Chapter 5 – The Old Woman

The track wound between the trees. Amsiggel and Tazzwit walked until midday, and by then they were tired and thirsty. They saw an old woman gathering herbs. Tazzwit called to her, “Please, have you a little water to drink?” “Come over here,” she replied, “I’ll take you to the spring.” They followed her past a little hut made of reeds and oleander branches, and up a path until they reached a spring flowing with cool water.

When they had drunk their fill, they lay on the ground beside the spring to rest. Sleep quickly overcame them. After a while, Amsiggel woke up to the sound of the Old Woman weeping. He wakened his sister, and they asked her, “What is it? Why are you crying?” Tazzwit took her hand saying, “What’s the matter?” “Oh it’s a hard world!” she replied, “You don’t know how hard until you’ve been through it yourself!” They felt really sorry for her. “Don’t cry!” they said, “Just tell us what’s happened.” “How wretched I am,” said the Old Woman, “to be left without a friend in the world! No one ever gives a thought for me now I’m old. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always told my troubles to God, but now that everyone else has abandoned me, he’s abandoned me too – he no longer hears me or cares about me. He’s just left me with trouble and sorrow.” “Even if others forget, we won’t ever forget your kindness to us,” said Tazzwit. “Can you see this hearth,” replied the Old Woman, “and what the fire is like? The sparks fly upward and the charred wood sinks down. The good deeds you do fly away and just leave you with ashes.” “But don’t good deeds fly up to God?” asked Tazzwit. “Who knows?” said the Old Woman, “Who knows whether they get to God or not? Here we are amidst the ashes – that’s all I can be sure of.”

“Enough of tears!” said Tazzwit kindly, “Just tell us your troubles so we might find a way to help you.” “Do you really want to know?” asked the Old Woman. Then she looked up at them both and said, “May God save you from enemies like those who came between me and my husband! They accused me of what I never did. He sent me from the house, so I went back to my parents’ home. But when I got there, I found they’d all died. Our house was occupied by strangers who’d taken it by force. I fell down in a faint. When I came to, I realized that my last two little coins had been stolen from me. I collapsed again on the ground, not knowing what to do or where to go. All I had was taken from me: my husband, my children, my home, and now even my money. See how God has afflicted me! And here I am in the forest amidst the wild beasts, surrounded by spirits. Each day I gather herbs and leaves and the fruits of the forest. Some I eat and some I make into remedies to heal the sick. But you yourselves, where are going? Aren’t you a long way from your family?”

“We’re looking for some place of peace and security,” said Tazzwit. “It must be Heaven you’re after,” replied the Old Woman, “You’ll not find peace and security in this world. See, everything that has life reaches for the sky, longing to get to Heaven. Grass springs up; reeds rise above the ground; trees tower high; children grow up; wild goats climb the pinnacles, and birds soar above them all. Every one of them tries to draw close to the Lord God – but which of them can reach Heaven where he dwells? See what happens to them all. Everything that wishes to rise gets forced back down. The grass withers; the reeds bend; the trees fall; the goats come down to the valleys; the birds come back to roost; and the children die. They all return to the earth they’re made from. Not one reaches the heights or gets to the security he longs for.”

“I’ve heard,” said Amsiggel, “that all the men in Heaven will be like great kings.” When she heard this, Tazzwit looked hard at him. “Well what about us women?” she retorted, “Won’t we be in Heaven too?” The Old Woman spoke up once more, “We don’t even get into the mosque,” she said, “so how can we get into Heaven! We womenfolk don’t know how to say our prayers, and we don’t understand the words they say. We have nothing to do with things like that.” “Please don’t cry!” said Tazzwit, “God will have mercy on us if he wishes.” “But how can we know,” sobbed the Old Woman, “if he wishes or not?” “They say God is merciful,” said Tazzwit. “But who knows?” said the Old Woman, “Who know whether he’ll be merciful to me, or to you, or to your brother? If only someone could set our hearts at rest from all we fear in this world and the next!”

“Just believe in God and bear it all patiently,” said Amsiggel kindly. “Oh words like that, how many times I’ve heard them,” sighed the old woman, “but they’re like the moon to one who walks in darkness! Waxing and waning, getting bigger and smaller; coming and going, and no-one knows if it’ll light him home or not. We long to hear something reliable, something like the sun which shines all day and never fails to brighten the path that takes you where you want to go. Oh how wretched we are! Who can relieve us of this fear and doubt? Who can save us from hardship and anxiety? Who can bring us into a place of safety in this world and the world to come?” “We are looking, me and my brother,” said Tazzwit, “to see if we can find someone who knows all this. If we do, we’ll come back and tell you.” “Go then,” said the Old Woman, “and search for someone who can take us to safety!”

“We will,” agreed Amsiggel, “but before we go, surely there’s something we can do to help you.” Then they set to work: they fixed up the hut and cleared the path to the spring. They brought some large stones and made a good hearth for her. Then they kissed her on the forehead and set off once more along the track.

They kept walking till they came to a river. People were standing on the bank, unable to get across because it was flowing fiercely and the flood had carried away the bridge. Some men brought tree trunks and ropes. Tying them together, they dragged them so they lay across the river to the other side. Then, when they had weighted the ends with heavy rocks and the bridge was firm, people began to cross. Amsiggel and Tazzwit were just going over when they heard a scream behind them. They turned to look. A woman had slipped off the bridge. She was swept away in the flood. The people all started shouting and running to where she was, but the current was too strong and it carried her off before they could reach her. Amsiggel and Tazzwit were very upset. “Who knows when God might call any one of us?” Tazzwit said. “And who knows where we’ll stand with God if he does?” Amsiggel replied. Dusk found them still in the forest, so they slept till morning.