Once, not long ago, there was a poor man who had twelve children. He worked day and night to keep them fed, and could not even provide them with enough clothing to stay warm. When his thirteenth child was born, he was desperate, and fearful for the fate of his family. In despair he ran out into the highway, intending to ask the first person he met to be his baby’s godparent.
The first person who came his way was God, who had been walking along the highway to meet him. God said to the father, “Poor man, I pity you and your situation. I will hold your child at his baptism, and care for him, and make him happy on earth.”
The father asked, “Who are you?”
God replied, “I am God.”
“Then I do not wish to have you for a godfather,” said the man. “You give to the rich, and let the poor starve. You have left me to be desperate, unable to take care of my family.”
The father turned away from God, and went further down the highway.
The next person he met was the devil, strutting confidently down the highway. The devil came to him and said, “Dear sir, if you will take me as your child’s godfather, I will give him an abundance of gold and all the joys of the world as well.”
The man asked, “Who are you?”
“I am the devil.”
“Then I do not wish to have you for a godfather,” said the man. “You deceive mankind with beautiful words and trickery, only to lead them to their doom.”
The father turned away, and continued down the highway. As he was walking, Death quietly walked up beside him, and patted him on his shoulder. She said, “Sir, I know of your suffering. I will be your child’s godmother.”
The man asked, “Who are you?”
“I am Death, I make everyone equal. I do not deceive, and I am just in all of my dealings. I welcome everyone to rest in my open arms.”
Then the man said, “I do know you, and I know of your habits. You treat the rich and the poor equally, without distinction. You shall be my child’s godmother.
Death answered, “I will make your infant son rich and famous, in this world. You will have no need to fear for him.”
On the boy’s thirteenth birthday, Death appeared to her godson as he was playing in his parent’s garden. She beckoned, “Dear boy, come with me now. I have much to teach you.” She walked with the boy out into the forest and showed him an herb that grew there, saying, “Now you shall receive your godmother’s present. With my tutelage, you will become a famous physician. Whenever you are called to a sick person I will appear to you. If I stand at the sick person’s head, you may say with confidence that you can make them well again. To speed their recovery, all you will need to do is give them some of this herb. No matter the illness, if they can be saved, this herb will save them. However, if I stand at the sick person’s feet, they must come with me. There is nothing you can do to change this.”
It was not long before the young man had become the most famous physician in the whole world. People said of him, “He only needs to look at the sick in order to immediately know their condition, whether they will regain their health, or are doomed to die.” And people came to him from far and wide, taking him to their sick, and giving him so much money that he soon became a very wealthy man. He gave his parents and brothers and sisters large gifts, so they could be comfortable in this world.
It came to pass that the king of that land became ill. The physician was summoned to see if a recovery were possible. When he approached the bed, he saw that Death was standing at the sick man’s feet. No herb on earth would be able to help him.
“If I could only deceive death for once,” thought the physician. “She will be angry, of course, but because I am her godson she will forgive me.” The physician took hold of the sick man and laid him the other way around, so that Death was now standing at his head. Then he gave the king some of the herb, and he recovered and became healthy again.
As the king was recovering, Death quietly strode up to the physician. She glared at him, dark and angry. She whispered, “You have done a terrible thing; every life must end for another to be born. You must never do this again.”
The king recovered, and became as healthy as he was in his youth. In his gratefulness, he asked the physician to stay in the castle, and tend to the royal family. The physician was very happy, and tended to the family for many years. Over time, he and the king’s oldest daughter became dearest friends. They would walk the corridors together, and delighted in each others company. Eventually, the king allowed them to be married.
Soon after their wedding, the king’s daughter became seriously ill. Her skin became gray, and the light left her eyes. Her husband the physician looked to the end of her bed, and saw Death at her feet.
He remembered his godmother’s warning, but he was afraid of the thought of living without her. He did not see that Death was looking at him with dark, sad eyes. He lifted up his wife and placed her head where her feet had been. Then he gave her some of the herb, and her cheeks immediately turned red, and life stirred in her once again.
Death strode up to the physician and whispered, “Dear boy, you do not understand what you have done. Come with me.”
Then Death’s cold hands took his, and she led him to a deep underground cavern. It was filled with thousands and thousands of candles. They were all shapes and sizes, some large and wide, and others very small. As the physician watched, he could see some lights going out, and others suddenly lighting.
“See,” said Death, “these are the life-lights of humanity. The large ones belong to people with long to live, and the small ones belong to those with little time left. As you live, your candle burns a little lower, bringing you closer to the time it will be snuffed out. Sometimes, even children and young people have only a tiny candle.”
At that, she pointed to a tall thin candle, with a strong flame. “That one belongs to your wife now. It was going to a babe, who will now never draw a breath.”
She then pointed to a little puddle of wax on the shelf next to it. In it was a small, flickering wick about to sputter out. “That one is you. You were destined to die together.”
And with that, the physician watched his flame go out, and his life end.
This story was collected by The Brothers Grimm, translated by Margaret Hunt, and published in Household Tales (1884). Retrieved from The University of Adelaide: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/grimm/g86h/chapter44.html
I did make a number of changes to the original story, to emphasize some of the elements I found particularly powerful. The most visible element is that I made death female, a change which does not change the story itself, but I feel does add some depth, and a female voice. I envisioned Death as the creator and destroyer, who treats everyone equally, and cannot make exceptions–even for those she cares about–as she has duties she cannot waver from. I also enhanced the love story between the godson and his wife, so that the godson was deceiving death because of love, rather than greed.