The Woman Who Had No Shadow


July 27, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

I have not yet shared a folk or fairy tale on this blog. They are deeply powerful cultural stories, and often they talk of things not openly discussed. My version of this old Scandinavian folk tale was the opening story in my 2011 Fringe show, The Sins of the Mothers. I have tried to select art work that complements it.

Pensive Young Woman, Corot. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

Pensive Young Woman, Corot. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

The pastor’s new wife was afraid of having children.

Other women are afraid they won’t have children, but she was afraid of having them. She felt completely alone in this fear – she could share it with no one – and therefore it consumed her.

It never occurred to the pastor that his wife might not want children. He did – and he told her so, often. He had seen how well she had cared for her sisters and brothers after her mother had died, had seen how she kept the butcher’s home neat as a pin, how she had them all in church, Sunday after Sunday, while the butcher slept off his hangover.

She was nothing to look at, really, and he had married below his station, but a pastor should have a wife and family – his bishop had told him so.

Carnal acts, he had been told, were unpleasant to the weaker sex. And the butcher’s daughter was young and shy. Patiently he explained that her conjugal duties would grow easier in time. But just as firmly he insisted upon them.

So with each passing month, the pastor’s wife grew more and more anxious and afraid, till she was a shadow of her former self. And finally she grew desperate.

One night, when the moon was full, and the pastor lay snoring beside her, she got out of bed, quietly dressed, and went down to the kitchen hearth where they sat every night after supper, she with her mending, he with the Holy Book. From behind a loose stone she brought a suede bag of tobacco. She had taken a little at a time from her husband, so he would not notice. It was her offering. She slipped it into her apron pocket, put on her gray cloak, quietly lifted the latch, and stepped outside.

The pastor’s wife turned once to look at the cottage.

She loved everything about it – the slate roof gleaming in the moonlight; the red rose bush climbing up the trellis by the door; the warm glow of the banked fire in the hearth coming through the window. She would come to love the pastor in time – or so she had been told. But the cottage – the cottage was love at first sight. And it was hers. Nothing had ever been hers before.

But she turned from it, and she began to walk down that path.

She walked past the pastor’s church, with its narrow steeple towering above her, its narrow pews inside. Past the churchyard, with its upright gravestones. Past the fork in the path that led to the village, and into the dark woods.

Girl in the Woods - Vincent Van Gogh

Girl in the Woods – Vincent Van Gogh

The moon was behind her now.

Her shadow led the way, dancing before her like a dryad. staining the forest with human form. She walked a long time. Finally she came to another clearing. There, too, was a graveyard – the paupers’ graveyard, where the unbaptised were buried, and those who could not afford the rites of the church, or had committed horrible crimes. At the other end of the graveyard there was an old, dry well. And up the hill, across the clearing, another cottage, very different from her own.

The roof was thatch, its straw bundled like brooms. Strange, pungent herbs grew in the yard. Through one narrow window the pastor’s wife saw a marshy, phosphorescent light. She had come this far. She knocked on the door.

The stooped old woman who answered was smoking a corncob pipe.

She could have been 70 or 170. The villagers called her the Wise Woman. The pastor called her something else.

The old woman looked up at the young woman, apparently unperturbed by the hour. “Well, if it isn’t the wife of God, out for a walk in in the moonlight. What can I do for you, girl?”

The pastor’s wife confessed her need.

The old woman’s face softened. “That can be done. I can help you with that.”

The pastor’s wife brought the bag from beneath her cloak, and the Wise Woman took it. Then she went to a shelf, emptied the offering into a stone jar, took another jar down. She put seven white stones into the bag and handed it back to the pastor’s wife.

“Cast each stone, one at a time, into the well you passed,” she said. “And you will be safe from having children.”

Young Woman at Well - Francisco Goya

Young Woman at Well – Francisco Goya

At the well, the pastor’s wife took the stones from her bag and lined them up. They all looked and felt the same: small and cool and light in her hand, innocent, like the stones her brothers skipped across the water, or her sisters played hopscotch with. The only witness to what happened next was her shadow, sprawled across a heaved-up, mossy slab behind her.

She threw the first stone in.

A faint, plaintive sound came from the bottom of the well. A kitten, perhaps. That was a pity. She threw the second stone in.

No, it was not a kitten. It sounded like a child’s cry. And at the same time she felt a cramping sensation, low down in her body. She knew there was no child down there. “It’s only a stone,” she told herself.

She threw the third stone in – it felt heavier than the last. The cry was louder and more distinct, the cramping became a contraction. Would she have wanted a child with that boy, she wondered, that boy she danced with that day at the fair? She knew she was not pretty, but she had felt pretty that day.

She threw the fourth stone in. Again, the cry she heard was louder and more distinct, the contractions were stronger, and closer together, the stone felt heavier – and warmer. She saw her mother, then, in the doorway that day, the day of the fair. “It’ll be a good two months before this one is born. Go have your fun now – you’ve earned it.”

When she threw the fifth stone in, the pain bent her over, and she could not hear the cry for her own.

She saw her mother, lying in pools of blood on the bed. Her father had come home drunk; the midwife had come too late. What song had she been dancing to, the moment her mother had died? She pulled herself up against the wall of the well, picked up the heavy white stone. It was warmer. It seemed to be beating.

Her shadow watched her cast the sixth stone in.

And the cry became a voice.

Mother! Mother! Don’t leave me here! It’s dark. I’m afraid. She’d heard that cry before. Mother! Don’t leave me! She’d heard it in her own heart. She never wanted to hear that voice again. She took the stone in both her hands and with all her might, she threw it in.

The shadow of a woman rose up from behind her and slipped into the well. The crying stopped. There was no more pain.

The pastor’s wife felt strange, but…lighter.

On her way home no shadow led the way, or followed behind, but she did not notice. When she walked into the clearing, all was just as before. The upright tombstones. The narrow steeple. The slate roof gleaming.

She lifted the latch, left her cloak on the hook, went upstairs, undressed. Crawled into bed beside her sleeping, oblivious husband. And in the morning, for the first time, she welcomed his embrace.

That night, and for many nights thereafter, there was no mending, no reading from the Holy Book.

He was not the blue-eyed boy, but he was a good man, and wasn’t that good enough?

Several months later, when the moon was again full, they were returning from evening service when the pastor noticed for the first time – for I have told you he was not a perceptive man – that his wife cast no shadow.

“Woman, what have you done?” he cried. “What terrible sin have you commited?” He was using his pulpit voice with her, as he sometimes did.

“Nothing, husband.”

“I know the Devil’s mark! Confess! Confess, or you’ll send us all to hell!”

There was something behind the pulpit voice she had never heard in him before. It was fear. The pastor – her husband – was terrified.

No one should have to be alone with such fear. She did not have to be alone with her fear. All she had to do was tell him. That’s all she had to do.

“I was afraid!” she cried. And hanging her head, she told her husband all that she had done.

She did not see the pastor’s face grow ugly with anger, horror, disgust.

“Forgive me!” she said.

“I can never forgive you. Nor can God. What you have done is beyond forgiveness.”

“But surely Almighty God will forgive me.”

“Who are you to tell me about God? You are the fig tree, cursed by Our Lord. Flowers will grow from the slate roof before God forgives your crime.” And he cast her out of his house.

Years later, the pastor was on his rounds when his housekeeper heard a knock on the door.

Old Beggar Woman with Gourd - Rembrandt

Old Beggar Woman with Gourd – Rembrandt

A beggar woman stood there, her hair tangled, feet in rags. Something was odd about her; something missing. “Forgive me,” the woman began… And then her legs gave way.

The young housekeeper put the beggar woman in her own chair by the fire, where she sat mending while the pastor read the Holy Book. She washed the woman’s hands and face, unwrapped her blistered feet, washed them too. The beggar woman began to weep.

The housekeeper warmed some wine, gave her a bit of bread. As the woman ate, she made up a bed along the deep hearth. “Rest here, Mother.” At this the old woman broke down entirely.

The pastor was late coming home; he went straight up to bed.

In the morning, when he came into the kitchen, the beggar woman had died in the night. There was a shadow of a smile upon her face – a smile he had sometimes put there – but he did not recognize her. It was only when the housekeeper pulled him outside, crying “Pastor! It’s a miracle!” – and he saw the slate roof, covered with blossoming flowers – that he finally knew who she was.

Flower Meadow in the North - Harald Sohlberg 1905

Flower Meadow in the North – Harald Sohlberg 1905


NOTE: The original on which I based this story is very brief; you can find it here. If you would like to perform a variant of my version of this story, please ask permission; my contact information is on the “About Me” page. 

32 thoughts on “The Woman Who Had No Shadow

  1. stuckinscared says:

    My word, I was on the edge of my seat reading this! I’m going to book mark, and read again :)
    Enthralling! x


  2. Patrick Ross says:

    What a powerful story, Paula! I’ve got goosebumps.

    You may not know this, but the artist I interviewed in Minnesota on my cross-country U.S. trip is an oral storyteller who visits schools, fairs and libraries telling his own takes on folk tales. His name is Kevin Strauss and I interviewed him at his home in Rochester. He’s pretty prominent in my forthcoming book!


    • Thanks, Patrick. From someone who went through an MFA, that means a lot. (Am finishing up Chad Harbach’s series of essays MFA v NYC right now – if you’ve read it, would love your perspective. I will ask you again when I take your course in October. Just waiting for the end of the month paycheck.) I do, in fact, know Kevin pretty well. He ran Northlands Storytelling Network, the Midwest regional storytelling association, for several years, and was largely responsible for the working definition of performance storytelling they came up with – “the art of live narrative performance, dynamically shaped by audience response” – which ended up in the National Storytelling Network’s position paper to the NEA. (Probably not telling you anything you don’t already know, but who knows – maybe somebody else will give the links a click.) Of course, being “a writer who also tells stories,” rather like Garrison Keillor’s “writer who also serves coffee,” in many ways I don’t follow that definition strictly in my own art, but I deeply appreciate the effort that went into articulating the distinction. I look forward to reading the interview. And thanks for stopping by.


  3. Greg Mischio says:

    I love your prose. Mysterious, sad and powerful. The artwork you’ve used weaves beautifully with the story. Not many use graphics with prose like this. Fantastic!


    • Thanks, Greg. We both like epiphanies, I see. ;-) It seems to help the Twitter sharing especially to have good images. I have to admit that I looked long and hard for images of an old woman that had no shadow, to no avail… The old masters were far too accurate.


  4. Annecdotist says:

    What a fabulous story, Paula, and you’ve captured the “fairytale voice” just right. And so clever to find the pictures to illustrate it so beautifully. This is one that will stay in my mind.


  5. Ariel Bernstein says:

    Chilling but I loved reading this. Wonderful and memorable storytelling & the pictures compliment it perfectly!


  6. Joy Ezeka says:

    I couldn’t stop scrolling down. Sad ending :( This is beautiful Paula


  7. This is beautiful. I want to read it over and over and over again. Thank you!


  8. Norah says:

    This is gorgeous Paula. You had me enthralled from start to finish. Every word perfect. I love the ending. So sad and beautiful at the same time!


  9. Claudia says:

    I loved reading this and love the artwork you chose to illustrate the story!


  10. Thank you for spending time with my story, Claudia. Wish I had found at least one piece of artwork that was actually done by a woman – maybe I’ll have that opportunity later on.


  11. I loved your retelling of this poignant folktale, Paula, and the illustrations embellish the action beautifully. Makes me wonder at the source of these stories – harsh punishment for stepping out of line, and wanting to be different. Can we have some more, please?


  12. Rosemary Ann Smith says:

    I was entranced by this story! When it finished, I felt very sad. What a wonderful book it would make. .. Rosy


  13. ERF Mama says:

    wow!! That’s really really good!
    I’m from Norway, but I have actually never heard the story. :(



  14. Such a compelling read Paula, I really, really enjoyed it. Brilliantly written. Thank you so much for linking to PoCoLo :) x


  15. ruthgeldard says:

    Uncanny, enjoyed this very much.


  16. Annecdotist says:

    Enjoyed this story when it first came out. I’ve just reviewed a novel based on a fairytale on my blog and linked back to your own lovely story


  17. […] ballad, and other folktales I have interpreted here such as The Woman Who Had No Shadow, are protected by copyright. (If you are interested in learning more about folktales, fair use and […]


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