(a story from Flanders)
Once upon a time, long ago in Flanders, there lived a poor old woman whose name was Misery. But Misery owned one marvelous thing. This was an apple tree — a special apple tree.
In the autumn, when the apples ripened and turned a rich red, Misery walked outside each morning to admire them — and to eat them, of course. But one day Misery looked carefully at her tree. “I think someone may be stealing my apples,” she said to herself.
The next morning Misery walked outside to pick her apples and spied three little boys running away across the fields. “Ha ha,” the boys called, and held their apples high in the air as they laughed and ran.
After that, Misery noticed each morning a few more apples were missing. She tried to catch the thieves, but every time she walked outside, she saw no one at all.
One frigid winter morning there was a knock on Misery’s door. When she answered, she saw a wrinkly old man with a long white beard. He wore tattered clothes and his feet were bare.
“What do you want?” Misery asked him.
“Oh please, madam,” he said softly, “could you spare a crust of bread for a hungry old man?”
Misery owned very little, but she had a generous heart. She felt sad for the old man, who had even less than she. She gave him a loaf of her fresh, homemade bread.
“Ah, you are so kind,” the man said as he took the loaf. “Please tell me, is there anything that I can do for you? I would be happy to grant you a wish.”
“I have only one wish,” said Misery. “I wish that anyone who touched my apple tree would stick to it until I decided to set him free.”
“Your wish is granted, good lady,” the man said. And he bowed and went away.
The next day Misery walked outside to admire her apple tree. There she found three little boys hanging from the branches. “Ah-ha!” she cried. “My wish has come true. You tried to steal my apples and my tree has caught you. Well, I think I’ll just let you hang there.”
She picked an apple and bit into it happily. “Mmm, mmm,” she sighed, “how delicious!” Then she laughed and turned away, leaving the boys hanging.
The next day Misery walked outside to see her apple tree. Now she saw the three little boys and two bashful servants hanging. “So sorry, Miss,” the servants stammered. “We only meant to admire your apples. We had no wish to steal them.”
“Ha,” Misery said. “It serves you right. I shall set you free, but never try to steal my apples again!”
With a wave of her hand, the three little boys and the two servants fell from the branches and ran away as fast as they could.
Alas, the next day when Misery walked outside to see her apple tree, she saw all kinds of people hanging from the branches: little children with dirty faces and their mothers who said they had come to rescue the children; fathers who said they had come to save their wives; a rooster, a goose, an owl and a great white goat. She even saw one tall, thin schoolteacher with cheeks as bright as the apples, for he was blushing terribly.
Misery burst out laughing at the sight.
“Now you see that it’s no use stealing apples from me. You’ll all have to wait until I decide to set you free,” and she turned around and walked away.
The mothers and fathers and children began to weep and wail. The goat baaed, the rooster crowed, the owl hooted and the schoolteacher wept great big tears. But Misery just closed her windows and went back to her chores.
The next day, she heard a knock at her door. “Come in, whoever you are,” Misery called.
A deep voice called out: “Misery, I am Father Death. I have come to take you away with me.”
Misery did not like the idea of leaving her little cottage and her apple tree, but she knew that Father Death was very strong. “I suppose it’s no use saying no,” she called.
“No use at all,” Father Death answered.
“May I ask you one favor before I pack my things?” Misery asked.
“One favor only,” Father Death answered.
“On my beautiful apple tree the ripest, reddest apples grow. I do not want to leave all my apples behind. Please pick some for yourself to eat while we take our journey.”
“Ahh,” Father Death sighed, “since you offer such a lovely gift, I cannot refuse.” He climbed to the highest branch of the tree, where the sweetest apples were hanging. He reached for the biggest apple of all, and the moment he touched it, his hand stuck fast. He turned and twisted and wriggled, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not free himself.
Misery ran outside. When she saw Father Death struggling, she began to laugh. “You are a mean old man, and now you’ll hang there for as long as I wish you to hang.” And then she set the others free.
Many weeks passed, but no one died in all those weeks. You see, while Father Death hung from the tree, he could take no one away.
Winter came, and still no one died. Spring, then summer came, and everyone lived on. Autumn came again, and no one died. Ten years passed in this way.
And then one autumn morning, Misery walked outside to admire her tree. When she saw Father Death hanging there, she suddenly took pity on him. “Oh, you look so sad,” she called to him. “I have decided I will grant you your freedom, but I have just one condition.”
“Anything,” Father Death answered.
“I wish to live as long as I want to live,” Misery said.
“Granted,” said Father Death, and at once he fell to the ground, free at last.
That is why Misery is still in this world and always will be, for the last I heard, she had no wish to travel with Father Death.