Death and the Gardener

King – famous for his wisdom and for his beautiful gardens.
Gardener saw Death lying beneath rose tree.
Ran to king: “I must escape – to summer palace.”
Gardener left.
King went to Death: “Why frighten my gardener?”
“True – his hour has come. But was surprised to see him here while resting – was told to find him at summer palace – will now continue on my journey.”

Teaching activity
As a teacher, I often tell this tale in school and follow it up with a talking/writing activity in which the king, in later years, tells his grandchild of what happened.
The text below was written by one of my 15-year-old German students. (I have changed nothing except for three spelling corrections.)

Death and rosesThe King’s Tale
And the grandfather told:
“My dear grandchild, once upon a time, many years ago, my gardener came round this corner here and he saw Death, lying beneath this wonderful rose tree. And death stood up, came nearer and wanted to reach my gardener with his bony hand. Of course my gardener ran, he ran for his life in fact and he ran to me. He asked me to give him my fastest horse, because he’d seen Death he told, and he looked so scared and frightened, that I gave it to him.
He rode faster than my old eyes could see and I only recognized the dust blowing up behind him.
I believed my gardener, of course, he was a very trustful man, but I also was a bit sceptic. So I went through my garden, directly to the middle, you know, where we’re sitting now and where this rose tree stands, and I came round that corner there and I looked directly under my beautiful rose tree and really, there he lay. Death lay under my tree and, if you could say that to Death, he looked very peaceful. So I went on and when I stood right in front of him, I asked: “Death, please, tell me, why did you come to take my gardener and why are you lying under my rose tree now?”
Death answered: “I didn’t want to take your gardener when I came here, and I wondered why I met him here, because I normally had to meet him at your summer palace.
And about your second question: I came round at my journey to the summer palace and I found that wonderful place and I decided to stay here for a while to smell that wonderful smell of your roses and to see the bright colours of them. Because where I come from, everything is grey and cold and hopeless and here you can feel hope and grace in every breath you take. But now I have to go my way to the summer palace. Your gardener’s time on earth is almost over.”
And, my little girl, do you understand what I want to explain to you with this story?” “Yes, grandfather, I think I understand. Death comes when he has to come. Sometimes you meet him earlier than you want, but the time and the place you have to die, is predetermined and you can’t run away from it.”
“Yes, dear, I’m happy to see that your wisdom is great as mine and I’m proud to be your grandfather till my time is over.”
And so they lived till Death came and the story of Death was told from generation to generation and every time one of the family had to die, they invited Death for one day and one night to lay under the rose tree and smell the wonderful smell of the gorgeous roses.

Text © Julia Rodenhäuser, 2008
Picture © Elena Hammes, 2008

A tale told in several cultures, including the Jewish. Somerset Maugham wrote a literary version, “An Appointment in Samara”.
Robert Irwin in Arabian Nights: A Companion states that this tale appeared in written form in another collection of folk tales written in the Middle East in the 11th century.
Heather Forest has a shorter version of this as a Jewish folk tale on her invaluable page of Stories in a Nutshell.

My thanks to folklorist Yoel Perez, who has provided further information about this tale:
The story appears first time in the third century Babylonian Talmud.
Here I bring the English translatuon of the Arameic source.
R. Johanan stated, A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted. [By Death]
There were once two Cushites [‘Ethiopians’ or (with Rashi) ‘handsome men’, as the Rabbis render the noun in Num. XII, 1.] who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes, [I Kings IV, 3] of Solomon. One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was sad. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou sad? – ‘Because’, he answered him, ‘they [In heaven] have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here’. [Sc. death has been decreed against them] [Solomon thereupon] gave them in charge of the spirits [Over whom Solomon had dominion (cf. Meg. 11b, on I Chron. XXIX, 23)] and sent them to the district of Luz. [To save them from death. V. Gen. XXVIII, 19 and Judg. I, 23. Owing probably to the identification of this word with the one meaning ‘the indestructible bone of the vertebra’ (Lev. R., XVIII) tradition says that the Angel of Death had no power in Luz (v. Sot. 46b)] When, however, they reached the district of Luz [And were still at the gate] they died.
On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was in cheerful spirits. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou cheerful?’ – ‘To the place’, the other replied, ‘where they expected them from me, thither didst thou send them!’ [It was decreed that they should die at the gate of Luz].
Solomon thereupon uttered the saying, ‘A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted’. [Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Sukkah. 53a]

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For those who are teachers: Telling stories in the classroom: basing language teaching on storytelling