Here’s a tale for you, a bridge to another story: On a Toronto street on a recent afternoon a lion was spotted dragging a heavy boat across a desert. The lion, very tired, came to an island in the desert where a monkey-monk lived. You look like you're lost, said the monkey-monk. Yes I am, said the Lion, I’m looking for the ocean. Hmmmmm, said the monkey monk, I have a friend, the sandfish, he swims in the sand, and he’ll help you. And the sandfish appeared, saying, Hey Lion your problem is you’re not actually lost, because you’re not meant to sail the ocean! You are indeed meant to sail the desert! But the poor Lion, confused, can only say: Well my boat won’t move on the desert, I’ve been dragging it. No, the sandfish responded, I have a special bell for you: when you hit it you won’t hear anything but you will always know where to go and the boat will move. So the lion hit the bell looked toward the west and disappeared.
Well all that happened just like that on a Toronto street, after a man wearing a multihued vest woven in the Himalayas opened a box he had been carrying and pulled out a large flat stone. He placed the stone on the sidewalk. Then he removed a variety of trinkets -- the lion, the bell, the fish, the monkey monk, and others -- from the box and sat them beside the stone. The man in the Himalayan vest is Norman Perrin, the founder of Toronto’s folktale library, and the stone is what he calls ‘the story stone’, which he uses to bring folktales to the streets. A few minutes after he had set up his stuff, a couple of teenagers breezed by on skateboards. Intrigued by the set up, they stopped in front of Norman. “Hey man what you doing?” one of them asked. “I’m about to make a story. Wanna join?” The above tale was what they came up with together, adding each plot twist after picking up a new trinket.
When the story was finished the teenagers gave each other high fives and went on their way. But something in the story has got to Norman. “I feel like that lion dragging the boat across the desert,” says Norman. What Norman is dragging around is the loss of his beloved library and performance space, the Four Winds Library. The library is currently in storage since he’s been kicked out of his place in the Junction due to redevelopment. The woman who gave him the eviction notice happened to be Albanian, and after she handed him the notice, asked -- and here Norman mimes a thick Albanian accent -- “Do you have any stories on Albania?” As luck would have it he was standing right in front of that section of his library, and he reached down and handed her Post Wheeler’s Albanian Folk Tales. Needless to say, Norman’s library is extensive, with over 6000 books, and Norman has made it open to the public since 1990. It may be the only library in the world that is geared to the specific needs of the working storyteller and folktale researcher.
“When I was a kid the nearest library was ten miles away and I used to hitchhike back and forth. But, when I had my library, instead of having to go ten miles to the library, I could walk across the room and go across the world, and people came there from all over.” The Four Winds has hosted such events as the entirety of the 36-hour Haft Peykar Iranian story cycle, and people who've met during performances have gotten married.
“When someone is truly listening to a story they’re co-creators.”, says Norman. “My friend Jean, when she was 10 she caught polio and was dying. She’d gone into a paralytic shock, and the next step was death. They had a death watch going. And one person decided to pass the time by reading her a story, even though she was more corpse than alive, she was so deep in the coma. But his shift ended before the story ended and he stopped reading. And suddenly Jean spoke, ‘You didn’t finish the story! I want to hear the rest of the story!’ She then made a full recovery.”
I hope Norman too can make a full recovery from the loss of his library. He just needs to meet his sandfish, whoever or whatever that may be for him. In the meantime he’ll keep looking and voyaging and telling stories. The last time I saw him he was standing beside the Humber River, playing his pennywhistle.