The Small Town Storyteller

by Neil Coghlan

Professor Graham Higgins pushed on through the crowds. Though his new shoes were pinching his feet, he still had a few more book stalls to look at and the market here in the ancient heart of Salisbury would be closing in about fifteen minutes. The winter sun had already dipped below the imposing walls of the Town Hall and the bargain hunters and early Christmas shoppers scampered around in a darkening gloom.

Graham worked in nearby Bristol University and taught a handful of courses centering on Late Middle Age and Renaissance Era Britain and Europe. He loved perusing the book stalls in this haphazardly-organized open-air market in the hope of unearthing some dog-eared treasure on sale for a handful of coins. He liked to compare it to literary gold panning and had a shelf full of nuggets at home to affirm to its potential successes.

He knew most of the sellers here by name and greeted them jovially as he passed along the row of low tables.

“Evening, Bill. Anything new?” he would say to one.

“It’s a cold one today, Alison. Any new stock in?” he would inquire of another.

The smell of roast chestnuts was on the air as a chilling darkness began to fall and several of the stall owners began to pack up. Others beat together gloved hands in an attempt to keep warm and hoped for a final sale or two.

Graham arrived at a stall he’d never seen before and cursed his luck that he’d found it so late. He dived with childlike enthusiasm into a box marked “20p each”.

The second book he picked up set his heart racing. It was a title he’d been seeking out for three years: Watching The Bears Dance: Traveling Shows & Fayres of Early 18th Century Europe. It had been published in 1942 and the copy he now held in his hands was in terrible condition, the spine cracked lengthwise and the front cover held on by a half inch of meshed thread. He paid for the book and headed home, warmed by his triumph.

When he got home, he could barely contain his glee when his wife greeted him.

“Julie, this is an absolute gold mine. Best book I’ve found at that market. I’ll be in my study.”

And with that, Graham went upstairs with a glass of red wine, contemplating an evening of enlightenment.

Opening a few pages, he saw that the book was not very academic neither in tone nor motivation. Each chapter comprised no more than two or three pages of tight print and the effect was to present the reader with a series of anecdotes, spurning stuffy academic commentary. Graham turned next to the contents page where his eyes fell immediately upon one of the chapter’s titles: The American Storyteller.

He read the first paragraph and was hooked.

One of the more fascinating, probably apocryphal, stories to emerge from northern Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century is the tale of the American storyteller, a man who not only told fantastic stories, but also dressed in a bizarre fashion and spoke English with a curious accent. The tall, blonde man claimed to be from the United States of America, a name that would not be used for another seventy years.

Graham went on to read that the storyteller traveled mostly around England for about ten years, with occasional excursions into Germany, Denmark and France. Then, there was no further mention of him. He would tell stories about another world, a world in which people would fly through the sky and cross oceans in ships made of iron without masts or sails. A meal could be prepared for a whole family in a matter of minutes and you could speak to a person fifty villages away without going by horse to them. By all accounts, the man was taken for a wandering madman and worked only for lodging and food. Graham wrote down the name of the traveling show the storyteller was alleged to have worked for: The Blythe Brothers Traveling Menagerie and Show.

* * *

A week later, Graham stood at the bedroom closet, putting clothes into a small suitcase. He was going to spend the weekend at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, one of the oldest academic libraries in the world, further researching the American storyteller. As he packed, Julie, his wife, leafed through the book he’d found at the market.

“What’s so interesting about this story, Graham?”

“It’s a useful academic investigation, to find out when the story was inserted into the historical records.”

“So you don’t believe it’s true?” she asked.

Graham laid a neatly ironed blue shirt atop the suitcase and looked at Julie.

“Do I believe there was somebody claiming to be from a country that didn’t exist for another seventy years? No. Obviously it’s not a true story, but by tracing references to this guy back through the history books, we can see when this story was invented and by whom. It can help us to discredit certain historians or sources. Usually, there’s some truth to these stories and then, like any game of Chinese whispers, the version that emerges a few hundred years later bears little resemblance to the kernel of truth that it originated as.”

Julie had switched her attention back to the book and was looking through the small collection of paintings and line drawings that made up the central section of the book.

“I don’t understand how people could watch a bear dancing and be entertained by it. Look at this next picture too,” she said, pointing to a different sketch. “Just a man dancing on nothing more than a wooden crate and there are hundreds of people watching him. Having the time of their lives, they are! Makes no sense to me whatsoever.”

“Julie, it was a different age. The vast majority of these uneducated people were still living hard lives. These shows would roll into villages throughout the summer months and watching somebody dancing on a wooden crate was about as good as it got. Until the bear came on, of course.”

* * *

Graham spent a very useful couple of days in Oxford, finding five other books that mentioned The Blythe Brothers. Slowly, he built up a picture of what this motley collection of dancers, animal trainers, storytellers and downright freaks had been about. They had been active from around 1700 to 1713, even traveling on continental Europe thanks to hops across the English Channel.

The human side of the show was a mixed bag. There had been a man with three arms, a bald lady, a sword swallower, someone who was referred to as simply ‘a Turkish man’, dancers and acrobats of all descriptions, and several storytellers, fortune tellers, and jokesters.

The menagerie, Graham learned, had originally been the central part of the traveling show, but had lost importance, primarily because the animals died off and were never replaced. They had originally owned a tiger, a lioness, three Egyptian camels, several African antelopes, and even an Indian elephant called Kapu. An ostrich was mentioned by several sources as having taken pride of place in the collection. In the winter, when the show returned to the Midlands of England until the following spring, the menagerie was kept in the grounds of a stately home near Worcester.

Graham read in one bulky tome dating from 1842 called Stories Of Creatures Both Fantastic And Real From The Old Europe of a ridiculous attempt by the Blythe Brothers Show to pass off a skinny horse as a camel, complete with a hump made of straw and mud. Predictably, this had ended in ridicule and no small amount of anger and they’d moved on quickly to the next village.

It was on a Sunday afternoon, an hour or two before he planned to head back to Bristol, that Graham struck gold. He found the most detailed reference to the storyteller he’d yet seen: three paragraphs in a book that was so fragile that it was only viewable on the Bodleian’s microfilm viewer. The book, titled An Essay On A Journey To Anglia And The Continent: Diplomatic Adventures And Our Cultures Compar’d was a turgid effort by an unlikable, arrogant member of the English aristocracy. In 1708, the author had witnessed a performance of the Blythe Brothers Traveling Show on the northern outskirts of Norwich in the east of England.

He wrote condescending passages about how the “simple working folk of this district passed away an afternoon of vulgar pleasures.” A bear had indeed danced for them and even swam in a nearby river with some of the children. The bald woman was mentioned too, having caused the alarmed men of the town to question her gender. The menagerie at the time must have been more or less complete for Graham saw references to most of the animals he’d read about in other books. Then he saw what he was looking for:

The storyteller placed himself high on a branch of a tree and beneath, a hundred or more listened. This man so tall spake with words that were to my ears mighty peculiar. He told the citizens of Norwich about his world, across the great oceans, he said. In his world, I heared him say, a man can travel faster than ten horses and roast a whole fowl in mere minutes. He spake of things that were too fantastic for normal human reason to investigate, but the folk did not wish him ill fortune nor speak poorly of him. Every soul I witnessed enjoyed the show and his stories caused mirth and merriment.

Graham leaned back from the screen, stunned. He flew back up to the beginning of the book on the viewer to see again the publication date: London, 1739. He had arrived in Oxford expecting to discover how some deceitful Victorian historian had invented the story in the 19th century, but here, only three decades after the event was supposed to have taken place, was a written account that didn’t deviate hardly at all from the story he’d read in the book found in Salisbury market.

Graham noted every word of what he’d read that was relevant and drove the two hours to his home. There were so few pieces in this jigsaw puzzle, the majority of them lost in the mists of time. Who cared about a small-time traveling show that had moved around one corner of northern Europe for a decade or so three hundred years ago? It was the whiff of that something utterly magnificent within the tale that captivated Graham and held the story at the front of his mind for the next six months.

* * *

The following summer, Graham received an e-mail from one of his students who was now in Paris. Neil Carter had found a collection of interesting past life regression interviews at the French National Archive, where he was working as an intern before heading back to Bristol the following year. The reels of tape had been found in a cabinet in a room that hadn’t been touched for thirty or more years. Neil wrote that notes found with the recordings suggested one of the women, a certain Nadine Vartan, was interviewed in 1966 and claimed to have been alive as Marie Percier in the first half of the eighteenth century.

“I’ve listened to one of the reels, Graham,” Neil wrote. “She mentioned a visit by a traveling menagerie in 1711. She mentioned the Blythe Brothers Show!”

Within twenty minutes, Graham had used his credit card to purchase an air ticket and three nights’ accommodation in the southern suburbs of Paris. He hugged his wife and told her she had to let her crazy husband do his thing on occasion.

“There’s something about this case, Julie. I have to go to listen to what this French woman said in 1966. It’s stronger than me. You do understand, don’t you?”

She looked up at him and smiled, her hands squeezing his love handles affectionately.

“You’re my very own detective Columbo, aren’t you? Go and get the bad guys, darling.”

Three days later, Graham was entering the French National Archive, armed with his academic pass from Bristol University and accompanied by Yves, his interpreter. He retrieved the two reels of interviews with Nadine Vartan, Fevrier 1966 written in felt-tip pen along the spine of each box. The two entered a cubicle, got out their notebooks, and prepared for the day’s work.

Before listening to the first reel, Graham showed a letter to Yves that he’d received from the woman in charge of the past life regression collection at the National Archive. Yves read it out for him.

“Dear Professor Higgins, I’m happy that you have decided to visit the National Archive. Nadine Vartan’s is considered one of the least reliable of the interviews that were carried out in the mid- to late-1960s. Her French regularly and randomly changes from modern day to 19th century. There are many biographical details that have been confirmed, however. Much of her interview dealt with everyday life and contains information that was already in the public domain at the time of the interview and that is where she probably heard it from. Her description of the traveling show borders on the ridiculous and goes a long way to discrediting her testimony. Cordially Yours, Fabienne Leroux.”

“Thanks, Yves. Well, that’s whet my appetite! So basically, they’re saying this Nadine is a bit of a crazy lady, right?”

“Oui,” replied Yves. “It certainly seems that way.”

The first reel had already been heard by Neil, the intern who had written to Graham. Nadine, or Marie as she insisted on being called, made two passing references to the traveling shows that used to visit her town of Arras, some hundred miles north of Paris. It was the second reel that proved more fruitful.

Yves, patiently interpreting for Graham, began to talk about the first time that Marie went to visit the show:

“We went, it was me and all my family except Henri who was sick, he was ill, in bed with, I don’t know that word Graham, I didn’t hear, so they all went out to the fields by the lake, no, a pond and at about three o’clock, the Blythe Brothers Traveling Show arrived.”

Graham sat at the table nodding his head as Yves spoke, occasionally making notes, though he was recording the whole thing anyway.

“I was very sad for the animals because there was, there were, only some goats, an old elephant and some birds, some colorful birds. Now the guy’s asking her if she went there only for the animals. OK, now she said not really, she went because someone in the next village told them about the storyteller.”

Graham looked up like an attentive guard dog who had just heard something.

“They told us that the storyteller from the other side of the ocean was something wonderful to behold.”

Yves leant forward and pressed the pause button.

“That Fabienne lady was right. Her French is all over the place, Graham. She uses some structures I don’t even recognize, stuff from a hundred, a hundred and fifty years ago. Then she throws in some words that, well, it’s just modern slang that our Acadamie Francaise wouldn’t be happy with.”

He pressed Play again.

“He came and told us stories as the sun was setting. There was a man playing a harp to one side. My friends and I were laughing, sorry, giggling is better, giggling a lot. He was very handsome. He had a sort of painting on the side of his neck, a flower—this is a strange word she says—and he was very tall with short blond hair—she says a modern French word that means like cropped or shaved. He said his name was Antoine Gardner.”

Graham scribbled furiously in his notebook. It was all he could do to stop himself from crying out – he had a name!

“He told us he was from another world, a world where everything was as different as you could imagine. He said his country was the United States of America. He said magical, no fantastical, stories of his country. He told us that people in his land had gone to the moon and traveled on trains under the ground in cities. He did not speak our language very well and his voice, no, his words, his accent I think she means, was odd.”

“We listened to him and everyone had their eyes bright and open, it was amazing for us. Someone in the crowd asked this storyteller why he was in our world, why he had come to be in Arras, and he replied that he had arrived nine years ago with a friend and they couldn’t go back. They had tried to live in public, in the public world—she said something I didn’t catch—but that it caused them many difficulties. The citizens thought they were wizards and he was frightened of being attacked, even killed, so they decided to join the Blythe Brothers Traveling Show and Antoine become a storyteller. This man, he spoke for about an hour, and then the bear came out again and people were dancing to the music. Many people were drunk. Now she’s talking about her brother again.”

Graham stopped the tape. His brain was crackling with possibilities and he needed to catch his breath. It all seemed so preposterous and Yves said out loud just what he was thinking.

“So this guy is from the United States in, what, 1711? It’s utterly absurd, isn’t it?” he said, smiling broadly.

“I know Yves, it is utterly absurd, but I’ve been on the trail of this guy for six months and I’ve read several accounts of him. There’s something that doesn’t add up.”

Graham really did feel like Columbo saying those words.

“That’s the first I’ve heard about him arriving with a friend,” he added, writing something else on the notepad in front of him.

They listened to the rest of the second reel, but Nadine never mentioned the storyteller or the traveling show again.

For the last two days of his stay in the French capital, Graham hunted down every reference to the Blythe Brothers or Antoine Gardner in the archive, the Bibliotheque National and several museums. He turned up precious little, and certainly nothing that he didn’t already know. He’d exhausted both himself and Paris.

* * *

For Graham, the trail went cold after his return from Paris. He wrote to several colleagues across Europe and the United States, but all possible leads turned out to be frustrating wild goose chases. He entertained friends with the tale of the mysterious storyteller over wine and dessert at several dinner parties, guilty even himself of the occasional embellishment, but his listeners always shared his disappointment at the lack of closure to the case.

It was two years later that a professor at Boston University wrote to Graham. The e-mail was one line of text followed by a link.

“The fourth name rang a bell – thought of you.”

The link led to an announcement of recent winners of scholarships to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the fourth name stilled Graham’s heart: Anthony Gardener.

A few minutes later, Graham was looking at a short article on the website of the newspaper in Anthony Gardener’s small Ohio town. Anthony Gardner was tall and had blond hair. In the photo, showing Anthony shaking the hand of his high school principal, Graham thought he could see a hint of what was possibly a tattoo on his neck, peeking out from below his shirt collar.

“Holy shit!” cried out Graham.

He looked through the brief article and read the words of Anthony Gardener as he spoke about his dreams for the future.

“At M.I.T., I am going to be focusing on quantum physics and theoretical stuff like wormholes, exerting control over time, slowing it down, even reversing it. It’s going to be pretty cool!”

Graham leaned in and looked into the eyes of Anthony Gardener from a couple of inches away.

“What did you go and do Anthony, goddamit? Where will you end up after M.I.T.? You’re going to get into some serious crap, aren’t you?”

Graham sat back in his chair, certain now that he’d finally traced his mysterious storyteller. The end of the story was, as Yves had so accurately described it, utterly absurd, far more than even he had dared to imagine.

He thought about his own life and how far he’d come since a childhood visit to a mediaeval outdoor show, replete with jousters and knights, which had first awakened his fascination with the period. Graham’s eyes snailed slowly across the bookshelves behind him, a wall of academic studies devoted to his true love: history. What would it be like to actually live it, he thought to himself. To actually see and touch those things he’d only glimpsed through the medium of the printed page.

He took down a large red folder, “Paris, 2007” written on the cover, and began to turn the pages of notes he’d made in the bowels of the French National Archive two years before. To an observer, it looked as though Graham was aimlessly leafing through the pages, but he knew what he was looking for and soon found it, written in his neat hand:

He arrived nine years before – with a friend! Which friend?

Graham closed over the folder and pulled his laptop closer to him.

“Dear Anthony, I’d firstly like to congratulate you on your scholarship to M.I.T., one of the finest academic institutions in the world. I’d like to arrange a time and place where we can speak about your studies and future career.”

© 2010 Neil Coghlan. All rights reserved.