Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The old woman's fairy tale

Where have I been? Everywhere. No where. I spent all of 2018 doing a fellowship on spiritual formation. There was a lot of reading and some writing, community engagement, and all-day retreats/classes once a month, usually in the Shenandoah Valley.

We were required to do a final project that somehow, in our own particular (for me, quirky) way reflected our year-long spiritual journey. There is really no way I can describe the journey. I have had a number of amazing encounters with a real God, indescribable pure love. So in a meager attempt to put form to my experience I wrote it as fiction, in the form of a fairy tale. Here it is.

The Old Woman and the King: A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time in a deep valley at the foot of a majestic mountain there lived an old woman named Daria. No one knew how old Daria was, but according to legend she had been born in the valley just after the dawn of time and she had never left. Her clan was unknown and there was little memory of her husband or children. Faelan, the old man who kept the history of the valley, believed that she had children who had left the valley long ago in search of fortune and never returned.

Daria lived in a humble shelter near the river, far from the other villagers. She kept animals—dogs, sheep, and goats—and she could be seen collecting reeds and vines, berries, tree bark, lily leaves, and flower petals to weave and dye the baskets and woolen cloth that she sometimes sold to people in the village. She had woven bits of the forest and the wool of her animals into a large blanket that covered her shelter. Inside the hut she had a warm fire, books, baskets, and brightly colored woven cloth. Sometimes she sang beautiful old songs to the dogs who sat at her feet. Her solitary life, her loneliness, was both a blessing and a curse.

The village in the deep valley was part of a large kingdom under the reign of a wise and benevolent King who lived high on the majestic mountain. The King knew everyone in his kingdom and nothing brought him more joy than spending time with his subjects. He had been on the throne for a long, long time, even longer than Daria had been living in the valley.

But Daria kept her distance from the King. She didn’t trust that his kindness and concern for her were sincere. Her deep sorrow was that she was alone and rejected, yet that sorrow made her withdraw further lest she be hurt again. She didn’t want to need anyone because she feared that needing others would weaken her.

Early one morning on a dark day in deep winter, out of the cold mist, the King himself, alone, came walking along the edge of the river, cracking the thin ice that had formed on the bank. Daria was boiling water, bark, and berries in a large cauldron over a fire, stirring the mixture with a long wooden paddle. From a distance she heard the ice cracking and the dogs began to bark. Then she saw him, wrapped in a long woolen cloak, walking toward her, his eyes glowing, his mouth softly smiling, his arms stretched wide to greet her. In an instant the dye she was boiling became intensely blue—indigo, the color of the yearning in her heart, a yearning that frightened her in its intensity. She felt life swell up inside her, yet she also wanted to run and hide, afraid of the intrusion into her small, isolated world.

He sat on a tree stump. She smelled sunshine and lavender in the dark of winter.

“Your majesty,” she said, “I have nothing to give you. I am just a poor, old woman with nothing of value.”

“Daria,” said the King, “I have only come to see you, to spend time with you. Being with you is what I value most. I knew you even before you were born and I have always loved you, more than you can ever know. Will you make some tea and we can sit and talk?”

Daria stuttered, afraid and unsure how to answer. “Yes, your majesty, of course. I don’t have much to offer, but come inside and I will make us tea.”

The King sat with her by the fire inside her shelter. The tea warmed them and the room began to glow—crimson, gold, saffron, and indigo—and from under his cloak he unwrapped a loaf of bread, broke it, and placed it on the table before her.

Until the sun began to set in the west, Daria and the King sat by the fire telling stories, laughing, singing old songs, and sharing the deep communion of silence.

“Daria,” said the King, “I must go now. This time with you has filled me with such joy. I want to spend much more time with you. Will you let me do that? Will you let me show you how much I love you, how much I have always loved you? I want you to know me, to be with me. And, Daria, know that I am always with you, even when you can’t see me, know that you can find me in the silence. Will you do that for me?”

She looked at him in awe, unable to find the words to respond to him, and tears streamed down her cheeks.

He held her in his arms and wrapped his cloak around her, like holding a child. “Just say yes, my child, just say yes.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes!”

Through the long, dark winter Daria spent many hours recalling the time she had spent with the King. She sat in silence, pondering what he had said about always being with her, even when she couldn’t see him. Sometimes she could feel his presence in the silence, yet other times she only felt his absence and longed to see him again. She had so many questions for him and she wanted his advice. But mostly, she just wanted to feel his love—the strong, pure love of a father for his child. Before he came to her that winter morning, she had nearly forgotten what it felt like to be loved. Now that she had rekindled that connection, she wanted to know him better, she wanted to bring him joy, she wanted to see their relationship grow strong, but she didn’t know how to do such things.

As winter slowly began to thaw, mosses remembered their unique shades of green and birds returned from the secret places where they had spent the long, dark days. Daria went to the river’s edge to gather reeds and among the reeds she discovered a small round boat and a paddle. The boat, only big enough for one, was beautifully constructed of bark and willow, the bottom covered in tightly woven fabric and sealed with resin. The fabric was dyed indigo. She knew that the King had left it there for her, to encourage her to explore the river beyond the hollow where she spent her days and nights. 

The little blue boat was like the boat she loved when she was a child. She quickly regained her skill with the paddle, softly skimming the surface of the water like an insect. She quietly paddled down the river until she came to the place where old Faelan lived. As she approached the shore, she saw Faelan stringing fish on a line to dry. 

He chuckled when she came near, and said, “Will wonders ever cease? Is this old Daria coming through the reeds?”

She couldn’t keep from smiling. “Aye, tis myself, old Faelan. How can it be that we two old goats are still here in the shadow of the mountain?”

They chatted unceasingly, catching up on the years apart, and the time together brought great joy to both of them. Daria told Faelan about her visit from the King. The old man agreed that indeed it was a rare and wonderous thing to spend time in the presence of their King. He then snapped his fingers, told her not to move, and scrambled into his hut to retrieve something.

“I have something very precious to share with you, Daria. It is a book—"The Book” we call it—and it tells the history of our people and the incredible story of all the King has done for us through the ages. Please accept this as a gift between two old friends. And I would so enjoy discussing it with you as you read it.”

Daria said, “Thank you, Faelan. How kind you are. Indeed, I will read it and we shall discuss it as long as we’re able.”

She wrapped The Book carefully under her cloak, climbed into the little blue boat, and paddled back up the river, waving to Faelan as he disappeared into the distance. Her heart was full.

Daria returned to the shelter at her quiet place on the river and read until the sun came up. She read a story in The Book about a poor mother who put her baby into a basket in the reeds at the edge of a great river in order to save the boy’s life from evil men who would kill him. The daughter of a king found the baby in the basket, took him in as her own child, and raised him in the royal household. The story reminded Daria about a young mother in the village whom Faelan had told her about during their visit. The young mother in the village was very poor and recently had given birth. She struggled to find food for herself and her child and she carried the baby with her everywhere. Daria’s heart ached for the young mother, for she herself had once been a young mother who struggled to care for her children. Suddenly a thought occurred to the old woman, as if she heard the voice of the King whispering in her ear, telling her how she could help them. She remembered weaving a long swaddling shawl to carry her own babies and realized that she could create such a shawl for the young mother to carry her baby. Daria began to spin and weave a shawl—yarn dyed saffron, crimson, the color of juniper berries, golden brown, and green, the color of spring. And intertwined among the other colors, some of her treasured indigo yarn.

Daria worked day and night and when the swaddling shawl was finished, she climbed into her little blue boat and brought the shawl to Faelan and asked him to give it to the young mother.

“Ah, Daria,” he said, “Such beautiful work. This kindness becomes you. Surely the young woman will be pleased to receive such a gift.”

Daria paddled home, speaking aloud to the King as if he was beside her. “Thank you, my Lord, my King, for you have been so good to me. Thank you for reminding me that I could do something to make the young mother’s life a little easier. Please keep her and her child in your tender care.”

Days later, Faelan came trudging noisily through the trees, a sack slung over his shoulder. Following him was a young woman, her child swaddled securely across her chest with the shawl Daria had made. 

Short of breath from his long trek, Faelan panted, “Daria, this is the young mother I told you about. She has come to bring you cheese that she made to thank you for your kindness. And this little one is her daughter Maire. Yes, she was named after the mother of the King. That promises great things for the child.”

The young mother smiled shyly as Daria clasped her hands with great tenderness—cold young supple hands wrapped in the warm gnarled hands of the old woman. Daria peeked inside the mother’s swaddling shawl and drew in her breath. “Such a face!” she exclaimed. “The child has the face of an angel—an angel with flaming red curls and indigo eyes like the sky! Surely, she is worthy to be the namesake of the mother of the King. Blessings be to Maire and to her mother. Come inside, my dear. You and the child must warm yourselves by the fire. We’ll have tea. And come along, old Faelan—you are family in my home.”

The three spent time by the fire getting acquainted and Faelan broke a loaf of bread at the table to have with their tea, and with reverence he gave thanks to the King who provided for them. 

In no time Daria had become a doting grandmother to the young mother and the child. 

Faelan was fidgeting in his chair. Daria sensed something. “What have you got to say, man? You’re squirming like a snake!”

“Ah, you’ve barely seen me for the past 20 years and you already read me like a book,” said Faelan. “Alright, then, I’ll say it—I’m thinking it would be a good thing for this young mother and little Maire to stay here with you for a while. The child is no trouble at all. This young mother needs someone to take her under wing—someone like you, Daria. I think it would be good for all of you. Perhaps you could teach this young mother how to spin and weave so that she can make a living for herself and her baby.”

Daria was taken aback. She became very quiet. She had never considered such an arrangement. Could she give up her quiet life alone, away from others? An image came to mind. She recalled her time with the King and felt the comfort of his loving embrace when he wrapped his cloak around her and held her in his arms like a child. She was filled with light and an unflinching knowledge of what the King had called her to do. She would follow his example; she would let the King’s boundless love and compassion be her guide.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes!”

From that day forward the young mother and the beautiful red-headed child lived with Daria. What Faelan had in his sack when they came tromping through the woods to visit was the young mother’s meager possessions. He had discussed the situation with the King and he was certain Daria would say yes, for the King had softened Daria’s heart.

Daria began teaching the young mother what she had learned over a lifetime. She taught her the long process of weaving—shearing sheep, spinning the wool, gathering berries and bark, and creating dye. The old woman found a new love for her work and her creativity flourished in partnership with the young mother. The young woman was a natural weaver, eager to learn, and together they created the most beautiful work of Daria’s life

At the summer solstice, a group of people from the village arrived at Daria’s place by the river, bringing tools and materials to build a shelter for the young mother and her baby. The sounds of saws cutting wood, hammering of nails, children playing, shouting and laughter filled the woods. When their work was complete, they shared a great feast to celebrate their accomplishment. A large cauldron of potage had been simmering all day. The hard work and the aroma of the food increased their appetites. They piled a large make-shift table with cabbage and beans, cheese, fish, bacon, plums, and honey.

Before they began to eat, Faelan spoke. “Let us give thanks to our King for his kindness and provision. None of this would have been possible were it not for his great love for all of us. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for creating this community, for giving us one another. Thank you for being with us through joy and sorrow. We break this bread to follow your example of sacrifice and your unending love for us. We are deeply grateful.”

As the evening ended, people returned to their homes while Daria and the young mother sat in the glow of the fire and marveled at what an incredible day it had been. The young mother took Maire into their new home, leaving Daria alone by the slowly dying embers to spend time with the King, thanking him for the day and sitting in the quiet of his company.

“Father King,” she said, “you can see me here. I know your great love. This growing love that I have for you, this sense of your presence, is not something I have created out of my own strength and imagination. You have drawn me to you. Create now a new story of my life—a story with you at the center.”

She began to see how his presence had transformed her life. Though she was advanced in age, she felt like a child cherished by her father. He became the most important thing in her life and, as she became more connected to him, she became more connected to others in the kingdom. He had claimed her as his own, put his stamp on her heart and she belonged to him, a connection of pure love. He pursued her when she felt unworthy of love. She became familiar with his voice as she spent quiet time in his presence. She sought to see herself as he saw her, to model her life after his, and to surrender to his plan for her. As she became more aware of his love for her, that love transformed her. She grew in kindness, compassion, and connection to others. As she became transformed she gained the strength to step out into the world and to try to make the world better for others. She continued to see his love in action, she grew closer to him, and as she grew closer she yearned to become more like him. 

The summer flew by—days of work beside the young mother, and nights of joyful chatter under the stars in the company of her fellow villagers. They kept Daria up to date about the all the pending births nearby and she went to work creating a special swaddling shawl for each mother and baby. She visited each new child to deliver the shawl and cherished the time she spent in the sacred presence of new life. Although she considered the creation of a shawl a small gesture, she did it with great love. Joy shone from her heart and soul. She gave thanks to the King for allowing her this privilege.

The long days of summer became shorter and a chill settled in the valley. Trees released their leaves and the sky became deep blue, indigo. Daria’s old bones ached as the wind became colder. She was unable to work as she had before. As the leaves fell and autumn settled in, word reached her that her old friend Faelan had taken to his bed, sweating with fever, and wracked with the cough. She sent him her warmest blanket with a simple note expressing her love and concern for him. She wanted to do more for her old friend, to sit by his bedside and feed him spoons full of tea and honey, but she lacked even the strength to paddle her little boat down the river.

She was tired, yet she felt satisfied, beloved, and part of the rhythm of life in the village. Her connection to the King continued to grow stronger. For so many years she had held her sorrow in her talons, afraid that sorrow was the glue that held her together and, if she released it, she would be empty. Yet she recalled that the King once told her that you need to be broken to become whole. And now she began to understand what the King had meant. She had lived many years in sorrow and brokenness, too absorbed in herself to see beyond it. Then she began to know the King, to understand his deep love for her. Had she not experienced the broken, lonely life, she may not have been so fiercely drawn to his love. His love transformed her. It made her whole. She saw that her pain had a purpose; it created a path that led only to him. For that she was grateful. Now all she wanted was to do his will.

Daria awoke one morning just after the first snowfall. The sun was shining, illuminating the snow like a million stars and the sky was deep indigo. The King was standing in her doorway with his arms open wide.

“My beloved child! Come with me. I want to take you up to the mountain to be with me forever. Will you come? Please say yes.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes!”


This old song has been running through my mind lately. It was written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson, a gospel blues singer, guitar player, and street corner evangelist who died in 1945. This song was the inspiration for this story.

Bye and Bye I’m Goin’ To See the King

I said bye and bye I'm going to see the King
Bye and bye I am going to see the King
And I don't mind dying, I'm a child of God

I said bye and bye I'm going to see the King
Bye and bye I am going to see the King
And I don't mind dying, I'm a child of God

You know after death,
you have got to go by yourself
And I don't mind dying, I'm a child of God

I said bye and bye I'm going to see the King
Bye and bye I am going to see the King
And I don't mind dying, I'm a child of God

Bye and bye I will hear the angel sing
Bye and bye I will hear the angel sing
And I don't mind dying, I'm a child of God

You know after death,
you have got to stand your test
And I don't mind dying, I'm a child of God

I said bye and bye I'm going to see the King
Bye and bye I am going to see the King
And I don't mind dying, I'm a child of God

Songwriter: Blind Willie Johnson
Bye and Bye I'm Goin’ to See the King  © Alpha Music, Inc

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