The Binding of Death
(With thanks to Mr. Sturgeon for the concept)
In an ancient land, recalled only by the Wiccae, there lived a wise and generous people. No one stole or cheated; all tried their best to help one another so that each had what they needed. The streets were lined with shade trees and each dwelling was decorated by its family, so that the towns and villages had the perpetual air of a fair or festival.
In the center of the largest town was a Temple where a Priestess taught all who were willing to learn the Mysteries. The people grew happier and wiser, and the land flourished.
Now the Temple had a Great Secret which was privately known to all the people, but never spoken of openly. Beneath the Temple, in a small room without windows, dwelt Death. He had come to the land many years before in search of sanctuary. Everywhere else on Earth He had traveled the people recognized Him and turned away their faces, or worse, sought to harm Him or even destroy Him. The High Priestess had bargained with Death, and in return for sanctuary, He spread His protection over the land, so that its inhabitant's lives were just a little better than they would ordinarily be.
The secret was whispered to children when they were young as a birthright, and rarely mentioned again. As the years passed and the land grew rich, the people ceased to remember a time without peace and plenty, and began to regard the Secret as something shameful and wrong. Finally there arose a generation who saw the secret, not as a Blessing, but as a Problem to be Solved. There were long public discussions and debates. Finally, many of the people approached the Temple, demanding that Something be Done.
The Priestess of the Temple was as wise as her forbears, and know that when many spoke they must be heard. She faced the crowd at the Temple entrance, saying, "What would you have?"
A woman stepped forth.
"Long have we pondered our shame and disgrace in harboring the great criminal Death in our midst. He cuts down young and old alike, and while we would banish or destroy one of your own who acted thus, we lift no hand to stop Him. Great is our disgrace.
Another man stepped forward, saying, "My child is ill, and if she die, how shall we forgive ourselves, who have raised no hand to stop it?" Yet another called "My sister was struck by a rock on the mountainside, and left behind her husband to mourn. Many were the years they hoped to share together. How shall he be comforted?"
One at a time each came forward with his or her complaint, for there was none among them whom Death had not touched in some way. The recital continued on as the Sun sank beneath the horizon. At that moment the Priestess raised her hand, and all fell silent.
"What would you have me do?"
A young woman stepped forward. "Bind this Death hand and foot, that He may harm none, and we will be content."
There were murmurings from the crowd, for many among them sought to see Death beaten like a criminal, or worse, but all fell silent as the Priestess challenged, them saying: "Which among you dares to meet Him face to face to bind Him?"
"I will," the young one replied, "for even now my mother lies ill, ready to leave me forever."
She followed the Priestess into the Temple, past the clean and fragrant Altars to the many Goddesses and Gods, then down a narrow stairway to a cobweb-covered door which seemed not to have been entered in many years.
The Priestess handed the girl cords of silver, saying "Enter and do your will."
Great was the girl's terror, but she thought of her mother, whom she loved dearly, and pushed the door open with a groan. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she made out two red gleams, then the outline of a Man. More than man he was, though...a shadowy horned figure crouched behind a crumbling parchment List. On that List she saw the names of all her friends and neighbors in glowing green letters, and even as she watched a new name appeared at the bottom as a child was born. The figure swept His hand across the List, and the letters of another name flashed red, then crumbled like dried brown blood and fell in flakes to the floor. The girl watched as another name came into focus; that of her mother.
With a cry she sprang forward and grasped Death's hand. It burned like ice. She did not loosen her grip, but clung for dear life. He had not seemed tall when she had entered, but as he uncoiled his length, her feet dangled and barely scraped the floor. She felt Death's breath upon her cheek and it was sweet.
"What would you?" His voice pierced her fear-fogged brain.
She wanted to loose her grip and run, climbing for light like a swimmer. "I have come to bind you or die!" she gasped.
"Why? Have I broken My bargain with your people?"
The young girl faced Death, and told her people's tale, as they had told the Priestess.
"They all feel thus, that I am their enemy and destroyer?" Death asked sadly.
The girl nodded.
Then Death sat her back down on the cold stone floor and held-forward his great hands, saying: "Bind me."
Scarce believing her good fortune, the young one bound His massive wrists, and turned as if to go.
"Will ...will You be all right?" she asked.
"That is for you to see. When you need me, you may return."
With those words, the girl's fear returned in a rush and she hurried out into the light, for the thought that she might ever need Death chilled her heart.
She heard a great contentious murmur as she approached the Temple exit, and as she burst into the crowd's torchlight a thousand voices were raised in query.
"It is done. He is bound."
The murmur turned into a roar, then a thousand questions, reproofs and congratulations. The girl felt weary and drained. Through all her fear and anticipation she had not anticipated this feeling of emptiness, almost of regret.
"No!" She turned and pushed her way through the crowd to her cottage where her mother lay waiting.
Days passed, then weeks, and the girl's relief and joy at seeing her mother restored to her turned to unease, then puzzlement and concern. Her mother did not die, neither did she recover. Rather she lingered on the edge of Death as if it were a towering cliff she could not bear to dive from, but which held her with a terrible fascination. The old woman sat for hours, eyes glazed with pain, unable to move or speak, breathing weakly like a wounded bird. The Healers could do nought; their remedies seemed useless.
The girl became restive, and found a thousand small things to take her from her mother's side. The old woman smelled foul; was foul, as though the process of decay had begun before life had license to depart. She who the girl had once loved above all others began to seem a harpy, a devouring vampire of the spirit who could absorb all her efforts for the rest of her life -- and never recover.
The girl went walking the confinement and her self-loathing were too much to bear. She saw movement by the roadside. A cat crawled weakly toward the forest, intestines hanging in a tangle. It had been struck by a cart. She recognized the cat; it had come to her window every day for years for the ritual morning bowl of cream. She had not seen the cat since...
The girl's vision swam and her pulses sounded loud in her ears. How long had the cat crawled on with a that awful wound?
She set her face and crushed the tiny skull beneath her feet. Mindlessly the bundle of rags quivered; mindlessly it moved on. The girl's gorge rose; she fled.
There was a motley crowd at the Temple steps; mostly old people and beggars. The girl had not seen beggars before.
"Who are you?" she asked one torn and tattered, but otherwise healthy young man. "Why are you dressed like that?"
"My family has cast me out. There is not enough food."
"But -- the harvest?"
"How could you not know? Where have you come from? The grain will not ripen, but remains fresh and green." A woman turned with the question; her eyes widened with rage as the fell upon the girl's face.
"It's her, the Destroyer!"
A shout of rage rose from the crowd. Hands which had borne the plow, hands which had borne the burdens of love reached out to rend and tear. Her neighbors were become strangers, and strangers enemies. She felt her tunic rip; claws at her throat. She ran from the darkness of the Temple entrance.
Inside was cool, and dark, and empty. Spectral lights burned at the Altars. She moved towards the staircase down as in a dream. None of it was real.
"Real enough," a voice whispered. The Priestess appeared before her, drawn and haggard.
"What -- what has happened here? My mother has become -- is --"
In a rush of words the girl's story tumbled from her lips; the growing hatred time had made of love, the revulsion and disgust at the thing by the road, the young man's tale of rejection and hunger. "What have I done?"
The Priestess regarded the girl, and her old eyes were as mirrors. In them the answer rang clear. "You have bound Death."
The Priestess pressed something cold into the girls hands. The girl turned and ran, down the stone stairs to the cobweb door and the darkness and terror which lay beyond. Before her loomed the cord, still silver in the darkness, and as she ran it swelled to fill her vision, as the distant ribbon of the Sea expands to fill the universe.
The girl felt the weight of the Priestess' ceremonial knife; a knife which would not tear, but would heal. She drew the blade across the shining snake and it parted red in a thin line, gaping and opening to pour forth life upon the world and loose the hands of Death, the Friend to Humanity.
This is the tale the Wiccae tell of Death's binding and return.
All articles copyright AndredsWeald, Tana and Robin Culain, all rights reserved
Permission to reproduce is granted without charge for Wiccan educational purposes only. Permission for defamatory purposes or promotion of intolerance is expressly denied.