Gertrude coughed, a deep racking cough, as she ushered out the last of her photography customers.
It had been a long day and the coughing and pain in her chest that had dogged her for the last month didn’t make it any easier to bear. Gertrude wondered if this cough could be something more than a cold but her meager earnings from taking photos of matronly women and their children barely permitted her to keep food on the table let alone afford a doctor visit.
She was turning the wooden sign from open to closed on her shop door when the cloaked and hooded figure approached.
Gertrude’s shoulders sagged. She didn’t have the energy to deal with any more customers. She flipped the sign and hoped the person would take the hint and leave.
The cloaked figure knocked on the door, ignoring the sign. Gertrude pointed to the sign but the figure held up two large silver coins. The coins were each half as wide as Gertrude’s palm and had strange, ancient looking markings on them. This was not coin of the realm but if they were real silver, and they looked like it, Gertrude realized that the person was offering very valuable coins.
She left the sign as closed but threw the bolt and opened the door.
“It is very late,” she said.
Gertrude hesitated, she had not seen the person’s face. The cloak and hood made the sex of her customer impossible to determine, she was unsure whether sir or ma’am was the proper form of address.
The figure waggled the two coins.
“A rare token for your time madame,” he said. The voice was deep as if it came from the bottom of a well but clearly her mysterious customer was male.
“Of course sir. Would you please have a seat and I’ll prepare the camera.”
The man glided across the room and lowered himself into the chair before the camera. The only visible part of the man was his left hand. It was smooth and uncalloused, clearly not the hand of a laborer.
“Sir,” Gertrude said. “How would you prefer this portrait to be framed? Can I take your cloak?”
“No dear lady, I prefer to retain my cloak. The image will be perfect as I currently present myself.”
It was a strange request, most customers would never hide their faces. That was the point of a photo portrait was it not, preserving ones features for eternity? But the customer was always right and Gertrude would not complain with such a valuable form of payment.
She coughed as she prepared the camera and doubled over with the violence of the coughing and the pain that tore through her thin chest. Gertrude persevered and soon the camera was ready. She took up the trigger cord and faced her customer.
“Are you ready sir?” She coughed again.
“Join me my dear,” he said. “I would have your lovely face in my portrait.”
“That would not be appropriate sir.”
Again the man waggled the silver coins and beckoned. Gertrude looked at the coins and then with a nod walked to join the man before the camera.
“Place your hand upon my arm and join me in attaining immortality.”
Gertrude touched the man’s sleeve and pressed the button to trigger the camera. She felt the pain in her chest recede as if the cold cloth of the man’s cloak somehow pulled the consumption from her body.
“Come now Gertrude, it is time to leave,” the man said.
Gertrude was confused, she would not leave with some strange man no matter the payment. Her customer pushed his cowl back revealing his skeletal features and held the coins up for her to take.
“You will need this for the boatman,” he said and took her hand.
Gertrude numbly followed Death but cast one forlorn look back at her shop only to see her wasted form crumpled on the floor beside the chair where she had immortalized so many customers.
In the morning Gertrude’s son would find the camera plate exposed and would develop it, wondering at his mother’s final piece of art. He screamed in horror at the wasted figure of his mother standing with the Grim Reaper. He burned the image and the plate as well as the camera that had captured it. He never again touched a camera as long as he lived.