Thich nhat hahn said “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on this green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
I will follow that with my own quote: “The miracle is not to raise lazarus from the dead. The miracle is to connect compassionately and altruistically with those alive around us”.
As I engage with others, especially the elderly, I find that though I may be alleviating their loneliness, what they give me in return is worth a hundred times more than I have given them.
And even those living on the margins of society, with little material wealth are rich in humour and stories and dignity.
You have heard, no doubt, the nursery rhyme about the old woman who lived in a shoe.
Well I once met a woman who slept in a barrel!
(It was only while taking care of her when she became ill that I realized this and it explained her reluctance to get out of the bed we had provided for her).
Charlotte (not her real name) I hope you don’t mind me telling your story.
A story I pieced together from the snippets you doled out to me on those quiet evenings when you couldn’t sleep.
I apologize if I have let my imagination run away with me. But sometimes you DID fall asleep and left unfinished sentences on your lips which I have taken the liberty of finishing.
Let me start at the beginning;
THE STORY OF THE OLD WOMEN WHO SLEPT IN A BARREL.
Charlotte was not in the habit of sleeping late.
Before the banty cockeral had given its first crow, she was already unfolding her long limbs and crawling out of the blue plastic barrel which, lying on its side in the corner of the room, was her bed.
The room itself was an enigma.
A strange mixture of poverty (It had no ceiling).
And wealth (there was a mismatched pile of delicate antique china cups and saucers heaped on an exquisite mahogany sideboard)
One leg of the sideboard was missing and the structure was supported on a cement block, which, though strong was not the same height as the existing legs so the whole structure leaned at a rakish angle.
The room was clean. The floor swept. A bucket stood strategically under a tear in the tarpaulin which acted as a replacement for the missing roof.
The basket beside the fire was well stocked with dry turf.
The ashes were cleared from the grate and a heap of kindling and twists of newspaper lay ready.
A blackened kettle hung from the crane which appeared to be still in good repair and a table and three wooden chairs stood under the window.
Other than these and the barrel, the room was bare.
A piece of rough hessian hung across a doorway which led into another room.
The entrance door to the cottage was also of hessian.
Pushing it aside Charlotte stepped out into the early morning light and stretched her spindly arms and gave a yawn.
Beauty the old sheep dog, its hair matted, followed her out and stretched too before lifting his leg against the fuchsia bush.
‘Lovely morning Beauty’ Charlotte reached down and gave the dogs head an affectionate pat.
Beauty wagged his tail lazily and sniffed under the bush, disturbing an indignant hen.
Charlotte bided her time by dipping her hands into a bucket of water and splashing her face.
By the time she had dried her face in the hessian sacking, the hen was gone noisily off around the gable of the house.
Crouching down in a movement that belied her eighty five years and ignoring the stings of the nettles, she trust her bare arm into the shrubbery, pulling out four warm eggs.
She put three of them gently into a cracked mug that sat on the windowsill
The forth she broke into a battered enamel bowl and beauty lapped it up without delay.
She rooted in the pocket of her dress (a shift like affaire fashioned out of a clarinda bag with a pocket sewn roughly across the front) and pulling out a comb, ran it through her long white hair.
Then twisting her hair up into a bun with one hand, she snapped a fuschia twig off the bush with the other and jammed it through the newly made bun, pinning it into place.
The two fuschia flowers on the twig lent a decorative air to the makeshift head piece.
The hessian was pulled aside once more and the youngest of her two brothers stepped out blinking in the sunlight.
‘Grand morning’ He grunted and leaning against the gatepost busied himself filling his pipe.
He was tall like his sister, with a thatch of white hair growing through the moth eaten holes of an ancient tweed cap.
‘It is that’ replied Charlotte.
The two of them fell into companionable silence. The tall man puffing on his now lit pipe and the woman perching herself on a fishbox.
They gazed across the sloping fields with their zigzagged pattern of stone walls.
Where the fields eventually slid into the sea, if you squinted, you could just make out a few grazing cows.
But charlotte and her brother, so accustomed to years of spotting sheep as small as rain drops on the side of the mountain, did not need to squint.
Nor did their ears miss the ‘phutting’ sound of a distant engine.
‘Tom’s out early’. Charlottes brother remarked nodding his head in the direction of a small boat coming into view from around the headland.
The sea was so calm, with a dash of morning mist over it, that the boat appeared suspended mid air.
‘Who’s out early?’
The hessian was pulled aside once again as the third and final occupant of the house emerged.
He was so tall he had to duck low to avoid clobbering his head off the lintil.
Without waiting for an answer he turned to charlotte, ‘I’ve lit the fire and put the kettle on! Did ye find where she’s laying?’
‘I did indeed’ charlotte replied nodding to the mug ‘and right under our noses too’.
‘What’! her brother joked ‘She laid her eggs in the cup on the window sill?’
Charlotte laughed so hard at his suggestion that she doubled over clutching her skinny stomach.
The fuschia flowers in her hair jangled.
‘Of course not’ She gulped, when at last she caught her breath and wiped her eyes, ‘She laid them here under the bush! I put them in the cup’.
She started to laugh again.
Her brother, caught by her giddiness, smilingly lifted the eggs from the mug and went back inside.
Steam was coming from the spout of the kettle and he used a straight piece of timber to lift off the lid.
Avoiding the steam he dropped the eggs one by one into the kettle of boiling water.
A few minutes passed and she followed him in and took a china teapot off the sideboard, flinging a handful of tea leaves into it.
‘I’ll do that’ Her brother finished lifting out the eggs.
He took the pot from her and poured the used egg water into it.
‘Don’t want you getting another scalding and ending up in hospital again. They might not be so quick to let you home next time’,
Charlotte examined the red puckered area on the inside of her arm before turning her attention to a loaf of bread.
She held it firmly and cut three straight slices.
The butter was kept in willow pattern butter dish with the cover still intact.
Beauty crept under the table as the three ate their breakfast in silence and Charlotte threw her crusts to the old dog.
‘You’ll make him fat’ Her brother remarked, but he threw his down also.
‘I’m off so’ Charlotte stood shaking the crumbs of bread and egg from her dress.
She lifted a sack off a nail in the wall and picked up an empty bucket.
‘Don’t be seen’ Her youngest brother warned her anxiously.
But she had already disappeared through the doorway.
Beauty lifted his head and thumped his tail. He was busy licking up the crumbs plus he was too lazy to follow her.
The track to the well was overgrown with hawthorn, willow and elder.
Summer gossamer hung bejewelled across her path.
The smell of the elderflower was intoxicating and as she passed under it, tiny petals floated down and landed on her hair.
A bee came to investigate and another until it looked like she had a moving halo around her head.
She waited quietly, unafraid, until at last they moved off again.
On reaching the well, she took the enamel cup from its place on a rocky shelf and kneeling on the moss covered stones, pushed aside the ferns and dipped it in.
She took a long drink.
When the ripples had settled, she smiled at her watery reflection, turning her head this way and that to admire her hair piece.
The gate to Mattie’s field lay beyond the well
Content that there was no sign of her neighbour, Charlotte scaled it within seconds, swinging her long legs over, her wellingtons, two sizes too big did not in anyway impede her agility.
Beyond the gate a cluster of sleepy cows lifted their heads and watched her.
She made her way between them making soft ‘shushing’ sounds and giving the odd cheeky bullock a slap on it’s rump.
In the center stood a large cream colored cow with calf at foot.
The cow stood calmly, appearing unperturbed by Charlottes approach, but the calf backed away in fear.
‘Suck suck suck suck’ Charlotte coaxed it and reached to scratch behind its silken ear.
It came forward and gaining some confidence tried to stick its head in the bucket. Charlotte laughed softly and turning started to stroke the neck of the cow.
The cows eyes began to droop and as they did, Charlotte crouched down below its udder and quickly began to milk.
The cow turned its head drowsily and sniffed the back of charlottes head but didn’t move off.
The only sounds heard now were the odd buzzing of a horse fly, the irritated thud of a hoof striking the ground and the rhythmic hiss of milk hitting the inside of the pail.
The smell of warm milk rose and mingled with the smell of the nearby elderflowers.
Charlotte, completing her task straightened up, give the cow a pat and climbed the gate again.
Mattie also grew a fine field of spuds, carrots, cabbages and onions, and this field was Charlottes next target.
Leaving the pail of milk in the shadow of an elderflower bush and tucking the hessian sack firmly under her arm, she marched boldly up to the first row of spuds.
A fork lay carelessly on the ground but she ignored it and scrabbled with her hands into the soil pulling out a few choice potatoes and throwing them into the sack before gently pushing the soil back into place.
She did the same with the carrots.
Her hair loosened and her hair piece fell between the rows.
The two fuschia flowers withered and forlorn looking.
She pulled an onion and head of fine cabbage.
As she cross back the field, she twisted the cabbage off its stalk and threw the roots in the ditch.
The cabbage joined the other vegetables in the sack.
She was up and over the gate in a flash and collecting the milk, headed back to the well.
Charlotte left the sack and the bucket at the well and pushing through a gap in the hedge made her way out into open countryside, to the edge of the mountain where the hedgerow gave way to stone walls and cows to sheep.
She headed up the soft slope.
Half way up she stood letting the breeze lift her hair and turned her face to it.
(She told me she called this ‘wind bathing’)
Far below her a single car made its way along the winding road, the faint purr of the engine barely reaching her.
The swifts flew high overhead.
Against the cliffs the black splashes of a pair of ravens appeared to be tumbling to their death only to recover and soar up the cliff face again.
A flock of finches flew by and landed in the nearby hawthorn trees.
A startled hare took off out of a clump of rushes and bounded away.
Tom’s boat was now making for the islands.
She stood feeling a sense of contentment before turning and starting to make her way parallel to the mountain.
A tall skinny figure dressed in a clarinda bag.
She began running, slowly at first, but gradually picking up speed.
She cleared the first wall.
She folded her arms across her chest. The second wall was lower and easier.
Someone had pulled down the third, probably to drive the flock of sheep through.
The sheep lifted their heads momentarily to watch her and then losing interest returned to their grazing.
At the fourth wall she feared she would fly so she hugged her spindly arms tighter around her chest.
Her white hair flew out behind her like a cape.
At last tired, she sat on a rock to catch her breath.
Mattie stood in his field scratching his head in puzzlement. This wasn’t the first time he had noticed the newly disturbed soil where his prize winning carrots were growing and here it was again.
‘Damn rabbits’ He muttered.
He hoped it was rabbits, the other option was unthinkable and he would be the laughing stock if he brought it up over a pint. Though nobody laughed when Johnjo told the story of how the faeries had led him astray coming home from the pub one night.
A twig with two withered fuschia flowers lay on the ground.
He was about to stoop for a closer look when a movement on the side of the mountain caught his eye.
A sheep jumping the wall? hardly!
It looked like a human, a woman.
Was it his mad auld neighbour? How could she be lepping walls at her age.
But then they did call her Mad lottie.
A sort of witch, living in that ruin of a cottage with her two brothers.
That cottage should be condemned! Though he had heard that the brothers, big tall lads, had run the social workers off the land there recently.
Chased them down the boreen with pitch forks someone said!
He’d have liked to have seen that alright.
He looked towards the mountain again but all he could see now were the sheep.
He must have imagined her.
Jaysus he’d better get his eyes tested.
When Charlotte arrived home her younger brother was washing the carrots in a bucket by the door.
‘Spuds are on! you did good!’ He looked up at her. ‘I brought the milk back too for ya and Hughie has caught three nice trout’.
Later sitting at the table between her two brothers. Charlotte threw the skin of the trout to beauty and began to laugh.
‘Whats so funny?’ Her brothers looked at her.
‘I keep seeing them social workers running down the boreen’ she gasped catching her breath ‘I bet they have never run so fast in their lives.