Culture  A city of stories

The Montreal Guild of Storytellers

“With stories,” the storyteller began, glancing at all the young faces with a warm smile. “We should start at the beginning.”

Once upon a time, there was a city, built on the slope of a hill… not the largest city, mind, but big enough to have tall buildings with ten or more floors stacked to the sky, streets of three or four lanes with constant daytime traffic, side-walks traveled by people of all sorts, dressed simply, elaborately, all with different faces that spoke with distinct voices – some childish, some sombre – and oh did they talk!

They spoke in cafes over coffee, at construction sites while the cement hardened, telling each other stories; stories about themselves or somebody else; stories of intrigue, action, drama. Stories to make you laugh, to make you cry, or both; but most of all, stories just to pass the time until the coffee cup was empty and the cement was set.

One night, in this same city, behind a yellow door, down the basement steps, thirty young students sat on brown, blue, and orange seats, dipping chocolate chip cookies into cocoa with attentive ears in front and around of a woman with curly silver-white hair and brilliant white teeth. “I am a storyteller,” she said, “I have been telling stories for almost eighty years.”

The stories the storyteller told were not the kind of stories you would hear around town. Her stories were not native to the town, or even the times. They were stories from places far away, and from people long gone. These stories were quite old, older than the storyteller that stood in front of the young audience. The storyteller’s name is Christine Mayr, a member of Montreal’s Storytelling Guild.

“Why tell such old stories?” she asked. “Even though times have changed,” she smiled, “I think they still touch us.” Once her words settled in the subterranean air, once she was sure all the young people were silent, she told stories, stories from around the world.  Her voice rose and fell with a sprung rhythm. Her hands delicately mirrored the actions of the stories’ subjects.

She spoke of the sad love of a Japanese crane, the journey of an African spider son and father and their encounter with death, the river-ride of Australia’s red riding hood, and others. Each story seemed to belong not to any time in particular, but to the unchanging demands of the human heart. Certainly, the crowd was touched by her stories that night. They were quiet in the sad parts, and laughing in the comic bits. And at the end of her time, everyone clapped, and Mayr thanked the young people for coming and keeping the tradition alive, from one generation of storytellers to the next.

“Relatively few people are given to mathematics or physics, but narrative seems to be within everyone’s grasp,” E.L. Doctorow once wrote. “Perhaps because it comes to the nature of language itself. The moment you have nouns and verbs and prepositions…subjects and objects, you have stories.”

The Storytellers Guild of Montreal meet at the Westmount Library, 4574 Sherbrooke, every second Thursday of the month from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. People are welcome to come, listen, and share stories of their own.