Athelney Jones was thirty-five when Death came knocking at his door. After the initial shock, a strange calm washed over him. He was able to stand erect to study the apparition on his doorstep.
It was the Reaper himself, no doubt. Who else could have taken pains to appear as ghastly as possible, Athelney reflected, taking in the gaunt figure swathed in black from top to toe, with a single grisly eye protruding from the forehead. He matched his eerie one-eyed stare with his own stony gaze. Both recoiled from each other: Death saw the man as one blackened by his sins, so the revulsion was mutual.
It was Death who spoke first.
“Good morning, Mr. Jones,” he drawled lazily. “I am here to inform you that this was your last day on Earth.” He paused as if to invite a response, then continued: “As you have a long list of wrongdoings to account for, you are not permitted any time to settle affairs, bid farewells and so on. However, you are entitled to one last request.” Plucking dirt off his sleeve, he waited.
Now, this Athelney Jones possessed a remarkably quick and deft mind. While Death was engaged in formalities, he was racking his brains for a solution to his predicament. He absolutely refused to accept that his time had come. He thought feverishly: “What to do…what—ah! Now for the greatest experiment of my life!”
There was an eccentric side to Athelney Jones. He loved to poke about with everything, just to see what would happen. He would do completely wild feats in the name of “experimentation”. Only this morning he had doused his beetle-infested roses with hair spray instead of insecticide, which killed the pests but left them stuck on the plants. This kind of lifestyle led him to think of everything in terms of an “experiment”. At that moment, for instance, his line of thought ran thus: “Experiment: to beat Death…apparatus: cunning…procedure……”
A high, irritated voice filtered through his thoughts: “Mr. Jones, I
have the right to withdraw your only claimable right if you take too much time.”
“Oh!” Athelney, masked with sickly civility, mustered all his wits and turned to face reality. “If it won’t take too much trouble, if you’d be so kind—”
“What do you want?” Death snapped, dropping his businesslike manner.
“Only a red rose from the backyard.”
Death eyed him piercingly; Athelney felt annoyed.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, nothing,” Death answered easily, rising into the air. “Having known you for over three decades, you surprise me. I came prepared for some struggle on your part. Pity you’ve wizened; I’d have had fun restraining you.” He glided idly out of sight; Athelney closed his eyes in anticipation. Any moment now…
One minute…two minutes…five minutes passed and no sign of the hooded threat. Finally Athelney summoned all his courage and tiptoed over to where the rose plants leaned over the brick wall. An insanely comic sight met his eyes.
Death was halfway up the wall, seemingly clinging to the roses with his rotting hands and feet, struggling and shrieking with rage. Athelney took one look at him and dissolved into a guffaw that went on and on.
“Just look at you!” he gasped. “The Grim Reaper stuck on the roses!”
“Let me down!” demanded Death. “Right now!”
“No way!” Athelney chuckled. “What do you take me for?” He sauntered towards his house, adding as a parting shot: “That’s where you’ll stay!”
Stay there he did, through three miserable weeks. When Athelney approached him again, he was in a pitiful state.
“Do you care to negotiate a treaty?” he asked cheerily.
“Anything…just get me off this bush!” Death begged wretchedly.
“OK.” Athelney was seated on the grass, rubbing his hands together
with glee. He could have what he wanted most…
“If I let you down,” he intoned carefully, “you’ll never come to take me.”
“Impossible! Besides, you don’t know the value of life!”
“Oh, well, a thousand years, then,” Athelney said offhandedly, “and I won’t age.”
Death saw the rapt look on his face, and sighed resignedly. “You have your prolonged life, but after that…” His voice fell on dumb ears; Athelney was dancing all over his garden.
“A thousand—a THOUSAND! Oh, the things I’ll do, the places I’ll see…”
“Ahem. What about me?”
“Oh, you!” He bottled his bliss so he could speak calmly. “I’ve bribed some neighbourhood kids to scrape you off that bush.”
“That’s the best I can do. It’s that or an eternity on the roses,” Athelney said imperiously.
It took the combined efforts of twelve boys with their spades to prize Death off. As they ran away to play, Death towered above Athelney. “Remember, you never learned the value of life,” he said dejectedly, before melting away into the air.
“That’s a successful experiment!” Athelney bubbled with satisfaction. “In fact, now begins the real part of the experiment…how I spend all these years!”
The prospect that hundreds of years were laid out before him was electrifying. Athelney Jones decided to “utilise wealth and live life to the fullest” by which he meant that he would begin by revelling in the fulfillment of all his selfish worldly pleasures. Time went on as he globe-trotted for enjoyment. The life he had known became history. He took root by the sea and watched the world’s constant changing, like kaleidoscopic patterns spinning by. The years rolled on. Nobody remembered him. For the first time Athelney was bewildered by the constantly-changing world and the rapidity of the passing time. He travelled northward as the world was scarred by wars, and when he retreated into a little secluded valley dotted with villages, he was no longer the blissful joy-rider he had been when he embarked upon his
journey. He was three hundred and fifty years old, looking not a day over thirty-five.
It was in this valley that he made himself a bungalow to remember the old days by, and there he remained.
“What have I done? Why have I brought this curse on myself?” he moaned. “I am utterly alone…nobody who loves me…nothing I know…all gone…and I, I have to remain still, and endure more torture. I’ve seen so many lucky people come and go, people who spend their lives on good causes and leave peacefully, respectfully. I can’t rest like they can. How dare they taunt me with their graves? They can spend their lives suffering!”
His curse became true for everyone in the valley. Drought and fire ravaged the land. Save for Athelney, nobody was left, only the skeletons of villages. The very seasons withdrew, refusing to grace the land with their individual beauty. The harsh and featureless landscape mocked Athelney; he now knew what it was to be abandoned by nature. He decided to make his days worthwhile. He found seeds in the ghost villages to make a garden, a vast garden enclosing acres of space with a high wall. He toiled for years, and it flourished as he nurtured it. It became his world, a world of fruits, vegetables and all kinds of flowers, including roses on the walls.
Years passed. The world began to heal. One day Athelney spotted a moving speck on the barren land beyond his green-walled one. He peered closely. It was a family, a couple with four children and a baby, trudging through the waste. They apparently thought his bungalow was another charred skeletal building, having gone far past it. Athelney thought no more of them; his was an unfeeling heart.
The next morning he looked into his garden, and what did he find at the walls? The travelling family, gazing yearningly at the lush greenery within!
Athelney was consumed with fury. He could not bear them even looking at his garden. He was about to unleash his wrath upon them when the sound of the baby crying stabbed him. The memory of numberless hollow years shamed him at last; he opened the door.
“Come in, all of you…”
Gratefully, they entered. In the shade, Athelney gave them food and
water and asked them to stay. Their gratitude knew no bounds. Their stay grew to two days, then a week. Soon there was no mention of leaving, and Athelney preferred it that way.
One morning he woke to find his room flooded with a soft, glowing white light. It dimmed so he could discern a familiar face—but how changed!
“It’s you,” he said quietly. “But it’s not a thousand years yet…”
Laughter rang around the room. “You deserved a thousand years to suffer, but I came earlier as a reward.”
“You learned and acted upon the purpose and value of life, which is the real achievement…now, come with me!”
Athelney went. He felt them rising together, breaking the bonds of the Earth, emancipated. They were on the final journey to where all paths meet…