Watchin’ My Stories: The Boy Who Was Death
I wrote this fairy tale a few years ago and never really found the right home for it (I read it aloud in front of a group of well-meaning parents and their baffled kids at the Evanston Ethnic Arts Festival, but you can probably imagine their reaction). Here it is for your bedtime fun.
Once upon a time, there was a Boy Who Was Death.
This was very long ago, so long that the sun shone differently than it does today. In these times, it was very cold in the south of the world and it would grow hot as one traveled further north. And though it was still darkest at midnight and brightest at noon, those words had not yet been coined and people reckoned time not by clocks by by the passage of the sun. There were then still great animals walking the earth, huge and silent; they would cross the land but twice a year, once east to give birth and once west to die. Their passage was to men as the passage of man is to insects. So you can see that this was a very long time ago indeed.
In those days death was everywhere, and not held in the greedy hands of a few the way it is today. Death came and went and was here and there, and one was likely to see it any old place one went. Any journey of three days and you were sure to see one death or another. For this was in the days when there were all sorts of death. It was not in the days when everyone had his own death — that was a very long time ago indeed! But today, everyone things death is the same, and we all have the same death. This was not always true, in the cold forests of the south where I set me tale: then, there were a thousand deaths, and each went hither and thither.
One day, to the cottage of a wheelwright, came the Boy Who Was Death. Here the wheelwright, whose name may have been Carter, lived with his wife and young son, a boy even younger than the Boy Who Was Death. Carter and his wife loved their son very much, but they greedily wished for another. Such was denied them by fate and thus they doted on the one they had, calling him dear words and spoiling him with meats and candies. The son was called Edward and the mother was Kate, and together they were happy, in their simple home. Edward would study his chapbooks (for he was a bright boy, though soft and slow in his body), while Kate would make a stew and Carter would repair the wheels of a drover’s wagon to earn their next week’s meals. All was content, and save for the wanting of a brother for Edward, they suffered no need in life. It was to this pass that came the Boy Who Was Death.
Fair of face he was, with jet hair and a perkish nose, and looked right and handsome except when he smiled. Then he would assume a wicked mien and his teeth would show, and they were the teeth of an animal. The Boy Who Was Death stood outside the window and called to Kate. “Mother!”, he cried. “Mother, I am here! Come out to me!”
Kate was overjoyed; so great was her desire for a brother for Edward that she must have thought him sent by God as a blessing on their house. As she ran to the door to go and embrace him, the Boy Who Was Death smiled, and her husband and son saw his face. “Do not go to him, wife,” warned Carter, “for I have seen his smile, and it is like a wolf’s.” In these days wolves were said to walk the roads in the form of men, to get their daily meat.
“You are wrong, wheelwright,” called the Boy Who Was Death. “For I am not a wolf nor yet a man. I am Death, and your wife will come to me still.” With this, he came away from the window, and stood beneath a great chestnut tree. Still smiling his smile, which was that of a beast on the hunt, he waited and waited for the woman to come.
Many days and nights passed, and as it would in the south, the weather became weary cold. The smile on the face of the Boy Who Was Death remained, but he became shook with hunger and chills. Soon enough it began to rain, and as Carter sat at the hearth and whittled, he ceased to heed his wife, who became overcome with pity. “He is, after all, only a boy,” she thought, “not so different from our only son, who I would not have suffer cold.” So it was that she ran out to the Boy Who Was Death, and it was then than he had her.
In great despair did the wheelwright and his son bury Kate beneath the great chestnut tree. Carter wept over her cold grave in the cold ground, while up above, in the tops of the branches so high that no one could reach him, the Boy Who Was Death taunted him. Each day when the wheelwright would come outside to work, the Boy Who Was Death called down to him: “You will no more marry, wheelwright,” he would say, smiling his animal smile and laughing a wicked laugh. “I am Death, and I have your wife. Soon I will have you too.”
One day, Carter could bear the taunts no more. Fetching a length of rope he used to tie bundles, he set out to climb the great chestnut tree and bind up the Boy Who Was Death. But the Boy Who Was Death taunted him still: “I am Death,” he said, “and you cannot stall me. I will remain here all of my days and never will I let you forget your wife, and how she ran to me and took me in her arms. Look down, and see her cold grave!” Hearing these words, Carter lost his strength, and looking down, he fell from the tree at a great height. It was then that the Boy Who Was Death had him.
The next morning, the young son Edward came to the door and called out to the Boy Who Was Death. “I have heard it said in stories that you like to play at games,” he said.
The Boy Who Was Death grinned his lupine grin. “Have you a game to play?”, he asked. “You will not win, because I am Death, and I will take you yet.”
Edward did not fear him, but only said his game. “We will wrestle, you and I,” he said. “Each day before the sun sets, we will have a match, and when you can beat me two falls of three, then you will have me, but not before.”
The Boy Who Was Death agreed, and the next day they had their first match. Edward, though slow and heavy, was strong and clever, and he pinned the Boy Who Was Death twice after great struggles. The Boy Who Was Death let out a whoop, for he was mightily pleased at this game. He demanded to play again but Edward refused and told him he had agreed to the rules of the game, and they would not wrestle again until the next evening.
So it went the next day and the next, and so on through the cold winter and into spring, and as one year passed into another. Edward would work through the day and study his books, and just before the sun set, he would wrestle the Boy Who Was Death. Sometimes Edward would be pinned once, but never twice: each day, and another and the next, he would emerge the victor. He soon grew to be big and tough, and the Boy Who Was Death stayed the same, for Death never changes. It became harder for the Boy Who Was Death to win even a single fall, for Edward was now almost a man. But it did not matter to the Boy Who Was Death: he knew that someday, Edward would flee or forget or cheat or in some way break their agreement, and on that day, he would have him. Besides, the games of wrestling were great fun.
One hot summer Sunday, Edward — now a strapping fellow near the age of a man — was nearly late for their match. He came from the house, yawning and stretching, and glanced at the Boy Who Was Death as if he were something new in the world. “What! Still here, are you?”, Edward teased. “I grow tired of you. I grow tired of our game.”
The Boy Who Was Death only smiled his animal smile and shook his coal-topped head. “You may grow tired, wheelwright’s son,” he replied. “You were almost late for our game. One day you will forget. I am Death, and on that day I will have you.”
So it was that Edward began his final match with the Boy Who Was Death. It was a spirited contest, and the Boy Who Was Death fought fiercely though he was by now much outsized by the wheelwright’s son. But just as the tide began to turn, Edward slipped his great arms around the neck of the Boy Who Was Death and began to choke him. “You are mistaken,” Edward said, with steel in his voice; the Boy Who Was Death was robbed of air and could not reply. “All these years you have been wrestling, but I have been fighting. You have sought only to play, while I have gambled. And now you will see that I do not intend to lose.”
With that, he tightened his grip on the throat of the Boy Who Was Death, whose face no longer wore its wolf’s smile. “I knew the day would come when you would learn that we have never been playing the same game,” said Edward. “And on that day I finally have you, for I am Death.“