When I first took the stage as a storyteller, I didn’t know what to do with silence at the end of a tale. Americans are uneasy about silence. We like to fill the spaces. We get squirmy without words. We aren’t sure what the quiet means.
One of many audiences that taught me to love the unfilled space at the end of a story had gathered to hear a Jungian psychologist talk about his work. I can’t remember who gave the talk, but I do recall the session was part of a series of talks exploring the facets of Jungianism.
Because of Jung’s focus on archetypes, the organizer felt it would be appropriate to introduce each session with a story. I read dozens of myths and folktales, looking for one that illustrated the theme of the evening when I was to be the storyteller.
I chose a story new to me. “Black Bull of Norroway” is one of the many variations of the search for the lost husband. As in other versions, the beauty who goes off with the beast learns to care for the brute. She must endure trials before her love breaks the spell and the beast returns to his true form, as a handsome man.
Because I was only telling one tale, I wanted something to focus audience attention so composed a short round. The 500-seat auditorium was filled. I divided the audience into three groups. One group sang, “Black Bull of Norroway”. The next chimed in with, “Bridegroom, I come”. The third wove in their line, “Trials await”.
They started softly, swelled as each line came in, then gradually faded away. It was as if they were telling the story, the minor notes weaving over and under each other, all with the same question: How will it end?
The telling that followed was one of those timeless spaces when cranky bosses, bad backs, and unhappy relationships recede into the background. In the space that’s cleared, the story plays out in the theatre of the mind. Five hundred minds seeing five hundred different bulls, five hundred different heroines, yet somehow all traveling the same path.
When I fell silent at the end of the story, so did the audience. No one wanted to break the spell. Then from one side of the room, the first phrase of the round poured a river of music into the silence. Then the second phrase, the third.
The singing was spontaneous, a perfect period at the end of the story. A moment of pure magic for which I will always be grateful.