There came a knocking at the door, and a poor old man hobbled into the house. He was wrapped in a thick horseblanket. It kept him warm and he needed it to keep out the wintry cold, for outside the world was covered with snow and ice, and the wind cut like a knife.
As the child was resting quietly for a moment, and the old man was shivering from the cold, the mother put a little mug of beer to warm on the stove for him. The old man rocked the cradle and the mother sat down near it to watch her sick child, who labored to draw each breath. She lifted his little hand, and asked:
"You don't think I shall lose him, do you? Would the good Lord take him from me?"
The old man was Death himself. He jerked his head strangely, in a way that might mean yes or might mean no.
Out there in the snow sat a woman, dressed in long black garments. "Death," she said, "has been in your house. I just saw him hurrying away with your child in his arms. He goes faster than the wind. And he never brings back what he has taken away."
"Tell me which way he went," said the mother. "Only tell me the way, and I will find him."
"I know the way," said the woman in black, "but before I tell you, you must sing to me all those songs you used to sing to your child. I am night. I love lullabies and I hear them often. When you sang them I saw your tears."
"I shall sing them again-you shall hear them all," said the mother, "but do not stop me now. I must catch him. I must hurry to find my child."
Night kept silent and still, while the mother wrung her hands, and sang, and wept. She sang many songs, but the tears that she shed were many, many more. At last Night said to her, "Go to the right. Go into the dark pine woods. I saw Death go there with your child."
Deep into the woods the mother came to a crossroad, where she was at a loss which way to go. At the crossroad grew a blackthorn bush, without leaf or flower, for it was wintertime and its branches were glazed with ice.
"Did you see Death go by with my little child?"
"Yes," said the blackthorn bush. "But I shall not tell you which way he went unless you warm me against your heart. I am freezing to death. I am stiff with ice."
She pressed the blackthorn bush against her heart to warm it, and the thorns stabbed so deep into her flesh that great drops of red blood flowed. So warm was the mother's heart that the blackthorn bush blossomed and put forth green leaves on that dark winter's night. And it told her the way to go.
The ice on the lake was too thin to hold her weight, and yet not open or shallow enough for her to wade. But across the lake she must go if ever she was to find her child. She stooped down to drink the lake dry, and that of course was impossible for any human being, but the poor woman thought that maybe a miracle would happen.
"No, that would never do," the lake objected. "Let us make a bargain between us. I collect pearls, and your two eyes are the clearest I've ever seen. If you will cry them out for me, I shall carry you over to the great greenhouse where Death lives and tends his trees and flowers. Each one of them is a human life."
"Oh, what would I not give for my child," said the crying mother, and she wept till her eyes dropped down to the bottom of the lake and became two precious pearls. The lake took her up as if in a swing, and swept her to the farther shore.
Here stood the strangest house that ever was. It rambled for many a mile. One wouldn't know whether it was a cavernous, forested mountain, or whether it was made of wood. But the poor mother could not see this, for she had cried out her eyes.
"Where shall I find Death, who took my child from me?" she cried.
"He has not come back yet," said the old woman who took care of the great greenhouse while Death was away. "How did you find your way here? Who helped you?"
"The Lord helped me," she said. "He is merciful, and so must you be. Where can I find my child?"
"I don't know him," said the old woman, "and you can't see to find him. But many flowers and trees have withered away in the night, and Death will be along soon to transplant them. Every human being, you know, has his tree or his flower of life, depending on what sort of person he is. These look like other plants, but they have a heart that beats. A child's heart beats too. You know the beat of your own child's heart. Listen and you may hear it. But what will you give me if I tell you what else you must do?"
"I have nothing left," the poor mother said, "but I will go to the ends of the earth for you."
"I have nothing to do there," said the old woman, "but you can give me your long black hair. You know how beautiful it is, and I like it. I'll give you my white hair for it. White hair is better than none."
"Is that all you ask?" said the mother. "I will gladly give it to you." And she gave her beautiful long black tresses in exchange for the old woman's white hair.
Then they went into Death's great greenhouse, where flowers and trees were strangely intertwined. In one place delicate hyacinths were kept under glass bells, and around them great hardy peonies flourished. There were water plants too, some thriving where the stalks of others were choked by twisting water snakes, or gnawed away by black crayfish. Tall palm trees grew there, and plane trees, and oaks. There grew parsley and sweet-smelling thyme. Every tree or flower went by the name of one particular person, for each was the life of someone still living in China, in Greenland, or in some other part of the world. There were big trees stunted by the small pots which their roots filled to bursting, and elsewhere grew languid little flowers that came to nothing, for all the care that was lavished upon them, and for all the rich earth and the mossy carpet where they grew. The sad, blind mother bent over the tiniest plants and listened to the beat of their human hearts, and among so many millions she knew her own child's heartbeat.
"This is it," she cried, groping for a little blue crocus, which had wilted and dropped to one side.
"Don't touch that flower," the old woman said. "Stay here. Death will be along any minute now, and you may keep him from pulling it up. Threaten him that, if he does, you will pull up other plants. That will frighten him, for he has to account for them to the Lord. Not one may be uprooted until God says so."
Suddenly an icy wind blew through the place, and the blind mother felt Death come near.
"How did you find your way here?" he asked her. "How did you ever get here before me?"
"I am a mother," she said.
Then Death stretched out his long hand toward the wilted little flower, but she held her hands tightly around it, in terror lest he touch a single leaf. Death breathed upon her hands, and his breath was colder than the coldest wind. Her hands fell, powerless.
"You have no power to resist me," Death told her.
"But our Lord has," she said.
"I only do his will," said Death, "I am His gardener. I take His flowers and trees and plant them again in the great Paradise gardens, in the unknown land. But how they thrive, and of their life there, I dare not speak."
"Give me back my child," the mother wept and implored him. Suddenly she grasped a beautiful flower in each hand and as she clutched them she called to Death: "I shall tear out your flowers by the roots, for I am desperate."
"Do not touch them!" Death told her. "You say you are desperate, yet you would drive another mother to the same despair."
"Another mother!" The blind woman's hands let go the flowers.
"Behold," said Death, "you have your eyes again. I saw them shining as I crossed the lake, and fished them up, but I did not know they were yours. They are clearer than before. Take them and look deep into this well. I shall tell you the names of the flowers you were about to uproot and you shall see the whole future of those human lives that you would have destroyed and disturbed."
She looked into the well, and it made her glad to see how one life became a blessing to the world, for it was so kind and happy. Then she saw the other life, which held only sorrow, poverty, fear, and woe.
"Both are the will of God," said Death.
"Which one is condemned to misery, and which is the happy one?" she asked.
"That I shall not tell you," Death said. "But I tell you this. One of the flowers belongs to your own child. One life that you saw was your child's fate, your own child's future."
Then the mother shrieked in terror, "Which was my child? Tell me! Save my innocent child. Spare him such wretchedness. Better that he be taken from me. Take him to God's kingdom. Forget my tears. Forget the prayers I have said, and the things I have done."
"I do not understand," Death said. "Will you take your own child back or shall I take him off to a land unknown to you?"
Then the mother wrung her hands, fell on her knees, and prayed to God:
"Do not hear me when I pray against your will. It is best. Do not listen, do not listen!" And she bowed her head, as Death took her child to the unknown land.