The Traveler and the Woman at the Well
A Modern Parable by
Briseadh na Faire
A woman sat hard by the well at the outskirts of town. High overhead, the sun beat down mercilessly with late August heat. A man wearing fine robes approached, accompanied by his entourage.
“Fetch me some water” the man commanded the woman, “and for my guests, as well.”
The woman lowered her eyes, “Yes, M’Lord” she murmured, then pulled at the rope with her calloused hands. She raised the heavy bucket by herself, while those whose hands knew no labor stood ’round and watched, belittling her for her slowness at raising the bucket, her tattered clothes and unkempt hair. One flicked her on the rump with his crop. Another lifted her skirt with his boot, while she strained on in her labours, and bore their insults in silence.
When she was done, the rich man tossed her a penny. “For your efforts,” he said, laughing. His entourage laughed, too. The practiced laughs of those who know their place and keep their heads. As the group headed into town, the woman picked up the penny, dusted it off, and sat, crying the dry tears of one who has cried too much.
A Traveler, dressed in a dusty green cloak and wearing sandals so covered with dirt that they were indistinguishable from his feet, walked towards the well. “Fetch me some water” the Traveler commanded.
The woman looked up and took in the Traveler in a long glance, from his uncombed walnut hair to his dusty cloak, tan breeches and caked sandals. “Fetch it yourself,” she said. “My hands are weary.”
“You didn’t say that to the other gentleman,” the Traveler observed, drawing up the rope.
“How could I?” asked the woman. “He’s rich. He owns everything in this town. Everything we have, we owe to him.”
“And how did he get to be rich?” the Traveler asked.
“He built the mill” the woman replied, looking over to a run-down ruin of a factory. “For awhile, everything was great. Our husbands worked, we raised families. We had good lives. Then the King made peace with a neighboring kingdom. And part of that peace allowed our Master to build a mill in the other kingdom, where the people were so poor that they would work for practically nothing.”
“And, so, your mill was closed” the Traveler concluded.
“Aye, it was closed, and the only jobs we could get was serving our Master for practically nothing.” An eagle cried plaintively overhead. The Traveler lifted the bucked out of the well and poured the clear spring water into his cup. He handed the cup to the woman, who looked up at him with surprise. He nodded, and she took the cup and drank. As she handed the cup back to the Traveler, she asked, “Why do you show me such kindness?”
The Traveler poured himself a cup of water, drank, and sat next to the woman. “The question is, why don’t you show yourself such kindness?”
“What do you mean?” her green eyes were looking for the answer to a riddle that escaped her.
“You have the right to say no” the Traveler replied, “as you did to me. You can say no to your Master.”
“But he would be angry. He would beat me. He might even have me thrown in prison for daring to disobey him.”
“That is true” the Traveler nodded. “But what if everyone in the village said no?”
“How would that change things?”
The Traveler stood up and walked to the edge of the nearby woods to gather some sticks. The eagle that had been circling overhead swooped down low over the well, and up, to settle in a nearby tree. It ruffled its wing feathers as it adjusted its perch on a high branch.
“Take this stick” the Traveler said, giving her a twig. “Now break it.”
The woman snapped the twig easily in two.
“Now take these.” The Traveler handed a bunch of twigs, so much she could barely get her hands around all of them. “Break them.”
She tried. The twigs creaked a little. She tried harder, but could barely bend the bundle. “I cannot.” She handed the twigs back to the Traveler. “They’re too many.”
“Exactly!” said the Traveler, a flash of lightening in his blue eyes. “One, by itself, is easily broken.” He snapped a twig to punctuate his remark. “But take that same twig and bind it together with its brothers and sisters and the strongest hands cannot bend them.”
The eagle lifted from its perch, its call piercing the air, adding power to the Traveler’s revelation. The Traveler set the bundle of twigs on the rock wall of the well. The woman picked them up, one by one.
“One by one he’s been breaking us” the woman was speaking to no one, just picking up twigs and snapping them as she spoke. “One by one we’ve been driven to poverty, while he gets richer and richer.” She snapped another twig. “One by one, we’ve been getting sick, dying, starving.” Another twig broke in her hands. “But together” she grabbed the rest of the bundle “together….” she looked up at the Traveler, the midday sun behind his head…”together….we are stronger than he is…”
The Traveler smiled, a knowing smile. The woman smiled back. High above, the eagle called out once more. The woman looked up for the eagle, and, for a moment, it was as if the Traveler had stepped to one side, for she was momentarily blinded by the sun. She looked back down but the Traveler was gone.
Holding the bundle of sticks firmly in her hand, the woman walked back to town, her head tall.
© 2011 Briseadh na Faire
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