Her smile was serene, and it landed in my chest with a sharp ache that startled me awake.
She slid the thick pottery mug of tea across the table to me. Steam wreathed her in mystery as she poured her own, and finally spoke.
“The problem with heroes,” she said, wrapping her hands around her mug and breathing in the warm, clove-spiced steam,
“is that they require you to need rescuing.”
My tea tasted of autumn; liquid gold afternoon sunshine and a hint of spice, old-fashioned and comforting.
“I guess that’s what we’re supposed to want,” I said, “to be rescued. To be shown that there is goodness, that men can be honorable and true, noble and good.”
“Do you hear it?” her voice shimmered with amusement. “Do you hear that that is simply an answer to doubt? Do you hear that the opening, unspoken question there is one of harm, of disbelief, that there are good, honest, honorable, brave men, so the hero is supposed to prove himself different, is somehow better than the rest? That to be honorable is somehow,” she gave a rather unladylike snort, “difficult or unusual?” I nodded, struck silent. Of course. It was not too much to ask, that a man be a good, solid, honest person.
“Poor silly butterfly that’s pinned to that flat, dull, card labeled ‘hero’. He has no spark left; no freedom to choose a moral compass to guide him. He must perforce hide all that doesn’t fit the illustration – and then, how can he be real at all? His wings won’t move. How will he cope, then, with all the kinds of weather that this life brings? He won’t. His pretty wings will crumble to dust at the first breath of wind, that needs living wings to bend, move, adapt, stretch, make difficult choices.” She shook her head, and closed her eyes briefly, her smile growing soft.
“If you heal too much, a hero will wish you broken again, or he loses the sense of purpose that your need gave him. He loses the sense of superiority. And understand this: there is no stepping out of storybooks to be living, breathing, growing, learning, thriving, curious and evolving people with such a one. Not together. Not in partnership. My dearest, I wish you to put away, once and for all, Once Upon a Time.”
My body echoed hers, now; across from each other at the small, comfortable, worn oak kitchen table, hands cupping mugs, basking in the warmth of the tea and each other. Crone, and – what was I? – for I was no maiden, I was no mother, and not yet crone. Warrior.
Crone and Warrior, we smiled our understanding,
and wholeness wrapped itself around my heart like a cat settling in to make a new home there.
“The quest never was for a hero,” she said, “my brave one. It was for you to find your own limits, and stand firm. It was for you to learn to speak to yourself in the way a true love would. You were speaking to yourself so harshly, you see, that someone came along uttering spiky impatience, and you took it for love, because it sounded just like your inner voice.
A hero won’t want to rescue you for your own sake. He won’t be rescuing you because he sees your beautiful soul. No, he’s rescuing you for himself, so that he might feel, for a moment, proud, noble, invincible, strong. So he might convince himself and the world in his mind, for a moment, that he’s something shining pinned to that labeled card.
The truly strong will not need you to need them in such a way, dear heart.
The one who can love you, who deserves your love, will wish you to expand. He’ll not speak harm.
But you’ve made it to my cottage; the first stage of the quest,” she twinkled coyly. “If you heard harm now, it would sound to your ears like a story meant for someone else.
Oh, he’d follow his script, try to disparage you as he did, to make himself stronger, create you weak, and now, why, you’d think, how odd, and you would keep on your way. You’d nod to him, remote, and keep walking, would you not?”
“Yes, lady, I surely would, now.” And I knew it to be true.
She bobbed her head in satisfaction. “Now, you’ll know goodness when you hear it, and you’ll walk away from curses. There will not be a single moment you’ll need rescuing or saving, so what you’ll find along your way now, perhaps, will be a companion. A bright friend by your side, content to share the path, working together when it’s time to set up camp.”
“I like to travel alone now, lady,” I said, smiling into my teacup.
“Yes. As it should be. What delights you’ll know, and you’ll go much further than you ever imagined possible, when you thought it all had to be so bloody difficult.”
“Forgive the hero, lass. He did the best he could with what he had, poor chap. He doesn’t have eyes to see the riches you carry. Leave him to his quest, and follow yours – your next stage is clear; you carry the Crone’s gift, now, to see you on your way.”
We laughed then,
and talked long into the afternoon,
until finally, it was time to say goodbye. I walked away from her door with the knowledge of love blooming in my veins, as spicy and mysterious, comfortable and warm as her autumn clove tea.