In an age when keeping death at bay seems to have become an obsession for many of us, judging by the array of anti-ageing products and treatment now available on the market, a story about someone who chooses to embrace it comes as something of a surprise. Yet there are those for whom it may well appear to be the most attractive option:
Death the Sweetheart
There was once a pretty young girl with no husband, no father, no mother, and no brothers. In fact, no family at all: they were all dead and gone. She lived alone in a hut at the end of the village; and no one came near her, and she never went near anyone either. She kept herself to herself. One evening a goodly wanderer came to her, opened the door, and cried: ‘I’m a wanderer, and I’ve travelled far in this world. Here will I rest; I can no further go.’ The maiden said: ‘Stay here then. I will give you a mattress to sleep on, and, if you like, something to eat and drink too.’ The goodly wanderer soon lay down and said: ‘Now once again I sleep; it’s so long since I slept last.’ ‘How long?’ asked the girl; and he answered: ‘Dear maid, I sleep but one week in a thousand years.’ The girl laughed and said: ‘You’re joking, surely?’ But the wanderer was already fast asleep and did not answer.
Early next morning he arose and this is what he said to her. ‘You’re a pretty young girl and, if it pleases you, I’ll stay here a whole week longer.’ She gladly agreed, for already she loved the goodly wanderer. So once they were sleeping, and she roused him and said: ‘Dear man, I dreamt such an evil dream. I dreamt you’d grown cold and white, and we drove in a beautiful carriage, drawn by six white birds. You blew on a mighty horn; then dead folk came up and went with us – you were their king.’ Then answered the goodly wanderer: ‘That was an evil dream.’ Straightway he got up and said: ‘Beloved, I must go, for not a soul has died this long while in the whole world. I must be off, let me go.’ But the girl wept. ‘Don’t go away; stay with me.’ ‘I must go,’ he answered, ‘God keep you.’ But, as he gave her his hand, she said sobbing: ‘Tell me, dear man, who are you then?’ ‘Who knows that, dies,’ said the wanderer, ‘so you ask in vain; I don’t dare tell you who I am.’ Then the girl wept and said: ‘I don’t care what happens to me and I’m prepared for anything, only do tell me who you are, please. Do me this one last favour.’ ‘Good,’ said the man,’ ‘then you come with me because I’m Death.’ And nobody ever saw or heard of her again.
Adapted from a Transylvanian-Roma story in Groome, F.H. (1899) Gypsy Folk Tales, London : Hurst & Blackett. Scanned, proofed and formatted at sacred-texts.com, December 2005, by John Bruno Hare. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was published prior to 1923, and in the EU and other ‘death+70’ countries because the author died in 1902.
Also known as ‘Gypsies’, the Roma are nomads who originated in India during the middle ages, and spread across a wide section of Eurasia, preserving a unique culture and language. The term Gypsy was applied to the Roma by outsiders, possibly in the mistaken belief that they were Egyptian in origin. Some people today take it to be pejorative, and at the very least its use is deprecated. Nevertheless, it is used widely in the literature, particularly in books now in the public domain, by scholars who cannot be construed as using it in a derogative sense.
It is interesting to compare and contrast the Roma story with the lyrics of the traditional English folksong entitled ‘Death and the Lady’, a version of which is presented below. For even though the lady in the song puts up a fight instead of succumbing willingly, her fate remains the same, as it does of course for all of us. The song was collected in 1946 by Francis M. Collison from Mr Baker of Maidstone, Kent, and published in Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd’s Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
Death and the Lady
As I walked out one morn in May,
The birds did sing and the lambs did play,
The birds did sing and the lambs did play,
I met an old man,
I met an old man by the way.
His head was bald, his beard was grey,
His coat was of a myrtle shade,
I asked him what strange countryman,
Or what strange place,
Or what strange place he did belong.
“My name is Death, cannot you see?
Lords, dukes and ladies bow down to me.
And you are one of those branches three,
And you fair maid,
And you fair maid must come with me.”
“I’ll give you gold and jewels rare,
I’ll give you costly robes to wear,
I’ll give you all my wealth in store,
If you’ll let me live,
If you’ll let me live a few years more.”
“Fair lady, lay your robes aside,
No longer glory in your pride.
And now, sweet maid, make no delay,
Your time is come,
Your time is come and you must away.”
And not long after this fair maid died;
“Write on my tomb,” the lady cried,
“Here lies a poor distressed maid,
Whom Death now lately,
Whom Death now lately hath betrayed.”
Michael Berman works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus for O-Books, and All God’s Creatures: Stories Old and New for Pendraig Publishing. To and from the Land of the Dead, his latest work, is due to be published by Lear books in 2011. For more information please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk