, limping from my wrestle with God. How lucky indeed.