There was a woman whose mother had died giving birth to her, and who thereafter lived alone with her father in a cottage in the woods. Although her father loved her very much, the sadness he felt for his lost wife whenever he looked at his daughter overwhelmed him, and for the rest of his life he never spoke to her without weeping.
On her 18th birthday, her father died and she was left alone. She ran outside and went into the woods and wept there under the stars.
While she wept a cat came down quietly from the branches of a tree and sat on her lap and said to her, “It breaks my heart to see someone so sad. Let me grant you a wish, so that you may know happiness.”
The woman thought of her father, weeping without his wife. And she thought of the mothers and fathers of her friends, and how much happier than her father they must have been, for she never saw them weep while talking to their children. So she said to the cat, “It must be companionship that stops one being sad. I don’t want to grow old on my own.”
The cat said, “So is that your wish, to not grow old on your own?” And the woman wiped away her tears and nodded her head. “And so it is and shall be,” said the cat, and it climbed out of her lap and was gone.
The woman felt no happier, although no sadder either. She went back to her cottage and went straight to sleep, expecting to find there beside her in her bed a husband when she awoke. But in the morning she was still on her own.
She scolded herself for believing in dreams and wishes, and resolved to find a cure for her unhappiness herself. That afternoon she went into town and chose for herself a husband. He was a sailor, and spent 11 months of every year at sea. Every January she would see him to his boat, and every December, after almost a year on her own in her cottage, she would welcome him back. And while she seemed not to age a day while he was away, he looked older by the year.
When he came to retire she appeared no older than 25, and more beautiful by far than ever, for her beauty was now complimented by her kindness and her wisdom. Yet he by now was aged and weak, his back bent, his hair grey, and his features set in a permanent scowl of discontent.
During her long years of marriage she had learned to love being alone, for it gave her the freedom to think and to dream, and to learn and grow wise. When her husband came home for good, by day she tended to his needs without complaint and with a gentleness he was not necessarily deserving of. At night, while he slept, she would step outside into the woods and take a moment for herself, for in the day she felt at times more like a servant than a wife. She could feel her life ticking away with each moment that passed in his service.
On the morning of her 70th birthday she noticed her first grey hair, and that very afternoon her husband died. For the first time in ten years she was alone. She ran outside and went into the woods and wept there under the stars. While she wept a cat came down quietly from the branches of a tree and sat on her lap and said to her, “I granted you a wish once, so that you would know happiness. It breaks my heart to see you so sad once again.”
“I am not sad, although you granted me no wish,” she said. “I am on my own again, and happy for it.”
“I granted you no wish?” said the cat. “Yet you are not old.”
“Old? Look at this grey hair and tell me I am not old.”
At that moment the sky cleared and she saw the cat clearly in the moonlight.
“Dear cat, my friend,” she said. “How is it that you are still so black, with not a grey hair anywhere upon your fine furry coat?”
“I grow not old, for I keep myself to myself, and am always on my own.”
And with that the cat climbed out of the woman’s lap and went on its way and was gone. And the woman was left on her own to ponder the wish she had been granted all those years before.
They say she is still out there somewhere in the woods, more beautiful than it is possible to describe, and although she is on her own she is not alone, for she has herself. She waits now for no-one, and shall never let you see her, no matter how long you look.
1. Written in July 2014
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