Death's Messengers

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

In ancient times a giant was wandering along the highway when suddenly a stranger jumped toward him and shouted, "Stop! Not one step further!"

"What?" said the giant. "You, a creature that I could crush between my fingers, you want to block my way? Who are you that you dare to speak so boldly?"

"I am Death," answered the other one. "No one resists me, and you too must obey my orders."

But the giant refused, and began to wrestle with Death. It was a long, violent battle, and finally the giant got the upper hand, and knocked Death down with his fist, causing him to collapse by a stone. The giant went on his way, and Death lay there conquered, so weak that he could not get up again.

"What is to come of this?" he said. "If I stay lying here in a corner, no one will die in the world, and it will become so filled with people that they won't have room to stand beside one another."

Meanwhile a young man came down the road. Vigorous and healthy, he was singing a song and looking this way and that. Seeing the half-conscious individual, he approached him with compassion, raised him up, gave him a refreshing drink from his flask, and waited until he regained his strength.

"Do you know," asked the stranger, as he stood up, "who I am, and whom you have helped onto his legs again?"

"No," answered the youth, "I do not know you."

"I am Death," he said. "I spare no one, nor can make an exception with you. However, so you may see that I am grateful, I promise you that I will not attack you without warning, but instead will send my messengers to you before I come and take you away."

"Good," said the youth. "It is to my benefit that I shall know when you are coming, and that I will be safe from you until then."

Then he went on his way, and was cheerful and carefree, and lived one day at a time. However, youth and good health did not last long. Soon came sickness and pain, which tormented him by day and deprived him of his rest by night.

"I shall not die," he said to himself, "for Death will first send his messengers, but I do wish that these wicked days of sickness were over."

Regaining his health, he began once more to live cheerfully. Then one day someone tapped on his shoulder.

He looked around, and death was standing behind him, who said, "Follow me. The hour of your departure from this world has come."

"What?" replied the man. "Are you breaking your word? Did you not promise me that you would send your messengers to me before you yourself would come? I have not seen a one of them."

"Be still!" answered Death. "Have I not sent you one messenger after another? Did not fever come and strike you, and shake you, and throw you down? Has not dizziness numbed your head? Has not gout pinched your limbs? Did your ears not buzz? Did toothache not bite into your cheeks? Did your eyes not darken? And furthermore, has not my own brother Sleep reminded you every night of me? During the night did you not lie there as if you were already dead?"

The man did not know how to answer, so he surrendered to his fate and went away with Death.

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Revised September 6, 2006.