She carried a bag on her shoulders, a large bag, almost full to the brim. The objects' outlines were pressed against the cloth, rough and rather awkward looking. I watched her from my bench as she trudged up the hill towards me, sometimes stumbling along the path under the weight of her load.
I watched her as she paused to shift the bag, wincing as though something sharp dug into her shoulder. Realizing how incredibly heavy her burden must be, I put my book into my bag and went to offer my help.
As I approached her, I called out a greeting. She acknowledged me with a nod of her head, but kept her eyes downcast and walked slowly onward. I fell in step beside her, my curiosity growing by the second. What was in that bag, I wondered, and why was she carrying something so frightfully heavy?
"What's in the bag?" I asked her.
She kept her eyes on the path before our feet, not answering right away. A few moments later, she responded in a quiet voice, "Words."
"Words?" I asked, surprised, "How do you carry words?"
She shrugged, wincing again as the weight shifted, "You just carry them."
"Oh," I was puzzled, "Are they heavy?"
She nodded slowly.
I thought about this as we walked again in silence. I asked another question, curious by her reply, "How can words be heavy?"
Another small shrug, "They just are."
I didn't believe her. "But there are lots of words in my book! More words than in your bag, I bet, and my book isn't heavy! See? My bag is light."
She smiled and laughed, a sad little laugh that made me feel sad, too.
"I'm glad that your words aren't heavy, little one. I hope that your words stay in your books for a long while yet."
I was frustrated now. Words weren't heavy! I wanted to know what was really in her bag.
"Come on, let me see the words!" I said.
I was surprised to see a look of fear cross her face. She held the bag closer to her and shook her head forcefully. She began to walk as fast as her load would let her, the objects knocking against one another inside the bag. But the weight was too much. She tripped and her grip on the bag slipped. It hit the ground with a loud thud. Out spilled the objects.
With a cry she began to gather up the objects, trying to shield them from my view. But I had already seen them.
They were stones. Not little stones that you toss into the river or skip across the lake or put in your pocket on a walk, but big stones; stones you would use to make giant splashes with wide, wide ripples in the water.
I bent and picked one up. She reached out to me and said in a high, thin voice, "Please. Give that to me."
I studied it, then looked into her face. Her eyes were full of sorrow. I'd never seen eyes like that. So very sad--and lost and tired, too. And afraid.
I looked back at the stone.
"There's writing on it," I said.
She nodded, "Yes, little one. There is writing on it."
"Are there writing on the other ones, too?" I asked.
A sob escaped from her, but she smiled through the tears now streaming down her face and said, "Yes. Yes-on all of them."
I handed the stone to her and watched as she put it back into the bag. I helped her put the rest away. Each stone did have a word on it, words like fear, guilt, shame, ugly, failure, pain, lies, forgotten, impossible, alone, nothing. There were so many stones. So many stones that she carried.
She left me standing alone on the path. I watched her go, thinking about all of the stones. But now, her bag was a little lighter. When she wasn't looking, I had placed my book inside her bag, a book full of words that weren't heavy.
The stone in my hand was a heavy stone, large and rough. On it a word was written, one that I had never associated before with weight. But it was a heavy stone, and a heavy word. I studied it, thinking about what I had gained that day by meeting the woman on the path.
Carefully placing the stone into my now empty bag, I swung it onto my back. I looked over my shoulder at the path behind me. The woman was nowhere to be seen. I began the walk home, feeling the heaviness of the stone against my shoulders. Aloud, I whispered a word: