Death in a Bottle
A story about life and death.
Milo was a boy of about 11 years old, who lived in a small village by the edge of the sea with his mother. Milo was a big help to his mother. Every morning he would take some money and two sacks to go and buy the groceries. First he went to the butcher and bought some bacon and salted pork. Then he went to the farmer on the hill who sold him lettuce, beans, and sometimes corn. Lastly he went to see Miss Gretchen, who sold him the eggs that Milo and his mother would have for breakfast as they listened to the sounds of the sea.
But one day there was no money on the table and Milo found that his Mother was still in bed. He went on tiptoe into her room, but saw that she was not sleeping. There were moans coming from her bed, she was shivering under the covers, and her face looked very red and tired.
“Mother!” cried Milo. “What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
She could barely speak. “Yes, Milo,” she answered. “I am very sick. I don’t think I can even stand up. You must go and bring the doctor from the other side of the farmer’s hill.”
Milo didn’t need to be told twice. Without even shutting the door behind him, Milo ran...past the butcher, past Miss Gretchen and her chickens, and up the hill where the farmer had his fields.
“Milo!” cried the farmer, “Stop and get your vegetables!”
“I can’t,” cried Milo. “Mother is sick. I must get the doctor!” The farmer ran after him.
“You won’t find the doctor there,” said the farmer, puffing from the run up the hill. “He’s gone to tend to the Mulligan’s new baby. She’s got a fever. He probably won’t be back until this afternoon.”
“But what will I do?” said Milo, big tears welling up in his eyes. “She is so very sick. She couldn’t even get out of bed.”
“You must go back and sit with her until the doctor can come,” said the farmer. "Make her some tea and wipe her forehead and say gentle things until the doctor comes. I will tell him to go straight to your house when he gets back.”
“Oh, thank you,” said Milo and he turned and headed quickly back toward home. Very tired and worried, Milo scrambled back up the sand dune just behind his house and then stopped. Down to his left, Milo could see someone walking, right where the water met the sand. The person was still a good ways off, but it seemed to Milo that someone was intending to come for a visit. Knowing that it wouldn’t be good for his mother to have a visitor, he began hurrying down the beach to meet the stranger.
But then he stopped. The visitor was odd. His pace never changed, and he seemed to be dressed in clothes much too dark for a fisherman on the beach. The stranger never looked this way or that; he never went either slower or faster; he never even seemed to step from side to side, but walked straight forward with a long pole in his hand. Milo began to feel uneasy and ducked behind some of the dune’s tall grasses. Soon Milo could see him better. The stranger wore an odd black cape with a hood that came and covered his face. And the pole in his hand was a long, sharp farmer’s scythe.
Milo’s heart jumped to his throat, because he knew the stranger immediately. It was the same stranger that had come when he was so very little and taken his father away. It was Death, and Death was walking down the beach, never turning to the left or to the right, but heading straight for the house where his Mother lay sick.
With only a single thought, Milo took a flying leap off the dune and, with a yell like the wild men he had heard about in tales, he jumped on Death from behind. Death fell to the ground, dropped his scythe, and they began to wrestle. Over and over they turned in the sand...first Death was winning, then Milo, then Death. But a boy’s love for his mother is strong, and his love made Milo stronger even than Death. Milo began to win the fight.
As Milo began to win, Death began to shrink, and the smaller Death got, the harder Milo fought, until Death was just a tiny little thing that Milo clutched tightly in his fist. Panting, Milo got up, unsure what to do next. He was holding Death in his hand. If he let go, Death would be free and take his mother. But he couldn’t hold onto Death this way forever. He didn’t know what to do.
Then, Milo saw something out of the corner of his eye. There in the sand dune was an old, empty bottle. With his free hand, Milo grabbed the bottle and began to stuff Death inside it. Death wriggled and squirmed, and even got a little bigger, but Milo was able to stuff Death into the bottle and quickly covered it with his hand. Death grew enough to fill the bottle, so that Death’s pale, drawn face was mashed against the side. But Death could not get out.
Milo looked around. He found some seaweed and small stones and did the best he could with one hand to make a cork for the bottle. Holding his breath, he quickly moved his hand and plugged up the bottle with his new cork. It worked. Death could not escape. Milo looked at the water. The tide was going out. There was a dock nearby, and Milo ran to the end of the long dock and with all his might, he threw the bottle out into the sea, just as far as he could possibly throw it. Then he ran home to his house.
When he got home, Milo was amazed. There was his mother, looking as happy and healthy as always bustling around the kitchen, preparing the stove.
“Milo!” she said. “I’m so very glad to see you! The most curious thing has happened while you’ve been gone. Once I felt better, I got up and went to Miss Gretchen’s myself to get our eggs. You see I have them here. But, Milo, I can't cook them.”
“Of course not, Mother,” said Milo. “You've been sick. I'll cook the eggs.”
“No, Milo,” said his Mother. “It’s not that I’m not well enough to cook them. I can’t cook them. They won't break.”
Milo would not believe her and tried it himself. She was right. They looked like normal eggs, they felt like normal eggs, but they would not break. “I’ve been back to Miss Gretchen three times,” said his mother, “and she said everyone else is bringing back their eggs as well. It’s as if they’re under some spell. None of them will break. So please run to the butcher and get us some bacon so that we can have some breakfast.
Milo was very tired, but he was also very hungry, so he ran right back out to the butcher. When he arrived, the butcher was sitting on a stool with his head in his hands. “What’s wrong?” asked Milo. “I need to buy some bacon for our breakfast.”
“Oh, how I wish you could!” said the butcher, “but there is no meat to sell. I have lost my skill, for I cannot kill a single pig or cow or chicken. Even my sharpest knife is like butter on a stove. I can’t even feed the animals, because the farmer has sent no feed. Whatever will I do? You will have to go to the farmer on the hill and have his vegetables for breakfast.”
Up the hill Milo went to the farmer’s field. But there he found the farmer in much the same state as the butcher. “What’s wrong?” asked Milo.
“I can no longer sell my vegetables,” said the farmer. I can't pick them. I have pulled and cut and tugged, but the beans will not let go of the vines and the earth will not let go of the lettuce, and the roots of the potatoes hold on with a strength I have never seen. The fields are full of food, but I can't harvest it. There is no food for the people, no feed for the livestock. I am ruined!” The farmer hung his head and walked back to his house.
Just then the doctor came over the hill with his doctor’s bag in his hand. Milo remembered that the farmer was going to tell the doctor to visit his mother, so he went up to him. “Doctor,” thank you for trying to come to see my mother, but she is well now. There is no need. “That is good,” said the doctor, because the need is great in the rest of the town. It is as strange a situation as I have seen. Old Mr. Henry has been waiting for days for Death to come for him. He is so tired and in so much pain, but Death will not come. That is so unlike Death. I wonder what could have happened?”
Milo went back home and reported all of this to his mother. “This is very serious, Milo,” she said. “It is like we are under a curse. Someone has stopped death from coming to our village.”
Milo shifted from one foot to the other. “It’s not a curse, Mother,” he said. “I did it.” And Milo proceeded to tell his mother how he had seen Death coming for her and how he had wrestled with Death and caught him, put him in a bottle, and thrown him out to sea.
“Milo,” she said, “You must find him and bring him back. There is no life without Death.”
“But I threw him far out into the sea,” said Milo. “And…and…he will come for you. How will I live if he comes for you?” Milo’s eyes began to well up.
“You must get him back,” said his mother. Without death the whole village will starve. Without death there is no end to pain. Death makes room for life. Milo, you must free death.”
Milo, choked back his tears and went out yet again, hungrier than he had ever been and so tired he didn’t know if his legs would carry him another inch. Looking out at the sea, he could see no bottle, no glimmer in the light, nothing. The tide was low and he walked way out on the wet sand, hoping maybe the bottle got stuck. Nothing. He walked to the end of the dock and looked out. Nothing. With his stomach growling, he walked back to the sand dune, sat down, and fell asleep.
He woke to the sound of screeching seagulls. There were three on the beach. Two of them had a fish, flopping around at their feet, but the fish would not stop flopping and the beaks of the gulls could not pierce it. The gulls screamed in frustration. The third gull did not have a fish. It had something else. Milo’s heart jumped and sank at the same time. It was the bottle. Sliding down the dune, Milo scattered the gulls and looked at Death, his face still mashed against the side of the bottle. The fish flipped and flopped on the sand…unable to live, unable to die.
Before he could change his mind, Milo quickly took the bottle and smashed it on a nearby rock. Just like that, Death was free, quickly growing to full size. Without even a glance at Milo, Death shook off his cloak and continued his walk down the beach, the scythe in one hand, never changing his pace, never turning to the left or toward the right. The fish lay still on the ground, the hungry gulls circling, and from somewhere down the beach came the smell of breakfast.
Note: I heard an oral presentation of this story in the summer of 2004 at a storytelling program on the island of Iona, Scotland. There it was told by Rev. Russell McLarty of Glasgow. I remembered only bits and pieces and had no written version. I don't know if the story was invented by Russell or whether it comes from another source. The written version here is mine, pieced together from what bits of the story I remembered and my own additions to fill in the gaps. If anyone knows an author or is aware that this represents some violation of copyright, please let me know.