There Was An Old Woman Part 1.
“Settle in, I’ll tell it to you again, but only if you promise to go to bed after the story is over.
Nestled deep within the mountains, but not too far from here, there lived an old woman whose house was under a hill. The people in town say that she’s lived there forever, generations and generations, she’s outlived them all. She lived there before I was born, she still lived there when you were born, and when your children are born, if she’s still alive, she’ll still be living under her hill. Everyday people traveled from nearby towns to visit her. Don’t ask why. I’m about to tell you.
Everyday people would travel to visit the old woman and ask her questions about their futures. Because she’d lived so long, she knew things you see, things that you and I can only dream of. And, she could never lie. She would never look people in the eyes when they came. It was rumored that those who’d dared to look into her eyes as she studied their faces were cursed to whisper their secrets to the darkness at night, their sins haunting both their waking moments, and their dreams. She tried not to look at people in the eyes. Instead she studied the cracks on their foreheads, their dimples when they talked and smiled, the hairs on their chins, and the crooks of their noses. When she wasn’t studying people’s faces, she baked. She always had baked apples with freshly made cream ready for her visitors, and the house under the hill always smelled like cranberry pies.
People of all different ages would visit her and enjoy treats and goodies, but there was one day, one group of visitors that everyone remembers now.
The day started out normally. The Old Woman woke up and tidied her little house. She took fresh apples from the barrel by the door and put seven into a big pan to put in the oven. It was very early in the morning, and it was still a little dark as she walked out of her little house under the hill to find her cow. She never tied her cow up outside or kept it enclosed in a pasture. The cow liked her and she knew it would never wander off too far. She milked the cow and brought the milk back into her home, then she added a little soft butter to the milk and began to churn her fresh cream.
Almost as soon as she poured the cream into a big jar, a little girl came skipping up the path down into town. The old woman opened the door before the little fist could give it a quick rap, but she didn’t look down at the little girl who stared up at her with wide green eyes. The little girl smiled and tucked her little straw doll under her arm. ‘My mum says that you can tell me my future!’ the little girl chirped. The Old Woman smiled but still didn’t look at the girl. Instead, she took her hand and led her inside her little home to the table. It was already warm from the oven and smelled like warm apples. The little girl sat down and looked around as the Old Woman used her apron to pull the baked apples out of the oven and put one in a bowl with some cream for the little girl.
As the little girl dug into her apple, the Old Woman took down flour and sugar from the shelf, and took out a little bit of the sourdough ball from a jar next to the oven, then she began to make a pie crust. ‘What questions did you want to ask me today?’ the Old Woman asked as she mashed cranberries together with sugar in a large bowl. She covered it and left it to sit as she turned her attention to the dough for the pie crust. The little girl smiled as she watched the Old Woman’s hands, they were wrinkly, but her skin looked young and fresh as she added water and oil to her dough and set the large ball of dough down on the table. ‘I want to know about my true love,’ the little girl said matter-of-factly. She had heard her old sister talking about true love the night before, and she wanted to know if she would ever figure out what it was for herself.
The Old Woman sighed as she sprinkled flour atop her rolling pin and rolled her dough flat. She looked at the doll under the little girl’s arm as she patted down the dough. ‘There are different types of love my dear, all different types. You will not find the person that you will truly love, but you will find love, and you will be happy. Sometimes you just need a little bit of any love to be truly happy.’ She said sagely.
The little girl thought this was wise, and if she was going to be happy, she was fine being in regular love with someone. A knock at the door disturbed the pleasant silence and the Old Woman gently steered the little girl towards the door. She didn’t have the heart to tell her that her path in life would eventually cross with the person that she could truly love. The little girl would grow up to be a woman and get married. She would swell with child, and if she lived. If she lived, she would truly love her first daughter, above any other loves she had in her life. But the Old Woman knew that this was simply not meant to be, just as she knew the baby would grow up happy and would also eventually find love and happiness of her own.
The couple waiting outside the door was already impatient. They were young, just married. The Old Woman saw the man’s rough cracked hands first. They were rough hands, but warm hands, gentle hands that clasped the young fresh hands of his new wife protectively as they had walked along the mountain path to reach her stoop. The young woman smiled brightly enough that the Old Woman didn’t have to look at her face to feel it, although she studied the dimples and crinkles around her lips and chin. The young couple sat down at the table but didn’t eat, ‘No thank you,’ the young man said hurriedly, ‘My, wife, has a question for you,’ he said hesitantly, the word was still a stranger on his tongue.
The Old Woman smiled, ‘I know,’ she said and spread her dough around a shallow pie pan. The young woman felt nervous, the Old Woman could see it in the furrow of her brow, the way her nostrils flared on every exhale.
‘I’d like to know, if you could tell me, that is. How many children will we have? And, if you could tell me, if you know. Will I grow old with them?’ The young woman asked hesitantly. Her face was hopeful as the Old Woman carefully poured the cranberries and sugar into the pie. The Old Woman thought for a while before she replied.
‘You will have five children, only one son will live but you will grow older and die in the pleasant company of your husband. There’s no need to fear any death dear, ’ the Old Woman said with a smile. ‘Each one of your babes will die having been loved.’
Although she had not lied to the young woman, her heart tugged, pleading in her mind for the young man, who was rolling his staff back and forth between his hands, to ask her the same question, or any question, about his own future, for they were vastly different. The young woman sighed and twisted the corner of her woolen shawl, it was beautifully made, hand crafted, and the Old Woman knew that those young tender hands would make many a beautiful shawl before they wrinkled and shook with old age.
The young man had no questions for the Old Woman, and he impatiently tugged at his wife’s arm, ‘If your questions are answered, we should go dear.’ he said gently and steered her towards the door. She tried to smile again at the Old Woman, who smiled back, but kept her eyes on the crust of the pie that she was braiding atop the table. ‘Thank you!’ the young woman said as they crossed the threshold. The Old Woman was aching to tell her more, to spare them both any pain, but she hadn’t asked about anything else.
The Old Woman knew that the young man, who looked healthy and happy with his new bride, would fall ill and die before the next full moon. The young woman would eventually remarry, and she would live to see many grey hairs atop her head, she would live to see four grandchildren, and seven more would be born after she died. But they would not have any children together, and they would not grow old together.
Life is like that sometimes, the person that you love is not always the person that you grow old with, and you may have to spend a few years alone before your spirits meet again.
The Old Woman finished her pie crust and delicately laid it over the cranberry filling. She knew she wouldn’t have another visit until the afternoon so she left the pie in the oven and went out to her chicken coop to gather some eggs. There was a cool wind blowing.
Later in the evening, an old man appeared on her doorstep. She invited him in, and studied the cracks at the corners of his mouth, the lines on his forehead and the crackled skin that surrounded his eyes. He was a tired man, a worn man. In his hands was a string of polished rosary beads worn down from years of faithful use. Time had also made them beautifully smooth and nearly glossy. His skin was speckled with spots and freckles, and the hair on his face was gray and white. His lips had caused great pain with words, but they also knew sweet sorrow. They longed for a touch that had long passed but never faded from memory, even for a solitary day. She knew what he wanted to ask of her before the words passed his lips.
The old man began to speak but coughed before he could continue, wiping the spittle from his mouth with a withered hand. ‘I am nearing the end of my life, and I just wish for the truth,’ he said painfully, ‘Am I forgiven? Are my sins finally outweighed? May I at last enter the kingdom of my Lord?’ He questioned.
Her warm hands covered his as they sat together at her hearth. ‘Yes,’ she said simply, ‘All your sins, are forgiven, friend.’ She said softly, and she knew that it was true. She shut her eyes, tightly as he gasped and kissed her hands, weeping.
‘Bless you, bless you.’ he murmured and slowly rose to his feet. She led him to the door and watched from the top of her hill as he made his way back down the village path. She watched as his hunched back finally disappeared over the crests of the hills before turning back to her pie which was still in the oven. A tear rolled down her cheek and she tried to shut out the ‘other’ truths from her mind, the little girl’s baby, the young woman’s husband, the old man’s lonely death. She bent down to the oven and dampened the fires there, letting the heat warm her face before she pulled her pie out with the rolled edges of her apron to protect her fragile hands.