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A Darker Miller’s Tale

My partner and I were on a Spanish island off the coast of Africa.  It was warm and sunny, but windy.  The bleak landscape at times gave way to lush crops where windmills drew up the groundwater to irrigate the land.  But in the past windmills were also used to grind wheat to make flour for bread.

We had walked to one of these deserted windmills.  After we had explored the ruined building we were walking away through the grass and the cacti when my foot hit some wood.  Half-hidden in the grass was a coffin, with the lid loose.  There was nothing, or should I say nobody, inside.  Later in the day, we saw an albino woman.  She was young and attractive, with long white hair.  She stood out starkly amongst the swarthy complexions of the population. 

At the end of the day my girlfriend challenged me to turn the days events into a story.  This is a result, an offering to villages everywhere, where the advantages of community, proximity and kinship can have a darker side: suspicion, parochialism and sometimes worse!


PS.  I must add that this is a work of fiction.  The people of this particular place were very welcoming.  Also, please don't accuse me of racism or white supremacy!  I have a habit of inverting stereotypes..and tolerance cuts all ways.

This story is from the Tales for Telling series and is broken into sections to assist storytellers.  See below for copyright and performance information.

1.  Background  

Paulo was a miller.  His father had been a miller and so was his father before.  Each day when the wind blew, and it always blew, he hung canvas on the sails and hauled the top of the mill around to face the rushing air.  He lived in a small village and he wanted to marry for love.  But there were only a few girls his age.   So Paulo married Neenah.  She was his friend. They had grown up together in the Jesuit school.  Sometimes he felt as if he had married his sister.  They had no children but they got on in a companionable sort of way.  Each day they worked together, grinding the grain and bagging up the flour they made.  And the people came from the village and the surrounding area to buy it.  The people, with their olive Spanish skin, their dark hair and eyes, had determined, emotionally cold natures that they had inherited from their tribal ancestors who had lived on the island for centuries before the Spanish arrived.  

2.  Visitor

Everybody knew everybody else.  Your business was their business.  The only visitors were the traders and tinkers who occasionally appeared with pots or pans or tools for sale.  But one day a stranger appeared at the top of the hill where the track wound down into the village.  Before she even arrived they could see she was different.  She had completely white hair, even though she was young, and her skin was as pale and white as alabaster.  As she walked down the village street people came to their doors and windows to look.  No one spoke to her.  Some shielded their children from the sight and others hissed at her.  The pale woman said nothing.  She didn't seem to be selling anything, she just looked at the houses and the people as she passed.  One old gnarled woman, Francesca the village gossip, picked up small stones and threw them at the stranger as she passed.

Paulo and Neenah’s mill was up the rise at the other end of the village.  The stranger reached the mill house and spoke to Neenah who had also come to her door.

'Hello, I am Sofia.  I am looking for some lodgings.  Can you help me?'

Paulo and Neenah were struck by the woman's appearance but they were kinder, more open-minded than the other villagers.  The money would be useful too.  So they took her in.  Sofia told them she was just travelling, visiting different places.  The two found it hard not to stare at her fair milky skin, her blue eyes.  The next day she asked if she could help in the mill.  She didn't want paying, she just wanted to see what it was like.  As Sofia worked, and she worked hard and well, Paulo and Neenah were entranced by her lithe body and graceful movements, by her firm breasts and body beneath her blouse.

3.  Liaisons

Sofia stayed.  But when the villagers came to buy their flour, they didn't stay.  They didn't stop and chat and share the gossip as they had done before.  Instead they crossed themselves when they saw the pale stranger and hurried away.

But Paulo and Neenah enjoyed Sofia's company.  They sat up late with her, drinking and laughing.  Each day Sofia spent hours in the mill.  She was a good worker and her help eased the burden of work for the millers.  One day Neenah was at home at the mill house.  Sofia and Paulo were working at the mill.  He watched her hauling sacks of grain up to the top of the mill, her sleeves rolled up and her blouse unbuttoned because of the heat and dust.  Sofia noticed him watching her.  'Your skin is pale too when it's covered in dust,' she laughed, and kissed him playfully on the cheek.  Before the end of the day Paulo had been unfaithful to his wife.  He had taken a lover, Sofia the mysterious woman with the pale white skin.

The next afternoon Sofia came home early to help with the washing.  'We'd better wash you before anything else,' laughed Neenah.  Sofia seemed covered in flour and dust more than usual.  Little did she know that Sofia had been making love to her husband on the dusty floorboards of the mill.  She filled the tub in the kitchen and watched Sofia as she undressed.  Once Sofia was in the bathtub, Neenah sponged her, admiring her white creamy skin and her firm breasts.  Sofia splashed Neenah as she bent over to sponge her and they began to splash water everywhere, laughing and giggling.  And then just as Neenah was bending over the tub, soaked to the skin, ready to give Sofia a big splash, Sofia put her arms around her neck and kissed her.  Neenah stopped dead.  The splashing stopped.  The laughter stopped.  Neenah looked into Sofia's eyes...and then she kissed her back.  Before the end of the day Neenah had been unfaithful to her husband.  She had taken a lover, Sofia, the mysterious woman with the pale white skin.

4. Developments

Somehow neither Paulo nor Neenah felt guilty about their unfaithfulness.  To start with they both knew how much the other loved Sofia and that made their won unfaithfulness seem all right.  And then Sofia told Neenah about Paulo and Paulo about Neenah.  They were shocked at first, and then jealous and then angry and then...well then they saw the hypocrisy of their anger.  Paulo and Neenah never spoke to each other about it, but from then on they each knew that the other knew. 

The local people continued to gossip about Sofia's continued presence at the mill house.  Why was she still there? Had she bewitched the couple? Most only came up to the mill because they needed flour and some would even walk the five miles to the next village to get their flour rather than go to the mill while she was there.  The priest began to warn people of the dangers of demons and witches when the villagers gathered for Mass.  Sofia, of course was not welcome to Mass, and soon Paulo and Neenah found peoples' stares and gossip so uncomfortable they stopped going.   Francesca, more than any would gossip about them.  'She has stolen their souls!  She is a devil!  She should be taken out and stoned!'  Many people in the village believed her and agreed with her.

But Neenah and Paulo had never been so happy.  Sofia had bought laughter and love and passion into their home.  And she worked so hard.  Their lives were much easier. 

5.  Crisis

One morning Sofia brought Neenah and Paulo some fruit juice to drink in bed.  She threw open the shutters and then sat on the bed beside them, while the three of them drank, talking about the days work.  Suddenly there was a noise at the window.  'Devil! Devil!  I knew you were a witch!'  It was Francesca, looking in through the window at the three of them in the bed together.  She turned and hobbled away as quickly as her old legs would take her, while the three looked on in astonishment.  A short time later a noise could be heard.  Francesca had roused the whole village and they were walking up the hill to the mill house, led by the priest carrying a large silver cross.  They began to chant, 'Death to the Witch!  Death to the Witch!'  The men of the village pulled the three of them out of the house and the priest began to speak in Latin while the villagers crossed themselves.  'Tie her to the sails of the mill!' cried Francesca.

Sofia didn't struggle or kick.  She just had a look of bewilderment on her face as the men roughly tied her to one of the sails, trying not to look in her eyes.

'Why are you doing this to me?' 

'Because you're a witch!' 

Paulo and Neenah tried to break free from their captors,

'What are you doing?  What has she done?' 

'She has bewitched you and seduced you.' cried the priest  'She must die!' 

The men turned the sails until Sofia was upside down with her long white hair hanging down.  Then they anchored the sails.

And there she hung. Paulo and Neenah were tied and forced to watch.  She hung as the sun grew stronger and began to burn her pale white skin.  She called for water, but was given none.  She kept calling,  'Why are you doing this?'  Many of the villagers stayed to watch. The priest performed an exorcism over Paulo and Neenah and then he left.  While Sofia, her head bursting from the heat and the rush of blood, her skin burnt in the midday sun, quietly passed away.

6.  Coffin

Paulo and Neenah kissed the face of their friend and lover.  The face that had been so white and milky was now black and broken.  They washed her face with their tears.  Paulo lovingly made a coffin for poor Sofia.  He fashioned it with the best wood he could afford, and carved a large cross into the top, because he knew the goodness of his friend and lover.  Paulo and Neenah knew that the priest would not let them bury Sofia in holy ground, so they buried her beside the mill house and threw flowers on the grave.  But the next day the priest sent the sexton with several of the strongest men in the village.

'She is not to have a proper burial.  She is to be left in the open for the wild animals and birds.'  They dug up the coffin, carried it to some open land and tipped out Sofia's body.

And that is how she would have remained.  But Paulo and Neenah, stricken with grief and filled with thoughts of vengeance, crept out to the field in the night darkness and brought back Sofia's body.  They put it on the roof of the mill house and covered it up.  Yes, it dried up and yes, it was eaten.  Was it eaten by animals?  That is for you to decide.

Paulo and Neenah continued to grind the wheat for flour, and people gradually came to buy it from them again, because they had to if they wanted bread.  Few words were ever exchanged.  People would pay their money and were given some flour.  But with each bag they sold Paulo and Neenah smiled a grim smile of vengeance.  For every time they ground a batch of corn they would take a small piece of Sofia's dried up body and grind it up with the grain: the hair, the skin, the teeth the bones.  And people would take the flour home and bake it into bread and eat it.   When Sofia's body was all gone Paulo and Neenah disappeared, and no one knew where they had gone.  And no one knew that they had taken in the woman they had once refused to take in; the woman they had rejected and persecuted and murdered.  She was now part of every soul in the village. 

© 2003 Ged Duncan

Storytellers are authorised to tell or perform this tale in private or at not-for-profit groups.  If you wish to tell this as part of a public performance please contact me.  There will not necessarily be a charge for community-based artists, but I would like to be credited and to know when the story is being used.

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