Deal with a Dead Man

Afton Reed, University of Texas at El Paso


Often, a story is sparked because of asking the question, “what if?” which is what happened to create the hydra that is Deal with a Dead Man. Two percolating ideas happened to coincide, and eventually crashed together. Early on, it began when I was introduced to the Russian fairytale of Koschei the Deathless and his fear of death, but inability to enjoy life. Over the past year, my family experienced several deaths, one tragically early, and another of ripe old age. My fascination with the fairytale grew as I watched myself and family members react in different, even opposite, ways to death. A little later, while working with my teenage creative writing students a very specific character emerged; a boy named Curi who could see everyone’s moment of death and found himself employed by a man who was already dead. Looking back, I was projecting my own conflicting attitudes about death into Curi’s creation, and I never intended him to be anything else except a teaching demonstration. However, my students wanted to know more, wanted to know where the boy’s story would go. It was then a new question emerged: what if Koschei, the deathless sorcerer, originally had help to become deathless? In the fairytale he’s obviously not very good at being a loner, as he continually steals princesses and fair maids to keep him company. This new character, Curi, seemed to know the answers, not only to the sorcerer’s dilemma, but my own morbid questions. The two morphed, Curi’s employer taking on a role similar to that of the fairytale sorcerer, searching for a way to never taste of death for a second time, and young Curi discovering exactly what his own relationship to death and life meant. Deal with a Dead Man is a fantasy novel in the tradition of exploring fairytales from a different perspective, the interplay between opposites such as death and life, and the hero’s universal struggles in choosing a correct path.First and foremost, the question arises, why write a fantasy? I have often been told it is not a serious genre, that it is something to be read when you don’t want to think. I speculate that this attitude became ingrained during the 1960s and 1970s when works such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, as well as others, made their way into popular culture. The rise of movies and animation, Disney being the reigning champion, reinvented traditional fairytales and marketed them for all audiences, especially children, thereby helping to entrench the attitude that myths, fairytales, and fantasy, were less than serious. Now, are these stories entertaining? Yes. Did their authors and creators set out to do more than tell a compelling story? Not necessarily. However, there is something to be said for providing an escapist space for a reader to explore life’s difficulties divorced from an accurate similitude of reality.Not long ago, the British Library hosted a conversation between Neil Gaiman and Roz Kaveney entitled, “Why We Need Fantasy: Neil Gaiman in Conversation.” Kaveney expresses that “fantasy is a way of making things more real than the real,” while Gaiman explains that he enjoys making metaphors concrete. They discuss how fantasy is a “reconciliation of the mundane and the miraculous” (“Why We Need Fantasy”). Peter Beagle provides an excellent example of this as he frequently addresses the subject of regret and mortality; two very real things that are made more real through the lens of a fantasy. The character of the unicorn states, “’I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die…I regret’” (Beagle 289). The reader is asked not only to examine their own regrets and desires, but what it would be like not to have them. Through the use of a mythical, immortal unicorn, Beagle is able to express something very basically human in a manner that speaks to our imagination, and even to a level of spirituality. This is what a fantasy can do.In my own life, fantasy has always made it simpler to examine reality as a whole; the known and the unknown, tangible and intangible, all at once. Faced with my speculations on one of the world’s greatest unknowns, death, I have needed to employ imagination. As Einstein once said, “’Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world’” (Lachman 127). To be fair, Einstein is referring more to imagination as an essential of scientific discovery. However, fantasy allows me to imagine a reality in which death, and life, can be treated more tangibly, where I can make “metaphor[s] concrete” (“Why We Need Fantasy”).The characters of Curi and Lord Vasilik provide two opposing perspectives on the theme of death. On the one hand, Curi accepts that death is inevitable. Lord Vasilik rejects such inevitability, having already died, and come back. He continues to “live,” seemingly without consequence, although upon first meeting him, Curi says there is “a palpable wrongness to him that grated and crashed against my every nerve” (Reed 24). He cannot deny that Lord Vasilik has turned what he knows to be impossible on its head. He is left to question, what does death mean, what really happens after that initial moment of dying, and are there consequences of avoiding death. The hope is that Curi’s opinions of death gradually shift from an indifference to a more active understanding, and in contrast, Curi must begin to consider what he wants in life. While delving more deeply into the theme of death, and Curi’s journey with it, I realized that the story was full of polar opposites that emphasize the immediate conflict of life and death. In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler discusses how both in life and in a story, “Unity begets duality; the existence of one implies the possibility of two” (385). Vogler goes on to describe the polarized system, positive and negative, as two ends of a single line. “These polarities create potential for contrast, challenge, conflict, and learning. As the polarized nature of magnetic fields can be used to generate electrical energy, polarity in a story seems to be an engine that generates tension and movement in the characters and a stirring of emotions in the audience” (386). How do these opposites present within Deal with a Dead Man, and how do they also work in shaping the characters and story? One of the main ways life and death come to be highlighted throughout the story is constant references to the forces of day and night, light and darkness. Most of the story takes place at night, which in turn forces the characters to constantly make use of candles and fires to see, or wait for daylight. For example, as the story begins, Curi wakes from a nightmare and cannot get rid of it until dawn.The sky was lightening, the tree trunks beginning to change from dead black to frosted, ash-browns. I picked a fallen log and sat down, drawing my feet up out of the snow, and watched the eastern sky fade white with dawn. The heavy stillness of the night vanished with the shadows the moment the sun slivered over the horizon, allowing me to let go of the last vestiges of the dream.I needed to head back. Like most towns, the majority of Avishki’s population were up with the sun, and I had a job to do. I slid off the log, crouched and drew a sunflower in the snow with my finger, acknowledging the Bright gods influence in another day (Reed 4).Curi is inundated with juxtaposing symbolism, constantly using language to emphasize what he knows to be the natural order. Even the deities are categorized into bright or dark, supposedly making the world easy to understand. But again, the entrance of Lord Vasilik, his request, and duality of both death and life, blur the dual extremes, forcing Curi to reconsider what he knows and figure out where on the spectrum he is.As a compliment to the themes and dualities, consideration must be...

Subject Area

Creative writing

Recommended Citation

Reed, Afton, "Deal with a Dead Man" (2024). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI31293611.