The Bone Woman
There was a young girl who married an old, old man who treated her badly. He worked her hard, beat her, starved her, and cast her off when she gave him no children, leaving her in the desert with no food, or water, or shelter. The young wife hid in the meagre shade of rocks by day when the sun was fierce. By night she walked, crying for she could not find her way home. The nights were cold. Wolves prowled the hills and vultures flew above her head. She was hungry, thirsty, weary and she walked till she could go no further. Lying down, she wrapped herself in a long white skirt. She said “Let the Bone Woman take me, for I am spent”, and she died. Wild animals ate her flesh. Her spirit watched over the white bones and knew neither sorrow nor fear.
The bones lay in that secret place until the moon was full once more. Then the Bone Woman came and put them all in her woven sack. The old woman took the bones up to her cave high in the mountaintop, then laid them out beside the fire. She sat and smoked. She smoked and thought. She smoked and thought for a long, long time. Then she began to sing. “Flesh to bone! Flesh to bone! Flesh to bone!”. The Bone Woman sang and before long the bones began to knit themselves together, covered in flesh. Where the girl had once been red and rough, now she was soft and smooth. Her skin was as gold as daylight and her hair as black as night. The Bone Woman sang and sang. She blew a puff of tobacco smoke. The young woman’s eyes flew open and she sat up and looked around her.
The cave was empty. The ashes were cold. The old Bone Woman had disappeared. All that was left were tobacco seeds, and she put them in her pocket. She left the cave and started for home, following the rising sun. She knew she would find her village walking this way and so she did. She came upon her dwelling at last. The place was dark and deserted now. “That old man has died, that poor wife has died. Come away from that place,” the people said, for they didn’t recognise the lovely young woman who came to them out of the west. They gave her a name, a fine set of clothes, a new dwelling place, a goat, and a hen. They taught her human speech, for she had forgotten all that she knew. She planted the Bone Woman’s seeds and tended the new plants carefully. In time she married and gave her young husband many gold-skinned daughters and black haired sons, and her children’s children’s children still grow tobacco in that village today.
I discovered this story within a newspaper article concerning rites of passage. The author refers to it as a story from the mountains of northern Mexico. I couldn’t find any other references to it - I call it The Bone Woman.
The bone people from the old Spanish land-grant farms and the Pueblos are said to bring the dead back to life. There are stories of an old woman whose sole purpose is that of collecting bones. The woman is referred to by many names: La Huesera (Bone Woman), La Trapera (the Gatherer) and La Loba (Wolf Woman). La Loba is said to have principally collected wolf bones, which she would take back to her cave and sing to create their flesh. The wolf would then run out of the cave and in doing so transform into a laughing woman!
This story speaks to me of rites of passage and transformation – shedding flesh to get closer to our inner world. Anthony Stevens (1990) writes that ‘[t]ransition from one quarter to the next is a time of potential crisis for everyone’. He continues to say that each passage is a separation from previous circumstances and a rebirth to the new. Primitive societies developed rituals to help individuals through these transitions and powerful symbolism of these ensured that archetypal needs for that particular stage in the individual’s development were met.
I have mainly used this story in training settings, however I think it provides an opportunity to explore thresholds and those less predictable transitions.
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