The Mountain Crone
If you look high up into the corner of the sky, just on the outer edge of the horizon, you might see a snow-topped peak pushing up, up and out of the clouds. It only ever appears with the barest hint of its thick white cap—and so is often mistaken for a cloud.
This is all to the advantage of the old woman who lives there.
Hard bitten and ugly she looks to those lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the crone. It’s the luckier still who climb the tall peak and find themselves invited in for a cup of tea. The tea is very good. But its not the tea that makes the climber lucky—the luck is all in the conversation. For she happens to be a woman who tells the truth.
Naturally, our story unfolds with a climber, one of the luckiest, who upon reaching her summit, found herself invited in for a cup of tea.
The hut atop the crest was small and came as a surprise. Smoke curled from a tiny chimney. A plain wooden door, crooked from swelling and shrinking in the on and off moisture of the mountain, barred entry. But that was short lived, for it was not long before the door creaked open on its hinges.
The climber was young, which is perhaps all that need be said as cause for her sudden step back at the sight of the ugly crone. But when the old woman said, ‘fancy a cuppa?’ the young woman caught a twinkling buried in the creased and folded skin: a ready eye, alight, with just a hint of youth. Thus, the young woman retraced her step and crossed the threshold into a room both small and warm.
‘I have a story for you,’ the wrinkled mouth spoke, as the young one sipped from a fragrant, steaming mug and said nothing. ‘If you want it, that is.’
The young woman, her hands wrapped around her tea, breathed in the fresh smell of cloves and cinnamon wafting up into her nose, and found herself at a strange crossroads. How easy it would have been for her to say, no. How safe. But she was young, and she wasn’t yet interested in being safe.
Young eyes found old ones, and told them to speak on.
‘In a room all alone, I thought,’ the crone said, ‘About life, and lives lived. And my own. And I wondered if I had. I thought about all I hadn’t done, and all I needed to do, and that I had better hurry. For there was something on the wind, trouble brewing, and the first gusts were swiping at the tips of my fingers.
‘So, I learned and moved, quickly at first, then faster. Trying to stay ahead of the storm. At first, I thought I was winning,’ the old woman sighed deeply at this, her sentence breaking. A moments heartbeat, and the young woman gripped her mug, her smooth fingers tense as if the story was far too personal, and yet she waited for the story to play on. ‘Until one day,’ the woman with gnarled hands said, ‘I could feel the icy blasts on my back, the trouble already brewed, and the storm… the storm was all around me.’
The younger heart skipped a beat, her breath inhaled, quick, sharp.
‘I found myself lost, quick enough, sure I would drown in the noise of it. Or, if not that, fall of the edge of a sudden cliff that I could not hope to see. Or, worse still, find that I sank down at let the storm blow me away or cover me, and I would be lost forever.’
And now the withered lips paused, and crinkled eyes stared across the tiny table, so small it groaned under a pot of tea, and found wide eyes staring back, lost in the horror of a storm they could see.
‘That was when I stumbled. Into a cliff. But not off it. It was a cliff face, and I was at the bottom. I had but one choice: to go up. Up, up, and out, just maybe, the terrible, blinding, icy wind. And so, I rushed at the wall, and tried to rush up. And do you know what happened to me then?’ the old woman’s voice was starting to rasp. But her eyes were bright with fire, presenting her query.
The young woman, the mug clenched in her hands, her eyes wet as though they had absorbed some rain from the storm, swallowed and shook her head.
With that the old woman stood slowly from her thin, wooden chair, and took the mugs to her small sink. She pumped a small stream of water, and it was enough to make the mugs clean again. She moved around the one room home, slowly, lighting candles to brighten the dark, and readying blankets to ward off the evening chill. And as she sat in a rocking chair, and set needle to cloth, the young woman felt her voice explode.
‘And then?!’ Part question, part call that had it been the right time and right place would have brought the mountain down.
The old woman paused and looked at her, herself as steady as she had been the day long. ‘What would you do?’
‘What choice would I have had?’ came the woman’s anxious rhetorical reply. And yet not so rhetorical; she looked as though her world hung on the old woman’s thoughts. It was not lost on the old woman that her young visitor had not answered, and that perhaps she did not know.
‘Well,’ the old woman rocked back and forth, as though there was anything to consider, ‘I could have sunk to the ground again, and felt the cold sap all of me until there was nothing left but a lifeless body. Or I could climb it slow. Take it slow. That’s what it would take. Death or slow.’ The woman paused and closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of her home on a cold mountain night. And then she said, again, her eyes still closed, ‘What would you do?’
‘Climb it slow,’ the young visitor said, she didn’t even have to think.
The young woman sat, moved now to a small cot, and covered in warm, woolen blankets. She tucked the blankets around her, and thought for a very long time. She fell asleep thinking. And in the morning, she woke, and saw the old woman asleep in her chair. Slowly, carefully, quietly, she made morning tea. And when the old woman woke, the tea was on the small table, steaming, with a note that said, ‘Slow will get me out of the storm? I’ll try it.’