He met the old woman by the river. She knelt by the water, beating bloody clothes against the rocks. She’d wring out the fabric, dripping streams of bright blood into the water.
He’d seen her before. Many times. But he’d never had the nerve to approach her. As dusk settled, he came closer.
The old woman kept her back to him as she hunched over the water. Her long black hair kept him from seeing her face, but her dirty gown clung to her bones and her hands were withered and claw-like.
“So you finally come to talk,” she said. “I didn’t know if you ever would.”
“My mother’s dying,” he said.
The woman laughed coldly. “I know.”
“They say the old woman of the river–you–know the secrets of life and death.”
“They are not secrets you want to know, boy.” She turned her head in his direction. Shadows clung to her face, and all he could see was her crooked teeth. “Run along now. It’s not good for the living to enjoy the company of the dead.”
“Please, she’s all I have.”
The woman dipped her hands in the water and rubbed them together. “Then you have nothing.”
“I’ll give you anything you want, anything I have. I’ll do anything.”
“You shouldn’t say such things. Anything is a terrible lot to do, and you never know who is listening. It is unfortunate to know that the universe is indifferent to your suffering, but it is terrifying to know it might notice.”
“I have some money.”
“What use have I for money? What use have I for anything you might offer me?”
She reached into her basket and removed another bloody garment. “Leave me to my task.”
“I’ll wash your clothes,” he said.
The woman paused. “You know not what you offer. My sins, unforgivable.”
He dared step closer. “Will you save my mother if I do it?”
She stood. Her bones cracked with every movement. She moved toward him, snapping and popping with each step. Her face was only a bare skull, and her breath stank of worms and pond scum.
“Don’t offer this to me,” she said. “You don’t understand this bargain.”
“Can you save her?”
“I can, but the price is too high. So she lives another decade or two. Is it worth the price?”
“It’s worth any price.”
“Once, when I was a girl, I found the crone by the river and offered my bargain for what I desired. She did the worst thing she could.” She wrapped her icy fingers around his throat. “She gave it to me.”
“Please. She’s my mother.”
A bug crawled out of the woman’s hair and into her eye socket. “If it is your wish, then I must honor it. She shall be spared. She shall live another thirty years, but she will never see her son again. So it is done, and may you one day be forgiven for the sins you have taken on.”
A frozen wind shrieked through the trees. The woman vanished.
He knelt down beside the river and dipped the bloody clothes into the water. His hands were soon just as red as the current ran crimson, carrying away stains that could never be cleansed.