Authors: Martine Leavitt
Keturah and Lord Death
KETURAH AND LORD DEATH
Copyright © 2006 by Martine Leavitt
Published by arrangement with Boyds Mills Press, Inc.
All rights reserved
First namelos edition, 2009
This work is licensed only for use by the original purchaser. Making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, including without limit email, file transfer, paper print out, or any other method is a violation of international copyright law.
This Library of Congress CIP Data refers to the hardcover edition
Keturah and Lord Death / Martine Leavitt.—1st ed.
Summary: When sixteen-year-old Keturah follows a legendary hart into
Lord Temsland’s forest she becomes lost, and eventually Lord Death
comes to claim her, but when she is able to charm him with her story,
she gains a reprieve of twenty-four hours, if she can find her one true love.
[1. Death—Fiction. 2. Interpersonal relations—Fiction.
3. Love—Fiction. 4. Grandmothers—Fiction.] I. Title.
For my dear girlfriends,
who have blessed and enriched my life
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
—from ‘“The Chariot” by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Keturah and Lord Death
Table of Contents
“Keturah, tell us a story,” said Naomi, “one of your tales of faërie or magic.”
“Yes, Keturah, do,” said Beatrice, “but I would have a tale of love.”
The boys around the common fire groaned. “A story, yes,” said Tobias, “but a hunting tale, please, one of daring and death.”
The men murmured in agreement. One, whose face I could not see, said, “Tell a tale of the great hart of the lord’s forest.”
Choirmaster sighed. “I would prefer a godly story,” he said, “one to comfort your heart on a gloomy day.”
The fire crackled and leapt for a time, and then I said, “I will tell you a story that is all of those things, a story of magic and love, of daring and death, and one to comfort your heart. It will be the truest story I have ever told. Now listen, and tell me if it is not so.”
Of myself, Keturah Reeve, and the personage
I meet, a story scarce credible to one who
has never been lost in the woods.
I was sixteen years old the day I was lost in the forest, sixteen the day I met my death.
I was picking new peas in our garden, which is bordered by the forest, when the famed hart, the hart that had eluded Lord Temsland and his finest hunters many times, the hart about which I had told many a story, came to nibble on our lettuces. I saw that he was a sixth-year hart at least, and I would have run at the sight of his antlers, spread like a young tree, had I not been entranced by his beauty. He raised his head, and for a long moment he looked upon me as if I had stumbled upon him in his own domain, so proud he was, and so royal. At last he slowly turned and walked back into the forest.
I meant only to peek into the trees to see more of him. I thought only to follow the pig path a little way into the forest in hopes that I might have a new story to tell of him at the common fire. I thought I saw him between the trees, and then I did not, and then I did, and after a good long while I turned about and realized I was lost in the wood.
I walked a deer-trod that wove its way for a time along a ridge above a ravine. Far down in the cut I could hear water, a creek, but I could not see it. The way was too steep. Trees grew upward out of the sheer face of the ravine. Some had fallen and lay like blackened bones in the clutches of the upright trees.
I left the path in hopes of finding an easier way to the creek, but soon I could no longer hear the water at all, and I could not find the path again. Still I walked.
Trees, which had once seemed benign and beautiful to me, blocked the sun, fell before my path, tore at my hair, and yielded no fruit but bitter leaves. When night fell, I slept at times, and each time I dreamt that the forest went on forever.
After three days of wandering, I reconciled myself to God and sat under a tree waiting for death. I thought sorrowfully upon Grandmother, who would be weeping by the window. I thought upon my dreams that would never be realized: to have my own little cottage to clean, my own wee baby to hold, and most of all, one true love to be my husband.
I slept and woke at intervals in my upright position against the tree, wishing dearly that I might not have to spend another night in the dark wood. I had not enough water in me to make tears, but my heart wept with longing to see Grandmother and Gretta and Beatrice and my beloved Tide-by-Rood.
At dusk, death came to me in the form of a man.
He was dressed in a black cape and came mounted on a black stallion. Beneath his hood I could see that he was a goodly man, severe but beautiful, not old but in the time of his greatest powers. My courage failed me. I wanted to escape, but I was too weak to stand. My limbs seemed rooted in the ground beneath me. The tree I leaned against cradled my shoulders.
I remembered the good manners Grandmother had taught me with her switch and paddle. When he had dismounted and was coming toward me I said, “Good Sir Death, forgive me if I do not rise.”
His steps slowed. “You know who I am, then?”
“I do, sir.”
The dusk deepened, as if the gloom unfurled from the folds of his cloak.
“Is it Keturah?” he asked. His voice was calm and cold, and thrilled me with fear. “You are the daughter of Catherine Reeve, whom I know.”
“Yes, sir.” He knew my mother indeed, but I did not. She had died giving birth to me. “I regret to say, sir, that, as in the case of my mother, you have come before I was ready.”
“No one is ready.”
“Forgive me, sir,” I said, without hope, “but there was something I wanted to do.”
“Your doing is past.” He hunkered down on one knee as if to get a good look at me. I saw that where his boot had been, the grass was utterly crushed and flattened. “You were foolish to come so far into the wood.”
I did not look in his face but studied instead his powerful thigh and his great, black-gloved hands.
“I followed the hart, sir, the one Lord Temsland tries to hunt, the same hart who last winter led his herd to raze the lord’s haystack.” Somehow the sound of my own story voice comforted me. “Tobias said the hart once fought off a wolf—”
“Silence,” he said.
It was not harts or wolves that would save me. I looked for worms about him, but he was clean as stone, as far from life as wind and rain and cold. Perhaps there was no story that Death had not already heard. I felt my eyes begin to close.
“My lord, I have not slept for cold and hunger and insects these three nights,” I said. “Will I sleep now?”
He stood. “Do you try to be brave? It does not sway me,” he said, prouder than a king.
That was not what I had intended, but I replied, “I am brave, sir. I have had much practice. I was born into death, my grandmother has told me many times. It filled my mouth upon my first breath. I sucked it in, Grandmother says, and cried as if my heart were broken, and even my dead mother’s pap would not console me. My father searched you out to find my mother and died before my first tooth, so that it became my grandparents’ burden to raise me. Then my grandfather died after I had lived long enough to love him. I have been in conversation with you perhaps all my life.”
Now his pale, severe face softened. “You have grown to be beautiful and honest, too, Keturah,” he said, “for all you have said is true. How old are you?”
“I am sixteen, sir,” I said. A beetle crawled on my hand, but I had not the strength or heart to brush it away.
“Sixteen—many younger have come.”
He reached forward. I held my breath, but he only brushed the beetle away from my hand. I could scarce feel his touch but for the coldness of it. I met his gaze. His face was craggy but noble, as if it were cut out of fine stone.
“If I chose a bride,” he said, “she would have your courage.”
What would it be, I thought in a moment of terror, to be the bride of Death?
“Sir,” I said, “I cannot marry you. I—I am too young.” A feeble excuse, since many in my village married at a younger age.
He appeared startled. Then he laughed, a frigid, haughty laugh. “ ‘Twas no proposal but only a compliment.”
If I had not been so weak, I would have blushed for shame.
Then he said, “You
too young to marry, Keturah. And too young to die.” He put his hands on his hips, and his cloak billowed in a breeze I could not feel. “Therefore, I will give you a boon: choose whom you will to die in your place so that you may live.”
“You mean that someone else...
“Only name the soul, and it shall be,” he said. His voice had become stern again, and lordly. It echoed in the wood. “Choose.”
I thought of my poor, shabby village, nestled in the farthest corner of the kingdom, and my heart longed for it. How dear it seemed to me, and how dear all in it.
“No, sir,” I said. “I cannot.”
“Your grandmother is old,” he said. “I will be coming for her soon anyway. I say it will be her, for she is even now praying that her life be taken instead of yours.”
“I decline your offer, sir,” I said, trembling, “for I love her dearly, and the life you gave me would be too bleak without her.”
“No one declines me.”
“But I do, sir.”
His dark eyes seemed less cold then—a great relief to me—and I thought perhaps those might not be the last words I ever spoke.
Lord Death said, “Choirmaster, then? All he wants, I understand, is to sing in heavenly choirs. This I could arrange. Surely it is not long before he mourns himself into the grave.”
I shook my head. “Sir Death, if you heard him play the organ, you would know why it cannot be him. Even his saddest music makes a cloudy day one to be glad for, and a sunny day one of joy.”
“What of Tailor?” His gaze left me and lifted—toward the village, I suspected. “Though half of him lives for his children, the other half of him longs for death so he might see his wife again. He will come soon to me anyway.”
“But his children need him, sir, for as long as they can have him.”
“The village gossip, then. She causes nothing but trouble,” he said.
“She makes everyone feel better, for she can always tell you of one who is worse off than yourself. Please, not her.”
“There are many old in the village.”
“Sir, each is loved by someone young, someone whose heart would break. Besides, the old are full of sin and may need one more day to repent.”
“There are many very young who have no sins at all. I could make it quick and painless. Pick anyone—it makes no difference.”
I gasped. “I would die three deaths before ...” I swallowed the dust in my throat. “No, sir, it shall have to be me.”
“I tell you, your courage is to no avail. Many of them will die anyway, much sooner than you think.”
“Sir, what do you mean?”
“Plague comes,” he said.
“And those who live,” he continued, “will wish they had died, so great will be their sorrows.”
The word clanged in my brain like a bell.
“I—I will tell them to flee,” I gasped. Around the common fire I had heard tales of the plague, so horrible I scarce believed them.
“The swiftest horse cannot outrun the plague,” Lord Death said, and though he said it without pity, he also said it without joy.
“When does it come? And whence?” I pressed.
Lord Death did not answer.
“Tell me—tell me how to stop it!”
“Even if you lived, it is not in your power to stop it.
Your manored lord, perhaps—but it may be too late even for his efforts. Lord Temsland has allowed his lands to fall to dire ruin.”
I did not know how that had anything to do with the plague, but I could not ask him. A sob must escape my mouth if I spoke.
“But you could be spared,” he said.
It was as if I had awakened from a three-day sleep. My mind was a whirlwind, and at its center was a single word, black and quiet: plague. I knew I must live a little while, if only to warn my village.
Then he removed his black gloves without taking his shadowed eyes from me. “You don’t mind if you die.”
“Oh, yes, sir, I do!”
“Of course you do. What is it, then, that you want to live for, Keturah Reeve?”
My heart nearly broke with sadness, for I realized I had lost feeling in my arms and legs and that the life was indeed going out of me.
“My desire was that I might have my own little cottage to clean, and my own wee baby to hold, and most of all, one true love to be my husband.”
He was unmoved. “That is not too much to ask of life,” he said, “but you must have none of them, since you will not choose someone else to die in your place.” He put his cold hand on my head. It felt heavy, as if it were made of lead instead of flesh. I felt lighter after he released his touch.
“Have you killed me?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “You are still alive. For now.”
“Why did you touch me?”
“It is not for you to question me,” he said.
He had spoken truly—I was very much alive. I heard the birds of the forest singing more clearly than I ever had. Had I never before noticed the pepper-musk scent of fallen leaves and bracken? No, I was not ready to die.
Nor could I bear to think of plague in my village. If only I could speak for but a little time with Lord Temsland, to warn him.
“Sir, please let me say goodbye to my grandmother.”
“To say goodbye is everyone’s wish at the end,” he said, “but never granted. It is time, Keturah.”
He held out his hand. My mind whirled, desperate for a way to live, knowing I could not run away. I could see myself reflected in his shiny black boots, my face pale and bug-bitten.
And then into my mind came a memory of Hatti Pennyworth’ s son, who was dragged by a horse and should have died, but lived. And Jershun South, who went to sleep for two weeks and awoke one day as if he’d slept but a night. And what about my own cousin, who once ate a mushroom that killed big men? Though he was young, he survived. Death often sadly surprised us, but sometimes he gladly surprised us, too.
“Sir, you are not easy to entreat.”
“I am not entreated at all.”
“But I hear you are sometimes cheated.”
He laughed then, and I saw that he was perilously beautiful, at once terrifying and irresistible.
“Good Sir Death,” I said too loudly, “I would tell you a story—a story of love, a love that could not be conquered even by you.”
“Truly?” he asked. “I have seen many loves, and none were so great I could not divide them.”
“This is a story of a beautiful young maiden, who, though she was a peasant, fell in love with the lord of the manor.”
“I have heard this tale before, in a thousand different ways,” he said.
“But my tale, Lord Death, is one that will make even you love, that will heat even your frozen heart.” My boldness astonished me, but I stood to lose nothing.
“Indeed,” said he in disbelief. “Then say on.”
“Once there was a girl—”
“An auspicious beginning.”
“—who loved... no one.”