Once upon a time, when the world was much younger than it is today, a traveller knocked on the door of an inn. It was late at night, and the innkeeper had already barred the doors and snuffed out the candles, and he was on his way up the stairs to bed. He hesitated, sighing, thinking of the food he would have to prepare and how tired he was. Then he remembered the almost empty cash-box under his floorboards and the five children and his wife sleeping upstairs. He turned back and unbarred the door, peering out cautiously to see who was abroad so late. Before him was a slight figure, cloaked and hooded, barely discernible from the black night beyond. The innkeeper was wary of lone, late-night guests and followed a wise policy of asking few questions. When the new arrival indicated that she wanted only bread and ale, and was willing to take these up to her bed, the innkeeper efficiently provided both. He settled his guest into a room for the night, cautioning only that she should be sure to blow out the candle before falling asleep, afraid as he was of fire destroying both his family and his livelihood.
After she had eaten and drank and washed away the grime of her day on the road, the woman lay down on the narrow bed and waited for sleep to come. She shut her eyes, determined that she would not open them again until it was daylight. Her mind wandered over the day she had lived – the hedgerows she’d trudged, the fences she’d climbed, the people she’d seen; poor people working in the fields, children playing barefoot, and two men brawling in the mud outside a public tavern over accusations of a stolen pig. She replayed the pictures in her mind and colours danced behind her eyelids. But still she kept them closed. Slowly she began to drift and she resisted grasping at sleep with both hands, afraid of frightening it away. She felt herself begin to slip through the realms of consciousness and her breathing slowed. Then blessed darkness came. She thought nothing, she saw nothing. Her body relaxed and she slept.
Two hours passed. Outside, shadowy night creatures roamed the village, tormenting the chickens, overturning sacks of grain, stealing livestock and generally making mischief. The villagers’ dogs and cats kept their eyes closed and feigned sleep, preferring not to see. But the inn was quiet and nothing stirred. The woman slept on but her unconscious mind felt itself being called. She rose slowly from the bed and crossed the room, eyes closed, to the table beneath the window where her travelling bag lay. She took from it a box of silken threads and a simple wooden hand-loom, and sat down at the table. With her head tilted, as if to listen, she sat upright and attentive, but still she slept. The loom lay on her lap, but the threads were gathered in readiness in her hands. The stillness and silence of the night were all around, but her ears and her mind were filled with whisperings and half-heard words, strains of music and tingling vibrations. Behind her eyelids countless shadows flitted, first in black and white, fragmented and nonsensical, and then resolving themselves into coloured shapes – people, places and feelings given form. She slept on, but her fingers began to work upon the warp and weft, tentatively to begin with, and then with increasing confidence. They moved with precision, and soon the silken threads grew on the loom, bursting into life in an intricate and beautiful pattern. Time passed and tears squeezed from under her closed lashes and trickled down her face, falling unseen onto the growing cloth in her hands. Their sparkle and empathy only added to the beauty of the tapestry. Still her fingers flew, the tapestry grew, and her tears dried. Happier images and harmonies flooded the woman’s unconscious now and a smile played upon her lips. Brilliant colours of life and vitality sprang from her mind, through her fingers and into the weaving, until at last, seemingly hours later, the sounds and pictures inside her head stopped abruptly. Her fingers slowed, her body relaxed, and she opened her eyes. Somewhere in the inn a baby was crying, and she heard footsteps on the wooden floor outside her room, a door opening and closing, and the sound of a mother soothing her child.
The woman shook herself a little, stretched her weary arms and fingers, and looked down at the work now lying in her lap. It was as neat as anyone could ask for, and a myriad of colour, but even as its creator looked at it, its meaning slipped through her fingers, and the pictures that had been so vivid in her mind faded to nothing. She sighed. So many mornings, hundreds now, she woke to find herself like this, sitting on a chair or on the floor, her back stiff with cold, her fingers sore, and a mysterious tapestry in her hands. The tapestries were often intricate, and sometimes beautiful, but always strange and indecipherable. And no matter how much thread she used, the wooden box was always full of beautiful coloured silks. Tired and yawning, the woman tied and snipped the cloth from the loom, and laid the finished piece upon the table. With daylight just beginning to slide into the room from under the shutters, she took herself back to bed, exhausted, and fell immediately into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The innkeeper’s wife, for it was she who had been up to tend the infant, tiptoed back to her room. Her husband slumbered on in their bed, snoring and spluttering, and she knew she stood little chance of falling asleep beside him. It was growing lighter now in any case and she decided to dress and start the day – perhaps she could get ahead with the day’s chores while her children slept. Once downstairs, she laid and lit fires in the kitchen and the main tavern room, made bread and pies for the day, and swept the tavern floors. Venturing outside to bang dust from the broom, she used it to chase away any small, dawdling mischief-makers from the corners of the back yard. She pumped water and took the bucket indoors, where she peeled potatoes and carrots grown in their vegetable patch, and finally washed up last night’s ale tankards. While her body went automatically about its accustomed tasks, her mind flew back to her jumbled dreams of the night before. She’d dreamed again of her childhood, playing with her little sister in the dark woods behind their cottage – a time of freedom, of tree-climbing, of innocence. And then of the days full of sorrow, when scarlet fever had taken hold of their village, and claimed both her sister and their mother. Too many hard years passed while she mourned them, and she shared with her father the burden of bringing up three little boys. But happier times came again when she met her husband and they married, and her five beautiful babies began to arrive. Life was not easy now – they did not always know if they would have money to eat the following week – but she loved and was loved in return. Content with her lot, she considered herself fortunate.
One of her little ones appeared, white gowned and barefoot, in the kitchen doorway,
“Water, please, Mama,” she asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
The mother smiled, wiped her wet hands on her apron, and real life took over again.
* * * * *
Sometime later, with the public bar open and the usual ne’er-do-wells already congregated with their tankards of ale around the fire, the innkeeper suddenly recalled their late night guest. He asked his wife to go find her – the guest must pay for her bed and board, and if she were moving on that day, his wife would have to change the bed sheets and sweep out the room for the next person.
The innkeeper’s wife knocked on the bedroom door, waited, then knocked again. When there was no reply she pushed the door open and went in, hoping the guest had not slipped away unseen without paying her dues. But the guest was still sleeping, despite the sun now filtering through the shutters and hitting the wall above the bed. The innkeeper’s wife crossed the room, somewhat annoyed that she had been working for hours while this fortunate creature slept on, and she threw open the shutters with a bang. The sun burst in, the woman on the bed stirred and woke, and the wife’s eyes fell upon the tapestry lying on the table. She gasped and her hand flew to her mouth in shock. How could this be? There before her was an exquisite picture, so accurate and densely detailed, its beautiful threads of green and gold and red sparkling in the sunshine. She caught her breath and gently picked up the tapestry, turning it this way and that, drinking in each detail in wonder. The woman rose from the bed and studied her, saying nothing.
“Did you make this?” the innkeeper’s wife asked, barely able to tear her eyes away from the beauty in her hands.
The woman nodded.
“But…how?…how could you know?…I don’t understand!” the innkeeper’s wife marvelled, filled with delight, but also fear.
The woman shook her head and gave her accustomed answer,
“I don’t understand it either. It’s just…what I do – my gift. Or my curse.”
“It’s wonderful,” the innkeeper’s wife managed to say, through her tears.
“Take it, it’s yours” the woman told her.
The innkeeper’s wife clutched the tapestry to her chest and hurried across the room to hug the strange woman. Never before had she owned such a beautiful thing.
* * * * *
The wife took the tapestry downstairs to her husband, holding it out for him to see, expecting him to cry out in wonder. Instead he looked at the piece of cloth and then back at her, and said,
“What is it?”
His wife looked at him in amazement,
“Why, it’s me,” she said.
He stared at her. Had she gone mad?
“It’s my life! -look, here, it’s my little sister,” she said, touching the cloth. “And here, the woods where we played, and the trolls’ swamp, and our cottage, and my brothers. And look,” she touched another part of the tapestry, “here we are, with our babies.” She smiled up at him.
The innkeeper, who was a kind man and loved his wife more than anything in the world, took the fabric from her hands and studied it, examining it in the light.
“No,” he said. “I see nothing. It’s colourful, but it’s just a mess of threads.”
His wife looked at him in astonishment. Her life was all there, on that tapestry, just as she had dreamed about it last night. Why, it was as plain as anything.
She snatched the tapestry out of his hands, growing angry. And if truth be told also a little embarrassed, for some of the customers in the tavern were looking at her strangely now too.
“Look!” she said, turning away from him, and holding the cloth out for those nearby to see. “You can all see it, can’t you?”
A couple of the men murmured and turned away to save her feelings, and two more whispered to each other. The wife grew red and tears started in her eyes, and her husband gently laid his hands on her shoulders.
“I think you are tired and overwrought,” he said. “You said you were up early with the baby. Why don’t you go lie down and try to get some rest for a while? I can manage here.”
“I’m fine!” she shrugged his hands away. “It’s you, all of you! You must be blind, or stupid” she cried, and stomped off.
The innkeeper shook his head and turned back without comment to serve the next customer. As he feared, gossip about his wife’s madness, seeing pictures where there were none, soon spread out of the tavern and through the village.
* * * * *
The day passed, and the innkeeper’s wife went about her work quietly. She locked the precious tapestry away in the trunk at the bottom of their bed, along with her mother’s handwritten book of herbal potions and her father’s prized amulet. She decided that if her husband and his fellow villagers were too stupid to appreciate it, they would not see it again. She told their guest that she must certainly stay another night with them, and that there was no need for her to worry about payment for the room or her food, for the tapestry she had made and given was so wonderful, it would pay for a thousand nights at the inn.
“We’ll be starving and out on the street long before she stays a hundred nights without paying,” the innkeeper grumbled to his wife when he heard. But his wife just shot him a withering glance and he decided it might be best not to say any more for the moment.
The news of the fantastic tapestry – or the wife’s madness, depending on who told the tale – had spread to the edges of the village by nightfall. The tavern grew crowded with people who wanted to examine the mysterious cloth, or see the woman who had woven it, or at the very least watch a fight between the innkeeper and his wife. But among the crowd came a woman – the oldest inhabitant of the village, almost one hundred years old now and quite blind. Her great, great grandson spoke quietly to the innkeeper’s wife, and then brought her to sit in front of the fire, where she asked for a tankard of ale and for the strange guest to come sit with her. The innkeeper’s wife went and fetched the woman from her room, where she had remained during the day, and she reluctantly took her seat by the fire as requested.
The villagers drew close and a hush fell as the old woman took a good swig of ale and then pulled her threadbare shawl tighter round her shoulders.
“Give me your hands, my dear,” the old woman said to the younger, holding out her own crooked and wrinkled hands expectantly.
There was the briefest of pauses, and then the guest placed her hands obediently in the old woman’s. Moments passed and the villagers waited. In the silence the old woman absorbed everything she needed to know about the younger, then let her hands go, nodded in satisfaction, and swigged again at her ale,
“Bring me another beer and I’ll tell you everything,” she said.
The innkeeper rolled his eyes to heaven and swore,
“This is nothing but a trick to get free ale. Yes, and free bed and board,” he nodded towards the guest. “You’re likely in on it together.”
His wife admonished him and poured the old woman another tankard, which the crowd passed from one to another, across from the bar to the old woman at the fireplace.
“Go on please, wise Grandmother,” said the innkeeper’s wife, politely. The room was so quiet now she could hear the giant frogs croaking to each other out on the village pond.
“She’s a Dreamweaver,” the old woman said, after another good swig of ale. “I didn’t think there were any left. Truth be told, I’d almost forgotten they ever existed, it’s been so long since one came through here.”
“Well, what’s a Dreamweaver?” interrupted one of the younger men. Those closest to him shushed him, tutting at his lack of respect, but they all listened for her answer.
“When I was a child, we got all manner of wandering folk through the village. Storytellers, minstrels, dreamweavers, moneylenders, medicine men – the whole lot. Dreamweavers were the rarest. They can see your dreams, or hear your dreams, or some strange mix. Then they weave pictures of what they see and hear – pictures of your dream. They do it while they sleep. And the dream they weave can only be seen by the person who dreamed it. Simple as that.”
There was a collective gasp around the room. The innkeeper’s wife elbowed her husband in the ribs,
“You see, I’m not going mad.”
The old woman’s great, great grandson spoke softly to the guest –
“Is that right?”
She considered for a moment, and then nodded,
“It may be. I thought it was just me. I didn’t know there was a name for it,” she smiled. “Dreamweaver. I like that.”
There was a murmur throughout the crowd.
“She’s a witch!” someone in the crowded tavern said, and many villagers gasped. The Dreamweaver shrank back in her chair – she had been afraid of this.
“No, she ain’t a witch,” said the old woman crossly. “I just told you, she’s a Dreamweaver. Why, she doesn’t even know she’s doing it. And when she wakes up, she can’t remember. And she can’t see what’s in the picture either.” She took another swig of her ale.
“Lucky for you, my friend,” one slightly drunken villager addressed his neighbour. “For you surely wouldn’t want anyone else to see the sort of dreams you have!” This caused a degree of merriment among the men, while the women either pretended to be shocked or not to understand.
“A likely story!” said the innkeeper. “I still say it’s a trick – or an old wives’ tale.”
“The cheek!” said the old woman, setting down her second empty tankard of ale. “No respect for your elders, that’s your problem. Well, have it your own way. Now take me home please,” she ordered her great, great grandson.
“Thank you, Grandmother,” the innkeepers’ wife said politely. “Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.”
“And thank you for going home before you drink all our ale,” muttered the innkeeper, but fortunately not loud enough for anyone but his wife to hear.
The old woman hobbled out, guided by her great, great grandson, amid hugs and thanks from the tipsier villagers, and the Dreamweaver took the opportunity to slip away to her room. She sat for a while, mulling over this new-found knowledge about what she was. No-one had ever told her before, and it was some comfort to know that she was not the only person in the world who’d had this talent. Even if she still didn’t understand it.
* * * * *
Days passed, and nights passed, and the Dreamweaver stayed on at the inn. The innkeeper continued to grumble that it was all fakery and a trick, and refused to look at the tapestries or speak to the Dreamweaver. Most mornings when she woke, the Dreamweaver found a new tapestry on the table in her room. And each time this happened, the innkeeper’s wife carried it downstairs and displayed it in the tavern. And a steady stream of villagers came through the inn, looking at the tapestry and scratching their heads, and saying that, well, yes, it was very pretty, but they couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Until each day, eventually, one person would come and stand open-mouthed in awe at what lay before them, unable to believe their eyes – their own dreams, their life, their deepest secrets. Many cried, some thanked the Dreamweaver and told her they would be grateful to their dying day, and some snatched up their tapestry and rushed away looking guilty, or red-faced.
The innkeeper continued to be sceptical – Doubting Thomas, his wife took to calling him – but he was happy about the increased trade that the Dreamweaver’s presence brought in – even if she was taking up a bedroom. For his wife wouldn’t hear of turning the Dreamweaver out, saying that they were blessed to have such a special guest. But the special guest warned the innkeeper’s wife that the day would come when it was time for her to move on. It always happened.
One morning, the innkeepers’ wife carried the newest tapestry downstairs and set it on a table over by the fire. All day people came and went, drinking ale and eating heartily, but nobody claimed the tapestry as theirs.
“Her luck’s run out,” scoffed the innkeeper. “All the credulous fools have jumped in, not wanting to be left behind, and it’s only us sensible, level-headed folk left now.”
His wife ignored him and carried on washing out ale tankards.
“I love you, wife, but you really started some nonsense here. I’m surprised at you.”
Exasperated, his wife threw down her cloth,
“Husband, will you do one thing for me today? Just one thing?”
“What is it?” he asked.
“Go look at the tapestry. Go on, go over to the table, and have a look.”
With a sigh, and just to humour his wife, the innkeeper went to the table by the fireside. He stood with his back to his wife. Long minutes passed. She watched him from behind the bar. And then a realisation dawned on her. Quietly she crossed the room and put her hand in his.
“What do you see?” she asked him.
There was a pause, and then the innkeeper said,
“I see my life. I see my poor widowed mother struggling to bring me up. And I see my boyhood friends. And most of all, I see the woman I love, the woman I’ll love to the day I die, and our babies.”
He turned to her and kissed her forehead. And she smiled up at him and resisted the temptation to say “I told you so”.
And unseen by them both, the Dreamweaver slipped out of the back door of the tavern and walked away into the darkness of the night.