The Storyteller Presents
The Soldier and Death
This is the story of a Soldier, an honest soul walking back from twenty years of war, with nothing but a shilling in his pocket and three dry biscuits for the long trudge home. A thousand miles the Soldier marched and on the way had many an adventure, for he was a man of rare courage, oh yes, many a dragon, many a slip and scramble. And he spent his shilling and was down to the three dry biscuits when one day he came upon a Beggar playing a fiddle by the side of the road. And the Soldier, who, as ever, was whistling, a thin-between-the-teeth-type whistle, a long drizzle whistle that never remembered a tune, he stopped and joined in with the Beggar's fiddle; the one couldn't fiddle and the other couldn't whistle and were quite happy the both were. And had he not stopped and whistled with that poor Beggar, the Soldier would never have begun the adventure that led to his tangle with Death himself.THE END
For what could he give the Beggar for his merry reel but the first of his dry biscuits, for which the Beggar thanked him, wishing him a better whistle. Off the Soldier went with a light heart, and when he took up his tuneless tune-well, funny peculiar and strange indeedy, he had a whistle like a...Well, imagine what rubies would sound like if they whistled, and you have it. Yes, that was his new sound, and he heard it and he liked it and he kept it up all the way down the road, until he met another old boy down on his luck and worn at the edges, and this old man he played one he played knick-knack on his drum, and the Soldier stood and whistled his ruby whistle and did a little jig in his weary boots. But then he swapped a second biscuit, and now look at his dance! A fine terpsichore, good as new, a skip and a hop along the road, until at length he came to a third old soak, worn to a whisper and playing a game of solitaire by the road, and the Soldier looked as the fellow shuffled the pack and dealt out the cards, one after the other, a perfect hand. Now the Soldier had but a single biscuit in his bag and he was hungry as heck, so he thought on it. He pulled out the biscuit to break it in two and share with the Beggar, but it didn't feel good, did it, to give the old boy less than the others, so he held out both halves.
"You're a good man, Your Honor," said the Beggar. "And deserve more luck than to be on your last biscuit. Take these cards, and may they never lose for you." And with that he held out the pack to the Soldier. Next he rummaged in his rags and fished out an old sack, which he helf up to the Soldier. "And take this sack also, an ugly thing, but remarkable. Order a bird in or a beast or anything you like and it will be there in a twinkle." And the Soldier took it, thank you very much, and off he went to a bright skip and a ruby whistle, a light heart and an empty sack, and walked a warm night and a bright day and came to a river.
Three fat geese swam here, their proud armada skimming the water. The Soldier took out his sack and loosened the cord at its neck. "Hoy! Geese!" he shouted. "Hoy! Get in my sack!" And with this the geese flapped, scrambled, and flocked to the sack, one after the other. The Soldier was astounded. He was delighted. He swung his booty over his shoulder and headed for the town that beckoned on the horizon. How he whistled, how he danced. He had a magic sack!
That night he roomed in the tavern. The Innerkeeper eyed him as he entered; the full sack, the Soldier's livery. "Home from the war, are you?" The Soldier nodded. "With a sack full of spoils." No, the Soldier explained. These were three geese, newly trapped. If the Innkeeper could cook him the fattest and give him a good bed, he could have the other two for his pains. The bargain was quickly struck, and after a time the Soldier settled down to a dish of goose roasted in clove and honey and a bottle of best liquor, and he ate it all and sucked the bones and drank the liquor and danced, drunk as you like, until the morning, when he sank, flopped swam into bed.
Three days later, he woke up and looked out of the window. And there on the hill he saw a palace. Where once was pomp, now was ruin. Neglect had traced its moss and ivy, gouged out the stone. Menace issued frmo this palace. The Soldier ambled downstairs and questioned the Innkeeper. "That's the Czar's palace," the Innkeeper explained. "Was once a place of waltzes and chandeliers and fabulous parties. Now the Devils have it for their own card games." The Soldier's ears pricked up. Devils? "Devils," confirmed his host. "Every night, they tumble in and scream and shout and play at cards. No decent folk go near, they are so devilish." The Soldier stepped out for a closer look. He asked the Innkeeper why no one had rid the palace of these Devils. His face clouded. "An Army tried." He began. "In the morning there was nothing left of them but shadows. I watched them, we all did, these shadows wandering through the great halls searching for their bodies, until the sun set and they faded away. A terrible thing. I tell you, these are devilish Devils and gamblers too." This was challenge enough for our valiant Soldier. Fetching up his sack and his wonderful whistle, he stalked purposefully toward the palace. The Innkeeper watched him march off and shook his head at the folly of it.
Inside the palace, the Soldier found dust, decay, and a devilish odor. A heavy silence settled around him as if the world were holding its breath. He sat in the banquet hall at a great table with its cloth of cobwebs, drummed his fingers, and waited for darkness to bring visitors. Hours passed. The shadows lengthened until only the guttering flame of a single candle flickered on his face. He gazed at it. Suddenly clocks began a melancholy chime, creaking into life, and with them a scurry and a scamper. A rush of cold air extinguished the candle and all was black. The Devils had arrived. The Soldier felt them flapping like bats above his head. The doors to the hall burst open and slammed against their hinges. More Devils, hundreds of them, poured into the room, each carrying tiny torches. They swarmed to the table and surrounded the Soldier, who continued to sit, unabashed. He began to whistle.
"We have a visitor!" hissed one of the Devils. They were all identical. "He's whistling," said another. "That a nice whistle. I want it." "Hello," said the Soldier, introducing himself. The Devils flapped above, around, and beneath him. They repeated his greeting to each other as if it were quite the most ridiculous word they ever heard. "I hear you like a game of cards," the Soldier said. This produced an accordion of cackles. Each picked up this line and passed it to his fellow, them collapsed into hideous hiss and wheeze, which the Soldier assumed was amusement. He smiled back and produced the Beggar's pack of cards, shuffling them and banging the stack sharply onto the table, causing dust to billow up and send the Devils into fits of choking. He dealt them out. "So," he said amiably. "What shall we play for?"
The Devils had ideas. His soul? His whistle? His teeth? The Soldier agreed. He would wager anything they fancied, soul, whistle, teeth, anything. But what would they offer? The Devils were crying with laughter at the idea of anyone imagining he might beat them at cards. The doors opened again, and minor imps appeared dragging forty barrels of gold and forty barrels of silver. "Any use?" inquired one of them as each of the players dipped into the gleaming coins and threw them onto the table.
The Soldier nodded, glancing at the money, then settled down to play. The cackling ceased as the Devils examined their cards. Cards were exchanged, legally and otherwise, than thrown triumphantly down. Each hand was better than the one before it. Piercing red eyes turned to the Soldier. He looked at the cards, then at each face in turn, before turning over his own perfect hand. "My round, I think," he announced, scooping up the coins. The Devils could not believe he'd won. Then the Soldier dealt a second time. And won again. Then a third. Gold piled up in front of him. Horns were shaken, wings flapped, tails slapped irritably from side to side. "Is he cheating?" said one to the other. "Well, I am and I'm still losing."
"Deal again," they told the Solier. And he did, and he won. And the Devils got into the kind of fume only Devils can get in. He won game after game while Devils cheated to high. Heaven and low Hell to no avail. By the first bells of morning, the forty barrels of silver and forty barrels of gold were stacked behind the chair of the Soldier, who whistled as he won.
"We'd better call it a day, my friends," announced the Devils' tormentor. "We will not," they fumed. "We will call it a breakfast and you the meal. Come, brothers, let's tear him to pieces!" The Soldier whipped out his sack and slapped it on the table. "First make sure who eats whom!" he cried and, opening the sack, ordered them in. With that, an invisible hand seemed to grasp them by foot ankle, horn and wing, and squeeze them, one after the other, into the magic bag. Within seconds the room was empty save for the Soldier and his bulging, kicking, turbulent booty. Hoisting the sack over his shoulder, he marched into the courtyard and played merry hell with his captives, whirling them about his head before bringing them down to earth time and time again, with a bump and bash and a thump and a crash. Fume! fume! fume! fumed the Devils in a queasy chorus.
"More?" demanded the Soldier. "No, no, no!" pleaded the Devils, shrieking with torment, swearing to make an end of their mischief. Whirling them around and around, their captor forced promise and vow from them. Never, they would never come back. Definite, they would cause no more harm. Yes, came their curdled oaths. Yes, yes, came their strangled pledges.
Satisfied, the Soldier untied the sack. How they swarmed from it, the terrified Devils; how fast they headed for Hell, wings beating madly. As they flew up and off, the Soldier grabbed the last of them, catching a despairing hoof, dangling the poor Devil above the ground. "Let me go!" it shrieked. "Let me go. I couldn't stand another blow." But the Soldier refused until the creature swore to serve him faithfully. "Yes!" yelled the frantic fellow. "I swear by toffee, swear by worms, swear by all those things which squirms, swear by murder, swear by boils, swear by muck and boiling oils." And so the Soldier released him, but kept his foot. The Devil crashed to the ground and stared, flabbergasted, back up at his little hoof in the Soldier's fist. "My foot's come off!" "That's right," agreed the Soldier. "Now off you go and remember where you left it."
Off he went, the little Devil, on his one good hoof, hop and howl, flap and foul, straight to Hell. Once inside, he and his fellows slammed shut the doors for fear of being followed by the Soldier and his sack. And they trembled and quivered and fumed and listened without speaking for three weeks in case they didn't hear out hero coming after them. But the Soldier had no time for Devils; he was the toast of the town and the star of the Czar. And things went well with him for a long time. He kept the Devi's foot. Black flowers grew from it, smell of sulphur.
For a long time all was dandy for the Soldier and his sack. He took a wife, got a son. And lived with them in the palace that the Czar gave him. All good things came. Silks and satins and fine damask cloth. Sweet days. A hero's happiness. Our Soldier laughed long and whistled loud and was known to dance in all weathers. But fortune is fickle. He woke one morning from his feather bed to find his son in a fever. For five long days and five lone nights, he sat, the Soldier, at his son's side, wife beside him. But no matter the medicine, no matter the prayer, the fever raged and the sickness worsened. And so it was he lost his whistle, and so it was he lost his jig. And his wife shed bitter tears as the child faded from them, tossing and turning in his torment.
And they called for quacks and apothecaries and healers and men with needles, leeches, quicksilver, and long words in Latin, and soon the boy's room was full of graybeards and shaking of heads, but still the fever raged and the boy passed into a swoon. The graybeards were replaced by priests mumbling and praying and rattling their rosaries. And a man in black came wiht a vile stick to measure a coffin. The Soldier and his wife stood and watched and sorrowed, chill shadows lengthening across the room, their son's face growing paler with each hour. "What shall we do?" cried the Soldier's wife. "My lips are sore from praying and my knees weary of kneeling." The Soldier shook his head, hopeless, full of anguish. "It's the very devil," he sighed. "The very devil."
Now that's a word. Devil. It went out of his mouth and straight into his ear and jiggle-joggle his memory. And as it did so, the foot, forgotten in its corner, began to shake, its black flowers quivering. The Soldier saw it and yelled out, "Now where the devil's that Devil of mine?" No sooner said, no sooner done, than a flash of smoke produced the Devil, his sworn servant, bowing and at the Soldier's service. "Where've you sprung from?" inquired the Soldier. The Devil shrugged and pointed wryly at the thin angular stalks of his legs. "Not so much sprung as hopped, Excellency. You have my foot." With this the foot shook even more. At once, the Soldier proposed a bargain with the Devil. If he could cure his son, the Soldier would return the foot.
The Devil considered for a moment, then produced a small, beautiful glass, a tumbler of jewel and crystal, full of water. He held the glass up by the sick boy's head and peered into it, squinting at and beckoned him to do the same. The Soldier took the glass and looked throught the liquid a his son. Standing at the foot of the bed was a strange figure, a dark hood shrouding his face, so that the Soldier could not tell whether he was young or old, this creature. Indeed, the face seemed to the Soldier to be that of an ancient baby. All that was clear to him, through the glass and crystal, were the eyes. Black. Extraordinary. Black like a night in the wilderness. To look into them was to look at the darkest sky. Thick black with stars.
"Such eyes!" the Soldier exclaimed. The Devil beamed. "That's Death, Excellency. But do not fear. See how he stands at the foot of the bed." The Soldier nodded, entranced. "All is well," explained the Devil. "If Death stands at your son's feat, he will recover. Only when he comes to the head must you worry. Now, splash some of the water from the glass onto your child.
So the Soldier dipped his fingers into the glass and let the drops fall onto his son's head. At once, his son shuddered and opened his eyes. He looked up at his father and mother as if it were a morning like any other and he had just waked. "I'm hungry," he said, and sat up.
"Oh heavens!" cried the Soldier's wife. The Devil coughed. "Oh Devil!" she said to appease him. And what a marvel it was, their son as good as new. They danced, they sang, they whistled. "Could I have my foot back?" the Devil inquired hopefully. The Soldier promised he could have back not only foot but freedom in exchange for the marvelous, miraculous glass. And the deal was done with joy on both sides, the Devil hoppping off clutching his foot with its bouquet of black flowers, the Soldier nursing the magic glass, his wife their darling son.
So it was that our friend the Soldier set up the time-honored trade of miracle man, and soon all the graybeards and all the prayermen were out of business as he traveled the world on a camel with his magic glass. Show him a sick man and he would hold up the glass. If black-eyed Death sat at the foot of the bed, a quick splish-splash and the invalid would sit pouring out blessings. If Death stood staring up the other end, the Soldier would shake his head solemnly and depart: "What a pity I came too late," and so on. And the relatives would mutter, "What a pity he came too late," and pay him all the same. But as often as not he left with all happy and amazed and praising him. And it went well for the Soldier until one day, far from anywhere, he gets a message from hone to say the Old Czar has fallen ill and sends for him.
So off he set, from the far off where he was, riding all night, riding all day, until home and hurrying to the palace-doors flung open, fifty of the Czar's wives weeping in the long coridors-and into the bedchamber where his patron lay, gray and giving up the ghost. All hoped and all prayed as the Soldier took out the glass and held it to his eyes. But when the Soldier saw Death smiling at the Czar's head, waiting patiently to carry him off. The Soldier frowned a frown and he sighed a sigh. "I've come too late," he said, and shook his head. One to the other the wives carried the news, a sob passed tear to tear down the long passages. "He's come too late," they wept. "You save beggars and thieves and cats and dogs and yet you cannot save your master." But if Death wanted a new friend, the Soldier knew he could not fight him. So he thought on it and thought on it and knew what he must do. Once again he held up the glass, and for the first time he addressed the black-eyed creature. "Sir," he said. "The Czar has been my friend and father. Take me, and spare him, I beg you."
The black eyes stared back, unblinking. A hush settled on the chamber. Silently, Death came down from the head of the bed and stood, eyes fixed on the Soldier. Swallowing back his fear, the brave man dipped his fingers in the glass and blessed the Czar, who sat up in an instant, praising Heaven. And while the palace cheered, bells ringing, the Soldier slowly turned left, a sad and solitary man trudging home to meet his end.
By nightfall, he had taken to his bed, the life flowing from him. His dear wife and son sat by him, helpless. It seemed all up with him. His energy ebbed away, his breath was shallow, his heart weak. A frail arm held up the glass, and the Soldier dimly saw the black eyes watching over him. With a final effort, he reach under the blankets and heaved out the old sack, waggling it under Death's nose. "Do you know what this is?" he asked Death. And Death replied, "A sack." "Well, it's a sack," exclaimed the Soldier, "then get in it!" Suddenly the sack bulged as if gulping in the air. A suck, a hiss, and a whoosh. Quick as a flash, the Soldier leapt up and yanked the drawstring tight. Then he was jumping up and down on the bed, his family looking on in amazement. "I've dont it!" he cried triumphantly. "I have captured Death in my sack!" And he had. Imagine dancing, imagine the whistling, imagine the hugs and kissing! For the Soldier had done the impossible: he had cheated Death. He laughed the laugh of a man who could not believe his fortune. He threw the sack in the air. Death his prisoner!
The news, whispered from one of the Czar's wives to the next, spread through the town as fast as gossip, which is what it was, and nothing spreads faster. Within four and a half minutes the whole town knew and within seventeen minutes the whole country knew and by the following morning it was the news in a thousand languages. Death a prisoner! Morte un prigioniero! Tod ein Gefanger! Smird ooznitzen! Ekhmalotisame ton thanato!
And the Soldier, to be on the safe side, set off with Death in his sack and found the thickest forest and the highest tree and clambered up it and hung Death from the longest branch, and promptly fell off. But there's nothing like Death off-duty to cushion a fall. For now, of course, nothing could die. Relatives gathered at deathbeds for months on end. Crossed lovers would throw themselves off cliffs and have a long climb back. Everywhere the oddest battles ensued! There were wars going on in most places and they became very strange. At the end of a day's carnage, flashing swords and explosions, the air thick with arrows and the savage swoosh of axes, nobody had died! The armies would look at each other, exhausted and intact. Dules at dawn went on til midnight when the rivals would go home confused. And our friend the Soldier was the most famous man in the world. Because suddenly everyone could live forever. He sat in his palace and whistled his ruby whistle.
Then one day, looking down from his window, he saw his gardens full of poor souls wandering, old scrads of folk barely held together, a frail funereal march. The Soldier went down to them, approaching an ancient lady, a gray-and-white cloud of a woman, so fragile it seemed any moment a breeze might lift her from the ground and blow her away. When the Soldier asked of her purpose, she replied in a reedy voice, in a voice of wind chimes, explaining that they were all of one will. They were waiting to die, they had given up the ghost.
"Ninety winters I'd seen come and go," she whispered. "I was but an hour away from peace when you tied up sweet Death in your sack." And what was true for her was true for them all. They were weary of age and its sucking out of spirit. "Long ago our place in Heaven was made ready for us," she told him sorrowfully. "But for you, we would no longer drag our misery about the world. Let us rest in peace." The Soldier looked about him and saw a sea of faces implore him, for these old folk were not afraid of Death, only of the long dying. And they were not alone. Thousands blew out their candle that night, hoping it was their last, but a new morning betrayed them. These deathless ones pilgrimaged to the Soldier's house and stood with the others under his window: a swelling, wailing, groaning crew, until the Soldier could not bear their limbo another minute.
Once more he set out for the thickest forest, found the highest tree, climbed it to the longest branch, and there, hanging, was his sack. He sat on the grass and untied the drawstring holding in Death. As he picked at the knots, the Soldier spoke, declaring his surrender. "I've led you a merry dance," he admitted. "Now you must have me, and set the world to rights." But no sooner had he loosened the ties that secured it than gusts of what seemed like air billowed from the sack. Death was fleeing from him. "Come back!" the Soldier beseeched. "Death! Come back!"
But Death had fear of him and his sack, and would not come back. Again, the Soldier was condemned to watch while others aged and died, but Death would not come for him. He lived on and on until he could stand it no longer, and dragged his dust and fragments across to the edge of the Earth and slowly down to Hell, where he found a huge door that had no top, no bottom, and no sides.
The old Soldier went up to the door and gave it a sharp knock. From every conceivable place, a smaller door opened, and from each popped the head of a Devil. Smoke wisped out behind them and ghastly groans. The heads swiveled and looked down on their visitor. "A sinful soul comes to surrender his life," announced the Soldier. And just about to let him in were they when one of them noticed his luggage. "What's that you're carrying?" it asked suspiciously. The Soldier shrugged. "A sack," he said. Every door slammed shut. For the Devils remembered that sack and would have none of it. Where could he go? wondered the Soldier dismally. Where could he go with the burden of his sins weighing heavy on his shoulders? An idea came to him. He hammered once more on the grim door and hollered at the Devils. "I won't go," he told them, "unless you give me the map to Heaven and a way in." There was a silence. Then a map landed at his feet. Encouraged, he continued: "And two hundred souls you have no use for." This request prompted a hiss of whispers and furious discussions from behind the massive portal. Doors were opened, then shut, steam belching from them. Then a Devil stuck out his crimson head and waggled his horns at the Soldier. "One hundred and fifty," he bartered. The Soldier brandished his trusty sack. "Do you know what this is?" The Devil shrank from it, crying, "Don't wave that sack around.!"
Suddenly the door swung open, creaking and complaining. Fug and foul issued forth, a dense bilge of sulphur and reek. From this unholy smoking stench, two hundred slow and mournful figures emerged, heads bowed. The Soldier examined the map as his sorry charges, lifeless and vacant, awaited his instructions. The parchment was a mess of hieroglyphs and strange signs. "Follow the directions," advised a scrawl scratched on the back, "until you can go no further. Then go directly up until you have the sensation of standing on your head. This is the edge of Heaven. Thereafter follow the church music." Thus informed, the Soldier turned and set off, while the Devils peered through cracks and crannies and fumed.
The ragtag pilgrimage made its way through thick cloud and thin cloud, through twist and turn. Some time later (how long he could not tell, for they had long since passed the place where there is night and day), the Soldier had the strange sensation of walking upside down. He paused, halting procession. And listened. From above him, organs sounded, and celestes and the flutes and oboes of Paradise. Guided by his ear, they continued upward, always upward, the music swelling, their spirits soaring, until there they were at Heaven's Gate, so brightly they could not see it, so dazzling their hearts beat fast. A voice greeted them. A voice like bells, like nothing they had heard before, an Angel's voice.
"Who approaches?" asked this voice, and the Soldier stepped forward bravely. "I am the Soldier who took Death prisoner," he told the light, "and I have brought two hundred souls from Hell in the hope that God will forgive me and let me in with them. Without hesitation the Angel replied, "The souls may enter, but alone." The Soldier felt clouds fall on his head. He turned to the souls. "Go then," he told them, "and be blessed," and stood, heart heavy, as they passed him, one by one, the last few steps to peace, the last few seconds before an eternity of rest. The Soldier twisted the sack round and round his hand while he felt hope drain from him, happiness flip away.
Then, just as the last few were running, stumbling, running to the always and thereafter, a thought, a brilliant thought, came to him and he reached the shoulder of one of the pilgrims. The Soldier slipped the sack into the soul's hand and whispered to him, "Take this, friend, and once inside, call me into the sack. Remember: I delivered you from the furnace." The soul nodded, smiled, and moved on. The Soldier watched him as his disappeared into the blinding light.
The Soldier waited and waited, an inch from Paradice, waited for what seemed lifetime. But, you see, there is no memory in Heaven. Nor guile. Souls forget. The Soldier stood in vain. For howsoever life may smile on us, the laugh is reserved for Death. After a long time the Soldier, abandoned, went slowly back to Earth. And for all I know he wanders still, as we all do, between Heaven and Hell. But if sometimes, just before sleep, or at places where sand meets sea, land meets sky, you hear a sound like the sound of rubies whistling, you can be sure it is the Soldier and that he can still jig. I know, for he himself told me this story and afterward we danced until dawn.
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