She looked irked, and he guessed that he, this stringy, unwashed man, with skin like canvas, would disrupt her rigorous household; nonetheless she set a place for him while her husband, pleased and comfortable, poured the visitor a drink.
The boy watched the stranger attacking the food like a tired hound. He sensed that the man's hunger fought with the man's decorum. Nobody spoke because the newcomer seemed too famished to be interrupted. The boy examined the man's face, saw the long, thin scar, wondered if he had been in a knife fight, perhaps with a sailor on some foreign quayside.
And the sodden boots -- in his mind he saw the stranger fording streams, climbing out of gullies, traversing slopes of limestone shale on his endless travels across the country. Did he have a dog? Seemingly not, which was a pity, since a dog could have sat guard by the fire at night. Did the man ever sleep in caves? They said that bears and wolves had long been extinct in Ireland -- but had they?
That evening, in that white house among the fields, a boy's most passionate dream came true. His father had long talked of the traveling storytellers. He said they possessed brilliant powers; they brought the long-gone past to life vividly, without what he called "the interference of scholars. Those professors," he said. "They dry out history in order to put it down on paper." In his father's view, a tale with the feeling taken out of it had "no blood and was worth very little."
But the old stories, told by traveling storytellers round the fireside on winter evenings -- they came hurtling straight down the long, shiny pipeline of the centuries, and the characters, all love and hate and fire, "tumbled out on our own stone floor." So said his father. "They're still among us. I wouldn't be surprised if one of them came here one day. He'll probably be tall and old, with boots and a hat, and he'll enchant us all." And now such a storyteller had finally arrived.
He was the last of his breed. Figures like him had trudged the countryside for twenty-five centuries, telling the story of Ireland in one form or another. In the old days, they were beloved; a visit from one often gave a village its brightest moment of the year.
They had counterparts all over the globeIndia, South America, China. Such travelers wandered into a village, spread a rug under a shady tree, and began a daylong tale of the country's old times. They called up dragons and fire and mountains and maidens and gods. Wary villagers who drifted forward to hear what was being said always stayed to the end. Whatever the topic, the audience knew they could be assured of vitality and dramagreat events told in bright colors with huge spirit. Thus the traveling storyteller and his oral tradition shaped much of the world's culture and character.
The Storyteller tongued the last crumbs from behind his teeth. He moved to a chair by the fire, where he prepared to smoke a pipe. From a yellow oilcloth pouch he offered a fill of tarry, black tobacco to the husband, who thanked him and said he didn't smoke. The stranger filled his pipe, picked up the iron tongs, plucked a tiny ember from the fire, and planked it on top of the pipe. After much sucking and tapping, the tobacco glowed, and blue smoke drifted forward in search of the chimney.
He leaned back in his chair. The boy had settled directly opposite him, on the cushions of a long wooden bench beside the hearth. With teeth tall and yellow like a horse's, the Storyteller smiled at the boy, who still gazed huge-eyed at this sorcerous creature.
"D'you know what an architect is?"
The boy looked at his father for approval before he answered.
"A man who causes buildings?"
"And d'you know where Newgrange is?"
"Up in county Meath?"
From Ireland by Frank Delaney. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission, Harper Collins. Copyright Frank Delaney 2004; all rights reserved.
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