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OK, let’s start the episode.
Welcome to Easy Stories in English, the podcast that will take your English from OK to Good, and from Good to Great.
I am Ariel Goodbody, your host for this show. Today’s story is for intermediate learners. The name of the story is Mother Death. You can find a transcript of the episode at EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Death. That’s EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Death. This contains the full story, as well as my conversation before it.
I’m actually going to keep the conversation section today really short because I’ve had a bit of a sore throat over the last few days and so I’m trying to save my voice. Also, you know, last week was the 100th episode, so I’m taking it a bit easy!
By the way, if you didn’t get to hear the 100th episode, I super recommend checking it out, because it had all of these lovely audio messages from all of you. You can listen to that at EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Hand.
Just a warning, today’s story does end in death and sadness. You’re probably used to this from my stories by now, but I just wanted to warn you in case you’re not feeling that vibe at the moment, in case you’re not feeling like that kind of story right now.
OK, I’ll just explain some words that are in today’s story.
When you spit, and the past tense is spat, you throw water or saliva out of your mouth, like this: [spits]. In the UK, it is very rude to spit outside, but in the past, people used to chew tobacco and spit it out. If you eat some very bad food, you might spit it out. If you talk very angrily, you spit your words out: like this!
A cloak is a long piece of clothing. It is basically a coat that covers the whole body and has a hood, a bit which goes over the head. Cloaks are not very popular nowadays, but they were very popular in the past for travelling and keeping warm. You mainly see them in fantasy stories now.
A scythe is a long, wooden tool with a sharp, curved blade at the end. You use a scythe to cut grass in a field. Nowadays, we don’t really use scythes, because we have machines to cut grass for us. But the traditional image of Death, or the Grim Reaper, is a skeleton wearing a black cloak holding a scythe. Death uses their scythe to take people’s souls.
When someone is very thin, and you can see their bones through their skin, then they are bony. Usually, you notice that someone’s hands are bony.
When you go to the doctor, and the doctor tells you what’s wrong, that is a diagnosis, and the plural is diagnoses. For example, the diagnosis might be that you have a cold, or the flu. Of course, doctors can give incorrect diagnoses. Sometimes, the diagnosis will be very different to what you’re expecting.
A potion is a magic drink. Witches and wizards make potions, and they can have positive or negative effects. In Harry Potter, Snape is the potions teacher, and Harry is quite bad at potions.
Wicked means evil, very very bad. So witches are wicked, in fairy tales stepmothers are usually wicked, and so on. You might know The Wicked Witch of the West, a green witch from The Wizard of Oz. There is also a famous musical called Wicked based on this character.
When you disobey someone, you don’t obey an order they gave you. For example, if your mum tells you to sit quietly in the car while she goes to the shops, but you get out and start wandering around, you are disobeying her. She gave you an order, and you did not obey it.
Spin, and the past tense is spun, is when you move something around in a circle. When you drive a car, the wheels spin. When you put clothes in a washing machine, it spins them around to clean them. There are some office chairs which you can spin around on, and it’s very fun to do so.
The white part of a candle is called wax. Wax burns very well, and turns into a soft white liquid when you burn it. You can make shapes and sculptures out of wax. Nowadays, it is very popular to get candles with scented wax, which gives off a smell as it burns.
When a liquid falls in drops, it drips. For example, if you turn off the tap, but you don’t quite turn it fully off, it might drip water. If you have a very bad roof and it rains a lot, water might drip through the ceiling. When it rains slightly, you might just feel a few drips before putting up your umbrella.
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OK, so listen and enjoy!
Once upon a time, there was an old man called Tristan who had twelve children. His wife died giving birth to the thirteenth child, and the man did not know what to do. He could not look after thirteen children on his own, and he had to get rid of the last child. With nowhere to turn, he went to the woods, intending to leave the child there to die.
But when he came to a river, an old man appeared in front of him, shining with light.
‘Do you love the boy?’ he asked.
Tristan hesitated, and then said, ‘I do love him, but I love my other children as well, and there is not enough food for them all.’
‘I feel for you, my child. I will help you, although I am not supposed to. Give your child to me, and I will take him as my own, and he shall be happier in the next life.’
‘Wait…’ said Tristan. ‘You are God, are you not? The way you shine, the way you speak… I will not give my son to you!’ He spat on the ground. ‘You allow the rich to get richer while the poor die of hunger. No, I would rather all my children die then give my son up to you.’
And with that, he took his son home and left God standing by the river.
That night, the family ate a sad meal, as there was not enough food for all of them. Tristan’s other children asked why their brother was still alive, but the father refused to answer.
Just as he was climbing into bed, he heard a cold voice behind him.
‘You are quite an interesting man.’
Tristan turned around to see a tall, pale figure before him, dressed in a black cloak. The figure had no face, and their voice was neither male nor female. In their hand, they held a long scythe. It was Death!
‘Has my time come already?’ cried Tristan, trembling.
‘The only thing that has come is your rescue,’ said Death. ‘I saw that you denied God, and I must say I was impressed. Unlike God, I strike the rich and the poor alike. Let me be the mother of your child, and I will look after him. He will have everything he needs, and I will make him the finest doctor in the land.’
Tristan eagerly handed his son over, wanting to get Death out of his house as soon as possible.
‘Good luck, my boy,’ he said, kissing the baby on his head.
Death wrapped their bony hands around him and turned around, their cloak fading into the darkness.
Many years passed, and the young boy, who Death named Mortimer, grew up. Mortimer lived in a large house, full of food and toys, while Death spent most of the day working, travelling all around the world to end people’s lives.
Mortimer did not understand his mother’s job for a long time, and the many teachers that Death hired knew nothing about it, either. In fact, it seemed like they could not see Mortimer’s mother at all. All that Mortimer knew was that he was supposed to become a doctor, and a very good doctor at that. Eventually, he saw his mother’s scythe and figured out who she was, and he was glad of it, because he thought it meant he would live forever. After all, what mother would take the life of their own son?
When Mortimer turned 18, Death took him aside and explained something to him.
‘Human medicine has its limits, and I want you to be the finest doctor in the land. You will never give an incorrect diagnosis.’
‘But why?’ said Mortimer. ‘Why does it matter?’
Death smiled. ‘There is a certain old man who thinks that humans should not have control over life and death. I want to show him he is wrong. Now, here is what you will do. When you are asked to see a sick person, I will appear before you, but only you will be able to see me. If I stand at the head of the bed, that means the patient deserves to live. You will take this potion,’—and here, they pulled out a small bottle with a golden liquid in it—‘and pour it on the patient’s foot. Then they will survive. But if I stand at the foot of the bed, then it is nearly time for the patient to die. I will take him soon, and there will be no point in curing him.’
Mortimer didn’t understand what that meant, it is nearly time for the patient to die. Surely, Death decided when people’s lives would end? But he nodded, and agreed to the plan.
And so Mortimer began a career as the finest doctor in the land. Upon seeing a patient, he always predicted with absolute accuracy whether they were going to recover from their illness or die.
One day, the King himself called Mortimer to his bed. He was suffering from a serious disease, and he was covered in horrible purple spots. Mortimer saw that Death was standing at the foot of the King’s bed, which was a shame, because if Mortimer could cure the King, he would surely be rich. But Death was distracted, and so Mortimer had an idea.
‘My king,’ said Mortimer, ‘you have a most unusual illness. I can only think of one thing that might cure it. Did you know that the smell of fresh blood can be very good for one’s health? Tell one of your men to go and kill a man, and then bring his blood in a bowl to this room.’
The King was shocked, but he knew that Mortimer was a fine doctor, so he did as he said. Since the man was killed so near the King, Death had no choice but to go and take his life then and there.
While his mother was out of the room, Mortimer said, ‘My king, the second essential part of this cure is to turn your bed around.’
So the guards came and turned the bed around so that it was facing the other direction. When Death returned, annoyed at being made to do extra work, they were so distracted that they did not notice the bed had moved, and went to go and stand at the head of it.
‘Ah!’ said Mortimer. ‘It appears you are going to make a fast recovery, my king.’
And with that, he poured the potion on the King’s feet and took his payment.
Once Mortimer returned home, Death came to him.
‘You wicked boy!’ they spat. ‘I raised you, I gave you everything you needed, and you disobeyed me!’
‘I did not,’ said Mortimer, smiling wickedly. ‘You stood at the head of his bed, and so the King was supposed to survive.’
Death raised a bony finger at Mortimer. ‘If you ever trick me again, it will mark the end of your life.’
A few days later, the King’s daughter fell ill with the same sickness. Once again, they called in Mortimer to help her.
‘Please!’ said the King. ‘I will do anything for my daughter. If you can cure her, you can marry her!’
When Mortimer walked through the door, his jaw dropped. The Princess was gorgeous, even when covered in purple spots, and he knew he had to marry her.
‘Shall we kill another man?’ said the King. ‘Or perhaps spin her bed around?’
‘No, no,’ said Mortimer, with a cold expression. Death was standing at the foot of the bed once again. ‘That will not be needed this time.’
He would not let such a beautiful creature—his future bride—be taken by Death’s scythe. Ignoring his mother, he took the potion and poured it over the Princess’ feet.
Death stared coldly at Mortimer, and then clicked their fingers.
Everything went black.
‘Where am I?’ cried Mortimer.
He was no longer in the castle, but in a dark corridor, deep underground. In the distance, there was a faint light that danced from side-to-side. Like the light of a candle.
Moving cautiously, Mortimer approached the light, and found a small room full of shelves. On each shelf, there were hundreds of candles, of varying height, all packed close together. Most of them were lit, but some had no wax left, and had burnt out. On each one, a name was written: Frederick, Sarah, Nicholas, Bartholomew…
‘Looking for something?’
Mortimer spun around to see his mother standing in front of him, holding their scythe.
‘What is this place?’
Death said nothing, only pointed a bony finger at one of the shelves. His heart pounding in his ears, Mortimer turned to read the candle indicated.
Mortimer. It was almost burnt to the bottom, with only a bit of wax left.
‘I told you, boy, that I know when somebody’s time has come. Your time nearly has.’
Mortimer’s breath froze in his throat. There it was, his life, dripping away bit by bit, leaving nothing but a pile of wax on the floor.
Without thinking, he jumped forward. Next to his candle, there was another one, tall and thin. He grabbed a piece of wax from the top, and tried to add it to his.
But instead of putting the wax on the candle, it landed on the flame, and it went out.
Mortimer’s heart stopped. His time had come.
Death sighed. Being a mother was so hard.
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