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Where Waters Meet
The soundtrack to my childhood was the sea. My bedroom was just a short two-minute run down to a beach at the edge of the Atlantic ocean. I grew up listening to the songs of the tidal changes, the waves crashing against the rocks discharging their energies onto the shore, and the soft, smooth, swish of water rolling over the sand. The sea was playing a permanent push-me-pull-you game with the coast. Its rhythm was persistent and undeniable.
The land had an uneasy pact with the ocean. A restless peace that I shared with it then and still do today.
It is said that if you listen to and remember what the sea tells you, then you will always come back to it. I can only agree.
We moved a lot. My parents were, and still are, restless people. We were living in London when my mother decided to take us back to the sea and so I grew up in North Devon. I was very lucky.
A large and very bustling stream ran down to the sea near our home. It fascinated me and I came home wet from it many a time. I would follow it back up the hills as far as I dared looking for its secrets. It flowed in and out of sight, under and above the ground with a steady and continuous self-assured flow. It knew what it was about, that stream, as it wound its way down to the place where, tumbling over the debris of a cut in the cliffs, it became part of the sea. This was Watersmeet.
Every stream or river rises somewhere. Ours rose on the edge of Exmoor, a wild beautiful place. I would imagine its journey from the source flowing along, gathering strength and vigour, growing deeper and more grown up. All the time picking up energy and material from the places it passed. Then it would flow into the great ocean and become part of a greater story.
In this place, where I grew up, I became restless too… Then I left.
I have made many mistakes, got loads of things wrong and messed up often. I tried my hand at so many different jobs. I was always uneasy. At the time I had the belief that there was no such thing as a bad experience. Which is true. I was looking. Searching.
I discovered juggling. Here was something for an uneasy spirit.
I began performing in Wales as a street performer in 1986. It was a way to make a living and one that I could do on my terms. No boss, no rules. I had developed, by that time, a healthy allergy to institutions and the political state of Britain at that time was depressing and restrictive, the state, particularly the police, didn’t like people like me very much, so I left to travel, alone, through Europe. I lived only from what I could earn on the streets as a clown and a juggler. I went to each corner of Europe as it was then, meeting travellers, vagabonds and crazy people from all around the world. I learnt to accept people as they were just as they were accepting me as I was. I learnt tolerance. It was a revelation. I learnt not to judge people too quickly either.
Along the way I absorbed much from the cultures that I encountered. Like how a stream is losing its old identity as it flows to the sea, creating a new one by picking up stuff along the way. I was driven by curiosity and an overwhelming desire to look round the next corner. My restlessness was being useful.
The more I traveled the more I learned about people. I became aware that everybody had stories to tell. These stories piqued my curiosity. Then I discovered folk tales from a peasant farmer in the Pyrenees. His name was Jacketas and he was a goatherd. He had the most amazing azure eyes. He had lived in the same house, as far up as was possible at the head of a valley, tending goats for over eighty years. Only once in his life had he been out of the valley and seen the nearest town. I loved him. There were a few others, mostly German, “freaks” like us living nearby, and between us we could translate his language into one that we could all understand. I had to learn Spanish pretty quickly.
The importance of culture and, especially, language as means of preserving identity is vital. I became fascinated by folk tales and their role in keeping culture alive. I began to delve deeper into them and discovered how entertaining and effective a simple tale could be. As a traveler bound to traveling lightly, I found in stories the perfect material for my shows. Performing a mixture of tales and anecdotes using juggling, physical comedy and marionettes that I made out of materials I found on the streets I created a self-contained entertainment that could be performed anywhere. Therefore I could live anywhere I chose.
I am still restless. Like the stream I have gathered strength and vigour, become deeper and more grown up while flowing through life. Like the stream I have picked up energy and material from the places I have passed through. These places, the people I have known remain with me still and often when I am telling my stories they return to me in my mind to become part of the tale. The listener will not know this, but he or she will hear it. To know this is a wonderful pleasure for me.
Now I work full-time as a professional storyteller in schools, for consulting agencies and management coaching projects, as well as being the official storyteller to the Vapiano chain of restaurants. I run workshops, I teach performance and communication skills to anyone who is keen enough to want them. I am bringing the skills that I have learned on the streets and in the theatres of the world, in my life, into classrooms.
But first and foremost I am a storyteller. I have over three hundred and fifty of them in my head. Tales from all over the world. Tales that confirm the power of humanity and offer promise to the downtrodden and weak. These stories have empowered humans for millennia and they are as persistent and undeniable as the rhythm of the oceans.
In India, according to Salman Rushdie, they say all stories flow into a great ocean. The sea of stories. They too have picked up strength, vigour and energy on their way there.
I remember, often, the child who got soaked in the stream while searching for secrets at Watersmeet and now, understanding more about what I do, I am aware of the privilege it is to be who I am.
There was once a King who ruled a land in the cold north. He was a hard man with an iron will and people feared his rule.
He was not only hard but he was also cruel and he would think nothing of punishing anyone who offended him by taking their lives and he enjoyed thinking up new ways of doing so.
One day he was walking with his dog along the banks of the lake upon which he had built his palace. It was early winter and on the lake there were already small patches of ice forming on the surface of the water.
He walked along throwing a stick, which his dog, with a yelp and a wag of the tail, would run off to retrieve. The king liked to do this. It seemed so pointless an exercise to him, which made a change from all the other things he had to do as the king of a great country. As he came closer to the lake he threw the stick into the water but instead of jumping in after it, as he usually did, the dog stood barking towards the place where the stick had landed. Her master caught up with the dog and encouraged her to go in but each time she put a paw in the water she pulled back from the edge and just stood there whining. The king wondered why this was. Perhaps the water was too cold. The king took off one of his boots and dipped his foot into the water, then he swiftly removed it. The water was very, very cold. So the stick remained where it was and he and his dog returned to the palace.
That evening, as he sat by the fire looking out across the lake he began to wonder about how cold the water was. How did the dog know that it would be too cold to swim in? How long would she have survived for had she have jumped in? These questions kept him awake long into the night until he decided that he had to find the answers. He was a king and therefore must know everything.
But how could he find out? He could just get a slave perhaps, or a prisoner, and throw them into the water. He had such cruel thoughts. But that just seemed too easy. No, he felt a bit of sport was to be had here. He had a clever idea.
The next day, all around the country, in every town, large notices appeared stuck to the walls stating that the king was to have a competition. A challenge. Anybody who could spend twenty-four hours standing up to their necks in the water of the lake without anything to keep them warm as they did so would gain anything that they should ask of him. The king knew very well that no human being could survive so long in the almost frozen water so he was sure that he would not have to honour his part of the deal. This was how he would find out how long anyone could survive in the water.
The date for the challenge was set.
Many young men came. Some poor, some rich. Some idle in search of quick riches, others stupid but brave. People gathered at the lake in front of the palace to see the spectacle.
The king sat up on his balcony to watch the proceedings and one by one the hopeful and foolhardy men went down to the lake. They stripped off and stepped into the water. Up to their necks they stood. Some managed to remain in the water for twenty minutes or more before, half frozen themselves, they had to be dragged out by the ropes that were tied to their ankles. Most gave up after just a few minutes. The king was disappointed.
But when the crowds had left, a young Sadhu appeared at the lakeside. He looked up at the king and announced that he would try to stand in the water for as long as the king had stated on his notices. The Sadhu was so thin and looked so weak that the king could not imagine that he would succeed but he waved a hand to the young man and told him to try and that he should not forget that he was allowed nothing to keep him warm. The king sat down again to watch.
The young man stepped into the lake, showing no expression as he did so. He went out to a place where the water was deep enough to cover his shoulders and then he stood very still. He looked serene and peaceful as he stared ahead of him up at the balcony where the king sat. Even after an hour his expression had not changed. He was used to hardships and discipline. He knew how to slow his heartbeat down so his breathing became almost imperceptible. The king watched him even more intently as the time passed. The hours passed.
The evening came and darkness began to fall. Still the young man stood stock still in the water, his face wearing the same expression of serenity. He stared up to where the king was sitting even though he could no longer see him clearly for, although the moon was full and strong, the king sat in the shadows. But he was there, very intently watching the mad man in the water who did not move. He could see him very clearly and began to wonder about the young Sadhu.
The water was much colder now, but he had slowed his heartbeat down so much that he did not feel the difference. Time meant nothing to him. He was going to stay where he was until he was no longer able do so. As the night drew on he began to drift further into himself. Deeper into his mind. He knew that if he could control that then he could control his body. Had he been less aware of this and more of what was around him he would have noticed little slithers of ice floating around him. One even bumped into his back but he had lost his sense of feeling long ago and was no longer in his body. He had stepped out of it and his existence was now purely in his mind. His eyes were the only part of his body that connected him to the world. They stared ahead without blinking.
Tiredness played no part in this. He had done many things in his life that had pushed him to his limits. He had no idea of how long he had been in the water or how long he still had left to go.
But the water was getting colder and his will, like his strength, was beginning to fade.
Then a small, flickering light appeared in a window. The Sadhu’s gaze turned slightly toward it. Someone had put a candle on the ledge of a window in a room near to the king’s balcony. Now he kept his gaze fixed on this light. In the glow coming from the candle his eyes saw a face. A soft and beautiful face. This was the face of the king’s own daughter and she too had been watching the young man in the water.
Now she had lit a candle as a sign to him that he was not alone.
He became aware of her as he saw that she was watching him. His willpower began to stir back to life. He could see in her expression that she had a great compassion for his plight and it came to him that she would remain there at the window as long he remained in the water. She was willing him to stay alive.
So, instead of weakening he grew stronger. His breathing, still almost unapparent, grew steadier as he turned his eyes away from her face and stared into the bloom of the candle.
When morning came he was still alive. Still standing up to his chin in the cold, almost frozen water of the lake. The twenty-four hours had passed. As the guards pulled him out, the young man was unable to move so they had to carry him up to the palace. As they did so the king, from his balcony, heard the crowd, which had returned to see this marvellous feat. They were cheering for the Sadhu and he realised that he would now have to keep his part of the bargain. This worried him. What would the young man ask of him?
The king began to think of ways to get out of the deal.
At first they wrapped the young man in blankets and then very slowly they warmed him up using tepid, and then gradually warmer, water. After a few hours they put him near a small fire and then, towards evening, he was able to move and to speak. The King, begrudgingly, congratulated him and wondered how he had managed to stay alive for so long in the icy lake.
Slowly the Sadhu explained about his breathing and the importance of discipline. How he had learnt to master his own body and to control his willpower. He then told the king about how, just as he was beginning to lose his will to live, a candle had appeared on the window ledge.
At this the king clapped his hands and shouted out.
“Hah! I told you that you may not have anything to warm you. Nothing to aid you. But you had a candle. Someone brought you a candle that must have kept you warm. The deal is over!”
Relieved to have found a way to get out of the bargain he gave the Sadhu no further chance to speak and ordered the palace guards to throw the young man into the prison. This was done and the king was spared having to reward the poor Sadhu with any of his own riches.
Some days later, the king was sitting at his breakfast table. He saw that his daughter had not joined him and he asked the servants where she was but none of them could answer him. She had not been seen for a while.
When he did not see her that evening the King began to get concerned. That night he went to her rooms but she was not there. She was nowhere to be found. Now he began to worry.
The next morning the King rode away on his horse and began to search for her. He travelled along the coast and through the mountains. He followed every track in the forests. He stopped in all the villages along the way to search the houses. Wherever he went he asked about her but nobody had seen the princess. Finally, after more than a week of searching, he gave up and turned his horse in the direction of the palace.
It was late when, entering the wood that surrounded his home, he saw a light to the side of the road. He stopped his horse and got down to take a closer look. He pushed his way through the bushes and came into a clearing.
He saw her sitting on the ground beneath a tall tree staring into a candle.
“Where have you been?”
“Nowhere Father, I have been sitting here.”
“You have been missing for more than a week, where have you slept?”
She pointed to a pile of leaves.
“You are a princess, somebody must look after you, feed you. You must come back with me now.”
“I cannot Father, I am waiting for my rice to cook.”
She pointed up to the top of the tree where the king could see a cooking pot hanging from the uppermost branch.
“But how can you cook rice in a pot hanging in a tree?”
“With this candle Father.”
“How stupid you are daughter! A candle cannot be used to cook a pot of rice, it would not even warm it from down here.”
“But Father, you said that a candle had kept the man in the lake warm. If that is so, as you say, then the same candle can warm the rice in my pot.”
The king felt the cold inside his heart as he realised what she had done to him. She had shown him how pitiless he was. He saw the kindness of her spirit and how it had shamed him. He blew out the candle and took her by the hand to his horse. When he arrived in the palace he ordered the guards to fetch the Sadhu from the prison. As the Sadhu stood before him the king spoke words he had never used before in his life.
“I am sorry. I have treated you unfairly so, please, I beg your forgiveness and if you grant me that I will grant you anything you wish for. Anything that lies within my power.”
While he had been standing in the water and staring into the face of the princess, without knowing who she was, the Sadhu had seen the empathy in her eyes. It was that compassion that had kept him alive. He had understood then, and again later alone in his prison, how important unquestioning mercy for another human being can be. This understanding had given him a deeper, greater strength of purpose and mind.
The Sadhu forgave the king.
The princess knew that true compassion was not simply a helpless pity for someone, but an awareness of their situation and a determination which demanded action. She had acted and then, choosing her words carefully, had held up a mirror to her father’s actions. Through them she had shown him how he, as a ruler, a leader of men, should behave.
The king would change his ways and become a better man because of this.
As for the wish.
All the Sadhu asked for was a place to sleep, sufficient food and a place of peace in which to continue his meditations.
The king granted him his wish.
Through her love, the princess had saved the life of the Sadhu and changed that of her father. She remained happy for the rest of her life.
The Sadhu lived in the palace until he died.
– Christian Rogers, 22.03.02017
Christian Rogers is storyteller and performer. A Welshman born and schooled in England, shaped and formed in Wales, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Holland and currently living just outside Berlin on a small holding. Phew! He has been performing for just over 30 years most of which have been on the streets of Europe. He has lived in Germany since 1998. He formed the Fleapit Theatre Company in 2001 with Kerstin Otto the renowned and prize winning storyteller and together they perform traditional Märchen with an anarchic twist with the aim of bringing folk tales back to the folk. Until recently and for many years they were the artistic directors of the Weberfest in Babelsberg. As well as having been engaged in many schools in Berlin, working in German, he has been the resident storyteller in the Nelson Mandela School since 2010 and the International School Berlin since 2011. He runs storytelling and performance workshops for both children and adults and works with a number of consulting agencies as both a storyteller and running workshops. He has also worked with the Landesinstitut für Schule und Medien Berlin-Brandenburg. He is the official storyteller for the Vapiano restaurant company.