• Norma Hughes

THE HUNCHED LADY

I was walking along a pebbly path of the finest yellow dirt with ridges deep enough that one was likely to trip if not paying attention. It was a particularly misty morning, and all was quiet. Great statues and ruins of fallen civilisations lay half submerged across the landscape and appeared as shadowy ghosts along the edge of the path. Thin, pale barked trees and colourless flowers grew around the ruins of the otherwise barren and desolate backdrop, and I could not help but feel the temporality of our existence pressing in around me. As I walked deep in thought, I heard someone behind me. It was not the persons footfalls which alerted me to their presence, but a stream of quiet conversation and muttering. As I glanced over my shoulder, as surreptitiously as one can whilst performing such an action, I perceived an older, hunchbacked woman. The hump on her back forced her into a bowed position, so that she walked as if she were carrying a heavy weight upon her shoulders.

‘Excuse me’ I said, feeling a sense of intrusion as she continued to have a private conversation with herself. She looked at me with surprise, having only just noticed me.

‘Would you mind if we walked together?’ I asked. She shrugged demurely and we continued on walking side by side. The lady was silent now, and her laboured breathing dispersed the heavy silence that now fell between us. Her grey, course hair lay wispily against her forehead, and small jewels of mildew beaded across the fabric of her shawl. She was so very tiny and fragile, and her bones clicked as she walked.

After some time, as always, my curiosity overcame me.

‘May I ask who you were talking to before?’

The hunched lady smiled, and for reasons I could not fully understand, her expression caused great wells of sadness and pity within my chest.

‘I think it would be more prudent to ask, “who was listening?”’ the hunched lady said, ‘I am sure that even you at times, feel compelled to talk outside of your own head.’

I nodded slowly, and we walked some more in silence as we both considered this. It was true that in times of turmoil or frustration I could not help but speak out loud. Loneliness had served only to exacerbate this problem and I would often catch myself having whole conversations on inane subjects. Some not so inane, and I could talk until I cried and had to silence myself so as not to stumble into that perilous spiral that is despair.

‘I lost my family a long time ago to The Dust. All of them’ said the hunched lady, pulling me out of my contemplations as she passed her hand over the ruins around her. ‘I could not let them leave me in this life alone, and so I carry them with me.’ She trudged her legs forward, wincing, wheezing till she could take a deep breath.

‘It is them I talk to and in return they guide me, keep me company. My ancestors, my family, they all listen. There is no need for them to interject, they know that I will make the right choice. The important thing is to listen.’ Her body was now stooped so low that she could easily touch the path beneath her feet.

‘Is it worth this burden, to hold on to them as you do?’ I asked, my chest cold with melancholia.

‘It is not a choice. We are more of our past than you realise young lady. One day you will feel this weight and understand that without it you would drift away. Argh’ she signed having to stop and catch her breath. I let her drink from my canteen and walked her over to a smooth boulder which appeared to have once been the arm of a great emperor’s statue now long since forgotten.

‘I’ll be alright dear, you walk on and I’ll catch up’ she said, and she leant against the stone, slowly sliding her back down its surface till she was sitting. A look of great relief and ease crossed her face and she closed her eyes as she caught her breath. Hesitantly I walked away, following the path up to the top the hill. As I reached its crest, I briefly glanced back over my shoulder to observe the lady one last time. She remained hunched against the statue disappearing in the fog, her eyes still closed and her lips moving faintly once again. I did not see the hunched lady again as I travelled along the path, and I do wonder sometimes as I catch myself talking aloud, what became of her.

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