It was the first cold morning in months, as summer began to relieve its grip and autumn breathed its first true comforting breath of the season. The storyteller sat quietly—waiting. In his right hand he held a cup of steaming tea from which wisps of fragrant orange and cinnamon rose to wrestle with his mothball fragranced sweater. The storyteller’s simian fingers wrapped firmly around the cup with an incongruous delicateness, as though he was protecting some fine treasure.
“Are you ready to begin?” he asked.
The storyteller scanned the audience, taking note the small group who had gathered before him. He thought he saw a familiar face or two. But there had been so many that had come to hear him before, he could not be certain.
Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, he pressed his lips together a bit and nodded. “Very well,” he said in a baritone voice that rasped from a tobacco withered throat.
“Once there was a man.” He paused. “Forgive me—my memory is not what it once was. It might have been a woman. I cannot say for certain. Yet, I do not think it matters very much.
“Once there was a man—he was a kind and gentle man—travelling along the path of a very long journey. He was not born to wealth or fame. He was not brilliant. Nor particularly attractive. In fact, he was rather plain—a man with the kind of indistinct face that made others gaze at him, puzzling out vague inclinations of familiarity. The man couldn’t count the number of times strangers had approached him, their voices a mixture of hope and curiosity, calling him by names that were not his.”
The storyteller paused once more, growling to clear his throat. Then he took another sip of tea.
“What was this man’s name?” asked the smartly-dressed woman seated at near the edge of the semi-circle.
The storyteller licked the remnant of tea from his lips and wiped his unshaven chin with the back of his hand.
“His name? His name? Hmmm? I cannot recall. It will come to me, I think. Forgive me.
“This man—or was it a woman?” he asked himself, forgetting his audience for a moment. “No matter. The man followed the path before him, sometimes wandering through lush green foliage, other times he walked along barren dusty paths. And yes, there were treacherous times. Times when every foot of the path was filled with lethal jagged rocks that threatening him with each step.
“Occasionally, the man stumbled. He would fall, leaving deep wounds on his knees. His hands were marked with scars from the punctures and cuts inflicted upon him as he caught himself. Once, he fell so hard and for so long he thought he would never stop tumbling.
“As he fell, the man realized his foot had slipped on some unseen obstacle. A rock, he thought. Perhaps a root. But whatever it had been, he fell endlessly down a steep slope, finally coming to rest among a patch of briars.
“His hands were bleeding. His head throbbed. He felt the the swollen wound on his temple and tenderly wiped away the blood. The man wished he hadn’t been so foolish and chided himself for not paying careful attention to his path. He felt a sudden fear of death and a sickening bile rising in his throat.”
The storyteller paused once more, taking the final sip of tea from his cup. Looking into the eyes of a young man sitting immediately before him, the storyteller offered a comforting glance.
“Did—did he—did the man die?” asked the young man.
The storyteller flexed his arthritic hands, then pressed a thumb into the palm of his opposite hand, trying to rub away the ache.
“Everyone dies,” said the storyteller.
“No. I mean—I know that everyone dies. But did he die from the fall—from his wounds?”
“I suppose we all die from our wounds—or at least with them. Eventually. But no. The man didn’t die—not immediately,” he said. “But he lay there for sometime. Maybe an hour. Maybe a day. I’m not sure.
“When he woke, the man heard distant voices falling down the steep hill from the path far above. He longed to call out for help. He formed the words in his mind, but feared the embarrassment of others knowing of his foolishness and pain. So he held his tongue.
“With some effort, and a few failed attempts, he managed to rise to his feet, just as he had done so many times, and climbed the treacherous slope back to the path.”
The small voice of an unnoticed old man rose from the back of the room. Heads turned to see who had interrupted the storyteller. Sitting there, in a tan pants and a wrinkled shirt that was neatly buttoned around a neck that no longer filled its collar, the man reticently offered, “I think I know this story. I believe I’ve heard this before.”
The old man took comfort in the approving nods he received from others listening to the storyteller. Through a tobacco stained smile, the storyteller offered his own nod of approval.
“Could be,” he said. “Perhaps you’ve been here before. This is the only story I tell.”
“Please, tell us the rest of the story,” pleaded the woman who had earlier inquired about the man’s name. “What happened to the man? Did he get back on the path? Did he reach his destination?”
The storyteller had seen this before. Rapt attention undergirded with impatience. People wanted to rush to the end of the story—to know the end—as if there were no difference between knowing about a thing and truly knowing it. They, like he had before them, wanted to hurry the story, to hurry their own walk along the path.
Every day people would come. They would come and listen. Some of them came only once. For a few, that would be enough. Others would come, listen for a bit, and leave in dismay and frustration before he finished his tale. Some would come over and over, trying to move from knowledge to understanding. From knowing the difference between a good story and true lesson. Those were the ones that kept the storyteller telling his story, though often felt his work was futile.
“Of course, I’ll tell you the rest of the story. And, yes. Yes. The man found his way back to his path. Battered and bruised as he was, he was tempted to stop, perhaps make a life for himself at the nearest safe place. He sometimes thought about returning to where he had begun his journey. But felt he had come too far. So he trudged on.”
“Did his wounds heal?” asked the woman.
“Most of ‘em,” interrupted the old man from the back of the room. All heads turned once more.
“That’s right. Most of them healed. Oh, they left their scars,” said the storyteller, shifting in his seat, trying to relieve the throbbing ache from deep within his hip. Though he had learned to greet the pain like an old friend—a reminder of lessons learned—he admitted there were times when he wished the pain would depart and never return.
“His journey took him many places. He would sometimes pass others along the way. Sometimes, others would pass him. Sometime along his journey, after his terrible fall, the man began to see the cuts and bruises on other travelers. He would see the fatigue in their eyes. Some of them looked lost—desperate—just as he had been on occasion.”
“Did he always travel alone?” asked the young man seated before the storyteller.
“He began his journey alone. There were times when he felt he needed to travel in solitude. To be left alone in his thoughts. To work out his own path. Other times, he would meet people—some of whom would travel many miles with him, until their paths diverged. It hurt him to see them go. But he was grateful for their companionship.
“There were times on the journey he met people he would have enjoyed travelling with, to some of whom he offered comfort and direction. Many of them resisted, just as he had at times. No matter, he learned. Comfort and advice often aren’t welcome unless it has been requested.”
The storyteller struggled against his fatigue. Sleep was harder to come by now. He would often wake well before the sounds of dawn could be heard and later, as the sun rose, would find himself longing to return to the comfort of his warm bed. But there would be people waiting for him. Sometimes, there was only one who could come to listen. Just one. Why bother, the storyteller would sometimes ask himself. But he would go and sit with them, no matter how many, and tell them the story.
The storyteller looked across the room. The quiet old man in the back had already eased from the room. He knew the old man would not return. He returned a knowing look to the the young man seated before him. There was something in the man’s eyes that made the storyteller believe this man would be back. Perhaps not for a while, but he would be back. The remainder of his audience sat, waiting for him to punctuate his story with some profound lesson—like a moral from one of Aesop’s fables, perhaps.
They longed for something neat and tidy and clear. Certainly, there were lessons to be learned from his tale. Watch your step. Keep walking. It’s okay to fall. Those were just a few. But the storyteller knew that every man, or woman, must find their own lessons from his tale. There was wisdom in the tale that had to be ferretted out. However simple, brief maxims would only masquerade as wisdom without each one doing the work—without their paying attention.
As his guests left him that morning, a few came and thanked him. Some offered a hand of friendship. A few fled the room, returning to their hurried journeys, as if they could make up for the time they perceived that had been lost there listening to the storyteller.
When the last of his guests left the room, he welcomed the solitude. Pushing himself from the chair, he debated making himself another cup of tea. But as he decided he would indulge himself in returning to his bed, the storyteller heard a voice behind him.
“I’m sorry. Excuse me. I believe I’m lost,” said the woman with the golden curls and and wide hazel eyes. “Can you help me?” asked the woman.
The storyteller nodded.
“Off course,” he said. “Please sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Let me just make myself another cup of tea. Would you care for a cup?”
He hadn’t expected her to accept. Most never did. But when she nodded, “Yes, thank you,” he felt pleased.
“I have a story to tell you,” he said to the woman as he eased into his chair. “Perhaps you have heard it before.”