A folk story from Estonia….
Success is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you want for nothing, and life is fat with acquisition; on the other, you have so much to lose.
And yes, you fear losing to the tragedies of this life, and experiencing poverty and stock-market-crashes and losing that lovely house of yours and having your acquisitive little wife walk out on you. But even more than this, you fear the thing which will inevitably and most certainly rob you of it all: Death himself.
And the farmer, a good farmer – nay, a great farmer, had just this problem. His children never said a word, but he knew that much as they loved him, they were lined up, waiting to inherit what he lost. He was not ready to die and lose everything he had worked so hard for.
So, he decided to find a little more out about the time and manner of his death. To do this, one must consult a specialist in the future, a metaphysical harbinger, and he took opinions about who in his region was the finest of his kind, and made a visit as soon as he was able.
Artur Lepmets had a brass plaque by his door in a side-street in the city of Tartu: ‘Soothsayer to the Stars’. He was the best, everyone agreed. And Artur Lepmets was a man of considerable theatre. He had an ear for what people wanted to hear. He could present the desired answers to their queries in the light they most wished to see them.
The bell jangled at Artur Lepmet’s door, and in walked the farmer.
“Good afternoon, sir,” Artur greeted him smoothly: “and what can I do for you?”
The farmer explained his predicament. “I need to know, ” he concluded pathetically, “how many more years of life are left to me. I wish to see them for what they are, and enjoy every second which remains for my use.”
Lepmets looked at him, levelly. This man, he sensed, wanted the unvarnished truth. They talked some more before they came to the crux of their discussion. How long did the farmer have left?
“You will know your death has come, ” Lepmets told him, “when you have sneezed three times.”
The farmer left the little shop, and as the bell jangled on the door behind him he was conscious of a very great sadness. And also, of a pressing need to prevent himself sneezing ever again.
Yet the first sneeze came all too soon. That day, in fact: the moment he reached his home and strode through the farmyard, he felt a tickle in his nose and before he could do a thing to prevent it, he had let forth an earth-shaking sneeze.
“Oh heavens,” the man thought – or choicer words to that effect – “I have only two sneezes left!”
Not for long.
Perhaps it was tempting fate, spending the next day at the mill with all that fine flour and grain. The dust caught his nose and the sneeze was inevitable. The farmer was distraught: two sneezes gone. One sneeze left. He tore out of the mill and made for home – and stopped abruptly. For the sack of flour, so vital for his home comforts, the source of that mouth-watering fresh bread his wife made so well: it was back there, inside the mill.
He went back, of course. And as he threw the sack over his shoulder the dust and powder was just too much, and the third sneeze thrust itself upon him.
The farmer lost it. He cried and wailed, for here he was, dead! And he put down the flour and stretched himself out on the ground.
It was the end.
But the nearby hogs did not know it was the end. All they knew was that a sack of tasty flour was lying there, waiting for the plunder. And they pottered over to investigate. The farmer looked at them and sighed gustily. “You villains, you!” he thought to himself. “Were I alive, I’d show you the cost of trying to raid my flour. But what can a dead man do?”
We have heard nothing of the miller until now. He had just developed a keen interest in the whole business: the moment he looked out of the mill window and saw hogs making a great meal of his finest flour. And the farmer lying on the ground. He strode outside to see what on earth was happening.
“What are you doing?” he asked the farmer.
The farmer rolled his eyes. Some people were so obtuse. “Why, just lying here, of course. What else can I do now I’m dead? If I had been alive I could have driven your hogs off the flour. Do me a favour, will you: drive them off for me?”
The Miller considered what he had just heard.
“So you’re dead, then?” he confirmed. Just to be sure.
The dead man nodded solemnly.
“”How very sad that is,” said the miller. And he took a whip and drove off the hogs. And as an afterthought, he tested it on the dead man.
The dead man got up quite quickly.
‘How can I ever thank you enough,” he exclaimed, “for bringing me back to life? If it wasn’t for you I’d be dead, for sure…”
He put his sack on the wagon and drove home.
And to this day, he will not hear a word about dying.