I feel safest with stories. They soothe me. And the old stories are the best of all.
Today I want to share an old story with you – one that came to me and was most anxious to be shared. Even the synchronicities that drew this story to me tell a tale in themselves.
I live in England, where currently entire households in which anyone has a fever or a cough must self-isolate for 14 days. When my grandchild developed both these symptoms, her mother was faced with trying to work from home and care for both children. I live far away, but decided to have a daily one hour video talk session with the children, giving my daughter a chance to get some uninterrupted work time. I’m an ex-teacher, so we play maths games, draw, read, write and learn together. It’s a delightful time for all of us.
I went to my still fairly extensive children’s book collection (who can throw books away?) looking for stories that would interest a 5 year old and her 8 year old brother. Almost at once my eyes fell upon Hugh Lipton and Niamh Sharkey’s beautiful ‘Tales of Wisdom & Wonder’. It’s a glorious collection of folk tales from around the world.
On day 1, we read the first story, a delightfully silly tale of a monkey who demonstrates that we should be very careful what we ask for.
Last night I sat down to read the second story – a Cree tale called The Curing Fox – in order to re-familiarise myself with it.
The first sentence told of a little girl who became desperately ill with a high fever, dreadful cough and breathing difficulties.
Ah. My initial instinct was to put this one aside. Who knows what fears and nightmares the children are having as Covid-19 spreads through the world? Then I thought deeper. Why, of all the stories in my bookcase, had I been led to this one, at this time? That almost imperceptible tingling that tells me synchronicity is drawing me in had appeared. I read the story.
Mr Lipton tells it wonderfully, but here is the briefest summary:
The child’s anxious parents summon an ancient wise woman, who listens very carefully to the rattling in the girl’s chest. She tells the couple that she hears from it that a small, sickly female fox is undertaking an arduous journey through the snow outside. When the child coughs, the wise woman hears the sound of the fox’s paws breaking through the crust of the frozen snow. The father offers to track and bring back the fox. As he journeys, the wise woman is able to track his progress, and that of the starving fox, by observing the little girl’s illness; when she senses that the hunter has stopped for the night and lit a fire, the girl has a high fever. Finally he catches the fox, cradles her in his arms and takes her back to the village. The mother is told to feed the fox. It then curls up and sleeps. The child, too, falls into a deep sleep. Eventually, both fox and girl awake at the same moment. The parents are asked to feed the fox again and then release it. The little girl watches from the doorway as the fox runs off. As it disappears, so does her illness. The wise woman asks them whether the fox cured the girl or she cured the fox. The mother replies that the woman cured them both. The old lady just smiles.
I sat and pondered the wisdom of that story. Half awake and half asleep, I thought my way back into that First Nation culture and bank of knowledge that showed such subtle yet deep and abiding connectedness. I wondered at the idea that the symptoms of an illness could, with the right level of focus, lead the wise to find and alleviate suffering elsewhere. I marvelled that, in taking steps to alleviate that suffering, the illness itself would vanish. Further and further I meditated my way into the meaning this story held for me. I thought of the symptoms – the fever, the choking cough, the inability to breathe. Clearly the girl stands for us in our present crisis.
And the fox? What does she represent?
The words that floated into my heart were, “Think of the World’s cough.”
It was from the Cree that this prophecy came: