Posted on: 2010-05-18
For more than one change of the moon, the meadow near the village had been awakening from its slumber, as the green won its struggle to overcome the brown. Bees and butterflies happily played, floating on the tiny thermal currents above the warming earth. A young woman with golden skin and plaited black hair closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun as it reached its highest point, while walking gracefully towards the higher ground. A light puff of wind brushed the dried tips of the tall grass, making it shudder, and then the meadow rested, lazily standing guard over the new life emerging from last season's broken and harvested stems. The air was warmed by the sun, making her feel like she should lay on a rock and sun herself like a snake.
She padded soundlessly toward the forest in her soft leather slippers, taking her time. Although the forest was much cooler than the meadow, and she was dressed in fewer skins than in recent months, the cool air of the forest was a welcome relief from the sun's intense energy. In her mind, she reviewed the familiar pathways of the small animals, memorized from when the carpet of snow showed their tracks.
She was thin but strong and healthy. They had stayed in this place, surviving on flat bread, dried meat and berries, and the occasional rabbit for four moons of cold and snow. The men of the village had returned from the hunt with enough to put health back into the community and to replace worn clothing and repair dwellings. It was the time to allow the forest animals to raise young for next winter's needs. So she passed by the rabbits' holes and disregarded the partridge that flew up as she drew nearby.
The delicacies of the longer days were surely to be found on the forest floor. She knew where the ferns liked to grow, in the dappled light beneath the litter from the skeletons of last year's green season, near the darker shadows of the deep evergreen forest. Without making a sound, she gently lifted the brown and grey matter aside and found her prize. She gathered the little spiral shoots, as well as some dark, pungent, netted caps, and placed them into her prized possession, a wooden bowl that her mother had fashioned for her from a piece of the oak tree that had fallen in the storms before the last longest day. She had tied a sling of woven reeds across her breast, from which the bowl hung and rested against her hip. She was now of age for a husband, and a wife must have her own gathering bowl. When she was sure she had collected enough pale and dark gems to make a generous treat for her parents and sisters, she padded more quickly out of the forest.
As she was about to step into the meadow, she observed two men on horseback. She had seen horses before, but not so close. Her community had none; the young adults had pulled the belongings on devices made from poles and skins when they had last migrated to live in these fields with more bounty. The horses slowed as they neared, and then stopped near the grove, so the men could look upon the village in the valley, where she lived. She crouched quietly among the low bushes. As a gifted huntress, she was able to observe and evaluate the intruders. They must come from a village far away, she thought, they have not plaited their hair, and wear more quills and feathers upon their clothing. They look strong and fit, like warriors. What do they seek in the tall grass lands?
She watched the men climb down off the horses and let the horses feast on the meadow grasses. The two men were talking about the meadow as if they planned to set up their dwellings here. She was surprised to realize that she understood their language, though it was slightly different than the one she spoke. Yes, they must come from far away to speak so strangely.
"This is the forest I spoke about, my friend." the taller man said to his companion. She saw that his straight, dark hair fell softly past his shoulders, and his forelock was tied near his brow and wrapped in coloured cloths, ending in a single eagle feather. She had never seen a man with hair that was not plaited; it was beautiful. The man continued to speak to his friend in a deep, strong voice.
"It has many birds, rabbits, and deer, and plentiful herbs and berries. It was burned more than ten longest-day festivals past, so is strong in its growth. There are other meadows than this one, and a fast-flowing river in the valley below. The small creek we crossed feeds into the river; the waters swell when the days grow to be as long as the nights."
He turned towards her direction when he held his hand out to show his friend the forest, and she caught her breath as she saw his beauty. Oh, how this tall, handsome man makes me feel! I do not know what to think! It is as if the sun heats me, but I am hidden in the cool forest!
He was a young man, at the prime of his physical health. His bronzed sienna chest was lean and well-muscled, his shoulders broad, and his arms and legs lean and strong. His face was noble with high cheekbones and almond-shaped black eyes that shone with intelligence beneath a noble brow. He wore only an unadorned breechcloth about his slim hips, and an elaborately quilled and feathered decoration hanging from his neck to lie above his broad chest. His foot coverings were tall and finely decorated with quills, and were tied about his thighs.
"With this land of plenty, we could find food enough to establish a new community," the other man said in a very positive tone, smiling at his friend, "but I see some dwellings in the valley. What of the current occupants?"
The other man was also tall with a fine figure. His round face had an openness that seemed almost innocent. He was similarly dressed, although he wore a simple quilled choker about his neck instead of the decorative chestplate of his friend, and wore only one eagle feather, in his hair. He had very good teeth and smiled a lot.
"There are four and twenty families." the tall man replied.
"That is so many! Can there be enough food for us to establish here as well?"
"This community has an abundance of food, even with such a large number of families. I know the secret of their prosperity. They are known to make tall grass in the mud by the river." the tall man said in a solemn voice.
"Make tall grass?" the other man said, smiling quizzically.
"Yes. When the tall grass makes seeds, these people do not use all the seeds in grinding for food. Some of the seeds are saved. Two moons after the day and night are equal, and the river is no longer swollen, they put the seeds in plain earth by the river. Their prayers make tall grass come, where no tall grass was before. They migrate only when there is a very bad cold season, because the area is so bountiful. They have no need for horses because they do not take the village away each season."
"Has this village young women of age to become wives?"
"With four and twenty families, I am certain there are daughters of age for marriage. If we marry from this community, and settle one days' walk from the village, we would unite with their community for protection and sharing of good bounty." the tall man told his friend. The girl pressed her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle when she thought of her mama wanting her five daughters to take husbands.
"I would like to take a wife very soon." the smiling one said. "My wife would build us a dwelling apart from my sisters. I could not wait so long as you have, Proud Wolf. My sleep has visions of a wife, but I wake with no wife to soothe my needs!"
She blushed at the reference to the secrets of marriage. In her mind she suddenly saw an image of the tall man lying with her in his strong arms. She imagined moving and making noises in the night as her parents sometimes did, although the details were a mystery to her innocent experience. His name is Proud Wolf. A wolf is a strong, loyal mate. He is very intelligent, but too solemn. He must learn to smile! she thought.
"Lively Otter, with your happy manners, you are sure to find a wife!" he said as he smiled at his younger friend. She gasped as it seemed almost as if he had heard her thoughts. His teeth were very white and strong. He was everything a man was meant to be.
"Perhaps my sister can find a husband also!" Lively Otter laughed, then continued, "Surely the god has honoured us with this bounty of forest and valley with rabbits, deer, berries, people who can make tall grass, and perhaps wives. We must respect our god's wisdom by making a peaceful understanding with the inhabitants of this place."
"Come, we will return to our sisters and your brother. If they agree that we should migrate to this place, we will go to the village with a gift of friendship. We have the special rock from the mountains, and some furs to offer. You, Lively Otter, will speak with their elders on behalf of our small group. You will bring greetings and kindness, and request to establish our community near to here." Proud Wolf said as the men mounted their horses.
Proud Wolf looked about the meadow to memorize the scene, so he could describe to the small group he and Lively Otter were bringing from the rugged lands of the north. When his gaze fell on the edge of the forest, he saw dark eyes fringed with thick black lashes gazing from among the bushes, and his heart jumped in his breast. Pink lips formed an O beneath the widened eyes, then a flash of black plaits, soft golden calves, and a leather dress disappeared deeper into the woods with barely a sound. These eyes were not of a forest animal, but of a young woman.
She was like a rare bird, teasing and tempting him as she flew away silently, willing him to follow and capture his heart's desire. She was gone before he could memorize much more than her beautiful brown eyes. The god was surely trying to tell him that it was no accident that he came to this tall grass prairie, and that he must return soon and catch this bird. Lively Otter's shout of challenge to a race brought him back to the present, and with a whoop, he kicked his horse to a gallop. He would recall her fine eyes during the quiet of the nights ahead, until he returned to make her his own.
As he rode out of her sight, she realized that her breath was laboured, and she took some time recovering from the feelings that stirred during that briefest moment when his eyes had made contact with hers. She finally stood and silently moved out of the forest. Her gathering bowl full of fresh fiddleheads and morels from the forest floor reminded her that spring brought rebirth, newness, and great promise. Teasing Bird smiled to herself as she walked quietly through the meadow, while the sun shone high in the sky, and the insects lazily buzzed in the warm spring air.
He will return soon. He is to be my husband. I am sure of it now.
Note from the author:
Although this story was loosely based on my knowledge of the ways of my childhood friends from the Plains Cree nations, the story and characters are intended to help us to imagine an experience of our hunter-gatherer ancestors in any part of the world. I acknowledge that the naming of the characters does not mesh with history, as probably is the case with many other aspects to the story, and apologise for my own errors of laziness in research.
Some cool facts: The Plains Cree women were the architects of their society, and built the tipi (wigwam); beaded and more modest clothing, and horses, came after the invasion of the Europeans; the high leggings worn by the men were adopted for riding; most Plains Cree of both genders wore their hair long and in plaits (braids); grand feathered headdresses were generally ceremonial and not worn every day; eagle feathers hold special spiritual significance, are awarded as symbols of male adulthood, and for bravery; and finally, there are regional dialects within an aboriginal language, including crossover languages with other tribal groups.