(a Tibetan tale)
The woodcutter and his wife loved life — they loved their work and their family, and they loved the woods and they loved the sea. They wanted to live forever. Indeed, that is what they often said.
“Let us fool Death,” the woodcutter said, “so that He will never find us.”
“Agreed,” said his wife.
And they vowed to each other that they would live long, healthy, happy lives, and forever they would stand by each other.
Years and years passed, and the woodcutter and his wife lived happily, but one late spring night, when the woodcutter was very old, he was walking home through the woods carrying a heavy load of firewood. He had just reached the summit of a hill. Out of breath and exhausted, he stopped to rest a moment.
He looked ahead at the long path before him, and he failed to remember the vow he and his wife had made to each other. “Oh, poor me,” he sighed. “If only Death would come and free me from this burden I carry.”
For a few moments he rested, and then he started on his way toward home, but before he had gone very far, Death met him on the path.
“I’m here,” Death said, and he laughed a deep guttural laugh.
“And who are you?” the woodcutter asked.
“I’m Death,” Death answered, “and I’ll take you away with me now.”
The woodcutter at once realized his grave error. “No, no, I was only joking,” he said. “I have my wife and my family to care for. I am not ready to go.”
“But you called me,” Death said, and he reached forward.
“Wait!” the woodcutter said. “I have an idea. I’ll make you a deal. If you will wait a dozen years, you can have not only me, but perhaps others in my family, too.”
Once again Death laughed that deep, scary laugh. “I’ll get them all one way or the other anyway,” he said. “That’s no bargain. Give me something I don’t have.”
The woodcutter thought a moment. “I’ll give you a home,” he said, thinking of the little cabin he had in the woods. Perhaps Death needed somewhere to dwell, after all.
“I find homes everywhere!” Death laughed. “I have visited every home in every land.”
The woodcutter was thinking fast. He wiped his brow and said, “I don’t mean to be bold, but I have just remembered something. There is someone you have never visited and never shall. There is a home to which you have never been welcomed.”
Death’s eyes opened wide. How dare this woodcutter speak this way? “That is impossible,” he said.
“Not impossible at all. Indeed, there is a cave beyond this valley,” the woodcutter pointed off into the dark distance. “In that cave there is a hermit who lives there now and has always lived there. He is immortal. I know because he has told me so, and many of my friends have met him. In fact, he has been sitting in the same spot for so many centuries, he no longer moves. He is anchored to the ground by his beard, for it has taken root.”
“This is impossible!” Death roared, turning red with fury.
“Not impossible, I’m afraid,” the woodcutter said. “For this is true. He is the wisest man I have ever known, and he knows how to outwit even you.”
“Where is he?” Death demanded. “Give me directions to this place! How dare anyone claim to be immortal — no one is!”
“I can point you in the direction of his cave,” the woodcutter said. “Simply walk over the next mountain and into the valley, and turn right at the bottom of the valley. There you will find a series of caves, but the immortal one sits in the last cave to your right.”
The woodcutter pointed in that direction, and before he had finished speaking, Death stormed off, moving at the speed of wind across the mountaintop, into the valley.
He forgot all about the woodcutter as he searched cave after cave after cave, and he vowed he would never stop looking until he had found this man.
The woodcutter hurried home, relieved at his narrow escape. He told his wife the tale, and together they said their prayers that night, giving thanks for fooling Death for all these years. They knew one day Death would meet them, but for now they were grateful for every moment of their lives.