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My listeners like long stories. I work as the storyteller-in-residence at Baycrest Health Sciences, a teaching hospital in Toronto that serves the elderly. Being seniors, you may think they have short attention spans; in fact, they prefer stories that are long and complicated, full of extreme dangers and dilemmas, featuring audacious heroines and resourceful heroes. Real-life stories are good, too, but the fairy tales are better. This is especially true in the psychiatry unit, where I visit twice a week.
The other day I was telling an Albanian wonder tale in my storytelling group. In the story, the youngest princess is about to marry an unusual bridegroom: a large, spotted snake. Despite her trepidation, she knows she has to do it. “What’s for you,” as we sometimes say, “won’t go by you.”
Before the wedding ceremony, she goes out to the forest to get some advice from her old nursemaid, who lives there in a small hut. The old woman tells her to count the snake’s scales. She does. There are 40. Then she counsels her to wear 40 wedding dresses made of sheer fabric and, after the ceremony when they’re alone together, to ask her husband to shed a scale as she sheds a dress.
Our princess listens to the wise old woman and, after their interspecies wedding, she closes the bedroom door and draws the shades. They face each other. The princess begins to take off her dresses and the snake begins to shed his scales – a dress for a scale, a dress for a scale, until she is naked and he has turned into a handsome young man.
“Getting pretty hot in here!” somebody murmured. My group feels free to comment as the story unfolds.
Our storytelling group takes place in a nondescript dining room on the fourth floor of the hospital. The lighting is dreary. The PA system loudly announces “Code Red” (or blue or grey) with some regularity. Some lunches, half-eaten, are still on their trays. Nurses sometimes interrupt to take patients to their various appointments. The television in the lobby around the corner is always on. It is not what my bubbie would have called a haimishe – homey – atmosphere. Yet, pushing their walkers, residents come out of their rooms and away from the television to hear folk tales, trade riddles, discuss proverbs and share their own stories. We call this “story care” – making times and places for stories to be shared in a health-care environment.
The residents of the fourth floor are an accomplished, sophisticated, culturally diverse group, many with loving families and strong friendships. Yet, mental illness has forced them to seek sanctuary and treatment here at the hospital. They awaken each morning wondering when they’ll be well enough to go home and hoping to find the courage to continue their healing journey. Even in the depths of suffering, they are great story-listeners. Philosopher Martin Buber describes villagers listening to a long story told by Baal Shem Tov, the Hasidic rabbi and master storyteller: “under the touch of its words, the secret melody of each person was awakened ... ” It’s like that on the fourth floor. The stakes are high for our fictional princess and her snake-husband, but they are far higher for the story-listeners. They know what it’s like to be deprived of your true form. They know what it means to be harshly separated from the ones you love and to be in desperate need of restoration, ardently wishing to return to the miraculously ordinary rounds of everyday life. Hovering over each word, each scene, each plot twist, each magical encounter, is a question: When will we regain our own heart’s ease, our lost melody? Perhaps they listen so intently because they sense that stories are maps that can lead them back to themselves. Or perhaps the storytelling is simply a welcome relief from the intensive therapies that comprise their lives on the unit. What’s certain is that they listen to every word as if their very souls were in the balance. They are the best listeners I’ve ever known.
The snake-husband warns his wife never to let harm come to the snakeskin, but unfortunately she has two suspicious, meddling sisters and one day they burn the snakeskin, and her beloved husband disappears to parts unknown. After weeping for three days and three nights, she goes straight back to the old woman, who tells her to search in the fire and bring back any unburned scales. There is one still intact, and half of another. With these, the old woman makes a medicine pouch for the girl and tells her to press it to her heart when she is in grave danger. The princess sets out to find him again, leaving her familiar world far behind. She crosses the mountains, meets a striga, a terrifying Albanian witch, and barely escapes with her life. The pouch with the one and a half scales saves her, along with the love she has for her husband. She comes to his kingdom only to find him half dead. Slowly, lovingly she restores him to life, and I end the story by saying that as they found their hearts’ desire, so may we all find ours.
The world of wonder tales is full of extreme suffering and extreme triumph, of justice, courage, loss and redemption. In this world you must be sure to listen to the little voices – a mouse on the road, a vagabond, an old woman in the woods, a dream – for they carry necessary wisdoms. You must be open to magic and the chance of transformation, no matter how lost you are along the way. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the psychiatry patients feel at home in this imaginary world.
As the long story comes to an end, the afternoon light has shifted a little in the room. It seems a little gentler, despite the fluorescent bulbs. Yes, the group concurs, as the couple found their hearts’ desires, may we all find ours. It may seem like a distant prospect, hospitalized as they are and so far adrift from everything familiar. Yet, perhaps some spark of reassurance is kindled. Perhaps these stories remind my listeners that whatever else they’ve lost, they are still able to experience wonder, still able to imagine vivid and suspenseful mind-movies, still able to take risks in the name of love and healing. Maybe the story itself is the talisman that will help them continue on their quest.
Dan Yashinsky lives in Toronto.