Short Story: The Old Lady

The Old Lady

by Victor Poole

Once upon a time there was a lady called Gunhilda. The old lady had warts on her nose, and ugly, misshapen lumps in her temples, and poking up through her hair. She was ashamed of her lumps, and hid in her house from the time she was a child until she was quite an old woman. When she was grown tired of being alone, the old lady went to a doctor, and said, “Mr. Doctor, I want to get rid of these lumps on my face.”

The doctor looked at her, and then he laughed.

“Go and help other people become pure in their hearts. Show them the way to be happy, and then the bumps will shrink.” The lady paid the doctor, and went on her way.

She thought and she thought about how she was going to find a way to show others how to be happy. She first thought of teaching little children to sew, but when she went to watch the little girls at school, she found that she hated their noise. I could teach little boys how to be kind to their mothers, the lady thought, and she went into the first house that she found, and took hold of a little boy by the ear.

“You must treat your mother with kindness!” the lady said sharply to the boy, who shrieked, and kicked her. The lady began to shake the boy, but then his mother came in, and beat the lady with a broom stick.

The lady went to jail, because she had broken into a householder’s place, and hurt a child there. The honorable judge put the lady into prison for three months.

“If you bother anyone after this,” the judge warned her, “you will be banished from our city.”

“You can’t banish me,” the lady said to the judge. “My father was friends with many wealthy people.”

“You are not your father,” the judge told her.

The lady with the lumps on her face sat in the prison cell, and she tried to think of how she would impart happiness to the others in the prison. She looked at the three prisoners with whom she shared a cell; they were sitting as far away from her as they could get, and their faces were turned away.

“I am going to bring all of you into the way of happiness,” the old woman announced.

“She is speaking to you, I think,” one of the prisoners, a fat man, said to his neighbor.

“No, I was speaking to all three of you,” the old woman replied. “I have been instructed by my doctor to make you happy. Now you must listen.”

The fat man pressed against the bars of the prison, and screamed for the guard, who came running.

“Is there a fight?” the guard demanded.

“This woman, she will not stop harassing us!” the fat man said. The other two prisoners joined in, clamoring to be moved.

“Well, you are a frightening thing to see,” the guard told the old woman. “You had better come with me to solitary.”

“Thank you, thank you!” the other three prisoners cried, as the old woman and the guard went away together to an old shack of wood at the back of the prison. The shack was badly guarded, and the old woman noticed that it was outside the prison gates.

“Why will I be kept here?”

“This is where we take people when we hope they will die soon,” the guard told her. “The wolves come here sometimes, in the cold weather, and they have learned to break open the door to the shack.”

“This is not a prison! This is a nightmare!” she cried.

“You will stay here for three months, and if the wolves have not eaten you up by the end, you will be set free.” The guard shut the shack door in her face, and locked it. The old woman sat in the shack for some time, and then she had a new idea. I will bring civilization to the wolves, she thought. I will tame them, and then the people of the city will have to admit that I am a kindly woman. She thought the taming of the wolves would heal the big bumps on her face.

The old lady sat, and ate the gruel, day by day, that the guard brought her. She became filthy very quickly, because she was anxious not to miss the wolves when they came, and she refused to leave the shack when they came to bring her to the main prison to relieve herself. She was soon covered in her own filth, and the guards started to feed her with a very long pole. Soon even this was not enough, and the people of the city demanded that the shack be disposed of.

“How can we get rid of the shack, when there is a prisoner inside who will not come out?” the city fathers demanded.

“Move the whole piece of land, then,” the people cried. “Only get her stench away from us.”

The head guard came to speak to the woman; he used a large horn, so as to stay as far away from the stinking shack as possible.

“You must come out and bathe yourself,” he shouted.

“I am going to be eaten by the wolves,” the old lady cried back. The wolves had come sniffing on the first day, but the old lady smelled so old that they had run away.

The city fathers could not think of what to do with her. They could not convince her to come out of the shack, and no one would go near enough to carry her out.

“We should have gotten her out in the beginning,” the guard told the director of the prison.

“How were we to know she would shit herself like this?” the director snapped.

Finally, the guards, the prisoners, and the townspeople all decided to move. They left in a body, united in their abhorrence for the hideous smell of the old woman. They moved to another valley, far away, and started a new colony.

The old woman, after she had gotten very hungry and thirsty, stood up on shaking legs. She was very weak, because it had been days since the last pole of food had been thrust at her, and her water had run out. She had been sitting in a heap of her own filth, and her skin was coated so that she seemed made of muck.

She was shaking when she came out of the shack. The lady found, when she came into the fresh air, that it was not pleasant to be so dirty, and she began looking for some way to clean her flesh. She stumbled through the town until she came to a pond. She waded into the deep water of the pond, and submerged her whole body.

The streets were empty, and the houses were empty as well. The lady, at first, thought that everyone had gone to some kind of market festival. She went to the mayor’s house, and took up the nicest dresses she could find. She clothed herself in finery, and sat in the mayor’s own chair.

I am the king of this village now, she thought, and the wolves came back. One of the birds had flown over the empty shack, and then the bird had gone and found a squirrel, and the squirrel went and found one of the baby wolves, and told it to tell its mother that the lady who sat in filth no longer smelled like a decaying thing. The cub wolf told this to its mother, and the pack of wolves, which was very hungry, turned around, and ran towards the town.

The wolves came, and they ate the old woman up. The wolves got very sick, because she was so sour, and the whole pack of them died. Shortly thereafter, God looked upon the town, because he had enjoyed the howling of those wolves, and he missed their voices after they never sang to him anymore. When God looked down and saw the eaten corpse, and the dead wolves, he was furious, and he sent a big rock down to decimate the town. The whole continent turned into a desert, and the old lady’s remains were obliterated forever.

God went into hell, and found her soul there.

“You have killed some of my wolves,” God told her. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“It is not my fault that some wolves ate me up,” the old lady replied, for she had no respect for God, and God looked at her, and then went away and found his chief architect.

“Who has made this woman?” God demanded. “I did not make her. Where did she come from?”

The chief architect blushed, and murmured something incoherent.

“I could not hear you,” God said. “Explain yourself.”

“I said that we do not know where she has come from,” the architect said.

“Who is running demons these days?” God demanded. Again, his chief architect blushed, and murmured a name. “Call him before me,” God commanded, and the architect ran away.

“Explain this monstrosity,” God demanded, pointing down towards hell, when the beast Chaos was before him.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Chaos said. “She isn’t one of mine.”

“My architect says she is,” God said.

“Well, he’s wrong,” Chaos replied stubbornly.

“Go and find out who made her,” God said.

Sometime later, the hosts of hell appeared at the gates of heaven.

“We want to reform our souls!” the hosts of hell called out in one voice. One of Beezlebub’s favorite lieutenants, who had quit his post with the others, was leading the rebellious factions of hell.

“You can’t come up here, you have your own place,” Gabriel shouted down.

“But we want to learn to be like you people,” the lieutenant shouted back. “There’s a monster down there, with lumps on her face. She stinks. We want to repent.”

“I’ll have to talk to God about this,” Gabriel shouted back. The lieutenant nodded agreeably, and the hosts of hell made orderly camps outside the gates of heaven, and began to sing hymns with reasonable reverence.

“They’re out there, singing, and being kind to each other,” Gabriel said to God. “They say they want to repent, and join up.”

“Put them through the trial stages of purgatory, and see how they do,” God suggested. Gabriel nodded, and called together the heavenly host. The hosts of hell passed through the tests in short order, and began to be assimilated into the heavenly order.

“This is going remarkably well,” the chief architect told God, who shrugged.

“You know,” God said, “people do tend to unite against a common enemy.”

“And you don’t know where she came from, or what she is?” the architect asked. God made no answer to this, but when the architect had gone, God went into his wife’s boudoir, and picked up her favorite hairbrush.

“How is my project working out?” God’s wife asked. God put the brush through her long, silvery hair, and sighed.

“The hosts of hell have integrated successfully into heaven,” he admitted.

“Good,” his wife said. “Soon it will be time for us to take that honeymoon you’ve been promising me for the last eight millennia.”

“I wish you would have spoken to me before you made her,” God said, looking solemn. “All my people were quite in a tizzy trying to find out where she came from.”

“Yes, that was the idea,” his wife said. “Now, do you think I ought to bring my blue dress or my green?”

“Both, of course,” God said. “But we are supposed to work together on this kind of large-scale project, don’t you think?”

“Yes, dear,” his wife said soothingly. God laughed, and put the hairbrush down on the dresser.

“My archangels are going to be gossiping about you managing me, when they all find out what she really is,” God said.

“Oh, I think they will be all right,” his wife said. She had a twinkle in her eye. “Has she taken charge of hell yet?”

“No,” God said. “I’ll go and see her tomorrow.”

God went and met the old lady at the great crimson gates of hell.

“Where have all the people gone?” she demanded.

“Well,” God said. The lady’s face was filled with fleshy boils.

“I came here expecting to meet all sorts of people,” the old lady said. “I thought I would finally be able to get a handle on my boils. The doctor in my town, you know, he told me that if I brought other people into the light of happiness and truth, my boils would lessen.”

“Did he, now?” God asked.

“Yes, he did,” she said firmly. “Now, you’re God, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am,” God said.

“Why can’t you do anything about my skin?” she demanded. “You have got to have some kind of power you can use to make them go away, or make them smaller.”

“I don’t like you,” God explained kindly. “I don’t help people that I don’t like. I hardly help people at all, you see. My job is to create order in the fabric of the universe. I don’t actually work on many of the details.”

“That is wrong,” the old lady said. “I will teach you to be a better God than that. First, you must learn to help people who need it. I help everyone that I meet.” A pair of new lumps sprang up, fully-formed, on her cheeks, and God winced.

“Listen, I am going away with my wife,” God said. “I was wondering, since you’re here, would you mind taking charge of hell for me?”

The lady’s eyes sparkled.

“Do you mean it?” she asked. The two boils that had grown on her cheeks shrank, just a tiny bit.

“Yes,” God said. He noticed, though he did not say anything, that the old lady’s skin brightened a touch.

“Isn’t there a devil for that sort of thing?” she demanded, her eyes sparkling.

“Well, you know,” God said, “there is a little problem here of inefficiency.”

“Say no more,” the lady said, in business-like fashion. “I will take care of everything. You just send any erring souls my way, and I will show them a rough time. I know perfectly well what is best for sinners, you wait and see.”

God smiled, and nodded.

“So kind and obliging of you to help me out,” he murmured. The old lady raised a hand sharply.

“No, don’t thank me,” she said, and another long chain of boils lessened into tiny freckles, and vanished. One stretch of her cheeks was now positively smooth and lump-free. “I understand the need for order in a fallen universe. Mind, if you’d been watching your post properly, there’d be no fallenness to begin with, but it isn’t my place to tell you how to be God. I’ll just be down in hell, sweeping up now,” she added, and God saw that she was positively bristling with eagerness to get down to work.

“Well, I really appreciate your willingness to pitch in,” God said.

“It is no trouble at all,” she said, and she nodded sharply to God. “Nice seeing you, sir,” she said.

God waved, and chuckled as he watched the old woman, whose face was rapidly smoothing, bundle herself down the streets into the depths of hell.

God pushed the crimson gates closed, and locked them fast. He went up to find his wife, who was fussing over the last details of her packing.

“How did it go?” she asked, when God came in.

“Quite well,” he said. “She’s got the idea that she’ll clean hell up once and for all.”

“Excellent,” his wife said. “Go ahead and get the prophets dreaming of her. They’ll spread the news to all the people on Earth, and we will have no more sinners at all.”

“Excellent,” God said, and he went and took hold of his wife’s hand. “It was really brilliant of you, to clothe pure efficiency up as a mortal woman.”

“Oh, you would have thought of it sometime,” God’s wife said. “I’m nearly ready to go on our honeymoon.”

“Yes, dear,” God said, and he went to find his favorite sunglasses.

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