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Native American Legends

The Guiding Duck and the Lake of Death

A Zuni Legend

Now K-yak-lu, the all-hearing and wise of speech, all alone had been journeying afar in the North Land of cold and white loneliness. He was lost, for the world in which he wandered was buried in the snow which lies spread there forever.

So cold he was that his face became wan and white from the frozen mists of his own breath, white as become all creatures who dwell there. So cold at night and dreary of heart, so lost by day and blinded by the light was he that he wept, and died of heart and became transformed as are the gods. Yet his lips called continually and his voice grew shrill and dry-sounding, like the voice of far-flying water-fowl. As he cried, wandering blindly, the water birds flocking around him peered curiously at him, calling meanwhile to their comrades. But wise though he was of all speeches, and their meanings plain to him, yet none told him the way to his country and people.

Now the Duck heard his cry and it was like her own. She was of all regions the traveler and searcher, knowing all the ways, whether above or below the waters, whether in the north, the west, the south, or the east, and was the most knowing of all creatures. Thus the wisdom of the one understood the knowledge of the other.

And the All-wise cried to her, "The mountains are white and the valleys; all plains are like others in whiteness, and even the light of our Father the Sun, makes all ways more hidden of whiteness! In brightness my eyes see but darkness."

The Duck answered: "Think no longer sad thoughts. Thou hearest all as I see all. Give me tinkling shells from thy girdle and place them on my neck and in my beak. I may guide thee with my seeing if thou hear and follow my trail. Well I know the way to thy country. Each year I lead thither the wild geese and the cranes who flee there as winter follows."

So the All-wise placed his talking shells on the neck of the Duck, and the singing shells in her beak, and though painfully and lamely, yet he followed the sound she made with the shells. From place to place with swift flight she sped, then awaiting him, ducking her head that the shells might call loudly. By and by they came to the country of thick rains and mists on the borders of the Snow World, and passed from water to water, until wider water lay in their path. In vain the Duck called and jingled the shells from the midst of the waters. K-yak-lu could neither swim nor fly as could the Duck.

Now the Rainbow-worm was near in that land of mists and waters and he heard the sound of the sacred shells.

"These be my grandchildren," he said, and called, "Why mourn ye? Give me plumes of the spaces. I will bear you on my shoulders."

Then the All-wise took two of the lightest plumewands, and the Duck her two strong feathers. And he fastened them together and breathed on them while the Rainbow-worm drew near. The Rainbow unbent himself that K-yak-lu might mount, then he arched himself high among the clouds. Like an arrow he straightened himself forward, and followed until his face looked into the Lake of the Ancients. And there the All-wise descended, and sat there alone, in the plain beyond the mountains. The Duck had spread her wings in flight to the south to take counsel of the gods.

Then the Duck, even as the gods had directed, prepared a litter of poles and reeds, and before the morning came, with the litter they went, singing a quaint and pleasant song, down the northern plain. And when they found the All-wise, he looked upon them in the starlight and wept. But the father of the gods stood over him and chanted the sad dirge rite. Then K-yak-lu sat down in the great soft litter they bore for him.

They lifted it upon their shoulders, bearing it lightly, singing loudly as they went, to the shores of the deep black lake, where gleamed from the middle the lights of the dead.

Out over the magic ladder of rushes and canes which reared itself over the water, they bore him. And K-yak-lu, scattering sacred prayer meal before him, stepped down the way, slowly, like a blind man. No sooner had he taken four steps than the ladder lowered into the deep. And the All-wise entered the council room of the gods.

The gods sent out their runners, to summon all beings, and called in dancers for the Dance of Good. And with these came the little ones who had sunk beneath the waters, well and beautiful and all seemingly clad in cotton mantles and precious neck jewels.

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