I have an artist friend named Marguerite & one of my favorite stories is one passed down through her family. It’s about her name & here’s how she told it to me:
When Marguerite’s great-grandmother was a girl in Russia, there was a time when great plagues were sweeping the land. The march of Death could be gauged with a sort of frantic fatalism. Ten villages away the plague would strike. Then nine. Then eight.
The town elders knew death was coming & they felt powerless to stop it, but they wanted to do something. Barricade the town. Turn away all strangers. Wear linen handkerchiefs over their faces. On & on. Each day, Death grew closer.
Finally, it was decided. Someone must go out & bargain with Death for the lives of the town. It was agreed. But no one wanted to do it. All the usual excuses were offered. I have a family. My business would go to hell.
Finally a young girl spoke up. Marguerite the Potter. She’ll do it. She’s not afraid of anything. The town elders grumbled. After all, this was a woman & not even a respectable woman, but Marguerite the Potter. This was a woman who smoked & drank & allowed peddlers to sleep in her barn & had discussions with musicians & artists until late in the night. But at last they went.
When she heard their plan, she laughed & spit on the floor & blew smoke in the Mayor’s face & made them squirm until she finally agreed. Give me two boxes of the finest cigars in town & enough vodka for twenty, she said & with cigars & vodka in hand, Marguerite the Potter went out to talk with Death.
She met Death right outside town, riding in a carriage drawn by six storm grey horses, all draped with gold & red velvet. She sat at the end of the snow-covered bridge & lit a cigar & blew smoke in the faces of the lead horses. The carriage stopped & Death clambered down slowly & walked over to Marguerite & said in his most chilling voice (which I imagine must be very chilling indeed), Do you know who I am?
Marguerite, who was not afraid of Death in the least, chomped on her cigar & spit right at his feet. Move along. You’re blocking my bridge, she said.
Death flared to his full height & said, Do you know you are talking to someone who could kill you in an instant & not blink an eye?
Marguerite pulled the cork from a bottle of vodka, clear as light, & took a long swallow. Do you know you are talking to someone who could be killed in an instant & not blink an eye?
When Death heard that he stopped & then he began to laugh. When he laughed the horses reared up & the snow fell from the tall pines at the river’s frozen edge & then Marguerite handed him the bottle & they built a fire & warmed themselves as they talked.
That afternoon, Marguerite came to the town elders & told them Death’s offer. He’ll be satisfied with ten people. His only condition is that you must decide among yourselves those who will die. He will come tonight.
The elders were frozen in the silence of shock. Finally one asked her how it had been decided. Marguerite shrugged. Death’s a gambler. We rolled dice. & I gave him a box of cigars.
That night, the carriage pulled into the town square where the townspeople gathered silently. The chosen ten stood slightly apart with their families, faces white & drawn in the pale light from the snow. Where are my ten? Death said. Around the square, the cries of the children & spouses rose like the far off laments of mournful birds. The ten moved forward.
Death turned to Marguerite & smiled slightly. I see you are not among them.
Marguerite looked at the ten shivering there with the cold of the night & the unknown. She spit on the ground again. You are no better than them. You think it takes courage to take the lives of these people?
Death shrugged. That was our deal, he said.
Deals are made. Deals are broken.
What do you propose?
You’re a gambler. Raise the stakes. Cut cards. High card wins. You win, you take the ten & me. You lose, you leave empty-handed. For a generation.
Death laughed. You talk nonsense. I could take everyone in this town in an instant. You included.
Somehow I thought you better than that, she said & she turned away. Death pulled a pack of cards from his sleeve. Agreed, he snapped. High card wins.
They cut cards. Death smirked & flipped down an ace. The townspeople drew breath almost as one. Marguerite tossed her card lightly down on top of Death’s. It was another ace. Death snatched the cards up & shuffled quickly. They drew again. Death dropped another ace for all to see. Marguerite flicked her ace on top again. Three times more they drew. Three times more they turned over aces.
You are a witch, Death hissed, as the cards whirred through his hands. Marguerite laughed. I am worse than that for you, Death. I am an artist.
Marguerite drew first. She looked at her card & smiled calmly & pulled another cigar out, prepared to settle in for a long stay. Death snarled & turned a card over, into the night air. It was a queen. Marguerite shrugged & then she smiled lightly at Death.
& Death leapt up screaming & the snows swirled in the square & the screams died away to the sounds of the wind across the river & the carriage was gone & for a full generation, Death was true to his wager & no one died in that town.
My friend Marguerite says her great-grandmother crept over to Marguerite the Potter that night while the town wept & rejoiced & looked at her card & it was a three of hearts. & Marguerite put her finger to her lips & whispered, Don’t tell anyone, but Art can have as many aces as it needs.
Her great-grandmother told the story to her daughter & her daughter told it to hers & so on until it came to me. Now I leave it with you & so Marguerite the Potter lives on.
with love, Brian