In which being wise can mean being tricksy, or maybe desperate


I love love trickster stories, and stories about outwitting Death seem appropriate at this dark time of year.

The Old Woman Who Outwitted Death (Hungary)
Once upon a time, whether true or not, I cannot say, there was an old, old woman.

She was older than the gardener who planted the first tree, yet she was full of life, full of wisdom, and never dreamed that death might someday pass her way.

She washed her clothes and scrubbed her cottage; she cooked her meals and baked her breads; she planted her garden and tended her flowers, she was kind to strangers and shared her coffee with the neighbors. She was busy with life.

One day, Death remembered the old woman and came knocking on her cottage door.

When she saw who he was she told him she couldn’t possibly leave that day. She had just started her laundry and she needed to rinse the clothes, hang them on the line, and then iron them when they were dry. No, but she might be ready by the next morning, if death would be so kind as to return then.

Since Death had forgotten about her so many times, he thought it only fair to give her another day to get her life in order.

“You can expect me at the same time tomorrow.”

As he walked out of her garden, he took some chalk from his pocket and wrote the word “tomorrow” on the gatepost.

The next day he returned and told her that she must come along, that he didn’t have all day.

The old woman smiled and said, “But my dear Death, you must be mistaken. This is not the day you were to come, just look and see what you wrote on my gatepost. That’s when you are to come for me.”

Death looked at the gatepost and sure enough there was a word in his own writing, “Tomorrow.”

“There,” said the old woman. “You must come for me tomorrow.”

So, Death went away and returned the next day.

The old woman was standing by the door, waiting.

“Death, don’t you remember what you wrote on the gatepost? You aren’t coming for me today, but tomorrow.”

And so it went on for an entire month.

Finally, Death had had enough of this game.

“Old woman, you have been cheating me. Tomorrow is your last day and I will be coming for you then.”

As he walked out of her garden he rubbed the word “tomorrow” off the gatepost.

The old woman stopped smiling. She tried to think of a way to stop Death from taking her, but she didn’t have any ideas left.

That night she tossed and turned and didn’t sleep at all.

In the morning, the old woman decided she would hide in the honey barrel that she kept in the corner of her kitchen. She eased herself down into the thick, rich, golden-colored honey, leaving only her nose and eyes above the rim to watch for Death.

But then she realized that Death would look for her and thought that this might be the very first place he would try.

So, she climbed out of the honey barrel and quickly hid in a chest full of the goose feathers that she had been saving to make a nice comforter.

But, just as she settled herself in the feathers, she wondered if Death would open the chest, so she slowly climbed out and began to walk across the room to the stairs that led to the attic.

Just then Death walked through the door.

He glanced around but didn’t see the old woman anywhere.

Instead, he spied a strange creature, all covered with white feathers and something thick, slimy and golden that seemed to ooze from it.

It wasn’t a bird and it wasn’t a person. It was a horrible sight.

Death was so terrified that he turned and ran from the old woman’s house, never to return.

The old woman cleaned herself up and once more got busy with life.

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