They said she was outside of the village by a couple of miles, in a sort of travel wagon camped on the edge of an abandoned orchard. She was odd, almost crazy, muttering to herself as she went about. She had long, wild curly hair and a withered yet timeless look that said she could have been 50 or 150. She showed up a couple times a year and set up camp. Crazy she might have been but everyone knew there was no one better to cure what ailed you. They said to expect the unexpected and try not to be afraid. Or maybe be afraid—because no one knew what she would do. Either way I was headed east in the direction of the old Shinday property to find her.
I started out early on Sunday morning, the dew still on the grass and a chill in the air. I had a knapsack with a bit of food, some money, and a few odd objects that might work as a form of payment for the strange woman’s services. People said she didn’t always want money, and even if she did, you never knew how much. Just show up and she will tell you what she wants, they said, if she will see you at all.
The fact that I was setting out to see some crazy woman living in a makeshift home in the wild should give you an idea of how desperate I was. I needed relief. My dreams had been more like nightmares, one after the other. My body hurt, I was exhausted and couldn’t really sleep, unless you call tossing and turning with fitful images rest. Most of all my heart hurt. It hurt so much I wanted to leave completely, but I couldn’t get away. It was with me all the time, a pain and depression so thick I felt like I was drowning. On those rare occasions when I found some distance from it all I could do was sit in my chair, not moving, totally numb. My small part-time job, easy as it was, still seemed impossible some days. My body, my mind, my health, even my cats were having issues. They were all the family I had left in the world, and losing either of them would be the end of me for sure. I needed someone to tell me what to do. I needed to know how to heal this huge hole that had been blasted through me. So with that heavy mantle I slowly trudged along when all I wanted was to go back home and go to bed. Instead, I pointed my feet in the direction of the rising sun and moved. As I stumbled along I thought about all I’d been through in the last year. The ending of my job and with it my home and the farm I loved so much. The death of my father and then my love, my heart, my man up and left saying he was done. He wanted out. Our trunks had been packed and we were set to start our new life together on his beautiful family farm in another village. We were a mere two weeks out from moving and then suddenly he was gone. I had to unpack to separate his things from mine, then repack and try to figure out where I would go. I had no money, as all my savings had been spent supporting us for the last four years. All I had were my two feline children and this vast endless hole. My hope was that this crazy odd lady would have some sort of answer for me, a pill, a potion, something to make this pain go away.
Eventually I came to the large abandoned apple orchard on the old Shinday land. The orchard hugged the base of the mountain that defined one edge of our village. I was more and more nervous the closer I got. As I walked through the dappled light filtering through the trees I noticed how quiet everything had become. The thick mulch on the ground absorbed the sound of my feet, and the trees cast a stillness over the trail I followed. There was only the gentle breeze and the scurrying about of a few critters searching for food in the underbrush—until, with no warning, I came upon a huge black bear standing on his hind legs reaching for a branch fully loaded with apples. Our eyes met. Clearly, I had startled him as much as he startled me and he bolted away out of the orchard and up the side of the mountain. Oddly enough my legs remained steady. I felt reassured, in a strange sort of way, as I kept walking.
Finally I cleared the orchard and stood at the base of the mountain looking along the side of the trees, searching for the crazy lady’s camp. Off in the distance I could just make it out, snuggled between the mountain’s base and the orchard. I had ended up a bit north of where she lived. I started walking slowly toward her wagon, alert for any movement or sounds that would warn me of danger. The only thing moving so far was hundreds of dragonflies flitting about in the morning sun, beautiful with iridescent colors that changed in the light. A red-tailed hawk circled above her camp, rising up and up in the morning sun-warmed air.
As I got closer, I saw she had quite a bit of detritus scattered about. A tripod stood over a now extinct cooking fire with a heavy cast iron kettle hanging from it. She had a rug spread near the fire with a camp chair and some pillows scattered about. There were also a couple of steamer trunks and various baskets and containers stacked up higgly piggly against her wagon. She had clearly just done some washing as strung from the wagon to a nearby tree was a line of still damp clothes drying in the breeze. They were the usual assortment of skirts, bloomers, and stockings along with some rags and a linen sheet. I still didn’t see any signs of life except for the hawk who occasionally let out a series of shrill cries. The fire was out, but only recently. The ash was still smoldering and there was some sort of still-warm stew in the kettle. The wagon was a curious affair, unlike anything I had ever seen. It was narrow at the bottom, getting progressively wider as it moved up to a curving metal roof. The roof hung over the wagon on all sides, providing eaves, and it had all manner of drying plants hanging from it. Some were things I recognized, like lavender and sage, but most I didn’t. Many just looked like weeds. On the raised porch leading into the wagon was an old farm-style door with the top half open. It was too high up, so I was unable to see in without getting closer. Maybe she was inside and hadn’t heard my approach. I coughed slightly and said rather too quietly, “Hello? Is anyone home?”
Nothing. This time I said a bit louder, “Excuse me … is anyone there?”
Still nothing. I walked up to the porch and stepped on the old wooden milking stool that provided a stair up. Slowly, cautiously, I looked inside through the open top door. There was no woman or indeed any room for one. The wagon was filled to bursting with all things imaginable and unimaginable: drums, some plain and some with animal drawings on them; odd-shaped rattles; skins; feathers; bones; bundles of herbs; crystals; trinkets; and slightly scary-looking figurines that were half human and half animal. There were dusty bottles and containers everywhere, most with tattered illegible labels on them. On a small table was a collection of crystal balls and a deck of tarot cards spread out, all with a slight coating of dust. And there were hundreds of books everywhere, stacked on every surface, filling overloaded shelves and spread out on the floor and makeshift bed. How she slept or moved about was a mystery.
Not sure what to do next, I got down off the porch, went over to the campfire, and sat down on the rug. I took a bit of food out of my knapsack and had a makeshift breakfast. As I sat there I noticed how lovely and quiet it was. I hadn’t felt calm in quite some time so, like an old toothache that no longer hurts, I was tentatively poking at it, seeing if it was real.
I allowed the peaceful feeling to move over and through me, soaking it up as much as I could. The hawk continued to fly overhead, and the dragonflies made a soft papery sound with their wings as they flew around me. I suddenly grew unbearably sleepy. I absolutely could not keep my eyes open one minute longer and lay back down on the carpet and closed my eyes.
I became aware I was dreaming. I was still on the carpet at the old woman’s camp, but now it was dark. Slowly out of the orchard the bear I’d met earlier lumbered toward me, then sat down so close that his fur was touching my leg. In the odd way of dreams, he started to speak to me, which seemed totally normal. He had quite a lot to say in his low rumbling voice. He spoke of the seasons of life and the natural ebb and flow of everything.
“There are no bad or good emotions,” he said, “only the feelings as they move through us. It is important in times of grief to go within the cave of our hearts and allow the feelings to move through us. When the world outside is more than we can cope with, hibernating and allowing ourselves to breathe through whatever we are feeling is the road to healing. These are just feelings and never have feelings ever killed us. They pass, all things do. When we try to suppress the feelings, they only grow larger and more frightening.”
As he spoke in his deep rumbly voice, the vibrations of which were passing through me, I found myself leaning into him, into his fur, almost burying myself in him. As he spoke I felt a great wave of tears well up. They started trickling down my face, eventually coming to pour out of me in an endless stream. The stream turned into a river that grew and grew until there was nothing but the water, the bear, and me. I continued to cry, feeding the river, making it run faster and faster. Safely tucked into the fur of my great bear we rode the rapids of my grief.
After some time I was quiet again, nestled into the warm fur of my companion. As the dawn broke we washed up onto a sandy shore of some distant land. Above me a hawk cried, and as I looked up I felt something land next to me. It was a beautiful leather-bound book filled with blank pages very much like the volumes I saw in the strange woman’s wagon. Next to it was a hawk feather fashioned into a quill pen and a small bottle of ink. It was time for me to write my story, my companion said. I was to go into my cave and write of everything. Speak of my grief, my life, and all that had happened. See the words on the page and breathe out the story. Continue to cry anything that needs to come out. In time, he said, I would be able to move past what was. Only then, when there is space in my heart, will I be able to emerge from my cave into the light again to write a new story.
He then led me up the riverbank through the woods to his cave, where he had made a great nest of leaves and moss. He curled up and invited me to snuggle into his fur for a little rest. As I was falling asleep he said that all the answers I sought were inside me and also mirrored for me in nature if I had the eyes to see.
“Ask Creator for help and then look and listen—it will come, just like I came to you. All of God’s creatures offer lessons in the way we live our lives. Pay attention to who shows up and what they are showing you. When the hawk cries she is telling you to pay attention, a message from Creator is coming your way. The dragonfly speaks of the illusion of this world and the magical colors and worlds that are just beyond our limited vision.”
It could have been a lifetime that passed or a second. I really do not know. The next thing I was aware of was the feeling of sheets and a soft mattress under me. I opened my eyes to discover I was in my bed in my room. I lay there in wonder, trying to go back through my dreams. I felt like I had been asleep for years! What exactly had happened in my dreams?
I sat up and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. It was just after dawn, just like it was when I awoke to go to the old woman’s camp—or thought I had. Was that a dream too? I swung my legs over to the side of the bed and put my feet on the floor; goodness but they were quite dirty. As I ran my hands through my hair I discovered something dry and papery in it. Much to my surprise I pulled out a leaf and a bit of moss. I quickly went to my mirror and what I saw was something feral looking back at me. Indeed there was even an odor of something wild about the room. My eyes were bloodshot; there was moss, twigs, and leaves in my hair. My face was dirty and I was completely disheveled, with crazy untamed curls. I looked very much like what I assumed the strange woman in the wagon looked like. I gazed around the room in a somewhat stunned state.
I walked over to my window and looked out at the rising sun. There on the windowsill was a beautiful leather-bound journal and a feather quill pen. As I picked them up I could hear in the far-off distance the giggle of a young woman and the rumbling snore of a bear.