Into the Misty Mountains
Gwen was on the geriatric ward checking over the drugs list, when the ward Sister came in to ask to her talk to a woman. The woman’s father had been taken down for x-rays and his daughter was rather upset about it and wanted to see the doctor. Gwen got out his file for the first time as he had only recently been admitted. He had a very weak heart and his blood pressure had now been stabilised. Gwen had been impressed by his cheerfulness, although she could see he didn't much like being unable to get out of bed. The woman followed her into the little office looking rather distressed. Gwen took charge of the situation and started to explain his condition and the treatment he was receiving. The woman interrupted her saying “But he’s dying isn’t he? Can't you stop messing about with him and just keep him comfortable?” Gwen pictured the old man in his bed, his laughing eyes had showed an inner strength, and showed no fear. She could not see that he was dying, but then his daughter had been watching changes in him day by day, she seemed to know. The woman was watching Gwen’s face and added, “Look, dying is alright you know, we all have to die. He can handle it, I can handle it, why can't you handle it? He just wants a bit of peace.”
Gwen replied “We are giving him active treatment, but I will discuss this with his consultant.” She wondered again why medical staff so stubbornly refuse to accept death. She did not think the doctor in charge of this case would be much help. “You may well be right, we will do our best to respect his dignity.” Their eyes met and she recognised a look of understanding in her tear-shining eyes. The woman left, thanking her.
Gwen sat at the cluttered desk thinking back to her recent holiday in Wales. She had gone alone to seek her roots. She had finished her medical training at university and was now embarking on her first job at Guys Hospital as a Houseman. Although she was born in London her parents were Welsh and her childhood memories of the tales her mother had told her had left her with a romantic idea of her heritage. She particularly liked a fairy story of great antiquity that related to her family, they came from a village called Myddfai in the Black Mountains.
In the fairy kingdom under the little tarn known as Llyn y Fan Fach there lived a beautiful maiden. She had great healing skills and a deep compassion for mankind. A neighbouring farmer had very naturally fallen deeply in love with her. She knew she could give her skills to this man without them being abused or lost. By marrying him the world of men could be enriched and she longed to be able to find fulfilment in this way. Her father was suspicious of people and feared their avarice and cruelty would corrupt his lovely daughter. He could not keep her from her happiness however and let her go, giving as a dowry a herd of wonderful white cattle. He made one condition to the marriage: if her husband were to hit her three times with iron, she was to return to the fairy kingdom, and he would lose her forever.
For many years they lived very happily. The cattle were always healthy and productive and the farm thrived. They had several strong children and the Lady of the Lake taught her husband and her children each a large portion of her knowledge of herbs, healing and health. For miles around their skill was acknowledged and sought after. Marriages go as marriages go, and though they were envied for their contentment, human weakness shows itself everywhere. After many years it happened that the man hit his wife with iron for the third time. Once he had flung a horseshoe in her direction in a temper, when the horse he was shoeing kicked him. Once he had shouted at her and so distressed her that she tripped over an iron pot, and the last time he had let an iron gate hit her. It was with great sadness that she called her herd of lovely cattle to follow her back to the lake, leaving her earthly family behind. Without the cattle to support the family they concentrated on medicine. They treasured her memory by using the skills she had taught them. They helped many people and passed on the knowledge so it would not be lost to the world. It was probably this story that gave Gwen her determination to follow many of her relatives and become a doctor. The ancient skills of her family might now be lost, but perhaps there was still some genetic predisposition to healing that she could draw on. Or perhaps she felt she must continue to atone for the wrong done to her fairy ancestress.
The first destination of her Welsh holiday had been Myddfai and the Black Mountains. She found Llyn y Fan Fach and gazed at the lake, trying to imagine the events of the tale, she spoke to one or two people, but she felt a stranger there, as of course she was. She was not sure what it was that she had hoped to find, but she felt disappointed. She drove about Wales taking with her a feeling of sadness and loss, though what she had lost she could not say. She was confident about being a doctor except in one area, and that was death. Her training had assumed death as the Enemy that a doctor had to fight and subdue. She could not quite understand that attitude since everyone has to die once they have been born.
She had worked so hard for so long that she had almost forgotten what relaxation was like. She cleared her mind and opened it up to the magnificent beauty of the country about her. The weather was fine and comfortable, at the top of the hill she saw that the mountains were covered with heavy cloud. Gwen decided to walk in these mysterious misty mountains. From a distance they looked magical enough, but as she made the final ascent to the highest pass she quickly found herself surrounded by confusing sense effects. The path was uphill, then came to a downhill stretch, but yet she still had to make the effort of a hard climb. Was she going uphill or downhill? She could not be sure. The pass climbed a steep sided valley, the other side was close by, a stone's throw away, but the lonely farmhouse she could see looked like a tiny toy miles away. The sheep were little white dots though their voices sounded loud and plaintive under the clouds as if they were right by her.
The tops of the mountains were entirely hidden by cloud, indeed she was entering the cloud herself and felt the damp of it soaking into her. She was following a path but had not consulted a map, and so was not sure if it was a proper footpath or just a sheep track. It started as bare earth, but became more rocky as she ascended. Looking around, the hillslopes below looked like dull green velvet draped over the rock beneath, with the mauve of the heather sparkled with golden gorse and brighter green woven in a like a tapestry. Nearer the track, the growth between the rocks was shining like emeralds with a green richer than the imagination can hold. It looked strange and unfamiliar, she touched it tentatively with her hand.
The craggy mountains around seemed to be a charming playground for having fun in. She climbed up stepped bluffs and slid down crashing screes. A grey faced ewe watched indulgently, when the whistled notes of a folk tune drifted across the mountains. It fitted perfectly as background music to the pastoral scene about her. It demanded her attention and she thought at first that it must be by a classical composer, but no, it was nothing she had heard before. It was all music that is heavenly, reminiscent of the peak of creativity in a composer's work. She looked about for the musician who was getting closer. There was no other sound, she thought she should hear the sound of tumbling stones under the feet of anyone moving across this rocky terrain. She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. A small figure was nimbly trotting down a scree slope without moving a stone. She would have mistaken him for a sheep but for his upright posture. His clothes seemed to be the colour of the mountain, so only his music and his movement made him clear to behold. He seemed to be picking a route apparently randomly, as if he did not mind where he went, but Gwen knew he was coming towards her. It was only when he was close enough to smile at her that she could see what he looked like.
The Whistler was small and neat of figure. His face was narrow and pointed, haloed by golden curls. His eyes had a curious shiny brightness. The tune stopped when he smiled. Gwen thought perhaps she should say something, but had no idea what, and it seemed nothing was required. The Whistler summoned her to accompany him by a gesture of his head, and then ignored her as she followed. From his lips the music resumed, but this time instead of seeming to fit in perfectly with the environment it was a tune of tragedy and the tears were streaming down Gwen's cheeks as she listened. It expressed all loss and loneliness that may be known, the burden of all the suffering, the anger the pain and the grief of the world was in that evasive melody. She was forced to feel all that grief there and then a she followed the footsteps of the Whistler. She had no thoughts of her own left, nor did she know where they were bound, nor did she care. It ended when they arrived at a stone built cottage blending so well with the natural landscape that she had not noticed it. The Whistler turned to face Gwen and smiled again. She had thought that the grief expressed in the tune was the Whistler's, but then she realised it was her own. His smile washed away all the pain and she was whole and light hearted for the first time in she forgot how many years. Without knocking he opened the door for Gwen to enter. The room was warm, dimly lit and rather smoky. Stooped over a stove in the chimney was an old woman stirring a pot. She turned to Gwen and she noticed the same bright eyes that seemed to know her.
"You have come a long way” she said quietly “You may rest here." Gwen sat on a settle in the gloom of the cottage. The Whistler had not followed her in and she felt a pang of loss for a moment. The woman noticed it on Gwen’s face and admonished her with a gentle clucking sound as she handed her a bowl of broth. The pulpy mess of vegetables flavoured with mountain herbs revived her spirits rapidly and when she had finished it and licked the spoon, she wondered what was in it that made her feel so good. She looked up and the old woman was watching her expectantly.
"Thank you, Kind Lady, that was just what I needed, will you tell me what makes it so rich and strength-giving?" The old woman smiled and reached up to the low rafters where bundles of herbs were hanging. She showed her common yarrow, meadowsweet and sweet marjoram, both were just coming into flower. "These are very good, young woman, the roots of the yarrow go far into the ground to bring up things that a weary body lacks, the meadowsweet keeps your blood flowing well, the sweet delicacy of the marjoram cheers the heart, the potatoes and carrots give you strength and milk enriches it all. It is a simple recipe and a good one." She took away the bowl and busied herself around the fire, humming to herself. Gwen found her eyes closing.
"Are you ready to return? You know the way now." Gwen was startled out of a dream she instantly forgot. She realised she did not know the way, nor remember even if it was uphill or downhill. She wanted the wise-woman to give her all her wisdom of mortality but did not know how to ask. "Just follow the path downhill. Death is about the end of life, young woman. You must understand life to understand death and that usually takes a lifetime. The essence of life is eternal, and is not restricted to earthly time. Your time often seems like a restriction but it gives life order, you will need that for all your life. If you learn to give love completely whenever you can and to live fully in your allotted time, you will have used your life wisely. Then you will be ready for the next stage when it comes." She smiled, turned away and went about her business as if Gwen had ceased to exist. So she went out of the open door into the sunlight and saw the path winding its way down the mountainside. It did not seem at all familiar but it was easy to follow.
For the rest of her holiday Gwen was in a kind of daze. She sometimes found herself weeping at the beauty of the mountains, or smiling at the sheep as if they were old friends, and she wondered what was the matter with her. She knew that something slightly extraordinary had happened to her, but she could not quite remember what. She thought she remembered hearing some magically beautiful music that had affected her very deeply although she could usually recall a tune easily, that music left no trace of a memory, apart perhaps for a strange feeling of sad happiness. She knew an old lady had given her some soup. It was very commonplace for a dish that had seemed like ambrosia for the gods as she ate it, but she determined to try and make it like the old lady had. She believed she had been told the answers to things she desperately wanted to understand, but the words completely escaped her.
On her return to London she did try the recipe, again and again to the amusement of her friends, but lacking the fresh wild herbs she could not perfect it. She read lots of books on herbalism and argued its merits often. When the time came, Gwen felt ready to start work at Guy's, although she was nervous. She fell straight into the hospital duty rota and hardly had time to think about what she was doing, until that daughter of a new patient challenged her.
Gwen came back to reality and shuffled the old man’s file back together. She thought she now had a fight on her hands, both with the consultant and with the ward Sister who looked on all the ward patients as her property. She found an unexpected reserve of confidence when she did speak to the consultant. He seemed quite convinced by her argument and said “It’s a pity more relatives are not like that, you know, we ought to listen more to them. After all his daughter knows far more about him than our instruments can ever tell us. We will try to keep him as comfortable as we can.”
Gwen said “I am so relieved to hear you say that. I didn't want to see that lovely old man deprived of all his dignity.”
“Have you thought of working in the Hospice Movement? I think it might suit you when you’ve got a bit more experience.”
“Well, yes, I have. But there is death in all hospitals, why shouldn’t it always be dignified? I’d like to see all doctors and nurses understanding it as a necessary end that should be more openly discussed with patients and their relatives.”
“You’ve got a good point there, Dr Williams, but don't forget how many people are terrified of death. You’d be surprised how few are ready for it, however inevitable and obvious it is.”
It was less than a week after Gwen’s meeting with his daughter that the old man died. She was so glad to be able to sit by him, keeping the fussing nurses away and holding his hand. His blue eyes had met hers and she had felt a communion with him before they closed and his breath rasped a few times before ceasing. Looking at his wrinkled face and the old woman in the mountains came into her mind. She closed her eyes and the understanding she had felt on her strange visit there washed through her again.
His daughter arrived only ten minutes later, although she had already made her daily visit. Sister had tried to keep her away and called Dr Williams to break the news in the proper way, but she brushed straight past her through the curtains. She saw her father was dead and she smiled at Gwen, who had caught up with her, as her eyes filled with tears. They both gazed at him. The daughter had a small smile and tears running down her face. Gwen found herself moved to tears as well, although she hardly knew him. There was peace.