Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Secret places

Secret places have a strong attraction for many of us. It would be hard to say why. Whatever words are used to explain it, there’s always something that remains inexplicable, mysterious beyond any kind of explanation.

My story this week is about such a place. It’s a fable from China told or retold by T-ao Ch’ien. I’ve loved the story for a very long time and in fact have included it in this blog twice before in 2013 and 2015. But I’ve not previously included a haunting poem that relates to the story. I saw the poem again this week while looking for something else in one of my storytelling notebooks. It felt like re-meeting a very old friend. Written by a poet called Wang Wei who lived from A.D. 699 – 761, it captures both the beauty of the story and, for me, the feeling behind it.

The story:

A fisherman one day was rowing upriver and became so absorbed by the flow of the water that he rowed for a very long time, looking up only when he saw beautiful reflections in the water in the shapes and colours of flowers. When he looked up he saw he was in the middle of a peach blossom forest.

Eager to know the extent of the forest, the fisherman kept on rowing till he came to the source of the river and saw that the stream of water which became the river flowed from a cliff in whose rockface was a narrow crevasse in which there was an opening.

The man squeezed himself into the opening in the cliff and, pushing on, came out on the other side of cliff to see a settled land before him. He couldn’t think where he’d come to. It was an inhabited land. Fields were tilled. There were houses and paths. Then he began to see people too. When he went to talk to these people, they expressed amazement to see him. But they welcomed him into their homes and, talking to him, told him who they were and how they came to be there.

A long time ago, the people explained, they’d had to flee from where they’d lived before. First there’d been abuse, then there’d been attacks and somehow, running away, they’d eventually found their way to this land where they’d been living ever since, unknown to the wider world. They lived in peace. They were happy.

The fisherman heard all he was told in amazement and as days and weeks went on, he felt great admiration for these people. So he stayed happily amongst them until one day – and isn’t this how it happens? – he happened to think about home and knew at once that he must go back there.

When he told the people about his wish, they said they were happy for him to go. He could always come back. But they asked him with great seriousness never to say how he’d reached them or anything about them.

So the fisherman went. But after he got home, he must have said something to someone that ended up with him being questioned. As word about what he’d said travelled, the gossip came to the ears of officials. The officials decided that the hidden place must be found and demanded that the fisherman show them the way. Of course – for isn’t it  inevitable? – he was never able to find it again.

The poem takes up the story.

The poem:

He was sure of his way there – could never go wrong
How should he know that peaks and valleys can so soon change?
When the time came he simply remembered having gone deep into the hills
But how many green streams lead into cloud-high woods –
When spring comes, everywhere there are peach blossom streams
No one can tell which may be the spring of paradise.

Say no more:

I leave the story and the poem with you. It’s kept coming back to my mind over the last several weeks. Now it’s a pleasure to share it.

PS: Since I have no photos of peach blossom streams, a little Pembrokeshire stream and reflections in a Pembrokeshire puddle will have to suffice.

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