Friday, July 07, 2006

The Story Gatherer

short fiction

Once upon a time in a far off kingdom, there lived a hardworking farmer and his wife. They had twelve children, and although the man worked from dawn to dusk tending the king's fields, they often ate little more than broth for supper and were exceedingly poor. The time soon came for the eldest daughter to leave home and make her way in the world. She was so fair of face and gentle of disposition, that her father went to the king to inquire if she might be employed in the palace.

“What assets does she have to recommend her?” asked the king when her father appeared before him.

“She is a most attentive and sympathetic listener,” her father replied. “In fact, she is named Litanea, because of her empathetic hearing.”

So, the king employed her to accompany his guests at tea, that they might have an obedient audience for their tales, while he attended to important matters of the kingdom.

So good was Litanea at listening to stories, exclaiming and weeping, nodding and ahhing at the appropriate moments, she soon became in demand at all royal functions. The courtiers would present their stories, as though delicately wrapped jewels, and the young girl would examine each word gently, and then place them in her bodice next to her heart for safekeeping. The royal court began to take Litanea into their strictest confidence, for she never gossiped or revealed a word of the stories to anyone. The courtiers grew bold and told her their tales of travail, tragic stories of battles lost, villages burned, poor relations in debtor's prison, children taken by mysterious illnesses. She listened so excellently, as the tellers moaned and sobbed their sad stories that when they finished, they would dab at their eyes with linen handkerchiefs and find themselves quite refreshed, their burdens having been removed.

This being so, word spread throughout the kingdom, and young Litanea soon had a multitude of stories to carry. They filled her bodice, her apron, her pockets, and she began to carry them in baskets. She kept the tales with her always, and collected fresh stories daily. There were stories of famine and fires, of family feuds and disease that destroyed villages. The girl gazed at all these stories, memorized their details, formed their images in her mind and kept them intact for their originators.

Soon, her baskets were overflowing and she began carrying the stories in a large peddler's sack. The increasing weight on her back caused her to stoop, and with each new story, she lost her youthful beauty. She carried stories of women forced to marry and to carry the children of men who hated them. She held stories of brothers who plotted to kill each other and their fathers’ for inheritance. Years passed. Litanea sprouted hideous whiskers and wiry gray hair. She grew weary and wrinkled from dragging about stories of love lost, minds bent by power and greed, and lives stolen.

She became an object of ridicule and scorn. People ran from her, but still they threw their stories at her feet. She was banished from the village, and slept by day in a secret cave at the foot of a large mountain. Each night under the cover of darkness, Litanea climbed down the mountain and crept slowly through the streets where the villagers left their stories piled high. Quietly she gathered stories, stuffing them into her enormous bag, leaving the streets clean and sparkling in the morning light.

One night, the weight of her story bag grew so immense that Litanea was forced to crawl up the hillside to her home. The sun was rising when she finally pulled the monstrous story bag in behind her. The bag was so huge and heavy that it lodged in the entrance completely sealing the cave. But, by this time Litanea was so exhausted from gathering stories, she fell into a deep sleep. When she awoke, she found that her heart had hardened and she refused to listen to the stories calling to her from the bag. Litanea closed her ears, listened no more and the stories became stone, sealing her inside.

Litanea sat in the cave alone with the stone stories and her hardened heart soon spread to her eyes, her ears, her mouth, her hands and her feet. Until, one day, she had turned entirely into stone. There she remained for seven years. Then, one day, a man appeared beside her. He shone in the darkness like an opal in sunlight and addressed her.

“My beloved Litanea,” he said. “Thank you for your kindness. Thank you for your caring. Thank you for carrying these stories.”

He sat next to her and touched her stony hand. “These tales you have heard, these burdens you have carried, they were never meant for you to keep. This is what comes from trying to hold all the world’s ills in your heart. You have only the power to carry your own stories, to change your own life. I have come from the one who has all power. I have come from the one who has created all stories. I have come to teach you how to let go of your stories, how to let go of your fears and your pain, so that you might have life, and be freed from this prison of stone.”

Then the man told Litanea story upon story. He told her stories of lost coins found under rugs and rejoicing, of lost sheep found by shepherds and rejoicing, of lost sons returned safely to their fathers and rejoicing. He told stories of a different kind of kingdom. Stories where the weak were lifted up and the mighty brought low, stories in which children were wise, and wise ones were fools. He told Litanea stories of cups and bread shared among friends, of kings becoming servants. He spoke of followers, critics, betrayal and death. But even these dark tales ended with new life and great rejoicing. All the while he spoke, he held Litanea's hand, and slowly, she turned from stone back into flesh.

Then the man stood and began ripping loose the stories Litanea had carried into her cave. Each stone story he pulled from the wall became water that flowed from his hands onto the floor of the cave. The stories formed a puddle that rose to Litanea's ankles. The puddle formed a pool that reached her waist, and the pool became a pond, which rose to her chin.

Litanea wanted to cry out for the man to stop, surely they would both drown in the lake of stories, but she could not open her mouth to speak. And, just as the water rose to her nostrils and it seemed they would surely drown, the stone wall burst from the water's force. The flood of stories broke open the cave, and stones were swept away, forming a river with its headwaters at the man’s feet. Then all was quiet. Litanea looked at her reflection in the still pool below, and saw to her amazement that she had been restored to her original form. Her wrinkles, her whiskers, her wiry hair and bent back had vanished. She threw back her head and laughed, for the first time in many years.

Then she ran down the mountain, following the path of the river, which lead to the village. “Come bring your stories to the riverside,” Litanea shouted. “Lay your tales before the one who can take your burdens, your sorrows and turn them into waters of joy. For I have been healed by this man and his story water.”

The people came streaming out of their houses; their arms piled high with stories. They followed Litanea up the river, up the mountain, until they saw the man, radiant and beautiful, standing in the river with his arms open wide.

“Come, follow me,” he said.

And the people jumped into the river with their stories of stone.

They let go of their stones, and watched them sink. Their pain, their sickness, their injury, floated away. And the stones remained, scattered along the bed and banks of the river. They had become smooth where they were once jagged and beautiful where they were once ugly.

The people emerged from the river, rejoicing and wet, shouting and dripping and free. They returned again and again to that river, to that man, story after story, year after year. The people waded in the water, sprinkled it on infant brows and gave thanks. They raised their cups, shared their loaves of bread and gave thanks. They raised their voices in song and praise for the man and the gift of life he gave them and they whispered the story in the quiet places of their hearts.

And then, one day, out of thankfulness for all he had done for them, the people began to bring the man gifts. They brought new stories. Tales of relationships restored, of fences mended, of hopes for peace between enemies. These stories became wood, and with the wood, the people built a bridge across the river.

Then the people themselves crossed the river and became story spreaders. Their stories were uttered from tongue to scribe to typewriter and traveled over heartland and heartache, across landscapes and landslides. Their stories survived the eyes of sentries and centuries as word spread into kingdoms far and wide of the man who turned stone into water and sorrow into seed. And the people came from all corners of the world, from North and South and East and West. Generation after generation they came. They came to meet the man who was sent to bring life and hope to all who were in danger of being turned to stone. Always the people found him, standing in the water with his arms outstretched.

“Come, my beloved,” the man forever said. “Behold the river and its source."

©Cathy Warner 2oo4

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Truly, a wonderful story. Just wanted to let you know it was read, enjoyed and inspired. Thank you, sweet lady.