Only two things are certain, and the most unsettling of these is not taxes.
Yet Death, parodied mercilessly, is one of our pin-ups. From the mediaeval death in his cloak and worms ensemble, to Bill and Ted or Terry Pratchett, he remains a surprisingly constant figure. Scrooge’s third spirit is cloaked and bone-fingered just so; we will meet this celebrity one day, each and every one.
Today I heard an old Sufi story. It concerned a great king who had a dream, in which Death came to see him. And when he spoke, Death said:”I am coming , out of compassion, to tell you that tomorrow at sunset, you will die. ‘ he spoke very reasonably but the king was afraid and woke up, sweating and unable to sleep any more.
He summoned his wisest men , each of whom listened to his dream and put forward a different interpretation so that the king became more and more confused. An old and faithful servant took him aside and said:these men will take forever to reach a conclusion and the sun has already risen. Take your horse and ride as fast as you can as far away from the palace as you are able.”
The king had the fastest horse in the land, and he did as the old servant said. He rode until he reached a foreign land and its greatest city, and dismounted to look his horse in the eyes and thank him.
And then, he felt a spectral hand on his shoulder.
Death chuckled. “It is I who should be thanking your horse” he said to the king. ” I knew you were destined to die her under this tree at sunset but I cold not think how you would get here in time!”
A visit to the Bronte’s parsonage in Haworth turns up a similarly imperative Death. Branwell, the Bronte brother, lived a troubled life. Touched by the same brilliance as his sisters, he nevertheless could not seem to get it together. He drifted between tutoring jobs, never fulfilling early promise, and died of tuberculosis aggravated by alcoholism and drug addiction.
His last opus was so very similar to three king’s ream in the Sufi story.
Bramwell has a visit from the reaper; but he protests that he simply cannot accompany Death. To me, it seems he is just to poorly. Or perhaps he wishes to sleep late, though not as late as death might wish.
We make sense of the inevitable yawning loss by using story and caricature, by imbuing Death with our humanity, fallibility and even humour.
And so to heartbreak. As I write I sit in a magical garden on the edge of the forest lit by candlelight, and there is someone important who is not here.
I am emboldened to tell you this by a glass of prosecco. I have been putting it off because, my friends, Macaulay the Dog has stepped across the great divide between life and death. He has humbled me by dying first, and though only a terrier, now he knows a great deal more about the beyond than I do.
He has been becoming a little eccentric of late. In a walk with Felix he simply turned tail from the heart of the woods and ran back across the main road which separated the forest from our house. A white van hit him, and two days later he stepped across the Great Barricade, leaving his earthly body in our arms and running to meet those humans who loved him here and are waiting for him there.
I miss him, reader, more than words can say.