This print was conceived for a print exchange organized by the proprietor of Santa Lucia Press here in Portland, Oregon. The theme was “V.S.”, and could be interpreted as verses or versus. Many of the folk tales I’ve been reading are about a common man’s wits against the wiles of a supernatural being, whether god, the devil or a culturally-specific creature that occupies a morally ambiguous (and therefore much more human) place. One story, about a peasant man and Death (Smrt in Czech), caught my interest; it’s a gentler tale than many of the stories I’ve read recently.
Many–let’s say most–of my prints begin with stories. This edition is no different, so let me share the story with you. I have my own way of telling it, but since this blog is full of writing and not speaking, I will share the story as I first read it in that magical old fairy tale book that I stumbled across at Powell’s back in November.
You can read the text in a digitized book form HERE, or in plain text form after the jump. I broke the text in a few places, for ease of reading.
Death as Godmother
There was a man of extreme poverty in the world, and his wife fell into labour and bore him a little boy. No one wished to stand sponsor for him, because he was so very poor. The father says to himself : “Dear God! I am so poor that no one wishes to serve me in this matter. I will take the boy, will go, and whom I meet him I will ask to stand sponsor; and if I do not meet anyone perhaps the sacristan, anyhow, will serve me.” He went and met Death, but he knew not what sort of personage it was. She was a pretty woman, like any other woman. He asked her to stand godmother. She did not excuse herself, and immediately greeted him as godfather, took the boy in her arms and carried him to church. There the little fellow was duly baptised.
As they went from church, godfather took godmother to an alehouse and wished to treat her to something as godmother of his child. But she said to him: “Godfather, none of this; come instead with me to my little dwelling.” She took him with her to her sitting-room, and there all was very fine. After this she led him into immense cellars, and through these cellars they went in obscurity down into the underworld. There burn tapers: small, large, middle-sized––three sorts; those that were not yet lighted were the largest of all. Godmother says to godfather : “Look, godfather; here I have the age of every man.” Godfather looks at it all, finds there quite a small taper burning close to the ground, and asks her: “But, prythee, godmother, whose then is that little taper close to the ground?” She says to him: “That is yours! As any taper soever burns out, I must go for that man.” He says to her: “Oh! godmother, I pray you, just replace mine.” She says to him: “Oh! godfather, that I cannot do.” Afterwards she went and lighted a large new candle for the little boy they had just baptised. Meanwhile, unperceived by godmother, godfather also took a large new candle, lighted it, and stuck it up just where his own small taper was even now burning out. Godmother looked round at him and said : ” Oh! godfather, you ought not to have done so to me; but since you have already added a new candle, added it is, and you have it. Come from this place out into the open air, and we will go to my good gossip, thy wife.”
She took a present, and went with godfather and the child to godfather’s wife. She came and laid the little fellow on her good gossip’s bed, and asked her how she felt and where it ailed her. Godfather’s wife complained, and godfather sent for some beer and tried to honour her as godmother in his cottage, that he might show her his gratitude and be grateful. They drank and feasted together. After this, says godmother to godfather: ” Godfather, thou art so extremely poor that no one was willing to serve you in this matter except me; but never mind, thou shalt keep me in remembrance! I will go for well-to-do people and will make them ill, and you shall doctor and cure them. I will tell you all the remedies; I have them all, and everyone will gladly pay you well; but only pay heed to this: him at whose head I stand give up all idea of saving.” And so it was. Godfather went to the sick, when godmother afflicted them, and saved every one of them. Thus all at once a first-rate physician was made out of him.
A prince was on his death-bed, aye, was at the point of death; all the same they sent for this doctor. He came, began to anoint him with ointments and to give him his powders––and saved him. When he had cured the prince they paid him well, they did not even ask what his fees were. Again, a count was on his deathbed: and again they sent for this doctor. The doctor comes; Death stands behind the couch at the head. The doctor exclaims: “Already it goes ill with him; but we will see what can be done.” He summoned the servants and ordered them to turn round the bed with the two feet of the sick towards Death, and he began to anoint the dying man with ointments and to put his powders into his mouth, and saved him. The count gave the doctor as much as he could carry away; he did not think of asking what the fee was; he was delighted to have been cured. When Death met the doctor, she said to him: “Oh! godfather, the next time you see me stand so, don’t play me such a trick again. True, you have saved him, but yet it is only for a brief moment. I must, for all that, take him away to the place where he belongs.”
And so things went on with godfather for some years; already he was very old. But at last life was a burden to him, and he himself asked Death to take him. Death could not take him, because he had himself replaced his own candle with a new long one; he must wait until it burns out. Once he was driving yet again to a sick man’s, to cure him. He saved him. After this, Death presented herself and drove with him in his coach. She, began to tickle him and to sport with him, and smote him softly with a green branch below the neck; he rolled into her lap, and slept away into an eternity of dreamy slumber. Death laid him down in his coach and fled out of it. There they find the dead physician lying in his coach and drove him away home. All the town and parishes round mourned: “Alas for this doctor, what a good one he was! Skilful was he to save; such a physician we shall not see again.”
His son survived him, but this son had none of his capacity.
The son once went to church, and godmother met him. She enquired of him: “Dear son, how art thou?” He said to her: “At present, well enough. So long as I have what my little father saved up for me, it is well with me; but afterwards, God knows how it will be with me.” Godmother says: ” Inu! son of mine! fear nothing. I am thy fontal mother; what thy little father had, I helped him to; and to thee, too, I will give subsistence. Thou shalt come to a physician for instruction, and thou shalt be more capable than he is himself; only behave finely.” After this, she anointed him with ointment over the ears and took him to a physician.
The doctor did not know whatever lady it might be, and what little son she was bringing to him for instruction. The lady bade her little son behave himself finely, and requested the physician to teach him well and place him in a good position. After this, she took leave of him and departed. The physician and the boy went together to collect herbs, and to this pupil of his every herb declared what remedy it contained, and the pupil gathered it. The pupil’s herbs were of service in every malady. The doctor said to his pupil: “Thou art cleverer than I am; for if anyone comes to me I never hit upon anything, and thou knowest the herbs against every sickness. Knowest thou what? we will be partners; I will hand over my medical papers to thee and will be thy assistant, and I wish to be with thee until death.” The boy doctored and cured people successfully until his candle burnt out in limbo.
“Death as Godmother.” North-West Slav Legends and Fairy Stories. Trans. W. W. Strickland. London: Robert Forder, 1897. 18-20. Print.