The wind caught dirt and leaves, swirling them on the road ahead. Grandfather and I slowly walked the half-mile path to get his mail. Under my feet dry leaves crackled and twigs popped. But Grandfather moved silently. He always moved silently and blended into the woods, as if in communion with nature.
A red piney squirrel protested our entry of her territory. Blue Jays announced our arrival to the rest of the forest. The day was unusually warm for September, and we were in no hurry. Grandfather told me this story:
Many years ago, an old man with only one son lived in a country covered with pine forests filled with animals. The young man and his friends spent much time hunting. Soon he grew to be the best hunter in his tribe.
Winter approached. In the deep snow the forest would become impassable. Wrapped in the late autumn chill of early morning, the young hunters departed. They would bring back venison to dry because it would be many weeks before they could hunt again.
The chill caught the bones of the old man and his wife; they would stay inside and make arrows for the hunters.
In the forest, the chill turned to bone-biting cold. One of the hunters complained that until he was warmed, he would not hunt. The young man looked for the right birch tree and gave it a kick. In the trunk, flames exploded. The hunters became as warm as if they stood in summer sun.
The hunt continued, and the spirits provided many deer. The young man shot the most. The venison was divided, each man taking his own share. The hunters began the return journey.
When the hunting party reached the great river, the young man no longer wanted to feel the burden of his pack. He dropped the pack at the side of the river and told the others he would return home another way. He arrived at the village before the other hunters.
When he met his son at the door, the father said: "You have returned home--empty handed."
"Father, have I ever done that? I have killed many deer. My pack grew too heavy, and I left it by the great river. I will finish making the arrows. You can go to the river and bring the meat back."
The old man went to the river, shouldered the meat, and staggered as he began the journey. As he forded the river, the strap broke and the pack fell. The heavy water of autumn moved swiftly past him; the pack was carried downstream. The old man tried to catch the pack but lost his balance and was thrown against the rocks, carried into strong rapids, and drowned. His body floated downstream to a quiet place. By this time his body had lost all likeness to a man and was changed into a smooth piece of wood. After many days the smooth wood drifted ashore near an old woman who was washing her clothes.
"What a smooth plank," she thought. "I will use it for a table."
The old woman hung the plank from her roof with leather straps and placed on it a good-smelling pot of stew. She put a large spoon into the pot. The pot and spoon disappeared.
"You are an evil spirit and have brought bad luck into my hut!" she cried as she threw the smooth plank out of her hut.
At this point in his story, Grandfather sat down. He took out a small, deerhide, drawstring bag. A large-eyed owl was burned into the soft surface. The owl was his totem. I remember watching Grandmother make the bag. I was young and filled with questions. She patiently explained: when he was young, Grandfather spent five days in the woods seeking a vision. An owl appeared to him as the spirit that would guide him.
From the owl bag, Grandfather took a small pipe and packed it with Kinnkinick. After offering a pinch of tobacco to the four winds, he lit the pipe, drew deep, and looked to the sky. He exhaled and continued his story.
The woman had been surprised when her food disappeared. She looked where the plank landed, there was a baby. She loved children and had none; she decided to keep the child.
The baby grew more rapidly than any other child had ever grown. In only a few days he was a man, as tall and strong as any man.
One day he said to the woman, "You have treated me as your own son, and meat shall never fail to be in your hut. But I must go. I have much work to do."
It took him many days to join his original tribe. When found his son sitting in his place, he wanted vengeance. He went into the forest and cried. Each tear became a bird. He told the birds to wait until he needed them. He returned to the hut and told his son, "I saw some new birds high in a tree."
"Show me the way, and I will kill them for dinner," the son boasted.
He guided his son to the tree, and the son began to climb. The higher he climbed, the higher the birds seemed. When he looked down, the earth looked no larger than a star. He tried to go back but could not. He could no longer see the birds and felt himself being pulled.
He climbed the tree for four days. Finally, he came to a beautiful country. Fields of corn stretched before him, and he left the tree. He walked through the fields not knowing where he was going. A knock echoed in his ears, and he turned to see two blind women crushing corn between stones. Silently he walked to them. When one passed a plate of food to the other, he took it and ate.
"I am hungry. You are kneading the cakes so slow," cried one of the old women.
"I have given you your dinner. What more do you want?" replied the other.
"You did not," shrieked the first old woman.
"You took it from me! Here is more."
Again the young man took the food. The women began quarreling again. When it happened a third time, they suspected a trick.
"I am sure there is a man here. Are you not my grandson?"
"Yes," answered the young man. "Since you have given me your dinner, I will give you back your sight." He wandered the forest until he found the correct plants. He boiled the plants and sang as he sprinkled the brew into the eyes of the old women. Their sight returned.
The young man continued his walk. He heard splashing. The sound drew him to a valley which cradled a large river. Salmon leaped up a waterfall. He wanted to catch the silver-sided fish.
He went to the old women, pulled one of his hairs which hung to his waist, and the hair became a strong line a mile long. They wove him a net to catch the fish. He stayed by the river for many nights. He returned to the old women only to have fish cooked.
One day they announced that it was time he returned home. A rock was pushed aside, which revealed a hole so deep the young man could not see the bottom. They brought him a large basket tied to a rope.
"Get in and wrap this star blanket around your head. Whatever happens, don't take the star blanket from your head until you get to the bottom."
The young brave curled up inside the basket. The descension took so long, he felt it would never stop. He forgot what the old women told him and looked out of the basket. The basket came to a jarring halt and began to ascend. Soon he was back with the old women.
This time they told him not to move from under the star blanket until he heard a crow call. The young man started back down. The basket stopped many times, and strange creatures seemed to be sitting on him. They tried to take his blanket. But he held tightly until he heard the crow call. He got out of the basket and went to his parents.
Grandfather walked in silence, that was his way after he told a story. Not a word was spoken until we reached the Grandmother's warm kitchen. I stayed for supper and hoped to hear another story. Grandfather did not tell another tale. As I walked home, I was not alone; a large, horned owl followed me.
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