There was once a poor man who had so many children that there was no one left in the neighbourhood willing to be their godmother. So when his wife gave birth once more, he decided to set out into the dark night and invite the first person he met to be his child’s godmother. He went on and on, lamenting his misfortune, when a voice came from out of the darkness behind his back, “Don’t run away, you can’t escape!”
He looked round and saw a tall, emaciated creature in a white sheet, that looked as if it was there, and yet wasn’t.
“Goodness me, who are you, what are you?” he cried.
“Never ask me who I am or what I am,” said the creature. ‘I am always behind every man’s back. What are you lamenting about?”
The poor man told this creature all about his troubles and she said to him, “I’ll help you, but first you must help me. I’m tired – carry me on your back at least to the town gates. But if you so much as groan under my weight – you can forget about my help.”
The poor man thought the creature might be willing to be godmother to his child and decided that even such a godmother would be better than none. So he lifted her up on his back and prepared to set off. At first she seemed as light as a feather, but as soon as he took the first step, she grew as heavy as lead.
“Well, man, am I heavy?” the creature asked.
“Oh, not at all!” he hardly managed to force out of himself – and at that instant the creature was again as light as a feather. However, after the second step the creature grew twice as heavy as before, the man’s knees were giving way under him, and she asked once more, “Well, man, am I heavy?”
He had hardly forced “No” from his throat, when it again seemed as if he was carrying nothing. But after the third step the creature grew three times as heavy as before and once more she asked, “Well, man, am I heavy?”
All our poor man could say was, “Goodness me.”
But he did not groan – and suddenly they were standing in front of the town gates. The creature slipped off his back, pulled off the white sheet and the poor man saw before him a skeleton without flesh and he knew at once that he had been carrying Death on his back.
“Yes, you’re right, it was me you were carrying!” said Death. “At least you can see you can bear even Death. There’s no need to invite me to be godmother – I have been your godmother since you were born. And not only yours! I am the godmother of every man, and all your children, too – I don’t need to become godmother to the last one – I already am. But listen – I’ll help you another way. In this town there is a king lying on his deathbed. Pick the herb that is growing around these gates and take it straight to the palace. Once there, tell them you are a doctor and that you will help the king. When they lead you to him, you will see me standing at his feet. Rub the herb on the king’s head, I shall step back from his feet and he will get up in good health. From then on they will call you the doctor who works miracles, you will have no worries about money and everyone will be happy to be godmother to your youngest child. But remember one thing – only treat those at whose feet I am standing. If you see me standing at someone’s head, his candle is burning out, just give him the blessing. And remember one more thing: beware of greed, or you will die!”
It was just as Godmother Death had foretold. The poor man cured the king and they began to call him the doctor who worked miracles. He was no longer short of money or of godmothers. But he forgot the last piece of advice. He didn’t guard against greed.
Some time later the same king fell ill once more and he summoned our miracle doctor to his bedside. The doctor entered the king’s chamber and the first thing he saw was Godmother Death standing at the king’s head.
“Ah,” he said, “this time there really is no hope. All I can do is give you the blessing.”
“Try something else, please!” begged the king. “I'll give you half my kingdom if you cure me.”
The doctor who worked miracles was overcome with greed when he thought of half the kingdom and he ordered the king’s servants: “Catch hold of the bed and turn it round, so the king's feet are where his head is and his head where his feet are.”
The servants immediately obeyed, the miracle doctor rubbed the king’s head with the herb and the king got out of bed in the best of health.
It was already evening and the recovered king pressed the doctor to stay for the night – but he was in a hurry to return home. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife how he had cheated Godmother Death and won half the kingdom. And so he set out, even though night had already fallen.
It was pitch dark as the miracle doctor went through the forest and he strayed from the path and lost his way. Instead of arriving home, he came to a kind of dark hole and out of that hole there suddenly appeared his old acquaintance – Godmother Death. She said, “Welcome, my dearest relative, welcome! I’ve been waiting for you for a long time. I knew you would come – after all, no one can avoid me, and neither have you. Do come in.”
Here she took him by the arm and led him into the hole. The hole led into a large hall. It was full of burning candles, as in a church.
“Hey, Godmother, what’s this you have here? Why so many candles?” asked the miracle doctor in amazement.
“Ah, you see, these are the candles of life. I need as many as there are people in the world. I’m only just lighting some of them – they are the candles of those now being born. Others, look, are already burning out.”
“And which candle is mine?” the miracle doctor was curious to know.
“Well, this one here, just next to the king’s.”
The doctor who worked miracles looked at his candle and saw that it was burning out. It was a wonder it hadn’t already gone out. He trembled with fear and began to beg, “Godmother Death, add at least half another candle! I want to enjoy life now I have half the kingdom.”
Godmother Death just shook her head.
So the miracle doctor caught up one of the longer candles to add to his own, which was almost finished. But alas, his hands were already trembling from old age. Instead of making his candle longer, he knocked into it so clumsily that he extinguished the little wick. His candle went out and he was no more.