And this is it… The final entry for the 31 days…
This tale is one of the lesser known from the collected tales of Grimm brothers, but is perfect for a dark, chilly night. Don’t read it just before bedtime or to very young children, as it contains some imagery that will give you the shivers (the children will be fine)…
Once, long ago, there was a man that had twelve children. With so many children he was poor and he had to work day and night just to feed them, though obviously he was allowed some breaks, because there wouldn’t have been so many of them in the first place, unless, well, that’s may be another story. When the thirteenth child was born, the man didn’t know what to do, as now he had one more mouth to feed and this was just getting ridiculous. So, at his wits end, he ran out into the street outside his house, which was the kind of broad street that you get in all towns of a certain age with buildings that have a bigger top than their bottom, to look for someone he thought might be useful. He’d decided to ask the first man he met to be his new son’s godfather. Godfathers in those days weren’t there for just for Christenings and Italian mobster movies, they were providing for children in need, in times of famine; basically, not just their first badly paid jobs of advertising, but their entire careers.
The first man he encountered was the good Lord, who knows all our troubles. Obviously, He knew already what the poor man was worried about, and said, “Poor man, I feel sorry for you. I’ll be your child’s godfather, and I shall take care of him and see that he’s happy on earth.”
“Who are you, and how exactly are you going to manage that then?” asked the man, a bit puzzled about how this guy seemed to know so much already.
“I am your dear Lord.”
“Dear Lord, no,” said the man. “You give to the rich and let the poor go hungry. Be off with you.” Turning away from God, the poor man moved on.
Next, the devil came up to him and said, “What are you looking for? If you make me your child’s godfather, I’ll give him plenty of gold and all the pleasures of the world as well.”
“Who are you, then? Von Trumpen?” asked the man.
“I’m the devil.”
“Well, that’s a relief, but no. I don’t want you to be godfather,” the man said. “You still deceive people and lead them astray.”
The poor man continued on his way, and soon the spindle-legged figure DEATH came towards him and said, “TAKE ME AS GODFATHER.”
“Who are you?” the man asked, “no offence, mate, but it doesn’t look like you’re doing a great job of looking after yourself there.”
“I’M DEATH, AND I MAKE ALL PEOPLE EQUAL.”
“Well, fair enough then,” said the man. “You’re the right one. You take the rich and poor alike without making distinctions. I want you to be my child’s godfather.”
“I SHALL MAKE YOUR CHILD RICH AND FAMOUS,” Death answered. “NO FRIEND OF MINE IS EVER IN NEED.”
“Next Sunday is the christening,” said the man. “Make sure you’re there on time.” One thing that you can be certain of in life is that DEATH will never miss an appointment. When the time came, he appeared as he had promised, and he made for a very proper godfather. I wasn’t surprised by that. Death can be kind, sometimes.
When the boy was old enough, his godfather appeared one day and told him that it was time for him to follow him. He led him into the forest, showed him a herb that grew there, and said, “NOW, I WILL GIVE YOU YOUR CHRISTENING GIFT. USE THIS HERB WHENEVER YOU ARE CALLED TO LOOK AFTER A SICK PERSON, AND I WILL BE THERE WITH YOU. IF I STAND NEXT TO THE HEAD OF THE PATIENT, YOU CAN TELL THEM YOU CAN MAKE THEM BETTER, BUT IF I STAND THEIR NEAR THEIR FEET, THEY’RE MINE AND THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. GOT IT? ABOVE ALL, REMEMBER ONE THING… YOU MUST NEVER USE THE HERB AGAINST MY WILL OR THERE WILL BE TROUBLE AND YOU WILL BE IN IT!”
It is wise to not argue with DEATH. Once he has made up his mind, that is usually it. There are clear rules about the deals you make with him. He never forgets a deal he’s made.
With backing from DEATH himself, it didn’t take long for the young man to become the most famous doctor in the whole world, especially the bit that he lived in (well, only that bit actually, but we’re not being too picky here). His reputation was such that people said, “He only has to look at a sick person, and he can tell what’s up and if they’ll get better or not. Oooh, he’s brilliant.” Everyone was asking for his help, from far and wide, and he was paid very handsomely, which pleased his poor old father and his mother, and all his siblings back at home.
One day, the king of that beautiful country fell from his horse and lay in his bed with many injuries, both seen and unseen. The ministers and advisors didn’t know what to do, until a maid suggested they called this young doctor that everyone had been talking about that had cured the famous actress, Greta Pursloviska, and the Archiduke Ferdibenn, a well-respected politician, a rare thing even then. Arriving at the palace, the young man was nervous about what his diagnosis would mean for his nation and for him. The king was much beloved by us, his people, and there were ministers and advisors close to him that would be up to no good in the country if they lost the king now, with his children not old enough to take power themselves (I know, unthinkable). He also feared that if the king were to die, then the blame would fall at the feet of his doctor and that would not be a good position to be in, especially in politically troubled times (again, I know, unthinkable). When he approached the bed, DEATH was standing at the feet of the king. So, he knew there was no cure possible.
If only I could cheat DEATH just once, thought the doctor. Of course, he’ll not like it, but since I’m his godson and these are desperate days, perhaps he’ll let it pass. It’s worth a try. So, he picked up the sick man carefully and turned him the other way around, which meant that DEATH stood by his head. But DEATH went to the doctor, pointed his finger at him, and threatened him with angry and sinister looks. I mean, I’m not sure he could do anything else, though I’m sure he could do extra angry and sinister if he wanted to.
“WELL, THAT WAS SNEAKY. BUT BECAUSE YOU ARE MY GODSON, I’LL LET YOU OFF THIS ONCE WITH A STERN WARNING. HOWEVER, DON’T DO IT AGAIN AND IF YOU DO, THAT’S THE END OF YOU AND EVERYTHING ELSE IN THIS STORY.” With that, DEATH left the scene, and the young man stayed in the palace to tend for his patient.
The young doctor became a fixture at court and quite a favourite of the king and his family. I can tell you now, he attended every feast, every masquerade, every hunt, every special occasion the royals in that country wanted to celebrate or commemorate, like Prince Eddie’s Combover Anniversary Party and Princesses B&E Dress as a Burglar Fancy Dress Do. Over the next few years, he continued to gain fame and wealth, but best of all, he started to catch the eye of the eldest daughter of the king, and she started to catch his eye too. We all knew what they were thinking.
One day, the king’s daughter fell seriously ill. She was his oldest child and most beloved daughter, and he wept day and night that he could no longer see out of his eyes. Then he issued a proclamation that whoever saved his daughter from a untimely and painful death would soon become her husband and inherit the crown. We were anxious for news out in the street and we held candles outside the palace gates and waited. The doctor, already half distraught with grief before the potential of huge wealth and power, knew that he had to save this girl. But when the doctor approached her bed, he saw DEATH at her feet.
Of course, he should have remembered his godfather’s warning, but you know how young men are when they get caught up in the moment of passion and want to do what they think is right. Mind you. even if he had thought about it, I think he’d have still would have done it anyway. He really loved, you know. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. It was the money and the power he loved. Well, possibly. May be he thought he could talk Bonehead around. May be not.
As it was, when DEATH gave him angry looks (no, I’m not quite sure how either), raised his hand, and threatened him with his bony fist, the doctor refused to take any notice and carried on anyway. Going to her, and kissing her lightly on the cheek, the young mean then gently lifted the maiden, put her head where the feet had been, took her hand and hoped for the best. Immediately her cheeks flushed red, and life could be seen stirring in her once more.
DEATH was not happy to find himself cheated out of his claim a second time, and he strode up to the doctor, said nothing, but grabbed the doctor so hard with his icy hand that the young man had no power to resist. He was dragged away without another word or even the hint of a fight. Thrown on the back of DEATH’s mighty white horse, they flew across the countryside and into the air like a shooting star, landing with a thunderclap in the forest he’d been taken to as a small boy.
DEATH led him down into an underground cave. There the doctor saw thousands and thousands of candles burning in countless rows, some large, some medium, others small, leading onwards and down, into the endless fathoms of earth beneath them, around the countless bends and twists of the cavern. With every moment some of the candles went out and others soared up again, so that the little flames seemed to be constantly flickering and flaring, waving and drowning.
“YOU SEE,” said DEATH, “THESE CANDLES ARE THE LIGHTS OF PEOPLE’S LIVES. THE LARGE ONES BELONG TO CHILDREN, THE MEDIUM ONES TO MARRIED COUPLES IN THEIR BEST YEARS, THE SMALL ONES TO OLD PEOPLE. BUT, YOU KNOW, OFTEN CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE CAN HAVE SMALL CANDLES TOO. LIFE AND DEATH ARE NEVER WHAT YOU EXPECT.”
“Show me my life candle,” the doctor said, looking around for a large candle.
DEATH pointed to a tiny stub that was just about to go out and said, “THERE IT IS. DO YOU SEE IT THERE?”
“Oh, dear godfather,” the doctor was struck by horror, “you’d better light a new one for me! My candle can’t go out now. I’m about to marry the girl I love and be a king, and…”
“I CAN’T,” replied Death. “FIRST ONE CANDLE MUST GO OUT BEFORE A NEW ONE CAN BE LIT.”
“Well, there must be something you can do! This is your place, your rules,” the doctor stuttered, “You can put my one on top of a new candle, so it will still burn after the little bit goes out.”
Death reached for a large new candle, but made a mistake in transferring the stub, and it went out. All at once the doctor fell to the ground and had indeed fallen into the hands of DEATH. As I said at the start of this tale, the only thing you can be sure of in life is death never missing an appointment once it has been made, when all is said and done.
Based on the version in: The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes