She was a widow, a lady mourning for her lost husband. She cut off her hair, her dress lay loose about her boney shoulders. Perhaps she had grieved too long. She cared little about herself. Or her two children. They were fed. Housed in old clothing. Silent, sullen.
The world couldn’t go on like this. Not forever. For forever is time and time is movement. No part of life is still. Even the mold growing on the stagnant water is movement.
So, it came to pass that the village headman’s son came of age. He was handsome and very well-built. Accomplished. Robust. Desirable. All the girls in the village drooled over him. Giggled, pranced and primped for him.
Despairing of her long mourning, the widow thought she should put it away. So, she said to herself, “I’m tired of mourning. The village asks too much of me, grieving the rest of my life. Caring for children is burdensome. Widow’s weeds aren’t a life. Perhaps, if I paint myself red, the young man will take me as his.”
She went down by the river. The snow and ice made bathing difficult. But she broke through the surface crust and washed away the signs of mourning. Washed off the dirt. By evening, she had painted herself red. She decked herself out so the boy would be taken by her. And so it was; he would have no one but this bright painted lady. With his father’s good graces he wed the red woman, a widow no more, and her children grew cold and hungry left alone. How sad. How sad to be abandoned.
The little girl took her brother’s hand and together went to grandma’s house. Grandma was poor and had little. What did an old person need? Death couldn’t be held off forever. Yet she welcomed her two grandchildren. They were family, after all, and family should be as one.
“Where has mother gone?” asked the little girl, wiping tears.
Grandma sighed, rocked, fed the fire. “I suspect,” she said, “your mother painted her face. Don’t try to find her. The headman’s son has wed her. She’ll not want to be burdened by you two children now she has found happiness.”
The old woman was right. Old people are often burdened by wisdom and the need to speak of it. Sometimes silence is best; words are hurtful.
Down by the river, near a healed hole in the ice, the bereft daughter found the filth her mother had washed off. A second hole, too, was filthy. A third was clean but the ice around was stained crimson red.
So, it was as grandma said.
What could the little lost girl do?
The girl went to the village headman’s lodging and opened the door and there sat her mother at her wedding feast and enjoying the son. The girl walked up to her red-painted mother. She hurled the filth in her mother’s face and said, “Take that! You have forsaken us, your two children, the memory of your husband.”
At once the mother-bride became a hideous and crabbed and bent old woman.
The house was in an uproar. The groom’s father raged. The son did not put away the love for his once red-painted now ugly bride. He believed that his love for her would cure her and she would become young and beautiful again. Love makes the world go around.
Devotion is touching.
But this did not stop him from having the girl and the boy bound and brought to him.
Judgment demanded payment.
“You have defiled this good place, now we must move. You will be left here to die to pay for your sins and cleanse this polluted ground,” he said.
“No,” said the old hag mother. “Take them back to their old lodging. I will take care of them there.” She yanked the crying children to their feet and shoved them to the door. “There is a hidden keep of meat,” she lisped to the little dears, “and a flint for a fire. When I come to stab you, I shall cut your bonds.” And she kicked them out.
The people departed the village for undefiled ground, while the ugly old woman took a spear and went to take care of the children. Shadows cast through the window showed her stabbing the little ones over and again. The ground and the walls grew dark, the stain spread beyond the house.
The children were not heard from again. Grandma died.
The ugly old painted lady and her young husband lived a long, prosperous life of love.
Jim Secor is a satirist, holds a doctorate in play writing and is the author of Det. Lupèe: The Impossible Cases, available to order from most stores.