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Death and the Scholar—a fable



She was ill, very ill.

Doctors had come and gone, diagnosed and disagreed, but each application of poultice, pill or purgative brought only slight, short-lived relief. The night nurse, instructed simply to ease the process, sat by her side, wiped away bloody phlegm, cooled the forehead with a cold compress. At least she would die in her own room, only steps from another where she’d been born sixteen years before.

“It will be just an hour or two. No more than that,” the night nurse tried to comfort. “She may know you’re here. It means so much to her now and will to you tomorrow.” How many others has Nurse seen through to this end, he wondered. “We should call the priest.”

Standing at the foot of the bed, the father held on to hope. “Not yet.” Somehow he’d stepped beyond his sphere of grief and conceived a plan. “Should you feel a chilly draft—and I believe you will—come to the library and get me,” and then he pinned a note to his daughter’s pillow which the nurse might have found odd, redundant and perhaps insulting: “I am in the Library. We must talk,” he had written in elegant scarlet script.

The library was his haven, a womb of the mind where he’d birthed his finest thoughts (infrequent as they might be). And it was there that he’d conceived the very best of them—on this, of all evenings—for there, amid the oiled leather bindings of old friends, in the dim-lit fragrance of darjeeling and tobacco, the Professor would wait for Death and bargain for the child’s life.


A knock so slight, as a servant might knock, like the clearing of a throat. The dog’s ears perked. “Come, Nurse,” he said, not bothering to look up from his writing.

Hearing the latch and a low groan from the dog, he expected to address a pearl-grey nurse. But standing two respectful steps inside the room was a lean black-robed figure holding a staff, the caricature of Death. The odor of melancholy filled the room; drove out the more familiar scents. “Thank you for accepting my invitation. Would you care to sit?”

“Mine is solitary work and grateful for conversation.” Death’s voice was oddly soothing, mellifluous; of greater comfort than any clergy in recent memory. “Don’t take my standing as discourtesy. I am an uninvited guest in yours and every other house, and seldom welcome.” After a long pause he added, “You wish to negotiate your daughter’s death. This is more common than you might suppose.”

“Yes, but my arguments are thin and self-serving.”

“You seem surprised by my appearance. We show ourselves as culture expects—without necessarily behaving in such a way,” Death explained. “I could go out and return in another form—the night nurse, perhaps.”

“No, we are each creatures of habit, I suspect, so please stay—as you are.” By this time the Professor had stood, to make his guest more comfortable.


“Then press your case. Please.”

The Professor offered facts he thought Death would already know: that his wife had died at childbirth; that the daughter became the central figure of his life; that he had few resources, not even the house where they stood, which was owned by his academic employers. The girl was so tender and might be married within two or three years. “But I am old,” he added, “and have little time to offer for an extension of her young life. She was the product of my middle age; so many years focused on my work, though that poor investment should be no concern of yours. I suspect there are not all that many years left to me but you may have them gladly.”

“Yes, the Ledger of life and death appoints a time for each of us but it gives me little insight.” So Death inquired: “I know only that you are a professor. Are you a man of medicine, whose work will lessen suffering? Or a man of science and invention, who can improve the quality of life for those not yet born? A philosopher, perhaps, who might discern the meaning of life—and the purpose of its end and in doing so to justify my work?”

“No, I am none of those,” he admitted without apology. “Simply a man of words, concerned with clarity of thought and the expressive beauty of language—a mark I often miss.” He leaned intently forward across the desk, hoping to glimpse Death’s face and gauge the situation. Then a question occurred to him: “Earlier, you said ‘We show ourselves….’ Are there more of you?”

Braced on his staff, Death seemed slightly less formal, less remote, practically at ease; vulnerable. “Thank you for asking. Yes, there are several of us, though the number is unknown to me. We are what you would call independent contractors, working for neither side, impartial, unbiased. If you have complaint that today’s date was incorrectly set, your argument is with an authority higher than mine.” He explained his recruitment into the Brotherhood; that his name is also in the Ledger; and that he, too, will die—though after many more years than humans might expect.


Their conversation continued through the night, a stimulating exchange the Professor could never have imagined; neither would others believe. And it was also a conversation Death had relished as well. Before dawn, their bargain was struck: The child would live.

The Scholar had agreed to tell Death’s tale—whose preface you’ve just read. He had also enabled Death himself to pass his scythe to another, the Scholar taking his own place among the Ledger’s keepers. Balance had been achieved, equity maintained. And favors exchanged.

Five days after her fever broke, she entered her father’s library and found his final manuscript wrapped in purest white, tied with scarlet twine.

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