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The Water Carrier by James Frederic Thorne

 

“When You Give a Potlach, Forget Not He Who Carries the Water.”

“Thank Yaeethl for that,” said Zachook as I rose with dripping beard from the stream where I had drunk deep, with many sighs of satisfaction and relief. “His pack is not heavy with thanks of men these days.”

“Thank the Raven? For what?”

“The starving man asks not the name of the owner of the cache, but his heart is filled with gratitude.”

“That may be, but no cache of Yaeethl's is in this stream.”

“The ignorant deny all they cannot see.”

“Wise sayings feed neither fire nor belly,” I retorted, provoked by the criticism of my companion, thinly veiled behind his customary proverbs, and attempting to pay him in his own coin from my slender store of Klingat adages. “'Only a beggar gives thanks.' Is it not your teaching that he who gives in this world receives the benefit, since in Tskekowani[1] his possessions shall be as his gifts here? If Yaeethl wants my thanks, if they are the due of the Raven, he has them, but why or for what I know not. Your words are like the ice of a windy day, rough and cloudy.”

  [1] The next world.

“You are right, Cousin. I forget at times that you are only a white man. Let me touch thy ear with my tongue.”

“Cha-auk.[2] In the Time before Time, there was no water upon the earth or in the bowl of the sea, and Shanagoose the Sky gave neither rain nor snow.

  [2] Ages ago.

“In one place only was Heen, the water. In a deep well it was, the father of wells, hidden among the mountains that lie between here and Tskekowani.

“To Heenhadowa, the Thirst Spirit, belonged the well, by Heenhadowa was it guarded. By the door of the well-house sat he by day, in front of the well-house door was his bed by night. And none might enter.

“Never did he leave the well, morning, noon or night. From the water he took life, to the water he gave life. To no man, woman, or child, to neither animal nor bird, to nothing that walks, creeps, or flies would Heenhadowa give of the precious water. Not so much as would moisten the tongue of Ta-ka the Mosquito would he give, though men died.

“To quench their thirst men chewed the roots of young trees and the stalk of Yan-a-ate.[3]

  [3] Species of wild celery.

“A few men there were, brave of heart and moose-legged, who had travelled the weary journey to the well among the mountains, the mountains marked with the trail of Oonah, the Gray One, Death, seeking the water that is life.

“And of them?

“Is it not well said that Oonah, Death, and Koo-stay, Life, are brothers, and he who seeks one finds the other?

“And Heenhadowa laughed, first at their black lips, later at their white bones, and drank deep but gave not.

“Now Yaeethl, the Raven, Desirer of All Things, longed most for those that were forbidden, concealed, or like the favor of women, not to be had for the asking. And since the water was denied, his tongue ached with dryness, and Yan-a-ate lost its savor. Also was his heart moved by the prayers of men and the cries of women. But his tongue troubled him more than did his heart, his tongue and his cupidity, so that he was moved to try his cunning where the strength and bravery of men had failed.

“No crooked trail through forests and over mountains had Yaeethl to measure with his feet, but on his wings of blackness was he borne straight to the place of the well.

“Well and well-house he found, found also Heenhadowa, watchful, moving not from his place. As one greets an old friend new found spoke Yaeethl to the Thirst Spirit. With smooth tongue and soft words spoke the Raven, claiming kinship through the cousin of his grandmother's grandmother. Said also that when he left his father's country he was bidden seek that old and true friend of the family, Heenhadowa the Wise, the Generous Giver of Water. As bidden, so had he obeyed and flown straight without halt or rest to bow before his mighty relative, and taste of his wonderful well, the like of which not even his father had, who possessed all things.

“But the Maker of Thirst laughed at the Raven and mocked him, bidding him, if he would drink, find or dig a well of his own.

“Again Yaeethl recounted their connected lineage, from mother to mother's mother, from family to family and tribe to tribe, tied with proof and argument, lashed with meek bows, and smoothed with soft flattery.

“Heenhadowa laughed scornfully, cast from him the claim of cousinship, and mocked at Yaeethl's tongue, dry from the dust of many words.

“Then Yaeethl drew about him the parka of anger and answered scorn with scorn, mockery with mockery, and laughter with laughter.

“In his father's country, said Yaeethl, they gave the name of Heenhadowa to mangy dogs and unclean women. Glad was the heart of Yaeethl that the Thirst Spirit denied the relationship he had laid as a snare, the denial would make his father proud. As for the well, 'twas now known to the most stupid, even to men, that it was but an empty hole in the ground, covered by the well-house to hide the dryness thereof, and no deeper than Kaelt-tay, the Seagull, scratches in the sand for nesting.

“Laughed Heenhadowa again, saying that belief or unbelief of Raven or man lessened not his treasure by a drop.

“Then Yaeethl's words flared as firesparks. Hot words of evil sounding names, vile as only the brain of Yaeethl could fashion, taunts that bit and stung festeringly like the nettles of Sech-ut,[4] names that would disgrace the family of a Siwash, callings that would make even a squaw-man hang his head in shame. Can I say more of the bitterness of the tongue of Yaeethl?

  [4] Devil's Club.

“Heenhadowa laughed.

“To battle Yaeethl challenged the Thirst Spirit: 'Come forth and meet me, you fatherless son of a shameless mother, littering of a slave's slave.

“'Come with me to the plain below and I will make of thy blood another well, for another of thy family of dogs to guard.'

“Flatteries and arguments, insults and challenges fell into the same echoless hole, bringing to Yaeethl only the laughter of Heenhadowa and increase of thirst.

“Then was the heart of Yaeethl heavy within him, but not so heavy as his face said, for it is not the way of the Raven to eat quickly of discouragement, though he turned and left the well and its guardian like a gambler who has lost his last blanket.

“Not far did he go. Only so far as to be hidden from the eyes of Heenhadowa, where silence might mother the children of his brain. And since the brain of the Raven is full of the seeds of cunning a plan was quickly born.

“Back toward the well flew Yaeethl, but, since he who sees the tail of a lone wolf imagines the whole pack, he alighted at a distance where the eyes of Heenhadowa saw as one sees in a fog. A space the size a man uses for his lodge he cleared of all bushes and weeds, to the smallest blade of grass he cleared it of everything that grew.

“When the space was as the palm of a man's hand the Raven spread his wings until every feather showed and, first bowing low to Hoon-nach, Yunda-haech, Sa-nach, and Deckta-haech,[5] who guard the four corners of the earth, walked slowly around the sides three times, at every third step stopping and making strange motions and stranger sounds, as does an Icht[6] when he would drive the evil spirits away.

  [5] North, East, South and West.

  [6] Witch Doctor.

“From each corner he took a stone and spat upon it and cast it over his shoulder, and in the dust drew the shapes of animals like unto rolled deer-thongs, animals with two tongues such as no man has seen upon earth.[7]

  [7] Snakes are unknown in Alaska.

“To the space Yaeethl dragged logs and laid them end across end and bottom on top. As each tier was laid he sang words in a strange language, and as he sang, spat upon and cast pebbles over his shoulder as before.

“But toward Heenhadowa were the eyes and tongue of Yaeethl the eyes of the blind and the tongue of the dumb. Busily he worked and loudly sang his charms, but to the Thirst Spirit he gave neither look nor word.

“On Yaeethl were the eyes of Heenhadowa fastened, strained were his eyes, watching the doings of the Raven, wide his ears to catch the words of the songs and charms.

[Illustration]

“When the roof was on and the house finished to the last piece of moss between the logs, Yaeethl again circled it three times, bowed again to the guardians of the earth's ends, and without looking behind, entered the lodge and closed the door.

“Curiosity filled eyes and ears, heart and belly of Heenhadowa. Though he had lived since the Beginning, never before had he seen what that day he had seen, never had his ears been greeted with such words and songs.

“And to Heenhadowa the inside of the lodge was the pack, as was the outside the lone wolf tail.

“Even so had Yaeethl planned, nor was that the end of the cunning of the Raven, who knew that no door can bar the going in of curiosity.

“Long sat Heenhadowa before the door of his well-house, gazing at the lodge of Yaeethl. And the longer he sat and the longer he gazed the keener grew his desire to see what was hidden from his eyes by the walls and closed door, grew until it tortured him as the thirsty are tortured, beyond endurance.

“And Heenhadowa rose from his seat by the well.

“From the place where he had sat for ages rose the Thirst Spirit and stepped softly. Toward the closed door he moved as moves one who is pulled at the end of a thong, for the fear of the unknown was upon him. But stronger than his fear was his desire to know what lay behind the door, stronger even than his fear of those strange animals that were drawn in the dust, dust pictures that made his blood ice.

“Before the door he stopped and glanced back the way he had come, at his well and well-house he looked, then pushing against the door with his hand, stepped within the house builded by Yaeethl, made by Yaeethl the Raven, Yaeethl the Cunning.

“No man knows what Heenhadowa found within the lodge of the Raven. Only this we know.

“When the time of the boiling of a salmon had passed, from the door stepped Yaeethl walking as a man walks who has been carrying a heavy pack. Behind him he closed the door and against it rolled a heavy stone, a stone so heavy that not even K'hoots the Grizzly, the Strong One, could have moved it away again.

“Within the lodge was silence, silence big with unborn noise.

“To the well of Heenhadowa, the father of wells among the mountains, the well untasted of man or beast, flew Yaeethl, Yaeethl the Desirer of All Things.

“And when the Raven stood beside the well he bowed his head and drank.

“Some say that it took him many moons, some put it the length of a man's life, but, long time or short time, when the head of Yaeethl the Raven was lifted the well was dry.

“Of water there was none in the well of Heenhadowa.

“In the belly and mouth of the Raven was the water. All.

“Then did Yaeethl spread wide his wings of blackness and fly the way of his coming.

“As he flew over the bosom of Klingatona-Kla, the Earth Mother, in this place and in that he spat out some of the water. And where spat the Raven there sprang up streams, and rivers, and lakes.

“When he had flown so long and so far that the water was gone from his mouth, and in his belly was not fresh, then from his belly and his mouth he cast it, salt, and Athlch, the Ocean, was.”

       * * * * *

[Illustration]

I waited silently, for there was an uplift in Zachook's voice that made me think there was more to follow, but it was only:

“If you listen to the words of them that know not, they will tell you that Haechlt is a great bird the falling of whose eyelids makes thunder, the flashing of whose eye is the lightning, but if my words be the words of truth, then is thunder the angry voice of Heenhadowa whom Yaeethl made prisoner, and lightning the cracks in the lodge walls when he throws himself against them, struggling to be free. Should he succeed——

“But, bird or Thirst Spirit, from Yaeethl is the gift of water. So say I again——when you drink, give thanks to the Raven that chewed roots are not the answer to thy dry lips,—give thanks, and pray that the rock rolls not away.”

And I gave thanks, quoting to myself another of Zachook's sayings, “Better a wasted arrow than lost game.”

[Illustration]

 
 
 

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