When my son Daniel was a little boy he would often ask me to tell him a story at bed time. I made up many stories, always starting them by saying, “Once upon a time in a land far away… and then I would just let my imagination take over. This is one of those stories:
The Strange Old Woman
Once upon a time in a land far away there walked a weary traveller who made his way along a lonely road toward a big city. Twilight, with its magical lights and shadows, descended upon the countryside transforming all the hills and valleys into smoky silhouettes.
As he wandered along the edge of a forest he thought he could hear an odd voice beckoning him away from the road. He glanced over, and there, sitting on a rock with the dark forest behind her, with tattered clothes blending into the grass and weeds, was the barely discernible shape of an old woman. She called to the traveller, “Sir, please come here.” The poor man had been walking all day and although he was so tired he agreed and started to make his way over to her. As he approached he could see that surely she was the ugliest and most wrinkled person he had ever seen. Yet, something about those strange, green eyes made her different from any person he had ever seen and he found himself walking directly to her without even thinking about what his legs were doing.
He stood in front of her withered, hunched form as she asked, “Traveler, would you please carry me to the city? I have very important business there and my legs cannot carry me any further.” The man looked at her in bewilderment and asked, “Why should I carry you to the city that is still many miles away when I can hardly carry myself any further? I have been walking for days and have not eaten since this morning.” But as the traveler looked into the wizened face of the odd, little woman his anger seemed to leave his body and somehow he did not worry about whether he had the strength to carry her at least part of the way.
He wondered what kind of business such a poor creature as this could possibly have in a city but he kept his thoughts to himself and turned around so that the old woman was able to crawl up onto his back. The weight of her was not so great at all and the man noticed that she had the most unusual, almost herbal scent about her.
Together they travelled along in silence as if they were a single creature. The tired man thought of his troubles and of the feeble hopes he had for finding employment in the city and the old woman, like a wild animal that had been newly captured, stayed frozen still on the man’s back. They hadn’t travelled along very far upon that road when it started to rain. At first just a few raindrops fell but then the wind howled and pelted the rain and sleet onto the man so he was not even able to see the road before his feet. He moved off the road and scampered toward the forest for shelter. They scuttled under the canopy of the leaves and sought shelter under the massive trees that had been offering shade for hundreds of years. The man finally stopped at the base of the tallest tree in all the forest and gently lowered his cargo so that she could rest.
The old woman looked at her companion and asked, “Would you like to stay under the shelter of this tree or shall we press on to the city tonight?” The man looked at her and curbed himself from becoming rude. First he had carried her on his back and now she wonders if he’ll carry her onward in this storm! He looked at her sideways and said, as if taking control of the situation, “We are already soaked through to the bone. Let is rest here for a while and then we can continue.” The two figures leaned against the gnarled bark of the ancient tree for several minutes, listening to the howling wind as it whistled through the trees and pelted rain all around them.
Then as if by some smooth magic, the old woman pressed her bony fingers onto the bark of the tree trunk and the tree immediately opened its trunk like a flower with its petals unfolding. The woman silently advanced into the space that had been at the core of the trunk and the tree started to envelop her. As she stood half engulfed by the tree she looked out at the man with her awesome green eyes. In quiet words she whispered, “Follow me.”
The tree trunk was like a gigantic cocoon cushioning her. It looked so comfortable and warm to the traveler who felt himself advancing and being taken in by the mysterious tree. It felt as thought they were floating in the moving flesh of the tree, moving along a dark passageway, and eventually swimming into a cave. They were in a chamber inside the bottom of the tree. As the man found that he was able to finally stand again on his own feet he looked about and noticed a strange light illuminating the walls of the cave. In front of them were three wooden doors. The woman beckoned, “Choose one of the three doors. This is a choice for only you to make. Behind one of the doors rests all the money, jewels, gold and silver that you can possibly imagine. There are enough riches to keep you living as the wealthiest man in all the land for the rest of your life. Behind another door there is a single pot of jewels and a book. And behind the other door is an empty, dry shelter. Make your choice wisely.”
Bewildered, the man stood for a long time that felt like an eternity staring at the three doors, hoping to discover a clue. But all three doors were identical. He wanted so badly to choose the door leading to the room of riches. He looked at the strange woman who stood expressionless and waiting. Finally he pointed to the far right door and looked at the woman who motioned him to proceed. He walked forward and opened the door.
Lo and behold he picked the chamber that was overflowing with jewels, silver and gold. Trunks filled to the brim with jewels were stacked throughout the chamber. He plunged his hands into the riches. There were so many sapphires and rubies, emeralds and diamonds. His eyes were alight with excitement. He immediately started to fill his pockets with jewels until he was overflowing and giddy. He raced past the old woman, forgetting that she was even there, even carelessly brushing past her. He retraced his way along the passageway, out of the tree, onto the forest edge and out to the road.
The old woman stayed at the open door with a knowing look on her face. She now knew this was not the traveler she sought.
Meanwhile the man hurried along the road anxious to reach the city. There he wasted no time in buying the biggest loaves of bread, the best wine, the most expensive and stylish clothes and the grandest estate in all the land. Overnight the news spread like wild fire that the wealthiest man in the world had settled on this property. He spent his fortune freely. He was delirious with happiness. It did not take long for him to spend all of the riches that he was able to carry on his person so he waited for a night when there were no stars or moonlight to sneak back to the special tree in the forest, being careful that no one followed him. He did not want anyone to know the secret source of his wealth. He crept into the trunk of the mysterious tree that accepted him and allowed him to enter into its special passageway. Upon reaching the chamber he filled his sacks full of jewels and treasures, tied the sacks so that nothing could accidentally fall out, and sneaked back to the city in the shroud of darkness. Again he spent all of his treasure that he had been able to carry and again he returned to the giant tree which accepted him and let him enter the chamber. Again he filled his sacks until his load was so heavy that he could barely carry it.
Two wonderful years passed and when the man needed more money he returned to the tree at night with his sacks. He was so happy and so very so greedy. He never gave his money to others even though he knew he had more riches than he could possibly spend in his lifetime.
Then one night after he was returning from his secret expedition to the tree with his pockets loaded and the sacks brimming with treasure, he walked along the road as if in another world. He was in ecstasy thinking about his magnificent jewels. He had become so miserly that he did not even like jewelers to see his precious stones. He was so buried in thought about his gems that he did not hear the sound of a lone horseman approaching at a gallop in the night. It was so dark that the rider didn’t see the walking man and with a dull thud the horse hit the pedestrian, striking the man so severely that his body rolled off the road and into a ditch by the edge of the forest. His loot was scattered all around him. He was so injured that he could not even feel if any of his treasures were still with him. He laid on his back, frozen in pain, staring helplessly up at the stars. The rider continued along the road in the darkness, his path dimly lit by a few stars.
The helpless man knew that with that single blow he had been fatally wounded. He was going to die. The dying man then saw the wizened face and mysterious eyes of the strange old woman appear in front of him. She leaned toward him and asked, “Do you have anything you wish to say to me?”
Although he was in excruciating pain the man was desperate to speak. The old woman leaned close to his body pressing her ear near his lips. He whispered, “I chose the wrong door. If I had chosen one of the other doors I would not have needed to walk alone in the darkness. I am going to die and you have been waiting for me, haven’t you?”
“Yes” she replied. The man winced in agony and whispered, “Please, I must know what book was it that I could have read if I had chosen one of the other doors? He begged to know from those green eyes, those strange eyes that were glossy pools beckoning him to fall into their eternal depths. He felt himself sliding. The woman smiled and leaned forward, apparently ready to tell him the name of the book. The man died at the very moment that she opened her lips to speak.
She left the traveler alone with his pockets full of jewels, lying dead in the grass by the forest at about the same place where she had first met him. He was left there for all the vulturine city folk to seek and find. Silently she shuffled her way to her rock where she sat for so long. She took up her position and cast her odd eyes onto the road, waiting for the next traveler who might come along.
Way down the road, silhouetted by the starlight she could vaguely discern the shape of a man walking toward her. Was he the one she sought? Which door would he choose? She arranged her skirts and pushed her wiry hair from her cheek. She sat upon the rock just as she had done so many times before. And as she heard the footsteps approach, she sighed and said, “Sir, please come here.”