The Water of Woodlawn

It weaves its way through woodland, fields, ravines and bogs and meanders
through the ditch near my house, a forgotten place, silent and peaceful, yet full
of life. To see water in the ditch, you must push through the nettles that rise
up like guards defending it. Fallen branches cross it like old bridges, some of
them delicately coated in sheep wool. Brambles arch around its banks through
the ivy and watercress; rocks sit in it like old buildings in a sunken city. It is a
beautifully intricate tapestry of wilderness.
Of its origins we aren’t sure; some say it could be trickling down from the bog.
Others say the water comes from the well on the hill.
To see the well, you must be brought by one who resides there. When I
visited it, I stood and listened to the wind rustling the trees, trees which
carried the hopes and prayers for many pious hearts in search of a cure or an
answer. I thought of the many hands touched the cold stone of the well. I
thought of the story of the well.
They say that when Catholic gatherings were forbidden during penal laws,
mass was said in secret. They say that on one summer evening, the old priest
stood on the hill saying mass, as the knees of his followers burrowed into the
soil with their heads hung low whispering in prayer. It was on this evening
they noticed a stranger among them. The stranger’s head was raised towards
the top of the trees. He knelt closer to the well than the others who believed
him to be a heathen or some kind of unworldly soul.
They say the priest put his feeble hands on this stranger but did not bless him
or speak to him. Instead, he gestured him towards the well, stood back and let
the stranger approach it. The others stopped their prayer to watch the
stranger and saw the silhouette of his tiny frame stagger towards the well.
Against the sunset, he looked like a wounded creature pushing the light of the
sun into the darkness of the well. Then he opened his mouth and sang into the
well, it was a sound none of the others had ever heard before. Some of them
were frightened, others were moved. As the stranger sang, the old priest
looked at each of the faces of his stunned followers as they became darkened
figures in the twilight. The stranger sang until the sun was finally set and when
he finished, he hobbled away, breathless, exhausted, into the woods.
From that night on, they say you can hear the water from the well, like an echo
of the one the stranger made, but soft, like a gentle hum.
My neighbour said her grandson heard it. He told her it was like a choir of
gentle voices.
‘It could be the breeze’ I said.
‘It could be’ she said and she walked toward her house with a smile which left
me with longing.
I was sure the water was negotiating with the heavens and nature in a
language we’ll never know, nor deserve to and I gave up trying to hear it.
Until one night, watching the silhouettes of sheep and trees on the hills in the
moonlight, a gentle feeling came over me, like a message and I wondered if it
came from the water. It wasn’t voices, it wasn’t a song, but it came through
the rustle of the trees and what it said was simply: ‘hush now’.