Storytelling – getting the pictures from my head into yours

Where does that story come from?

People will know the story about the man who sees Death in the marketplace, and sees Death looking at him in a meaningful way. Thinking to avoid Death, the man flees, takes horse, rides furiously to a distant city – the distance and the city vary in different versions – where, the day after his arrival, the man again encounters Death. Since it is, as they say, a fair cop, the man goes quietly, but he asks Death why he looked at him meaningfully. Death says that he looked at him in surprise and puzzlement, seeing him in that city, because he had it down on his list that he was supposed to collect him in this city, the one in which they are now.

If you google this, you will come across John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra in the first place, and Somerset Maugham in the second place, who has Death tell it to eponymous hero of his play Sheppey. Idries Shah claims it as a Sufi story in his Tales of the Dervishes. There is a good account of various possible sources here. Even Saki has a version.

All in all, the earliest written version is in the Babylonian Talmud, compiled around 500 CE, and if you’re picky enough to want to go to the source, it’s here, in Tractate Succah section 53a [this is the easiest to consult – there are other Talmuds on the web, but they don’t always print the section designations in a clear way].

And this is what I made out of it, in my own story, which sets the events in France and Gloucestershire during WW1 and later, and also includes a mummers’ play. Only long after writing it did I learn that there were other Thankful Villages – though probably not for the reason advanced in my story.

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