Walking around my backyard a few weeks ago, with the sun on my skin, the sea below and eagles calling across the bay, I slipped into a state that I used to inhabit as a child — an imaginative trance in which, even as my feet pressed down on damp grass, I found myself climbing up a steep bank, skidding on loose, dry soil, steadying myself against the rough trunk of an arbutus tree.
At first, as I scrambled up that bank, all I could see were spring-green bushes, their leaves rustling in the wind. Poplar saplings, with their sharp, citrus scent, brushed against my face. Overhead, a wide swath of cerulean sky.
Then, through an opening framed by salal bushes, I saw it: the Sea of Story. Glittering emerald and turquoise, carnelian and silver under a blazing midday sun, it stretched to the edge of the horizon. The air smelled like new bread and oranges, and the briny tang of olives. The sun stung my skin as I slipped and skidded down the bank and dove headlong into the water.
Now, in what we call real life, I can’t swim. But submerged in the Sea of Story I felt as happily at home as a seal or an otter. I dove down deep and my fingers left trails of phosphorescence through a sea that glistened like shot silk. Underwater, I opened my eyes, and gasped: In a turquoise light, stories glimmered and swirled and spun in the currents. Stories floated by, transparent as jellyfish. Some darted around in colourful schools; others bloomed and glowed in solitary splendour.
The sea magnified sounds, and in the distance, I heard singing. The throbbing heartbeat of drums. A deep gong resonated over a silvery shiver of bells. I turned to look for the source of the music. Behind me, I saw a man with scraggly hair and bad teeth kicking at a bed of coral and shouting furiously in a cockney accent at an old woman. She was bent over at the waist, gathering stones off the sea floor. Each time she picked one up, she murmured to it, kissed it, and placed it carefully in a woven basket slung over her arm.
After a while, the old woman gathered up her skirts and hobbled off on the trail of a giant clam. A swarm of children ran out of the shadows towards her, shouting and laughing as they chased a short, chubby boy around a tree whose branches, heavy with jewelled fruit, swept the sandy ocean floor. The children shrieked and giggled and in their gleeful chase, knocked the old woman down. Her basket of stones went flying, splashing in every direction.
I leaned over to help the old woman up when something cold and clammy wrapped itself around my waist and began dragging me into the shadows of an undersea cave. The thing that had me in its grip smelled of fish, cold and slimy, as tenacious as an octopus. I struggled and kicked and screamed out to the children to help me, but they were busy playing and didn’t hear my cries.
As the children’s voices receded into the distance, my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I could see the walls and roof of a rough cave that glowed a dim, emerald green. A deep chuckle echoed from somewhere in the shadows, and a woman’s voice, as cool as mint, said: To swim in the Sea of Story you have to open your arms wide.
Who are you? I shouted. You kidnap me and drag me here and now you’re talking in riddles! Show yourself.
You humans are all so impatient! she replied. Not to mention impolite. She snorted and hawked and harrumphed, and then said: I am the Guardian of the Sea of Story. This grotto is my home. You’re here because you asked to know yourself, to know the world around you. All real knowing begins with story.
Look around. All the stories that have ever been told live in these waters. People have fished here for them since before the world began. They’ve shared them with each other around campfires, under starlight, in dreams and visions. They’ve whispered them in the ears of sleeping children and sung them in the dark of winter in the igloos of the Inuit. For thousands of eons, people have shouted and chanted and danced and played with Stories.
I peered into the shadows where the walls of the cave met the sea. The woman’s voice was a clear bell that rang and rang again all around me. But all I could see was a wild, emerald light dancing across the water.
The woman chuckled again. You won’t see me until you come face to face with yourself, she said. Start by looking in the nursery.
The emerald light flickered and blazed for a moment in the farthest corner of the cave.
In the nursery, you’ll find embryo stories waiting to be born. You can choose any story that speaks to you. Nourish it, grow it in your heart and in your belly. Give birth to it. Then live with it.
She made that hawking sound again, and spat. I distinctly heard her spit.
But first, she said, drop that bag of stories you’re carrying in your arms. Release them into the sea that is their home.
Her cut-glass voice set my teeth on edge. I opened my mouth to say something sarcastic, but there was a heaviness in my chest that tugged at me. I looked down and saw that I was clutching a great big, prickly bundle of stories tightly against my chest. So tightly that my arms ached. The bundle of stories squirmed and wriggled — its thorny edges dug into my heart.
Where did these stories come from? And why hadn’t I ever noticed them before?
The woman’s voice, neither young nor old, emerged from the deepest part of the cave. Open your arms, she said, kindly. Let your stories go. They have work to do. There was a hint of laughter under those cool tones.
Trembling, I dropped my squirmy bundle. The stories I’d been holding so tightly wriggled free and swam away towards the mouth of the cave. My arms felt empty, and cold. I felt suddenly naked, unprotected.
What do I do now, I whispered.
Why, swim around until you find a new story you want to follow, she replied. Or — and here her voice dropped into a deeper register — you can call the stories that are your heart’s companions, and they will come to you.
Feeling foolish, I mumbled into the darkness: Here, stories! Here, stories!
No, she cried. If you want your stories to find you, you must call them with all the love and longing in your heart. They must know you need them. You must want them more than anything in the world. When you can’t live without them, they will come to you. Call them like a child calling his mother in the middle of the night. Like a lover calling her beloved when he returns from a long journey. Like your lungs calling your breath home.
I stood with my back against a sturdy fir tree in my back yard that morning, and sent my voice and my heart out across the water. Calling my stories home. Hearing them in the cry of wild geese that echoed over the bay.
Every morning since then, I call — and then, I listen. Most days, a story finds me. It slips its hand in mine. It becomes my playmate for hours or days or longer. It helps me discover something about who I am, who I can be.
Together we carve new paths through our beautiful, tragic, funny world. We right wrongs, sing of old sorrows and emerging joys. We get to know our neighbours.
We enter the hearts and lives of friends and enemies. We understand the language of people who live in faraway places, and discover they are as close as my own breath. As familiar as my heartbeat.