I first heard this story from storyteller Nancy Donoval, who was telling it as part of a performance of Mouth, the improvised storytelling performance she does with Gerald Fierst. Part of her inspiration for telling this story that night was seeing Olga Loya in the audience. I thought that was ballsy, telling someone else's story when she was in the room. Nancy, like Olga, knew the story as a traditional Latin American folktale, from Puerto Rico. But there are presumably older versions of the same story, in Spain, and Portugal, where it is known as Tía Miseria, and in France, as the Enchanted Apple tree. (Many cultures have stories about cheating death, although they don't always include a tree).
There once was an old woman who lived in a town for so long that people had forgotten her name. They only knew her as Aunt Misery, since she never had a kind word to say to anyone, never even spoke to her neighbors, except on those days when los malcreados-- the ones who were not raised properly-- would come and steal the pears from her tree.
Ah, her pear tree. Its fruit was the only joy left in her life. And when those boys came, and climbed up into the branches of the pear tree to eat her pears, she would shout at them, and curse them, but the malcreados, they were quick, and they would run, their laughter ringing in the ears of Aunt Misery.
There was one pear the boys had missed. It had been knocked to the ground earlier, and half of it had spoiled. But Aunt Misery picked it up and brought it inside anyway, to prepare for her dinner. As she cut away the bruised fruit, there was a knock on the door.
A stranger was there, asking for shelter for the night. Aunt Misery invited him in, prepared a bed. She gave him a plate with the only morsels of food she had: a piece of bread, and the ripe half of a pear she had been preparing. The stranger nodded in gratitude, and ate the food hungrily.
The next morning, as the stranger made to leave, his appearance transformed, and he revealed himself to be a visitor from heaven. "As a reward for the kindness you have shown, I will grant you a wish. Anything your heart desires."
Aunt Misery needed no time for reflection. "I wish that whosoever reaches up into the branches of my pear tree, shall remain there until I give my word."
"So be it." And with that, the stranger disappeared.
It would be a year before Aunt Misery could test the stranger's gift, a year before the tree blossomed and once again brought forth fruit. And with the fruit, came los malcreados.
The cries of the boys brought her to the door. "Bruja! Witch! Let us go!" But Aunt Misery laughed at them.
"Steal my pears, will you?" And she reached up with her cane and lashed the legs of the unfortunate boys.
When her arm grew tired, and the boys' curses and the cries grew quieter, and turned to promises, to never take another pear, to never set foot in the yard again, to never steal nothing from nobody, she relented. "I want a new fence. Painted. And a roasted chicken every week."
They promised. And with a word, they were released from the tree.
The fence was completed in three days. Two roasted chickens appeared each week, just to be sure. And Aunt Misery's life grew quiet, and she alone enjoyed her pears.
Years passed, the tree grew old and gnarled. And then one day, another stranger appeared and knocked at her door, and she asked him what he wanted.
"I am Death, and I have come to take you with me."
He looked so parched and weary that she offered him a glass of water. She gave him bread, and roast chicken. And Death was pleased. He rarely encountered such hospitality on his travels. When he finished his meal, he said, "It is time."
"We must have nourishment for our journey," said Aunty Misery. "And the pears in my tree are so delicious. But I am too old to reach the ripest pears in the top branches. Would you be so kind and to climb up in the tree and get some?"
And Death was glad to oblige. He climbed into the tree, and was stuck fast.
He cursed her. He yelled. He screamed. He tried flattery. He coaxed, he wheedled.
But she would have none of it. She left Death in the tree, and each day visited him and asked to hear stories of his many travels. But she would not let him go.
And years went by. And because Death was stuck fast to the tree, he could not make his rounds. And so no one died.
Soon Aunt Misery received new visitors, complaining. The doctors. The pharmacists. The undertakers. The priests. Business is terrible, they said. And the old who are tired of life, and those who have suffered injuries and are in constant pain, begged Aunt Misery to release Death.
So she made a bargain with Death: "I will release you, on the condition that you never bother me again." And Death agreed.
She freed him from the tree, and Death returned to the world. And he has kept his word and never returned to that place. So that is why we will always have Misery in the world.
And here's a nice touch Nancy added:
And so I can't tell you the town, or the country, but Aunt Misery is still there in that house. And if you knock on her door, she will invite you in, and feed you. And she'll ask you to pick some pears for her. Because she wants to hear your stories. For as we all know, Misery loves company.
"El peral de la tía miseria." Relatocorto.com
<http://www.relatocorto.com/clasicos/elperal.htm> (25 August 2005)
John Bierhorst. "Aunt Misery." Latin American Folktales: Stories from Hispanic and Indian Traditions. Pantheon, 2001.
Olga Loya. "Tía Miseria." From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs. Amy Cohn, editor. Scholastic, 1993
Rose Owens. "The Enchanted Apple Tree
." Rose the Story Lady Web Site. <http://www.civprod.com/storylady/stories/EnchantedAppleTree.htm> (August 25, 2005)