This is the story of how the Winter Crone got her husband.
There was a handsome lad by the name of James in the village. His father was comfortably well off, with a small farm and a good herd. His mother had been a village beauty in her day. James was very nearly of an age where he would marry and set up on his own – with a generous help from his father. He was a very good prospect, all in all.
All the village lasses cast eyes at him that spring but none were good enough for him – so his mother told him. Although he would have been happy with Agnes, content with Mary, peacefully wed to Janet, his mother would complain that Agnes couldn’t bake, Mary wouldn’t sew, Janet would lose her teeth like her mother. Gradually the boy James came to agree with his mother. Wasn’t she a good woman who had raised him and fed him and clothed him, and told him all the while what a good clever lad he was and what a good marriage he would make? She must be right about this too, he thought, and soon he saw poor Agnes was not slim but skinny from lack of good bread; Mary wasn’t showing a good bit of leg but ill-clothed from her lack of skill; Janet didn’t have a modest smile as became a young maiden but she was keeping her lips pressed together to hide the gaps in her teeth. Vain James began to think himself a fancy rooster in a yard full of old crows.
“No one in this village is good enough for my son!” his mother would gloat at market. All her cronies would tut and grumble at her, and mutter to each other “There’s a boy who’s bound for a bad end: They do say pride comes before a fall.” But James’ mother pretended not to hear them. She continued to dote on her only son.
“No one in this village is good enough for my son!” she assured her husband. He, who was fed up listening to her havering, merely grunted and went out to see to the beasts in the barn.
“No one in this village is good enough for my son!” she boasted to her sister, who had also married a farmer and moved to the other side of the village.
“That’s all very well and good, but what is he to do about a wife if you’ve turned his head like that, eh?” replied her sister, who had always been more sensible.
Well! Her sister went to retort, but her brain caught up to her mouth, and she was stuck for words. She sat there, her mouth hanging, looking for all the world like a dead fish.
“Exactly. You’re causing trouble with this nonsense. Nothing good will come of filling the boy’s head up with nonsense like this. He could have been courting already, well on the way to giving you grandbairns. Instead he won’t even look at the lasses hereabouts, and goodness knows there’s no one within three days ride who would meet your standards!”
Again the proud mother had nothing to say. She served her sister the tea and cake, she chatted about this and that, they traded gossip as they always did, but there was a tiny doubt making itself at home in her bosom.
She got no sleep that night as the doubt grew and blossomed. Eventually, her tossing and turning roused her husband. He was always grumpy when first awake, and barked “What ails you woman? If you are intending to pass on this night would do you it more peacefully please!”
Usually his wife would have been sore affronted by such a thing, but tonight she could only wail “Oh, what have I done! How will James ever make a match when I have put him off every winsome lass in the district? He’ll end up by having to marry that Margret, her that’s got the hump and the twisted arm!”
The farmer sighed deeply. He was well awake now and knew his wife well enough to realise that he’d get no more rest until her mind was put at ease.
“Don’t fret, woman,” he said, in what was supposed to be a kindly voice, “For we’ll take him to the wise woman tomorrow. Things are well in hand here, the farm won’t miss us for the day, and she’ll know what to do.”
Thus reassured, slightly, the woman managed to get to sleep, but she was plagued all night by ghastly dreams of hunchbacked grandchildren.
Come sunrise next morning she was rousing the household, rushing through the morning chores and scolding the maid to move more quickly. She even went into the barn and chased the herd boy with a broom to make him get the beasts out more quickly.
Still yawning and stretching, chewing the last scraps of breakfast, the three set off for the abode of the wise woman. It was a good walk away, for she lived at the edge of the forest next to the hills. It would take them until mid-afternoon to reach the forest, and they would need to shelter in a hedgerow for the night. The weather was pleasant though and the spring birds were calling joyfully from every tree. The primroses peeped out at the fresh sunlight. It was warm enough not to be frosty, but not far enough into the year to be uncomfortably hot to walk in.
Presently they drew near the house of the wise woman. The mother took out the loaves she had baked that morning to give to the woman and also the jug of cream milk that she’d packed carefully in her basket with a cold cloth over it.
The father went to rap on the solid old door of the wise woman’s hut, but he seemed to be cowed by the knowledge of who was inside. Instead he tapped gently with the back of his hand.
There was a great deal of creaking from inside the cottage. After a pause, a short white-haired woman opened the door. She was neat and tidy and smiling, which did not seem to be what the mother was expecting.
“Come away in,” the wise woman said cheerily. Seeing as they’d walked most of the day and brought some of their best produce with them, the family thought they may as well.
The cottage was trim and tidy inside with a neatly raked out hearth and an impressive collection of horse brasses on their leather straps above the mantlepiece. The wise woman sat down in a huge rocking chair, which creaked and groaned like a ship under sail.
“It keeps me company” said the woman cheerily. “Now dears, what can I do for you?”
Gruffly the father explained the problem, that “No one is good enough for my son!” The mother handed over the bread and milk rather shyly. While her husband was talking, the wise woman went to her dresser and fetched a saucer. She did not take her eyes off the man, nodding at his words, as she placed a chunk of bread on the dish and poured some milk over it before setting it on the table.
A shiny raven flew in the unshuttered window and alighted next to the dish. It cawed, in an unusual quiet way, and started on the bread and milk. The mother gaped at it.
“So you see, wise one, we will be stuck with this lump of a lad if you cannot help us” finished the father.
“I do see. And you would wish my help?” the wise woman said. The two men nodded. The mother was still too busy gawping at the raven.
“Well now. I think we can find the woman of his dreams, as you have paid me well in this fine fare. Now boy. You must agree that you will abide by my words, or it will go the worse for you.” James nodded mutely. “Good enough! Now, I will send you on a journey to meet four ladies. One will be the one for you, it is up to you which it is. They are all wonderful in their own ways.”
James looked much cheered by this news.
“I can tell you the way to their abode and I can send you on the path – the rest is up to you.” warned the wise woman.
“Can he go now?” asked his father. The wise woman nodded.
“Yes, there is an old pony in my stable which he can borrow.”
“What if he, er, tarries with his new bride?” his father asked delicately.
The old woman laughed. “No matter,” she said, “Old Jock knows his own way home. James can see him off with a slap to the rump, he will return to me in due course. Now. James, lad, the path is not long or arduous. It is how you conduct yourself that will decide which bride you win. It is not for you to pursue these women, they must speak to you first. If you are too forward you will only scare them off. You must let the woman you desire approach you, and once she approaches you then you will have a wife, well matched, for life. You will see them on the path you take, going about their usual pursuits.”
James nodded his agreement, all eagerness to be off. The wise woman looked searchingly at him for a moment, then led the family to the small stable at the back which housed a sturdy pony with a shaggy mane. He was duly saddled and James set off on the path that was pointed out to him.
Indeed it was not a long path, for James felt he had only just ventured onto it when he saw a beautiful pale maiden collecting water from the side of the burn. She was as slender as a new sapling with long pale hair and plump fresh skin. James thought she was the most lovely creature he had seen.
“Excuse me, miss-” he began, quite forgetting the wise woman’s words.
When she heard him speak, the maiden gave a cry and dropped her water jug. She spun around, gave James one wild look then – paf! – she had vanished like the spring breeze.
James was slightly bewildered by this. However, he thought he’d better get on and meet these women the wise one had mentioned. So off he and Jock went.
As the day got later he happened across a woman sitting on a low stool under a tree. She was embroidering and singing to herself. She was an adult woman, thicker of waist than the maiden, more generous in the bosom. Her hair was a chestnut brown and caught behind her shoulders in a handsome golden clasp.
James saw her embroidery and thought it marvellous work. He decided to compliment the woman on her industry.
“Good afternoon, fair lady – “ he began. He got no further though, as the woman looked up in alarm. She met his eyes for a second before a huge cloud of something like dust blew up out of nowhere. When it settled or blew away the woman was gone, as had the stool and the embroidery.
James thought this odd. However, he had a wife to find, so he and Old Jock set off again along the path.
As the sun was making its bed for the night he happened across another woman. She was foraging among some tree roots, although what for on this spring evening James could not think. She was short and very round, as though she carried stores of food with her. Her hair was bright red and was caught up in an elaborate braid.
James wondered what she was looking for, so he called “Good evening, good woman!”
He got no further before the woman whipped around to face him and, giving a shriek, disappeared in a pillar of flame.
James was in no doubt that this was a strange thing to happen. However, he reasoned that since there was no burning woman in front of him, and no fallen body (having dismounted from Old Jock), there was nothing he could do. And he had a quest for a wife to see to.
So he and Old Jock carried on up the path.
When the sun set the night became bright with stars. The temperature dropped as the night settled in, and soon James was rubbing his hands together and blowing on them to warm them. Old Jock plodded on unmoved by the difference in temperature. Presently a frost formed on the blades of grass along the path. James wondered how long this path was, how far he would have to go to meet these wifely prospects and why he hadn’t thought to ask that of the wise woman when he had the chance.
As he passed through a starlit clearing, a movement caught his eye. Capering around the clearing was a tiny, thin old woman, easily the oldest woman James had ever seen. She was naked in the moonlight, her tired breasts swinging against her bony ribs and her scrawny legs leaping about in some sort of complicated jig. She was laughing to herself, a high-pitched, thready sort of sound.
James was transfixed. He reined in Old Jock and sat, mouth agape, watching the little old white-haired woman dancing around the clearing. He couldn’t think what to make of the spectacle.
Suddenly, the little old woman spied the bonny young lad sat on the stout pony. With a shriek of glee, she tottered over to James and placed one bony hand on his thigh.
“A husband!” she gloated, “A husband has come along my path, and see he has not scared me off as he did my daughters! My, isn’t fortune smiling on me this night!”
She gave a shrill laugh, and James found to his horror that where she had touched his leg he now felt as cold as the dead. He looked down and saw that there was ice on his leg. As his eyes widened in fear, Old Jock gave a shrill whinny and shied away from him.
James toppled to the ground, unable to make his leg move. The pony turned tail and fled along the path as the old woman leant in and grasped James about the head – one hand on each side of his face – and leant in for a kiss.
Too late, James found voice enough to cry out. He felt himself grow colder, water turning to ice before its time. The last thing his chilled ears heard was the thin song of triumph of the winter crone as she celebrated this new husband.
As to Old Jock and James’ parents, well, when the pony arrived home without the young lad the mother shrieked and swooned, and the father assured himself with a crafty grin that his son merely dallied in the spring wood with some fair young thing.
The wise woman merely smiled and served the raven some more bread and milk.