An old-fashioned tale

Once upon a time, when the world was much younger than it is today, a traveller knocked on the door of an inn. It was late at night and the innkeeper had already barred the doors, snuffed out the candles and was on his way upstairs to bed. He hesitated, sighing, thinking of the food he would have to prepare and how tired he was.

Then he remembered the almost empty cash-box under his floorboards and his wife and five young children sleeping upstairs. He turned back and unbarred the door, peering out to see who was abroad so late. Before him was a slight figure, cloaked and hooded, barely discernible against the black night beyond. The new arrival indicated that she wanted only a place to spend the night, bread and ale if it were possible, and that she was willing to take these up to her bed. Usually wary of lone, late-night travellers, the innkeeper was pleased to have such an undemanding guest and quickly showed her upstairs to a room.

After she had eaten and washed away the grime of her day on the road, the woman lay down on the narrow bed and waited for sleep to come. She shut her eyes, determined that she would not open them again until it was daylight. Her mind wandered over the day she had lived through, the hedgerows she’d trudged and the fences she’d climbed over. She’d seen people working in the fields, children playing barefoot, and two men brawling in the mud outside a public tavern over accusations of a stolen pig. She replayed the pictures in her mind and colours danced behind her eyelids, but still she kept them closed. Slipping through the realms of consciousness, her breathing slowed. She thought nothing, she saw nothing. Her body relaxed and she slept.

Two hours passed. Unknown, shadowy night creatures roamed the village, tormenting the chickens, overturning sacks of grain and stealing livestock. The village dogs and cats kept their eyes closed and feigned sleep, preferring not to see these supernatural mischief-makers. The inn was quiet and nothing stirred. The woman slept on but her unconscious mind felt itself being called. She rose from the bed, eyes closed, and crossed the room to the table beneath the window where her travelling bag lay. She took from it a box of silken threads and a small wooden handloom and sat down at the table. With her head tilted, as if listening, she nevertheless slept on.

The loom lay on her lap, but the threads were gathered in readiness in her hands. The stillness and silence of the night were all around, but her ears and her mind were filled with whispers and half-heard words, strains of music and tingling vibrations. Behind her eyelids, countless shadows flitted, first in black and white, fragmented and nonsensical, and then resolving themselves into coloured shapes — people, places and feelings given form.

As she slept her fingers began to work upon the warp and weft, tentatively at first, and then with increasing confidence. Soon the silken threads grew on the loom, bursting into life in an intricate and beautiful pattern. Time passed and tears squeezed from under her closed lashes and trickled down her face, falling unseen onto the growing cloth in her hands. Their sparkle and empathy only added to the beauty of the tapestry. Still, her fingers flew, the tapestry grew, and her tears dried.

Happier images and harmonies flooded the woman’s unconscious now and a smile played upon her lips. Brilliant colours of life and vitality sprang from her mind, through her fingers and into the weaving, until at last the sounds and pictures inside her head stopped abruptly. Her fingers slowed, her body relaxed, and she opened her eyes. Somewhere in the inn, a baby was crying, and she heard footsteps on the wooden floor outside her room, a door opening and closing, and the sound of a mother soothing her child.

The woman shook herself a little, stretched her weary arms and fingers, and looked down at the work now lying in her lap. It was as neat as anyone could ask for, and a riot of colour, but even as its creator looked, its meaning slipped from her mind, and the images that had been so vivid faded to nothing.

She sighed. So many mornings, hundreds now, she woke to find herself like this, sitting on a chair or on the floor, her back stiff with cold, her fingers sore, and a mysterious tapestry in her hands. The tapestries were intricate and sometimes beautiful, but always strange and indecipherable. And no matter how much thread she used, the wooden box remained full of coloured silks. Tired and yawning, the woman tied and snipped the cloth from the loom, and laid the finished piece upon the table. With daylight just beginning to slide into the room from under the shutters, she took herself back to bed, exhausted, and fell immediately into a deep and dreamless sleep.

The innkeeper’s wife, for it was she who had been tending the infant, tiptoed back to her room. Her husband slumbered on in their bed, snoring and spluttering, and she knew she stood little chance of falling asleep beside him. It was growing lighter now and she decided to dress and start the day; perhaps she could get ahead with the day’s chores while her children slept. Once downstairs, she laid and lit fires in the kitchen and the main tavern room, made bread and pies for the day, and swept the tavern floors.

Venturing outside to bang dust from the broom, she used it to chase away the small, dawdling mischief-makers from the corners of the back yard. While she washed up the previous night’s ale tankards, her mind flew back to her vivid dreams. She’d dreamt of her childhood, of playing with her little sister in the woods behind their cottage — a time of freedom and tree-climbing.

And then of sorrowful days, when scarlet fever had taken hold of their village and claimed both her sister and mother. Hard years had passed while she mourned them and shared with her father the burden of bringing up three little brothers. But she’d dreamt next of happier times when she met and married her husband, and her beautiful babies began to arrive. Life was not easy now — they did not always know if they would have sufficient food the following week — but she loved and was loved in return. Content with her lot, she considered herself fortunate.

One of her little ones appeared, white-gowned and barefoot, in the kitchen doorway. “Water, please, Mama,” she asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
The mother smiled, wiped her wet hands on her apron, and real life took over again.

Sometime later, with the public bar open and the usual ne’er-do-wells already congregated with their tankards of ale around the fire, the innkeeper remembered their late night guest. He asked his wife to go find her; the guest must pay for her bed and board, and if she were moving on that day, his wife would have to change the bed and sweep out the room for the next person.

The innkeeper’s wife knocked on the bedroom door, waited, then knocked again. When there was no reply she pushed the door open and went in, hoping the guest had not slipped away unseen without paying her dues. But the guest was still sleeping, despite the sunshine now filtering through the shutters and falling across the bed. The innkeeper’s wife crossed the room, somewhat annoyed that she had been working for hours while this fortunate creature slept on. She threw open the shutters with a bang.

The sunshine burst in, the woman on the bed stirred and woke, and the wife’s gaze fell upon the tapestry lying on the table. She gasped and her hand flew to her mouth in shock. How could this be? There before her was an exquisite picture, so accurate and densely detailed, its beautiful threads of red, green and gold sparkling. She caught her breath and gently picked up the tapestry, turning it this way and that, drinking in each detail in wonder. The woman rose from the bed and studied her, saying nothing.

“Did you make this?” the innkeeper’s wife asked, barely able to tear her eyes away from the beauty in her hands.

The woman nodded.

“But…how? How could you know? I don’t understand!” the innkeeper’s wife marvelled, filled with delight, but also fear.

The woman shook her head and gave her accustomed answer: “I don’t understand it either. It’s just…what I do — my gift. Or my curse.”

“It’s wonderful,” the innkeeper’s wife managed to say, through her tears.

“Take it, it’s yours,” the woman told her.

The innkeeper’s wife clutched the tapestry to her chest and hurried across the room to hug the strange woman. Never before had she owned such a beautiful thing.

The wife took the tapestry downstairs to her husband, holding it out for him to see, expecting him to cry out in wonder. Instead, he looked at the piece of cloth and then back at her, and said,

“What is it?”

His wife looked at him in amazement. “Why it’s me,” she said.

He stared at her. Had she gone mad?

“It’s my life! — look, here, it’s my little sister,” she said, touching the cloth. “And here, the woods where we played, and the trolls’ swamp, and our cottage, and my brothers. And look,” she touched another part of the tapestry, “here we are, with our babies.” She smiled up at him.

The innkeeper, who was a kind man and loved his wife more than anything in the world, took the fabric from her hands and studied it.

“No,” he said. “I see nothing. It’s colourful, but it’s just a mess of threads.”

His wife looked at him in astonishment. Her life was all there, in that tapestry, just as she had dreamed about it last night. Why, it was as plain as anything!

She snatched the tapestry out of his hands, growing angry, and also a little embarrassed; some of the customers in the tavern were looking at her strangely now.

“Look!” she said, turning away from him, and holding the cloth out for those nearby to see. “You can all see it, can’t you?”

A couple of the men muttered and turned away to save her feelings, while others failed to hide their laughter. The wife grew red and tears started in her eyes, and her husband gently laid a hand on her shoulder.

“I think you are tired and overwrought,” he said. “You said you were up early with the baby. Why don’t you go lie down and try to get some rest for a while? I can manage here.”

“I’m fine!” she shrugged his hand away. “It’s you, all of you! You must be blind or stupid” she said, as she stomped off.

The innkeeper shook his head and turned back to serve the next customer. As he feared, gossip about his wife’s madness, seeing pictures where there were none, soon spread out of the tavern and through the village.

The day passed and the innkeeper’s wife went about her work. She locked the precious tapestry away in the trunk at the bottom of their bed, along with her mother’s handwritten book of potions and her father’s prized amulet. She decided that if her husband and his fellow villagers were too stupid to appreciate the tapestry, they would not see it again. She told their guest that she must certainly stay another night with them and that there was no need for her to worry about payment for the room or her food; the tapestry she had given was so wonderful, it would pay for a thousand nights at the inn.

“We’ll be starving and out on the street long before she stays a hundred nights without paying,” the innkeeper grumbled to his wife. But his wife just shot him a withering glance and he decided it might be best not to say any more for the moment.

The news of the fantastic tapestry — or the wife’s madness, depending on who told the tale — spread to the edges of the village by nightfall. The tavern grew crowded with people who wanted to examine the mysterious cloth or see the woman who had made it, or at the very least watch a fight between the innkeeper and his wife. But among the crowd came a woman, the oldest inhabitant of the village, almost one hundred years old now and quite blind. Her great, great grandson spoke quietly to the innkeeper’s wife and then brought her to sit in front of the fire, where she asked for a tankard and for the strange guest to come sit with her. The innkeeper’s wife went and fetched the woman from her room, where she had remained all day, and she reluctantly took a seat by the fire.

The villagers drew close and a hush fell as the old woman took a good swig of ale and pulled her threadbare shawl tighter round her shoulders.

“Give me your hands, my dear,” the old woman said to the younger, holding out her own wrinkled hands expectantly.

There was the briefest of pauses, and then the guest placed her hands obediently into the old woman’s. Moments passed and the villagers waited. In the silence, the old woman absorbed everything she needed to know about the younger, and then let her hands go. Nodding in satisfaction, she drained her tankard.

“Bring me another beer and I’ll tell you everything,” she said.

The innkeeper rolled his eyes to heaven and swore. “This is nothing but a trick to get free ale. Yes, and free bed and board,” he nodded towards the guest. “You’re most likely in on it together.”

His wife admonished him and poured the old woman another cup. “Go on please, wise Grandmother,” she said. The room was so quiet now they could hear the giant frogs croaking to each other out on the village pond.

“She’s a dreamweaver,” the old woman said, after a few gulps of her drink. “I didn’t think there were any left. Truth be told, I’d almost forgotten they ever existed, it’s been so long since one passed through our village.”

“Well, what’s a dreamweaver?” interrupted one young man. Those closest to him tutted at his lack of respect, but they all listened for her answer.

“When I was a child, we got all manner of wandering folk through the village. Storytellers, minstrels, dreamweavers, moneylenders, medicine men — the whole lot. Dreamweavers were the rarest. They can see or hear your dreams while they’re asleep, and they weave a picture of it. What’s more, the dream they weave can only be understood by the person who dreamt it.”

There was a collective gasp from the villagers and the innkeeper’s wife elbowed her husband in the ribs, “You see, I’m not going mad.”

The old woman’s great, great grandson spoke softly to the guest. “Is that right?”

She considered for a moment, and then nodded. “It may be. I didn’t know there was a name for it. I thought I was the only one.” She smiled. “Dreamweaver. I like that.”

“She’s a witch!” someone in the crowded tavern shouted, and many villagers gasped. The dreamweaver shrank back in her chair — she had been afraid of this.

“No, she ain’t a witch,” said the old woman crossly. “I just told you, she’s a dreamweaver. Why, she doesn’t even realise she’s doing it! And when she wakes up, she can’t remember. And she can’t see what’s in the picture neither.”

“Lucky for you, my friend,” one slightly drunken villager addressed his neighbour. “For you surely wouldn’t want anyone else to see the sort of dreams you have!” This caused a degree of merriment among the men, while the women shushed them.

“A likely story!” said the innkeeper. “I still say it’s a trick — or an old wives’ tale.”

“Cheek!” said the old woman, setting down her second empty tankard of ale. “No respect for your elders, that’s your problem. Well, have it your own way. Now take me home please,” she ordered her great, great grandson.

“Thank you, Grandmother,” the innkeeper’s wife said. “Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.”

“And thank you for going home before you drink all our ale,” muttered the innkeeper, but fortunately not loud enough for anyone but his wife to hear.

The old woman hobbled out, guided by her great, great grandson, amid hugs and thanks from the more tipsy villagers. The dreamweaver took the opportunity to slip away to her room where she sat for a while, mulling over this new-found knowledge. It was some comfort to know that she was not the only person in the world who had this talent, even if she didn’t understand it.

Days passed, and nights passed, and the dreamweaver stayed on at the inn. The innkeeper continued to grumble that it was all fakery and refused to speak to the dreamweaver. Most mornings when she woke, the dreamweaver found a new tapestry in her hands. Each time this happened, the innkeeper’s wife carried it downstairs and displayed it in the tavern. A steady stream of villagers came through the inn, looking at the tapestry and scratching their heads, and saying that, well, yes, it was very pretty, but they couldn’t make head or tail of it. Until each day, eventually, one person would come and stand open-mouthed at what lay before them, unable to believe their eyes — their own dreams, their life, and their deepest secrets. Many cried, some thanked the dreamweaver and told her they would be grateful until their dying day, and some snatched up their tapestry and rushed away, red-faced.

The innkeeper continued to be sceptical — Doubting Thomas, his wife took to calling him — but he was happy about the increased trade that the dreamweaver’s presence brought, even if she was taking up a bedroom. His wife wouldn’t hear of turning out the dreamweaver, saying that they were blessed to have such a special guest.

One morning, the innkeeper’s wife carried the latest tapestry downstairs and set it on a table over by the fire. All day long people came and went, drinking ale and eating heartily, but by evening nobody had claimed the tapestry as theirs.

“Her luck’s run out,” scoffed the innkeeper. “All the credulous fools have jumped in, not wanting to be left behind, and it’s only us sensible, level-headed folk left now.”

His wife ignored him and carried on washing out ale tankards.

“I love you, wife, but you really started some nonsense here. I’m surprised at you.”

Exasperated, his wife threw down her cloth. “Husband, will you do one thing for me today? Just one thing?”

“What is it?” he asked.

“Go look at the tapestry. Go over to the table and look.”

With a sigh, and purely to humour his wife, the innkeeper went to the table by the fireside. He stood with his back to his wife. Long minutes passed while she watched him from behind the bar, and then a realisation dawned on her. Quietly she crossed the room and put her hand in his.

“What do you see?” she asked him.

There was a pause, and then the innkeeper said,

“I see my life. I see my poor, widowed mother struggling to bring me up. And I see my boyhood friends. And most of all, I see the woman I love. The woman I’ll love until the day I die, and our babies.”

He turned to her and kissed her forehead. And she smiled up at him and resisted the temptation to say, “I told you so”.

And unseen by them both, the dreamweaver slipped out of the back door of the tavern and walked away into the darkness of the night.

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