Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ A step at a time

P1000133There’s an extraordinary message for us all in Two Old Women, the big Alaskan story from the Gwich’in people that  I recently told in the Fishguard Story Club in Pembrokeshire. As it begins, the two old women of the story have just been left behind in the ice and snow of a very hard winter by the group of people of whom they’ve been part. The pain of their leaving is intolerably sharpened for the older of the two women by the fact that her daughter and grandson were among those who left. Inside herself, she knows that fear would have been why they did not protest. At least, the grandson left her his  hatchet and the daughter a bundle of babiche, the plant used by the people for so many purposes. Nonetheless, it was a barely tolerable pain that the daughter and the grandson did not defend her.

Ch’idzigyaak, the older of the two women, is still sitting on the ground weeping for what has happened when Sa’, the other woman, comes over to her and says. ‘Well, we can sit here until we die. It wouldn’t take long. Or we can die trying.’

When Ch’idzigyaak finally raises her head, she says in reluctant agreement, ‘Yes, we can die trying.’


Thus begins an extraordinary story of determination and courage and the recollection and revival of old skills. By the end of it, after a long and courageous journey, the two old woman have made their way back to a fertile creek where they’d once lived with their people, they’ve been able to set in big stores of fish and meat against future needs and they’ve used the skins of the creatures they’ve caught to make mittens and caps and other warm items of clothing.

Then things change yet again when, suddenly, they are confronted by the chief tracker of their people who has been sent to look for them.  At first there is fear and suspicion. Can the tracker and then, later, the chief of their people now be trusted after what they had done? And what about the daughter and the son? Are they still alive? Will there be a reunion?

Stones - stepping stonesThe remarkable thing about this part of the story is that, with enormous strength of purpose, the two old women take things into their own hands by laying down their own terms for their future association with their people  who now are hungry having fared very badly ever since they left them                 behind. Abiding by those terms, the chief and the people gradually overcome the shame they have felt at leaving the two old women behind and, eventually, there is a great sense of reconciliation and reparation as, finally, Ch’idzigyaak is reunited with her grandson and, some time after that, with her daughter. At that point, the two old women are made honorary members of the tribe, the tribe vows never to abandon an old person again and, before long, the story of the two old women begins to be told and told again until it becomes the story that Velma Wallis heard as a child and then, as an adult, wrote and published as Two Old Women.

A Step At A Time:

‘We can die trying.’ It’s a message to conjure with – and especially because, in essence, it carries within it the meaning that in order to die trying we have to live trying.

These are difficult times. It feels like everyone around me feels the same thing. They feel difficult in global terms, difficult for the UK as it wrestles with Brexit and the great inequalities between its people, difficult in Wales as it wrestles with the effort to retain its culture and language, difficult in my village in Wales where the village green is under threat to commercial interests and, with all the changes that come with aging and the loss of friends and relatives, difficult in my own life too.

So this morning, back in London after two-and-a-half weeks in Wales, I am sorting my papers, sorting out my diary, doing small things that need to be done and thinking what needs to be done next. Sometimes it’s the only way, to take things a step at a time. Thinking back to a story can help.

PS: At the end of the path through the bluebell woods in my top photo is a wonderful pebbly beach and the sea. The stepping stones are on one of the other paths that lead to that beach.


Tags: , , , , ,

One Response to “Storytelling Starters ~ A step at a time”

  1. Jean Says:

    Dear Mary — Yes thank you — exactly caught my mood today — sorting and reflecting and trying to move forwards in small ways.
    Head down and focusing on what i can do and balancing what is best route — raise my head and I’m almost deafened by the fear and panic and — well all the awfulness out there — it feels overwhelming and impossible.
    But i reread ‘Two Old Women’ — what a story — simple but beautifully retold — I wish I could have heard your telling in Fishgaurd — bet it inspired. I’m adding he title to my must read list for workshops.
    Jean XX

Leave a Reply