September 8, 2020

The Old Woman and the Angel, By Kelly Jarvis


Editor’s note: This gloriously detailed story of heartbreak, and love and work appealed to me because of the visual and emotional connection it creates with the reader. KW


Preface: The story of “Jorinde and Joringel,” by the Brothers Grimm, begins with an old woman, a true witch, living by herself in a castle deep in a thick forest. But the real story begins earlier, when this old woman was a girl. Even ancient hags with eyes red from crying were young and beautiful once upon a time, and this girl, who was to become a witch, was the most beautiful of them all.

 

*** 


“Don’t leave me.”  


They were lying tangled together, breathless, beneath an autumn canopy of leaves. The boy smiled at the girl, his fingers slowly twisting through her hair. His own rust colored locks curled down from his temples, framing eyes the color of a far off horizon.   


“I will return in three years’ time, my love.”  


He gently twirled the iron nail he had shaped into a ring and slid upon her finger, his own circle of iron clicking softly against it. They had exchanged these rustic symbols in a secret marriage ritual as the sun had miraculously risen from its casket of green earth that morning. 


Now the sun took its final breath in the loving embrace of twilight, and a thousand protests rose inside the girl’s heart. She had hoped their forest vows would tether them together and silence his desire to sail the seas. A tear slipped from her eye, and she turned her head toward a patch of flowers stained red by the death throes of the sun. He plucked one and touched its silky petal to her damp cheek, circling it down the curve of her neck. Then he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her while the fire he had built in the clearing blazed, dwindled, and eventually died into an ashy gray smoke that curled upward toward the star spattered heavens. 

 

It was long past midnight when she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep on the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest.  


When she woke, he was gone.  


***  


The boy sailed the dangerous seas all through the long, dark winter. He sailed through the blooming of spring, when the girl, as swollen and heavy as a harvest tree, was sent far away to repent in the reverent home of her spinster aunt. He sailed through the thick heat of summer as her pains split her in two. The girl screamed out his name with each wave of agony, and, when she burned with fever, and her aunt, thinking she would die, cast a circle of prayer around her, she muttered his name through her blistered lips.


Her aunt told her it was the Angel Zachiel who had answered their prayers. Through the haze of her clouded memory, the girl can recall a host of angelic forms gathered just outside the stone threshold of the window, stretching endlessly toward the horizon, their wings illuminated by celestial light. In her dreams, she remembers a child she would never see again, warm and wet against her breast, with ringlets of slick, soft, rust colored hair. 


*** 


Her aunt’s cottage was an austere place, but the girl, who was now a young woman, came to appreciate the cold stone walls of the house and the scratch of the black woolen gown which had replaced her maiden wardrobe. She wore a silver pendant carved with Zachiel’s likeness beneath her robes so that the metal touched her skin, the cold circle pressing against the place where her heart had been. 


“When you were on the doorstep of death, Zachiel took mercy on you,” her aunt reminded her daily. 


Every morning the woman rose with the sun, spending her days in solemn repentance. Every evening, when her watchful aunt finally took her rest, she loosened the wooden floor boards and retrieved the iron wedding ring she had hidden there. She pressed it into her icy flesh until the sharp point of the nail drew warm palpitating blood to the surface of her skin.


During her times of deepest despair, the woman saw the Angel Zachiel hovering just outside her line of vision. His wings circled above her as her tears watered the ground, and he comforted her as he had when she had first arrived at her aunt’s cottage, frightened and bloated with miracle and sin.  


Three times three years came and went. Her husband never returned.  


*** 


When her pious aunt passed on to heaven, the woman, now long past middle-age, stayed in the solitary cottage and began her arduous study. She borrowed books from a village apothecary and spent years learning the medicinal qualities of herbs that grew in her garden. She brewed health potions and traded them to local midwives for mysterious decks of cards. She pulled the cards under the light of the full moon, hoping to read a story of long-awaited reunion in their upturned faces.  


As rumors of her craft began to circulate, young maidens flocked to her isolated house to have their fortunes told, paying with the smooth pieces of glass that the sorceress needed to scry. Her aunt had kept no looking glasses, and the nearby marsh was windswept, so it had been years since she had seen her reflection. Red rimmed eyes, thick with rheumatism, stared back at her from a face burned yellow by the sun, and she smashed the mirrors on the ground, kicking furiously at the shards. 


Dismayed by the intrusive curiosity of the villagers, she spent ages learning to shift her body into animal forms to disguise her nocturnal travels. She slipped into the skin of a black housecat and prowled nearby inns and taverns, listening for news of a ship that had returned after decades lost at sea. When she could bear her grief no longer, she donned the silent feathers of a night owl and soared to the ocean’s edge, returning home at dawn with the taste of salt air clinging to her tongue.   

  

One winter’s evening, she cast a spell over her iron wedding ring, commanding it to spin on the cold stone windowsill where she had first seen the angels gather. Once set into motion, it would spiral endlessly until day break, as long as her husband was alive and in love with her. 

 

Each night, the old woman fell into a deep and dreamless sleep on the rhythmic rise and fall of the ring as it slowly carved a smooth round recess into the stone. 


Three times three years came and went. The ring stopped spinning. 


*** 


The old woman, who was now a true witch, left the cottage and wandered the woods. Her sadness spilled outward from her broken heart and created a circle of misery around her, so that everyone who came within one hundred feet of her was touched by the strength of her sorrow. 


She built a castle, deep in the thick forest, one lonely stone at a time.  


Over the years, the legends of the true witch grew. On clear, cold nights when the wind rattled through the valleys, children listened for the wailing of the old woman who cried in vain for her dead husband. Mothers told their wayward daughters of a castle-bound enchantress who would turn disobedient girls into caged birds. Young men whispered rumors of forest clearings where gilded statues of boys stood frozen in terror, and preachers warned that the privacy of the woods would bring nothing but death and doom. Still, new couples came into the thick forest, two by two, steeped in the heat of their youthful passion. 


One day, Jorinde and Joringel appeared. Jorinde, a maiden with eyes the color of nightfall, was more beautiful than any other girl in the world. Joringel, a strong and limber youth, curled around her like a tendril. But their love did not protect them from the weight of the witch’s grief. An aged owl circled three times around the helpless Jorinde, and, as she was magically transformed into a nightingale, Joringel froze in terror, like all the others had before him.


A gnarled old woman emerged from the bush, lines of sadness written across her face. Her weathered hands gathered the frightened nightingale and stroked its reddish brown plumes. The songbird lightly wrapped its claw around the beldam’s finger, like an infant grasping its mother’s thumb. Mournful music tumbled from the nightingale’s beak. 


“Zickety, Zickety, Zick…” 


*** 


Even the newborn nightingales’ sorrowful song trilled with beauty when it first saw the aviary at the top of the circular tower. 7,000 cages made of precious metals and jewels hung suspended and sparkling in the setting sun. 7,000 birds with chirped behind their golden bars. The old woman tottered from cage to cage, releasing the winged creatures for their daily twilight flight. They gathered just outside the stone threshold of the window and glided endlessly toward the horizon, their wings illuminated by celestial light. In the growing darkness, they looked like angels. 


***


Before returning to the forest to release the motionless boy, the old woman coaxed her cautious new nightingale onto a ruby encrusted perch. She knew that the moon would stretch its silver beams through the aviary window, and then the perch would throw scarlet blooms across the ceiling, lulling her rescued girls to sleep with a spangled dance of vermillion light. She crept down the circular stone stairwell, stopping every so often to catch her breath. 


 “Greetings, Zachiel.” 


He was waiting beside the frozen boy, as she knew he would be. He looked the same to her now as he had when she was a girl. His enormous wings, tinged with a violet so dark it looked like rust, ruffled with each breath of the night. 


 “When the moon shines on the cage, set him free, Zachiel, just at the right time.” 


“He will return,” the angel’s benevolent face seemed to say.   


“They never do,” was her silent reply. 


*** 


Time, as always, wore on. The witch tended to her pets, offering them kind words of comfort when they were sad. The nightingale remained steadfastly on her shoulder, always singing its melancholy song of hope. 


“Zickety, Zickety, Zick...” 


The old woman’s watery eyes searched the horizon, the tops of the trees rolling like an ancient sea. 


It was the birds who first heard Joringel’s footsteps on the stones. They twittered in wild unison. The witch watched as Joringel, smelling of sheep and clutching a red blossom in his fist, opened the heavy oaken door. She saw his eyes grow wide with confusion. She stood, frozen, as the wind from the open window whipped through the long gray ringlets of her unbound hair. She knew she would be painted as a madwoman. She knew the stories would cast this youth, paralyzed with indecision as his aimless gaze traveled over 7,000 birds, as an avenging hero.  


He would be standing there still, if the nightingale’s song had not told him what he must do.

  

Joringel touched the nightingale with the crimson flower, and the bird’s downy wings turned back into luminous skin and hair. Joringel gathered Jorinde, reborn into his arms, and kissed her. She coiled into his embrace and let him carry her down the steps and into the forest. They did not look back. 


***


The story of Jorinde and Joringel ends with the young couple living together in happiness for a long, long time. But the real story ends with the happily ever after of the true witch, the old woman, who was once a beautiful girl.  

 

She watched, silently, as Jorinde and Joringel fled into the night, their hands curling around one another, blind to the painful years that were sure to follow them.  


She watched, silently, as 7,000 maidens, all freed from one act of true love, exited the castle, heartbroken but hopeful, cooing like songbirds as their feathered cloaks flapped in the breeze. 

 

When she was finally alone with Zachiel, a tear slipped out of her eye and caught in the creases of her once rosy cheeks. Zachiel’s hand held the blood red flower, its center dripping with pearlescent dew. The angel touched the silky petal to her damp cheek, circling it down the curve of her neck. She inhaled the far off scent of ocean water. She heard the quiet clicking of iron on iron. She knew that at long last, her waiting was done. 

 

She pushed aside her woolen gown. It was a molting, a prayer finally answered. 

 

‘I’m coming, my loves.” 


When the petal softly touched her breast, like the dewy lips of a newborn child, the true witch, the old woman, the beautiful girl, blazed, dwindled, and died into an ashy gray smoke that circled slowly and was borne upward toward eternity on the wind of angel’s wings.  


***


Kelly Jarvis teaches classes in literature, writing, and fairy tale at Central Connecticut State University, The University of Connecticut, and Tunxis Community College. She lives, happily ever after, with her husband and three sons in a house filled with fairy tale books.  


***


Image: “Portrait of a Woman,” 1870, by Julia Margaret Cameron.


27 comments:

Aliza Faber said...

Beautiful

Katew said...

I know!

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you so much for reading, Aliza! And thank you for publishing my story, Kate! So happy your eye is feeling better!

Katew said...

😁

Maxine said...

Well done Kelly, a beautiful evocative rendition.

Stephanie said...

Wow. Absolutely stunning, Kelly! This is one that will weave through my thoughts for a long time. 💖

Linda Willson said...

Oh, Kelly, your beautiful and enchanting story made me cry and I still am. This story should have a wide audience and I hope that will become possible soon. Love, Linda

Katew said...

It is indeed.

Katew said...

Glad you liked it.

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you so much, Maxine, Stephanie, and Linda! It means the world to me to know you have read and enjoyed my little story!

Emily Janik said...

Oh, I cannot stop crying! This story is truly so terribly sad. I am sure this story will be toying through my head for a long, long time... Kelly is a very gifted writer (which I am sure she already knows).

Unknown said...

WOW, Kelly! I just love reading your fairy tales. You truly have a magical gift. I can clearly connect with your characters and you leave me wanting to read more. Bravo!

Amy Perry said...

WOW, what an amazing story! Your characters are so relatable and I find myself forming a strong bond with them. You always leave me wanting more. I can't wait to read the next one!

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you so much! I am sorry the story made you cry, Emily. I could not stop thinking about the witch and why she did the things she did when I read the Brothers Grimm story. So happy you liked the story, Amy!<3

Stanley Parker said...

Wow, Kelly, yet another truly beautiful story. You have an incredible gift for writing! Looking forward to reading more from you in the future :)

Randy said...

Kelly - your creativity, passion and gift for writing continue to amaze me. Please keep the stories coming! ❤️

diane said...

What a beautiful bittersweet story of love and loneliness! I especially loved the birds and their connection with the winged angel. And I really resonated with the message that behind many a so-called "evil" witch there is a heartbreaking story. Well told!

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you, Stanley!

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you! ❤️ I will try!

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thanks so much for reading, Diane. I have always wondered about the backstories of the characters who are labeled as evil.

Teika Marija said...

What a lovely reworking of 'Jorinde and Joringel'. I loved the way you gave the "evil" witch a backstory that really made sense of her imprisoning all those girls - as well as giving her peace at the end. Beautifully done. Thank you!

Kathleen Jowitt said...

Oh, lovely - a true ending.

(I love the Julia Margaret Cameron photograph, too. She was such an innovator.)

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you for reading! I really wanted her to find peace after so much pain.

Kelly Jarvis said...

Thank you so much! I love the photo that Kate chose as well...it is so haunting!

Melissa Yi said...

My favourite line: “When she could bear her grief no longer, she donned the silent feathers of a night owl and soared to the ocean’s edge, returning home at dawn with the taste of salt air clinging to her tongue.“

I enjoy seeing through the witch’s eyes, and the reminder that she was young and beautiful once too. Love her power.

I have a philosophical question, though: do many people here equate age with ugliness, like this character? I see some very beautiful old people. There is something special about the gleam of youth for sure, but I wonder if we’re evolving beyond the “one beauty for all humankind” ideal.

Melissa Yi said...

My favourite line: “When she could bear her grief no longer, she donned the silent feathers of a night owl and soared to the ocean’s edge, returning home at dawn with the taste of salt air clinging to her tongue.“

I enjoy seeing through the witch’s eyes, and the reminder that she was young and beautiful once too. Love her power.

I have a philosophical question, though: do many people here equate age with ugliness, like this character? I see some very beautiful old people. There is something special about the gleam of youth for sure, but I wonder if we’re evolving beyond the “one beauty for all humankind” ideal.

Kelly Jarvis said...

This is such an important philosophical question, Melissa. I was very close to my grandmother when I was young and I always saw her as beautiful. I remember finding a jar of beauty cream in her drawer after she died and thinking it must have been a magic potion. Since I loved her so much, I also see the beauty in the elderly and love when they are portrayed as such in photoshoots (I saw a recent fairy themed photo shoot which featured senior citizens and it was breathtaking). For this story, I was working with the Grimm depiction of the old woman as a “hag” who had a “long nose, red eyes, and a yellow face”. By describing her as both an old woman and a young girl at the end of my story, I hoped to show that she was always beautiful and that the lens the Grimm brothers used to classify her was a flawed one. It was one of the major pieces of the Grimm story that I wanted to “rewrite”. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! ❤️

SITE DESIGNED BY PRETTYWILDTHINGS