The storytelling pocket

NETSUKE HOM. NARRR

And then the cold winter nights, Granny went into her little compartment, tent, in the barricade, and it was storytelling. I was very young then, but I remember my granny well. There were wonderful stories told round the little fire. I remember my daddy sitting around the fire in the middle of the floor, just a stick fire in the middle of the tent, a hole in the roof and the smoke going straight up through the hole. A little paraffin lamp, the cruisie turned down, home-made by my father.

Granny would tell a story, Father would tell a story. Maybe a few travellers passing by would stop and put their tent over in the “Tinker’s Turn’, a place across the burn from the wood where we stayed. […] They would also tell stories and have a little get-together. Our tent was a stopping place for travellers who came down to Argyll, and there was always time for a story.

Now Granny would stay with us all winter in that big barricade with her little compartment. […]

Now Granny was a an old lady, and every old traveller woman in the bygone days never carried a handbag. But around their waist they carried a big pocket. I remember Granny’s –she made it herself, a tartan pocket. It was like a large purse with a strap, and she tied it around her waist. It had three pearl buttons down the middle, not zip in these days. Granny carried all her worldly possessions in this pocket.

Now, Granny smoked a little clay pipe. And when she needed tobacco, she would say, “Weans, I want you to run to the village for tobacco for my pipe.” And she’d give us a threepenny bit, a penny for each of us and a penny for tobacco. The old man used to have a roll of it on the counter, and he cut off a little bit for Granny for her penny. We came back and our reward was, “Granny, tell us a story!”

She sat in front of her little tent, and she had a little billy-can and a little fire. We collected sticks for her, and she’d boil this strong, black tea. She lifted the can off, placed it by the side of the fire and said, “Well, weans, I’ll see what I have in my pocket for you this time!” She opened up that big pocket by her side with the three pearl buttons. I remember them well, and she said, “Well, I’ll tell you this story.” Maybe it was one she’d told three nights before. Maybe it was one she had never told for weeks. Sometimes she would tell us a story three-four times; sometimes she told us a story we’d never heard.

So, one day my sister and I came back from the village. We were playing and we came up to Granny’s little tent. The sun was shining warm. Granny’s little can of tea was by the fire: it was cold, the fire had burned out. The sun was warm. Granny was lying, she had her two hands under her head like an old woman, and her little bed was in front of the tent. By her side was the pocket. That was the very first time we’d ever seen that pocket off Granny’s waist. She probably took it off when she went to bed at night-time. But never during the day!

So my sister and I crept up quietly and we said, ‘Granny is asleep! There’s her pocket. Let’s go and see how many stories are in Granny’s pocket.’ So very gently we picked the pocket up, we took it behind the tree where we lived in the forest and opened up the three pearl buttons. And in that pocket was like Aladdin’s Cave! There were clay pipes, threepenny pieces, rings, halfpennies, pennies, farthings, brooches, pins, needles, everything and old woman carried with her, thimbles… but not one single story could we find! So we never touched anything. We put everything back inside, closed it and put it back, left it by her side. We said, ‘We’ll go and play and we’ll get Granny when she gets up.’ So we went off to play again, came back about an hour later and Granny was up. Her little fire was kindling. She was heating up her cold tea. And we sat down by her side. She began to light her pipe after she drank this black strong tea. We said, ‘Granny, are you going to tell us a story?’

Aye, weans,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you a story.’ She loved telling us stories because it was company for us, forbyes it was good company for her to sit there beside us weans. She said, ‘Wait a minute noo, wait till I see what I have for you tonight.’ And she opened up the pocket. She looked at me and my little sister for a while, for a long time with her blue eyes. She said, ‘Ye ken something, weans?’

We said, ‘No, Granny.’

She said, ‘Somebody opened my pocket when I was asleep and all my stories are gone. I cannae tell ye a story the nicht, weans.’ And she never told us a story that night. And she never told us another story. And I was seventeen when my granny died, but eleven when that happened. Granny never told me another story, and that’s a true story!

Duncan Williamson, The Horsieman: Memories of a Traveller 1928-1958, Edinburg: Canongate Press, 1994, pp. 6-8

Illustration inspired by a japanese netsuke

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Where stories go after being told

arbol_huichol

The story went into the forest, the thoughts into one’s own mind.

Closing formula of Maithil storytellers, Nepal; Coralynn V. Davis, Maithil Women’s Tales: Storytelling on the Nepal-India Border, Urbana & Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2014, p. 1
Illustration inspired by a drawing of the Huichol people, Mexico

 

Force other than his own

hombre_pajaro

How does a man become a singer, you ask? Not through straining his voice on a the bare hill tops, not yet through making presents to many teachers.

Is a singer born a singer then, Parchen-tulchi?”

No, neither is a tulchi (rhapsodist) born. How can a man invent pictures of the world of heroes, how can he see the hundred snowy peaks of Altai and the ten blue lakes and the seventy swift rivers and the red and yellow camels and the herds of black and roan and piebald horses, if these things are not communicated to him my forces other than his own?”

What forces are these?”

When I was a boy of twelve I pastured my father’s flocks on the steppe. One day I saw a giant ride up on a dragon, whether in dream or in fact I cannot tell you. The giant asked me if I wished to become a singer of epic tales. I told the giant that this indeed was my dearest wish but I feared it might never be. For my father was sending me to the monastery to put on the lama’s robe and learn the sacred books. The giant pointed to a white goat, the largest and best of my father’s goats. ‘Give me that goat to sacrifice to the King of dragons,’ he said, ‘and you shall sing such heroes’ songs as will make your name for ever dear where men gather at night around the fires, or meet at the great feasts of the princes.’

Gladly I agreed, the giant struck me on the shoulder, mounted his dragon and was gone. When I came to myself there was no one, no giant, no dragon, but near by a wolf was eating the white goat, the very one the giant had demanded for a sacrifice. From that day I knew that I had the gift of song, given me by the lord of dragons himself.”

And all was then easy – song, and fame, and learning?”

Parchen smiled. “Nothing was easy. For my father beat me sorely because the wolf had eaten his goat. He sent me to the monastery and there the monks beat me because I could not learn the sacred doctrine.”

Yet you became a singer?”

I had the gift. They let me learn the songs and sing. When I knew them I felt the steppe call and left the sacred walls to wander among the tents of the princes and sing the deeds of my people.

I had many songs, and the spirits spoke easily to me, so that I became famous among men. Many were the gifts I had, silks, garments, saddles, carpets, horses, and sheep, but I spent all and went back again to the monastery. In those days I was gay and careless, given to drunkenness and women, was prodigal of all things and loved the life of men. Even at one time I loved a Russian woman, and she me.”

Mongolia; Ralph Fox, “Conversation with a Lama”, New Writing, autumn 1936, pp. 180-181 
Illustration inspired by a Bird Man Rapa Nui, Easter Island

 

The dispeller of worries

Kakadu

In Malay, pengiluar lara, ‘Dispeller of Worries’, is the praise-name for the storyteller who possesses the art of enthralling his listeners. In the course of centuries, the Malay storyteller developed and refined his art until it became the very expression of the swift movement of the prince’s horse; the snake’s winding coils; the heavenly nymph flying through the sky, bright and golden. Inimitable are the images that are strewn across Malay tales.

Jan Knappert, Mythology and Folklore in South-East Asia, Oxford University Press, 1999 p. 195

Drawing inspired by a rock art painting of Kakadu, Australia

Storm Fools

pina

You could be sitting in your lodge in a winter camp in a storm, snow blowing, and all of a sudden –’cause we didn’t knock on doors– all of a sudden the door flap parts and in crawls this guy with snow all over his hair and coat, shaking the snow off, and it would be a storm fool who’ just come out of the storm. [These storm fools] wandered about from camp to camp telling stories, bringing news. They were definitely regarded as medicine people, elders. They were seen as just a little mad –that’s why they were called “storm fools”.

Ron Evans, metis storyteller quoted by Dan Yashinski, Suddenly they heard footsteps, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006, pp. 29-30
Illustration: motive traditional chinese painting

Truth, lies and dreams

inuit

To be a self, one must also be nothing. To know oneself, one must be able to know nothing. The asomnics know the world continuously and immediately, with no empty time, no room for selfhood. Having no dreams, they tell no stories and so have no use for language. Without language, they have no lies. Thus they have no future. They live here,  now, perfectly in touch. They live in pure fact. But  they can’t live in truth, because the way to truth, says the philosophers, is through lies and dreams.

Ursula K. LeGuin, “Wake Island”, Changing Planes, New York: Harcourt, 2003, pp. 164-165

Illustration inspired by an Inuit drawing

Would that it ended there

HN_RUANDA

We are stories.’ It’s a notion so simple even a child could understand it. Would that it ended there. But we are stories within stories. Stories within stories within stories. We recede endlessly, framed and reframed, until we are unreadable to ourselves.

Ivan Vladislavic, 101 Detectives: Stories, Cape Town: Umuzi, 2015, p. 147

Illustration inspired by a traditional drawing from Rwanda