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.
DEATH IN A BOTTLE
(Written by Anne Robertson from an oral presentation by Rev. Russell McLarty)
Once 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.
But 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.
“Mother!” cried Milo. “What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
She 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 doctor.”
Milo 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.
“Milo!” cried the farmer, “Stop and get your vegetables!”
“I can’t,” cried Milo. “Mother is sick. I must get the doctor!” The farmer ran after him.
“Wait, 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.”
“But 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.”
“You 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 gets back.”
“Oh, 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.
As 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.
It 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.
Milo’s 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.
Milo 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.
As 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.
Then, 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 out.
Milo 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.
When he got home, Milo was amazed. There was his mother, looking as happy and healthy as always bustling around the kitchen, preparing the stove.
“Milo!” 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.”
“Of course not, Mother,” said Milo. “You have not been well. I will cook the eggs.”
“No, 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.”
Milo 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.
Milo 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 breakfast.”
“Oh, 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.”
This 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.
“I 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.
Just 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 have happened?”
Milo 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.
“Milo,” she said, “You must find him and bring him back. There is no life without Death.”
“But I threw him far out into the sea,” said Milo.
“You 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 fell asleep.
He 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.
The 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.”