Gateway to the Classics: Story-tell Lib by Annie Trumbull Slosson
Story-tell Lib by  Annie Trumbull Slosson

Story-Tell Lib

T HAT was what everybody in the little mountain village called her. Her real name, as she often told me, ringing out each syllable proudly in her shrill sweet voice, was Elizabeth Rowena Marietta York. A stately name, indeed, for the little crippled, stunted, helpless creature, and I myself could never think of her by any name but the one the village people used, Story-tell Lib. I had heard of her for two or three summers in my visits to Greenhills. The village folk had talked to me of the little lame girl who told such pretty stories out of her own head, "kind o' fables that learnt folks things, and helped 'em without bein' too preachy." But I had no definite idea of what the child was till I saw and heard her myself. She was about thirteen years of age, but very small and fragile. She was lame, and could walk only with the aid of a crutch. Indeed, she could but hobble painfully, a few steps at a time, with that assistance. Her little white face was not an attractive one, her features being sharp and pinched, and her eyes faded, dull, and almost expressionless. Only the full, prominent, rounding brow spoke of a mind out of the common. She was an orphan, and lived with her aunt, Miss Jane York, in an old-fashioned farmhouse on the upper road.

Miss Jane was a good woman. She kept the child neatly clothed and comfortably fed, but I do not think she lavished many caresses or loving words on little Lib, it was not her way, and the girl led a lonesome, quiet, unchildlike life. Aunt Jane tried to teach her to read and write, but, whether from the teacher's inability to impart knowledge, or from some strange lack in the child's odd brain, Lib never learned the lesson. She could not read a word, she did not even know her alphabet. I cannot explain to myself or to you the one gift which gave her her homely village name. She told stories. I listened to many of them, and I took down from her lips several of these. They are, as you will see if you read them, "kind o' fables," as the country folk said. They were all simple little tales in the dialect of the hill country in which she lived. But each held some lesson, suggested some truth, which, strangely enough, the child herself did not seem to see; at least, she never admitted that she saw or intended any hidden meaning.

I often questioned her as to this after we became friends. After listening to some tale in which I could discern just the lovely truth which would best help some troubled soul in her audience, I have questioned her as to its meaning. I can see now, in memory, the short-sighted, expressionless eyes of faded blue which met mine as she said, "Don't mean anything,—it don't. It's jest a story. Stories don't have to mean things; they 're stories, and I tells 'em." That was all she would say, and the mystery remained. What did it mean? Whence came that strange power of giving to the people who came to her something to help and cheer, both help and cheer hidden in a simple little story? Was it, as I like to think, God-given, a treasure sent from above? Or would you rather think it an inheritance from some ancestor a writer, a teller of tales? Or perhaps you believe in the transmigration of souls, and think that the spirit of some Æsop of old, who spoke in parables, had entered the frail crippled body of our little Lib, and spoke through her pinched pale lips. I leave you your theories, I keep my own.

But one thing which I find I have omitted thus far may seem to you to throw a little light on this matter. It does not help me much. Lib was a wonderful listener, as well as a narrator. Miss Jane sometimes took an occasional boarder. Teachers, clergymen, learned professors, had from time to time tarried under her roof. And while these talked to one another, or to some visitor from neighboring hotels, little Lib would sit motionless and silent by the hour. One would scarcely call it listening; to listen seems too active a verb in this case. The girl's face wore no eager look of interest, the faded, short-sighted eyes did not light up with intelligence, nor the features quiver with varied emotions. If she received ideas from what fell upon her ears, it must have been by a sort of unconscious absorption. She took it in as the earth does the rain or the flower the sunshine. And so it was with any reading aloud from book or paper. She would sit, utterly quiet, while the reader's voice went on, and nothing could draw her away till it was ended. Question her later as to what was read or spoken of, and you gained no satisfaction. If she had any idea of what she had heard, she had not the power of putting it into words. "I like it. I like it lots," she would say; that was all.

Throughout the whole summer in which I knew the child, the summer which came so quickly, so sadly, to an end, little Lib sat, on bright, fair days, in a low wooden chair under the maples in front of the farmhouse. And it had grown to be the custom of her many friends, both young and old, to gather there, and listen to her stories, if she had any to tell. I often joined the group of listeners. On many, many days, as the season advanced, Lib had no words for us. She had always been a fragile, puny little creature, and this year she seemed to grow weaker, thinner, more waxen white, each day. She had a wonderful voice, shrill, far-reaching, but strangely sweet and clear, with a certain vibrating, reedy, bird-like quality, which even yet thrills me as I recall it.

I am going to tell you a few of the little stories, pictures, fables, parables, allegories,—I scarcely know what to call them,—which I heard Story-tell Lib relate. The words are her own, but I cannot give you the sweet tones, the quaint manner, the weird, strange personality, of the little narrator. Let me say here that often the little parables seemed meant to cheer and lift up Lib's own trembling soul, shut up in the frail, crippled body. Meant, I say; perhaps that is not the right word. For did she mean anything by these tales, at least consciously? Be that as it may, certain of these little stories seemed to touch her own case strangely.

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