The Boy who was Always Thirteen

There were once a man and woman so truly good that the great god said he would reward them with whatever they wished to ask. “We want a son,” said the man and his wife.

“You shall have a son,” said Shiva, the great god. “But you must now choose the kind of son you want. Will you have him perfect in every way, beautiful and good and clever, and loved by all the world, but doomed to be no older than his thirteenth year? Or will you have him just an ordinary boy, but living as long as the ordinary man, so that you may even see his children’s children? Choose: that which you wish shall be given.”

And the man and his wife were sorrowful; for to choose was not easy. How could they bear their son to die when he was thirteen. Yet how could they bear to have him just an ordinary boy, like any other that came into the world, and had trouble, and made mistakes, and died at last, leaving no name behind him? And the puzzle was too hard for the man.

“I cannot choose,” he said to his wife. “You must decide. It is your business.”

And the woman said: “We will have the perfect son that Shiva has offered us. And the rest we will leave to the gods.”

So Kamil, the perfect one, was born, and grew from happy baby to happy boy. And he was beautiful to look upon; and clever was he, and strong, and gentle, and kind. Everyone loved him, and to all gave he love also, making happiness wherever he went.

And his father and mother, and all the people of his village, alike forgot that there could be any end to this happiness. But the King of Death did not forget. “No older than his thirteenth year,” had said Shiva, the great god. And Kamil, the perfect boy, was in his thirteenth year.

So, on his birthday, the King of Death sent his messengers, to bring Kamil away to the Kingdom of Death. “It is only another kind of life,” said the messengers; “do not be afraid, come with us. The King himself is waiting to receive you.”

But the boy said: “Why should I come? I want no other kind of life. This life I love. Why should I come? I will not come with you.”

“No one has ever disobeyed the King of Death,” said the messengers. “Come, you must.”

“I will not come,” said the boy. “Go back to the King of Death and say: ‘The boy who loves the life he knows, says that he cannot come to the new life which he does not know.’”

And the messengers went trembling back to the King with this message.

Now the King of Death is very old, and very kind and gentle, and he has the wisdom of Peace and of Forgetfulness. And the journey back to the life which the boy loved was for him a very long journey. “But I must see,” he said, “the one person who has disobeyed me.” So he sent for his black buffalo, and he rode the long and painful journey back to Life and Youth in the world of the-things-that-pass.

And it was spring-time, and the leaves of the pipal tree were shining after a shower of rain, which had made all the world smell sweet with the good earth-smell. And the birds were singing. And under the pipal tree stood the perfect boy beside the shrine of Shiva, the great god, playing a little tune of the gladness of the-things-that-pass.

I am Death, who sent to fetch you

“I am Death, who sent to fetch you”

He played on a slender reed of bamboo, blowing with his mouth; and he called the cattle to come home to rest, for it was the cow-dust hour, and the sun was setting.

When the King of Death was close by the perfect boy stopped playing, and looked at him riding on the long, long back of his slow-moving grey-black buffalo.

“What an old, old man you are!” said the perfect boy; “never have I seen you before. Who are you?”

“You have seen my messengers,” said the King. “I am Death, who sent to fetch you to my kingdom. Why did you not come?”

“I told your messengers,” said the boy. “It was quite true. It is very kind of you to want to take me to your kingdom; but I do not wish any other life. I love this life very much, and I am so happy. I love my father and my mother, and all the men-and-women people, and the children-people, and the beast-people, and bird-people in this good life that I know. You stay with us too. See, I will ask my mother to make room for you in our own little hut.” But the King of Death shook his head.

“I have a kingdom, and I come to take you to it. Come, make no trouble. Get up behind me on the buffalo; we must be back before to-morrow’s day.”

“And I say again, I will not come,” said the boy, standing firm. “See, I appeal to Shiva to protect me;” and he put out his hand to the large pebble of black stone, Shiva’s symbol, which had been brought to the shrine from the great sacred river of the West Country.

Then the King of Death was angry, and he laid hands on the boy to take him by force; and he dragged him away, so that the symbol of Shiva fell to the ground.

And now Shiva himself, the great god, was angered, and his voice thundered forth, ordering the King of Death back to the Kingdom of Death. “And you shall not return to the world of the-things-that-pass, till I bid you,” said Shiva.

So back went the old king on his slow-moving, grey-black buffalo. And the boy was happy, and life was again full of love and goodness as before, in his world of the-things-that-pass.

But the King of Death could no more send his messengers to the Earth; so everything lived forever—the men and women and beasts and birds and flower-people all lived; and yet new men and women and beasts and birds and flower-people were always coming to the Earth, as before. So that the Earth was fuller than it could hold.

And the men and women and beasts and birds and flower-people went to the great god and said: “We are weary, and there is no room for us on the Earth; we are the things that must pass. Send the King of Death to take us to the Kingdom of Peace and Forgetfulness and Quiet Sleep.”

And the great god said: “I will not; I have spoken.”

Then the tired Earth-people went to Parvati, the wife of Shiva, and, “Please help us,” they said. “See how full the Earth is. There is no room for us all, and some of us are weary and would sleep.”

So Parvati went to the great god. “The Earth is very full,” she said. “Will you not let the King of Death send his slow-moving grey-black buffalo for the tired Earth-people?”

“No,” said Shiva; “he insulted my symbol: he may not return to the Earth. I have spoken.”

“But you know you did say that the perfect boy was to be no older than his thirteenth year,” said Parvati. “That was why the King of Death came to fetch him.”

And Shiva was silent, not knowing what to answer.

“But when you said that, you only meant that he should never look older than his thirteenth year, though he might live and live as long as he liked,” said clever goddess Parvati.

And Shiva waited, for surely here was a way out of a difficulty.

“And poor old King Death was not clever enough to understand this, and thought that you meant him to take the boy away. It was only stupidity. Forgive him.”

And Shiva said: “It shall be as you ask.”

“Then give the message,” said Goddess Parvati.

And, “Let the old tired leaves fall from the trees,” said Shiva the god, and turned to other business.

But his messengers were so full of gladness that good King Death might return to the Earth once more, riding on his grey-black buffalo—for that was the meaning of Shiva’s message—that they were drunk with joy, and said the words wrongly.

“Let the old leaves, and the middle-aged leaves, and the little baby leaves fall from the trees,” was what they said, when they flew back to the Earth on the wings of the morning.

And that is why to this day, old and young, boys and babies, all alike, ride, when the great god wills, upon the grey-black buffalo, as it makes its slow-moving way to the quiet Kingdom of Death.

But Kamil, the perfect boy, lived in the world that he loved, and was always and always just thirteen years old, and no more.

And, “It was well,” said the man, his father, “that I left the Son-puzzle to you, O Mother of Kamil.”

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