Summary: Inspired by the Grimms’ fairy tale “Godfather Death,” this story follows Death’s three godchildren and explores what happens when the most selfish and clever one comes across the trickster Tala.
Note: This story contains some sexual content and some violence
This story starts with Death. Now, some time ago, Death had three very different godchildren living in three different kingdoms. When each came of age, Death appeared to them individually and said, “Now you shall receive your gift from me.” Then Death took them down into an enormous underground cavern where there were thousands and thousands of candles burning in countless rows, bunches, and clusters to make a giant web of light. The candles were all sizes, and with every moment, some went out while others flared into life, so that the little flames seemed to be constantly changing and popping up and down. And, upon close examination, each candle had a name glowing inside its flame.
“You see,” said Death, “these candles are the lights of people’s lives. The tall candles belong to those with long lives ahead of them, while the short ones belong to those with only a little time left. Regard them closely and you can see that each burns at a different speed. The decisions that each person makes determines how fast their candle burns, but Luck and Fate also play a major role.”
“Please, Godmother, show me my life candle!” each godchild asked.
And in response, Death pointed to a tall, thick candle and said, “Because you are my godchild, you have received a large candle. Make good choices and it will burn slowly.”
Next Death showed them a magical herb that grows deep in the woods, and said, “Now, here is the rest of my gift. I’m going to make you into a famous doctor. Whenever you are summoned to a sick person, you will see the candle of their life in their eyes. If it is tall, you can confidently declare that you will make them well again. Just give them some of this herb, and they’ll recover right away. However, if their candle is a flickering stub, then they are mine, and you must say that there is nothing that can be done. But beware that you don’t use this herb to cheat me, because that has dire consequences!”
Well, it did not take long for each godchild to become the most famous doctor in their respective kingdom. As their reputations spread, people were soon coming from far and wide to seek their help in curing the sick. And those who were cured were so grateful that each doctor soon became rich.
Now, the first godchild happened to be a kind-hearted and loving soul. So when his beloved fell ill, he was deeply troubled. And when he saw a short, flickering candle in his beloved’s eyes, he said to himself, “I will surely lose my own life for this, but I must try to save him.” Then the doctor gave some of the herb to his beloved, who quickly recovered. Death, however, was very angry and said, “I have given you a great gift and you have misused it! Even so, I will forgive you this once because you are my godson. But if you ever do this again, your life will be forfeit!” Fortunately, the doctor’s beloved did not fall ill again and, with difficulty, the doctor was able to resist the temptation to meddle with death again. Therefore, he and his beloved lived together for many years in peace and happiness.
Well, it happened that Death’s second godchild was selfish and foolish. And one day the king of hir land fell ill. Immediately, this doctor was summoned, and when ze looked into the king’s eyes, ze saw that his life was burning low. “If only I could cheat Death just this once!” thought the doctor. “The king will surely give me a splendid reward! Of course, Death will be angry, but since I am her godchild, perhaps she will forgive me.” So, taking a chance, the doctor gave the king some of the herb, and he quickly became well again. Naturally, Death was furious and said, “You don’t understand the harm you have done!” but she decided to forgive her godchild just this once.
Soon thereafter, the king’s son fell seriously ill. Then the king sent for the doctor and promised hir that if ze saved his son, the king would make hir a wealthy governmental minister. And when the doctor approached the princes’ bed, ze was immediately smitten by how handsome the prince was, and ze happily envisioned marrying him as a reward for saving his life. But when the doctor looked into the prince’s eyes, ze saw that his life was burning low. Now, ze should have remembered Death’s warning, but instead, ze threw caution to the winds and gave the prince some of the herb. Immediately the prince’s cheeks flushed with renewed life. But this time Death would not forgive. She strode up to her godchild, grabbed hir with her icy hand, and led hir away.
Now, Death’s third godchild happened to be selfish and clever, and this was quite dangerous, because, right after Death showed her the underground cavern, she began searching for a wishing ring. And when she found one, she used it to visit the cavern without Death’s knowledge. There she experimented until she learned how to cut a piece off the bottom of one person’s candle and seamlessly affix it to the bottom of someone else’s. In this way the doctor ensured that she could give a long or short life to anyone she wished. As you can imagine, this made her wealthy indeed, and it was not long before she was employed by a king who feared Death more than anything else.
Then, one day, Tala came to the city where this unscrupulous doctor lived. Now Tala, who happened to be trans, was an unusual woman who was neither short nor tall, had skin that was neither dark nor light, and was from neither here nor there. The only thing that was certain about her was that Tala was very clever, and she loved playing tricks on people. So she convinced everyone in the doctor’s city that the water from the well in the little orchard just south of the city’s east gate was magical and that anyone who drank it would become wild with sexual desire. Of course, the water was extremely popular with the sexual population, and soon they were all too busy having sex to get any work done. Then the asexual population decided that if all the sexual people were taking a break, they would too. So the whole city took an unexpected three-day holiday.
This made the doctor angry, because new holidays meant reduced taxes, and that meant less money for her. Tala’s actions also undermined law, order, and the authority of the king, which was intolerable to the doctor, so she cut large pieces off Tala’s life candle and attached them to the candles of the king and his family. This left Tala with a stub that should have only lasted a few days. To the doctor’s surprise, however, a week went by and Tala remained healthy. The next time the doctor visited the underground cavern, she saw that Tala’s candle was as tall as ever. Puzzled, the doctor repeated what she had done. But when she checked a week later, Tala’s candle was as tall as before. Now the doctor was elated, because she believed she had discovered a life candle that could magically renew itself. She immediately started making use of it, giving large pieces of stolen life to herself and the king.
What the doctor didn’t know was that whenever she cut down Tala’s candle, it burned down to its end, at which point Death came to Tala and said, “Your time is up and I have come for you.”
To this Tala replied, “I challenge you to a competition for my life!”
Then Death smiled and said, “Name your contest.”
“Sex!” Tala answered.
And the result was as enjoyable as it was inconclusive. Then, because Death appreciated Tala’s trick, she personally restored Tala’s candle to allow each of them to go about their business until the time was right for them to meet again. However, when Tala’s candle burned down for the second time within ten days, Death started paying closer attention. She saw that Tala’s candle was burning slowly until suddenly, one night, it got much shorter.
Death questioned Tala, who said that she hadn’t been doing anything particularly dangerous or unusual that night.
“It seems,” said Death, “that someone is deliberately shortening your life. I have a suspicion who it might be, but I will not act with proof.” Then Death told Tala about the gift she had given her goddaughter, and said, “If it is her, then it is possible she is doing this out of spite. But it is even more likely that she is doing it for gain, and the king of this land is well known for his fear of me.”
“Perhaps he wouldn’t fear you if he knew you better,” suggested Tala.
“That is an excellent idea,” replied Death. “I think it is time I paid him a visit.”
And so, the next day, Death presented herself to the king. Too frightened to turn her away, the king gave her a grand reception and ordered a magnificent feast in her honor. However, the king stayed as far away from Death as possible and insisted on sending her to a luxurious waiting room where she could “be comfortable” while the feast was being prepared.
Then the king rushed to the doctor and demanded that she check his life candle. The doctor assured him that she had lengthened his candle the day before and that it must still be quite tall. The king insisted that she check again, but the doctor said, “It is too dangerous. I don’t know why Death has come here, but we must be cautious until her plan is revealed.”
What the two of them didn’t know was that Tala, wearing an invisibility cloak lent to her by Death, had followed the king to this room and overheard everything that was said. Tala then returned to Death’s side and told her everything she had heard. “It is as I feared,” said Death. “However, I still need to know exactly what the doctor does and if others are involved. Let us wait and see what happens at the feast. Perhaps we can frighten her into taking action.”
Now, Death is patient, so waiting was easy for her. Tala, however, was not. So, while Death waited, Tala put on the cloak and snuck into the kitchens, which were by now a hive buzzing with activity. Tala spotted a bowl of sugar and a bowl of salt sitting out on a table. She scooped a spoonful from each to keep for later. Then Tala noticed a small bottle of vinegar on a shelf. She wanted to take this too, but as she reached for it, a young kitchen maid’s foot got caught in her cloak. The girl tripped and crashed into a row of pots, one of which hit the tray of fresh fruit and sent plums and figs rolling about the room. And as the girl fell, her foot jerked the invisibility cloak down, revealing Tala’s head. When the confectioner saw this, ze jumped back in fright, knocking over a simmering dish of spiced boar, which smashed into a pile of clean dishes and sent them flying. Then the king’s hounds, sensing a rare moment of opportunity, raced into the kitchen, grabbed the platter of cheese, pulled it to the ground, and dragged it out the door. The spit turner raced after them, and, while he was gone, one of the roasting ducks fell into the fire and was badly burnt.
In the distraction that followed, Tala pulled the cloak up and grabbed the bottle of vinegar. For good measure, she also took a portion of the charred duck. By the time Tala left the kitchen, the entire staff was muttering about ghosts and ill omens.
Despite the chaos, just two hours later, a fabulous feast was served. At the head table, the king had reluctantly seated Death in the place of honor at his right hand, while the doctor was seated on his left. Tala, wearing the invisibility cloak, took up a position directly behind her. Whenever the servants put a piece of meat on the doctor’s plate, Tala snatched it away. When they gave the doctor a glass of wine, Tala emptied it. And every time the doctor looked away, Tala moved her plate, cup, and spoon, so that they were never where she had left them. This last trick so unnerved the doctor that she took to watching her plate, cup, and spoon out of the corner of her eye, trying futilely to catch them in the act.
And Tala didn’t stop with the doctor. She put sugar in the king’s soup, oversalted his roast mutton, poured vinegar into his wine, and hid pieces of burnt duck in his fruit compote. Everything the king ate tasted foul, and he was furious and terrified. He worried that Death would be angry with him for presenting such an awful meal, so, when Death complimented him on the quality of the food, the king was overcome with confusion and fear. Unsure whether it was a veiled threat or whether Death truly had peculiar tastes, the king repeatedly cleared his throat and pretended to cough until the arrival of the next course, which was, of course, awful.
Now, standing behind the high table put Tala out of the way of most people, but she still found herself in close proximity to the most privileged servants and performers, as well as the king’s prized hounds, and Tala being Tala, she couldn’t resist playing a trick. So she tied a slice of ham to a string and looped the other end around the shoe of a tumbler. Naturally, the king’s favorite hound was eager to have the ham, and when the tumbler leapt through the air, the hound leapt right after, catching the ham in her mouth. Everyone thought this was great fun, and soon anyone caught unawares might be the victim of this prank. Things quickly got out of hand; food flew through the air, hounds raced excitedly about, and servants could barely make their way from one end of the room to the other. A halt was finally called when an entire platter of curried mutton hit the floor.
Upset by the chaos, the servants muttered amongst themselves about evil spirits and ill omens. This further unnerved the doctor, and she became so fearful that she decided to immediately check the life candles. So, while Death was occupied watching an impressive performance of tricks by a monkey, a dog, a donkey, and two jugglers, the doctor snuck away from the table. Tala followed her to a little side room, where the doctor quickly put on her wishing ring and said, “I wish I was in the underground cavern full of candles.” Just as the doctor finished uttering her wish, Tala grabbed her from behind and held on tight. In a split second, they were both transported to the underground cavern.
The next moment, the doctor twisted around and broke free of Tala’s grasp. And as she did so, the invisibility cloak was yanked off, revealing Tala as the person who had been frightening her. Now, when the doctor saw that the person she disliked most, her own victim, had been secretly fighting back against her, her anger boiled over and she could no longer think. Suddenly, in her mind, Tala was to blame for everything; it was as if Tala was the source of every threat, danger, and fear. In her rage, the doctor lunged at Tala, intending to murder her with her own hands. At the same time, Tala snatched up the invisibility cloak and jumped backward, intending to hide in the enormous room.
That was when Death arrived, and she was furious! “Stop!” Death cried. “How dare the two of you endanger others by fighting in this place! And you, Goddaughter, do not think that I don’t see the wishing ring upon your finger. I know why you are here and what you have been doing!”
Well, as soon as the doctor realized that she had been found out, she confessed her crimes and begged for forgiveness. “I am your goddaughter,” she pleaded. “Please forgive me and grant me a second chance!”
To this Death replied, “It is true that you are my goddaughter and, though I am angry, I do forgive you. However, some wrongs can never be put right, and shortening the lives of others for your own gain has grave consequences. Look at your life candle — it has burned all the way down. Stolen life expires quickly, and I will not spare you from this result of your own actions. Your time has come!” And so saying, Death seized the doctor with her icy hand, and, all at once, the doctor fell to the ground, for her candle had gone out. At the same moment, the king who had depended on using stolen life to extend his own suddenly found his candle extinguished, and he too was in Death’s hands.
“And you!” Death snapped at Tala, “Do you always act first and think second?”
“No,” replied Tala, “sometimes I skip thinking all together — there isn’t always time for it.”
Death had to laugh at this. Then she sighed and said, “Well, now that you have been to this cavern, I must insist that you never return to it, for I intend that no one else shall ever have the opportunity to play such tricks with other people’s lives.”
“Oh, I won’t!” replied Tala. “I am content to cheat you honestly, so that I can always greet you with joy!”
Then Death laughed, took Tala in her arms, and kissed her. “That is good!” Death said. “And if you want to see me more often, know that I am always here, in every harvest and rest, in every ending and change, and in every transformation and new beginning. I am with you always.”
I am going to start by answering the question, “Why is Death depicted as female in this story, when Death was depicted as constantly changing appearance and genders in ‘Tala and Death’s Embrace?’” One of the distinctive things about fairy tales is that they stick really tightly to their main plot. This makes it important to cut out anything that does not further the main plot. In this story Death still is a shapeshifter who changes appearance and gender, but this fact is not significant to the main plot of this story, so I simplified things by keeping her consistently as the gender she is when she interacts with Tala throughout this story.
The main inspiration for this story comes from original Grimm Brothers’ story “Godfather Death.” The godson in that story blatantly ignores Death’s warning (rather like the second godchild in my story) and it made me wonder what would happen if the godchild had made different choices. In addition, there are so many stories of magical or supernatural godparents that it made me suspect that these supernatural entities, like Death, must have had multiple godchildren. From there I went straight to the idea of Death having three godchildren, each who makes different choices.
One of the most vivid things from the original “Godfather Death” story is the underground cavern with all of the life candles. The events that happen there take up a full quarter of the original story. There Death shows his godson that after cheating Death for the second time, his own candle had become “a tiny stub that was just about to go out.” The possibility of manipulating the candles is also introduced in the original story, when the godson begs Death to put his candle stub “on top of a new candle so that it will continue to burn after it goes out.” This imagery, and the manipulation of life candles as candles, served as a rich source for inspiration for my version of this story.
In my story, the life of the second godchild approximately follows the events of “Godfather Death,” with an important change. In the original story the king promises his child’s hand in marriage (a daughter in that story) as a reward for saving his child’s life. Women as reward is a particularly sexist pattern in fairy tales that I wanted to break. Not only did I change the child to male (whenever possible I invert any imagery that has the weight of cultural oppression behind it, like a young woman needing rescuing), but, since humans are not objects, in my story the king promises material wealth and station as a reward, not marriage. It is the godchild who inappropriately imagines that saving the prince’s life will inherently lead to marriage. My next story, “Tala and Prince Hart,” explores issues around fairy tale marriages in greater depth.
The choice of gender for the godchildren was also something I thought about carefully. I either wanted them all to be the same gender, or all to be different. I knew I wanted the main villain to be a woman, because it is important to show women’s power by showing them as villains as well as heroes. In the end, I decided to go with each of them having a different gender because I wanted the first godchild to be male. This was because the symbol of sacrificing ones life to save the life of one’s beloved to me seems more associated with women than men (while violent or dramatic death in defense of one’s beloved is more associated with men) and I wanted to invert this pattern.
One of the things I try to do in my writing is keep a lot of the best part of original character of the Grimms’ fairy tales. This is difficult because the stories themselves are a mishmash of different authors and alterations. During the early to mid 1800s, the Brothers Grimm collected folk stories from other collectors as well as original story tellers and then they heavily altered the stories for publication (removing a lot of sexuality, making things more “moral,” and adding in more violence). The stories themselves as folk tales (before their final alterations by the brothers), were perhaps based on long standing traditions, but were also changed by each teller. Therefore, there is an element of the stories which reaches back to the middle ages (particularly as in the 1800s many aspects of rural life were barely changed from the middle ages), while other aspects of the stories are more current to their time, like the absence of feudal system and the presence of guns. In the end, my choice has been to try to undo some of the editing out of sexuality and editing in of extra violence, while carefully looking at the structures and symbols of the original stories to include as much as I can of their character.
Another way I work to keep the character of the original stories is to research the character and daily life of the middle ages and Elizabethan eras and to put some of that into my stories. I chose this for several reasons. One, many of the stories are set “a long time ago” which could well be the middle ages. Two, a lot of the aspects of rural life did not change from the middle ages into the 1800s. Three, I have good access to information on daily life and mindset of the middle ages and Elizabethan eras, so that I can get out of my own ethnocentricity sufficiently to add some of this character in effectively. So, my stories do not have a feudal system (unlike the middle ages), and I leave guns out (unlike the Elizabethan era), but in this world there are plenty of witches (during the actual middle ages the church said witches didn’t exist). I hope that these details give my stories a richness and texture that is more satisfying than the false movie or video game images of the middle ages that are too common in mass media (the mass media version of the middle ages is a modern re-imagining of the middle ages through the lens of the Victorian version of the middle ages, which was itself was a revision of history to include Victorian views on women and sexuality).
A lot of the realistic details that I researched for this story show up in the kitchen and feast scenes. There I worked to build up the scene piece by piece (often involving many rounds of brainstorming and researching) to create a scene with good detail and story-worthy levels of chaos.
In this story it becomes particularly clear that Tala is the type of trickster that generates chaos for the sheer joy and exuberance of it. Her tricks tend toward amorality and have a certain lack of forethought and control. This is different than you might see in a different type of trickster, like the golden-hearted thief, which engages in tricks targeted to produce a specific outcome, and whose tricks usually come off as desired (a result of planning plus the magical power of the good they are aiming to create). However, for a chaos based trickster like Tala, there is much less predictability to the chaos she generates. Because of this, I wanted to clearly show that Tala is not above or separate from the chaos she generates, but in many ways it comes back and involves her. Here this happens both in her interactions with the doctor and in her direct involvement in the events in the kitchen.
The idea for Tala’s first trick (convincing people of the magical properties of the well water) comes from the rich history in many human cultures for attributing sacredness and special properties to specific water sources. Water, being necessary for life, is a powerful symbol, and there are many instances of healing or magical water in folk and fairy tales. In at least one folk tale, these special properties of water (“The Old Ral Hole” from Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales) include aphrodisiac qualities, which are particularly easy to reproduce through the power of suggestion, making them an excellent choice for Tala’s trick.
Now, I have strong views on not using humor to dehumanize people (even two-dimensional fictional people). Yet, in this story, some of Tala’s tricks are a bit mean. There are multiple reasons for this. One is a chaos trickster like Tala is can get carried away, especially when it is in the service of a cause they believe in. Second, the goal of these tricks is to frighten the doctor or the king into action. The third is that, despite what I am changing in my attempt to create stories with healthy and uplifting symbolism, I am trying to keep the Victorian/Medieval character of the original material, which includes humor that tends toward cruelty. For example, the invisible persecution of the doctor’s meal was inspired by the ending of the Grimms’ story “The King of the Golden Mountain.”
Despite the sharper quality of this humor, I tried to ensure that mockery was not aimed at any character, and that there was a small amount of empathy present in the humor. For example, hiding pieces of burnt duck in fruit compote is an image that is funny because it is so unexpectedly awful. Inside of that joke is (I hope) a wince of empathy for how terrible that would be. So the humor becomes how comically terrible the situation is. We are not laughing with the king and the doctor, but we are not laughing at them, and we can understand how they might feel.
I was similarly careful with the violence in this story. Even though the violence here is not being aimed at Tala because she is trans, in our world trans women of color are particularly targeted for violence because of the intersecting forms of oppression they face. This made it particularly important to clearly show Tala taking an active role in responding to the violence, so that she was not a passive target (as women are so often portrayed). I also deliberately reduced the intensity and scale of the violence to reduce how much it would be likely to trigger people.
Crafting the ending of this story was particularly challenging because the idea of forgiveness is particularly fraught with unhealthy symbolism in many stories. Too often, particularly in romances, there is no accountability for the mistakes people make or the harm people do (whether intentional or not). In those stories, people (particularly cis men) are endlessly forgiven for their mistakes, even ones that have significant consequences. On the other side of it, forgiveness is an important value and is something that we all need at one time or another in our lives.
Unfortunately forgiveness in stories is often portrayed absolving the consequences our actions. People who are forgiven are given a second chance that looks very much like their first chance, without any further need to address the ongoing effects of their actions. This to me seems like a dangerous message, because in real life consequences are ongoing and significant changes might be needed to address that and prevent a repetition of the problem. Therefore, in my story I wanted to break the connection between forgiveness and avoidance of consequences, and in this particular case, the consequence of the doctor playing with life and death so freely is her own death.
Sources I used in my writing:
Do note that original folk tales often contain violence, intense sexism, and other forms of oppression.
- Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. 3rd ed. New York: Bantam Books, 2002. Print.
- Randolph, Vance. Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales. New York: Avon Books, 1977.
- Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2008.
- Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. London: Vintage-Random House, 2013.