La Huesera, the Bone Woman

 

In Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ classic book Women Who Run With the Wolves she refers to an old Mexican story about a woman called La Huesera, the Bone Woman, who Estes reinvents as La Loba, the Wolf Woman. Estes’ brief description of La Loba is better known, but the original Mexican story of La Huesera is quite beautiful. Here it is: the story of a ritual death, an initiation, a rebirth.

La Huesera

There was a young girl who married an old, old man who used her ill. He worked her hard, beat her, starved her, and cast her off when she gave him no children, leaving her in the desert with no food, or water, or shelter. The young woman hid in the meagre shade of rocks by day when the sun was fierce. By night she walked, crying, for she could not find her way home. The nights were cold. Wolves prowled the hills and carrion birds followed after her. She was hungry, thirsty, weary, and she walked till she could go no further. Lying down by a wide, dry wash, she wrapped herself in her long white skirt. She said, ‘Let La Huesera (the Bone Woman) take me, for I am spent.’ She died. Wild animals ate her flesh. Her spirit watched over the white, white bones and knew neither sorrow nor fear.

The bones lay in that secret place until the moon was full once more. And then La Huesera came and put them all in her woven sack. The old woman took the bones up to her cave high in the mountaintops, then laid them out beside her fire. She sat and smoked. She smoked and thought. She smoked and she thought for a long, long time, and then she began to sing. ‘Flesh to bone! Flesh to bone! Flesh to bone!’ the Bone Woman sang, and before too long the bones knit back together, covered in flesh. Where the girl had once been red and rough, now she was soft and smooth and plump. Her skin was as gold as daylight and her hair as black as night. La Huesera sang and sang. She blew a puff of tobacco smoke. The young woman’s eyes flew opened and she sat up and looked around her.

The cave was empty. The ashes were cold. The old Bone Woman had disappeared. All that was left were tobacco seeds and she put them in her pocket. She left the cave and started for home, following the rising sun. She knew she’d find her village walking this way, and so she did. She came upon her dwelling at last. The place was dark, deserted now. ‘That old man has died, that poor wife has died, come away from that place,’ the people said, for they did not recognize the lovely young woman who came to them out of the west. They gave her a name, a fine set of clothes, a new dwelling place, a goat, and a hen. They taught her human speech, for she had forgotten all that she knew. She planted La Huesera’s seeds and tended the new plants carefully. In time, she married, and gave her young husband many gold–skinned daughters and black–haired sons, and her children’s children’s children still grow tobacco in that village today.