Bite till the blood runs

In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it’s not poison; and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle. ~Ursula Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World

For two seasons I traveled the American school route in Germany and England, telling stories to military offspring. The principal approached me before a performance in one of the German schools. It was a tough group, he told me. “Better you than me,” he said, in a voice that intimated he was throwing me to the lions.

They filed in with all the chaos that accompanies a school on the edge of out-of-control. One boy in particular stood out. He slouched into the room with that boneless walk only a teenager can muster. Second row from the back, third seat in, he planted his lanky form. Feet stretched across the narrow aisle, arms crossed, face set, he sat poised to retaliate against the students who would inevitably graze him while trying to clamber over his legs.

He also set the tone for the next 45 minutes. Others would cast side glances his way, to see if it was acceptable to listen or if verbal tomatoes were called for. The first story had to work. Two minutes in, they would accept my offering or eat me for lunch.

Doing a last-minute set shuffle, I chose a short tale guaranteed to settle and center a middle-school audience. I don’t remember what it was now, only that the group was stretched tense as a rubber band aimed in my direction. The story worked. They didn’t fire.

Fish Face

So I told them a fish story to keep them still. (Fish Face from Andy Welsh's photostream on Flickr)

The second story had to keep them hooked, so I chose one that had never failed, “Tayzanne,” from Diane Wolkstein’s extraordinary collection of Haitian tales The Magic Orange Tree. There was nothing noble in the choice. The story is disturbing, haunting, dark enough to calm even a roomful of adolescents. I used it as a club, to dash any troublemakers into silence so I could finish the program and get out of there intact. I’m not proud of the motivation, but it worked.

The lanky boy sat forward and listened, to “Tayzanne” and every story that followed. His compatriots took their cue from him, and the session ended without mishap. I had no illusions that the group was transformed by the stories, but we had all survived without undue injury to their spirits or mine.

A year later I returned to the school. The students showed no recognition of the middle-aged woman who had spun tales for them the year before. Once again, the boy with long legs and attitude slouched in and posted his challenge across the aisle.

When I began the first story, he looked up, his eyes fixed and calculating. He leaned forward and stared. At the end of the story, he shouted, “You the lady that was here last year?”

“Yes,” I replied, expecting the worst.

“Tell that fish story,” he said.

“Yeah,” the others chimed in. “We’ve been talking about it for a year. We still don’t get it. We want to hear it again.”

It was the only story they wanted to hear, the only story they would allow me to tell. When it ended, they peppered me with questions I didn’t even try to answer. Instead, we shared the mystery, the possibilities, the strangeness of the tale and what it revealed about us and about the culture from which it comes.

I left that school with an exhilaration that returns to me as I write. The long-legged boy and his friends reminded me to love the questions. The answers are never clear. They change with each telling of a story, with each hearing of a tale. They change when the events of today mix with the experiences of yesterday.

I have learned to embrace the mystery. I have not found answers, which are as elusive now as when I first understood that the spiritual certainty of my childhood had cracked in the face of a growing appreciation for the questions.

I have learned to be comfortable living in the middle, biting life until the blood runs, knowing Ursula LeGuin was right. “In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood.”

This essay first appeared in The Healing Heart: Communities as part of a longer piece, “Seven Lessons”.

Diane Wolkstein’s collection is still a favorite among storytellers:

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