Two Old Women: a cautionary tale
“… personal stories have as much (if not more) to teach us as any manifesto.”
We are Everywhere 1
Today is the deadline for submissions to the Dark Mountain Journal issue four, and – like last year – I am choosing not to submit. Again I prefer to slip past the gatekeepers on the editorial board, and instead publish freely and directly my contribution to the invited conversation. I’ve learnt much about climbing mountains as I’ve lived out the steps along my personal story: first and foremost, that it is best to travel light.
This year the editors call for cautionary tales. I offer the following story, itself a retelling of an Athabaskan Indian legend, traditionally shared from mother to daughter. It will be something like eighteen years now since my friend Wendy gave me the gift of a book entitled Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis. It was a wonderful story, she told me, one that every person should know and that every woman might draw strength from.
The tale tells of two old women who are abandoned by their tribe at the start of a harsh winter. They complain too much, and the men of the tribal council have decided that they represent a burden of care which lessens the tribe’s chances for survival. The chief with some regret announces the decision, and The People are afraid to disagree, for fear of being abandoned themselves. The two women sit, stunned and silent, beside their tent as the tribe packs up and leaves them.
Eventually they rouse themselves from their shock, and help one another to face the fear rising within them. They begin by accepting their predicament, and determining the manner in which they are going to meet it: “They forget that we, too, have earned the right to live! So I say if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting.” 2
As they gather their courage, and support one another, they delve into their personal resources, reminding themselves of their many years’ worth of knowledge and skills. They travel – slowly, wearily, doggedly – to a distant and long-since-forgotten campsite by a river, where they are able to shelter themselves and survive the winter. With hard work, perseverance and luck, by hunting and foraging throughout the spring and summer months, they build up a surplus of food and supplies. As autumn turns to the first days of another winter, they are thriving.
The tribe, meanwhile, has fared less well. They too survived the harsh winter, but it took a great toll from them, and their spring and summer months were not prosperous. They face another winter in a state of weakness and gloom, and they are moving from place to place in a punchdrunk search for survival. During this time, a hunting party discovers the camp of the two old women. They are invited into the tent to shelter beside a glowing fire, where their hostesses feed them warm, sustaining broth. “With astonishment, the men realised these two old women not only had survived but also sat before them in good health, while they, the strongest men of the band, were half-starved.” 3
The men describe the tribe’s year of struggle and its current circumstances, and the women in their turn describe their year of labour and prosperity. The tension is great, and the currents of emotion are strong, as they all recognise that the tables have turned. “The men sat in silence listening to Sa’ speak in a strong and passionate voice. Then she laid down their terms.” 4
The women extend a mercy that they were themselves not shown. From the maintained distance of their own established camp, the women share their surplus food and supplies, and the tribe survives another winter. Slowly and gradually, these people rebuild a different relationship with one another to the one they had before. The tribe never again discount them as being of lesser value, and “The People showed their respect for the two women by listening to what they had to say.” 5
And so ends the story of the Two Old Women, and the journey by which they gained their voice.
“… maybe we will always be a reminder to them in harder times ahead.” 6
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
2 Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, Harper Collins, 1993 (p.16)
3 Wallis (p.113)
4 Wallis (p120-1)
5 Wallis (p.135)
6 Wallis (p.118)