Death came to the village on the edge of the forest.
They came just before the spring, tiptoeing through the mulch on the forest floor, creeping softly along the paths that led to the houses. They came silently, a breath of frost-tinged air wafting in the spaces between conversations, but they were no less deadly because their approach was gentle. One by one the villagers found themselves short of breath, then gasping for air, then drowning, and as the churchyard began to overflow with coffins, the branches in the forest pointed their bare twigs towards the sky, accusing Death.
‘Why did you come for our village?’ whispered the trees to the sad air. ‘Why could you not leave us in peace?’
The trees did not expect an answer. They were crying out to the air because they were in mourning. But it so happened that Death was resting from their labours, and overheard the forest’s laments.
‘It is not our fault,’ whispered Death in their many voices. Death is legion, and comes in many forms, and each has its own tongue. ‘We do not ask why when we are sent. We just go, and we do our job.’
‘But it is a terrible job,’ said the trees, thinking of the villagers who no longer went courting in the forest, or sat under the trees for shelter, or rest. ‘Look at the grief you have left behind you. Why do you not find another?’
‘It is our job,’ replied Death. ‘We have no other. We are here now, and we must do what we are sent to do.’
And because the trees were old, and wise, and stood quietly and noticed things, they listened to what Death said.
‘Why do you carry out this terrible work?’ They asked. Their long years had taught them well that it only takes a tiny chink in the foliage to let the light fall in.
‘We do not know,’ said Death, sadly. ‘We only know that we should come here and take our toll. But we cannot stand here talking. We are weary, and hungry from our terrible labours, and still there is work to be done.’
And then Death sighed a deep sigh.
‘That is not to say we like it,’ said Death, sorrowfully. ‘We are rarely welcomed and each house we leave to the sounds of tears and heartbreak. You cannot know what it is like never to hear songs that are not funeral dirges, and never to eat dishes that are not funeral foods.’
With that, Death picked up their scythe, and made their way with heavy footsteps back to the village.
But the forest had listened. In the tops of the trees the twigs began, very faintly, to rustle, even though there was no wind. Birds began to stir, and in the undergrowth, there were sounds of small, brown creatures on the move.
The forest was gathering its forces.
The forest had a plan.
Tincuta was a bright, light spirit with the face of a flower and a singing voice like a blackbird. Her voice was cracked and clear and told of the joys and sorrows of everyday life.
She lived in a pretty red hut in a clearing full of flowers, where everything was clean and neat, and even the toothbrushes were arranged to look beautiful, as well as useful.
The forest sent a small brown nightingale to Tincuta. It sat on her windowsill and waited for her to come back from her vegetable patch. The nightingale heard Tincuta before she saw her, and despite all the sorrow in the village, the little bird’s heart lifted, because Tincuta was singing.
The nightingale raised her beautiful voice in song, and Tincuta matched it. The woman and the bird sang together and when the verses were over, the nightingale settled on Tincuta’s shoulder.
‘Have you come with a message for me, little bird?’ the woman asked.
The nightingale nodded.
‘I have been sent by the forest. Your help is needed to send Death on their way.’
‘How can I do that?’ asked Tincuta. ‘I am as scared of Death as any of the villagers. That is why I stay in my clearing and keep my own company. What can I offer that will make Death leave us in peace?’
‘Death is sad,’ replied the nightingale. ‘Death never hears joyful song.’
Tincuta stroked the nightingale’s head before she spoke.
‘If it will help send Death on their way, I will sing my heart out,’ she said. ‘Will that do?’
The nightingale chirped, and fluttered her tail.
‘I’ll go and tell the forest,’ said the nightingale. And then she flew away.
Tincuta’s mother, Tinka, had a bush in her garden where cooking pots grew. The branches were filled with pots and pans for all kinds of dishes, their bright, flowered enamel gleaming with cleanliness and making passersby’s mouths water at the thought of a meal that would feed their heart as well as their stomach. If a visitor asked nicely, and perhaps pressed some coins into her hands, the pan would cook a delicious dish that sustained and comforted. But if anyone passed by with the intention of purloining a pan without offering something in return, the stolen pan would boil over no matter what the cooking temperature, and the base would blacken and the enamel would burn and the food inside would be nothing but inedible crusts of blackened cinder.
Tinka’s hut was smaller than her daughter Tincuta’s, and partly hidden in the trees. Its walls were lower and its windows were smaller and Tinka fought a constant battle to stop the forest coming into the house and taking root in her small, pokey room. There was only the one, so she cooked on a fire outside and did her business amongst the trees some distance away. When she sang songs, it was to herself or to the ducks she kept, and passersby sometimes wondered aloud that Tinka’s ducks quacked at times when most other ducks were asleep with their heads under their wings.
When she came home from gathering roots and herbs in the forest, the ducks were nowhere to be seen and there was a small brown vixen sitting on her doorstep next to a brightly flowered cooking pot.
‘Why is my best pot on the doorstep?’ said Tinka in a cross voice.
‘Because you’re the best cook,’ said the vixen. ‘Everybody knows that.’
‘I hope you haven’t come for my ducks,’ said Tinka. She scowled at her visitor but the vixen held her ground.
‘I promise I’m not going to touch your ducks. I’ve come from the forest,’ she told Tinka. ‘To ask your help in sending Death on their way. Death is sad, and only eats food that is cooked on the ashes of sorrow.’
Tinka rolled up her sleeves.
‘You’ve come to the right place,’ she said.
So the vixen told Tinka what she needed to do.
‘And serve it in that pot,’ said the vixen. ‘It’s for a most special occasion.’
Brush in the air, the vixen went back to let the forest know that Tinka was ready to cook Death a meal that would warm their heart as well as fill their stomach. The vixen was cross about the ducks, which had looked fat and tasty, but she’d given her word.
Tea, Tinka’s mother and Tincuta’s grandmother, lived wherever the wind took her. She blew in with the leaves on a blustery night when the driving rain tossed witches on their broomsticks over the mountains in high winds, and when she came to ground it was in the land beyond the forest. She didn’t sing, but she could caw like a crow, and there were some that said she looked like one too, because her clothes were dark rags that hung from her shoulders like raggedy feathers. She only had one cooking pot, which she brought with her on her broomstick, and all she ever cooked in it were spells, that people asked her for – or at least, the ones that dared approach her.
Sometimes she collected the bits and pieces of a life that made people unhappy, and wrote them on scraps of paper, and burned them in her pot. And other times, she collected things that were not nice at all – cat poo, and dog poo, and the bits of dead animals that birds of prey spit out – and used them to effect… changes.
She wasn’t all bad. But she had to be asked nicely.
For all their differences the three generations of the family, Tea, Tinka and Tincuta, rubbed along nicely together. They understood each other. Accepted each others’ ways, laughed together when times were good and looked out for each other when times were bad. They were family, and all each other had, and that’s what families do. And other people knew that if they wanted a song that would brighten their day they were to ask for Tincuta. If what they wanted was food for their souls and their stomachs, Tinka was the one to go to. But if what they required was something they didn’t want to put into words for others to hear and remark upon, they needed to look for Tea, and approach her quietly, when no-one else was looking.
The forest sent jackdaw to search for Tea, and beg her to do what she could to send Death on their way.
‘Take your most precious treasure,’ said the forest. ‘It’s worth more than gold for her to come and send Death from the village.’
So the jackdaw searched in his stash of jewels, and selected a magnificent diamond necklace. It pained him to part with something so lovely, but it was the biggest sacrifice he could make in order to conquer Death.
The jackdaw took flight with the necklace in his beak, and he flew and flew. Whenever he settled, he sat in the highest branches and scanned the ground, and peered. He knew what he was looking for. And even though he was hungry, and thirsty, he kept the diamond necklace clasped in his beak, so he could neither eat nor drink.
Eventually, spotting a movement in the undergrowth, the jackdaw swooped on silent wings and landed at a polite distance from where a bent little woman in rags was digging through roots, with her hands, like a mole.
Eventually the woman stopped digging and stood up, with her back to the jackdaw.
‘I know you’re there.’
All the same, she turned around. As she did so, the jackdaw laid the diamond necklace on the ground.
‘I know what you want, too.’
The jackdaw ignored being spoken to in such an ungracious way, and bowed deeply.
‘What do I want with diamonds?’ said Tea. ‘All the diamonds in the world are of less value than the tears of a person who has lost someone they love. So take them back. I don’t have any quarrel with Death. They’re just going about their business. Go on, flap off.’ With that Tea made a rude gesture and turned her back on the poor jackdaw. He stood guard over the diamonds for some time, but the old woman went on ignoring him.
Eventually the jackdaw picked up the unwanted necklace, and he flew, and flew, and returned to the forest. He was bone tired, and his stomach was empty, and his throat was parched. He laid the diamonds on the forest floor and wished they would turn to water that he could drink, and he admitted his failure.
‘It’s not your fault,’ said the forest. ‘You tried your hardest. We have learned that Tea will not be persuaded with gifts. Perhaps we need to send someone who will command her. Boar, will you try?’
So the boar set out, and marched and marched, with all the ferocity of a general in command of an army that was facing a mighty enemy. He marched through the darkness until the glint of a tiny fire alerted him to Tea’s presence in a clearing ahead. Because he was a noble commander, and knew the value of ceremony, he trumpeted his arrival so that Tea would understand he saw her as a force to be reckoned with.
‘We are at war,’ the boar roared. ‘I have come in person to command you to join in the battle! It will be a fight to the death. Can we count on your support?’
Tea looked right into boar’s tiny red eyes. He was a fearsome beast, bristly and spiny, with tusks jutting like armour from his mouth, and he filled the clearing with his warlike body and his red-hot anger.
‘You’re very impressive,’ said Tea appraisingly. ‘A ferocious opponent. But then so am I.’
Before the boar’s astonished eyes, Tea rose up and up, higher and higher and higher over the trees, her ragged clothes becoming bark and branches, her clawlike fingers extending into spiky twigs, until she towered above the entire forest. She grew so high she blocked out the moon, and the stars twinkled through the spaces between her outstretched fingers.
‘Even with all our forces, we cannot conquer Death,’ she shrieked. At the sound of her voice, flocks of birds fled from their perches. The air throbbed with the vibrations of their bodies and rumbled with the thunderous sound of their wings.
Even this terrible spectacle did not make the brave boar flinch.
‘I am not afraid of you,’ he bellowed. ‘And I am more afraid of dishonor than I am of Death. Join me, and together we will conquer them.’
‘You have courage but if you think that you are a fool,’ cackled Tea. ‘Death will slaughter you in a second and fell me without a second thought. But I have no quarrel with Death. We are old acquaintances, and we know each other’s powers. Leave me in peace, valiant commander. I will not answer your call.’
So the boar marched back to the forest. It was the first time he had been defeated, and he was ashamed.
‘Lay down your arms, and rest,’ said the forest. ‘It is not your fault. We have learned that Tea will not meet her foe in combat. But what are we to do? We’ve offered treasures and the chance of an honourable battle. And if Tea does not help us then Death will take the whole village, and there’ll be no-one left.’
The forest fell silent, lost in thought, and wondered what it should do next.
And then there was the sound of hooves, moving with gracious purpose, and stag stepped into a clearing. All eyes were on him as he lifted his great head to the moonlight. It bathed him in light, turning the antlers on his head into a silver crown.
‘I will go,’ said stag. He filled the clearing with a presence so regal that the forest fell silent in admiration of his majesty.
Stag progressed through the forest at a stately pace, neither fast nor slow, until he came face to face with the wizened old woman.
‘So you have come,’ she said. ‘The King of the Forest. Do you intend to command me, my lord?’
‘No,’ said stag. ‘I have come to beg for your help. Your daughter is ready, and your grand-daughter too. But without you we can do nothing. We have no power without you. You are the only one who can take Death away from the village.’
The majestic stag lowered himself onto his knees in front of the old witch, humbling himself in front of her, and bent his magnificent head until his crown of antlers touched the ground by Tea’s feet.
‘What have you to offer me, my lord?’ she asked. ‘If you want me to do as you request?’
Stag raised himself to his feet, and lowered his head to his chest.
‘My living heart,’ he said. ‘I will pierce my flesh with my crown of antlers and give you my bleeding heart. I will lay down my life if you turn Death away from the village.’
Tea looked at the stag for a long time, and the air between them trembled.
‘I don’t need your heart, and the village does not need your sacrifice,’ she said at last. ‘There’s enough death. I don’t need treasure, and I have no desire for battle. But your nobility has made me see what the jackdaw and the boar could not. Invite Death to a feast. Tell my daughter and my grand-daughter I will see them there.’
On the appointed night, the forest made ready. A ceremonial table was laid in the clearing, decorated with bouquets of the spring bluebells that turned the spaces between the trees into bright pools of green and violet. Tincuta stood waiting by the head of the table, dressed in her finest, and Tinka stirred the brightly flowered enamel pot that hung over a carefully set fire. The food smelled mouthwateringly of sweet herbs and tangy roots. Fireflies hung over the table and round the edges of the clearing, filling the space with twinkling light.
Death was the first guest to arrive at the feast. Handsome and elegant in a velvet frock coat, they sat with quiet dignity at the head of the table.
The forest gathered itself, waiting. When it was time, and the moon had risen in the sky, Tincuta began to sing, her voice soaring in a lilting, lovely song of welcome as Tea’s procession arrived.
First came nightingale, then jackdaw, then vixen. Then the other creatures of the forest, rabbit and hare, mole and badger, dormouse and hedgehog and rat. The birds flew in their masses: robin, crow, thrush, blackbird, raven, owl. And then boar made his entrance, then stag, and finally, a small, veiled figure.
Death waited as Tea’s procession made its way to the head of the table.
Stag and boar, king and commander of the forest, each stood aside. Tea, shrouded in her veils, moved to stand next to Death. As a well-mannered person should, Death rose to their feet.
‘You have invited us to this feast,’ they said. ‘Will you not show us your face?’
So Tea raised her hands to her veil, and lifted it from her face.
Tincuta launched into a new song, more joyful than the first, as Death looked into the face before them. This was not the face of the wizened old crone, but that of a young woman in a pure white dress, more beautiful than any person they had ever seen. Death felt a stirring in body and soul as they looked at Tea, and in great excitement they rose to greet her.
‘I come to you as your bride,’ said Tea, lowering her eyes. ‘Will you not kiss me?’
So Death placed their mouth on Tea’s, and their hands clasped, and breath passed between their lips.
‘My grand-daughter has sung our wedding song, and my daughter has prepared our wedding feast,’ said Tea. ‘Will you not eat with your bride?’
So Tinka served Death and Tea with great bowls of her sweet-smelling stew, and Death raised their spoon to their mouth again and again, until the dish was empty.
‘And now will you come away with me, as is only fitting on our wedding night?’ said Tea. Then Death rose, eagerly, and stretched out their hand to her, and she took it, willingly. Because as Tea knew, Death cannot be overcome by precious gifts, or defeated by an army. Only love can conquer Death.
The forest creatures watched as Death let their bride lead them away from the forest. Hand in hand, they walked through the village, and went on their way. And though long years passed, and the villagers went courting in the forest again, and Tincuta sang songs to serenade every wedding in the village, and the birth of every child, and Tinka cooked the feasts to celebrate, Tea and her bridegroom were never to be seen again.
Tina Jackson is a writer, journalist and variety performer whose creative work encompasses secret lives, suppressed history, liminal spaces, everyday magic, and the borderlands between reality and imagination where extraordinary transformations take place. Her debut novel The Beloved Children was published by Fahrenheit Press in 2020 and she is the author of Stories from The Chicken Foot House (Markosia, 2018), a collection of grungy transformation tales illustrated by Andrew Walker, and Struggle and Suffrage in Leeds: Womens’ Lives and the Fight for Equality (Pen & Sword, 2019). She has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University and her short stories and poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies.
photo by Jay Mantri (via unsplash)