Stand still

This is a tale told in lichen-rusted cracks on a lone moorland stone . . .

The night this story was told stretched long and dark. Few folk came to the solitary chapel, and those that did coughed or wheezed. The Pilgrim gave out hot drinks, full of herbs and soothing honey. She lit many lamps to honour the turning of the year. The warm room fell quiet and she began:

One bleak winter, sickness came to the dale. It came in the time when Ragnald ruled the northern lands. The Earl had no time for the poor, and so many looked to a certain wisewoman for help.

They climbed up steep steps to a small room above a deserted shrine. They found it empty. Only tied bunches of herbs hanging from the rafters and runes written on bone slices, bundles of feathers twisting in a draft and a faint scent of incense showed she had been there at all. Everything lay still and clean and left behind.

Some folk sought her around the thorpe, examining each bootprint and staffmark to see if she had passed that way. Others trampled undergrowth in the woodlands and found nothing but startled birds and trembling berries. Calls and prayers and rituals did nothing.

Then the one bairn not stricken by illness ran out onto the barren fells.He was an oddkin and let to run free. He found her stood like a great stone left by a glacier. Tall, motionless, she cast a long shadow in the low winter sun.

Fathers came and raged at her. Their boots stomped on the frost-hardened ground and their breath blew grey like dragon’s fog. She stayed still as moss dwelling on a branch in the deep forest.

Mothers came and pleaded. ‘Why don’t you help us? Have you no pity?’ Her eyes held their gaze like frozen ponds and her face had no movement. The women left, weeping.

The sick bairns said nought. Coughing and wheezing had stolen their words. Only the odd lad who had found her came. Every day he made pretence to be scaring off rooks and crows. Nobody bothered to stop him.

After a week, at the time of smoke rising, before darkness hid the land and sent the lad home, her eyes thawed. A smile softened her rock-hard face when she saw him. ‘Time we did some healing, you and I,’ she said.

‘What were you waiting for?’ the lad asked, curiosity not accusation in his voice.

‘I stood still while the remembered song of curlews defending their nest gave me courage. I stood still while a trickle of water finding a road through limestone taught me persistence. I stood still while the first starlight of this new moon gave me hope.’

He nodded. ‘You waited while you were ready, then.’

The boy proffered his hand and she took it. They went back to the thorpe. There they made healing drafts and salves. The lad delivered them and not one bairn was lost.

The Pilgrim turned to look through the northernmost window of the Chapel-in-the-Sands.

You can still see her standing on the moor, folk say. A lone rock that remembers the time needed to heal.

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image adapted from Blayn Parkinson’s Public Domain photograph.

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