Note: I heard an oral presentation of
this story in the summer of 2004 at a storytelling program on the island of
Iona, Scotland. There
it was told by Rev. Russell McLarty
of Glasgow. I remembered
only bits and pieces and had no written version. I don’t know if the story was invented by
Russell or whether it comes from another source. The written version below is mine,
pieced together from what bits of the story I remembered and my own additions
to fill in the gaps. If anyone
knows an author or is aware that this represents some violation of copyright,
please let me know. The story was told by me as an Ash Wednesday meditation at
St. John’s United Methodist Church on Feb.9, 2005.
IN A BOTTLE
Anne Robertson from an oral presentation by Rev. Russell McLarty)
there was a boy of about 10 years old whose name was Milo. Milo lived in
a small village by the edge of the sea with his mother. Milo was a big help to his mother. Every morning he would take some money
and two sacks to go and buy the groceries that his mother would need. First he went to the butcher and bought
some bacon and salted pork. Then
he went to the farmer on the hill who sold him
lettuce, beans, and sometimes corn. Lastly he went to see Miss Gretchen,
who sold him the eggs that Milo and his mother would have for breakfast.
Then Mother would cook the breakfast and they would eat while listening to the
sounds of the sea.
one day Milo got up and found that things were
different. Mother was still in bed. She was not dressed and
preparing the stove to cook and she didn’t leave any money on the table for him
to go and buy the groceries. He
went on tiptoe into her room, but saw that she was not sleeping. There were
moans coming from her bed and her face looked very red and tired.
cried Milo. “What’s wrong?
Are you sick?”
could barely speak. “Yes, Milo,”
she answered. “I am very
sick. I don’t think I can even stand up. You must go and bring the
didn’t need to be told twice. He
didn’t even shut the door behind him, he was in such a
hurry to get to the doctor’s home, which was just the other side of the
farmer’s hill. As fast as his legs would carry him, Milo ran...past the
butcher, past Miss Gretchen and her chickens, and up the hill where the farmer
had his fields.
cried the farmer, “Stop and get your vegetables!”
can’t,” cried Milo. “Mother is
sick. I must get the
doctor!” The farmer ran after him.
Milo,” said the farmer. He was
much more out of breath than Milo was, for he was much older. “You won’t
find the doctor there,” said the farmer.
He’s gone to tend to the Mulligan’s new baby. She’s got a fever.
He probably won’t be back until this afternoon.”
what will I do?” said Milo, big tears welling up in his eyes. “She is so
very sick. She couldn’t even get out of bed.”
must go back and sit with her until the doctor can come,” said the
farmer. Make her some tea and wipe her forehead and say gentle things
until the doctor comes. I will tell him to go straight to your house when he
thank you,” said Milo and he turned and headed back toward home. Very
tired and worried, Milo climbed back up the sand dune just behind his house.
From the top of the sand dune anyone could see all the way up and down the
beach. Down to his left, Milo
could see someone walking. The
person was still a good ways off, but it seemed to Milo that someone was
intending to come for a visit.
Knowing that it wouldn’t be good for his mother to have a visitor, he
began hurrying down the beach to meet the visitor.
he came a little closer, it looked like the visitor was holding something long
in his hand...probably a fishing pole, Milo thought. But the visitor was
odd. His pace never changed, and he seemed to be dressed in clothes much
too dark for a fisherman on the beach. Milo decided not to approach the
visitor directly, but to climb up another dune and wait in the dune grasses for
the visitor to come closer.
felt good to stop for a moment and to rest in the grasses, since the day was
sunny and almost warm. He watched
the visitor on the beach. The
visitor never looked this way or that; he never went either slower or faster;
he never even seemed to step from side to side, but walked straight forward
with the long thing in his hand.
The visitor finally came closer to the dune where Milo was hiding, and
Milo could see him better. He wore
an odd black cape with a hood that came and covered his face. And in his hand was
not a fishing rod, but a long, sharp farmer’s scythe.
heart jumped to his throat, because he knew him immediately. It was
Death, and Death was walking down the beach, never turning to the left or to
the right, but heading straight for the house where his Mother lay sick. Death was coming to take his
mother. Milo knew it. He was frightened and angry and sad all
at once and all those emotions shut his brain off. And so Milo ran.
He ran and he screamed, but he didn’t run away. He ran right at Death, screaming at the top of his lungs
that he would not let Death take his mother.
took a flying leap off the dune and with a yell like the wild men he had heard
about in tales he jumped on Death from behind. Death fell to the ground,
dropped his scythe, and they began to wrestle. Over and over they turned in the sand...first Death was
winning, then Milo, then Death. But a boy’s love for his mother is
strong, and his love made Milo stronger even than Death. Milo began to
win the fight.
Milo began to win, Death began to shrink, and the smaller Death got, the harder
Milo fought, until Death was just a tiny little thing that Milo clutched
tightly in his fist. Panting, Milo
got up, unsure what to do next. He
was holding Death in his hand. If
he let go, Death would be free and take his mother. But he couldn’t hold onto
Death this way forever. He didn’t know what to do.
Milo saw something out of the corner of his eye. There in the sand dune
was an old, empty bottle. With his
free hand, Milo grabbed the bottle and began to stuff Death inside it. Death
wriggled and squirmed, and even got a little bigger, but Milo was able to stuff
Death into the bottle and quickly covered it with his hand. Death grew
enough to fill the bottle, so that Death’s pale, drawn face was smushed against the side. But Death could not get
looked around. He found some
seaweed and small stones and did the best he could with one hand to make a cork
for the bottle. Holding his breath
he quickly moved his hand and plugged up the bottle with his new cork. It
worked. Death could not escape.
Milo looked at the water.
The tide was going out. There was a dock nearby, and Milo ran to the
end of the long dock and with all his might, he threw the bottle out into the
sea, just as far as he could possibly throw it. Then he ran home to his house.
he got home, Milo was amazed.
There was his mother, looking as happy and healthy as always bustling
around the kitchen, preparing the stove.
she said. “I’m so very glad to see
you! The most curious thing has
happened while you’ve been gone.
Once I felt better, I got up and went to Miss Gretchen’s myself to get
our eggs. You see I have them here. But, Milo, I cannot cook them.”
course not, Mother,” said Milo.
“You have not been well. I
will cook the eggs.”
Milo,” said his Mother. “It’s not
that I’m not well enough to cook them.
I can’t cook them. They
will not break.”
would not believe her and tried it himself. She was right. They looked like normal eggs, they felt
like normal eggs, but they would not break. “I’ve been back to Miss
Gretchen three times,” said his mother, “and she said everyone else is bringing
back their eggs as well. It’s as if they’re under some spell. None of them will break. So please run to the butcher and get us
some bacon and salted pork so that we can have some breakfast.
was very tired, but he was also very hungry, so he ran right back out to the
butcher. When he arrived, the
butcher was sitting on a stool with his head in his hands. “What’s
wrong?” asked Milo. “I need to buy some bacon and salted pork for our
how I wish you could!” said the butcher, “but there is no meat to sell. I
have lost my skill, for I cannot kill a single pig or cow or chicken. Even my sharpest knife is like butter
on a stove. I can’t even feed the animals, because the farmer has sent no
feed. Whatever will I do? You will have to go to the farmer on the
hill and have his vegetables for breakfast.”
was a most peculiar day, but Milo took the butcher’s advice and went up the
hill to the farmer’s field. But
there he found the farmer in much the same state as the butcher. “What’s
wrong?” asked Milo.
can no longer sell my vegetables,” said the farmer. I cannot pick
them. I have pulled and cut and tugged, but the beans will not let go of
the vines and the earth will not let go of the lettuce, and the roots of the
potatoes hold on with a strength I have never seen. The fields are full of food, but I cannot harvest it. There is no food for the people, no
feed for the livestock. I am
ruined!” The farmer hung his head
and walked back to his house.
then the doctor came over the hill with his doctor’s bag in his hand.
Milo remembered that the farmer was going to tell the doctor to visit his
mother, so he went up to him. “Doctor,” thank you for trying to come to
see my mother, but she is well now.
There is no need. “That is good,”
said the doctor, because the need is great in the rest of the town. It is
as strange a situation as I have seen.
Old Mr. Henry has been waiting for days for Death to come for him. He is so tired and in so much pain, but
Death will not come. That is so unlike Death. I wonder what could
went back home and reported all of this to his mother. She sat down and
brushed off her apron. “This is very serious, Milo,” she said. “It
is like we are under a curse. Someone has stopped death from coming to
our village.” Milo shifted from
one foot to the other. “It’s not a
curse, Mother,” he said. “I did
it.” And Milo proceeded to tell his mother how he had seen Death coming
for her and how he had wrestled with Death and caught him, put him in a bottle,
and thrown him out to sea.
she said, “You must find him and bring him back. There is no life without
I threw him far out into the sea,” said Milo.
must get him back,” said his mother.
So Milo went out yet again.
He was hungrier than he had ever been and so tired he didn’t know if his
legs would carry him another inch.
He went out to the sand dune above where he had wrestled with Death and
sat down. Milo looked out at the sea, but he could see no bottle, no
glimmer in the light, nothing. The tide was low and he walked way out on the
wet sand, hoping maybe the bottle got stuck. Nothing. He walked to the end of the dock and looked
out. Nothing. His stomach
growled and he felt weak. He walked back to the sand dune, sat down, and
woke to the sound of screeching seagulls. There were three on the beach. Two of them had a fish, flopping around
at its feet, but the fish would not stop flopping and the beak of the gulls
could not pierce it. The gulls screamed in frustration. But the
third gull did not have a fish. It had something else. Milo’s heart
jumped. It was the bottle. He watched and the seagull pecked and
pecked at the seaweed and pebble cork, pulling out the long strands of weed
until the makeshift cork was no more.
Death squeezed out. And he
grew and grew and grew some more.
Finally Death was back to full size. He shook off his cloak and began walking toward Milo’s
house, his scythe in one hand, never changing his pace, never turning to the
left or toward the right.
other two seagulls ate their fish, and Milo went home. His mother was
cooking eggs. “Hurry up and eat, Milo,” she said. “Death has
finally come for Old Mr. Henry and we must go to visit.”