Washer at the Ford

(C) Emily Holbert Kellam

I roved out three years ago
While sank the sun into the West
My mother’s words far from my mind
My love’s name singing in my breast
Wandering, lost in love or dream
I followed the path of the winding stream
Until I reached the Washers’ Ford
And there I thought to stop and rest

Yet when I reached the singing falls
Another soul was standing there
A washerwoman, old and grey
Faded flowers in her hair
Though she was stooping to her task
Blithely I went to her and asked
“Good woman, if you’re growing weary
I have some apples we may share.”

Slowly did she turn to me
Then gave a little smile
“I thank you for your kindness, maid,
And soon shall rest a while.
I’ve rarely met one so giving
Among the dead or of the living!
I shall share you apples soon
As I have finished my travail.”

The sunset stained the water
Crimson beside her heap of work
The dusk crept in the forests
And the day would short grow dark
“Thou art old, while I a maid
Let you take rest and take my aid”
“If your wish” said she, “but you
Must wash this torn and bloody sark.”

I halted for a moment
Then I bent as I’d been told:
I took that torn and bloodstained garment,
Plunged it in the river cold.
Yet as I washed the linen fine
I recognized the stitches mine
Upon the very shirt I’d sewn
For my true love, brave and bold!

Too late remembered I the tale
Of the Laundress of the dead:
Who’ll cleanse the clothes of those new-slain
When river’s sun-stained red,
Who wait beside the bloody stream
And for their lovers loudly keen.
Too late then did I understand
That I was trapped, and he was dead.

Softly then the woman wept
“I never meant you ill!
Never did I think to have
My freedom bought by your good will.”
But dumbly did I face my plight
As a dying sun bled into night;
I shed a tear for my love gone
Then took my washing Underhill.

Now I wash by the waterside
As the sun is flaming red
And cleanse the clothes of those new-slain
And hear their names upon the wind
Fair one, do not let aid nor grief
Entrap you her as my relief
But fly now home to weep and keen
For by this blood your love is dead!

The faerie Washer Women known as the bean-nighe are a kind of banshee spirit, found amid the high streams of Scotland and Ireland washing the clothes of those about to die. Brian Froud & Alan Lee’s marvelous book Faeries tells that they are the souls of women who dies in childbirth, but this song would have it otherwise. Just as a man should never offer to row for the Ferryman, let young ladies beware taking up washing from any Washerwoman. ~EHK~

Waves on the Shore, Emily Holbert Kellam (2009)