THE LEGEND OF THE OLD WOMAN OF PONTE OSCURO
During the reign of Charlemagne, in the Onsernone Valley lived a very old and very poor woman named Misery, who had but one goat and who braided straw to survive. She lived in a miserable wooden hut close to the Dark Bridge, or Ponte Oscuro in the local language.
One night in March, while it was still bitterly cold, a miserable wretch, turned away by all the people of the valley, knocked at her door, asking her for sanctuary for the night. Misery, a good Christian woman, offered him her cottage to sleep in and the little bread, cheese, and wine that she was able to find in her kitchen. That night, she slept in her chair next to the fire, and, having slept poorly, she was up early and noticed the strange atmosphere around her. Opening the door, she was hugely surprised to see that spring had arrived. Misery asked her guest why he wanted to leave so soon. In fact, he confided in Misery, he was Saint Remigio, patron of the valley and appointed by Jesus to check on its inhabitants' practice of charity. He told her that, except for Misery, all the inhabitants had rejected or mistreated him.
So he told her, "Because you, who have nothing, hosted me and shared the little that you have, I wish to repay you."
Misery protested, refusing anything more than what she had always had. Saint Remigio insisted, telling her that it would be vain to refuse. Misery, finally, admitted to him that some rascals from Crana sometimes came and stole the straw that she soaked in the river to soften it for braiding, which slowed her work, and that she would be pleased if when they stole it they were to fall in the water and be trapped there until she freed them. Smiling, Saint Remigio agreed, blessed the old woman, and disappeared.
Life continued as usual. The rascals, after becoming trapped in the river a few times and catching terrible colds, stopped stealing. However, their stories fed a rumor that the bridge was in the hands of a witch or even of the devil, and people started to fear crossing it.
One night, returning tired from Locarno, Misery heard a knock on the door. It was nothing but a skeleton with a long scythe on her shoulder. She quickly recognized Death; she had come for her.
Misery bought time by saying she had a straw hat to finish making, and asked Death to bring her some straw from the river. Death obliged and, just as she bent over to grab the straw, fell into the water. She stood up and recovered her scythe, but she was unable to get out of the flowing river.
Misery was pleased and did not deign to free Death. Because Death could no longer reap her harvest, chaos spread over the world: the lawyers no longer had wills to write, the gravediggers had no one to bury, and the policemen had no murderers to arrest.
Charlemagne sought to end the situation by calling on doctors and sages to create an extremely potent poison. But still no one died.
Only Providence could end this situation; who else could find a solution to the situation in Onsernone? A knight from Como, tired of worldly privileges, decided to live out his days in an Alpine cave, and thus passed through Onsernone. One night, tired and thirsty, he decided to drink from the river, and was much surprised to find Death captive in its waters.
"Why are you here instead of carrying out your duties around the world?" he asked.
"Because of Misery, I am a prisoner," she responded.
"I will take care of this," he said, and went to the old woman's hut. He explained to her the effects of her actions on the world.
Misery, sorry for all the trouble she had caused, hurried to freeDeath, but not without making her promise to come seek her only when she was ready to call her back.
With the help of Saint Remigio, Death thought, she could certainly keep this promise. Freed, Death was able to resume her work, and relied on doctors to help her make up for lost time.
Misery left the valley, traveling to many different places. And until now, Misery has not called for Death to return for her, which is why Misery can still be found throughout the world.