She came stomping after him, like a reluctant child dragged along unwillingly for the ride. He chose to ignore the over-heavy footsteps, because he knew that they were designed to make him look around, at which she would most likely pull a face of pain and indignation at being brought to this place. She hadn't wanted to come, he couldn't deny that, and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge her anger was fuelled by guilt that he had talked her into it in the first place. He had wanted her to be with him and convinced her it would be interesting, fun, a chance to get away from it all, all of which he had known was untrue at the time, with the possible exception of the last one, but he had argued nevertheless.
The sun was low in the sky when they reached a small outcrop of rocks that proved to be a dwelling. The sole inhabitant was a woman so old she appeared to be part of her rough hewn home, rather than sheltered by it. He spoke to her in the local language, and her voice cracked and skipped over syllables as if she had not spoken for a long time. She was hard to understand, it was obviously not a dialect she commonly used. She spoke of her daughter, who was not there, "away" somewhere, though whether gone for half an hour or half a century, it was not clear. She heaved herself up and stirred the small cooking fire in the centre of the house, shuffling through the loose dirt on the floor. She offered them hospitality in the formal manner, bade them drink with her and eat with her, and told them they were welcome to spend the night. Miriam was tired, the trek from the broken down landrover had been long in the heat, and Matthew accepted the offer of a bed.
The old woman laughed and clapped her hands when they introduced themselves. Her name was also Miriam, Miryam, Mariamme. The stars burned brightly through the open doorway, as the night turned deep indigo around them, and Old Miryam made thick sweet coffee and offered them unleavened bread and honey, sprinkled with sesame seeds. She hummed and chirped to herself as she worked over her fire, singing in a dialect that was entirely unfamiliar to Matthew. He listened quietly, trying to penetrate the words and find some meaning, but though it had a familiar sound, like a nursery rhyme remembered, he could not understand it. Miriam sat staring into the fire, hugging her knees, and saying nothing. He watched the firelight play across her face, and between its flickering and the old woman's moving shadow Miriam grew old and young again, became a new person, different, alien.
After the simple meal, the old woman sat herself down across the fire from them and stared at them without speaking for what seemed like an hour but may have been five minutes. Matthew felt embarrassed, as if she'd seen him naked, not only physically, but mentally too. As if she'd looked through his facade and seen his true self. Then she laughed again, and began to speak. It was a few moments before Matthew realised that she was speaking English, the surprise of it completely confused him so he did not hear what she actually said but was only aware that he recognised it. She was telling a story, and she introduced it with the words that are so familiar to every child. "Once upon a time..." she had begun, waving her hands to indicate they should sit and listen. "Once upon a time there was a mother. And once upon a time this mother had a daughter. A daughter young and strong and beautiful. And the mother loved her daughter more than the stars in the sky, more than the earth at her feet, and more than the wind that blows three times round the world.
Christina Cairns © 2005