version 1.0, 1/2000
This story is told in cultures throughout the world. The ending is always the same.
The primary characters are Death and her godchild, Fernando. Minor characters include: Fernando's father, a king, a princess (the king's daughter), and various supernumeraries (a merchant, the king's ministers, patients).
Outside of a cathedral, a man called out in frustration above the peel of the bells, "Will no one be godparent to my son?"
"I will," a chill voice spoke from his side. "Let me be the godmother of your son and his future will be assured."
"Who are you?"
"I am Death."
At first, the man was afraid for the first reaction of most men to Death is fear. He began to object, but Death continued, "Do not be afraid. Now is not your time, nor your wife's nor your son's. Will you have me as his godmother?"
The man thought hard for a moment and finally replied, "To you, all people are equal. Everyone, rich or poor eventually comes to know you."
"Correct. And it is within my power to make your son famous throughout the land. Will you have me as his godmother?"
"It would be an honor," the man said, bowing low. "Please, come in. The christening is about to begin."
Death stood amid the company in the church. She hardly listened to the ceremony, taken as she was by the beauty of the light steaming through the colored glass. She seldom came within the walls of a church since her in business with the deceased was concluded long before they arrived here. When the christening was complete, she told the father, "I will return to see Fernando when he is ready to go out into the world. Fame and fortune will be his so long as he obeys me."
Fernando grew quickly. In what seemed like a short time, he was a young man, ready to leave his home and parents. One afternoon, he heard a knock at the door. Although it was summer, a cold draft wailed through the house as the door swung open. He did not shrink back though when he beheld Death. "Are you my godmother?" he asked.
"Yes. Say your farewells to your parents and walk with me."
Fernando kissed his mother on the cheek and embraced his father as he set off. Death sent him on ahead saying, "Wait for me by the gate."
Fernandoís father took his wifeís hand asking, "It's our time, isn't it?"
"Take care of him, please."
"That was why I became his godmother," she replied as she carried them swiftly to the other side.
Death walked from the house and told Fernando to follow her. In time, they came to a field of yellow flowers. She snatched a handful of the stems and gave them to her godson. The fragile petals fell to dust in his hands. "You shall become a doctor," she said. "Keep a pouch of this herb with you always. When you are called to examine a patient, look for me. If I am at the head of the bed then it is not their time. Give them some of this herb and they will recover. But, if I am at the foot of the bed say loudly for anyone to hear that there is nothing you nor anyone else can do. Do you understand?"
"Watch for me and obey me and you shall never be wrong. Your fame will grow quickly. Be warned though, do not try to appeal my judgment. By the time you see me, the matter has already been decided."
"I understand, godmother," Fernando affirmed.
Fernando walked on by himself into the next town. As it happened, there was a merchant who was taken suddenly ill at the inn where Fernando stopped. Saying he was a doctor, Fernando asked to see the man. When he entered the room, he saw Death standing by the head of the bed. He moved quickly to the merchant, pressing the dried herb between the prone man's lips. "He will recover," Fernando pronounced and rose quickly to leave the room.
As she vanished, Death whispered to him, "Remember, only you can see me. Take your time and amaze them."
By the time Fernando turned, she was gone.
The next morning, the merchant was fully recovered. He gave Fernando several gold coins and asked where he was traveling. Fernando replied he did not know, so in the merchant offered to let him travel with his caravan.
Fernando made his way slowly through the countryside. In every town, someone (usually more than one) was ill. The first three people he saw, Death was standing by the head of their bed. The merchant began to believe he had found a miracle worker, but at last, he came to an old woman. She had fallen by the fireplace preparing a meal she had made a thousand times before. Death stood by her feet. He turned around in the doorway, not even approaching the bed. As he left he said loudly, "There is nothing to be done. Not by me or anyone else."
Sure enough, by morning she was gone.
In the company of the merchant, Fernando traveled far and wide. His reputation grew swiftly. Never once was he wrong. He became adept at the motions of examination which seemed expected even though he knew his patient's fate as soon as he entered the room.
In time, Fernando came to the capital. As it happened, the king was gravely ill. Fernando's reputation preceded him and as soon as he passed the city gates, he was summoned to the court. The king's ministers were gravely worried about the monarch's condition.
Fernando, now richly dressed in the robes of a successful doctor, asked where the king was resting.
"I'll take you to His Majesty directly," the Minister of State replied.
"The king has promised a manor house and an annual income to the doctor who can cure him," the Minister of the Treasury stated.
Fernando stopped in his tracks. Being a doctor paid well enough and such a reward was more wealth than the son of a peasant farmer had ever imagined. He was weary of the road.
"Come, Sir," the Minister of State entreated.
"Surely, you cannot ask for a greater reward," the Minister of the Treasury admonished.
"Ministers, do you love your king?" Fernando asked.
Both fell over each other protesting their love for the sovereign.
"Then to ensure his continued rule, do exactly as I say, no matter how strange it seems."
Not realizing they were speaking to the son of a farmer, the ministers nodded silently in agreement. Fernando's ego and sense of self-importance had grown along with his reputation. He found that people feared and respected doctors as they feared and respected Death.
When they arrived at the bedchamber, Fernando told them to open the door slowly so that he could see what was within. The door was barely a quarter opened when he saw the ornately carved dark wood at the foot of the bed. Beside it, he saw the familiar robe of his godmother, Death. "Stop!" he whispered. Gesturing for the Ministers to shut the door he spoke softly to them, "Go into the bedchamber and turn the king so his head is at the foot of the bed. Do not question me," he said cutting off their objection. "Do this, before I enter to see the king."
Baffled, the Ministers went into the bedchamber.
"Is this part of your miracle cure I've heard spoken of, Doctor?" a young woman asked.
Fernando turned and gasped at the vision before him. Stunned by her beauty, he made no answer.
"I do not mean to pry," she blushed. "My father means the world to me..." Her eyes welled with tears and she pleaded, "For my sake and the sake of the kingdom, do whatever you can." Turning away, she walked quickly from Fernando trying to conceal her anguish.
Fernando was about to go after her when the Minister of Finance opened the door and reported, "Sir, it is done."
Fernando entered the room, striding with confidence to the king. Death had taken no notice of them. She stood unmoved, but now by the head of king. Fernando took some of the herb from his pouch and said with certainty in his voice, "The king shall recover."
Death, who long ago stopped paying any attention to Fernando while he worked (she was very busy and did have many places to be at the same time), snapped her head down to see the face of the king beside her godson. She remained in the room as Fernando completed the motions of his examination. She waited until he was about to leave before she spoke, more coldly then she had ever spoken to him before, "I'll forgive you this once because you are my godson, but if you ever disobey me again it will be the end of you."
She was gone before Fernando could open his mouth to speak.
The king recovered rapidly (more rapidly than was expected). He was extremely grateful and extremely generous to Fernando. Good to his word, he gave Fernando a fine house in the country with a large annual income. Fernando had barely moved in when an urgent summons arrived from the king. His daughter was stricken and he demanded his royal doctor's immediate presence at court.
By the time Fernando arrived, the king was frantic. His daughter was the great love of his life and he promised half of his kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage if Fernando could cure her.
Fernando would have done it for nothing. He had fallen in love with the king's daughter when he had first seen her. He trembled as he opened the door to her bedchamber knowing that her fate was already sealed and he could do nothing but report it.
Even pale and sick, the king's daughter was lovely. She reclined gracefully on her bed surrounded by soft cushions. Death, her face like a mask, stood at the foot of the bed.
Fernando charged into the room and turned the princess around in the bed himself. Gently dropping the herb onto her delicate lips, he said, "She must live. She will live."
"So she will." Darkness fell around him. Death spoke again, "I warned you, godson."
"No, godmother," Fernando entreated, "Please. I swear to you, Iíll never disobey again. Sheís all I have ever wanted. Abandon me now. Appear to me no more. Iíll never be a doctor again."
"Too late, my godson." The walls cracked and a gaping hole appeared revealing a stair leading down. "See what you have done," Death said to her disobedient charge. She began to descend the stairs. Darkness all around, Fernando had no choice but to follow.
The stairway seemed to wind on and on forever. At last, they came to a chamber filled with candles. Some were short and sputtering out; some were tall with barely a drop of wax spilling over the side; some, both tall and short, were unlit. "Godmother, where are we?" Fernando asked.
"In the Cave of the Ages. These are the lives of every person on the Earth. The tall ones are newly born babes; the short ones are old people for the most part. However, some candles start shorter than others."
"Which one is mine? Fernando asked.
Death pointed to shortest stub of a candle. In moments it would flicker out.
"Godmother, no. It cannot end like this. Not for me. Not for your beloved godson." Gingerly, he picked up the candle of his life and held it before his godmother. "Take this and light another candle for me. A long candle... No! Just one the same length as the king's daughter however long it is."
"Impossible. I cannot light another candle until the first has gone out."
"Then take my life candle and put it on top of another so that it will light as this one dies."
Death reached out her hand and took the candle from Fernando. For a moment, it seemed as if she would do as he requested. Then, she turned her hand over and snuffed out the candle of Fernando's life against a bare patch of rock directly between the remains of his parents' candles.
Fernando collapsed at the feet of his godmother Death.
Death shook her head, still surprised that they never realized placing the candle atop another was something that could only be done once and she had done it already years before. Silently, she walked from the Cave of the Ages, past a field of yellow flowers, towards a cathedral where the bells were ringing.