Once, long ago in an almost forgotten age, there lived a healer of great skill and great compassion. Her name was Gwenmir, but she was known as the healer Wen. The healer Wen became well-loved in her village for her skill at easing pain and healing wounds so severe that it seemed she would snatch people from the clutches of death at the last moment. She stitched up flesh with the skill of a fine tailor. She cooled fevers with herbs and special tinctures. She mended broken and even shattered bones with potions from the inside and splints from outside. News of her arrival raised hopes and lifted spirits. The sight of her face was said to be like the sight of sunlight after a dark and fearful night.
But no healer could heal everyone. Even the healer Wen, whose prowess and whose calm and compassionate eyes brought comfort to the ill and the suffering, could not heal everyone. Sometimes the sick lingered and suffered, sometimes they appeared to improve, only to die suddenly. The healer felt thwarted and saddened at such times.
She determined to become a seer as well as a healer, so she could see if and when Death was near. She traveled through the land, seeking and studying with the seers of many villages and towns. She learned much, but it seemed that she had not the skill of a seer. At last, she decided to return home, retracing her journey through the villages and towns, helping those whom she could and practicing her contemplations. When she reached one town near a span of mountains in the south, she was met by a woman who asked her to heal her son. The healer Wen did all she could. But she failed to heal the boy.
One night, as she sat beside his bed, placing cooling herbs on his forehead, she saw a figure approaching. Thinking it was the boy’s mother, the healer glanced up and gave greeting. But when she saw the figure, she gaped. For it was not the boy’s mother she saw. It was a tall stately figure dressed in flowing black robes, holding a staff of twisting dark wood.
It was Death.
The healer tried to entreat Death to spare the boy’s life. She begged Death to have pity, to make an exception for the boy. Knowing that there must be a balance between life and death, she offered the lives of three goats that wandered in a pen outside and that were not hers to offer. But Death was immovable.
The boy died. And as his mother wept, she confessed to the healer that she did not expect anyone could heal her boy. She had only hoped.
As the healer returned home, she healed many more people and lost some as well. Each time, she saw black-robed Death approach, always at night. Death would stand apart and come closer and closer each night. After the ill or wounded person died, Death vanished. The healer kept trying to entreat Death at first on the grounds of compassion, then with promises, then with empty threats. But Death was immovable.
The healer resolved to do the best she could with her new sight. She would watch for Death and warn of Death’s approach so that the sick and wounded and all their loved ones could prepare. For those who had reached the end of a full and long life, the healer’s warning was a gift. But it was still a sad affair for those who died young, their dreams and lives unfulfilled. Just as the healer became familiar with the visage of Death, she encountered a different figure one time.
There was a young woman in her village who had an illness that could not be seen or even truly known. She knew the healer. Many times in the market, the young woman would sell herbs and flowers to the healer Wen. She would greet the healer with a smile and wish her a good day, but never sought the healer out. The young woman was so filled with pain that she could not bear it and could find no way to ease it. One day, she ended her own life.
The healer did not see Death coming beforehand. She only saw Death afterward, a pale stern face leaning over the girl’s body. Death was dressed in white robes, pure and unstained. The healer had never seen Death appear so before and she asked what would become of the girl. Death gave no answer. The girl’s family in their grief said no unkind words to the healer, but she knew they blamed her in their hearts for not foreseeing the death. And the healer could only agree, for she blamed herself.
But an elder in the family, the girl’s great-grandfather came to speak to the healer, for he was troubled by the healer’s report of white robes. He told her what he knew of Death from ancient tales that were scarce known in the healer’s time. In the old legends, those who died unwillingly, cherishing both their own lives and the lives of their fellows, were visited by black-robed Death, for black was the color of the future. And such people were being taken to the afterworld. Their future was unknown and unknowable to the living, but it was certain that such spirits had a future. Those who took their own lives were visited by white-robed Death. White was the color of uncertainty, for no mortal was given the right to claim life, even one’s own. It was unknown what happened to such people. The healer pitied the young woman and her family. She hoped the young woman would be forgiven and taken to some happy afterworld, where she would be free at last and forever of the malady that had afflicted her so deeply and secretly that even a healer of great skill could not see it much less heal it. The healer hoped she would not see white-robed Death again, though she feared she would.
Then came a day when she tried to heal a man for whom Death did not visit at all. She was surprised to find him dead one evening. Dead and alone until she entered. He had been very ill and died of his illness, but Death had never appeared. She later was told that this man had murdered another long ago when he lived elsewhere. She wondered what happened to the spirits that Death did not claim. Did they decay along with the body? Was that the punishment for murderers? No afterworld at all. The healer realized there was as much to learn about death as there was about life.
In time, the healer met a man who cheered her when she was saddened, helped her when she was in need, and taught her how to sing. He was a minstrel and she healed an injury to his hand that while it would not have hindered him in life would have left him unable to play the lute. The two grew fond of each other. They fell in love. They married. They had a child. Then another. They shared both sorrow and joy. They shared moments both spectacular and common. They lived.
In the full bloom of their lives together, the healer’s husband grew ill. It was no disease from without, but one from within. She had seen it before. His own body was turning against itself. She tried to heal him, but none of her remedies worked. And then one night she saw a black-robed figure approach.
Exhausted from caring for her children and trying to cure her husband, the healer began to weep and for the first time since she had first seen Death, she begged Death to forbear. But each night, Death came closer to her husband’s bedside. For Death was immovable.
Despite her weariness, the healer had been reading and studying all the ways she might heal her husband, and all the ways that others, not just healers, but sorcerers and conjurers and the like, had tried to appease, trick, or sway Death.
The healer found nothing. One night, drowsy and desperate, the healer Wen asked what Death wanted, for all beings desired something. To her surprise, Death answered. In a voice that sounded so common and soothing that it startled the healer. Death spoke of how tiresome the task of claiming spirits could be, for most who saw Death coming were fearful and reluctant. Death remarked that it would be refreshing to heal. To restore life instead of claiming it.
The healer had an idea then. She offered Death a bargain. She offered Death a respite. She offered to take Death’s place for a hundred years if Death would spare her husband. Since Death was an eternal being and mortal lives so short even if lived to their fullest, she reasoned that Death would not have to wait long for the healer and the minstrel to live out their lives. Death seemed intrigued by the idea, but told the healer that she could not take Death’s place. While her spirit was immortal, it could not return to earth after her mortal body had died. Many had returned over the ages, either willingly or unknowingly, and had managed only to manifest as weak and ineffective specters, often devoid of the memory of who they were. To take Death’s place, the healer would have to be an immortal being who could freely travel between and in the realms of the living and the dead.
The healer resolved to find a way. She asked Death how long before her husband would be taken. Death would claim him after the moon waxed and waned three times.
Leaving her children with trusted friends, the healer went on a journey. She was learned and well-traveled, so she found and consulted sages and scholars. Such folk led her to find and speak with enchanted beings such as the Lady of the Fountain, the Oracles in the Crystal Caves, and the Great Seer who lived atop a fire-breathing mountain. From such beings, the healer learned of an article called the Vial of the Shades. It was the only object in the world that could pass through the realms of the living and the dead. And if the legends were true, any living person who drank a drop of the liquid within the Vial could do the same. For the Vial led to the Shore of the Shades, a mysterious beach onto which lapped the waves of a strange ocean. And in that ocean there floated an isle, the Isle of Mist and Gloom upon which all the dead landed and only the dead could stand. The misty isle was not fixed in place as are isles in the natural world. It roamed always and it was rarely found by the living in present times. In ancient times people would send the bodies of their dead to the isle on canoes that needed no oarsman, for they would steer themselves to the isle. Sometimes, the living had tried to sneak aboard these canoes to recover their loved ones when they awoke for one last time at the threshold between life and death. It was said that the guardian of the isle, angered by such practices, decreed that no more should the dead be brought by water, but by fire and by earth. And so began the customs of burning and burial.
The healer feared that the Vial would be in some faraway land where she could not reach it, but here, the scholars helped her once more. According to their studies, the Vial had been found ages past and kept in the vault of a kingdom that had long-ago forgotten what it was. The healer spent no small portion of her fortunes hiring the best thief in the kingdoms to steal the Vial. She feared the thief would betray her and run off or switch the true Vial for a forgery. She feared for her husband. For her children. But the thief was true to their bargain. He brought her the Vial. And though she had no way to prove that it was the true article, she felt it was so when she touched it. Even the thief looked upon it with what seemed to be some reverence, distracted only when the healer gave him a sack full of gold coins.
The healer rushed back home, filled with hope, for she knew she could convince Death that she could make the bargain she had promised, and keep it. But she had lost count of the days, and when she returned, it was halfway through the fourth waning of the moon. Her husband had died. And in her absence, his body had been consecrated to flames.
Anguished, the healer refused to give up. She knew that her husband’s body was not yet lost, for it would reappear on the shores of the mythical Isle of Mist and Gloom. He would wake one final time on this side of the veil between life and death and cross through the gateway that stood upon the isle. The gateway into the afterworld. If he had not crossed that gateway, she could find him and reclaim him from Death.
The healer had spent a year trying to heal her husband and more months trying to save him from Death. In all that time, she had acted with thought and foresight, as much as she could. But now her thoughts were scattered by desperation. She did the only thing she could think to do. She drank a drop from the Vial of the Shades. And she waited. When nothing happened, she fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, with the vial atop her chest. She slept and she dreamed.
In her dream, she found herself walking on a strange shore with black and gray sands swirling in eddies. She stepped toward the ocean that crashed its waters upon the shores and she swam out upon the ocean. She swam for a long time but did not tire, and soon she saw a foggy shore in the distance. She swam toward it and landed upon a shore with yellowy sand and a forest beyond. She walked into the forest and came upon a clearing. In that clearing, she saw a massive gateway made of black stones that shimmered as if with starlight. And her husband stood before the gateway.
The healer called her husband’s name and as he turned to her, she ran to him. They embraced. The healer told her husband about the Vial, which she had with her, on a chain around her neck. She entreated him to drink, for if he did, he could return to the land of the living.
A figure approached. It was Death. The healer turned to make her bargain, but she stopped when she saw Death. For Death now had a human face, a beautiful face, somehow familiar. And Death was dressed in green robes. The healer remembered all the stories she had heard from elders and sages and scholars. Green was the color of the present.
The healer held up the Vial. She explained that she would take Death’s place. And if that would not do, she would take her husband’s place and go into the afterworld while he remained in life. Death refused the first deal and spoke again in a smooth and calming voice.
“You are not Death. I am Death. Once, always, and forevermore.”
And the healer understood that no bargain could be made with Death. But this time, Death was not immovable. Death was willing to exchange her life for her husband’s life if her husband too was willing. He was not. Though he wept that his children would not have their father and that his love would lose her husband, he refused to let his wife take his place. The healer Wen said her goodbyes to her husband. She felt a terrible ache in her heart, but she also felt, for the first time in more than a year, a relief and a hope. She vowed to take care of their children and gave him a final kiss. She woke from her dream in the land of the living, weeping tears of both grief and joy.
The healer Wen lived a long life, raising her children, healing her fellow folk, staving off death when she could, and accepting Death when Death came.
She always told her children stories about their father and his life, so they would never forget him. But when they were old enough, she told them the story of their father’s death. She told them about her journey and the Vial of the Shades. She bequeathed the Vial to her eldest, her son, who had also become a healer. She warned him not to try and use it to bring back any of his loved ones, for Death could not be bargained with.
When her children asked her why such an article should exist if it could never be used, the wise old healer smiled. For she did not say it could never be used. She charged her eldest to be the keeper of the Vial, for someday someone might come along who truly needed it. And she hoped that the resolve and honor she saw in her son’s eyes would prove true for the rest of his life and for the generations that followed.
Soon her watch over life was finished. The old healer herself grew ill and saw, night after night, a familiar figure approach her bed. She did not give up or resign herself for she had time still and she had her wits. Her healers were skilled and had eased her pain greatly, but her illness was severe. It would not be cured. So the old healer wrote letters to her friends. She sang songs she hadn’t sung in years. She gave her blessings to her children. She held newborn grandchildren and laughed with older grandchildren. She ate her favorite meals.
And one night, when the black-robed figure came and stopped just beside her, the healer smiled. She reached up with both arms and embraced Death.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.