Meeting on Zoom with about sixty other people to listen to old folk tales isn’t everyone’s idea of how to spend a Friday night, but it sounds pretty good to me.
I’ve never met most of the folk that gathered in the grid-split confines of Zoom’s conference-call software, but I imagine they’re my kind of people. A Bit Crack have been running spoken word gatherings once a month for a over thirty years, an impressive run, and one they’re not allowing a mere global pandemic to break.
Oral storytelling wants to happen live, around a fire or in an old pub, or anywhere that you’re close enough to look someone in the eyes. Of course, real eye contact is something you can’t get through a webcam, but the stories and songs still managed to work their magic.
It began with the ocean, and a man as old as time rising from it. People fled as he walked through their village, but the man kept going, up to the forest into which he vanished. Time passed, and a woman rose from the ocean, with animals and elements from the oldest tales stitched into her cloak. Her speech was poetry and the villagers followed her every step.
It feels like bad form to trap much more of the tale in static text. In this medium, there’s no way to give you a proper sense of the multivalent communication that our storyteller – Claire Randles – gave us on the night. Subtle gestures and expressions blended with the music of her voice – quick speech, fluid and lyrical – a river of more-than-verbal language that transported us to another time and another place.
The ancient man and the timeless woman met inside the forest. He was Truth. She was Story. One incited fear, the other: applause.
‘Why do people run from me?’ asked the ancient man.
It was a question answered with a gift. What was it? You’ll have to seek out the story and discover it for yourself.
When Claire passed the mantle to the next storyteller, Pat Renton, we were taken to the ocean again, pulled in deep by a story nested inside a story. In it there was a king willing to actually listen, a fisherman with a tale to tell and a treasure box that held his heart’s desire, yet once possessed, its contents were no longer enough.
Pat has a slower cadence in her telling than Claire. Her language is clear, simple, and carries weight. You get the feeling that each utterance is tethered to lived experience. It lends truth to her telling.
Most of the storytellers I’ve met seem especially fond of musicians. I wonder which of the ‘A Bit Crackers’ invited Bex Mather to bless the night with sea songs. As it happens, Bex lives just down the hill from me. If I had stuck my head out the skylight, would I have heard her singing? The songs were bittersweet and beautiful, and kept us close to the ocean.
The first two stories were great, but the two that followed were better.
How can a story that begins with a young woman being pushed to her death in the freezing ocean be so heart-warming? If Pat tells it, it can.
I loved this story. There’s a moment when a fisherman, having accidentally dredged up the woman’s ensouled skeleton, flees for his life when he sees that the skeleton woman is not entirely pleased that she’s been torn from her ocean sleep. She would rather go back, but the fisherman’s hook is caught in her bones, leading him to believe he is being pursued by something that wants to take his life.
Thinking he has escaped, the man falls asleep in his tent, but he is watched, lovingly, by Skeleton Woman. If I told you that she reached into his chest and pulled out his beating heart, you might thing this was a horror story, but it wasn’t. The tale, and the way it was told, has you fall into empathy for Skeleton Woman. There are layers of meaning to any good story, but this particular tale is the sort of medicine we could with more of in our technology-saturated, often anesthetizing modern world.
For me, there was so much in this story that its images were still playing in my mind for the rest of the evening and the days that followed. I loved Claire’s final story and the way she told it, but Skeleton Woman appears to have stole my heart, as well as the fisherman’s.
The stories and songs, all linked to the ocean, were so resonant with each other that it felt as though there was a fourth storyteller present. ‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’ is a phrase most appreciate intellectually, but on that night we got to feel it in the bones.
Ben Patrick Holden is writer of mythic fiction from the South Pennines, now living with his wife and son at the edge of the woods in North East England. His writing is inspired by, and rooted in the numinous qualities of myth and landscape.
You can find him at: www.benpholden.com