Death and the Soldier (From the Archives)

(Originally posted April 13, 2012 at

It’s raining.

Come pull your cloaks warm about you, draw near fire, and have a listen if you like. Because when it rains, I like to tell stories.

So not exactly a soldier. More like a knight. Cool sword, though, right?

This one happened many long years ago to an ordinary soldier who owned two of the most extraordinary possessions: a sack and a glass goblet. The sack was a magic sack, and whatever the soldier called into the sack, into the sack it had to go. The soldier might see some geese by a lake, and he might decide he’d like a goose dinner, so all he’d have to do is call, “Hey geese! Get into my sack!” And flap flap flap, into the sack the geese would fly.

Extraordinary, right?

But the glass goblet was even more magical and more extraordinary. All the soldier had to do was fill the goblet full of water, look at the reflection of a sick person in the glass, and through the glass he could see Death. If Death stood near the person’s head, then the soldier could do nothing. But if Death stood near the feet, then all the soldier had to do was sprinkle some of the water from the glass goblet onto the person, and just like that, the sick grew well again.

Soon, the soldier’s fame grew and grew, for wherever he went, he used the goblet to heal. Then one day, the king grew sick, and the king called for the soldier to come to his bedside. The soldier hurried, but he’d been very far away, and by the time he arrived and looked at the king in the glass, there was Death standing at the king’s head.

“I’m sorry,” said the soldier, “but I’ve come too late! Death will have you, and there is nothing I can do.”

The king gasped and shook. “You heal beggars and children and cats and dogs, but you cannot heal me? I am your king!”

The soldier began to weep, and looking through the glass, he spoke to Death. “If you must have a companion, then take me I beg you, and spare the king.”

Death nodded its head and withdrew from the king, so the soldier sprinkled a little water on the king from the glass, and the king sat up in his bed healthy again. But the soldier knew at once that his time had come, so while the king and his attendants celebrated, the soldier left the king’s bedside and went to his own. As he lay there, knowing Death was drawing close, he lifted up the glass and saw Death’s reflection near his head.

But our soldier was a quick-thinking man. From underneath his pillow he took out his magic sack and commanded, “Death, get in this sack!”

And Death did. The soldier tied the sack tight closed, and just like that, Death was a captive.

The news quickly spread, until all the ears of the world were ringing with it. Death was held a prisoner! And such strange things began to happen. Nobody died. Sailors lost at sea would swim home again. Men hanged at the gallows would untie themselves and climb down from the scaffolds.

Then one day the soldier looked out his window, and there he saw his garden filled with people. All the old beyond enduring, the sick beyond healing, the suffering beyond earthly comforting. All those waiting to die. All those for whom the gift of Death was intended.

The soldier felt compassion for the people, so he untied the sack and said, “Death, I’ve kept you too long. You must go back into the world to take those whose time has come, and you must take me as well, for my time came long ago.”

But Death was afraid of the soldier and would not take him. It fled away from the soldier and his sack, never to draw near him again.

And our soldier is living still, wandering out there somewhere in the world, and looking still for Death to take him.


For those of you wondering, yes, this is a VERY abbreviated version of the Russian folktale “The Soldier and Death.” If you want to hear the whole story, including a nice rendition of how the soldier came by that extraordinary glass goblet and that extraordinary sack, I recommend the Jim Henson’s remake of the tale, called by the same name. It’s one of my favorites!



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