A young child learns the secrets of an old woman
|There once was a town, not unlike most by the side of a river. On the outskirts of a forest cleared by the villagers themselves, it existed as a monument to the indomitable spirit of human ingenuity. Farmland—just next to the village—was cultivated by more than half of the citizens, and the other half filled the other essential duties of the town: blacksmiths, carpenters, millers, bakers, and a host of other sundry professions.
Every person in the village had their daily habits and duties. After the first cock crowed, the farmhands were up first. Fifteen to twenty, on any given day, would grab their tools and march to the fields like knights into battle with sickles for swords and baskets for shields. Their songs as they departed often awoke the next batch of early risers. Soon, smoke rose from the chimneys of the scattered houses and the blacksmith as well as his apprentice could be heard pounding upon glowing metal. If harvest time had come, then the wives of the farmhands would be hard at work with flails and winnowing baskets wiping sweat from their brows if the west wind with the smell of wheat was not enough to cool them at their work.
But just one person stayed truly dedicated to her daily task: the old woman who sang to the river. As a young boy I often asked my grandfather why the old woman always went down to the river to sing. He told me it was her duty and of great importance. When I questioned him further, he would tell me that curious boys often became cunning men, and cunning men became thieves, after which he’d tell me to go help my mother and father prepare for the day. As the son of the town healer, who was the son of the town healer before him, my day was often spent preparing my father’s tools, gathering herbs for poultices, and assisting him whenever someone became ill.
My grandfather, no longer well enough himself to act as the town healer, spent most of his time telling stories and carving little wooden figurines for the town’s children, a skill he had developed as a boy and perfected in his old age. He would tell me many stories, some real and some imagined, yet whenever I asked him about the woman who sang to the river, he would always change the subject. Naturally I asked my parents about her, but they told me that those of grandfather’s age knew things that were best left unsaid. Naturally, that left me with an even greater urge to find out the truth for myself, so I resolved to follow her on her daily ritual.
One morning, under the pretense of gathering herbs from the forest, I set out to spy on the old woman. Mid-morning, she emerged from her home. With a slow waddle that many of the other village children equated to a slow-moving cow, she descended the two steps from her door and stopped, breathing in the morning air. From my hiding place across the pathway, I took a moment to inspect her entire person. Her face was wrinkled like a long-ripened apple that had wasted away on the ground in the shadow of its own tree. Her eyes were a bright blue however, that shined out from the wrinkles that dominated most of her features. It was as if the water from the river had poured into those eyes and fused with her soul. Her clothes were clean and well kept. She wore a simple kirtle and held a small bag in her left hand that seemed to clink in her hand when she walked. My first impression was that it sounded like a bag of pebbles. Her overall demeanor was quiet and calm as she waddled away from her house and headed towards the dirt trail that led to the river.
As a boy of ten, I was a master of hiding places and could easily travel around the village and the forest outskirts unseen. She was unaware of my presence as I followed her in silence. Even if I had lost sight of her she would have been easy enough to track due to the rhythmic clink of whatever was being jostled in that bag of hers.
By the time she reached the river, she was clearly winded as she sat on a large rock and her ample chest heaved up and down. The mid-morning sun shined through the trees that encroached upon the river creating flecks of brilliant gemstone flickers upon the water. Quiet and serene, only an occasional bubble of sound escaped it. It was hard to believe that only a short walk downriver the waters turned into a roiling mass of rapids in which a few young villagers had met an unfortunate end, or so the stories told.
After a moment or two, she stood back up and stepped onto a nearly imperceptible trail—only two strides long—that led directly to the water’s edge. Then she dropped out of view. I was forced to step out from behind my hiding place and into the open to see her. Thankfully her back was to me.
To any passerby she might have been down on all fours to take a drink from the river. I knew better. My toes curved out towards the ground quietly stepping my way closer to her. I heard her began to sing.
I wasn’t sure at first that she even was singing. It could just have easily been the wind in the tree. She was so quiet and her voice was certainly was not that of a fair maiden, but there was something serene about the sound of her. I couldn’t make out any discernible lyrics and I edged closer to hear better. The sound of the gently flowing water seemed louder than her quiet little voice.
I was only a few paces from her when she stopped singing. In a quiet, raspy, yet decidedly gentle voice, she said, “I know you’re there.”
My first instinct was to run. Though I realized there was no possible way I could flee in time before she turned around. There was a smile on her face when she did finally turn around. “Surely someone has told you never to follow the old lady that sings at the river?”
I shook my head, still afraid to say a word.
“And who told you?”
“My grandfather,” I said meekly.
“No one else?”
“My father too. And my mother. And my grandmother before she passed on. And the other village children that think you walk like a—” I stopped short.
She furrowed her brow. “All of those people and more have warned you. Yet still you came to the river with me. Do you know how long I’ve been coming here?”
The other village children had always said she’d been there forever. I shook my head to avoid giving a definitive answer.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a maiden little older than you are now. Tell me, young man, why, despite so many warnings, did you follow me here?”
I still found it difficult to loosen my tongue. There wasn’t anything particularly frightening about her, but all the same I was intimidated by something. Perhaps it was the wisdom she seemed to possess, perhaps the disappointment my grandfather would have when he found out, or perhaps it was something unknown that held the words captive.
“Heavens above,” said the old woman, “I’m not that frightening am I? You children must have cultivated quite an image of me over the years. I don’t bite you know. Come,” she remarked waddling over to a large rock that could easily seat both of us. “Sit with me a while.”
Still wondering if this was some sort of trick, I was hesitant to follow her directions. Yet she seemed so gentle and after a moment’s deliberation I sat beside her.
“What is your name young man?”
“And you’re the healer’s son, are you not?”
“I knew your grandfather when we were both much younger. He fancied me.”
My eyes grew wide with this new knowledge. I was eager to learn more from her on the subject. “Why are you not married then?”
“I’m afraid that Fate forked the branch we shared. If you wish to hear the tale, you must first let me complete my duty. The river has waited long enough. I warn you however, the knowledge of what I do is a great burden.”
She could have told me that surely death awaited me if I listened to her tale, but no threat real or imagined could deter me from hearing her story. I had come too close now not to carry through with my mission.
“I will wait,” I said.
“Stay here child and watch quietly.”
She stood back up and walked down to the river. She again bent down on her hands and knees close to the shore of the river and began singing again. Even much closer now, I still could not make out the words she sang. They sounded strangely foreign. This went on for what seemed like ten minutes. Then she stopped and leaned farther out, staring at the surface of the water. I could only guess that she was observing her reflection in the softly lapping waves. She then took the bag that had clinked on her walk here and untied the drawstring that held it tightly closed. She upturned the contents of the small bag into her hand; out poured what looked like plain stones. There seemed to be five or six; from my vantage point I couldn’t be sure.
She took each stone in turn, held it up to her mouth and whispered, then let if fall with a plop into the water. She sat quietly for another minute or so, then dipped her hand in the water and stood back up. Cinching the empty bag closed, she returned to me and sat down.
“Now are you ready to hear my story?”
She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began: “This village is far older than you can imagine. Even when my grandmother’s grandmother was a small child, this village was old. And as long as this village has stood, someone has sung to the river.”
“But why do you sing to the river?”
“Patience child. My tale has just started. So many questions will only make the story take longer to tell.”
“Yes ma’am.” I said with downcast eyes.
“When I was a maid of 7 years old, I often could be found helping my mother mend clothes and milk the cows. When I wasn’t working I was busy exploring the forest or spending time with your grandfather. As I mentioned before, at a young age I was quite fond of him. He was two years older than me and was already a hard worker. People around the village always said that he was built to be a farmhand, not a healer, though he was born into his role and he stayed there. My parents believed I was destined to be a farmer’s wife, but that wasn’t to be the case.”
A bird rustled in one of the trees not far away from our rock and she stopped a moment to observe it before continuing. “When I was a little girl, there was an old man that came to the river just as I do now. No one spoke to him and all of us children in the village believed he was some sort of mystical person. He rarely spoke to anyone except those that visited him in the night. When we asked our parents about him they told us that some things were best left unsaid. Does any of this sound familiar to you Owen?”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“All that we knew of the man was that he sang down by the river. None ever claimed to have accompanied him and that which we knew about him was mostly fabricated from our own suspicions. Much like you, I was filled with curiosity, as was your grandfather. We knew that the few people who did talk to him would wait until late into the night. It was said that a candle always burnt in his window at night and his door was always open to those who would be brave enough to visit him. Although few cared to admit, it was fairly well known that most of the villagers had at one time or another visited his home.
So one night, I snuck out of bed and met your grandfather a few houses down and then by moonlight we traveled to the old man’s house—the very house that I live in today. We watched as someone else from the village stealthily visited his home. Neither one of us was tall enough to see through his window, so I stood on your grandfather’s shoulders to see. It was the blacksmith’s son that sat in a chair by the fire. He seemed to be talking to the old man who just sat quietly and listened. At times the blacksmith’s son seemed agitated, almost upset, but alas I could not make out the words. He stayed for nearly an hour and then shook the old man’s hand and departed. We scrambled to remain unseen as he made his exit. When he was gone, I climbed back up on your grandfather’s shoulders and peeked inside, expecting him to be practicing some dark magic, but he simply sat in his chair and smoked his pipe as though deep in thought.”
By now I was beginning to wonder if what she told me really was true. After all she still had not explained how she came to do the exact same job of the old man she was describing. However, she was determined to trudge on through her tale at her own pace.
“Your grandfather and I gave up after a few more minutes and returned separately to our homes. In the morning neither of us spoke to anyone of what we had done; it was our secret. However, I was not satisfied. At midday I went to your grandfather I told him that I was going to follow the old man to the river the next day. He told me he was worried and that I shouldn’t go. He tried to tell me all about the rumors about this old man. He told me that he kidnapped children and ate them out in the woods; he talked about how he didn’t actually sing to the river, but whispered everyone’s name into it and cursed the entire village if they crossed him. All of these and more I had heard many times before.”
As the old lady recounted all of these stories, I couldn’t help drawing similarities with some of the stories told by the children I knew. It was ironically similar. Clearly all of these stories were nothing more than rumors spread by the more ignorant village folk.
“After your grandfather had finished chastising me and trying to scare me with stories, I told him he was acting like a foolish little girl, which, you can imagine coming from a little girl younger than himself, gave him pause. I told him that I was going no matter what he said, he pleaded with me not to go, and I stuck my tongue out at him. At the time I was feeling so defiant that if the old man had been walking by on his way to the river I would have followed him then and there. Instead I went home and helped my mother for the rest of the day.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I was too excited about following the man. I knew in my heart that the old man wasn’t as bad as all the other children said and I couldn’t wait to walk back into the village the next day and tell them of my adventure.”
By now I realized that I wasn’t so different from this old lady. We had both been motivated by similar ideas and clearly had both been rewarded as a result. This mysterious old woman had gone from being a rumored demon to a kind old lady who was greatly misunderstood.
“You seem to be growing impatient child,” she said to me, clearly reading the expression on my face. “I will skip ahead then. The next day I followed the old man to this river, just as you followed me here today. He saw me and called me over to this rock and sat down with me just as I now sit with you. The first thing I asked him was ‘What is it that you sing to the river?’
He told me that he sang the river’s own lullaby to keep it at peace. Then he said that it was the language of the river, no one understood it but those chosen to speak to it. He said that he was not the only one. There were others in far-off places. And they were sent to the villages that needed them most. He then picked up his bag he carried with him, just like this one,” she said as she lifted the bag that had held the pebbles. He told me that the pebbles that he brought in this bag every day were the sins of the villagers.”
The old woman bent down and picked a handful of pebbles at our feet. “He told me” she said, “that every one of them represented the deed of someone who had come to him in confidence and wished to wash it away in the river. He told me that those who wished to do so visited him in the night, confessed their deed, and then it was washed in the river the next day.”
She held out the pebbles in an open palm and said, “You see, this pebble might become a man who stole bread from his neighbor,” one of the pebbles dropped from her hand, “and this might be from a wife unfaithful to her husband. This one might even be a child who spreads rumors about an old woman who walks to the river each day.”
My eyes grew wide at this. Then I asked, “What would happen if these people did not come to you?”
“I asked the very same thing to the old man” she replied. “He told me that there were times of great floods in this village. He told me that many years before him the entire village had been swallowed by the river when a band of thieves had corrupted the village folk, opening taverns and brothels and causing the village to fester. When the waters receded, the town eventually returned to its former state.”
“How did he know this?” I asked skeptically.
“The river spoke to him,” she answered, “Just as it now speaks to me.”
My eyes grew even wider at this. “What does the river sound like?”
She smiled and said, “Much like any other part of nature; it is a gentle voice as fluid as the wind, as stern as the stones, and as swift as fire. But only a chosen few may hear its voice.”
“And what happened after he told you all this?”
“He picked me up and threw me in the river.”
Before I had time to react, the expression on her face hardened, her hands grasped me firmly by my tunic and she threw me bodily into the air towards the river. For a few seconds my world tumbled in a cycle of blue, green, and sparkling water. Then with a deafening splash, my tumbling came to a halt in a muffled world filled with a sound I had not expected to hear. It was as if the water around me was filled with the whispering sounds of music. It was simultaneously harsh and harmonious. In the span of a few seconds I understood everything that the river said to me as it told me of a thousand years of existence. I struggled back up for air and my head broke the surface just before I was forced to gasp for more air. I scrambled back to the shoreline. The current was so gentle that it had not carried me far. I climbed onto the shore and looked to the rock that we had been sitting on.
The old woman was nowhere to be found, but atop the rock sat the empty bag for the pebbles. As I stood there dripping wet and looked down at the empty bag, I knew she would never be seen again. Then I picked it up and walked back to the shore, to the very spot where the old woman had knelt in the sand. I dropped to my knees and looked at my reflection in the water. Although I was no longer beneath the surface, I could still hear the river speaking to me, telling me of its secrets and of my duty. I understood now the price of knowing the river’s secrets. I spent a few moments alone by the river and then returned to the path that led to the village.
My grandfather sat on the front porch of our house and such a look of despair came over my face when he saw me dripping from head to toe that it nearly made my heart break. I imagined that the same look had come over his youthful face when he’d seen his childhood love come walking out of the forest the exact same way. A look of understanding passed between us as I quietly entered the house and gathered my few belongings. My mother took one look at me and let out a sob of despair, dropping to her knees on the ground.
Without a word, I took my belongings and walked to the end of the village. Everyone I walked by, save the other children who knew nothing, hushed as I walked by. Finally when I reached the other end of the village, I reached up to the door of the old woman’s house and stepped inside. Then I sat and waited for night to fall to take my first confession.
The inspiration for this story primarily came from the idea of the Welsh sin-eaters. According to folklore, these individuals would eat bread over the corpse of the deceased and in doing so took on the sins of the person. It was an early form of religious magic and one decidedly darker than the version presented. The story of course is only loosely based on the principle of sin-eaters but was the primary influence.