One part of my family -- the Diebolds who fled Alsace in 1870 to get away from the Prussians and came to Western Pennsylvania -- retained some of their folk beliefs. One of them was a belief in the personage of The Grim Reaper. I was told of Death coming and knocking three times on a window just as a great aunt died. I used to carry buckets of water from the nearby spring to my great-grandmother's house, and some of those memories blended with the old wives' tale...


A woman is dying inside,
nestled in quilts and soft pillows.
On the path from the spring,
lit by the eye of an elder moon,
her nephew returns with full wooden buckets.
By the barn, he stares at the tarpapered house.
The kerosene light from the sick room
falls on a trellis: he sees what the women
had whispered about in the kitchen —
that rose abloom in December.

(They reverted to German, called it
Todesblumen, death’s flower bloom,
would not speak of it where Aunt Lena lay,
though she might see, if she looked, a yard
from the house, where it opened.)

Raising his buckets to clear a snowdrift,
the boy hastens by the sickbed window, and there —
white, whiter than snow, without shadow,
but solid, a stark figure steps into the light.
From shapeless robes a skeletal hand emerges:
the shivered rose crumbles, falls petal by petal.
The hand extends further on ghost-white fore-arm.
Now at the window comes the tap-tap-tapping
of Death, and wind, and the barren trellis
shakes. Then nothing, and silence, and then
the keening cry from the women inside.


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