Tales from the Regions: The Willows of Nienna

The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Judi Newall
The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Judi Newall


Val and the Lady of Tears
by Lyr Lobo

The lands appeared, not as a delicate spot on the horizon, but amid swirling winds that made Val’s hair stand on end. Today was the day!

Of all her sisters, she felt honored to take her place, and in the tenth year of their reunion, she would stand tall among them.

The mists unveiled their treasure as the light of the first dawn drew near, flooding the land before her with a regal glory. Before the light could claim her, she struggled to take her place on the dais.

Success! Yet relief was short-lived as the waters from the pool before her swirled, rising as if carried by a magical force. Was it those naughty nymphs come to jeer at her? No, it was the Lady, transforming from the mists!

Val straightened her shoulders and tried to look dignified, but could not help gaping as the Lady gestured and the sacred bowl rose from the pool to float on the water. Eager to do well, she stooped to pick up the bowl. Its size made it awkward and when the Lady’s tears filled it, Val nearly sank to her knees.

Val struggled under the weight, but lifted it to waist high, her arms throbbing under the strain. She nearly dropped the bowl as three water nymphs rose and splashed her. They giggled and swirled, making the water slosh as the bowl swayed, and it sent Val off balance. She almost dropped them.

“Be still for but a moment,” she said, hissing with the effort.

“Better hurry,” they chimed as they circled the bowl even faster.

Val dodged a merry splash and struggled to raise the bowl chest high. Seeing the light fast approaching, would she make it in time?

The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Lyr Lobo
The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Lyr Lobo

“Yes, let’s begin,” said the Lady of Tears. The nymphs grew quiet as they leaned over to watch. Val staggered to one knee as their weight shifted in her bowl.

“Give me strength,” she whispered.

The Lady touched her head and Val felt the weight disappear. She stood tall and held the bowl high above her. Relieved, she started to offer the blessing when fireflies descended, flitting around them.

Distracted, Val saw the light transform into a tiny faerie who settled so close to her face that she thought he’d landed in her eye. She shook her head and he drifted back to rest on her cheek.

He leaned over to whisper in her ear.

“Hold still. You don’t want to get stuck for weeks with that expression on your face.” She smiled and raised an eyebrow. His wings brushed against her face with a delicate softness that reminded her of other times.

The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Lyr Lobo
The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Lyr Lobo

“Perry!” Val quivered as his wings fluttered against her, and her face drew back, ready to sneeze. The cheeky faerie pinched her nose and gave it a good rub.  “Ah, sweet relief,” she said and drew back as he grinned at her.

Perry gave her a saucy wink and Val smiled her thanks and held the bowl of tears high, watching as the Lady made the final preparations.

“Lady of Tears, lend us your grace,” she whispered. The water nymphs paused in their antics, peering over the edge of the bowl as the dawn touched the edge of the pool below them. A song old as time filled the air as they danced, swirling the Lady’s tears as they flowed from the bowl to the pool.

Val felt the chill flow down her spine as the spell sparkled around her, extending the Lady’s grace to all who come in search of hope. Perry flew off to keep his vigil from the trees, whispering a soft “until later” in her ear.

The dawn filled the pool with a pale blue light and as it touched the hem of Val’s robe, and she felt the spell flow over her. With her last thought, she spoke the words that poured from her lips.

“May these tears take away pain and fill your heart with hope.”

The spell was cast.

The last vestiges of humanity slipped from Val as she relinquished her sense of self. The nymphs settled into a gentle steady pace as the Lady of Tears welcomed the new day.

Let the faire begin.

The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Lyr Lobo
The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Lyr Lobo


The Weeping Land
by Caledonia Skytower

In Memory of Marcus

I found myself in an azure land; as blue as my heart felt, filled with trees that mimicked my tears.  My footfalls felt empty, echoing on the stone path till I stopped, stood still, afraid the emptiness was more than I could endure.

There was a rustling in a bower of ferns to my right and an impish head popped up, bright ginger hair anomalous in this weeping land.

“Aristophanes!” it shouted merrily.

“Gesundheit!” I replied and sniffed loudly, by long-practiced reflex. I had not done that in years, and there had only ever been one person I had shared that joke with.

The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Aoife Lorefield
The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Aoife Lorefield

“Marcus!  Is that you?” I looked to the bower of ferns. The fronds waved at me, mockingly empty.  I stood blinking at where I thought I had seen that bright, beloved head appear.  I couldn’t be.  Marc was gone.  He’d been gone for a while.

What was the magic of this land?  Was every grieving nerve I had ever possessed to be touched here?  I wasn’t certain this was somewhere that I wanted to be.  Still, there was little to be lost by continuing. I had become pretty good at losing. It left me raw and directionless.

I looked casually as I walked on, thinking that perhaps my present state of grieving had left my imagination open to wild suggestion.  Copse, bower, meadow remained empty of  that which my eyes sought – my friend.

I stepped into a building, its smooth surface soothing in tones that harmonized with the land.  There were wares for sale, shapes and hues to draw my interest.  I tried to focus on them, carefully examining one thing after another: the cool glittering glass beads, the intricate metal bracelets, the richly enameled pendants.

“I’d avoid anything with carnelian, if I were you.  It’s not really your color!”

Swiftly as I turned, I just missed the familiar head as it popped out the open doorway – out of sight.  The hair had been thinner, still ginger bright, and there was no mistaking those freckles and the slightly lopsided grin.

The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Aoife Lorefield
The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Aoife Lorefield

I ran to the door, but there was no one to be found.  The plants and bushes were not even moving this time, but stood still in quiet testament to the pervading calm of the land. It was almost unsettlingly quiet. A place where a raised voice, merry or angry, would shatter itself harshly on the ear.

As I approached the center of this land, still some distance away from it, a figure beckoned to me.  I squinted to see more clearly.  Could it be Marc? Had he found respite here? Was he not dead?  This time the seeming figure of my friend did not move with the swiftness he had before, and his hair was thinner and grayer.  But amusement shone in those clear blue eyes.  He disappeared from my view into a columned plaza, and I hurried to catch up.

The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Aoife Lorefield
The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Aoife Lorefield

A broad pool unveiled itself before me.  I stopped where I was, stunned for the moment by the beautiful serenity I beheld.  It was a shallow pool, dotted with rose colored lilies, and at its farthest end stood a great statue of a woman, pouring water from a great stone vessel into the pool. Her features and her aspect seemed curative to me, compassionate, and I felt the insistent tug of her serene presence above the subtly shimmering waters.

I was not the only one who felt this.  Here and there,  beings of all kinds were wading into the pool: human, elf, dwarf. creatures with paws, creatures with hooves, dark, light, and everything in between.  Each one, singly or accompanied, were reverently making their way to the great stone lady.  The only sound was the restful murmur of the water’s movement.  I found myself stepping down the plaza stairs and into the water, joining the pilgrimage.

As I drew nearer, I saw the lady stood in a clear pool of her own on a raised dias, its waters flowing into the greater one. Stairs rose from the great pool, just as the water from the lady’s vessel cascaded downward.  Those who had gotten this close stood in awe, eyes raised high as if seeking the gaze of this goddess of the waters.

I ascended to nine steps to the foot of the statue, marveling as much at its height as I did at the invisible attraction that drew all to it.  At edge of that inner pool was a stone tablet, with elegant letters chiseled by a craftsman’s hand:

Willows weep into the waters of Time poured out by Nienna, The Lady of Compassion, who rules this land, a place of rest where travelers come to find comfort in grief.  Here in her tranquil garden of tears, Nienna teaches the endurance of the spirit and the power of hope and time to heal.

I raised my head to the Lady of Compassion, pondering what her teachings could mean for me.

The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Aoife Lorefield
The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Aoife Lorefield

“Hey!  Over here.”

The voice was familiar.  I turned to find the welcome face of my friend, this time he did not dart away.

“Marcus!  What are you doing here?  How …?”

“I’m sitting on a tree root.” He patted the large root of the gigantic willow on which he sat. “Here, pull up some wood.”

He was dressed in a hooded monk’s robe of darkest blue.  The hood partially falling back, I could see that his head was bald – all the bright ginger hair gone.  It gave him a certain sacred. I tried to combat my discomfort with humor.

“I see you have forsaken short sleeved light blue sports shirts for something more classic.”

“No, no!” he protested gleefully, “That’s the Methodists. We Baptists have always been more the button down collar type.”

I sat where he bade me.

“It’s good to see you, my friend.”

“It’s good to be seen.  But I have to wonder why I am being seen.  These days I only make guest appearances on the corporeal plane.”

His freckles still danced the same way they always had, as he grinned at me.

“Could this be your doing?”

“Mine?  I am not sure how.”

Marcus reached for my hand. His touch was soft, but very present.

“Here we are at this pool of tears, you and I.  I am beyond tears, so the weeping must be yours.”  He paused.  “How long has it been?”

He locked his eyes with mine and I knew that humor or evasion would be useless.

“Ten years, maybe.” I said, “more like twelve or thirteen.”

“So it began when I was still with you. That’s an awfully long time to grieve.”

A moment of uncertainty was followed by a torrent of feelings that flowed out of me with the same steady ebb as the waters flowing from the Lady’s vessel.

The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Caledonia Skytower
The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Caledonia Skytower

“That’s just it.  It hasn’t been just one thing to get over.  It’s been a whole series of things, one after the other.  Just when I think this horrible season of loss is over, something else comes up – another hit – and I just feel like . . . ” I paused unable to go on, pulling my hand back to wipe my eyes.

“Go on.  Tell me, how do you feel?”

I looked down at the pool, which began to blur in my dampening vision.

“Like it’s never going to end.” I finally said.  “Like the loss is just going to keep peeling away the layers of my life till there’s nothing left.  Yet, just when I think there’s nothing left to lose . . . ”

“There’s always something else.” He said gently, taking my hand back. “Remember how you used to tease me about my glass?”

“Your glass?”

He adjusted himself on the root, settling in.

“Yes.  You used to say that I looked at ‘my glass’, and not only saw it half empty, but slightly cracked.  Remember that?”

I laughed in reply, “I’ve never met anyone as pessimistically optimistic as you, Marcus.”

He joined me in laughing. “Yes, I could almost always anticipate the worst, and it never let me down.”

Our laughter subsided and I watched his face transform from mirth to utter seriousness. “When the worst did come, I wasn’t prepared for it.  I fought it with everything I possessed.  I did not want to believe, could not conceive, that something like this was happening to me, to my life.”

“Six months it was, if I remember,” I said quietly, “Has it really only been seven years?”

The sound of the flowing waters filled the silence as we both remembered, until I finally broke it.

“Yet at the end, you had a kind of peace about you, a radiance of spirit.”

“Trust me, nothing about dying that is elegant. But you are right about where I was spiritually.  You see, there’s a great liberation in truly having nothing more to lose, along with the insight to realize all that you have been blessed with, all that you still have.  I treasured every one and everything in those final weeks.  So, in a way, you were right all along about me and my glass. It took cancer to convince me of that.”

“Please,” I struggled, “Don’t make your death sound like some sort of blessing.  I still miss you terribly, and so do a lot of others.”

“Blessing, curse.  What does it matter, really?  I always had a choice about what perspective I took. Crossing the veil, passing, death: they await us all.  It’s not good or bad, it’s just the truth of mortality from the first draw of breath.  You’re fortunate, really.”

“Is this going to be another of your sermons, Marc?”

“Noooooo,” he laughed, “despite what it might look like, I don’t have to do those any more, thankfully.” He paused. “Your life isn’t what you wanted it to be right now, not what you envisioned.  But the universe has not stepped in and made the decision for you, charted your course and cut down your options.  You still have choices.”

“Sometimes it seems like I have lost my knack of choosing,” I sighed.

“It’s all a cycle, good times, bad times, everything in between.  Like the orbit of a planet around a sun, you can only see a bit of it now, but the reality of the pattern is much larger.”

“That’s very platitude-nal Marc”

He grasped my hand with both of his, shook it earnestly, “Choose.  Make choices, good or bad, but choose while you still can.  Make the most of whatever is given you, whatever time. Regrets waste your energy.”

He looked up to the great statue of Nienna, Lady of Compassion. “See her, and allow yourself to absorb her message.  There are tears here, yes, but also cleansing. It’s not weakness to struggle, it’s how we grow. I know it has hurt, every bit of it, including my death.  I know it sometimes strangles your spirit.  But through all of that you have grown so much in empathy and compassion. They will be your legacy.”

He nodded to the Nienna again. “That must be why she called you here, and summoned me to speak.  Come with me,” he stood up, a new resolution in his eyes.

He guided me to the Nienna’s inner pool, where the waters never stopped flowing in a land that weeps and heals.  He stepped down into the pool, helping me to follow, took hold of my shoulder and we waded to the cascade of sparkling water.

“You don’t have to keep struggling with these burdens,” he said softly in my ear, “open yourself up to the possibility of healing, and allow yourself to be whole.”

The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Judi Newall
The Willows of Nienna, photographed by Judi Newall

With that, he pushed me into the cool falling waters, which refreshed as much as they shocked.  I stood for a moment willing myself to let go, feeling the energy of cares flow down my body and out my fingertips, exiting through the soles of my feet.  It was crying and laughing, it was exultation and serenity.  It was the beginning of true and deep healing.

I turned around and stepped out of the falls.  Marcus was gone, and I stood there in a silent embrace of love and fellowship. I had almost forgotten I still had that. I had never really, could never really, lose it.

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