Once upon a time, there was a poor farmer, a good man, who had twelve children. In order to feed and clothe them, he had to work day and night.
Well, when it came to pass that his wife told him she was with child again, the poor man fell to his knees in despair. Not only did they not have enough sustenance to keep a child safe in this world, they no longer had one friend or acquaintance to act as “godfather” to the infant. If they couldn’t find anyone, there would be no sponsor for him in the upper worlds. The farmer was so despondent, his heart turned to stone. Still, he began to work even harder.
On the day the infant was born–a bright and healthy baby boy–the farmer’s wife was relieved for she’d had too little food herself to guarantee her baby’s well being. But on that day, she entreated her husband, “Please go out into the street and find this new little one a godfather to intercede for this helpless child.”
The farmer was beside himself, not knowing what to do. He had long since given up his prayers. But because he still loved his wife, and his children too, he ran out into the center of the village square and vowed to ask the first person who came to the well, to sponsor this new babe.
As luck would have it, the first person to meet him was a man dressed in rough hewn robes and sandals. He looked to have no more than the farmer himself and so the poor farmer didn’t recognize him. The man in cloth tried to reassure the farmer by saying, “Poor man, I understand your troubles. If you ask, I will hold this child at his christening, I will care for him his whole life, and I will see to it that he is happy on earth.”
The poor farmer asked, “Who are you?”
“I am God,” the stranger said.
But the farmer, who was angry with God, answered, “I do not want you as godfather for my child. You give to the rich, and leave the poor hungry.” He didn’t realize that God had larger plans than he could imagine.
A second man arrived at the village center and stopped at the well. This man was well dressed, looked rich, even wore a vest of gold and leather shoes. He approached the poor farmer and asked, “Is there something I can do for you?”
“I need a godfather for my new infant,” the poor farmer said.
“Oh, give him to me,” the rich man said, “and I will shower him with gold in plenty and all the joys of the world as well.”
“Who are you?” asked the poor farmer.
“I am the Devil,” the rich man said.
“Then I do not want you for the child’s godfather for you deceive men and lead them astray.”
It was getting dark when the third man arrived, but the farmer could see even through the shadows that he was bent over and walked on withered legs.
He came toward the poor farmer and said, “I am willing to act as godfather to the child.”
The farmer asked, “Who are you?”
“I am Death,” the stranger said, “I treat all men equally.”
The poor farmer breathed a sigh of relief. “You are the right one. You take from the rich as well as the poor. You shall be this child’s godfather.”
Death smiled and showed his blackened teeth. “I will make your child rich and famous, for anyone who befriends me lacks nothing.”
And so it was on the day of the baby’s christening, Death appeared at the altar to hold the child and act as godfather.
The years passed. When the boy had grown up, his godfather came one day to the farm to meet him. “Follow me,” said Death, “We must go into the forest where I can give you the present I promised at your birth.”
Together both the young man and Death left the farm and walked into the forest. “I will make you a celebrated physician,” Death said. “I will teach you which herbs will heal, and how to collect them.”
“Thank you godfather,” the young man said, “I will learn well.”
Death continued, “Whenever you are called to a patient’s bedside, I will come as well. If I stand by the head of the sick one, you may with confidence say, ‘I will make you well again.’ Then you will give the patient this herb, and he will recover.”
The young man was thrilled by all the possibilities this provided. “Thank you godfather,” he said.
Then Death said, “But I must give you a warning. If I stand by the patient’s feet, he is mine and you must tell him he belongs to me. All remedies then will be in vain, and no physician in the world can save him. You must beware of this one warning. Never use the herb I have given you against my will, for that is outside your domain. It is a dangerous conceit and must be paid for.”
It was not long before this young man was the most famous physician in the whole known world. Word of mouth passed from village to village, from city to city and the word was this: “This esteemed physician, though young, can just look at a patient and know whether the patient would recover or not. It is quite miraculous.”
From far and wide people came to see him, sent for him when they had anyone ill, and gave him so much money that it was no time at all before he was a rich man.
Now it so happened that the King became ill, and the young physician was summoned. He was asked by the court if the King would recover. But when the physician came to the bedside, he saw Death standing by the feet of the King and he knew there was no herb that could save him.
The physician was terrified. He was fearful that the court would punish him if the King did not recover and the thought passed him mind, If only I could cheat Death this one time. He might allow it as I am his godson. And so he decided to risk it.
He took the King, lifted him tenderly in his arms and turned him around in his bed so now Death was standing by his head. Then he gave the king the herb and to everyone’s amazement, he recovered and got well again.
But now Death came to visit his godson looking dark and angry. He waved his finger in front of the young physician and warned, “You have gone too far. This time I will pardon you because you are my godson and you are still young and foolish. But if you overstep again, it will cost you dearly. I will, I swear, take you away with me.”
Soon afterwards, the King’s daughter fell dreadfully ill with the same sickness. She was his only child, and he wept night and day with worry over the thought of losing her. He cried so much that he was losing his sight and so he sent again for the young physician. Then he promised that whoever could rescue his daughter from Death could marry her and inherit the throne.
The young physician was so enthralled by the beauty of the princess that he forgot his godfather’s warning. He never noticed the angry glances that Death was giving him, nor did he see the waving of his withered fist. As the young man did the time before, he gently lifted the young girl and turned her around in the bed so that her head was now where her feet had been. Then he gently lifted her head and gave her the herb to drink. Instantly her cheeks were flushed, and she was again filled with life.
When Death saw that for the second time his property had been stolen, he was infuriated. He walked up to the physician with long strong strides and told him, “All is finished between us. Now their lot in life falls upon you.” Death seized him with his ice cold hand and led him to the cave below the earth.
There the young physician saw thousands and thousands of candles burning in long rows. There were some long ones with high flames, some medium with medium flames, some small ones with small flickering flames.
“See,” said Death, “these are the lights of men’s lives. The largest ones belong mostly to the children, the half size to those in their prime, and the little ones belong to old people– but children and young people also can have only a tiny candle.”
“Show me the light of my life?” the young man asked, thinking it would be very tall.
Death pointed to a tiny candle, one which was just about to go out. “Behold! It is there,” he said.
“Ahh, dear godfather,” the horrified physician gasped, “Light a new one for me? Do it for the love of me, that I may enjoy my life, be King, and the husband of the King’s beautiful daughter.”
“I cannot,” said Death firmly. “One must go out before a new one is lit.”
“Then, place the old one on a new one, so that the new one will keep burning when the old one has come to its end. Please?” the physician pleaded.
Death then reached for a tall new candle, but because he was still angry and wanted revenge, he purposely made a mistake. The tiny candle was knocked over, fell to the ground, and was extinguished.
At that same moment, the young physician dropped to the ground for he, himself, had fallen under the spell of Death.