Once upon a time in a faraway place, a young woman lived alone with her little daughter. She had no husband because long ago he had gone off to the far away wars and had never come back. It was hard for the young woman to find enough money for herself and her daughter to have food to eat. She had to work many hours every day sewing clothes for rich women who lived in the town, and she often grew tired and despairing. But she only had to look at her beautiful little girl to remember what she was working for and bravely carry on. In her darkest moments, she would call her daughter over and say, “Celeste, won’t you sing a song for Mother?”
Celeste’s answer would be to begin to sing, sometimes a sweet song of her own invention, but most often the little lullaby that her mother had used to sing her to sleep as a baby. Her voice was so clear and pure that every other sound faded away, and her mother would feel a spark of hope kindle in her heart again.
In this way, the years passed, and though things never got better for the mother and daughter, they never got worse, either. They continued to live in the tiny cottage that the young soldier had built for his wife, and they continued to work hard and to bring each other joy.
Then in the summer of Celeste’s eighth year, a shadow fell over the little cottage. The mother who had faced each day so steadfastly began to look pale, and the hands which had steadily managed the needle and thread began to tremble over their work. It wasn’t long before the truth was obvious, even to one as young as Celeste. Her mother was very, very sick. The doctor came from the big city and shook his head and said that there was nothing he could do. Celeste sat at her mother’s side and held her hand and thought and thought as hard as she could. She thought about doctors and medicines and sewing dresses and bills and money and being alone. She thought about the sound of her mother’s voice saying “Good morning” to start each new day, the smell of stew made like only her mother could make it, and how beautiful her mother looked in her best dress. She also thought about something another little girl had once told her about a wise woman who lived in the heart of the forest and could tell your future and even sometimes make miracles. She thought about this last part for a long time, and then she made her decision.
Early the next morning, Celeste put on all her warmest clothes, made a big bowl of porridge for her mother to eat for her breakfast, and set off quietly into the shadows of the forest. It was late in the afternoon when Celeste arrived at the clearing which held the wise woman’s house. Celeste was very tired and felt a bit afraid, but she didn’t pause for a moment; she just marched across and knocked loudly on the door.
No one answered.
Celeste waited, with her heart beating, then knocked again. It was very quiet.
And then, very faintly, Celeste heard the most beautiful singing. It seemed to be coming from around behind the little house. Carefully, carefully, she followed the sound, and as she rounded the corner of the house, she saw a lovely garden. The singing was coming from inside the garden. Celeste crept closer. She could see someone sitting next to a small fountain. She crept closer still…and stopped in shock.
The woman who was singing was older than anyone Celeste had ever seen. Her spine curved grotesquely and her thin wisps of hair were pure white. The hands that were carefully arranging roses in a bowl were rough and twisted. But her voice was as pure and sweet as Celeste’s own could be. Celeste stood and stared, unable to believe that such a song was coming from such a woman.
After a moment, the song came to an end. Without looking up from her roses the old woman said, “Welcome, Celestina. I thought you’d be coming along soon.”
Celeste didn’t know what to say.
“You are wise to be silent,” the woman continued, “but our time is short, so why don’t you ask what you came to ask.”
“Why is our time short?” asked Celeste.
“Is that the question you came to ask?”
Celeste blushed. Something about the old woman made her want to her hide her face, like a small child who thinks that if she can’t see others then she can’t be seen. Then she thought of her mother and gathered up all her courage. “I wanted to ask if you could save my mother. She is very sick. The doctor says there is no help. But I thought maybe you could help her. They say you can do things other people can’t.”
The old woman sighed. She was still looking at her roses. “There is nothing I can do for your mother.”
Celeste felt a lead weight fall on her heart. “Noth…nothing at all?”
“Her illness is beyond my skill to heal,” said the woman.
“Then there is no hope.” Celeste felt a tear roll down her cheek.
“No hope? Oh child, there is always hope.”
“But you just said that no one can save her,” cried Celeste.
“I said no such thing.” Now, at last, the woman looked into Celeste’s face. “I said that I cannot save her. She can still be saved. But the only one who can do that is you.”