The Works of "Fiona Macleod", Volume V, The Sunset of Old Tales

THE WOMAN AT THE CROSS-WAYS

" . . . fiercest is the madness that springeth from inappeasable desires."---PINDAR, Nem. xi.

I do not know in how many old literatures that tradition survives of a being of the veiled world who can at will pass from diminutive shape to a sombre and terrifying aspect. It may not be at will, always, for those shadowy beings who are seen only by loosened passion may be creatures that feed upon these passions, as creatures of the wilds upon sudden pastures. And as they are fed, these shy divinities change: that which was small is become great: that which was human is now inhuman: the stream flowing past in the darkness is become Terror whispering, the wind among the shaken grasses on the moor is Fear, clothing herself in shadows.

A friend and kinsman, who at one time had an other-world sight beyond that of any I have known, told me lately that the reason why he had put a chain upon that hound of supernatural vision and kept it in a secret place in his mind and never willingly let it loose upon the dreams and thoughts and deed-shapes of men and women, was because of this, that often he had seen the disembodied passions and desires. Sometimes, he said, they were like swallows flying about the eaves of a house, sometimes like crested demons standing with a spear upon the dark brows of advancing tempest, sometimes like trees waving many arms and with starlike eyes in their dim cavernous depths. And often, he told me, these changed, as the embodied passions and desires cried out to them with longing and proud laughters, or waited like children in a wood, or bade them slake their thirst at other wells, or commanded them return whence they came, or, in a shaken dread, were still, or, with scornful eyes, silent. And as they were fed, so did these disembodied passions and desires grow or, as they were denied, so did they dwindle; but most were ravenous with hunger, and were glutted with sweet prey.

"And when the world that we call the other world is become as open to the eyes as this world-in-the-veils that we call our own," he said, "one must either see too much, or be content to shroud his eyes and see only as others see: and that way I have chosen."

So, I think often, may it be with those beings of the wastes. Some there may be that do not change--creatures of the woods; the Ceasg, lovely and harmless, in the flowing brown depths of the hill-stream; the Grainuisg, that herds flocks of white doves, the green Glastig, that milks the wild deer; the MÚrglas, sitting silent on a high boulder in unpeopled glens at twilight. But these have their life apart from us. They are the offspring of another father, as the slim women of the trees and the waves, as the blind grey-girl of the cliffs whom the hawks and wild falcons feed and guard. Many fear her, and have heard her crying in rain, or when the broken winds wail among crags and ledges.

But of the others, many change; some at will, to appal or to deceive or to evade; some because they are as shadows that shrink to daisies or increase to vast and menacing shapes just as the mind that perceives them mirrors them.

Of these, I think, is the woman of tears, the Beantuiream, the weeping woman, the woman of mourning, she who keens the sorrow of death in lonely places. How many have heard that lament, by running water in the dusk, by pools where the grey owl hawks the grey moth, on moors when the lapwings sleep and even the curlews are not crying under the moist down-dropping stars.

Sometimes she is seen as the Washer of the Ford, a tall, gaunt woman, chanting the Seis-Bhais, the Death-Dirge, as she washes the shroud of him who sees her; and sometimes she may suddenly grow great and terrible, and inhabit darkness, and the end is come. Sometimes she is seen as the Nigheag Cheag a Chroin, the little washer of sorrow, perhaps singing low while she steps the stones of a ford, or moves along the dim banks where the dew is white on sorrel and meadow-sweet, a leineag cheag bhais na lamh . . . her little shroud of death in her hand . . . a caoineadh chroin na ceul, the keen of sorrow in her mouth for him or her whose death is near.

I heard once of a meeting with the Woman of Tears told by one whose brother was he who had seen and heard: but of these neither died at that time. It is not of that I am thinking, however, but of something in the brother's tale as he told it, and as it was told to me.

"It was this way," said he who told me:" . . . when Micheil went home that night, he went by the old packhorse road on the high moor, for the rains had made a bog of the highway for more than a mile near Alltdhu, that was our house, a big stone house with the three byres to it. He was cold and hungry, for he had not touched sup or bite since noon of the day; and if he was sad it was not for any who called our hearts their home, but because of his tiredness, it may be, or the darkness and the wet, or mayhap for a song's lament that was on his lips or in his mind, for he was aye fond of sweet sorrowful lilts.

"But when, he was come to within the nearness of a mile, the rain was up, and the half-moon shone. It was so still he could hear the snipe drumming in the bog below Creag-dhu. There wasn't a sound else, no, not a sound, but only the stillness of stillness. 'Tis a place, yon, for the cryin' o' peewits an' the whaup's lamentings: but on this night one might have heard the grey moth dancing above the eyes o' the heather.

"Micheil hated the deepness of that silence, and it was worse when the snipe were still again. He whistled, but the sound went so far out upon the moor, and was so unlike the thing he had made, that he was troubled. He went on slowly with the heavy dislike on him for the noise of his feet. Sorrows were in his mind by now, and the lamenting of the heart that is never at peace because the things that cannot be are so great and desirable and the things that are look so broken and poor and desolate.

"When nigh upon Donnusk Water he stopped: to see the stores of the ford, he said: though he knew the stones, and that the water was shallow, and was shallow below them at that.

"He thought it was myself at first.

"'Is it you, John?'" . . . he said in the whisper that he thought would be the loud voice.

"He saw then it wasn't me; lo, nor any man: but a woman, or a girl, stooping over the water.

Perhaps he thought it was Elsie the cowwoman, or our niece Kirsteen: he did not think so, but to hide the whisper in his mind he lifted that thought on to the bankssbove it.

"'Ealasaid' he called, his voice falling like a flashing stone.

"'Will that be you, Cažrstine?' he called again, taut lower, and he looked behind him when he had spoken.

"Then he saw the woman or the girl look round. He had not heard her singing before, but he heard it now. By that sorrowful lamentation, low and sweet forbye, and by the tears that glistered white on the grey face, he knew it was the Nigheag Cheag a Chroin.

"Micheil was a man who would not let fear eat his heart. He gave a low sob, and waited till the sickness of the cold sweat was gone: then he licked the dryness of his lips. 'Peace to you, good woman,' he said.

"'And so you know me, mo cuat,' she answered to him, putting down on the grass the whiteness of the leinag cheag bhais, the little white shroud of death.

"'I know you, Woman of Tears,' he said, 'though why is it calling me mo cuat you are, for I am no lover of yours? And that whiteness there on the grass, sure it is for a child or a maid, that?'

"'Let me look at you,' he said.

He saw her tall now, and dark: bigger than the great alder on the bank not far from her.

"'Do you remember?' she said.

"Micheil was still at that. 'No,' he whispered, when the high reed near him was no more shaken with the breath of his pulse.

"'You will never be forgetting me, Micheil Macnamara. As for that whiteness there, it is the cloth of blindness.'

"'Mo BrÚn,' Micheil moaned; 'sorrow upon me!'

"Look at me,' he said.

"Micheil put his gaze at her. It was no woman now he saw, not even a bandia, but a power or dominion, he thought. She had her feet far down among roots of trees, and stars thickening in her hair as they gather in the vastness and blackness of the sky on a night of frost.

"'Are you Death?' Micheil sobbed, his knees shaking with the awe that was on him.

"'I am older than Death,' she said. Her voice was beyond and above and behind and below; but it was no more than the lowness of a low wind in the dusk.

"Then he heard a chanting, as of trees in a wind, and of waves rising and falling in caverns by the sea: but he did not know, and never knew, if it was in the tongue of the Gael he heard, or in what tongue. But it would be the Gaelic, for sure: for Micheil had little English, then or after. And the words that he heard were somewhat as are these words, but remembered dimly they are, as in a dream:--

"'I am she who loveth Loneliness,
And Solitude is my breath.
I have my feet on graves,
And the resurrection of the dead is my food,
For the dead rise as a vapour
And I breathe it as mist,
As mist that is lickt up of the wind.
I am she who stands at the pools:
I stand at the meeting of roads,
The little roads of the world
And the dark roads of life and death,
And the roads of all the world's of the Universe.
I am Anama-Bhroin, the Soul of Sorrow:
I am she who loveth Loneliness,
And I have the Keys of Melancholy and of Joy.
My lover is Immortality
For I am a Queen,
Queen of all things on earth and in the sea,
And in the white palaces of the stars
Built on the dark walls of Time
Above the Abyss.'

"But this that was Solitude clothing herself in voice was remembered by Micheil, as I say only as words in a dream. These may not be the words, but only the dimness of the colour of the words. He heard no more; and saw no more. And when I found him in the morning he was stiff in cold sleep. It was a day and a night and another day before he spoke, and told me what I have told. He wrote it too, later, on a paper: and so neither forgot."

But why, this evening, have I copied all this from notes taken some five or more years ago? It is not because both John and Micheil Macnamara are dead.

It is because, to-day, lying in a solitary place, with the crying of curlews on the west wind, I was reading a book that I had last read in the alien tongue of a great French poet, on a day when another wind of the west stole up across the purple blueness of the Gulf of Corinth, and passed away in the radiance beyond the Steeps of Delphi.. And, as I read the ancient Hymn in the as fine English of another translator, I found myself remembering . . . something . . . I knew not what: and then I remembered.

For a time I wondered if the Greek mystic and poet had, in his own hour and day, seen a like vision and uttered it in beauty, such as the islander Micheil had confusedly seen and confusedly given again in broken words and crude music. Then I took up the volume, and, read again (while a whisper was in the coarse grass and tangled bracken, and far away over the heather the curlews wailed above the long low flowing tide of the west wind):--

"I am HecatÍ of the Ways, of the Cross-Ways, of the Darkness, of the Heaven and the Earth and the Sea; saffron-clad Goddess of the Grave, exulting among the spirits of the dead; Perseia, lover of loneliness; Queen who holdest the Keys of the world . . ."


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