Once there was an old man; and there was an old woman, too, who was his wife. Together they had everything they could possibly need or want, for that matter. They had each other, of course; and they were so close – they knew each other so well – they finished each other’s sentences. They shared stories … but if one of them knew a story, so did the other. They finished each other’s stories!
Now this was a long time ago – when tigers still smoked deeply on their long pipes; there weren’t as many stories then as there are today. There were enough, though, that the old man knew there were stories he didn’t know … and if he didn’t know them, he thought, she didn’t know them either.
So, one day, the old man asked his chief servant to tell him a story … but the servant said, “I don’t know anything about stories –“
The old man said, “Then get me a storyteller!”
“Storytellers are rare, and busy,” the servant answered. And, at this time, this was true; there are more storytellers, now … but, then … the chief servant continued, “They travel much, and far; they can’t just drop everything and rush here to tell you a story.”
The old man raised his hand. He offered it to his servant; it held a small sack … “Here are fifty gold coins for his trouble,” he said.
“Not for a hundred and fifty –“ the servant shook with his whole body.
“Then ask him to teach you a story … that you can, in turn, tell us.” The old man smiled. “And you will give him two hundred gold coins.
The chief servant took the gold coins, and walked to the nearest town. There he sat in the town square, and waited, watching the people as they hurried by around him. He wondered which of them was a storyteller. He wondered, also, which of them were farmers and which were judges, and which were teachers … but it was the storyteller he had come to see.
He wondered what did a storyteller look like? Was he short or tall? Was he fat? Was he hairy like the wild men in the mountains? Did he wear spectacles?
It was then he saw a tall man darting in and out of the crowd … it was a tall, fat man –
He had a beard.
He was wearing spectacles.
He stared into every face that passed him by … as though he could read his future in them … as though he was passing judgment on them –
And his mouth was moving!
The servant thought: Perhaps he is rehearsing a new story. Perhaps that is the one he will sell me –
“Excuse me!” the servant shouted. “Excuse –“ he moved to stand in front of the storyteller … who stopped, almost falling over the servant who continued, “Will you sell me a story?”
The storyteller, who was not really a storyteller, admitted, “I haven’t a story to sell you.” Then he drew in a breath, and coughed – “Uhm –
The chief servant grinned, and held up the sack the old man had given him. “I have two hundred gold coins –“
“Two hundred gold coins?” The storyteller – who decided, then-and-there, that he might be a storyteller, after-all, repeated, “Two hundred gold –
“Show it to me.
“Give it to me!” he growled.
The chief servant dropped the sack out of sight. He said, firmly, “After you have taught me a story.”
“Give me the money, first –“
The servant asked, “Is it a good story?” He insisted, “It has to be a good story.”
“It’s a wonderful story!” the storyteller answered him. “Now, give me the gold coins and I’ll tell it to you!”
“I have to learn it. You have to tell it to me … as many times as it takes for me to learn it –“
A crowd gathered. It surrounded the two shouting men – one demanding ‘Give me my money!’ The other crying ‘Give me my story!’ The crowd took sides; one group said the storyteller should surrender his story first; the other group said it wasn’t his story to surrender because he had agreed to sell it to the servant. It was a done deal … except that the deal wasn’t done until the money changed hands –
The crowd agreed, however, on one key point: it wanted to hear a story.
Unfortunately, there was no story to hear; the storyteller was not a storyteller; he really knew nothing about stories, or telling stories … but he had faced angry mobs before. The storyteller who was not a storyteller stared squarely into each of their faces. And the crowd’s faces stared back at him.
He looked beyond the crowd … at a Great Blue Heron … that was standing at the edge of a pond that edged the town square.
And the storyteller who was not really a storyteller said, “There is a Great Blue Heron.”
The chief servant repeated, “There is a Great Blue Heron …” and some of the crowd said it, also.
“There is a Great Blue Heron.”
The storyteller who wasn’t a storyteller said, “He moves nearer, slowly.”
The servant repeated, “He moves nearer, slowly.”
“He turns his head, listening.”
“He turns his head, listening.”
“He steps forward, carefully.’
“He steps forward, carefully.”
He lowers his head …”
The servant glared at the storyteller, then followed, “He lowers his head.”
The storyteller continued, “He steps, precisely.”
The servant murmured, “He steps, precisely.” Then he added, softly, for only the storyteller to hear, “This is boring.”
The crowd muttered.
The storyteller who knew nothing about making stories … smiled. “A Fox watches the heron from the tall grass.”
The chief servant smiled, and said, “A Fox watches the heron from the tall grass.”
Smiles broke out, here and there, in the crowd.
“The Fox tenses its muscles, about to leap upon the heron –“ The storyteller didn’t wait for the servant to echo him; he hurried on. “A large gray Frog watches the Fox. It shouts, ‘Danger!’”
And the crowd echoed, “Danger! Danger!”
The crowd shouted, “Run!
And the servant repeated, “Danger! Run! Fly!”
“And the Great Blue Heron climbs into the sky,” the storyteller paused. “The Fox turns to glare at the Frog … but the Frog is already gone.”
The servant repeated, ‘The Frog is gone …”
He looked at his hand; it was empty. He looked for the storyteller; he was gone. “The Frog is gone,” the servant murmured to himself. “There must be magic here.”
“And that’s how the story ends!” explained the chief servant. The old couple sat with their mouths open. The servant added, “I hurried home as fast as I could so I wouldn’t forget a word –“
“But you did,” the old man said.
“I didn’t,” said the servant.
“Of course you did,” the old woman said; “There is nothing to be ashamed of –“
“But I didn’t,” insisted the servant.
The old man looked at the old woman … who looked back at the old man, and nodded. They looked at the chief servant, and said, together, “Tell it again.” And he did … five more times.
Outside, wrapped in shadows, the storyteller who was not really a storyteller, counted his two hundred gold coins. “One hundred ninety-seven,” he whispered. “One hundred ninety-eight … one hundred ninety-nine.” He had already counted the coins, of course – several times, in fact … but he liked the way the coins felt in the dark. “One, two, three – “
He had followed the servant to his home. Had watched the servant repeating the words to the story he had told … with each step his smile grew larger; he thought to himself, ‘Perhaps I am a storyteller.’
Then he looked at the wall surrounding the old couple’s house, and he said to himself, “No, I am a thief –
“And I’m waiting for the household inside to go to sleep … so I can scale the wall and search out whether my gold coins have any brothers or sisters that might want to come away with me.” He counted behind closed eyes – twenty-six … twenty-seven –
He counted to two hundred twice more … then boosted himself over the wall.
He crouched in the long shadow of a juniper tree.
He took a step –
And a voice stumbled across the courtyard: “He steps nearer, slowly.”
The thief dropped to one knee; he looked over his shoulder. And the voice skipped among the shadows: “He turns his head; he is listening.” Someone was watching him.
The thief duck-walked behind a spicebush. The voice shouted, “He is stepping nearer … carefully.”
The thief lowered his head as he inched toward the wall. Someone invisible was watching him. The voice was a harsh whisper. “He moves, precisely.”
He bolted back toward the wall.
The voice followed. “Danger! Danger!
“Climb!” the thief cried out as he scaled the wall, and slid over it; dropping to his knees, and picking himself up, he ran into through the garden and into the woods.
The chief servant stepped from a dark hall … where he had been practicing parts of the story he would tell again in the morning. He repeated to himself as he walked, “Danger! – run! – fly!” He thought he had heard someone shouting outside in the garden … something. But he saw nothing.
He walked among the shadows along the wall. And he walked in the garden … nothing. No one. He noticed a gold coin glistening in the moonlight. He saw several gold coins. He picked them up; there were several dozens of coins. He
knelt and counted them. He counted ‘forty-eight … fifty-two … three … four … fifty-nine … sixty- two –‘
He counted sixty-two coins. He said, aloud, “From two hundred is one hundred and thirty-eight gold coins –
“There is magic in this,” he thought, that he would tell the old man in the morning … “to have found so honest a storyteller that he returns the change on a two hundred gold coin story that is not worth two hundred gold coins.
The old woman will say, “There must be a hint of this in his story –“
“A lesson we can take from his story,” the old man will finish for her. He will say, “And apply it to our lives.”
They will agree, then, nodding to one another, and say together, “Tell us the story again.” And he will, until it ends.