Friday, March 11, 2011

Godfather Death

Death is a pretty common theme in fairy tales, but there have been only a hand full of stories about Death. One noteable exception is "Godfather Death" by the Brothers Grimm. My telling, however, incorporates elements from a few other stories, including “Death’s Messengers” and “The Wonderful Glass” also by the Brothers Grimm and clearly descendants of the same ancestral story.

I have, in the past, been criticized for this blog's pro-happy ending stance. Certain readers have indicated that my reworking of otherwise unhappy tales is "giving them diabetes," to paraphrase one specific unsolicited review. If you are one of these who are disatisfied with happy endings, I reccomend that this week's entry be the last that you read. I also reccomend you avoid fairy tales entirely and read grown up books, pausing only briefly to wonder what made you think you'd find morbid material in a collection of what are, essentially, childrens' stories.

However, if for no other reason than to prove to my friend that I can write dark stories, I just choose not to because they are bummers, I offer this week's story. A sort of morality play on the subject of avoiding, outsmarting, and conquering one of the admittedly few things that every single living creature on this planet has in common.

Everything that lives, dies. This is the way of the world, and cannot be changed nor altered in any way. Death, with his sweeping black cloak, his cold, empty eyes and his beckoning hand, can be delayed, of course, through good health and security, but even then, he might have an unforseen trick up his sleeve. But we shouldn't fear his coming. We should just make sure that the life we live before he arrives has been a good one, as this has so far proved to be the only thing that makes knowledge of Death's arrival easier to handle: A life well-lived. Avoid, Death, certainly. But don't try to conquer him. That is the mistake made by the Death's Godsons.

The father of these infamous young men was traveling much further and much longer than he should have at his age when he come upon a figure lying prone by the side of the road. Without a thought, he rushed over to see if he could help the man. Had he paused, he might've noticed that the only things protruding from the figure's black, black cloak were the hands and feet of a skeleton. But it was not until he had helped the spectre to its feet that this man realized that he was in the presence of Death himself. And, like virtually all men before and since, he feared the cloaked figure immensely.

“I was waiting on this road for you, old man,” said Death, “when I was set upon by a pack of wild dogs. That is how I came to be hurt when you found me. But now, you must come with me, for your time is nigh.” The old man continued to shiver and sweat, but he nodded his acceptance to Death. “However,” said Death after a moment's thought, “you did help me when you had no reason to, and for that I believe I owe you. I shall be godfather to your three sons,” (it didn't occur to the man to ask how Death knew of his sons), “and to each I shall give a great gift. A powerful, unique item which will ensure their great fortune for the rest of their days.” The man thanked Death and went to his reward peacefully, knowing, at least, that his sons would be all right.

Death has been called many things, but he could not be called a liar. He was as good as his word. He bestowed upon his godsons three objects of unparalleled power. To Tom, the eldest son, he gave a small glass full to the brim with water which, though quite cool to the touch, appeared to be perpetually boiling. “If you come across a person on their sick bed,” he explained, “look at them through the water in this glass. And if you see me at the foot of the bed, then they can be cured by sprinkling them with water from the glass. But if I am at the head of the bed, then it is too late, and I must have them.”

Philip, the middle son, received a magic sack. “Bid any animal get inside,” came Death's explanation, “and they will do so, and stay in the sack until you let them out.” Philip asked if it would work for men just as well. “Man is an animal, too,” was Death's sinister reply.

Finally, there was Harold. Harold, the youngest of the three, was the closest to their father and took the news of his passing the hardest of all. To him, Death gave a magic mirror to hang in his home. “If you miss your father, or any deceased person, simply think of them while looking in this mirror, and they will be reflected as though they are standing next to you. You can talk to them, ask them questions, but they can never leave the mirror.”

“Thank you,” said Harold, the first brother to do so, upon receiving his gift. “I'll use it well.”

Tom used the magic glass to become a great Healer. From all over the country, people would come to him with their ailing friends and relations and beg him for help. So he would go the sickbed, and look at them through his magic glass. And when he found Death at the foot of the bed, he sprinkled the cool, boiling water over the patient and they would be instantly cured. But when he found his godfather at the head of the bed, he told the family that there was nothing he could do, that the patient was beyond help. Of course, some people were upset to hear this and got angry with Tom, but most, knowing his power from his reputation, understood that if he said he couldn't help, he could not help, and thanked him for his time and counsel.

And all was going well for Tom, until the fateful day when he fell in love. He was taking a drink at a tavern when the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen burst in. “Are you the great healer? My father is very ill. Please, come quickly!”

Happy to help, espeically one so beautiful, Tom followed her to her father's bed. He took out his magic glass and looked through...and, alas, there sat Death at the head of the bed. The old man's time had come, and he, Tom, had to accept that. But he could not bring himself to let down this woman who was counting on him. So he hastily ordered, much to the confusion of the assembled, that the old man be turned in his bed, and his head placed at the foot of the bed, and his feet placed at the head. When this was done, Tom looked once again through his glass, and there, sitting at what was now the foot of the bed, was Death, looking furious. But the water was sprinkled and the old man revived. He was so pleased to be cured that he at once offered Tom his daughter's hand in marriage.

It was the happiest moment of Tom's life...but when he was alone again, he looked into the magic glass and in the bubbling water he saw his godfather looking back at him. “How dare you defy my will!” Death cried. “You know the rules. When I mark someone, they are mine, and you must not interfere. I will forgive you this time, but do not let this happen again!” The water bubbled more fiercely and the image of Death dissolved.

But Tom wasn't worried about his godfather's threat. He married the beautiful woman, lived in a beautiful home, had three beautiful children and lived a truly beautiful life...but Tom was tempted once again when he was called to the home of a poor old woman with many children who depended on her to survive. And when he looked through the glass, Death was at the head of her bed. Out of a desire to be merciful and spare these poor children, Tom once again cheated Death out of another soul and cured the old woman. The water in the glass bubbled fiercely and overflowed, spilling on Tom's hands and burning them, though the water in the glass remained cool.

A few years passed and Tom, his burn long ago healed, had once again forgotten all about Death's warnings. Until the terrible day when his own son took ill. And Tom knew that Death was challenging him, daring him to defy his will a third time and his son was just a pawn in Death's twisted game. Filled with the fury of a father protecting his son, Tom sent word to his brother, Philip, to come and see his ailing nephew...and to bring his sack.

Philip arrived only a few days later. In the intervening years he had become a successful hunter, thanks to the magic of his sack. The rarest and most elusive game walked willingly into his sack at his command. He had a wife and children of his own and they wanted for nothing. But when Philip heard of the cruel trick Death was playing on Tom and his family, he was just as angry as his brother. And the two of them went to the boy's sick bed. And Tom looked through his magic glass. And there was Death, standing at the head of the boy's bed with a sickening smile on his skeleton face. And Philip looked through the glass too and cried out, “Death! Get into my sack!” Death had no choice. He climbed into Philip's sack. Philip tied it shut at once and he and Tom took it outside, promising to tie the sack to a high tree branch and never let him out again.

“No!” cried Death from inside the sack. “I beg of you, let me out! Let me out! Do you not know what the world would be like without me? If I cannot claim the souls of the deceased, then everyone will live forever. The world will get so full up that there won’t be room for everyone. I must perform my duties!”

“We will release you, Godfather,” said Tom, with cruelty poured into each word. “But you are to leave me alone from now on.”

“I shall,” said Death and the brothers released him. “Perhaps,” said Death as he departed, “in the future you will learn to choose your words with greater care.” And with no further explanation, he was gone.

Of course, Tom's son was cured at once. The whole family was glad of this and Philip took his magic sack and headed for his own home, to tell his own wife and children of the good news. But when Tom looked at his magic glass again, he found the water was still. The bubbles had gone. He put his finger in. The water was tepid, room temperature. It was just an ordinary glass filled with ordinary water. And suddenly the meaning of Death's parting words became clear to him. He had chosen his words poorly and Death had sworn to leave Tom alone from now on.

The years passed and there was sickness, and injury, but always recovery. The children grew and left, starting families of their own. Tom and his wife grew very, very old together before she finally succumbed to Death and passed away. In time, Tom's brothers passed away and left their treasures to him. More time passed and even his children had grown old and gone with Death to the next world. But Death would not come for Tom. He grew old, he grew sick, he grew weak. But Death would not come for Tom. He sat alone in his home, with no one and nothing to comfort him, except an empty glass, a burlap sack and a mirror.

Tom looked at himself in the mirror. His face was lined and gray and, were he not moving, a stranger might well think he had died years ago. He could not help but think of his brothers, and as soon as he did, there they were, reflected in the mirror on either side of him and, without thinking, Tom looked to see if they were actually standing next to him. Then he turned back to the mirror. “At least we can see each other again,” he said. His eye fell to his younger brother, Harold, who was smiling warmly at him. “Tell me, brother,” Tom said, “how did you manage to live so happily and so well. Why were you not burdened with Death’s gifts as I was?”

“I used the mirror to speak to our father, and other deceased persons. From them I gained wisdom and knowledge which helped me to lead a long, fulfilling life. And when my father appeared in the mirror and told me that my godfather had come for me, I accepted it. I didn’t fight, I didn’t beg for more time. I simply went with Death when he arrived.”

“Death,” said Philip, sagely, “is not so terrible or difficult or frightful as life.”


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • "Jim Henson's The Storyteller" (TV) The episode "The Soldier and Death" uses  elements from the same stories I culled from. It is based on an old Russian fable, which may have been the ancestral story I alluded to in my introduction.
  • "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" by J.K. Rowling. In this companion volume to her 'Harry Potter' series, Ms. Rowling gives us five fairy tales such as wizarding children might have heard while we were hearing Snow White and Cinderella. The best of these is, in my opinion, "The tale of the Three Brothers" which features prominently in the last Potter novel, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Perhaps the Grimm story inspired Ms. Rowling with the idea of Death bestowing gifts on humans which are then used to try and outdo him.
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