Can you hear that sound? Can you hear that creaking and groaning getting closer and closer? That’s the sound of Death approaching. That’s the sound of Death on his way.
He’s tall as a tree and thin as a rake. He wears a long ragged cloak and an old wide-brimmed hat, so you can’t see his eyes. His hair is long and white.
He drives a ricketty old cart hardly held together with scraps of wood, iron and leather. The wheels rattle like pebbles on a tin tray and the wooden frame bangs like a drum. You’d think he’d have a better wagon really, to take the dead on their final journey. But the dead don’t mind. He’s never heard one of them complain, anyway.
In these parts they don’t call him Death. They give him a special name. They whisper it.
They call him the Ankou…
But it’s not a word they like to say out loud, just in case he’s listening. After all, you don’t want to tempt fate, do you?
Three revellers were out on a spree, drunk as drunk as drunk can be. Blind stinking drunk and full of wine and cider. They’d had a splendid evening and were only sorry it was at an end. The drink had been cheap and plentiful, the women had smiled at them – or at least they hadn’t run away – and the cards had been kind. So, full of wine, cider, francs and bonhomie, they staggered along the dark, lonely road home.
In the distance, creaking and groaning, shaking like pebbles on a tin tray and beating like a bass drum, came the sound of a cart. All they needed now to make the evening complete was a lift home.
At first all they saw was a distant light, cold and faint, rocking from side to side. Then they saw the cart. It was falling to bits. All thoughts of catching a lift home vanished.
A sober person might have thought twice before shouting out, but the drink had the better of them.
“Get off the road!” cried the first. “You’ll get us all killed!”
The old cart trundled slowly on and the lean dark driver took no notice.
“Go home and get a bath!” called the second.
Only the third reveller had any reservations. For one thing, he was a good-natured lad who saw no reason to shout abuse anyone. For another, he was feeling distinctly uneasy. He tried to calm his mates down, but they were starting to enjoy themselves. They stood in front of the ancient wagon.
The driver drew to a halt.
Slowly and quietly the driver said,
“You’re in my way.”
Despite the best efforts of the third to move them, the first two revellers stayed put.
He said again,
“You’re in my way.”
The Ankou was a man of very few words.
“Don’t you tell us what to do!” shouted the first reveller.
“Try these stones for size,” said the second.
And before the third could stop them, they began pelting the Ankou’s cart. He stood up in his seat and watched them without a word.
Stones bounced off him and he never so much as flinched. This seemed to make the two drunkards even more determined in their troublemaking.
Thrown to the side of the road by his friends, the third reveller could only sit and feel sorry for the strange driver of the old cart. Then a particularly well aimed stone hit the ancient wooden axle and it snapped.
Their game over, and realising that there was now no chance at all of getting a lift, the two revellers turned away and carried on their journey. They called after their friend, but he was staying. After all, the least he could do was give the poor old man a hand. They shouted out words to the effect that they’d sort him out later and disappeared into the night.
Shamefaced and full of apologies the young man stepped forward to help the old driver off the cart, but he brushed him aside. He looked at his ruined cart, shook his head and whistled tunelessly through his teeth.
“I’ve got work to do,” he said, “and I need my cart.”
The young man looked around for something, anything that would get this strange traveller on the move. After a few minutes he found an old branch which might, just might, do the job. He took it nervously to the Ankou who weighed it in his hands before nodding.
“But how to secure it?” he said quietly.
The young man scratched his head and looked around desperately. He was starting to wonder what sort of business the ragged coachman was about on this night. Finally he tore the laces out of his boots and desperately thrust them at the old man. Again the coachman nodded.
With only the cold light of the wagon’s lantern for company, the two of them worked silently to replace the axle. After what seemed like hours, they at last managed to improvise something which would serve.
With only a nod of his head, the Ankou climbed onto the cart and drove off. He didn’t even offer his assistant a lift. Not that the young man would have wanted one. Almost relieved to be alone in the darkness, and now stone cold sober, he made his way home.
The next morning he caught his reflection in the mirror while washing and found that his hair had turned completely white. But that was all.
As for his riotous friends, the drink did not agree with them at all. In fact, it disagreed with them so much that they were both dead by morning. So they got their ride on the Ankou’s cart in the end.
Few see, few hear, less live to tell the tale. And the young man never spoke to anyone of his adventures on the road that night.
The Ankou has few friends. Not many people want to know him. Would you?
Some people speak to him, though. Some women. The Lavandičres.
They do his washing. It’s only fair.
After all, he does bring them a great deal of business.
© John Edgar 1999