She’s attending the christening ceremony of a baby princess who has been long wanted and wished-for. The King has invited her and eleven other wise women with the hope that they will give special gifts to the infant—beauty, wisdom, artistic talent, compassion, and so on. There are thirteen wise women in the kingdom, but the King doesn’t invite the thirteenth. When she finds out that she has been excluded, the thirteenth barges into the feasting hall, arriving just after the eleventh has given her gift. She curses the child to death at the age of fifteen. Whatever it was the twelfth had intended to give, she puts aside. She steps forward, and marshals all the powers of light to amend this terrible fate.
I have met several twelfth wise women in my time. They have a particular understanding of the this vital act of meeting darkness with light. The most memorable of all the twelfth wise women I’ve known was my friend Nancie Patterson, who died in her eighties a few years ago. When I told the story one afternoon, back in the early 1990s, Nancie’s identification with the twelfth wise woman was so strong that I asked her if I could come to her house and interview her. It seemed that she had more to say.
Non sooner had I turned on the tape recorder than Nancie went into a deep state of reflection. “I have to go all the way back to childhood,” she began. “The evening at the Castle was the culmination of something that happened when I was a little girl.” The little girl’s name was Beatrice, a much-loved child with unruly red hair, and the daughter of a Count and a Countess. When she was still very little, her parents took her to a temple far away to visit the Oracle. Here, in her own words, is what Nancie said:
The Oracle was a lady and she sat on, it looked like beautiful throne. And it’s at the end of a long, long room. You entered it and as you walked toward her she had a lot of light. When you got close to her, there were steps. You had to kneel down, even my Daddy knelt down!
The Oracle was this lovely lady. She had very dark hair, really smooth, not like my hair, my hair’s all curly. Hers was really smooth and it flowed down her back. She was very pretty, I liked her. She had this lovely thing in her hand, a golden stick of some kind that she was holding onto. It looked like a wand.
What was she wearing? I don’t know, it was a sort of blue, silvery thing, like a long dress, but you know, it’s funny because I can’t really see her body. She’s really a silvery blue light. Her eyes are very, very blue, which is strange because she’s so dark. She got dark hair and she’s got dark eyebrows. She’s very pretty.
She talked to all of us for a little while, and then she sent my mother and father away, and she told me to approach her. I was a bit scared of her. I’d hadn’t ever seen anybody like her at all, never. She said, “Don’t be afraid. I have something very important to tell you.”
She said to me that I was going to have a happy life, because I have been very good in the lives I had lived before. But she said there was something I had to remember. She said, “When you are quite old, you are going to save a life that will save a lot of lives.” I don’t know what she meant, “save a life that will save a lot of lives,” it didn’t really make too much sense to me, but I liked the part about being happy.
In the space of an hour, Nancie reeled out the entire story of Beatrice’s life. She told me about her childhood, and her love for a man named Ranald, who became her husband. They had four children but then Ranald was killed in a boar hunting accident. Sitting in her sofa, with her white hair shining silver in the light of the lamp, Nancie wept real tears over the loss of Ranald.
Eventually, Nancie (as Beatrice) came to tell me about the christening event. She recalled in amazing detail the gifts that the wise women offered, which included a pretty dog, and an orphan girl who had always believed it was her destiny to serve the princess. Beatrice herself had brought a potted rose tree that would bring the princess the kind of love that she herself had known and lost. She was just about to step forward with her gift when…(and here again are Nancie’s words from the transcript…verbatim…)
…. darkness dropped over the Castle. A feeling of fear ran through me. I knew something dreadful was about to happen. I looked around and I wondered what it could be because some evil was approaching. I looked at all the other wise women, all of us were there, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 myself — there was no thirteenth. What had happened? How could there be no thirteenth wise woman? Where was she? That’s when the dread set onto my heart, for I knew that Grezelda was coming, and that she was full of fury at having been overlooked. I had no idea at that time why she had not been invited, what had happened to the invitation, because surely she should have been with us.
The doors opened and she came storming in. She was dressed all in black; everything she wore was black. And against all the colored robes, and all the ribbons and the lights, she was a figure to be terrified of. She carried a black wand in her hand. She strode up and everybody fell back with fear, and, in her anger, her humiliation, her fury and her hatred, she condemned that beautiful baby to death.
We were all frozen with utter horror. The Queen turned pale and she fell back against the King, and he put his arm around her and tried to support her. The pages rushed up with a low velvet stool, and they lowered her onto it, and she was just about fainting with terror and pain and fear.
I thought, what can happen now? This cannot be allowed, it cannot be allowed! And she has had all twelve of her gifts. No, she hasn’t, just a moment. Remember. She had received eleven gifts, she had not received MY gift. Was there anything I could do? Was there any power that could fill me, that I could turn aside this dreadful curse? I thought, I will call upon all the angels and the gods, I will call upon all the wise spirits, I will call upon the spirit of my beloved Ranald, and together we will become one, and their power shall enter into me, and I shall give the gift to the baby of continuing life. I will give her the power of love to overcome this darkness.
I tried to push away the whole spell that the wicked one was putting on her, and I sent out all my force against it. I pushed spiritually against it, but I could not get rid of her. I could not cancel her out. But I moved her. Year by year by year, I moved her back. And back, and each year was a year of life for my little one. A year of sleep, but not death. I struggled and I struggled, and the beautiful spirits around me moved close. We all sent our blessing, and I believe the spirit of God entered all of us, for Grezelda fell back, and fell back, and she was no longer looming over the cot. It seemed that she got smaller, and I could feel that I was winning something for the princess. Sleep, not death. Sleep, not death. Just a sensation, a cessation, a sensation of sleeping. And the whole palace should sleep with her for one hundred years….one hundred years…one hundred years…
And I knew all of a sudden, what the goddess had meant when she said that I would save a life that would save many lives. I knew that the princess would take over the ruling of the kingdom when her mother and father had passed away, and that she would be a just ruler, and I knew that the spirits would send her a young man for a husband, somehow, I did not know how. But in saving her life, I fulfilled the prophecy that I would save a life that would save many lives.
And so that strange and terrifying day ended, and the Queen and the King gave orders that all needles were to be removed. There was to be no more sewing in the kingdom. The thorns were to be cut off of all the rosebushes, all the spears and the arrows had to have their tips covered. There was to be nothing sharp or piercing left around the Palace or the grounds of the Palace. And gradually, life returned to the room, and we took heart again, and our baby was still there, laughing, laughing. No idea, she had no idea the peril through which she had just passed, nor what would face her in the future, for we all promised that we would say nothing. And so that day ended, and the prophecy was fulfilled, and I watched her grow into a beautiful young woman. Kindly, loving, spiritual, a part of all nature, a part of all people. And I was in the Palace that fateful day when she did indeed, fulfill the prophecy and her finger was pricked by this strange old woman in the tower. And I too, sank into sleep, along with all the others…. just quietly, quietly, quietly….
Nancie always encouraged people to push back on darkness with their light, and she continues to be a guiding spirit in this fairy work. She once wrote to me, “The ability to touch and work with the kingdoms of the faery people, the dreamworkers with their visions of beauty, is somewhere still alive in us, with a sensitivity that is not generally shared, and, I think, has caused us severally to feel a particular kind of loneliness, which we are now able to assuage a little in each other’s hearts.”
I was with Nancie when she died, along with several of her dearest friends, and we watched in amazement as she passed peacefully into the full field of her light. She was gone on the last notes of an Ave Maria, and, soon after, I remembered something she had once told me. When she was a little girl, she would tiptoe around the house so that she wouldn’t wake the Dreamer, because if she woke the Dreamer, she would die.
And so the Dreamer woke to her own, blazing beauty.
illustrations by Arthur Rackham and Margaret Tarrant