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It all began with the story below which I posted here as a tribute to my Grandad a while ago.
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Unaccounted years earlier, on this same spot (even though they are not sure of it) a man and a boy passed through the gate. The boy was barely six years old. His fair hair was almost white, he had a round gentle face, and he gazed intently at his father through palest blue eyes. His father, the sturdy man in a white shirt and black waistcoat holding the child’s chubby hand, was striding at a pace which caused the boy to trot to keep up as they travelled up the narrow grassy path between the hedgerows.
The child had not paid attention and didn’t know where they were going, but it felt like an adventure, climbing the hill out of the village, and taking the mysterious path away from the road, so he didn’t complain. Presently they were approaching a tumbledown cottage in a clearing - the kind that belongs in a fairy tale. Creeping shrubs climbed the walls, at one corner a spray of elderflowers leaned out from the house. It was a summer’s day, but smoke was rising from the chimney in swirls. A lady, stooped and trembling with age emerged from the front door, apparently to tend to her plants in the garden, but upon seeing the approaching visitors, she rose to her full height and extended a hand to wave.
They arrived and were shown in.
“Hello Child,” the old lady began, “your pa finally brought you ‘ere. I ’as been looking forward to meetin’ you.” Her voice was soft, but strong with authority. The child was silent with wonder. Father looked down at the boy, prompting him. The child searched his memory and discovered what his mother had told him to say,
“You have a lovely home.” He said quickly and, thinking about it, began to look around. There were dark chests of drawers lining the walls; a fireplace, where a kettle was warming. The room was lit by the pale sunlight drawn through the windows which casted shadows upon the cobwebbed corners. Despite the fire, on that summer day the one room cottage seemed cold.
“Oh, it ain’t my ‘ouse.”
“Whose is it?” answered the boy, beginning to find his voice.
“It belongs to Rosie. Do you know who Rosie is?” She didn’t wait for him to shake his head - with a twinkle in the corner of her eye she continued “she’s your great, great,” as the little boy brought his grubby fingers up to his face to count, a secret and almost imperceptible grin spread across the wrinkled face, “great, great…great grandma.”
The Father caught her eye and turned away to tend the fire.
“Is she very, very old?” asked the child, now inquisitive.
“Oh, o’course, she’s very old. Even older’n me. She was born a very long time ago. I’ll tell you about ‘er. She’s a wise woman. She knows every plant and flower in the forest, and she knows which ones’ll do you good and which ones’ll do you ill.”
“How does she know?” asked the child.
“She’s tried ‘em all. She’s made ‘em into medicines and poultices and draughts and the like, and tried ‘em all on ‘erself.”
“Why didn’t they make her ill?
“Because she knows when to spit. If it smells evil, or tastes evil or looks evil, then it probably is. Mind you it migh’ not be. A little migh’ do you good if you’re ill. She knows. And she wrote it all down in a fashion, e’en though she can’t write. She’s got lots of drawers an’ a system, an’ if you know the system and you ‘eard all ‘er stories then you know what will cure and what won’t. An’ that I do and that I did and that I know.”
“Is she magic?”
“No she ain’t magic, and don’t you go lettin’ ‘er hear you sayin’ that, she’d be mightily insulted.”
“Well how has she lived so long?”
“I’ll tell you that. She never did no magic. She’s making a point. When she were young, a long time ago, there was those who thought that women like ‘er - wise women o’ the forest - was magic just as you say, and that they consorted wi’ demons in the night, and that they cast spells an’ made potions. And they hunted them, an’ a lot of women was killed. You see now ‘ere she is livin’ an’ she’s makin’ ‘er point.”
The boy was bewildered, too much so to answer the old lady. He continued to stare up at her, as she stared down at him, with her back hunched over in a perfect curve. Her once white apron covered a faded blue cotton dress, and her large feet protruded rudely beneath. She was a singular character and had ignited the boy’s curiosity.
“Don’t you think it’s about time you met ‘er? You came to see ‘er didn’t you?” He consented with an unblinking gaze.
“She’s upstairs, careful on the ladder, I’ll follow right behind you.”
The boy emerged into a loft space, stark and dusty and sprinkled with flecks of light coming through the spaces in between the tiles. There was a figure a few paces away, near a small window in the gable end. He turned back to the old lady following,
“Should I call her great, great…” She almost chuckled as the chubby fingers emerged again from behind his back.
“Rosie’ll do just fine. She likes a child quite enough for ‘is own sakes, doesn’t care much ‘ow you’re related. She’s old enough and ‘ad enough children an’ grandchildren not to worry ‘bout that any more. Call ‘er Rosie, sure she would’ha had another name when she were born, near enough to your own I’d ‘azard a guess, since we’re all family together. But she made a name for ‘erself round ‘ere and that name were Wild Rosie. There’s people come from the village whenever they get ill, an’ they know I got all the medicines and poultices and draughts, but they won’t get well will they? No, they won’t get well ‘til they seen Wild Rosie.
“You know why that is boy?”
The wide eyed boy shook his head in the gloom.
“It’s because they think ‘emselves better. Many of ‘em thought ‘emselves ill. One day they didn’t want to work so’s they found a little niggle and let it grow to a big one all until they find out it’s better to be well, so now they want to get better again. The medicines and poultices help some, but it’s thoughts that help the most. Go on. Go over there, she can’t see you ‘ere.”
The child walked with measured footsteps towards the thin figure. She sat in a squeaking rocking chair. Bony knees dented the flow of her tired nightgown, delicate with wear. Her wispy hair, matted in places formed an ethereal veil around her face, translucent in the dim light from the dusty window. Deep wrinkles contoured every feature of bony face. Her countenance was grey and sharp, but she had kind eyes; the gleam of life shone out of them.
The little boy approached her and stood boldly, his stomach protruding and little fists by his sides, like only a six year old can, by her chair,
“Hello Rosie” he said.
Her pale blue eyes rested on the shining round face as if noticing him for the first time. Her gaze softened and she slowly nodded. A slight smile disturbed the papery wrinkles around her mouth, communicating the familial affection of someone very old for someone very small. She continued rocking slowly in her chair, and in her bony fingers, two knitting needles moved in slow motion. She was knitting, there was no yarn.
“What are you knitting?” The bold little boy asked her.
The very old lady replied with a slow, knowing blink from her tired reddened eyelids.
“What is she knitting?” he asked turning to the other lady.
“Dreams, son. Imaginin’s.”
“Who knows boy, maybe yours an’ mine.”
He watched her for a while, and she watched him. The other old lady’s footsteps approached behind him, and lifted him up to kiss the delicate ivory cheek. He was afraid he’d hurt her. The skin was dry and he thought he felt a cold bone beneath. She seemed to blush a little, and her smile broadened.
He descended the rickety ladder again asking,
“How does she get up and down here?”
“She don’t, not on ‘er own. Most o’ the time she likes to stay up there. Then when she’s needed down in the village, someone comes up an’ we lower ‘er down in a chair. Then the strappin’ lads carry ‘er down to the village. She don’t go much anymore. Only for the dyin’. She’ll always be there if it’s for the dyin’ particurly if it’s one o’ the old ones. She’s known ‘em all from birth, remembers ‘em from when they was babies bein’ born. I tole you some won’t get well ‘til they seen Wild Rosie, I tell you now, there’s some as won’t die ‘til they seen ‘er neither.”
“What does she do when they die?”
“She sits with ‘em, stays with ‘em. They used to say she said spells over them, or she enchanted them to sleep but that ain’t it. She keeps ‘em company and she praps prays for ‘em as they go, an’ it helps ‘em die properly.”
“When will she die?”
“What do you mean by that boy?”
“She’s so old.”
“Hundreds of years old, quite righ’.”
“Will she live forever?”
“I tole you boy she migh’ be a wise woman, but she ain’t magic. Sure she’ll die one day. When they don’t need her no more.”
The boy’s father had brewed some nettle tea over the fire, so they sat with him, the boy sinking into a woollen cushion, dull with repeated use and ash from the open fire. Father told the old lady all the news from the village. He gave her the basket of bread and meat he’d brought, which she promptly stashed away a creaky cupboard.
When the visit was over, and they left the house, the little boy waited until they were a short distance away and whispered to his father.
“She’s magic isn’t she?”
“Why do you think that?” he replied,
“She’s hundreds of years old and she’s still alive, and she can make medicines to make people well, and she’s tried all the plants that make you ill but she never got ill, and people come to see her and they get better, and she knits my dreams.”
“She knits your dreams?” His father repeated, ever so slightly surprised.
“Yes, she knits with invisible wool to make dreams.”
“She must be magic then” his father said, turning his eyes again to the path, and they descended to the village.
The old man and the younger man get back in the car. It’s too wet, and too late to try walking the path, the old man says. The children’s imaginations stir. Is he scared that she won’t be there, that the story was just too fanciful, or the village no longer needed her and she died? Or is he scared that she will be there, still rocking in the dim light of a rainy day, and the story will continue?