Escape From Death

Note: This piece was originally written in Purépecha.

Don Nicolas used to get up early every day to the sound of the birds singing. Although the cold bothered his eyes, he quickly got dressed, and before the sun appearred, Don Nicolas, followed by his faithful dog, El Tizne--Grimy--took off for the hills. Once on the mountain, Don Nicolas harvested corn and beans, while his dog El Tizne chased squirrels the entire time. That dog was never still.

Now I want to relate what happened one day. It went like this: while he was harvesting, Don Nicolas began to feel something strange, as if he was not walking alone, as if someone was following him while he walked through the furrows of corn. Without turning around, he said to himself, "Who could be following me? It must be the wind in the fields that is causing this noise."

"Are you tired already, Don Nicolas?" asked the woman who was standing next to him. "Which is the corn that I am taking home? Because I, too, helped you with the harvest."

Without stopping his work, Don Nicolas tried to pay attention to her, but he realized that the woman had covered her face and she was very badly dressed.

Then Don Nicolas thought, This poor woman must have gone a long time without food, because she is so thin. He felt pity for her, and said, "Of course, take all the corn that you have harvested, go home and quickly grind it to make some tortillas to eat with beans. Look, over there are the beans, cut as much as you like."

"Thank you, Don Nicolas, for everything you are giving me, although you do not know who I am."

"If you were death itself, I would still give it to you, since I have decided to harvest the entire crop."

The woman laughed, showing her teeth and her bony face.

"Look, Don Nicolas," said the woman, "I am Death, the one who takes people over there, from which they never return. When they send me to get someone, I take him, and it doesn't matter to me who he is or how he lives, whether he is young or old, rich or poor. There are some people that I advise about when I am coming for them, but there are others that I take without warning. I just take them. I have come to tell you that you must come with me."

"Early one morning," the unknown person continued, "when it is no longer cold, very early, when the countryside becomes green again, the trees have their leaves, and the fields have as many flowers as there are stars in the sky, and everyone is rushing to go to Patzcuaro to buy new clothes to wear at the Feast of Saint Christopher, then I will come for you and you will have to go with me. Don't worry about it. What you must do now is go home, divide all your wealth and property, leaving nothing for yourself, because you can't take anything with you where we are going. Your children will take care of you. Do not tell anyone about our conversation. Go and ask forgiveness and apologize to anyone you have hurt, so that you don't leave with anything on your mind. I am spending too much time with you. I have to go to Tzirondaro to collect another man. His children are waiting for me in order to talk about his money and his lands that he cannot bring with him. I am leaving now, we will see each other later."

*

Koko and young Nicolas were working together, harvesting the corn. They got along well because they had been told they should.

The two of them looked at each other in surprise, almost unable to understand what Don Nicolas was saying to them. "Do not squander what I leave you. On the contrary, go on working so you can increase what you have, and your children will have everything they need to grow and develop well. That is all I can do for all of you."

Both Koko and Nicolas cooperated, taking care of their parents and feeding them well. They also continued working as their father had advised.

Don Nicolas was living happily with his wife. There was nothing missing in their house.

That year, all the farmers had benefited from a large harvest of corn. Everyone was in a hurry to go to Patzcuaro. The feast of Father Christmas was coming, and things were as uproarious as a field of flowers. On that day, the musicians of Ichan were due to arrive. The celebration would be beautiful.

What should I do? When will Death come for me? Today or tomorrow? Now I am afraid! No, I don't want to go, least of all now when I am so happy...and I harvested so much corn, who will enjoy it? I alone worked for it.... No, no, I don't want to die! If only I could hide and get away from death!

With these thoughts on his mind, Don Nicolas went up into the hills, looked for a cow and killed it. He immediately skinned and dried it. Then he put on the skin so no one would recognize him. But that afternoon, the following happened: When Death arrived, she looked everywhere and asked everyone about Don Nicolas. She searched diligently. By nightfall, she grew tired of looking for him because he seemed to have disappeared.

"How did it happen that Don Nicolas ridiculed and hid from me? Today I am supposed to take him and he is not to be found anywhere!"

As she was walking, Death ran across a cow standing alone.

"Now I am going to recoup with this cow. How can I go back with nothing! Even though it is only a cow, I shall take it back with me."

So, infuriated, not wanting to return empty-handed, she took the cow.

The next day, in the afternoon, when the mass was over and the musicians from Ichan were playing soulfully, Don Nicolas was buried.

As if they were one, the church bells and the musicians were heard in the distance.

"When the Creator sends me to get someone, I take him, no matter who he is or how he lives, whether he is young or old, rich...."

Originally published in Relatos Purépechas, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Direccion General de Culturas Populares, Coleccion Lenguas de México No. l2. l995. pp. 5l-59.