The Shepherd-Boy and Death
In the beginning, so the story goes, there was no hunger, lies or cruelty. The first people knew only fertile valleys, where everything they could find everything they could ever want. The trees drooped with fruit, the rivers swarmed with plump fish, the sun always shone.
So the story goes.
Then the forces of evil were unleashed on the world. People learned of war, famine and plague. Within a few years, the beautiful valley was ravaged and shattered, the shadow of evil lay over the land and the men and women shuddered in fear and hid their faces.
So, in their misery and pain, the early people rose up one last time, desperate to return to the happiness and ease that they had lost, and fought with all the strength in them, one great battle with turned the whole plain scarlet and the sky black with carrion crows. But they fought in vain, for they knew now what suffering, bitterness and humiliation were, and paradise, once lost, can never be regained.
So the story goes.
When the fighting was over, when all the blood was shed and the penitent tears mingled with the blood on the ground, where nothing would grow for thousands of years, now, there were only two living things left on the whole plain, except for the carrion crows.
One was an old man, a very old man, one of the few left who could remember the time before, the lovely land of his childhood, all that he had lost. He was injured, he was dying. The other was a young boy who would grow up to be the father of the human race.
He was very young, too young to understand, really, what had happened or care what would happen now. He was scared, because he didn't understand, but he was a brave lad and no fool. "What do we do now?" he asked.
"Water," said the old man. "I need water or I'll die."
"I haven't any water," said the boy, "but we can go down to the river".
He helped the old man up and they stumbled down to the river, but there was nothing there but blood, and crows with gory beaks hopped along the rocks by the river, dabbling in the blood.
They turned up river and staggered a little further, up from the barren plain to the mountains which had once been green and beautiful and were now piles of black, forbidding rock, the boy shaking and exhausted, far too small to be dragging the man up behind him, the man barely able to hobble, a little more blood gushing from the wound in his chest with every step.
It was a hot day, they could not walk much further, now the boy too had a raging thirst.
Just when the old man was close to despair they found a pool which flowed into the river. It was small and surrounded by bare rocks, nothing grew, there were no fish in its cold depths, but it was fresh, clear water.
The old man collapsed by the side of the pool. The boy knelt down and tried to scoop up water with rocks, and help him to drink, but no matter how much water he scooped up and poured into the old man's mouth, it made no difference.
He seemed barely conscious now, nothing in his foggy eyes but pain and approaching death. The blood from the wound had slowed to a trickle, as there was so little left, but still, slowly, inexorably, life ebbed away.
"Drink a bit more," said the boy. "Drink a bit more, it'll make you better."
"Nothing can make me better now," said the old man. "I'm dying."
"No!" said the boy. "Don't die!" He looked at the drawn, agonised face and felt a horrid, sick dread settle in him. "Don't die. I'll be alone."
"There's nothing you can do."
"There must be." He looked around the desolate, empty valley and began to cry. He had never been so alone, so helpless. He tried to bathe the old man's forehead with water, tried to clean the wound and stop the bleeding, but it was no good. His tears fell hot and angry and desperate, but it was no good.
The old man's breathing grew shallower and shallower, until the boy supposed he was dead, but as the sun set and the light faded, he seemed to rally a little.
"I'm sorry, I can't help it. You see, if you die, there's no one else, just me. I don't think I can stand that."
"You'll be fine," said the old man, with such conviction that the boy stopped crying in surprise.
"Take this." The man took his great hunting knife from his belt and pressed it into the boy's hand.
It felt heavy, the blade crusted with dried blood, but it balanced well in his hand and he began to feel a little, just a very little, less afraid.
"Listen," said the old man. "When I was your age, in the old days, my mother told me a story, which everyone else has forgotten, or never heard." He paused and got his breath together.
"Yes?" said the boy.
"One day, a shepherd-boy was walking in the meadow by the river, when he found Death walking among the trees. The shepherd-boy turned to run, because he was afraid of Death, but Death said…" The old man's voice faltered and he coughed up blood. He gasped, took hold of the boy's hands and gripped them tight, and continued, his voice so faint the boy had to lean close to hear, but every word clear as a bell.
"Death said "It's no good running. I want you and I'll find you wherever you run." ."
"The shepherd-boy said, "Very well, if I can't run, I'll fight you. And he took out his hunting knife"."
"And he escaped?"
But the old man did not respond. He lay, with his eyes half-closed, gasping faintly.
The boy began to cry again, in grief and fear and desperation to find out what would happen at the end of the story.
"Did he escape?"
"No," said the man. "Death said "I am Death and you cannot fight me with any mortal weapon. I will have you the way I have every mortal…"" gasp… ""man…"". A desperate gasp. The man clung to the boy's hands as if to life itself… ""woman… and child…"".
He paused. The wound was barely bleeding now. He blood was running out. He took a few great gasps of air into his poor shattered lungs. The effort was painful, he choked.
The boy winced and his tears fell so fast and hard he couldn't see. "Don't die." He barely knew what he was saying. He simply sat by the pool, young and small and very frail in the purple twilight, shivering, crushed with a horrible, suffocating pain which he had never felt before and wished with every fibre of his being never to feel again, clutching the old man, shaking with pain and weakness, in his arms as if, if he were to hold tight enough, he could hold him back from death. "Don't die… don't die…" He mumbled it over and over again.
The old man opened his eyes one last time. "And the shepherd boy said…"
"Yes?" said the boy. "What?"
"What did the shepherd boy say?"
The old man fixed his eyes, bright and clear as an eagle's, on the boy's face. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out but blood.
"What did the shepherd-boy say to Death?"
The old man died, bled to death by the little pool which turned red, like the river, with blood. And the founding father of the human race sat under the darkening sky, so small, hardly more than a baby, with a corpse on his lap and a knife in his hand, holding it so tight the blade cut his fingers, crying with all the agony and horror of utter loneliness. But he was a brave lad and he was no fool. So he cried his tears dry and he raised his head and stared out across the plain, to the last rays of the setting sun, and smiled, shakily.
At least, that's the story.