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The Wise Woman of the Marshes

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The Wise Woman had made many journeys in her life and lived in many places, when she came to live in the old mill by the edge of the bogs. The folk eyed her suspiciously at first, but soon enough they found out that she was very good at removing curses and healing illnesses and finding lost things, and also she brewed excellent beer. For all these reasons, they quickly got used to her, and soon it seemed to them as if she had always been living there in the old mill. For her part, the Wise Woman had a habit of being where she was needed, and she thought that a part of the country with so many bogs full of ill-natured creatures would have need of her.

The Wise Woman knew very well that it would have been impossible for people to live there among the bogs if not for the kindness of the Moon who kept the Bogles and Crawling Horrors and other evil things from doing harm, and she was grateful to the Moon for it. The Wise Woman would sometimes go out of the old mill late at night, since there were herbs which were more effective if gathered by moonlight. Often she saw and heard the ill creatures scurrying away and hissing just at the edge of her vision, because they could not bear the bright moonlight. And she always looked up then and said, “Thank you, Moon!” And she could tell the Moon was pleased.

One night the thought came into her mind that she, as the Wise Woman, should do something for the Moon, in return for all the kindness the Moon had showed her and the people of the marsh country. And so when she looked up and said, “Thank you, Moon!” she also added, “If you want to come to my house some night for cakes and beer, you’d be welcome.”

Nothing happened that night, or the next, but on the next dark of the moon, the Wise Woman heard a knock at her door. She hobbled to answer it, using her cane, since at her age, even a Wise Woman could not be as spry as she once was. She opened the door, and there stood the Moon.

“Come in!” said the Wise Woman. The Moon did not speak, but she smiled and entered the old mill.

The Wise Woman offered her cakes and some of her excellent beer, and also some bread that she had made from beer and which she thought very fine. She knew the Moon could not speak in the manner of earth-born creatures, but she spoke herself and told the Moon about all the people who lived nearby, and what their troubles were, and what good things had happened to them lately. The Moon shone brightly, with a clear glow, and the Wise Woman could tell that she enjoyed listening to the ordinary tales of commonplace things on earth. The Moon ate and drank while she listened, and perhaps the plain beer and cakes were as unusual to her as drinking starlight would be to you or me. Though she did not speak, once or twice she looked into the Wise Woman’s eyes, and for a moment the Wise Woman saw and felt what it was like to walk the cold clear skies among the stars.

Before she left, the Moon plucked a single shining hair from her head and gave it to the Wise Woman. The Wise Woman wore it wrapped around her wrist whenever she went out at night, and while she wore it, the bog creatures never dared come near her.

From time to time the Moon came to visit, and the Wise Woman always shared whatever food and drink she had in the house, and she told the Moon all the goings-on of the neighborhood. And so things went on well enough, until the Moon went into the bogs and disappeared.

When the Moon did not come back at her usual time, at first the Wise Woman wasn’t worried. After all, the Moon might well have important business of her own to attend to. But as the days and nights wore on and the Moon still did not return, the Wise Woman became worried indeed. She would have sought out where the Moon had gone if she could have, but the spell worked in such a way that she could never seek out answers for herself—only for another person, if they asked her. And so she waited, and watched the dark sky, until the people who lived among the marshes came to her and asked her to find the Moon. And then—then she could look, and look she did. She told all the people to wait outside the mill, so they wouldn’t disturb her while she was at her work.

The Wise Woman looked in the brew-pot, which had brewed the beer she had given the Moon to drink, and tried to taste the words that the Moon might be speaking. But she tasted only earth on her tongue, thick and heavy and bitter. She opened the Holy Book then and looked in it, to see what sentence her eye first fell on. But it only said: He who has ears, let him hear. The Wise Woman listened, as carefully as she knew how. She heard only the marsh waters lapping in the distance, and the people talking to each other outside.

She uncovered the mirror, which she always kept covered unless she was using it for a particular purpose, and she looked in it to see what the Moon might be seeing. Here at least she hoped to catch sight of something that would be of use. But she saw nothing, only darkness like the grave. She took a step farther, and pressed her head and hands against the mirror to feel what the Moon might be feeling, dangerous though it was. And she felt something pressing on her chest like a heavy weight, and all her limbs were cold.

She pulled away from the mirror and went to the door of the mill, leaning heavily on her cane. She said to the people outside, “There is one among you who knows more than he thinks he does.” But they only gave each other puzzled looks and muttered confusedly among themselves, and though she feared something terrible had happened to the Moon, she had to tell the marsh folk she could not help them.

But then they came back to her again, with a story of how one man had seen the light of the Moon in the bogs, and she nodded. It was no surprise, that it was some evil plot of the bog creatures. Once again she told them to wait outside the mill, and she closed the door so she could work. The bog creatures had imprisoned the Moon in darkness, and buried her in some evil place, that was certain; but how was the Wise Woman to find her, any more than she had before?

She thought for a little while, and then she went to where she had stowed the single hair that the Moon had given her. It shone very brightly in her hand—the last bit of moonlight that was left in the world, for all she knew. The Wise Woman held the hair to a lit candle until it caught fire. A flare of silver light rose up, like fire if fire could burn shining white instead of red. By that light, she looked in the brew pot. Again she tasted earth on her tongue; but could it be the mud of the marshes? Again she looked in the Holy Book, and the first place she looked at said: And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spat Jonah up onto dry land. And the Wise Woman began to hope that the Moon could be saved.

She looked in her mirror. There was darkness, nothing but darkness; and then the mirror began to shine faintly with a silver light. She strained her eyes and could make out something that looked like a big black coffin, and something that looked like a great dark cross, and a fitful light that flickered like a candle. And then the light went out and she could see no more, for the single hair of the Moon was all burned away.

The Wise Woman drew in a deep breath and let it out again in a sigh. And then she went outside to tell the folk gathered there what they must do.

They went out into the bogs, each one with a stone in his mouth and a hazel-twig in his hand, as the Wise Woman had told them. The Wise Woman stood there outside the mill in the moonless dark, leaning on her cane. She waited, and she waited. And at last she saw a brilliant light rise up again into the sky, and she laughed quietly with sheer joy. “Welcome back, Moon,” she said. “It’s glad I am to see you safe and back where you should be.”

And there the Moon was, and there she stayed, shining brightly in her usual way. At the next dark of the Moon, the Wise Woman could not help being a little worried, wise though she was. But then there came a knock on her door, and there stood the Moon, as beautiful and shining as ever. The Wise Woman stood a moment looking at her. “Come in, then,” she said. “I have cakes that I baked fresh this morning.” And so she had, just in case. From time to time, the Moon came to visit the Wise Woman just as before; and the Wise Woman always made sure she had fresh bread or cakes set aside for her, and some of her best beer.