The Old Woman on the Bench

I rescued this story from my Substack to put it on my blog…where it belongs. ❤

I used to see the old woman on my walks in the morning with my dog, Bailey.

She always sat on a bench in the park by herself, the light of the rising sun catching the hem of her dark cloak as the hood obscured her face. I would say hello as I normally did but her head would only follow me as I walked past her. I thought she was just a homeless woman judging by the wrinkled cloak she wore, or perhaps she was an eccentric old woman who was actually more well off than I thought. It wouldn’t surprise me as the suburb I live in is full of wealthy older women, but they have RVs, grandchildren, family cookouts and long vacations. This woman seemed to have no one, and on one especially frosty morning in February, I took Bailey on our morning walk. My down jacket kept me warm and he shuffled along in his flannel coat, moving a lot slower than he did only a month ago. Over my arm I carried an old brown jacket my ex-wife gave me years ago because although it was well-worn it did the job of keeping me warm when we used to walk together.

I doubted the old woman would be out in this sort of weather as the grass was dusted in frost and light snow, but there she was on the same bench in her hooded cloak and her hands in her lap.

I approached her and held out my old coat. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

After a long beat she moved and a silver tray appeared in her lap. A silver tea pot with a long, crooked spout sat in the middle, an upside-down tea cup on a cracked saucer next to it.

“You have kept me waiting, Joseph,” she said in a voice younger than her appearance. “I was wondering when you would join me.”

I was taken aback. Her tone seemed to boom from such a small frame. “I’m…sorry? Um…do we know each other?”

She turned her head to my dog, her face still shrouded by the hood of her thin cloak. “Good morning, Bailey, love,” she said in a gentle voice that held a lilt not from this neighborhood. She pulled the thin cloth to reveal a smile from lips that were wrinkled and chapped from the cold morning air.

Bailey suddenly pulled to get to her. I was shocked. He hadn’t shown this much energy in a while and was like a puppy again. I resisted at first until something told me to let go, and his blue leash trailed behind him as he jumped onto the bench and let a withered, bony hand pet his small head.

“A beautiful Westie, you are. I have no treats this morning to give. Next time, perhaps.” She turned her attention to me and pulled her hood down to reveal a woman who seemed to be aged not just by her time on earth, but of the weight of her knowledge. Her grey hair was long and straight as it tumbled down over her shoulders. She held her smile as her dark, kind eyes met mine, and I was compelled to sit next to her.

“How do you know my dog?” I felt stupid asking that question, but didn’t really understand why. It seems like a good one to ask when a stranger knows your dog and not you.

“I see his soul, Joseph.” My dog was now laying next to her as if he had known her all his life. “And he sees yours too. We are all connected, you know.” She focused her attention on the silver tray that was still in her lap. “Have tea with me.”

I was never a fan of tea but the cold was especially bitter this morning, and I felt like I owed her some company even though she was the one who never reciprocated my daily greetings. Before I could respond she had already flipped over the tea cup and I could see smudged stains of past brews on the porcelain. I caught a glimpse of the image of a bonfire at the bottom before she poured. The aroma moved me like a harsh shove and my eyes started to water. Cinnamon, clove, and bergamot filled my head, and I felt light-headed and was moved to speak.

“Why did you never say hello back?” That stupid feeling washed over me again in my drowsiness.

“You were not ready to have tea with me.” She picked up the cup and saucer and closed her eyes. “Pure water, pure fire, pure air, pure earth. Release the fetters from Joseph’s heart.” She looked down at Bailey who was now sleeping against her leg and put her hand on his head. “Bless this pup, for he shall live a long life.”

Her words brought warm tears to my eyes. “He’s sick, ma’am. Lymphoma. I appreciate your—”

“Drink, my new friend.”

She handed over the cup and saucer and I looked into the brew. The tea smelled even better as I held it and put it to my lips. My mind suddenly plunged into a sea of memories: my mother’s funeral, my divorce, the custody hearing of my little girl. The layoffs at work and the stress of finding another job. Freelancing for copywriting clients whose payments never lasted the month. Bailey’s diagnosis.

The tears warmed my cheeks as I took a sip, and the tea seemed to fill my chest as I swallowed. I felt embarrassed at the thought of someone seeing me crying like a baby while drinking tea with an old woman, but the park was empty this morning, a strange event in itself. I asked her why she was not having tea.

She smiled again. “This tea is not for me, Joseph. It was brewed for you. For you are the one that seeks answers.”

I nodded and took another sip of tea. “I haven’t talked about this to anyone but…I thought I was doing so well. And then everything turns to shit.”

“No one ever only does well in life,” she said. “Underneath the success and joy is disappointment and despair. It’s Nature in its most common state. It provides for us and then takes away. You must learn to cherish the joys in your life, Joseph. Especially when you are at your lowest.”

I wiped my eyes before looking over at Bailey, so peaceful in his rest and his luxury of being a dog with no worries. And yet, I wondered if Bailey knew that he was sick. Did he know that he was going to die?

A gentle hand rested on my knee. “Bailey is fine, my friend. You don’t need to worry about him. He’s worried about you, however.”

The tea made me feel comfortable and had eased me into a strange warmth. It was like pulling a clean fleece blanket from a dryer and wrapping yourself inside it. “I once read that dogs can sense things, and I have been more stressed than I’ve ever been. Sometimes I think he’s sick because of me.”

“Not at all, dear. Animals can sense what humans cannot. That’s what makes them so wonderful. Bailey here can feel that your heart is broken, but you did not cause his pain. That is Nature once again.”

“Give and take,” I whispered into my cup that was nearly empty. I found myself sad that my tea was almost gone.

“Exactly. Bailey is pure of heart; all dogs are. He will live as he long as he needs to so that he can fulfill his destiny.”

“What’s his destiny?”

She looked into my eyes and squeezed my knee. “To love you, of course.”

I swallowed the last of my tea and cried again. She took the cup and saucer and held them under my cheeks to catch my tears.

“He’s the only good thing I have left in this world,” I said. “Everyone I’ve ever loved as been taken away from me. Bailey has been with me since he was a puppy. I don’t know what I’ll do without him.”

She placed the cup in front of Bailey who woke up and slowly drank from it. He then shook and hopped up and yawned before looking over at me with what seemed like a grin. He yipped and lifted his paw.

The old woman laughed. “I think it’s time to go.” She took her hand from my knee and picked up the tea tray before moving to stand. I heard her grunt and I held her arm to help her, but she shrugged me away with a smile. “I’m well, dear boy. I feel so much better now that you’ve had your tea.”

Bailey trotted up to me with an energy I hadn’t seen in a while. I wiped my cheeks again and remembered my old coat. I picked it up from the bench. “I brought this for you…well, in case you were out here in the cold.”

In the light of the rising sun, I could see orange strands in her greying hair and her face was brighter.

“We are no strangers, the cold and I. We cling to each other every year.” She gathered her cloak in her hands, seemingly renewed in the glare of the sun, and turned to me. “Farewell, Joseph. Thank you for having tea with me.”

A flash of light obscured her and I felt Bailey jump against my leg as he barked. The old woman was gone, and as I blinked my vision back to normal I saw a young lady in a flowing green dress, her long, red hair cascading down her back as she walked away from me and into the trees. Her clothing seemed out of place in this time and maybe in this world.

A week passed and the frost was growing thinner in the morning. The old woman never came back, and her usual bench sat empty. I had thought a lot about her words about the nature of things, and that’s when I got a call. A colleague of mine from my old job told me of a client that needed a full-time copywriter for their advertising start-up. A Zoom call later and I was in their office the next day with my portfolio. An offer was made and we shook hands, and I walked out of there with lighter weight on my shoulders.

Then, there was Bailey’s vet visit. We had been called back a few days after his biweekly check-up. I was worried when the vet took a long time to examine his chart as I sat there with a wriggly Westie in my lap. Finally, he raised his eyes from the file and gave me the news.

“Bailey’s lymphoma is gone.”

I exhaled with a pounding heart. “Are you sure?” He showed me the x-rays and the swollen nodes, that had grown over four weeks to the size of walnuts, were of normal size again. The vet shook his head and smiled, telling me that he used two different machines at our last visit and those x-rays were the same.

“It’s a rare case that a dog survives this disease,” the vet said as he stared at the chart again. “But there’s no doubt. He seems to be cured. However, I want you to keep an eye on him and bring him back a month from now to be sure.”

We left the vet’s office and drove through Starbucks to get a coffee and a Puppy-ccino. The baristas were always happy to see him and the guy at the window noticed the change in his behavior too as Bailey tried to climb out the window for his treat as I tried to reel him back with tears standing in my eyes.

I haven’t seen the old woman in months but ever since I spoke to her everything is falling back into place. I have stayed at the start-up business as their head copywriter and advertising consultant, and we’ve made a huge impact online. My ex-wife and I talked things over and she worked things out with the judge where I could keep my daughter every other week, and I’ll be using my recent bonus to take her to Disneyland in May.

Bailey and I still take our morning walks and we pass by the bench that now sits empty. Sometimes we’ll take a seat and Bailey will jump up next to me and carefully sniff around, as if he could still smell the cinnamon that came from her tea.

I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in goodness and in hope. I’m not sure if I’ll ever see the old woman again, but I swear I sometimes see a flash of red hair when we walk past the trees.

There are many versions of the legend of the goddess Brigid (and Saint Brigid to a lesser extent). Her feast day is February 1 and is known as Imbolc which is Celtic for ‘in the belly’ (others call this day Candlemas) for this day signifies the period between the ending of winter and the coming of spring, when livestock become pregnant and families prepare for long awaited warmth to begin planting for a new harvest. During the winter it is said that Brigid becomes that of an old withered crone and then renews into a maiden at springtime, a miracle that occurs every year.

She is a fire goddess that keeps the home hearth alight and she is also the goddess of artists, bards, and poets. She is a mother goddess that brings renewal and second chances.

This story is a dedication to my beagle, Molly. I wish I had had the magic to keep you here longer.


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