Why does the sea ebb and flow?
Why is a dog's nose always cold and wet?
Why do young men stand with their backs to the fire?
Bill Mayhew has the answers to those questions, and he'll happily give them up to anyone who cares to sit down and listen to him tell a tale or two. A storyteller by trade, Mayhew has collected and indexed more than 52,000 folk tales.
"If you ever need a folk tale," he offered, "I can probably find it for you."
Mayhew was one of five tellers who came to the new Loudoun County Senior Center at Cascades Marketplace last weekend to spin yarns for a small audience as part of a worldwide storytelling event called Tellabration.
Held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Tellabration is an annual, loosely coordinated, synchronized tale-telling intended to promote the art form at a grass-roots level. It dates to 1988, when it was launched by Connecticut storyteller J.G. "Paw-paw" Pinkerton, and is now coordinated with the help of the National Storytelling Network, a member-supported storytelling organization based in Jonesborough, Tenn.
"When stories are told," Pinkerton said in a telephone interview before the event, "humans are connected--it's an art form that alters relationships. When we know each other's stories, we know each other's humanity . . . and it breaks down barriers in many, many ways. It's the greatest tool in the world for teaching anything."
In Tellabration's first year, Pinkerton orchestrated simultaneous storytelling evenings in six different towns in Connecticut to generate interest in his craft. The next year, the event was brought by volunteers to Missouri and Texas. By its third year, Tellabration had made it across the country; by its fifth, it had circumnavigated the globe.
Starting at 8 p.m. EST Saturday and washing across the world by time zone, Tellabration took place at more than 400 official sites across six continents, nine countries and 41 states.
Laura J. Bobrow, a Leesburg resident and professional storyteller, brought Tellabration to Loudoun when she moved here two years ago from New York; she said she wanted "a cat-friendly" place close to Washington. She produced the event with help from Loudoun County Parks, Recreation and Community Services and, unlike other Tellabration sites, charged no admission, although donations to the Friends of the Senior Center were accepted.
"We don't do this as a fund-raiser," Bobrow said. "We just do this because it's a wonderful thing to do, to get people together to tell stories."
Bobrow herself was the third teller to present a story, holding a mike to amplify her small, hypnotic voice.
"Jack is a character that came here with Scottish and English settlers who brought him to the Appalachians," she said. Jack is best known for his part in the cautionary tale "Jack and the Beanstalk," but there are literally hundreds of different Jack stories that have been circulating since the settlers' day.
The stories have been "told and changed and told and changed," she said. "Jack always wins, but in mine he gets eaten--I decided I could take that liberty. People have to take these stories and imprint them with their own mark."
In Bobrow's story, a lazy Jack is sent on a quest by a fox to seek the luck and wisdom of a griffin, a mythical beast also brought over by the Brits. Jack wins the luck of the griffin, but in the end he is too foolish to recognize it--this foolishness gets him eaten by the fox.
"Stories arise spontaneously," Bobrow said before embarking on her second tale. For example, she said, "there are more than 400 stories about Cinderella in every country. For some reason, the story happens as an archetypal thing."
As an example, she told a Japanese story called "Urashima Taro . . . similar in feeling to Rip van Winkle" and just as old. "I like the sound of the words, and sometimes that's how I choose a story."
A simple-minded fisherman takes to the sea alone because he thinks he can hear the ocean calling his name in its waves. Once at sea, he is invited by a tortoise to an underwater kingdom where he falls in love with a beautiful woman. When he is compelled to leave her and return to land, she hands him a box and tells him not to open it "or you will never be able to return here to me."
Back on land, it isn't long before he realizes that more than 300 years have passed since he left to go fishing, and in a panic, he opens the box from his loved one. The fisherman dies instantly and collapses in a pile of dust. To this day, you can hear the ocean's waves beckoning him back to his beloved: "Urashima, Urashima, Urashima."
In addition to Bobrow, four other tellers shared their tales, myths and personal stories.
Margaret Chatham, a volunteer librarian and founding member of Voices in the Glen, a Washington area storytelling guild, told stories about the devil. Her husband, Ralph, a past president of Voices, physicist and defense consultant, told a Celtic sea story about a kelpie lord and a beautiful woman who "left a hollow in the heart" of whoever saw her.
A wildly energetic, cowboy-hatted Debbie Griffin told a story about Slue-Foot Sue and how she wins over Pecos Bill--told, of course, from Sue's perspective.
As worldwide co-director of Tellabration and a storyteller herself, Peg O'Sullivan, of Rowaton, Conn., sees to it that anyone who wants to host a Tellabration gets all the necessary guidance. "It's about as magical as we get in this life," she added, noting that since the event, she has been getting feedback from all over the world.
In a town near Albany, N.Y., there was a paid audience of 358.
Joyce Greiner wrote via e-mail from "very rural Oregon" to say that at an "informal Tellabration-like house party, about 40 people . . . told stories, had a potluck together and had a very warm time. Several children in the audience jumped up and told stories."
O'Sullivan said someone called from Bellington, Wash., to report that "it was their first one, and they got 300 people."
In Sterling, though, there were perhaps 25 people in the audience. Ethel Perkins, a center member and volunteer who was in the audience, said she enjoyed the show immensely and wished more people had attended.
"I think it's something people need to do more often because they spend too much time watching TV," she said.
The tellers themselves were not too concerned with the low turnout Saturday.
"I'm always disappointed with the turnout," Mayhew said, joking that there are never enough people listening to him.
Mayhew, a jovial Santa-esque cutup complete with belly and beard, brought in a sword and helmet to illustrate one of the three main legends of Beowolf.
"What was it," he asked about the old days of Beowolf, "when they didn't understand something? It was magic.
"Now?" he grumbled, "It's science."
Mayhew doesn't need science to explain the sea's ebbing and flowing, the dog's cold, wet nose and the young men who stand with their backs to the fire. He needs only one story:
Because the Great Spirit refused to provide a lone woman on an island with a hut for shelter, she took hostage his favorite rock--the one that covers the hole in the bottom of the sea.
To keep the ocean from draining completely, the Great Spirit sent his dog to plug the hole with its nose, but his nose was too small and merely got cold and wet. The woman adopted the misused dog, and, to this day, the dog's nose is always cold and wet.
Then the Great Spirit sent a young lady to plug the hole with her knees and, after that, a young man with his backside. Again the hole was too big, leaving the lady with chilly knees and the man with a cold backside. The woman adopted the young lady as her daughter and the man as her son-in-law, and they built a hut for her.
Seeing that she had her shelter--and that he was still unable to plug the hole in the ocean--the Great Spirit demanded that she return his rock. The woman agreed to a compromise and, to this day, takes the rock for herself twice a day, creating low tide as the ocean drains away.
CAPTION: The two faces of storytelling: Tim John spins his tale, and Genevieve Griffin listens anxiously to a story in which the main character is eaten.
CAPTION: Ralph Chatham relates a Celtic sea story about a kelpie lord and a beautiful woman.
CAPTION: Arline Kernus, left, and Kathy O'Neill enjoy the Tellabration storytelling held Nov. 20 at the Loudoun Senior Center in Sterling.