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Native American Legends

The Chenoo, or the, story of a cannibal with an icy heart

A Passamaquoddy and Micmac Legend

Of the old time. An Indian, with his wife and their little boy, went one autumn far away to hunt in the northwest. And having found a fit place to pass the winter, they built a wigwam. The man brought home the game, the woman dressed and dried the meat, the small boy played about shooting birds with bow and arrow; in Indian-wise all went well.

One afternoon, when the man was away and the wife gathering wood, she heard a rustling in the bushes, as though some beast were brushing through them, and, looking up, she saw with horror something worse than the worst she had feared. It was an awful face glaring at her,--a something made of devil, man, and beast in their most dreadful forms. It was like a haggard old man, with wolfish eyes; he was stark naked; his shoulders and lips were gnawed away, as if, when mad with hunger, he had eaten his own flesh. He carried a bundle on his back. The woman had heard of the terrible Chenoo, the being who comes from the far, icy north, a creature who is a man grown to be both devil and cannibal, and saw at once that this was one of them.

Truly she was in trouble; but dire need gives quick wit, as it was with this woman, who, instead of showing fear, ran up and addressed him with fair words, as "My dear father," pretending surprise and joy, and, telling him how glad her heart was, asked where he had been so long. The Chenoo was amazed beyond measure at such a greeting where he expected yells and prayers, and in mute wonder let himself be led into the wigwam.

She was a wise and good woman. She took him in; she said she was sorry to see him so woe-begone; she pitied his sad state; she brought a suit of her husband's clothes; she told him to dress himself and be cleaned. He did as she bade. He sat by the side of the wigwam, and looked surly and sad, but kept quiet. It was all a new thing to him.

She arose and went out. She kept gathering sticks.

The Chenoo rose and followed her. She was in great fear. "Now," she thought, "my death is near; now he will kill and devour me."

The Chenoo came to her. He said, "Give me the axe!" She gave it, and he began to cut down the trees. Man never saw such chopping! The great pines fell right and left, like summer saplings; the boughs were hewed and split as if by a tempest. She cried out, "Noo, tabeagul boohsoogul!" "My father, there is enough!" He laid down the axe; he walked into the wigwam and sat down, always ingrim silence. The woman gathered her wood, and remained as silent on the opposite side.

She heard her husband coming. She ran out and told him all. She asked him to do as she was doing. He thought it well. He went in and spoke kindly. He said, "N'chilch," "My father-in-law," and asked where he had been so long. The Chenoo stared in amazement, but when he heard the man talk of all that had happened for years his fierce face grew gentler.

They had their meal; they offered him food, but he hardly touched it. He lay down to sleep. The man and his wife kept awake in terror. When the fire burned up, and it became warm, the Chenoo asked that a screen should be placed before him. He was from the ice; he could not endure heat.

For three days he stayed in the wigwam; for three days he was sullen and grim; he hardly ate. Then he seemed to change. He spoke to the woman; he asked her if she had any tallow. She told him they had much. He filled a large kettle; there was a gallon of it. He put it on the fire. When it was scalding hot he drank it all off at a draught.

He became sick; he grew pale. He cast up all the horrors and abominations of earth, things appalling to every sense. When all was over he seemed changed. He lay down and slept. When he awoke he asked for food, and ate much. From that time he was kind and good. They feared him no more.

They lived on meat such as Indians prepare. The Chenoo was tired of it. One day he said, "N'toos" (my daughter), "have you no pela weoos?" (fresh meat). She said, "No." When her husband returned the Chenoo saw that there was black mud on his snow-shoes. He asked him if there was a spring of water near. The friend said there was one half a day's journey distant. "We must go there tomorrow," said the Chenoo.

And they went together, very early. The Indian was fleet in such running. But the old man, who seemed so wasted and worn, went on his snow-shoes like the wind. They came to the spring. It was large and beautiful; the snow was all melted away around it; the border was flat and green.

Then the Chenoo stripped himself, and danced around the spring his magic dance; and soon the water began to foam, and anon to rise and fall, as if some monster below were heaving in accord with the steps and the song. The Chenoo danced faster and wilder; then the head of an immense Taktalok, or lizard, rose above the surface. The old man killed it with a blow of his hatchet. Dragging it out he began again to dance. He brought out another, the female, not so large, but still heavy as an elk. They were small spring lizards, but the Chenook had conjured them; by his magic they were made into monsters.

He dressed the game; he cut it up. He took the heads and feet and tails and all that he did not want, and cast them back into the spring. "They will grow again into many lizards," he said. When the meat was trimmed it looked like that of the bear. He bound it together with withes; he took it on his shoulders; he ran like the wind; his load was nothing.

The Indian was a great runner; in all the land was not his like; but now he lagged far behind. "Can you go no faster than that?" asked the Chenoo. "The sun is setting; the red will be black anon. At this rate it will be dark ere we get home. Get on my shoulders."

The Indian mounted on the load. The Chenoo bade him hold his head low, so that he could not be knocked off by the branches. "Brace your feet," he said, "so as to be steady." Then the old man flew like the wind,--nebe sokano'v'jal samastukteskugul chel wegwasumug wegul; the bushes whistled as they flew past them. They got home before sunset.

The wife was afraid to touch such meat. But her husband was persuaded to eat of it. It was like bear's meat. The Chenoo fed on it. So they all lived as friends.

Then the spring was at hand. One day the Chenoo told them that something terrible would soon come to pass. An enemy, a Chenoo, a woman, was coming like wind, yes--on the wind--from the north to kill him. There could be no escape from the battle. She would be far more furious, mad, and cruel than any male, even one of his own cruel race, could be. He knew not how the battle would end; but the man and his wife must be put in a place of safety. To keep from hearing the terrible war-whoops of the Chenoo, which is death to mortals, their ears must be closed. They must hide themselves in a cave.

Then he sent the woman for the bundle which he had brought with him, and which had hung untouched on a branch of a tree since he had been with them. And he said if she found aught in it offensive to her to throw it away, but to certainly bring him a smaller bundle which was within the other. So she went and opened it, and that which she found therein was a pair of human legs and feet, the remains of some earlier horrid meal. She threw them far away. The small bundle she brought to him.

The Chenoo opened it and took from it a pair of horns,--horns of the chepitchcalm, or dragon. One of them has two branches; the other is straight and smooth. They were golden-bright. He gave the straight horn to the Indian; he kept the other. He said that these were magical weapons, and the only ones of any use in the coming fight. So they waited for the foe.

And the third day came. The Chenoo was fierce and bold; he listened; he had no fear. He heard the long and awful scream--like nothing of earth--of the enemy, as she sped through the air far away in the icy north, long ere the others could hear it. And the manner of it was this: that if they without harm should live after bearing the first deadly yell of the enemy they could take no harm, and if they did but hear the answering shout of their friend all would be well with them. But he said, "Should you hear me call for help, then hasten with the horn, and you may save my life."

They did as he bade: they stopped their ears; they hid in a deep hole dug in the ground. All at once the cry of the foe burst on them like screaming thunder; their ears rang with pain: they were well-nigh killed, for all the care they had taken. But then they heard the answering cry of their friend, and were no longer in danger from mere noise.

The battle begun, the fight was fearful. The monsters, by their magic with their rage, rose to the size of mountains. The tall pines were torn up, the ground trembled as in an earthquake, rocks crashed upon rocks, the conflict deepened and darkened; no tempest was ever so terrible. Then the male Chenoo was heard crying: "N'loosook! choogooye! abog unumooe!" "My son-in-law, come and help me!"

He ran to the fight. What he saw was terrible! The Chenoos, who upright would have risen far above the clouds as giants of hideous form, were struggling on the ground. The female seemed to be the conqueror. She was holding her foe down, she knelt on him, she was doing all she could to thrust her dragon's horn into his ear. And he, to avoid death, was moving his head rapidly from side to side, while she, mocking his cries, said, "You have no son-in-law to help you." Neen nabujjeole, "I'll take your cursed life, and eat your liver."

The Indian was so small by these giants that the stranger did not notice him. "Now," said his friend, "thrust the horn into her ear" He did this with a well-directed blow; he struck hard; the point entered her head. At the touch it sprouted quick as a flash of lightning, it darted through the head, it came out of the other ear, it had become like a long pole. It touched the ground, it struck downward, it took deep and firm root.

The male Chenoo bade him raise the other end of the horn and place it against a large tree. He did so. It coiled itself round the tree like a snake, it grew rapidly; the enemy was held hard and fast. Then the two began to dispatch her. It was long and weary work. Such a being, to be killed at all, must be hewed into small pieces; flesh and bones must all be utterly consumed by fire. Should the least fragment remain unburnt, from it would spring a grown Chenoo, with all the force and fire of the first.

The fury of battle past, the Chenoos had become of their usual size. The victor hewed the enemy to small pieces, to be revenged for the insult and threat as to eating his liver. He, having roasted that part of his captive, ate it before her; while she was yet alive he did this. He told her she was served as she would have served him.

But the hardest task of all was to come. It was to burn or melt the heart. It was of ice, and more than ice: as much colder as ice is colder than fire, as much harder as ice is harder than water. When placed in the fire it put out the flame, yet by long burning it melted slowly, until they at last broke it to fragments with a hatchet, and then melted these. So they returned to the camp.

Spring came. The snows of winter, as water, ran down the rivers to the sea; the ice and snow which had encamped on the inland hills sought the shore. So did the Indian and his wife; the Chenoo, with softened soul, went with them. Now he was becoming a man like other men. Before going they built a canoe for the old man: they did not cover it with birch bark; they made it of moose-skin. In it they placed a part of their venison and skins. The Chenoo took his place in it; they took the lead, he followed.

And after winding on with the river, down rapids and under forest-boughs, they came out into the sunshine, on a broad, beautiful lake. But suddenly, when midway in the water, the Chenoo laid flat in the canoe, as if to hide himself. And to explain this he said that he had just then been discovered by another Chenoo, who was standing on the top of a mountain, whose dim blue outline could just be seen stretching far away to the north. "He has seen me," he said, "but he cannot see you. Nor can he behold me now; but should he discover me again, his wrath will be roused. Then he will attack me; I know not who might conquer. I prefer peace."

So he lay bidden, and they took his canoe in tow. But when they had crossed the lake and come to the river again, the Chenoo said that he could not travel further by water. He would walk the woods, but sail on streams no more. So they told him where they meant to camp that night. He started over mountains and through woods and up rocks, a far, round-about journey. And the man and his wife went down the river in a spring freshet, headlong with the rapids. But when they had paddled round the point where they meant to pass the night, they saw smoke rising among the trees, and on landing they found the Chenoo sleeping soundly by the fire which had been built for them.

This he repeated for several days. But as they went south a great change came over him. He was a being of the north. Ice and snow had no effect on him, but he could not endure the soft airs of summer. He grew weaker and weaker; when they had reached their village he had to be carried like a little child. He had grown gentle. His fierce and formidable face was now like that of a man. His wounds had healed; his teeth no longer grinned wildly all the time. The people gathered round him in wonder.

He was dying. This was after the white men had come. They sent for a priest. He found the Chenoo as ignorant of all religion as a wild beast. At first he would repel the father in anger. Then he listened and learned the truth. So the old heathen's heart changed; he was deeply moved. He asked to be baptized, and as the first tear which he had ever shed in all his life came to his eyes he died.

As there is actually a tribe of Indians in the Northwest called Chenoo, there can be little doubt as to the derivation of the name. Such a character could have originated, as I have said, only in the icy north; it could never have grown in the milder regions of the west and south. But the Chenoo, the monstrous, ferocious cannibal giant, with an icy heart, is the central figure of the evil supernatural beings of the north. The Schoolcraft traditions and Hiawatha have little to say of Titans whose heads top the clouds, who tear up forests and rend rocks, and change the whole face of Nature in their hideous battles or horrible revels. But such scenes are continually described by the Passamaquoddy and Micmac story-tellers, and they would be natural enough to Greenlanders, familiar with whales, icebergs, frozen wastes, long winter nights, and all the frozen desolation of the north.

There is a mystery connected with the eating of the liver, which is to be explained, like many other Indian mysteries, by having recourse to the Eskimo Shamanism. "In Greenland a man who has been murdered can revenge himself by rushing into him," that is, entering his soul, which can only be prevented by eating a piece of his liver."

The Chenoo is in all essentials identical with the Kivigtok of Greenland, "a man who has fled mankind, and acquired extraordinary mental and physical powers. The story which I have here given is probably that of the Eskimo tale of the Blind Man who recovered his sight, in which a Kivigtok, after becoming incredibly old, returns to mankind to seek a Shaman priest and repent. In both stories there is a "Chenoo," and in both there is atonement with mankind and the higher powers.

It may be observed that while the Chenoo is a giant with a heart of ice as hard as stone, the giant Hrungnir, of the Edda, has a heart of stone. The Chenoo agrees with the Jötuns in many respects.

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