The Wild Woman in the Woods

This modern fairy tale is pure fiction, but is inspired by old Hopi Legends.

Have you ever looked into a pool of water and asked yourself, or no one in particular, who is that being reflected back at me, and how has that anything to do with what I feel inside?

I the beginning there was only the wild ones running about in an endless moss-toothed forest. They didn’t cast shadows, neither from light nor from darkness. One of them was called Tawa, she was silence. She beheld the world and opened her mouth to howl against the white moon. A silvery trail stretched out from her mouth to the moon and it drew all the water into her womb, and so a hurricane was conceived within her. After that, she howled every time the moon was full, to release all the wildness and all the winds growing inside her, and she was silence no more.

In 1993, The Forest of Dean endured a summer so miserable that all the tourists changed their plans and went back home to their townhouses to swim in umbrellaed swimming pools perfectly heated. They could enjoy the rain then, tapping melodiously on the thin tin sheets, without worrying about becoming the wrong kind of wet. The London pavements turned black with cold rain, and the Chelsea shops went into hibernation even with the July sales going on. Anyone who could afford to leave the city did. The Paris train was overbooked and chartered planes did not even have to advertise their vacant seats to Malaga and Crete. That was why, when the little streams in the Forest of Dean overbanked and flooded on a cold July morning, nobody even noticed. Except Goya that is.

Goya had moved with her parents to an old abandoned cottage in the forest three years ago. Her father was one of those 70s Cornwall hippie-go-lucky kids who had dreamt of living in a forest and being completely self-sufficient all his life. His motto was, quite literally, flower power – he ran a small natural remedies business. Goya’s mother had run off to India in the 80s when Goya was just a toddler, to join the Free Love Osho Ashram. Goya didn’t really think too much about her. Except for that July morning when she stumbled into a forest pool so vast it could be mistaken for the ocean.

Earlier that morning Goya had overheard the weatherman in the radio promising sun and blue sky, but the heavy grey-black clouds had once again refused to budge littering the heavily pregnant trees with more cold water, to which they sighed with exhaustion and tried to shake it off in the wind. Goya leaned against one of those moist dark brown trees looking down into the rippling pool only to spot fragments of her drenched face set against a backdrop of opaque sky. She had an eerie sense of it being someone else looking back at her, a changeling waiting to take her place. Then a shiver of pine needles dropped from a low branch and the image vanished into oblivion. “Who are you?” said a deep voice and Goya startled and looked up to locate where the voice had come from. She spotted an old woman standing half hidden behind the trunk of a huge oak. The woman was dressed in tall green rubber boots and an oil skin coat covering her entire body. Her hair was unruly and wet, hanging down to the woman’s waist in thin spidery braids. Goya was embarrassed to catch herself thinking of a perfect storybook hag. “I am Goya,” she answered. The old woman glared at her disapprovingly and harrumphed. “Are you lost?” She asked in her old crow’s voice. “No, I live just over there,” said Goya and pointed in the direction of her house. “What about you, do you live here too?” she asked the old woman. She didn’t reply, just continued to glare at Goya with her black bird-like eyes. “What is your name?” Goya tried. “I am Grandmother,” the old woman spat the answer at her, like a piece of food gone bad. “Eh….okay…..nice to meet you Grandmother. Horrible weather, isn’t it?” “Horrible!?” Grandmother looked outraged, her features darkening considerably, then she smirked and said vehemently: “The world needs a good flooding. Washes away the dirt.” She threw her head back and laughed loud and eerily as though she had made the world’s best joke. Goya shivered and looked away from the old woman. “Eh…I better get back,” she said and glanced briefly up at the woman. “Yeah, you better, or else I might turn you into a frog!” Grandmother said it so threateningly that Goya flinched. “Come back tomorrow child, and bring me something to eat, I am starving!” Goya didn’t reply, she turned around and ran, as much as you can run in water reaching up to your knees, and didn’t stop until she was safely back in her cottage and could hear her father humming and pattering around in his herb garden.

The next morning it rained even heavier than the day before and Goya , quite shockingly, found herself feeling sorry for the old woman in the forest. Did she really not have anything to eat? Goya opened the kitchen cabinets and found a pack of chips and a jar of shop-bought cookies. “Don’t we have anything to eat?” she asked her dad who was just putting on the kettle for tea. “Of course we have, sweetie.” “What?” “Well, the garden is full of vegetables, why don’t you make something?” Goya sighed. The only thing she really knew how to make was soup. So she did. She spent the whole morning brewing the vegetable soup, adding her father’s herbs and a little pinch of pepper and salt. She poured the soup on a thermos and tossed it into a Spar plastic bag.

The rain poured into her rubber boots and the umbrella she tried to hide under was rather useless in the relentless wind. The path had washed away entirely and the trees kept swishing and swooshing complainingly, undressed by the cold morning showers. Goya waded through the pool, which reached her thighs, and tried to ignore the icy cold creeping up her legs and freezing her muscles. Sure enough, when she reached the old oak the hag was standing there watching her. Somehow she looked at bit less old and witch-like that morning, and when Goya reached out handing her the thermos her face even broke into a small grin. “So you came,” stated Grandmother and even managed to look a bit pleased. She opened the thermos and sniffed the hot soup. “Did you cook it with love?” she asked and glared at Goya, a bit of yesterday’s suspicion back in her black eyes. “You won’t find my heart in there if that is what you mean,” replied Goya and glared back. Grandmother threw back her head and cackled at that. “I think I am starting to like you, girl!” she roared and slapped Goya so hard on the back that she almost fell over. Goya watched her slurp up the scorching soup. She didn’t offer any compliments and when she was finished with the soup she stuffed the empty thermos into her inner breast pocket. She gave a sideway glance at Goya daring her to object. But Goya didn’t say anything. She was NOT going to fight an old lady for a pink school thermos. “Tomorrow,” said Grandmother and smirked, “you bring something to entertain me. An old woman gets lonely.” “Like what?” asked Goya. “Like a movie or something?” “A movie!?” Grandmother snapped. “Is that all you young people can think of? I don’t want any fake play-acting, I want something real!” Goya had no idea what she meant by that, but she shrugged and decided to worry about it later. “I guess, I’ll see you tomorrow then,” she said unenthusiastically and turned away from the mad-looking woman. “Something real! You hear me!?” roared Grandmother after her. Goya had really no idea what the hag had meant by “something real”. So she decided to ask her father what he thought of as real entertainment. “That’s easy, sweetie, singing, dancing, art, poetry, something from the heart.” He smiled and patted Goya on the head. “Dad,” she asked hesitantly, “do I have any talents?” “Loads!” he replied and smiled, “but my favorite is your voice. You are a great singer.” Goya laughed at that. “Only you would ever think so, dad.” Her father smiled and shrugged and started belting out an old Beatles song. “Yeeesterdaaay, all my troubles seeeemed soooo faaar away!” “Tell me about it,” mumbled Goya and left her father singing in the kitchen.

The next morning Goya had still not thought of anything to do to entertain the old woman, so she decided to follow her father’s advice and sing. Her mother had once told her, when she was tiny, that everyone could sing it was just that some people were better at it than others and could therefor pursue it as a professional career. Well, at least Goya knew that that was out of the question for her. She landed on an old 70s tune her mom used to sing to her when she was a baby.

The sky was, if that was even possible, even darker that morning, and the rain lashed down like mad. “This is starting to feel a lot like Ragnarok,” said her father and pulled his basketball cap further down over his face. At least the temperature had gone up a little so Goya decided to stick with just a shorts and a long rain coat, that way she didn’t have to walk home in soaked jeans. The water on the path now reached up to her waist, and wading through it was much like trying to walk through a lake. “So you are finally here,” said the old woman as soon as Goya reached the clearing in the forest. “So come on, hit me, whaddya got for me?” Goya stared at the hag. “Since when do you speak street?” The croon roared out a thunderous laughter and slapped her knees violently. “I thought you were going to entertain me?” she demanded, but with a slight twinkle in her raven eyes. “Well, uh, I thought…I thought I’d sing…” “Excellent!” exclaimed Grandmother. “So, let’s hear it then, whaddya waiting for, hon?” Goya glared at her suspiciously, then cleared her throat. This was a lot harder than what she thought it would be. Why was she so nervous singing in front of a mad, probably homeless, old woman? “If you are going to Saaaan Fraaansisco, be suuuure to weaaaar some flowers in your hair.” Goya started weakly, but picked up the pace and raised her voice as she got further into the song. And then, to her utter amazement, the old woman started dancing! Yes, dancing! She lifted her skirts and tapped her feet heavily on the ground while swaying her upper body back and forth quite wildly so much so that her….ummm…..girls (or were they perhaps called ladies in the elderly?) jumped merrily back and forth. “You’ve brought life to me old bones!” she roared and clapped her hands to the made-up beat. “Come on, girl! Dance!” Goya hesitated. Dancing was definitely NOT her strong suit, but what the heck, she was in the wild woods in the rain with a crazy homeless person, why the ever not? So she relaxed her shoulders and jumped up and down while clapping her hands and swaying her hips. It probably looked ridiculous, but Goya didn’t care. When the song finished they were both panting and laughing. “Well that was fun,” said Grandmother and smiled mischievously. “But now I have to get back home in the rain and I have nothing dry and warm to wear, so tomorrow I want you to bring me some new clothes.” “What?” exclaimed Goya. “You want me to go shopping for you?” “Shopping!? Whaddya mean shopping? Don’t they teach girls to sow nowadays? To knit and weave and spin?” “Eeeh….I don’t know what century you are from, no offense, but this is 1993 and we get our clothes from shops. And there are no shops around here so I am sorry but no can do.” Grandmother studied her angrily. “I am sure you have some old rags for a poor soul in your overstuffed wardrobe. Something to mend, to break, to put together?” It wasn’t really a question, it was more like an order. Goya sighed. “Fine, I’ll see what I can do.” “See you tomorrow then,” said the old woman. Goya gave a half wave, turned around and waded back home. “If this keeps up I’ll have to swim out here tomorrow, “she muttered to herself. “So much for your dry clothes.”

As soon as Goya had walked through her front door she called her father. He was out in the garden as usual in his red wellingtons and yellow rain coat. “Daaaad, do you we have any old clothes at home? Like something mum left behind or something?” Goya’s father froze with an iron spade mid-air. “What do you want with that?” he asked his daughter. “I just thought perhaps I’d donate it to some homeless people.” That was precisely the kind of answer that would earn Goya’s father’s approval, and he came swooshing inside in his drenched muddy wellies. “I think there might perhaps be some in the back of my wardrobe. I think they might be your mum’s or my mum’s or granny’s, I am not sure, but you can take what you find. “He smiled warmly at Goya. “It is a really lovely thing to do, sweetie.” He ruffled her hair and gave her a quick hug. “Yeah, yeah, I know,” mumbled Goya and leaned awkwardly away from the hug. The wardrobe did indeed contain old female clothes of varying quality and questionable style. “Looks like I come from a long line of hippies,” sighed Goya and dragged out another neon pink and mustard yellow floral dress. It was hard to find anything that could be categorized as “warm” except for a poncho with lots of holes in it and a faux fur coat smelling of moth balls and old dried-up sweat. “Looks like I have to brush up on my sowing skills after all,” sighed Goya and set to work. It was midnight when she was finished and the result was a rather questionable poncho cum cape cum shawl thing made up of different patches of cloth, some in bright florals, other in knitted Indian cardigans and even a few in faded brown stinky fur. All perfectly asymmetrical and as far from vogue-worthy as possible. “It will have to do,” yawned Goya and went to sleep.

The next morning the rain had of course flooded the entire forest, even the garden was dangerously close to the muddy lake that used to be the Forest of Dean. Goya put the cape she had made in a plastic bag and tied it to her head. Fortunately the weather was a bit warmer so Goya decided to wear her bathing suit. She put a big towel in the plastic bag and waded into the forest. This time the water reached up to her neck. “So you came?” said the old woman, perched happily on a fat branch of a tree. How she had managed to get up there Goya had no idea. “Yup, and I brought you this,” said Goya and handed her the cape. The old woman’s face broke into a toothy grin and she wrapped the ugly cloth around her body. “This brings warmth to me old bones,” she said and touched the fur patch tenderly. “Well, it took me all night to make it,” said Goya and shivered in her bathing suit. There was no point trying to dry herself with the towel, even here the water reached above her waist. “Look, Grandmother, I better head home right away or I’ll catch pneumonia or something.” Grandmother cackled mischievously and beat her fist against the trunk of the tree she was sitting in, making the droopy leaves empty their stack of rain water right unto Goya. “Thanks a lot,” muttered Goya and gave the old woman a mean look. But Grandmother just cackled louder and wrapped the cape tighter around herself. “Well, I’m off,” said Goya and turned around to walk away. Suddenly she stopped, waited a little and turned back towards the old woman. “Aren’t you going to ask me to bring you something?” The old woman smiled and nodded her head. “Yup, just bring…yourself.” Goya shrugged, it was a funny answer, but it meant that she didn’t have to spend the rest of the day making something out of nothing, so she didn’t question it.

When she came back home, she felt weirdly empty and rather restless, so she spent the afternoon helping her father in the garden, to his very obvious delight. The next morning, Goya woke up and startled. The sun was shining brightly through her window! She ran out in the garden where she found her father humming and weeding in his herb bed. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun teased and caressed the little herbs, the trees and the grass. The water had subsided drastically and there was hardly any sign of yesterday’s flood. Goya hurried and got dressed and headed in to the forest to meet the old woman even before she had had any breakfast. The forest path was back into visibility and the only leftovers from the flood were tiny silvery puddles. When Goya reached the little clearing the old woman was not there. She thought perhaps she was too early so she climbed a tall oak and waited. She waited and waited, but there was no sign of the old woman. Eventually Goya had to come down from the tree and except that Grandmother was not coming. Goya had no idea where to look for her, she didn’t even know if she lived in a house. Searching for her would be pointless so Goya decided to head back home and prepare lunch for her father. As she was walking slowly along the path, enjoying the warmth of the sun, her eyes wandered to a little puddle just next to the path and suddenly she startled. Hadn’t that been…..in the puddle…? Goya looked again, but this time all she found in the puddle was her own well-known reflection. She shrugged, it was probably just her mind playing tricks with her, so she lifted her eyes to the sun and walked back home.

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