A Hungarian Folktale
Retold By Gail Rosen
I have told this story in many settings. Its humor is delightful and the story allows thinking and conversation about death, in a way that feels safer for people than direct questions about their personal feelings and experiences.
But she was full of life, and never dreamt of dying. She was always busy, in her house, baking bread or sewing new curtains. Or in her garden, planting flowers or weeding the vegetables. Or in her yard, building a shed for the goats, or helping to birth a new baby lamb.
But Death comes to everyone in time. And so, one day, Death remembered the old woman. And he came and knocked on her cottage door. "Old Woman, I have come to fetch you."
The old woman was kneading dough for bread. "Death? Oh, Death. I'm afraid I'm much too busy. I have to finish kneading this dough. Then I have to wait for it to rise. Then I have to knead it again and form it into loaves, then wait for it to rise again, and then bake it. . . If it must be, Death, could you come back tomorrow?"
"Very well" said Death. "I shall return for you tomorrow." And with his bony finger, he chalked on her door, the word "Tomorrow" and he went away. The next day, Death returned. "Old Woman, I have come to fetch you."
The old woman was tending her rose bushes.
"Oh. Death. Death, I'm afraid you've made a little mistake. You see, you said you'd come tomorrow. Tomorrow. See for yourself what you wrote on the door."
And Death looked. And there on the door was the word "Tomorrow."
"Very well, Old Woman," said Death. "I shall come for you tomorrow." And he went away. The next day, Death returned. "Old Woman, I have come to fetch you."
The old woman was sewing a new party dress. "Death? Oh, Death, I'm afraid once again you are mistaken. You see, you said you would come tomorrow. Tomorrow, not today. See for yourself what you wrote on the door."
And Death looked. And there on the door was the word "Tomorrow." "Very well, Old Woman," said Death. "I shall come for you tomorrow." And he went away. Well this went on every day for a month and at the end of that time, Death was getting annoyed. "Old Woman, you have been cheating me. I shall come for you one last time."
And with his sleeve, he erased the word on the door. Now the old woman wasn't laughing any more. She was frightened. She tried and tried to think of a way to outwit death. She was up all night thinking. In the morning, she hadn't thought of anything so she looked around her cottage for a place to hide. In the corner was a large barrel. It was filled with honey. She climbed inside it and crouched down low, with just her nose sticking out. But then she thought "Oh dear. Death is clever. He's sure to find me here."
So she climbed out of the barrel of honey. Across the room there was a large chest. She opened the chest and climbed inside. It was filled with goose feathers. But then she thought "Oh dear. Death is clever. He's sure to find me here."
And she climbed out of the chest. But just as she did, Death burst through the door. He looked around and he couldn't see the old woman anywhere. In her place, he saw a strange creature. It was huge, covered with white feathers and something thick was dripping from it.
Death was so startled he cried out "Aaagh!"
And the thing screamed back "Aaaaaagh!" And Death was so frightened that he ran away. And he never returned.
by Gail Rosen
When I have told this story in bereavement groups, I usually pair it with a personal story about my grandmother, her death, and my ongoing feeling of connection with her. It ends with "As long as I'm here, doing, and remembering - in some way, my grandmother outwitted death."
Telling a story in a bereavement group setting helps relax everyone and bring them present to the group. It helps put people in "listening mode" and, I think, enables them to be better listeners to each other. Questions may be posed to the group that relate to the story, but often group members will take up the story and relate it to their lives and their losses without additional direction. The issues that arise in this particular story include: the denial or acceptance of death, how we retain our feeling of connection with people who have died, how memories can often surprise us by being stimulated by seemingly mundane objects or events, what comfort exists or does not exist in the act of remembering, and how we can find meaning in our grief through memory. People who have heard this story have sometimes been moved to tell or write down memories of their own connection with the person they are grieving.
There have also been people who have been angered by the story - they are not in a place where they wish to be comforted, but their need is to have the pain of their loss acknowledged; the person who died did not outwit death and memory is insufficient comfort. In this circumstance, too, the story has served the audience, by offering clarity about their feelings and allowing anger and grief to be expressed.
Here is a situation where it is clear that stories are not "prescriptive." A particular story cannot, must not, be used to elicit or manipulate a specific response. But, the power of story to open the door to one's own beliefs, insights and ability to heal is a gift to witness.
Beginning the conversation:
As I was writing this for posting, and asking for advice and input, Laura Simms wrote about a remarkable story from Africa. Here is the synopsis: There is an old woman who goes in search of death because she has lived so long and seen so many others die, that she wants to find out why death has not taken her. She tries climbing to the sky and falls and hurts herself, but does not die. She tries everything until she travels everywhere and no one knows where death lives. She finally came to a village where everyone said, "Stay here. Death is never far from us, but no one knows where death lives." And she lived there and she died there and no one does know even now where death lives and when or how he is coming.
Laura says "a sister tale like that might be helpful to grieving people, since it gives the exact opposite idea as well."
I know that many storytellers have told stories at memorial services and in other settings where people are grieving. What has your experience been with story in this arena? Do you use personal or traditional tales? Serious or humorous? Any stories you wish you hadn't told in such a setting? What has the response been? Any unexpected responses?
* Someone showed me this story years ago, before I was fully aware of the importance of citing sources. It was in a collection of tales, and I believe it was labeled "Hungarian." If anyone has more information on the source, I'd be grateful if you shared it with me. www.GailRosen.com
From Heather Nagy
That story really made me think. I have had a very difficult past couple of years and latley I've been too busy to really appreciate life. That story was very well-told, by the way. =)
I'm 11 years old and I joined a storytelling club at my school. This story caught my eye, I read it once and fell in love with it. I plan to read it to younger children in March.
Posted by Mary Clark
Outwitting Death is a great story! Loss or change (death) happens all the time. I recently taught a creative journaling class for a group of caregivers. The caregivers care for spouses or parents of loved ones with Alzheimer's or Dementia. This story would be an excellent tool for group discussion and personal reflection. Thank you.
Posted by Allison Cox
Gail, the meaning of this story for me came into focus for me when you tied it to honoring the memory of your grandmother. The thought fit. And I am intrigued by the story that Laura mentioned. Together - these stories have a rhythm that underscores natural patterns, cycles and continuance. I feel some comfort in the process - and some uneasiness in the impermanence of it all.
When working with Hospice I have told the literary tale, Annie and The Old One, which offered themes of acceptance of cycles, and living on in the next generation. Hospice workers recognized the reality of people choosing when is the time to die.
Posted by Cristy West
Death is a tricky topic!! And what amazes me is how folktales have been talking about it with humor and wisdom way back into unrecorded times. Indeed, with the climate of denial that permeates our culture, I find folktales to be one of the best places to go to think about mortality.
I was interested to hear how you used this story to kick off discussion and think it is so important that therapeutic tellers think in terms of shaping a whole session. Incidentally, do you know Stanley Robertson's "Death Appreciation" story? I transcribed it years ago at the national festival and would be glad to forward this along to you (or, indeed to anyone else interested) for your "death story" file. It's one of my favorites but I have yet to find it in print.
Posted by Ilka List
Thank you for posting such a wonderful couple of stories about death on the site. It is a generous offering indeed, and the story of the old woman is well told. Thank You. Ilka List
Posted by Gail Rosen
Love to see the "Death Appreciation" story. It would be interesting to make a short list of other tales that deal directly with death that storytellers have used to stimulate conversation and to assist in the wrestling we all do with what death means to us. The few that come immediately to mind are The Cow Tail Switch (addressing the wish to perform magic to bring the dead back and the importance of memory), The Mustard Seed (no life is without loss) and Godmother Death (death comes to all in its own time).
Posted by Charlotte Phillips
I would also like to see such a list of stories which invite discussion about death. I am head of our local end-of-life coalition and find story THE best way to enter this topic, whether we are speaking to the public, the workplace, or the health care community. Thanks to all the members of the Healing Arts SIG!
Posted by Cristy West
What a great idea! For starters, there's a whole section of stories about death in Jane Yolen's Favorite Folktales Found Around the World (published by Pantheon.) And here is the story I was just mentioning in the note to Gail, one I've never seen in print...
DEATH APPRECIATION STORY
(heard at 1993 NAPPS festival, told by Stanley Robertson, transcribed as heard by Cristy West)
Well, there was an old man who lived all by himself in a wee stone house high up on the mountain, way up in the rocky burren above the tree line. He was a widower and he'd learned to manage quite well for himself, managed all his own cooking and housekeeping and in truth he was very happy, very content living up there all alone. He'd had a good life and had many good memories to look back on and nothing to complain of. And so when the Christmas season came round and his grand-daughter went to see him on Christmas eve and said, "ah grandfather, won't come down to the village to join us for Christmas, we don't see nearly enough of you. Besides, there's signs of a big storm coming in and mother is worried about you here all by yourself." And the old man said, "Ah, lassie, that's awfully kind of you but really, but you just go back and tell your mother that I'm very content up here where I am. She shouldn't worry at all about me, not at all, I have what I need and to tell you the truth, in the long nights of winter, sometimes the veil between this world and the next is so thin, that I feel the presence of Bridget" — that was his departed wife — "I sometimes feel the presence of Bridget standing right there beside me in the room. So you just go back down to the village and have yourself a happy Christmas, I'll be thinking of you."
So down the mountain path goes the young girl when who should she encounter on the path but an old man dressed in long white robes, carrying a scythe in one hand and an hourglass in the other. Why it none other than Death himself! And a good day to you, sir, said the young girl. "And a good day to you, lassie." "And pray tell, what would you be doing up here in these parts on Christmas eve?" "Ah," says Death, "I have an appointment up on the mountain this evening," and on he goes down the path.
Well, the young lass was so upset she rushed back to her grandfather and said, "ah, grandfather, I just ran into death and he said he had an appointment on the mountain -- won't you please come down to the village and stay with us? Maybe you can get away from him."
And the old man said, "well, if Mr. Death is coming for me, you know as well as I do that there's no running away from him. I've cooked myself a fine meal and if it's to be my last one, I might as well stay here and enjoy it. I've had a good full life and I have many good memories and if that's the way it's to be then I suppose there's no getting away from it.. So you go back to the village and don't you worry now about me."
So the lassie goes back down the mountain. And the old man settles down to his meal. And before long a great storm starts blowing up on the mountain, snow and sleet and howling wind. And before long there comes a knocking at the door.
Well, the old man goes to open it and sure enough, there is this fellow in his long white robes, a long scythe in one hand, an hourglass in the other. And the old man says, "Ah, yes, I've been expecting you, won't you come in out of the cold and warm yourself by my the fire." And Death says, "Ah, yes, this weather is fierce, I'd love to come in." And then the old man says, "I was just having myself a bit of mutton stew. If you have enough time, I wonder, would care to join me, I'll just take out another plate?" So Death takes out his hourglass and looks at it and says oh, "I think there is time and I must say, I am a bit hungry." And after the old man had dished up the stew he remembers he's got a fine old bottle of malt whiskey he's been saving, tucked away in a closet, so he goes and gets it and asks Death if he'd like a wee dram of whiskey and Death says, "Why that would be ever so nice!" and together the two of them have a fine old Christmas dinner, telling tales back and forth and drinking down the whiskey. And then Death takes out his hourglass and looks at it again and says, "Well, time is running out, I'd better be going."
So he gets up to go and the old man gets up too and begins to put on his coat. And then Death turns to him and says, "Where do you think you are going?"
And the old man says, "But I thought you said it was time to go?"
And Death says, "Oh no, it's not you I was coming for tonight. There's an old woman just up the way a bit -- all crippled up with arthritis -- she's the one I have written down in my appointment book. And I can tell you, she'll be glad to see me, too, she's been suffering for many years. But as for you, why -- no, no, no -- I can assure you have many good years ahead of you. I just stopped in here tonight in this terrible storm because I knew that you were one person I could count on to give me a hearty meal and a warming spot of whiskey. And since you have been so generous and hospitable, I'll tell you this much: you have nothing to fear from me. And when your time is come, you'll know to greet me as your friend." And so Death went on his way out the door and up the mountain. And, just as Death said would happen, that old man put in many more good years. And when his time finally did come, he greeted Death as the old friend he was, and I'll tell you, he had no regrets about going.
Posted by Gail Rosen
Great story Cristy. It's also a wonderful contrast to one that I know Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells about Riding to Samarkand. There's a desert king with an only son. The son encounters death reaching out for him in his father's courtyard and asks his father for his fastest horse so that he can ride to Samarkand and escape death. The prince rides off and the king confronts death. "How dare you reach out your hand to take my son!" And death replies "I was not reaching out to take your son. I was only raising my hand in greeting. I have an appointment to take him tonight - in Samarkand."
Posted by Marco Federighi
There is a song in Italian about this. I can't remember who wrote it. Here is a rough translation:
To laugh, to laugh again!
Now war doesn't look scary any more.
Uniforms burn on fires in the evening,
Wine burns in the throat!
Music of tambourines until daybreak,
For the soldier who danced all night.
But there was in the crowd that black-clad lady,
He saw she was looking at him and was afraid.
"Save me, save me, O powerful sovereign!
Let me flee from here!
She was close to me at the parade,
I saw she was looking at me with malice."
"Give him a horse,
Born of the wind, worthy of a King!
Quick, quick, that he can flee,
Give him the fastest horse that is there."
"Run, my horse, run, I pay you,
Run like the wind and I will be safe!
Don't stop, run, please,
Run like the wind and I will be safe."
Fields, hills, then dawn was purple,
White were the towers that he saw:
But among the crowd was that dark lady.
Tired of fleeing, he bowed his head.
"You were among the crowds in the capital,
I saw you look at me with malice.
I fled among the fields and the cicadas,
I fled, but I find you here again."
"You are wrong, you are wrong, soldier.
I was not looking at you with malice.
I was just surprised:
What were you doing there?
I had an appointment with you here, in Samarkand.
You were so far away two days ago.
I was afraid that, to listen to the music,
You wouldn't find the time to come here.
It isn't so far after all Samarkand.
Run, horse, run like the wind!
I rode alongside you through the night,
Run like the wind! He will make it there."
Posted by Andy Fraenkel on April 08, 2001
Dear Storytelling people,
Other stories on the theme of outwitting death:
1)Come Again In The Spring by Richard Kennedy - a beautiful tale about a man's connection with the birds.
2) There's a Jewish story about a man who dumps his sins in a nearby lake. Then he is told that his soon to be born child will eventually die in the lake. There are a few renditions inculding a new children's book (can't think of the title off hand).
3) The story of Savitri & The Lord Of Death. This story is told in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. A number of renditions of this story are also available - one being my book of 12 stories from ancient India.
4) The Mahabharata's main story line is of five royal brothers, the Pandavas who are exiled into the forest. One adventure is their encounter with a mysterious being at the lake of death. This story is included on my audio tape of The Mahabharata, and am also preparing some of those stories for a book for young readers. I'd like to share the story of the lake of death with you but am having difficulty pasting it and it's a little to long to retype right now. Will be on the road for the week and hopefully can share it with you when I return. Later.
Posted by Barra the Bard/Barra Jacob-McDowell
There is a Scottish tale, about a young lass whose betrothed dies before their wedding. She is inconsolable, spending all her time weeping and wailing. They used to go to dances held outside, and she still goes, sitting to one side crying and greeting while her friends try to have a good time. One night, she falls asleep, and the others leave. She wakens much later, all alone in the dark. But her beloved is there. "Dance wi' me," he says. They dance, but when he would leave, she holds onto him. "Take me wi' you," she says. So he mounts a great dark horse with red glowing eyes, and they begin to ride, faster and faster. She sees that his face is pale, and his arm around her is thin as bone...it *is* bone. They arrive at the graveyard, and he begins to sink into the earth, trying to pull her with him. "We will stay here tagither," he says, "i' the box I was laid awa' i'," and she smells the grave smell, and feels the cauld grue of death--and her own young life within her. "Na, na," she cries, "be letting me gae!" He says to her, "But you hinna [have not] let *me* gae...." She pulls away, and runs as fast as she can away--you know those dreams when you are pursued? When she wakens, she is in the graveyard, lying on his grave, and her shawl is partway into the earth. Her grief was ended...
Posted by K Mathes
I once heard a similar tale, allegedly from the Azores.
(No doubt many tales travelled to the Azores via sailing ships...)