The Nocturnal Laundresses or Washerwomen of the Night
(Les Laveuses de Nuit ou Lavandières)
by George Sand
During the full moon, we see, on the path to the Font de Fonts (Fountain of Fountains), strange washerwomen; the spectres of sinful mothers who are condemned to wash, until Judgment Day, the swaddling clothes and corpses of their victims.
This is, in our opinion, the most sinister of the visions of fear. It is also the most widespread, as I believe it is found in every region.
Around stagnant pools and limpid springs, in the moors and on the edges of shaded founts; in the sunken paths below the old willows or on the sun-scorched plains, during the night one hears the hurried beating and the furious splashing of these fantastical washerwomen. In certain provinces it’s believed that they evoke rain and attract storms by making the water of the springs and swamps fly up to the clouds with their agile laundry paddles. But here there is a confusion. The evocation of storms is the monopoly of witches known as “cloud herders.” The authentic washerwomen are the souls of infanticidal mothers. They beat and wring incessantly an object that resembles wet laundry, but which, seen up close, is nothing other than a child’s corpse. Each one has her own child, or children, if they have committed the crime multiple times. You must avoid observing them or bothering them; because, though you may be six feet tall and muscular, they would seize you, pummel you into the water and wring you about as if you were no more and no less than a pair of stockings.
We have all often heard the beating of the nocturnal laundresses resonate in the silence of deserted pools. But don’t be fooled. It is a species of frog that produces this formidable noise. It’s very sad to have made this trivial discovery and no longer be able to hope for the apparition of those terrible witches wringing their filthy rags on misty November nights, with the pale light of a pale crescent moon reflected in the waters.
However, I had the excitement of listening to a sincere and fairly terrifying account relating to this subject.
A friend of mine, a man, I must admit, of more wit than sense, and yet with an enlightened and cultivated mind, but–I must also admit–a tendency to leave his reason behind; very brave before real things, but easily impressed and fed from infancy with the legends of the region, had two encounters with the washerwomen that he never recounts except with repugnance and with an expression on his face that makes his audience shiver.
One night around eleven o’clock, on a charming path that runs snaking and leaping, so to speak, along the undulating flank of the Urmont ravine, he saw an old woman at the edge of a spring, washing and wringing in silence.
Although that pretty spring has an evil reputation, he saw nothing supernatural and said to the old woman: “You are washing quite late, good mother!”
She didn’t answer. He thought she was deaf and approached her. The moon was bright and the spring gleamed like a mirror. Then he saw the old woman’s features clearly: she was completely unknown to him, which surprised him because given his life as a farmer, hunter, and wanderer of the countryside, there was no face unknown to him for several leagues around. Here is how he personally told me his impressions in the face of this singularly belated laundress:
“I only thought of the legend when I lost sight of the woman. I wasn’t thinking of it before I met her. I didn’t believe in it, nor did I feel any misgivings when approaching her. But as soon as I was near her, her silence, her indifference at the approach of a passerby, gave her the appearance of a being absolutely foreign to our species. If old age deprived her of hearing and sight, how is it that she had come so far to wash, alone, at that unusual hour, at that frozen spring where she worked with so much force and activity? That was at least worthy of note; but what surprised me even more was what I experienced in myself. I had no sensation of fear, but of repugnance, an invincible disgust. I passed my way without her turning her head. It was only when I arrived home that I thought of the witches of the laundries, and then I was very afraid, I frankly confess it, and nothing in the world would convince me to retrace my steps.”
Another time, the same friend passed near Thevet pond, around two in the morning. He had come from Linières, where he avers he neither ate nor drank, a circumstance that I cannot guarantee. He was alone, in a cabriolet, followed by his dog. As his horse was tired, he dismounted on a slope and found himself at the edge of the road, near a canal where three women were washing, beating and wringing with great vigor, without saying a word. His dog suddenly drew near him without barking. He himself passed by without looking too carefully. But he had hardly taken a few steps when he heard something behind him, and noticed that the moon drew a very long shadow at his feet. He turned and saw one of the three women following him. The other two approached at some distance as if to support the first.
“This time,” he said, “I did think of the cursed washerwomen, but I felt an emotion different from the first occasion. These women were so tall, and the one who followed me closely had so much the proportions, face, and gait of a man, that I didn’t doubt for an instant that I was dealing with some bad villagers, probably ill-intentioned. I had a stout stick in my hand; I turned around and said, ‘What do you want?'”
“I got no response, and on seeing that she didn’t attack me, I had no pretext to attack her myself, and so I was forced to return to my cabriolet, which had gone quite far ahead of me, with that disagreeable being at my heels. She said nothing, and appeared to enjoy having me under the influence of her taunting presence. I still held my cane, ready to break her jaw at the slightest touch, and so I arrived at my cabriolet, with my cowardly dog, who had not made a peep, and who jumped into the vehicle at the same time I did.”
“I then turned around, and although I had heard until that moment steps behind mine, and had seen a shadow walking beside my own, I saw no one. I could only make out, some thirty paces behind, in the place where I had seen them washing, three great devils, jumping, dancing, and writhing madly at the edge of the canal. Their silence, which contrasted with those wild leaps, made them even stranger and more terrible to see.”
If we tried, after hearing this account, to ask the narrator some question of detail, or tried to make him understand that he had been a victim of a hallucination, he would shake his head and say: “Let’s talk about something else. I prefer to think that I’m not crazy.” And these words, blurted out with a sad expression, imposed silence on us all.
There is no pond or spring that is not haunted, either by night washerwomen, or by other spirits, more or less annoying. Some of these visitors are only bizarre. In my childhood, I was very afraid of passing a certain ditch where “the white feet” were seen. The fantastical stories that don’t explain the nature of the beings that they tell of, and which remain vague and incomplete, are the ones that most strike the imagination. Those white feet that walked, so they said, along the the ditch at certain hours of the night, were the feet of a woman, thin and naked, with the fragments of a white dress or long shirt that floated and fluttered ceaselessly. She walked quickly, in a zigzag fashion, and if you said to her: “I see you! Do you want to save yourself?” she would run so fast that no one knew where she disappeared to. When you said nothing she walked in front of you, but any effort you made to see higher than the ankles was useless. She had no legs, no body, no head, only feet. I couldn’t have explained why those feet were so terrifying, but nothing in the world would have made me want to see them.
In other places there are nocturnal spinners, whose spinning wheel you can hear in the room that you are in and whose hands you can sometimes see. In our house, I have heard talk of a night miller, who ground hemp in front of the door of certain houses, making the ordinary sound of the grinder in a way that wasn’t natural. You had to leave her in peace, and if she insisted on returning several nights running, you put an old scythe blade across the instrument that she used to create her din: she would amuse herself a moment trying to grind this blade, then she would get disgusted, throw it across the door and never return.
There was also the peillerouse of the night, who sat in the guenillière of the church. Peille is an old French word meaning rags; this is why the porch of the church, where the beggars dressed in peilles or guenilles (rags) sit during services, is called the guenillière.
This peillerouse accosted passers-by, demanding alms. You had to be careful to give her something, otherwise she would grow tall and strong, though she appeared feeble to you, and thrash you. A man named Simon Richard, who lived in the old rectory and suspected some mischief directed at him by the village girls, tried to joke around with her. He was left for dead. I saw him flat on his back the next day, very bruised and scratched indeed. He swore that he had only dealt with a little old woman, “who seemed a hundred years old, but had a grip like three and a half men.”
They tried, vainly, to make him believe that he had been dealing with some fellow stronger than him who, disguised, had taken revenge for some bad turn that Simon Richard had done to him. Simon Richard was strong and brave, even quarrelsome and vindictive. However, as soon as he recuperated, he abandoned the parish and never returned, saying that he feared neither man nor woman, but rather beings who were not of this world, and who did not have bodies like Christians do.
From Légendes rustiques (Rustic Legends), 1858
Translated by Nina Zumel