Death and the Soldier

My version. (from an old russian folk tale).

Once there was a soldier, returning home from the war. He had nothing save the clothes on his back and two biscuits in his pocket.

First, he came upon two men, at a convenience store - when he stopped to get some 5.00 a gallon gas. One playing the fiddle and the other whistling and playing the flute. He saw that they looked hungry - and so he said "I only have two biscuits, but to thank you for playing for me (even though the fiddler was quite bad) - I will give you one of my biscuits".

They ate and were happy. The flute player said "Soldier, you're cool. Can I give you something?" .. to which the soldier shot back "I'd really like to be able to whistle like you". And so. The man gave him his whistle. And there the soldier left the two - now a bit more hungry and a bit lighter in the desert camo backpack - but whistling down the road to himself and not feeling too bad.

As he came around a bend in the road he saw a rest stop and he pulled his Honda over. There at the park was an old man. There was this. Like. Fog. that came in from across the bay. And the old man had a smile in his eyes. He walked up to him, whistling. And the old man said. "That's a great whistle" to which the soldier replied, "Thank you". The old man said, "How would you like to play a game of cards?" . The soldier was down for it and they played hand after hand and each time the old man won. Finally the soldier got up to leave and he saw that the old man was hungry. So he said "I would like to give you something but all I have is this one biscuit" and so he took it, and broke it in half.

But it seemed unfair to the soldier that he would give this old man less than he would give the men before, and so he gave the old man both halves and said "Here old man, take both halves of the biscuit. You're hungry and they will do you good.". The old man looked at him carefully and then said "You're a good soul. Here. Take this" and he pressed into his hand a deck of cards. "This deck of cards will always deal you a winning hand". He then handed him a sack. And he said "Take this sack. If you call out 'By the Grace of God, get you inside this sack' any whose name you call will go into it. ".

And with that, the soldier powered up the coastal highway - the sack in the back seat and the deck of cards in his pocket. He pulled over that night near an open field and he saw some fat geese wandering around out there - and a lightbulb went off over his head. "Hey fat geese!" he called out "By the Grace of God, get you inside this sack!" and sure enough the fat geese waddled over and hopped into the sack. He drew the string shut and threw the sack back into the backseat.

He found a nice bed and breakfast by the coast and he walked in - but having no money he looked at the person who was running it and then sat down and said quietly "Ok, I will make you a deal. I have three fat geese in this sack. If you would cook them , you can keep two for my trouble and I will have one." .. The innkeeper thought about it for a while then said. "Wow. That sounds like a good deal. I've wanted to have organic all week. " and he cooked up the goose in honey and cloves and the soldier ate the goose, and sucked the marrow from the bones and then went to sleep in a nice clean bed by the ocean. Three days later he hears of a place haunted by devils just up the road and he decides to leave the inn and explore.

It was an old cell tower, a big thing that gave everyone spotty reception and caused no end of trouble for anyone with a cellphone anywhere nearby. At the base of it was a small shack and in the shack were the demons. They saw him coming.

He was whistling as he came up. They called out to him, hey - we could use another soul. Why not give it to us. He said. I'll play you in cards for it. What have you got for stakes. They said, we've got about 40,000.00 in unmarked bills in a briefcase over there behind the cabinet. Any good? He said. You're on.

They played all through the night and they cheated and cheated but no matter how hard they cheated him the cards always turned in the soldiers favor. Finally the soldier had won every last dollar and it was dawn. "Time for me to bolt". The demons said.. "No, it's time for breakfast. And you are going to be the main course" and they started towards him with steely knives but just as they got close the soldier opened up the sack and said "Devils by the grace of god get you inside this sack" and sure enough every last demon in a big whirlwind of leathery wings and horns and devil arms and legs - swept right into the sack.

The soldier wailed on them. He took the bag and slammed it against the wall. Then he kicked it as hard as he could. He jumped up in the air and sat down on it. Finally he opened the bag just enough to let one demon poke his head out. And the Demon said "Please. God. Stop. Let us go. Please. You're hurting us".

He said "Ok, I will let you go. But you have to promise you will leave this cell tower" and so the demons agreed and they left and took with them something that looked like a 'First Tech Communications' logo service contract and equipment -leaving shiny new , well operating equipment and a good celltower that actually provided service. Just as one of the last demon techs was trying to get away the soldier caught him by his foot. He struggled and begged the soldier to let him go. "Not so fast. You're going to serve me. I will let you go only if you faithfully agree to serve me as your only master" . The demon agreed. So the soldier reached over and cut his foot off and held up the cloven hoof in his hand. The demon said "Why'd you do that" and the soldier replied .."This is to remind you who has that foot. Now go . But come when I call you." And so the demon took off.

The soldier took the 40k and put it into a small business that made voice and location aware software, and the business grew. The great economic crash came, but he had a nice place and his children were healthy and strong and he was good friends with a local business leader and everyone liked him. One day, his son became very ill and his home was filled with doctors finding of course, nothing that they could put their finger on - perhaps it was multiple or methycillin resistant staph but they couldn't be sure. This was back in the days before we had a national health service where the records could be coordinated by the central health authority.

So, the doctors were eventually replaced by some fairly lame new-age healers and then finally by the priests and greybeards that were saying the last rites for his son - when he called out "Demon, come to me now." and all at once in a flash of brimstone and sulfur and new car smell the demon landed right in front of him. He had on glittery red underwear.

He asked the Demon "Can you make my son well? If you do. I will give you your foot back". And so the demon held up a glass and said. "Look into the glass".

And sure enough he saw death staring right at him through the lensing of the water in the glass - its pale face just at the foot of his son's bed. "See how Death is at the foot of the child's bed? If he is at the foot of the bed, he will get better. But if he is at the head of the bed. He will die."

And so the man was instructed to sprinkle a few drops of water on the boy and suddenly - and miraculously the boy got up. And was healed. He thanked the demon and said - if you will give me that glass, I will release you from my service forever. To which the demon handed him the glass and then disappeared.

And so for years the man travelled around his state with the glass, more often than not helping to save those in need - but if finding someone who was too far gone, was easy enough to say that he had arrived too late and they would pay him anyway. Since these where the days before a national health service, he overbilled everyone and was making a fortune - nobody knew what to charge for his services and he got away with charging everyone a stack of gold and he made himself a quiet fortune. But word came back to him that his friend - a man who had been like a father to him - was sick.

When he got to the man's bed - he looked through the glass and saw death at the head of the bed. He told everyone he was too late. This did not work out. They were upset. He'd been all over the world saving beggars and thieves - why couldn't he save this man who had been a friend and pillar of the community? He took one of the women aside who had been by his bed and told him that death was too near. She cried out - take me instead. No said the soldier. And he looked through the glass. Death was looking right at him. He said "Take me instead, Death - I will give myself to you in this man's place." and so Death left his position at the head of the bed and walked away into the shadow - and the soldier sprinkled the customary drops upon the head of the man and like magic he got up, praising his name.

But it was a dark night, that night and the soldier got into bed alone - telling his wife to go into the other room and watch. And so they waited. And sure enough death came. But no sooner had he arrived and the soldier see his bony face through the glass - than he pulled the sack from beneath the blanket and said "By the Grace of God, Death - get you inside this sack". Death immediately leapt into the sack and the man tied it shut and jumped up and down for joy on his bed.

Later, he took the sack and tied it to the highest tree in a forest, way out on the longest limb. As he finished the tie, he fell to the ground but nothing like having no death to cushion the fall. He got up and walked away.

Time passed and soon it became clear that something was wrong. People were still falling apart from Age sickness - the programmed cell death that was the final straw for them - never came. They were in pain. People were being hit by cars and then getting up and walking home. Soldiers were being torn from limb to limb by IED's and bombs - and then looking strangely puzzled. The water supply started running out. Finally one day he looked out his window and saw a bunch of old people - their faces destroyed by age sickness - waiting for death to come but not finding any release. He realized he'd made a mistake.

So he climbed the tree, and brought the sack back to his home and opened it up. And whispered inside - "Death. Come for me. You must take me now and get about your business in the world." But Death took one look at him and ran as fast as he could.

Finally wandering his years to the end of the world - the soldier decided at last to walk to the finite boundary of spacetime itself until he came to the gate of hell. He begged to be entered. But as the door opened up the demons looked at him - recognized he was still carrying the sack - "No way. You're the one with the sack. Go beat up someone else.". And so they slammed the door shut on him.

He knocked on the door again. And this time when they poked their head out of the little window they use to see who's at the door - he had the sack ready to go. And they were afraid. Because they knew the sack could work at a distance. The soldier said "Do you remember me? You should. Now. You won't let me in. So give me a map to heaven, and two hundred souls you don't need. And I will be gone."

"150" was the reply. But the man held up the sack and the demon said. "Ok. 200" and then the demon called out - just follow the map until you go up, and then go up as high as you can until you feel as if you are upside down and you will be there.

And the old soldier did as he was told, and marched the 200 souls up to heaven where he said "Here are two hundred good souls, freed from hell. Would you let me in?" but Saint Peter said. They will come in . But they will enter alone. And so the soldier directed them to go through the pearl gate but he stopped one of them and said "As you go in, remember to open the sack and call my name - to get you inside the sack - it will bring me in and I will be in heaven at last".

But the soldier didn't count on the fact that in heaven there is no memory and so the soldier waited and waited and finally he realized that he would not be called in through the gate.

And so the soldier wandered back to earth and then far and wide across its width and breadth - age sickness tearing at his limbs and flesh. Until at last he settled down on a small carribean island where at time of writing he spends his days blogging. And dreams of sheep.