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Appointment in Samarra


(A conversation between Joseph "Sheppey" Miller and Death)

MILLER: I wish now I’d gone down to the Isle of Sheppey when the doctor advised it. You wouldn’t ‘ave thought of looking for me there.

DEATH: There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said,

Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said,

Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.


The version above is quoted from the 1932 play, Sheppey, by William Somerset Maugham. The protagonist is nicknamed for the Isle of Sheppey, upon which he was born. John O'Hara's 1934 book, Appointment in Samarra, was named for the scene in Maugham's play.

A version of the story appears in the Babylonian Talmud (תלמוד בבלי), Sukkah 53a.(סוכה):

“R. Johanan stated, A man's feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.

“There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes, of Solomon. One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was sad. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou sad?’ — ‘Because’, he answered him, ‘they have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here’. [Solomon thereupon] gave them [the Cushites] in charge of the spirits [over whom he had dominion] and sent them to the district of Luz. When, however, they reached the district of Luz they died. On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was in cheerful spirits. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou cheerful?’ — ‘To the place’, the other replied, ‘where they expected them from me, thither didst thou send them!’ Solomon thereupon uttered the saying, ‘A man's feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted’.”

From the Babylonian Talmud, Isidore Epstein (Editor), Soncino Press.

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