Skip to content

A Tale of Death and a Strange Postscript to It


As translated by Emily Williams –

“What is it that fascinates you about that land above?” I had been lingering at the sight of the evening sky slowly fading into night when a voice cried out:

My gaze fell back down to the ground as though shot in mid flight, and I realised where I was: I had found my way to the lower wall of our little churchyard. The man with the spade was standing facing me on the other side of it, smiling earnestly.

“I am more interested in this land here,” he continued, motioning towards the moist black earth peeking out in patches from beneath the dead leaves, which rustled as they moved, even though I was not aware that a wind had started to blow. Suddenly, gripped by revulsion, I asked him:

“Why do you do that?” The gravedigger’s smile did not waver.

“It gives me strength too – and, after all, don’t you agree that most people do the same thing? They bury God up there, just as I bury the people down here.” He gestured towards heaven and explained to me: “Yes, up there is nothing but a huge grave; in summer wild forget-me-nots grow on it –”

“Once there was a time when people buried God in heaven,” I interrupted, “that much is true –”

“Has anything changed?” he asked, with a curious hint of melancholy.

I continued, “There was a time when everybody threw a handful of sky over him, I know that. But by that time he was no longer there, or was he…” I hesitated and then started afresh. “Did you know that in the olden days, people prayed like this –” I spread my arms out and felt my breast expanding involuntarily. “At that time God threw himself into all these abysses, full of humility and darkness and it was only with reluctance that he returned to his heaven, which he, undetected, drew closer over the earth. A new religion emerged. But when the preacher of the new commandments saw that this couldn’t make people understand how this new God was any different from the old one they had known, (indeed, as soon as they began to praise him, people immediately saw their old God in him), he changed the way that people prayed. He taught people to put their hands together and decided: ‘Look, this is the way our God wants to be prayed to, this proves that he is different to the one you thought you held in your arms before.’ The people took his words to be true, and unleashed scornful outrage on those who prayed with open arms, and later they nailed the gesture to the Cross as a symbol of affliction and death for all.

“The next time God looked down on the Earth he was horrified. Hundreds of Gothic churches had been built in the midst of this the sea of folded hands, and the hands and the roofs, as sharp and pointed as enemy weapons, rose up to challenge him. But God showed a different kind of bravery. He retreated back into his heaven and when he noticed the towers and the new prayers advancing towards him, he crossed over to the other side and left heaven to escape this persecution. To his amazement he found the beginnings of darkness on the other side of his radiant heaven; a darkness which received him in silence. But he continued deeper into this nightfall with a feeling of apprehension which reminded him of the hearts of humans. For the first time he realised that, although people’s heads are filled with light, their hearts contain darkness of a similar intensity and he was overcome by a longing to live in the hearts of people and to cease wandering through the clear, cold consciousness of their thoughts. Now, God continued on his path. The darkness around him became thicker and he found himself forcing his way through a night which had something of the fragranced warmth of the fertile soil. It was not long before roots stretched out to receive him in the same beautiful gesture of the wide prayer. There is nothing wiser than the circle. The same God who eluded us in heaven will return to us from the earth. And, who knows, perhaps one day you will dig down to find the gate…”

“But that is just a story,” said the man with the spade.

“When told by our voices, everything becomes just a story. It has to, because we do not admit that it could actually have happened,” I replied quietly. The man stared blankly ahead. Then he tugged his apron violently over his head and asked:

“Perhaps we could walk on together?” I nodded:

“I am going home. It’s the same way, isn’t it? But don’t you live here?”

He came through the small iron gate, replaced it gently on its ringing hinges and answered, “No.” He became more trusting once we had walked a little while. “What you said before was right. It is strange that there is no one who wants to do that work, outside. I’d never thought about it before. But now that I’m growing older, sometimes I have these thoughts, strange thoughts, like the one about the sky, and others like it. Death. What do we know about it? Apparently everything, perhaps nothing. Often children gather around me as I work, but I don’t know who they belong to. Immediately I am seized by something. Then I dig like an animal, to drive all the energy out of my head, to let my arms expend it. The grave becomes a lot deeper than the regulations require and a mountain of earth grows up next to it. But the children run away when they see my wild movements. They think that I am angry.” He thought for a moment. “And it is a kind of anger. You become oblivious to it, you think you have overcome it and suddenly…it doesn’t help. Death is something incomprehensible, terrible.”

We continued on a long path under fruit trees which had already lost their leaves to where the woodland started, to our left, like a night which was about to fall upon us at any moment. “I want to tell you a little story,” I said, tentatively: “it is the perfect length for our walk.” The man nodded and lit his short, old pipe. I started to tell the story:

“Once upon a time there were two people, a man and a woman, and they loved one another. Love: that means accepting nothing from anywhere, forgetting everything and wanting to receive everything from one person, all that you have already possessed and everything else. But as time goes on, as the days pass, amongst all the things that come and go, even before you form a strong bond to it, this kind of love can no longer be nurtured, events crop up on all sides, and all manner of coincidences and accidents open their doors to you.

Because of this, the two people from so long ago decided to go into solitude far away from the chiming clocks and the sounds of the city. And there they built themselves a house in a garden. The house had two doors, one on its right side and one on its left. The door on the right was the man’s door and everything that was his was to enter the house through this door. The door on the left was the woman’s door; and everything that was her wish was to enter through its arch. And this was what happened. Whoever woke first in the morning would rise and open their door. From then until nightfall, so much would come in through the door, even though the house was far from the road. For those that know how to receive it, the landscape will come into the house and the light and a wind bearing fragrances on its shoulders and so many other things. But also past histories, characters, destinies came in through the two doors. Each one was treated with the same humble hospitality and they started to think they had always lived in this house out in the sticks. And so it continued for a long time, and it made both people very happy. The left door was open more often but more colourful guests entered through the door on the right. One morning death himself waited outside this door. The man hastily slammed his door shut as soon as he saw him and kept it shut firm for the rest of the day. After a short time death reappeared in front of the left hand entrance. Trembling with fear, the woman slammed the door to and forced the large bolt shut. They never mentioned this occurrence to each other but they opened the two doors less frequently and tried to make do with what was left in the house. This meant that they lived a much more miserable existence than before. Their supplies began to run low and then worries took root. They both started to sleep badly and it was in the middle of one of these long wakeful nights that they heard a strange scrabbling and rattling. It came from behind the wall of the house, exactly in between the two gates, and sounded as if someone was chipping out the stones to make a new door in the middle of the wall. In their horror, the two people pretended not to have heard anything strange. They started to talk, laughed unnaturally loudly, and when they grew tired, the digging in the wall ceased. From that day on, both doors have remained firmly shut.

The people live like prisoners. Both have become sickly and have started to have strange ideas. The noise reoccurs from time to time. When this happens they laugh with their mouths, whilst their hearts are close to dying from fear. And they both know that the digging is growing ever louder and clear, and they have to raise their voices and laugh in tones that soon become deadened and dull.”

I fell silent.

“Of course –” said the man next to me, “that is it: it’s a true story.”

“I read it in an old book,” I added, “and in it something very strange happens. Between the lines where the story tells of death appearing in front of the woman’s door there was a tiny star, drawn in old faded ink. It stood out from the cloud of words around it and for a moment I thought that if the lines tarried a while it would be clear that behind them there was nothing but stars, as often happens when the spring sky becomes clear late in the evening. I forgot all about this apparently irrelevant incident until I saw the star again, like a reflection on a lake, on the smooth shiny paper, tucked away in the binding of the book and just underneath it delicate lines began, running like waves in on the pale shimmering surface. In many places the script had become unclear, but I still managed to decipher almost all of it. There was written:

‘I have read this story so often, indeed every day that it was possible, and sometimes I believed that I wrote it from my own memory. I shall record here how my version continues. The woman had never seen death, and meaning no harm, she allowed him to enter one day. Death, however, said something rather rash, like someone who lacks a conscience: “Give this to your husband.” And as the woman looked at him questioningly, he added hastily: “They are seeds, very good seeds.” Then he went away without looking back. The woman opened the pouch which he had placed in her hands; and indeed, it did contain a kind of seeds, hard, terrible kernels. Here the woman thought: the seeds are something unfinished, their time has not yet come. You cannot have any idea what they will grow into. I will just press them into the soil of our garden and wait to see what arises from them. Then I will take him to them and tell him how I came to tend these plants. And this is exactly what she did. Life continued as before. The man, who could not help but remember how death had stood before his door, was somewhat nervous at first, but when he saw that the woman was as hospitable and carefree as she had ever been, he soon threw open the wide doors of his gate and let light and life into his house.

The next spring a small seedling stood between the two slim fire lilies in the flower bed. Its leaves were black and narrow, delicately pointed, similar to a laurel, and there was a strange glimmer to their darkness. Every day the man meant to ask where the plant had come from. But day after day went by and still he didn’t ask. A similar feeling prevented the woman offering her explanation for days on end. But the suppressed question for the one, and the never dared answer from the other drew both the people to this bush, whose verdant darkness made it stand out so strangely from the rest of the garden.

When the next spring arrived, they tended the bush just like the others in their garden and they were saddened when it grew, surrounded by a sea of rising blossoms, remaining silent and unchanged, just like in its first year, deaf to all the sunlight. Without revealing it to the other, they both decided that in this third spring they would dedicate all their energy to it, and when spring arrived, each fulfilled their individual pacts, hand in hand. The garden around it grew wilder and more overgrown and the fire lilies appeared paler than usual. One morning, after a heavy night of foreboding, they stepped into the dawn garden, into its shimmering tranquillity, then they knew: a pale blue blossom had grown from the black, sharp leaves of the strange bush, its bud still tightly clinging on all sides. They stood in front of it, united in silence, and now they really had no idea what to say. They had only one thought: now death is blossoming, and they gathered around it in unison to sample the fragrance of the young blossom. Since this morning, everything in the world has changed.’ This is what was written on the cover of that old book.” I concluded.

“But who wrote that?” the man asked, insistently.

“From the writing, a woman,” I replied “but there would have been no use in searching any further. The words were very faded and rather old fashioned. She probably died a long time ago.”

The man was deep in thought. Finally he confessed: “It’s just a story, but it moves me so much.” “Well, that happens when you don’t hear stories so often,” I reassured him.

“Do you really think so?” He extended his hand towards me and I held it firmly.

“But I would like to tell it to someone else. Can I do that?” I nodded. Suddenly a thought occurred to him: “But I don’t have anyone. Who can I tell my story to?”

“Oh, that’s simple: the children, the children that sometimes come and watch you working. Who else?” It is the children who listened to the last three stories. Indeed, they demanded the one about the evening clouds several times, if I am not mistaken. After all, the children are only young and much further from the clouds of the evening than we are. But that is all the better for this story. In spite of the man’s slow, carefully chosen words they will realise that this is a matter for children, and will listen to my story with a critical ear, like scholars. But it is better for the moment that they do not discover how those things that seem effortless and simple to them we can only experience imperfectly and with difficulty.