*Note: A 16 minute version of this story, recorded from my telling it to my college class this week, is available by request. Send email to email@example.com
Have you ever been asked to tell a story and you didn’t know what to say? It’s happened to me more than once. So this is a true story about how that happened once upon a time in a land far away—and just like this one we’re in right now!
Once upon that time there was a man. Oh course, it could be a woman but the way I heard it, it was a man. This man, according to Batt Burns, the Irish storyteller who must have known him, was named Teig which he said means Tim. I’ve also heard him called Brian and Pat but I like Teig and Teig is the name William Butler Yeats uses for another story that is also about a burial so let’s call him Teig. Of course, as I’ve already said, I hear the story with my name. That way it’s a true story for sure. Try putting in your name where it works to see how it’s true for you.
Now Teig was a basket maker. And he was a very famous basket maker so he went all about Ireland making baskets. He would go to County Kirk or County Kerry or County Limerick. He would put his baskets on sale at the county fair. Before long, he would be all bought out because he was a master basket maker.
Well, times were kind of hard for the Irish and it happened that he could not find any more rods to make his baskets. He didn’t know how to make a living any other way so what was he going to do? He thought, “What can I do? I’m a basket maker. But I cannot make baskets out of air. What am I going to do?”
Then he remembers, “Ah, there is a place. There’s a place the old ones call the glen of the fairy folk. They say it’s a gentle place.” That means the place of Faery. “My grandmother always told me, ‘Don’t you be going there now. Because you know what happens. I’d likely never see you again.’< span> But that’s just the old ones talking. I’m not going to be a scaredy-cat—at least not in the daylight!”
Now you might talk to yourself like Teig did. So I’d better warn you. I hope you’ve got your good-luck charm with you, your Shamrock, a four-leaf clover, or a lucky penny will do. You’d better put that in your hand and hold on to it. Because we are going to the land of Faery and you never know what may happen there. When you go to the land of Faery, you may need a good luck charm to get back.
So Teig said, “Well, it’s just old people saying these things. Nothing’s going to happen to me. Besides I’m not going to be there at night. I’m not going to be there when it gets dark anyway. I’m just going to cut some rods and come back. There won’t be any harm come to me of that, do you think?”
And he says to himself, “No, of course not.” So he gets up in the morning and he takes himself a little lunch. He takes his pocketknife, a walking stick with a crook to pull down branches, and some cord to tie them together. And he sets off. He gets there fairly early in the day and soon enough he has himself two bundles all cut and tied. So he says, “I’ll take my lunch now.”
So he sits down and he starts eating when a fog rolls right in. And it’s a heavy fog, don’t you know. Teig’s looking and eating and he thinks, “ It can’t be late. It’s barely afternoon.” But as he’s eating, he notices that he can’t even see the food that’s there in front of him.
He says, “What’s this? What’s going on? It can’t be getting this dark.” But before he finished eating, he can’t even see the hand that’s there in front of his face. And he certainly doesn’t want to be in this glen when it gets dark. But it is dark. Hasn’t it happened to you that you didn’t know it was getting dark until it was too dark! And you’re out there in it. So there he is.
Just like you would, he says, “ I’m getting out of here. So he grabs his two bundles. He tries to find his way out. But it’s so dark that he stumbles. He starts running. It seems like hours. He’s puffing and tripping. And after one of many falls, it seems to him that this hole looks right familiar. “I’ve been here before,” he says.
He’s already dropped the rods from falling all about. He’s all scratched up. He lies there panting for air and looks about, praying for some direction. He looks and sees a light. At least he thinks it’s a light. Maybe he’s just imagining it because he wants it so bad. But he decides to let it be a light and says to himself, “I’m going for that light.”< span>
So he sets off for it and sure enough he gets closer and closer. He sees the light’s coming from a little cottage where the door’s open. When he gets close, he looks in the door. Inside the door he sees a fireplace. There’s an old man and an old woman. As he looks in the door, the woman says, “Why Teig, we’ve been a waiting for you. Come on in.”
Teig thinks, “What’s this? I’ve never seen this place or this woman in all my life. How is she knowing my name? These people, I don’t know them, but they call me by my name.” But he thinks, “Well, it’s better than being out there where I was. So I’m going on in.” And he does.
The woman says, “ Teig, it’s good of you to come. We kept your dinner out. Why don’t you help yourself.”< span> So he sits down with them. The old man pours him a cup of water. He says, “This is the last of the water. We’ll have to go out to the well in a bit.”
Teig eats and he drinks. When he’s done, the old man says, “Ah yes, Teig, we’re glad that you’re here. Now won’t you tell us a story.”
Teig says, “I can’t tell you a story. That’s the one thing I can’t do. I’m a basket maker, don’t you know, and I don’ know any story to tell.”
“So sing us a song.”
“I can’t sing you a song. I can’t tell a story. I tell you I don’t have a single song, I don’t have a fairy tale, I don’t have any story to tell you.”
“All right, Teig, don’ be gettin’ riled” the old man says, “Well, would you be so kind as to go out to the well and get us some water then?”
“I’ll be glad to do that.” Teig takes the pail. He goes out to the well. He drops the water bucket down to the water, pulls it up by the rope tied to the handle, and fills the pail. Then he sets the pail down on the stone ledge of the well and waits for the drops of water to dry.
And all a sudden a sheer graheer, one of those whirlwinds from the heavens, drops down and takes him up, whirls him about this way and that. And after what feels like an eternity, he’s dropped back down. Except he can’t see the cottage anymore. He can’t see the well either. He’ s out there again.
You know how when you get whirled around like that you start hearing things in your ears. He’d been spinning and he’s hearing something in his ears now. It’s not quite the same sound. “It’s a banshee! I never should have come to this place! It’s a banshee! They’re gonna get me!” He starts running again. But he’s really scared this time—you know, the way you are in a dream sometime and the bad thing’s chasing you! But you matter how hard you try, your legs can hardly move.
So he runs and falls and struggles and carries on until he just can’t go any more. He’s run out of breath and finally gasping for air, he looks. And sometimes that’s the only time you can see it. He sees a light. He thinks, “Ah, it must be the cottage again. I’ve found it.” So he goes hustling back to that light.
But when he nears it, he sees it’s a much bigger house. He looks in a window and sees there’s a row of men down one wall and another row of folks down the other wall. At the end of the room there’s a raven-haired woman standing next to a big long box. And she’s looking right at him. “Teig,” she calls out, “We’ve been looking for you. Come on in. Don’t keep us waiting any longer. The night’s getting on.”
Well, he sees right away that this is a wake house. Teig knows that means that up there where that black-haired woman’s standing there must be a body on the table. That box must be a casket. They’re having a wake for some poor soul who’d just died. Teig’s not particularly keen on going in a wake house. But the option’s not too good. He’s more afraid of the banshee then he is of this wake house. So he pushes himself on in. Isn’t that how we sometimes get to where we have to go?
The black-haired woman says, “Teig, we’re glad you’re here.”
And a rather large man, large around the middle, Shamus, stands up, “Is this the wake or what? When are we going to have the dancing?”< /p>
And somebody else says, “We’re still waiting for the fiddler. We can’t dance without the fiddler. We’d best send for old Brian O’Branahee.”
“But that’ll take hours. We’d better get on with the dancing now. We’ve got to get this all done before morning.”
The woman with the raven hair says, “Why would you be sending for a fiddler? Don’t you even know we’ve got the best fiddler in all Ireland here?”< span> And they all look around rather puzzled and seeing no fiddler they look back at her. She simply says, “Why Teig, of course.”
Teig’s more surprised than any of them, “Woman,” he says, “Have you lost your mind? Why I’ve never had one of those things in my hand. I wouldn’t know how to make a tune. For sure I can’t do what you’re a thinking.”
The woman with the raven hair laughs and says, “ Now Teig, don’t be a tease.”
So everybody laughs and soon enough Teig finds they’ve put a fiddle in his one hand and a bow in the other. He says, “I guess I’d better give it a try.” So he puts the bow to the fiddle and soon enough he’s making the finest music they’d ever heard. Everybody laughs at his little joke and starts dancing away. Teig can’t even imagine what he’s doing. The people are dancing and clapping. He’s playing one tune and then another and this goes on for a long time.
Until Shamus, who hasn’t done much dancing at all, stands up again and says, “That’s enough now. We’d better get on with the preaching before the sun’s up. Where’s the priest?”
Somebody says, “Oh, Father Donohue would be here but he had a wedding at the other end of the county. We’ll have to send for that newcomer who’s only been here ‘bout a dozen years.”
“Naw. That’s going to take too long? We got to get this body prayed over and put in the ground before morning. No time for fetching that priest.”
Well, don’t you know that woman pipes up again, “Now why be ye looking for a priest? Don’t you know we got the finest priest in all of Ireland here tonight?”
Everybody looks all about until their eyes follow hers and set on Teig. Teig jumps up and blurts out, “Now I’m not being no priest! I can just barely say my evening prayers.”
Of course they all laugh and soon enough he has a collar and the vestments on. The Holy Book is in his hand. Teig frowns and mumbles a few words. He jumps a bit, surprised more than anybody else that they sound like Latin. “ Sanctus, sanctus, domini” and so on. So he tries to look suitably serious and opens his mouth again. Soon he’s saying the mass in Latin and like he’s done this all his life. When he stops after just the right length of time, everybody says that’s the best preaching they’d ever heard.
So the big man Shamus stands up again, “That’s fine. Now we better be on about the burying. We got to get this body in the ground before sunrise.” That’s what has to be done there as everybody know.
The four pallbearers pick up the casket and point toward the cemetery. But the casket starts slipping and is about to fall on the ground. That won’t do. It’s because one of those four men was much taller than the others. So Shamus says, “ We’re gonna need a surgeon. Got to cut that tall man’s legs down. Where’s the surgeon?”
Course you know where everyone looks. Right at Teig. Now Teig’s not having none of that. He says, “You all have done lost your minds now. I know nothing about doctoring. Why I even faint at the sight of blood. Don’t be putting no scalpel in my hands!”
That’s exactly what they do, of course. Before you could blink twice they had that tall man laid out the table and all the surgery tools in Teig’s hands. He sets right to it and before you could know it he’s cut a bit of the bone out of both legs, right below the knees, sewed it all back together again, and the used-to-be too-tall man hops off the table, dances a little jig, and says, “I never felt so good as since I was a lad.”
They put the casket up on the four men’s shoulders. All’s in balance and level now. They have the solemn procession down to the graveyard. There’s a rock wall around the cemetery so they have to climb over it. When they get on the other side, one of the pallbearers says, “I think this casket’s too light. Are you sure there’s a body in it?”
“Well, we better check before we put it in the ground.” They all agree. All except Teig, that is. So they open it up and don’t you know there’s nothing in it!
“We can’t be having a burial without a body. Where we going to be finding a body at this time? And we gotta do it before the sun’s up!”
By the time they turn their heads, Teig’s already over that rock wall. He’s running for his life. He’s been a fiddler, a priest, and a surgeon, but he’s not ready to be a body in the cold ground. And he knows they’ll do it, too.
Some of them boys are pretty fast and right on his heels. Before long, Teig feels one of them jumping for him and he leaps straight up like he’s never done before.
Just at that time that whirlwind grabs him again, twirls him all around and drops him down. Down right back on the side of the well where he sees the pail of water. The sides are all dry now. So he picks it up and takes it back in the house. He might of spilled a drop or two because he’s panting pretty hard. The old man and old woman look up at him but they don’t seem too surprised. They raise their eyebrows as if to ask, “You got anything for us now?”
Teig gasps, “You bet I do! I got a story to tell you. Now listen to this.”< span> And he tells them all that had just happened to him in the wake room and until he got back in their house.
The old man laughs and slaps his knee, “Teig, that’s the best story I ever heard. Now if anybody ever asks you if you got a story to tell, you tell them that very story.”
And the old woman says, “That’s right.” She says, “Now Teig, you’re probably pretty tired so we got a bed all ready for you.”
Teig goes to bed and sleeps like he’s not done since he was a child. When he wakes up, he’s back in that Faery Glen with the bundles of rods right there next to him. But you know, he doesn’t even bother to pick up those rods. You see, he never makes another basket in his life. He hightails it out of that Land of Faery and when people see him running back into town, they ask, “What are you doing, Teig? Where’s your baskets?”
Teig says, “Let me tell you!”
They have time for a story, of course. “What is it, Teig?”< span> So he launches into telling it and everybody loves that tale.
Soon everywhere Teig goes, people ask him, “You got a story for us?”
And Teig always says, “You bet I do. One time . . .” and he’s off into telling it and always it gets made new the way true stories do. Now don’t you know that Teig gets a reputation for being the finest storyteller of all Ireland, at least in those parts. He’s the seanarchie that the people send for and the children come running when Teig’s around. He’s moved on from being a basket maker and into crafting make-believe. He wonders just what might happen if we tried a bit harder and listened to the raven-haired darling instead of the facts.
That darling still whispers your real name. Are you listening? Can you make believe?
Go on now.
Background sources for “The One Without a Story”
Batt Burns. Irish Tales for Young and Old (audiocassette). Ballyvorney, County Cork, Ireland, 1994.
Henry Glassie, Ed. Irish Folktales. NY: Pantheon, 1985. “The Man Who Had No Story,” pp. 319-323.
Joseph Jacobs (Collected by), Celtic Fairy Tales. NY: Dover, 1968/1892. “The Story-Teller at Fault,” pp. 131-143.
Sean O’Sullivan, Ed. & Trans. Folktales of Ireland. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966.
“The Man Who Had No Story,” pp. 182-186.
William Butler Yeats.“ The Friends of the People of Faery,” Celtic Twilight, 1897.
Fairy Tales and Folk Tales of Ireland. NY: Galahad, 1973.
Fairy Tales and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. NY: Dover, 1888/1991.
Mythologies. NY: Collier, 1893/1956.
Jane Yolen, Ed. Favorite Folktales from around the World. NY: Pantheon, 1986.