A Retellling: Death's Messengers
A Tale from the Brothers Grimm
Retold by Bird
Long ago, Death was walking down the road. All of a sudden, a giant came running up behind Death. The Giant grabbed Death by the shoulder and whirled him around.
"You!" cried the Giant. "I know you. "I've been chasing you for days and days and now I've finally caught up to you. You took my wife. I hate you for that!" The Giant's face was red with rage and he began to batter Death with his fists and kick Death with his booted feet. The Giant was strong and Death seemed as a rag doll, flopping and rolling in the dusty road.
When the Giant had spent his rage, he left Death lying on the road, beaten, battered, bruised. To this day, no one knows where the Giant went, nor how he fared in his life.
Along down the road came a handsome young man of kind and generous heart. He was a good natured soul, trusting and naive. Now he saw a stranger, lying wounded in the road. The young man took no wonder at the stranger's black robes and boots, nor of the black, thorny crown lying in the road next to him. Nor did the young man question either the grim visage of the strangerÂs face, nor the thick, black book the stranger groped for.
"Here friend, let me help you," said the young man. He picked up the crown and gently placed it back on Death's head. He tucked the book under one arm and with the other, he helped Death to his feet. "My home is not far. Come with me."
The young man took Death into his own home and nursed him back to health. He washed and bandaged Death's wounds and gave Death a clean nightshirt to wear. Broth he spooned into Death's mouth, never noticing the dark, brooding face before him, never wondering who this stranger was. The young man washed the black robe and hung it on the apple tree in the yard to dry. Then he folded it carefully, and after cleaning the black crown, set it gently atop the folded robe on his dresser. He dusted off the large, black book and set it next to the robe and crown. "When you are well," he told his guest, "these will be here for you." But the young man never wondered what the black crown could mean, nor did he look in the book.
It was only when Death was fully recovered and replaced the nightshirt with his own black robe and crown that the young man finally recognized his guest.
"Who is this I have helped?" asked the young man, his voice trembling.
"Finally you recognize me." Death replied. "I wondered if you were either a fool or, unlike other mortals, had some understanding of my manner and methods."
"Perhaps I am a fool," said the young man. "Yet I know well of your manner and methods. You come often for the old and the sick. Sometimes even the young. You are a cruel and heartless thing."
"Cruel and heartless has nothing to do with it. Don't presume to know me," said Death.
"Why did you let the Giant beat you?" asked the young man. "You could have taken him away, just as you do the others. I don't understand you at all" said the young man.
"You are not alone in that. Most mortals don't understand me. I act in my own accord, in my own time, by my own ethics" said Death. "It was not time for the Giant to leave this life."
"But he was beating you. Why didn't you simply take him away?"
"What you mortals do on this earth is of no consequence to me. Were you not listening? It was not time for the Giant to die, so I endured the beating."
The young man remained silent for a while. His throat tightened. He swallowed, then swallowed again. He licked his lips and asked, "And is it my time now? Are you here to take me away?"
"It is not your time."
"But sooner or later you will come for me, won't you?"
"Yes," said Death. "Sooner or later, I will indeed come for you."
"I helped you. I nursed you back to health. Surely that must count for something?" said the young man.
"You still do not understand," sighed Death. "Even though you have helped me, when your time comes, I must take you. But I promise you, before that day arrives, as recompense for your kindness I will send you my messengers three. Watch for them and pay them heed, for if you do, not only will you prepare yourself for my coming, but you will learn how to live as well." Then Death walked out of the house and back into the wide world to do as he would.
Years passed, but the young man took no note of them until suddenly it seemed he was no longer a young man, but had reached his middle years. He was amazed that as if overnight, he had gained a few pounds that he could not easily take off. He moved just a little bit slower than before. He noticed also that he had to squint now to read. But the middle-aged man did not dwell on these matters. He contented himself with his lot, and without giving these changes a second thought, he went about his life.
Time passed. The middle-aged man grew older, but he took no note of the passing years. He whistled daily as he went about his business; he ruffled the hair of children in the village, but he never did he notice that the children grew up and were replaced by other children. It was all the same to him, as long as there were children with hair to ruffle.
And then one day, the middle-aged man grew quite sick. He lay ill for many weeks with fever and chills, and it took many more weeks for the middle-aged man to regain his health. But he did, and he went back about his life again, though he did not notice how much slower he moved, nor how his hair had thinned, nor that he was now forgetful of small, daily things.
And then suddenly it seemed the middle-aged man grew older and older, until he was quite elderly. He had trouble hearing; his eyesight faded, a few of his teeth fell out. He was only able to eat gruel and soft-boiled vegetables. He became weak and frail and spent his time sitting in a rocker on his porch, watching the days pass. Yet as the days passed, he made no note of how the leaves on the trees changed color and dropped off one by one. And so it seemed to the old man as if winter had suddenly come upon him without forewarning.
One day, as the old man sat on the porch in his rocking chair, a blanket across his knees, his head nodded and he fell asleep. Suddenly, there was a tap upon his shoulder. The old man looked up to see Death standing before him.
"It is time." Death said.
"But how can that be?" asked the old man. "I know I am old and weak and feeble, but I have not received your messengers as you promised. How can it be time?"
Death shook his head. "You have not received my messengers?"
"No, I have not." said the old man.
"No?" asked Death. "Did I not send to you, some time long ago, my messenger, Middle-Age? Did he not bring a certain slowness and heaviness to your body? And did he not bring also, if you had but noticed, an older and wiser judgment for your use?"
The old man thought for a bit and then answered. "I did not give it much thought at the time, but I suppose you are right."
"And did not I also send to you my messenger, Sickness?" asked Death. "Did you not have fever and chills, and did it not take quite a time for you to recover? Time I gave you to ponder and reflect if you would?"
"I didn't give it much thought at the time," said the old man. "But I suppose you are right."
"And did I not send you my third messenger, Old Age, who stole away bits of your hearing, your sight, and your teeth? Did that not warn you of my coming?"
"Yes," the old man agreed. "That is true, I cannot hear and see as well as I once did, and my teeth are falling out, one by one. But I had not given it much thought."
"And everyday of your life, even before we met in the road, I have also sent to you my own brother, Sleep, that you might be reminded of me." said Death. "And thus, I sent more than the promised three,; I sent you four messengers. Did you not pay any heed to these messengers? In all this life you have lived, did you not learn how to live? Did you not prepare yourself at all for this moment?"
The old man pondered these words and then slowly shook his head. "I have given no thought to any of this; I have not prepared myself. And I have let the time slip past me without notice. You sent your messengers, but I was not listening."
"Prepare yourself now then" said Death.
The old man sat in his rocker. He gazed at the pale, winter-blue sky arching overhead. He noted that all the leaves were gone from the trees, only barren, gray branches remained, stretching upward to the pitiless sky. He thought of the children in the village, whose hair he had ruffled, but whose faces he had never bothered to etch into his mind's eye. Painstakingly, he created in his mind a picture of their faces and of the village on a spring morning, when the birds chirped in the trees and the young housewives hurried to the marketplace. He looked down at his hands and noted how worn they were, how feebly they rested in his lap. He though of his guest long ago, whom he nursed back to health and he looked at the dark figure before him and realized how much Death's face now looked like his own.
"Even if I had listened," said the old man, "I still would not have been prepared. But I am ready now."
And so the old man reconciled himself to his fate, and with dignity and grace, rose out of his chair and followed Death away from this world.
Birdstory Publications 2005