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The storyteller by the sea

And the amazing, soulful, transforming stories she tells.
By Joshua Searle-White

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The Storyteller by the Sea was known all around the world. Not many people had actually seen her because she lived on a far-off island. But lots of people had heard about the amazing stories she told. Stories of danger and courage that made people’s hearts pound and their palms sweat. Stories of deep soul journeys that made people give up everything they had and enter a life of helping others. Stories of mystery and suspense so intense that one time, when she fell asleep in the middle of telling one, the entire audience waited for eight hours until she woke up again to hear how it all turned out. Stories so funny that people had to be given oxygen because they would laugh so hard that they couldn’t breathe. The Storyteller, people said, could stop wars, could make people fall in love, inspire great works of art—just by telling stories, sitting on some palm fronds under a tree on a far-away island.

One time a group of admirers came to visit. They had heard about the Storyteller, and they wanted to hear firsthand some of the amazing stories she told. So they traveled from Asia and South America, from Africa and North America and Europe, all the way across the Pacific Ocean to the small island where the Storyteller lived. They came to her village and went out onto the beach to the spot where the Storyteller told her stories every night. They found some palm fronds to sit on, and they waited for her to arrive.

When the sun finally began to disappear over the water to the west, a woman emerged from one of the houses and began to walk over to the group. She had long, dark hair braided down her back. She was wearing a loose-fitting skirt and a blouse covered with prints of exotic-colored flowers. With her came a thin man carrying a large platter of fresh fruit slices.

The Storyteller sat down on her mat, facing the sun and the water. She looked at the travelers, who looked back at her expectantly. She opened her mouth as if to speak and then reached for a slice of pineapple. She chewed it thoughtfully. She sat and looked out at the ocean again.

They all sat like that for a while, until one of the travelers spoke up.

“O Storyteller, we have journeyed from around the world to visit you. We have heard of the stories you tell, and the wars you have stopped, and the couples who have fallen in love just by listening to your stories. Will you speak to us? Will you tell us one of your stories?”

The Storyteller sat for a moment. Then she leaned over and whispered into her assistant’s ear. He nodded and said, “The Storyteller has so many stories that she does not know where to begin. Perhaps you have a suggestion or a request?”

“I do, I do!” said one of the travelers excitedly. “How about the story of the two alligators? That’s the one where these two baby alligators are living happily in a swamp in Florida until they get captured by a group of college students from Minneapolis on spring break. The students sneak the alligators back to Minnesota in their backpacks and put them into an aquarium. Then the alligators escape. Since it’s Minnesota, it’s freezing outside, so they try to find the warmest place they can, which turns out to be the college president’s hot tub. He comes out to sit in it one night and lowers himself into the hot water. He’s relaxing and feeling great, when suddenly he feels the alligators crawling up his legs. He’s so startled that he jumps up, straight out of the hot tub, straight out of his swimming suit, and he ends up standing there with no clothes on in the freezing weather, yelling and waking up the entire neighborhood! That was so funny! And then he realizes what has happened, and he thinks it would make a good joke, and he takes the alligators to the pool at the college where the swim team practices, and . . . and the swim coach . . . when she sees the alligators swimming with her swim team . . . she . . . she . . . .” The traveler was laughing so hard at the memory of the story that he couldn’t even finish what he was saying.

The Storyteller laughed, too; she remembered that story. She opened her mouth to begin telling it when another traveler interrupted, “Wait, wait. What about the story of the two young lovers in Thailand? That’s the one where the boy and the girl fall in love when they are ten years old, but then their parents marry them off to other people, and they have to live next door to each other for their whole lives. Can you imagine that, the two of them loving each other so desperately but never being able to kiss or hug or touch each other or even be alone together? Oh, my heart just breaks when I hear that story. It makes me want to love my husband and my kids better every time I hear it. Tell that one, if you would, please. It really changed my life.”

The Storyteller nodded in understanding at the memory of that deeply powerful story. She opened her mouth to speak, but another traveler interrupted, saying, “Oh, I know what you mean. It’s like that story of the girl in Argentina who wanted to be an airplane pilot. Do you remember that one? She wanted so badly to be a pilot that she actually built her own airplane as a high school science project, and then flew it way out over the mountains of Patagonia. But then that big storm came up, and she crashed and had to travel back over the mountains all by herself. That was so scary. When she finally got back home, she was so excited about having achieved her dream that even the weeks of hardship in the mountains didn’t matter. When I heard that story, I thought how great it would be to be so devoted that you were willing to put everything you have into making something happen. I actually changed jobs because I was so inspired to try something I really wanted to do.”

An excited conversation broke out among the travelers; apparently a lot of them had heard that story too. The Storyteller listened to them talk of hearing stories and feeling their lives changed by them. Eventually she held up her hand to quiet them and was about to speak when another of the travelers suddenly said, “You know what I think is the most amazing story? It’s the one that the Storyteller tells that makes people never see their enemies the same way again. That story has stopped wars.”

“Which one is that?” the others all asked at once. “Is it the one about the space colony on Mars? Or the one about the kids trapped in the Ukrainian coal mine? Or the one about the kangaroo colony in Australia?” The Storyteller was about to say something, but she saw that it was useless, and the first traveler answered, “No, no, it’s the one about the two childhood friends. What happens is this: As children, they play together, build forts, climb trees, and take lots of hikes out in the woods. They especially like to pretend that they’re animals, and they chase each other through the woods roaring and howling. But then they grow older and lose track of each other. Eventually, they get involved in politics, and they end up in rival groups. Things in their country get more and more tense, until the political parties begin to collect weapons and threaten to have a civil war. The two friends end up being leaders of their groups.

“One day, when things are so bad that it looks like violence is about to break out, they meet, each with a gun in his hand, in front of an angry, armed mob on the steps of a government building. It looks like the war is going to start right then and there, until one of the friends looks at the other, and something strange happens. He sees his old friend begin to shift and change. First his friend becomes a wolf with fangs bared, chasing a deer. Then he becomes an otter sliding down a riverbank into the water. Then he becomes a mother leopard nursing her cubs. And then the friend becomes a child, as he was when they first met. And then God speaks with the child’s voice, saying, ‘I am you.’ And the man who is seeing all this drops his gun, and it falls to the ground. Then the gun falls from his friend’s hand too. Everyone standing nearby can feel that something has happened, but they don’t know what. The friends turn from each other to look at the crowd, and God begins to speak in one voice after another, saying, ‘I am you,’ ‘I am you,’ ‘I am you,’ until it becomes a murmur that flows over and throughout the whole crowd. The guns all clatter to the ground. And the people reach out to each other and hold hands, with God’s voice echoing through them.”

There was a silence. The Storyteller nodded, her eyes full of feeling. She remembered that story. It was one of the most important stories she had ever told. And after hearing it from the traveler, there wasn’t much more she needed to say.

So she sat, and the travelers gradually resumed their talking. Each story reminded them of another, and they talked and told stories and ate pineapple and hugged and laughed and cried until the sky began to lighten. Then they all lay down and drifted off to sleep as the birds began their morning songs.

The Storyteller looked at them, and she smiled. She stood up, gazing at the sleeping travelers, and murmured, “I am you.” And she lay down next to them and fell asleep too.

Reprinted with permission from Magic Wanda’s Travel Emporium: Tales of Love, Hate and Things in Between, © 2007 by Joshua Searle-White (Skinner House Books). Illustration by Kevin Keane. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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