The Old Woman of the Forest – Michael Hodges

When I was a kid, I met an angel.

angel, stock free images

For the moment at least, try not to think of it as sappy.   People always think of angels as beatific, and over time that imagery rendered them a bit ridiculous: cherubic little guys with pigeon flappers that belong in a barbecue joint.

From that perspective, angels seem like behind-the-scenes nannies, showing up to reach out an otherworldly hand, stopping us from walking into traffic.  Even if the belief isn’t commonly accepted, the idea is, and it can make angels come across as something reserved for folks who are out of touch with reality, people who spend their time counting on miracles instead of putting a nose to the grindstone.

Here’s the part nobody thinks about.  If that’s what angels were really like, then they wouldn’t need to start conversations with “Be not afraid,” – but they do.  Those specific words are how they open dialogues, and there’s a pretty good reason.

When I was a kid, life under the iron hand of my father was no picnic. I’m sure every child feels this way at one time or another, but in my case, it was a harsh reality, the kind that breaks the spirit and leaves a husk. That would have been the case for me, except I met an angel.

farm, wikimedia commons

The day in question began like any other back on the farm.  There was the wake-up, followed by morning chores, and eventually, breakfast.  I’d only lived with my father a short while and was still new to farm life.  Before that I’d lived in the city with my mother, moving constantly from place to place and unable to put down roots.  I’d believed that by coming to live with my father, staying in one place, I’d feel more secure, safer.  Sadly, the arrangement hadn’t lived up to expectations.  There are all kinds of insecurities and dangers, and some are worse than others.

My father was a handsome and self-assured guy who never missed a chance to contribute to his own internal legend by providing reminders about just how pathetic he found me.  I was a scrawny eleven-year-old, struggling through that age where my body’s attempts to grow had severely outpaced my sense of coordination. My clumsiness, among other things, infuriated him endlessly. I became a scapegoat for his frustrations, a living embodiment of all the reasons he was never quite as successful as he felt he should be.  Questions asked of me were asked in ways which forced me into untenable corners.  Instructions were kept hazy, often resulting in alleged wrongdoing that made no sense but which “…anybody with a lick of sense would know better than.”  Carrots of reward were dangled in vague promise, only to be snatched away on technicality.  That was my reality, and I adapted by lowering my head and becoming numb.

old radio, pixabay

In our house, the radio atop the old refrigerator only came on once a day.  The knob was turned with its big audible click and then the weather report, the local news, and the cattle market blared through the kitchen.  Once everything my father deemed worthy of broadcast was finished, the knob spat out another click and our little world was once more off the air.  That was most days.  On Saturday mornings, a local swap program came on during the early hours:  Tradio.  Nobody simply called it “tradio.”  All the old-timers bought something off “the tradio.”

“Did you hear about them plow blades on the tradio this mornin’?  Got me a heifer, thinkin’ ‘bout sellin’ her on the tradio.”

Apparently, while I was outside working my father heard something on the tradio, because he told me to put the racks on his truck. In relatively short order, we were headed down the highway to purchase a cow.

roadside, wikimedia commons

No music ever played in the truck. What passed for conversation was extremely one-sided, and I habitually crawled away inside myself anytime I was trapped with him in the confining space of the cab. Staring out the window, I would watch the roadside for flora and fauna, thinking about anything else I could come up with.  That’s precisely what I was doing when I realized we had been driving even deeper into the middle of nowhere.

Along the way my father had occasionally peered at a note in his hand, grumbling into his illegible scrawl.  The writing whispered some reply to him which passed for reasonable navigation.  We slowed down somewhere along the way, and consulting his runic scrawl once more, he said, “I think this is it.”  With that, we turned off the highway, trading asphalt for gravel.

Quite some time after departing the main road, we lost the gravel entirely. When dirt eventually gave way to grass, my father openly questioned the validity of his directions.  The grass, however, was just flattened enough to suggest that a vehicle occasionally passed that way, so we kept at it. The path led through trees and into meadows, up and down rocky, semi-wooded hills.  We were in and out of those trees, making our way through a forest of scrub that seemed to get thicker as we went.  When branches began to squeal along the metal of the truck, the confines of the woods pressing in against us, my father snarled “Aw, to hell with this,” ―

…when as abruptly as the word abrupt can make a thing seem to happen, we burst through above a little valley.  Not far below us, there lay a little farmstead which can be described in no other way than picturesque.

potholes in road,

We drove down to the place, my father all the while unsuccessfully attempting to dodge holes and gully-washed ruts in the road.  He told me to help him watch out; after that, each jolting bounce was punctuated with invectives bearing my name while he pointedly ignored any warnings I offered.  To call our descent entertaining just wouldn’t do the trip justice in either direction.

At long last, we stopped and got out at the little place.  My father glanced around before shouting as he tried to attract someone’s attention.  Meanwhile, I stood on my side of the truck taking in alien surroundings.

There was a house, obviously.  I mean, whoever lived here had to live in something, right?  We had a house too, but theirs was different.  Our home was rough and unkempt, while this house, though small and weathered, had a quality which I may only call appropriate.   It was like having tidiness and meaning all wrapped up with a bow made of neat, effortless purpose and beauty.

There were flowers here.  The flowers in our garden stood in rows alongside vegetables, things grown because they were expected.  Here, the flowers were in small plots, decorative but still a functional part of the place.  Baskets hung from the porch, filled with their own colorful blossoms.  The porch itself was clean and neat, furnished with a swing that faced westward, so that one might enjoy what passed for sunset this far below the surrounding hills.

Behind the house was a little white shed with a red window, the only painted surface I could see.  The shed was fenced in and I thought it might be a chicken house, but I had to wonder why the owner bothered with the fence since chickens wandered on both sides, pecking and clucking and obviously content with their nomadic lifestyle.

The grass around the shed and the house wasn’t edged, but everything seemed in its proper place as though given instructions:  Grass, you go here.  Driveway goes there, Grass, not you.  Rocks, you stay out of Grass, okay?

My father once had our large barn painted a vivid and expensive shade of red, a paint job which did little to cover the missing boards—and nothing to cover the incessant buzz of flies or the reek of old dung.

Here the barn was smaller and most notably, nothing stank.  The structure was raw and devoid of any color except gray, but straight as a square.  The word that came to mind was trustworthy.

garden flowers, pixabay

I found myself, for the first time in my life, evaluating our place critically.  It was more a feeling than a thought, but on some level, I understood that my eyes were taking in that which was right.

Until that moment, the thought had never crossed my mind, like I didn’t actually see things where we lived.  Looking back, it makes sense: it’s a question of habit.  When you’re surrounded by junk long enough, you start to think the whole world is probably made of junk.  Other possibilities aren’t beyond your capacity to understand, they just kind of stop being real in the way all the junk you see is real.

All those thoughts were trying to find a home in my brain when someone returned my father’s hail.

And that was when I saw her.

From around the corner of the house, from back by the shed, came the tiniest, oldest person I’d ever seen in my entire life.  I was considered a runt back then, and this woman’s hair, bound back in a braided white ponytail, barely came to my chin.

old woman, pixabay

She was wrinkled like the classic apple left in the sun, and her skin was the color of old burnt-caramel leather, tanned by sun and wind alike, a hundred years old if she was a day.  Based on her size I might have sworn she would blow away in a stiff breeze, but there was as much of a firmness about her as there was in everything else in that place.  When she walked, she walked with purpose.  Her strides carried her places.

The whole time she was crossing the yard, she looked at me, really looked at me.  When I say that, I mean she really looked at me.  I couldn’t tell you what color her eyes were. I won’t try to make her sound like something out of fantasy:  God help me, she had silver eyes made out of radioactive diamonds!  It was nothing like that.  It was just that how she looked at me, directly and with intent, was more important than anything else.

I could tell you what sort of eyes she had though.  That I remember.  They felt hard and soft all at once. They shoved your own gaze aside on their way into you, making you flinch, warning you, but also promising trust because you knew they would always tell you how things really were.

I’m entirely serious when I tell you an elderly woman half my size simply scared the hell out of me.

My father stepped around the truck and held out his hand, smiling and turning on the patter, explaining who we were and why we’d come.  He knew how to work a room and was accustomed to the idea that people should be automatically charmed by him.  His way of impressing people, especially women, was to dominate conversations, letting everybody know he was the man with the plan.

It was ballyhoo for the marks, smooth and practiced—only this time it felt like he’d focused his ray of sunshine on someone who had better things to do.

cow, wikipedia

“I know who you are,” she broke in, unconcerned that she’d cut him off mid-sentence.  “You’re the feller come here for the cow.”

My father wasn’t used to being interrupted. He was the one who did the conversational steamrolling, not the other way around. It surprised me enough to pull my attention away from this strange old lady, and I looked his way, gauging for a reaction. His smile wavered for just an instant, the skin on his scalp tightening. Then he took a breath, starting his introduction over.

She wasn’t rude, this woman.  It didn’t seem she was like Dad, someone who didn’t care what anyone else had to say.  She just didn’t seem very concerned with him.  They conducted business; after all, we were there to buy a cow she had advertised on a public forum.  But standing there, a tiny figure even compared to my father’s own short stature, there was a mettle about her, tempered and ready for whatever came.

For the first time, I watched my father have a conversation that didn’t seem unfairly weighted in his favor.  The old woman’s questions didn’t feel like questions but more like sentences with diplomatic question marks at the ends.  Underneath lay a list of expectations.  She would ask and then listen attentively and politely—until Dad started extolling some virtue and shooting her his lopsided come-hither grin.  At that point she would interrupt, putting him back on track or changing the subject entirely.

She was fond of her cow and was conducting an interview to make sure we were a good home.  Occasionally her eyes would drift my way.  In fact, she seemed to look at me more than she did my father, though I wasn’t part of the conversation.  Things continued this way for a few minutes, then all at once, she seemed to have made her decision.

barn, wikimedia commons

“Back your truck down here,” she told my father, almost over her shoulder as she walked away toward her barn.  Her hand waved in one of those this way gestures and she said “Back it up close to the driveway.  Come on, let’s get to it.”

My father stood there for a moment, face twisted with a distasteful grimace as he watched the old woman’s back.  The conversation had ended before he felt finished, and it was clear he didn’t much care for her manner.

Already, I was imagining how later I’d be the one to pay for the old woman’s treatment of him when her voice rang out: “Boy! I told you to come on!”  The tone wasn’t angry; it just told me in no uncertain terms I needed to move.

I hurried.

Catching up with her down by the barn, I fully expected the old woman to light into me but her manner, while blunt and direct, seemed much less abrupt than it had with my father.  She directed me to take one end of a gate and drag it across the driveway, forming a pen.  When I’d tied that into place, she told me to drag another to the door to create a chute.  We finished as the truck arrived.

My father got out of the truck and the old lady informed him the cow would require fetching from a nearby pasture.

“I won’t be much help,” my father began begging off, reciting a practiced litany.  “My legs aren’t much good.”

My father had polio when he was a child.  While such a thing must have been horrible, he’d made nearly a full recovery, walking the farm every single day.  His cane only appeared when we had to report in and verify his disability pension.  The whole thing was suitably dramatic and served him well in several areas.

The old woman wasn’t buying.  “We’ll be fine,” she said, not even looking at him. She simply waved her hand at his words, dismissing them.  “She’s a gentle ol’ thing.  She’ll come.”

I started to join them, accustomed to doing all the herding at our place, but the old gal placed a sharp finger against my shoulder, stopping me.  “Not you,” she said.  “You have a job.”

rusted fence post, public domain

She pointed then to something I hadn’t noticed, a thing which seemed out of place amidst the tidiness of the stead. In front of the barn, right where we would need to load, stood an old rusted and bent metal post in the rocky soil. I hadn’t even noticed it.

“That’s your job,” she told me.  “You need to pull that up so we can back the truck to the barn.”  She looked hard at me—always with the eyes, her.  “You do it.”

She didn’t wait for a response. Seconds later, I was alone with the post.

I hadn’t hit my growth yet, and my weakness was pointed out relentlessly. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting stellar results from this endeavor.

I stood there a while, getting to know the post.  I stared at it, and it… just stayed perfectly still.  Apparently, I had the first move, so I set-to and began to pull, grabbing down low and trying to yank it upward.

Nothing happened.  Score one for the post, but I figured I would go down swinging.

I grabbed again and pulled.  When that failed, I pushed, hoping to move it at least to one side, maybe work up some kind of post-removal momentum.  It didn’t work and I tried surprising the post, switching tactics and pulling again.  I yanked.  I kicked and tugged and strained, and the only thing to change was the degree to which I was sweating. I even shouted at it, but to no avail, and I gave up, seating myself on the tailgate of the truck.

Eventually, a cow appeared, ambling over the hilltop.  Behind her came two bobbing heads, and the trio made their way toward me.

The cow went into the barn of her own accord, and my father went with her.  The old woman, her mouth tight, came to where I sat.

“I thought I told you to pull up that post,” she said, mouth tight.

“I tried,” I said.  “I couldn’t do it.”

She didn’t say anything, not yet.  Instead, she walked over to the post and seized it.

She wrenched this way and the metal buckled and squealed, scraping gravel.  She yanked that way and the surface of the dirt cracked.  Another jerking motion broke ground and bent the post even more.

And then that old woman pulled the whole thing up from the ground.  With one hand, she threw it to the side, like a pugilist throwing away the gloves in order to get serious.  She came close, staring up into my eyes, and I felt myself leaning away. Through gritted teeth, she said, “I thought you told me you couldn’t do it.”

Like most kids confronted with an unpleasant fact, I made excuses.  “You’re stronger than me,” I whined.

She barked out a laugh.  “Look at me,” she said, spreading her arms.  “I’m half your size.  I’m an old woman.”

What she said, how she said it—it made me twist my shoes in the dirt, looking for an escape.  “Well,” I said, turning my eyes away like a dog turns his gaze from his master, “you’re more experienced than I am.”

“You’ve got it half right,” she said.  And that’s when it happened.

flames, max pixel

That old woman with the flames in her belly stepped so close to me our noses nearly touched. Her eyes seared into my own as she pulled down every mental façade in me, whether my own or built by others.  She tore them down like the walls of Gomorrah, speaking her message and leaving it burned forever on the walls of my heart: “The difference between you and me, boy,” she snarled, “the difference between you and me is that I know it has to get done!”

I had nothing to say.  I could only stand there surprised and afraid, and most importantly, ashamed.

Those eyes stared into me for a few seconds longer, then they turned away, leaving me to chew on the gristle I’d been given.

I wanted to hate her, but I couldn’t.  At home, I was given impossible things to do.  I knew it for truth.  But standing there simmering, I looked over to where that rusty post lay, torn from the earth, and I wondered—had I given my all?  Or had I allowed everything I’d heard about myself become the truth of who I was?

We loaded the cow with little else spoken.  When it was finished and the racks were closed, the gates removed from the barn and all returned to order, Dad and I climbed into the truck, preparing to go.  He handed the old lady a check he’d written, and then he seemed preoccupied.  The man who waited for no one seemed inexplicably busy, and time stood still while the old woman walked to my side of the vehicle.

She stood there only a few seconds, looking up at me. Then, reaching out, she touched my arm softly, touched me only with the tips of her fingers.  Her expression was no less fierce, but like I said before, those eyes promised trust.  And then she said oh, so softly, speaking words meant only for one person: “You remember what I told you, boy.  You remember.”

rutted road,

My father started the truck and we drove away, bouncing again as we climbed the rutted road.  Once we’d cleared the worst of it, as always, he started talking.  “My God,” he said, halfway laughing through the words.  “That old woman was one ‘take-charge’ kind of gal!  I never saw anybody behave like that!”  He went on at length, telling me all the details of the encounter, as though my ability to understand fell short of his own.

But none of it, not a word of his prattle, dealt with the time I’d shared with that woman.  It was as though our time had been a bubble, a separate thing, invisible to mortal eyes.  I never heard about my failure with the post, or as on other occasions, anything about how I’d embarrassed him.  He simply spoke of her nature as indelicate and pushy.

In moments, discussion of her character became an appraisal of his own, and he regaled me with tales of the esteem in which he believed others held him for being the very sort of person others are likely to admire.  I’m a great guy – just ask me!

Some things never change.

I wasn’t really listening to him though.  I wasn’t really paying much attention at all because for me something, in fact, had changed.

sheep, pixabay

The miracle didn’t happen overnight because the best things never do.  But it blossomed within me, leading me to a place in my heart where things were different. When things on the farm knocked me down, I got back up and pressed on. Where others fell short in the face of difficulty, I refused to give in. I grew – and I grew strong.

In time, things like blows to the head with a tobacco stick ceased to happen.  My father no longer reached out to grab my collar and shake me until my bones rattled as a warning against failure.  His words and manipulations grew harsher and more twisted, but from a distance now, and he began to exercise a certain caution when he came within reach. Though still caged and frustrated, the sheep bred for slaughter had become something else, something not a sheep at all.

Perhaps not ironically, I once heard my father taking credit for how I’d toughened up.  I laughed, knowing it was beyond his capacity to understand that the credit was not his. A woman who was a better man than he would ever be had once taken my hand. Without her, I might well have died on dozens of occasions, whether by my father’s hand in rage – or even my own, in despair. She had shown me the way, and in doing so had conveyed a thing beyond price.  She had given me permission to live.

Think what you will, that’s a miracle.

Old woman and boy in forest, wikimedia commons

Ten or twelve years later, I visited the home where I’d grown up. I asked my father about that cow, a sweet old thing which had become something of a pet. I asked him if he remembered the morning spent with that “take-charge old lady.”  But just as strangely as the way he’d never remarked on the events of that day, my father didn’t recall the cow or the place. He had no recollection whatsoever of that remarkable old woman whose name I never knew. She may as well have been a phantom—or, as I said way back at the beginning: when I was a kid, I met an angel.

Twirl a finger around your ear and tsk to one side, but something in me believes that the Old Woman of the Forest is still out there, an eternal spirit wearing both apron and armor.  She’s a Mother of Men, finding children and giving what is not wanted in order that they may find what is needed.

Wherever you are out there, Old Woman, wherever you may be, thank you, and I love you.

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