The Storyteller

I only heard the storyteller once. It was a summer when I was in high school, maybe 1997 or 1998. I was at a week-long music camp for choir students throughout the south Texas region, to prep for that year's All-State singing competition.[footnote]I never did any better than making All-Region. I have an average voice but no solo presence.[/footnote] The days were filled with rehearsals, and the evenings had different activities—a party, dinners—to pass the time. One night, we assembled in the main hall to hear the storyteller. It was clear after a few words that something unusual was going to happen. He wasn't doing theater, or preaching, or even really performing: he was telling a story, doing something we as people haven't done in this manner in millennia. He was narrating in the first person, but we knew he wasn't talking about himself. He was the vessel for something else coming through him.

The story he told was about being a young boy in middle America in the middle of the 20th century, tagging around with a couple of friends, when a new girl arrived in the neighborhood. The girl had a little dog, and either the dog or some small possession of the girl's became lost or taken by bullies—it's more than 20 years on now, and there's only so much straining I can do to unearth the few fragments that haven't been totally buried in my memory by age and forgetfulness. But it worked out that the boy and his two friends journeyed with the girl to help her reclaim what was hers. One friend had a baseball bat that he carried slung over his shoulder like an ax, another wore an old frayed length of rope for a belt that dragged behind him like a tail unless he picked it up and held it, and the main boy, our narrator, was noble but unsure of the world around him.

The boys helped rescue what was lost, but before long, the girl had to move away. On their last day together, she told them each how she felt, and when she got to the narrator, he said that she whispered to him: "I listen to Coastal Call." That's what it sounded like, anyway. He had no idea what this meant, but he was terrified it was a reference to something like a radio show or a popular entertainment, and he didn't want to seem uncouth or out of touch, so he smiled and nodded, and maybe gave a knowing laugh. She looked at him for a long time, then left.

A year or so later, the boys were watching television when they saw something special: a broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, which they'd never seen. It was about a girl who found new friends in a strange place who helped her rescue what needed rescuing. One of them had an ax he carried over his shoulder like a baseball bat, one of them had a tail that dragged behind him like a piece of rope unless he picked it up and held it, and one of them was noble but unsure of the world around him.

When it came time for that girl to leave Oz, she said her goodbyes. When she got to her first and truest friend, who was still noble but now more aware of the world, she said to him: "I'll miss you most of all."

At this point, the storyteller stopped, and his daughter (who had to be in college, if not older) came out and began to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." No instruments or backing tracks of any kind accompanied her as she stood there and sang, bathed in a red light. No one spoke, or moved. We were all weeping—hot, gentle, completely unblocked tears, the kind you can't access past a certain age. We were all still so young and uncertain ourselves, and to be presented with this tragedy, to walk through this story of fleeting affection, weighed on us so much.

Years later, after I'd graduated college, I emailed the camp and asked after the man. I couldn't remember his name, or anything about him. That's when I found out he was a local teacher, and that storytelling was something he was known for. He might have even entered competitions, or participated in guilds, or something. What continued to affect me about the experience, though—what still does—is the time and place and method with which it happened. There are no photos or videos of that event, nor could I find any of the storyteller online. I haven't talked to any of the people who attended that camp with me in almost 20 years. I'm not even sure I could remember who all was there. I've forgotten the storyteller's name again, too. But not the story.