She hobbled a little, the Old Woman. That’s what they called her, the village children: The Old Woman. When she came to town to trade honey for cloth or flour, the nastier ones used to sneak into the store and while one of them distracted with tears or apparent shop lifting, one of the others would surreptitiously move the walking stick propped up on the counter. It would be hidden in amongst the barrels of goods, or left outside the door or once, but only once, put in the horse trough. The Old Woman found it eventually, painfully limping around until she did and when she got to the edge of the woods, she would turn around, her face still mostly hidden by the deep sided bonnet and stare at the village in silence. Somehow she always managed to be glaring exactly where the children were hiding.
No-one really knew how old she was or what she was called. People spoke hazily of a lost girl who appeared once but others thought they were muddling up forgotten fact with an old tale. The woman just kept herself to herself in the cottage in the woods and for the most part, seemed to have everything she needed apart from the means to make clothes or bread. The cottage was in a sunny dell where the trees surrounded as if encircling with a loving embrace but their branches did not spread too thickly overhead. She had a little garden therefore, a huge beehive, a few grub-obsessed hens, a small bad-tempered goat and an even more bad-tempered goose. The children who tormented her in town, rarely got close enough to torment her in the woods. A few stones were thrown sometimes, nasty dead things were left on the step at her gate but somehow whenever they did it, the trees seemed to rustle threateningly even though there was no wind and the hens would rush out to look for little grub like toes and the goose would rush at them flapping her enormous wings and screaming. The goat, meanwhile, would eat anything they left, no matter how dead or how inedible and would then glare at them with her demonic eyes until they backed away.
But the adults felt differently. When things went wrong: there was illness or fear, the adults would creep to the cottage at dusk and seek help. Sometimes as they approached, they overheard her talking to her bees and thought they’d heard her saying “help him to find me”. It made them more nervous than ever to consult her and they tried to keep it from the priest, but in the end their need for healing was greater than their superstition and somehow the woman’s herbs and honey and listening ear seemed to resolve most things.
One summer evening, a stranger came to the town. He was riding on a beautiful horse, the like of which no-one had ever seen. The man looked wealthy but kind. He was old. Not very old perhaps, but slightly past his middle years. His face told of years of pain and hardship, despite his evident riches. When he stopped to rest the horse, he was offered a night at the inn but declined, saying bread and honey were all he needed and then he would be on his way. There was something sad and resigned in his face, as if he had travelled from disappointment to disappointment for many years.
The baker confessed he was out of bread and all the housewives too said that there was nothing left until tomorrow. The store keeper would have claimed the ownership of the best honey, but his supply had run out. There was nothing for it but to point him in the direction of the Old Woman.
The children followed discretely, wondering how the man would fare against the goat and the goose and the Old Woman’s general disinclination for other people.
The man led his horse deeper into the wood until a cloud of bees appeared. For a moment he stopped. The bees surrounded him like a cloud and the children, hidden in the bracken, tensed, wondering what they would do if he was stung. But the bees just hovered round him, now more like a crown and their buzzing intensified. The man smiled. He straightened his back, calmed his horse and walked on.
From behind the trees, the children kept watch as he neared the cottage. In the twilight, they saw that the Old Woman was at the gate. Not inside, but outside, a small bag at her side, as if she was ready to leave. Her bonnet hung from the hand holding the walking stick and her long hair flowed over her shoulders as if she was a girl. She was not really very old. Just past middle years. As the man approached she smiled. A deep beautiful smile. And she raised her face to him, holding his cheek with her other hand as she gazed into his eyes.
Gently he kissed her and briefly held her. Then he lifted her into the saddle and they followed the other path out through the woods and out into the wide world.
Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission