Child of the Evening Star and birth of the Little People
An Ojibwa Legend
Once long ago, on the shores of the great lake, there lived a hunter who had ten beautiful young daughters. Their hair was as dark and glossy as the wings of the blackbird and when they walked or ran it was with the grace and freedom of the deer in the forest.
Thus it was that many suitors came to court them -- brave and handsome young men, straight as arrows, fleet of foot, who could travel from sun to sun without fatigue. They were sons of the prairie, wonderful horsemen who would ride at breakneck speed without saddle or stirrup. They could catch a wild horse with a noose, tame him in a magical way by breathing into his nostrils, then mount him and gallop off as if he had always been ridden. There were those also who came from afar in canoes, across the waters of the great lake, canoes which shot swiftly along, urged by the strong, silent sweep of the paddle.
All of them brought gifts with which they hope to gain the father's favor. Feathers from the wings of the eagle who soars high up near the sun; furs of fox and beaver and the thick, curly hair of the bison; beads of many colors and wampum, the shells that the Indians used for money; the quills of the porcupine and the claws of the grizzly bear; deerskin dressed to such softness that it crumble in the hands -- these and many more other things they brought.
One by one the daughters were wooed and married, until nine of them had chosen husbands. One by one other tents were raised to that instead of the single family lodge on the shores of the lake there were tents enough to form a little village. The country was a rich one and there was game and fish enough for all.
There remained the youngest daughter, Oweenee -- the fairest of them all. Gentle as she was beautiful, none was so kind of heart. Unlike her proud and talkative elder sisters, Oweenee was shy and modest and spoke but little.
She loved to wander alone in the woods with no company but the birds and squirrels and her own thoughts.
What these thoughts were we can only guess, but from her dreamy eyes and sweet expression, one could suppose that nothing selfish or mean or hateful ever came into her mind. Yet Oweenee, modest though she was, had a spirit of her own. More than one suitor had found this out. More than one conceited young man, confident that he could win her, went away crestfallen when Oweenee began to laugh at him.
The truth is Oweenee seemed hard to please. Suitor after suitor came -- handsome, tall young men, the handsomest and the bravest in all the surrounding country. Yet this fawn-eyed maiden would have none of them. One was too tall, another too short. One was too thin, another too fat. At least, those were the excuses she gave for sending them away. Her proud sisters had little patience with her. She seemed to be questioning their own taste, for Oweenee, had she said the word, might have gained a husband more attractive than any of theirs. Yet no one was good enough. They could not understand her, so they ended up despising her as a silly and unreasonable girl.
Her father, too, who loved her dearly and wished her to be happy, was much puzzled. "Tell me, my daughter," he said to her one day, "is it your wish to never marry? The handsomest young men in the land have sought you in marriage and you have sent them all away -- often with a poor excuse. Why is it?"
Oweenee looked at him with her large, dark eyes.
Father," she said at last. "It is not that I am willful. But it seems somehow as if I had the power to look into the hearts of men. It is the heart of a man and not his face that really matters. And I have not yet found one youth who in this sense is really beautiful."Soon after, a strange thing happened. There came into the little village an Indian named Osseo, many years older than Oweenee. He was poor and ugly, too. Yet Oweenee married him.
How the tongues of her nine proud sisters did wag! Had the spoiled little thing lost her mind? they asked. Oh, well! They always knew she would come to a bad end, but it was pretty hard on the family.
Of course they could not know what Oweenee had seen at once -- that Osseo had a generous nature and a heart of gold, that beneath his outward ugliness was the beauty of a noble mind and the fire and passion of a poet. That is why Oweenee loved him.
Now, although Oweenee did not suspect it, Osseo was really a beautiful youth on whom an evil spell had been cast. He was in truth the son of the king of the Evening Star -- the star that shines so gloriously in the western sky, just above the rim of the earth as the sun is setting. Often on a clear evening it hung suspended in the purple twilight like some glittering jewel. So close it seemed, and so friendly, that the little children would reach out their hands, thinking that they might grasp it before it was swallowed by the night, and keep it always for their own. But the older ones would say, "Surely it must be a bead on the garments of the Great Spirit as he walks in the evening through the garden of the heavens."
Little did they know that poor, ugly Osseo had really descended from that star. And when he, too, stretched out his arms toward it, and murmured words they could not understand, they all made fun of him.
There came a time when a great feast was prepared in a neighboring village and all of Oweenee's kinfolk were invited to attend.
They set out on foot -- the nine proud sisters, with their husbands, walking ahead, much pleased with themselves and their finery, and all chattering like magpies. But Oweenee walked behind in silence, and with her walked Osseo.
The sun had set. In the purple twilight, over the edge of the earth, sparkled the Evening Star. Osseo, pausing, stretched out his hands toward it, as if imploring pity. But when the others saw him in this attitude they all made merry, laughing and joking and making unkind remarks.
"Instead of looking up at the sky," said one of the sisters, "he had better be looking on the ground. Or else he may stumble and break his neck." Then calling back to him she cried, "Look out! Here's a big log. Do you think you can manage to climb over it?"
Osseo did not answer, but when he came to the log he paused again. It was the trunk of a huge oak tree blown down by the wind. There it had lain for years, just as it fell, and the leaves of many summers lay thick upon it. There was one thing, however, but the sisters had not noticed. The tree trunk was a solid one, but hollow, and so big around that a man could walk inside it from one end to the other without stopping.
But Osseo did not pause because he was unable to climb over it. There was something mysterious and magical in the appearance of the great hollow trunk. He gazed at it a long time, as if he had seen it in a dream and had been looking for it ever since.
"What is it, Osseo?" asked Oweenee, touching him on the arm. "Do you see something that I cannot see?"
But Osseo only gave a shout that echoed through the forest, and he leaped inside the log. Then as Oweenee, a little alarmed, stood there waiting, a man came out from the other end.
Could this be Osseo? Yes, it was he -- but how transformed! No longer bent and ugly, no longer weak or ailing, but a beautiful youth -- vigorous and straight and tall. His enchantment was at an end. He smoked his pipe to give thanks to the Creator.
But the evil spell had not been wholly lifted, after all. As Osseo approached he saw that a great change was taking place in his loved one. Her glossy black hair was turning white, deep wrinkles lined her face, she walked with a feeble step, leaning on a staff. Although he had regained his youth and beauty, she had suddenly grown old.
"Oh, my dearest one!" he cried. "The Evening Star has mocked me in letting this misfortune come upon you. Better far had I remained as I was. Gladly would I have borne the insults and laughter of your people rather that you should be made to suffer."
"As long as you love me," answered Oweenee, "I am perfectly content. If I had the choice to make, and only one of us could be young and fair, it is you that I would wish to be beautiful.
Then he took her in his arms and caressed her, vowing that he loved her more than ever for her goodness of heart. And together they walked hand in hand, as lovers do.
When the proud sisters saw what had happened they could scarcely believe their eyes. They looked enviously at Osseo, who was now far handsomer than any one of their husbands and much their superior in every other way. In his eyes was the wonderful light of the Evening Star, and he spoke all men turned to listen and admire him. But the hardhearted sisters had no pity for Oweenee. Indeed, it rather pleased them to see that she could no longer dim their beauty and realize that people would no longer be singing her praises in their jealous ears.
The feast was spread and all made merry except Osseo. He sat like one in a dream, neither eating nor drinking. From time to time he would press Oweenee's hand and speak a word of comfort in her ear. But for the most part he sat there gazing through the door of the tipi at the star-besprinkled sky.
Soon a silence fell on all the company. From out of the night, from the dark, mysterious forest, came the sound of music -- a low, sweet music that was like, yet unlike, the song sung by the thrush in summer twilight. It was magical music such as none had ever heard, coming, as it seemed, from a great distance and rising and falling on the quiet summer evening. All those at the feast wondered as they listened. And well they might! For what to them was only music, was to Osseo a voice that he understood, a voice from the sky itself, the voice of the Evening Star. These were the words that he heard:
"Suffer no more, my son, for the evil spell is broken and hereafter no magician shall work you harm. Suffer no more. For the time has come when you shall leave the earth and dwell here with me in the heavens. Before you is a dish on which my light has fallen, blessing it and giving it a magic virtue. Eat of this dish, Osseo, and all will be well."
So Osseo tasted the food before him and behold! The tipi began to tremble, and rose slowly into the air; up, up above the treetops -- up, up toward the stars. As it rose the things within it were wondrously changed. The kettles of clay became bowls of silver, the wooden dishes were scarlet shells, while the bark of the roof and the poles supporting it were transformed into some glittering substance that sparkled in the rays of the stars. Higher and higher it rose. Then the nine proud sisters and their husbands were all changed into birds. The men became robins, thrushes, and woodpeckers. The sisters were changed into various birds with bright plumage. The four who had chattered most, whose tongues were always wagging, now appeared in the feathers of the magpie and the blue jay.
Osseo sat gazing at Oweenee. Would she, too, change into a bird and be lost to him? The very thought of it made him bow his head with grief. Then, as he looked at her once more, he saw her beauty suddenly restored, while the color of her garments was to be found only where the rainbows are made.
Again the tipi swayed and trembled as the currents of the air bore it higher and higher, into and above the clouds. Up, up, up -- until at last it settled gently on the land of the Evening Star.
Osseo and Oweenee caught all the birds and put them in a great silver cage where they seemed quite content in each other's company. Scarcely was this done when Osseo's father, the king of the Evening Star, came to greet them. He was attired in a flowing robe, spun from stardust, and his long white hair hung like a cloud on his shoulders.
"Welcome," he said, "my dear children. Welcome to the kingdom in the sky that has always awaited you. The trials you have passed through have been bitter, but you have borne them bravely and now you will be rewarded for all your courage and devotion. Here you will live happily. Yet of one thing you must beware."
He pointed to a little star in the distance -- a little winking star, hidden from time to time by a cloud of vapor.
"On that star," he continued, "lives a magician named Wabeno. He has the power to dart his rays, like so many arrows, at those he wishes to injure. He has always been my enemy. It was he who changed Osseo into an old man and cast him down on the earth. Be careful that his light does not fall on you. Luckily, his power for evil has been greatly weakened, for the friendly clouds have come to my assistance and form a screen of vapor through which his arrows cannot penetrate."
The happy pair fell upon their knees and kissed his hands in gratitude.
"But these birds," said Osseo, rising and pointing to the cage. "Is this also the work of Wabeno, the magician?"
"No," answered the king of the Evening Star. "It was my own power, the power of love, that caused your tipi to rise and bear you here. It was likewise my power that the envious sisters and their husbands were transformed into birds. Because they hated you and mocked you, and were cruel and scornful to the weak and the old, I have done this thing. It is not so great a punishment as they deserve. Here in the silver cage they will be happy enough, proud of their handsome plumage, strutting and twittering to their hearts' content. Hang the cage there, at the doorway of my dwelling. They shall be well cared for."
Thus it was that Osseo and Oweenee came to live in the kingdom of the Evening Star and, as the years passed by, the little winking star where Wabeno, the magician, lived grew pale and paler and dim and dimmer, until it quite lost its power to harm. Meanwhile, a little son had come to make their happiness more perfect. He was a charming boy with dark, dreamy eyes of his mother and the strength and courage of Osseo.
It was a wonderful place for a little boy to live -- close to the stars and the moon, with the sky so near that it seemed a kind of curtain for his bed and all the glory of the heavens spread out before him. But sometimes he was lonely and wondered what Earth was like -- the Earth his father and mother had come from. He could see it far, far below -- so fare that it looked no bigger than an orange. And sometimes he would stretch out his hands toward it, just as the little children on Earth stretch out their hands for the moon.
His father had made him a bow, with little arrows, and this was a great delight to him. But still he was lonely and wondered what the little boys and girls on Earth were doing, and whether they would be nice to play with. Earth must be a pretty place, he thought, with so many people living on it. His mother had told him strange stories of that faraway land, with its lovely lakes and rivers, its great green forests where the deer and the squirrel lived, and the yellow rolling prairies swarming with buffalo.
These birds, too, in the great silver cage had come from Earth, he was told. And there were thousands and thousands just like them, as well as others even more beautiful that he had never seen at all. Swans with long, curved necks, that floated gracefully on the waters, whippoorwills that called at night from the woods, the robin redbreast, the dove, and the swallow. What wonderful birds they must be!
Sometimes he would sit near the cage, trying to understand the language of the feathered creatures inside. One day a strange idea came into his head. He would open the door of the cage and let them out. Then they would fly back to Earth and perhaps they would take him with them. When his father and mother missed him they would be sure to follow him to Earth, and then --
He could not quite see how it would all end. But he found himself quite close to the cage, and the first thing he knew he had opened the door and let out all the birds. Round and round they flew. And now he was half sorry, and a little afraid as well. If the birds flew back to Earth and left him there what would his grandfather say?
"Come back, comeback!" he called.
But the birds only flew around him in circles and paid no attention to him. At any moment they might be winging their way to Earth.
"Come back, I tell you" he cried, stamping his foot and waving his little bow. "Come back, I say, or I'll shoot you."
Then, as they would not obey him, he fitted an arrow to his bow and let it fly. So well did he aim that the arrow sped through the plumage of a bird, and the feathers fell all around. The bird itself, a little stunned but not much hurt, fell down and a tiny trickle of blood stained the ground where it lay. But it was no longer a bird, with an arrow in its wing. Instead there lay in its place a beautiful young woman.
Now, no one who lives in the stars is ever permitted to shed blood, whether it be of man, beast, or bird. So when the few drops fell up the Evening Star everything was changed. The boy suddenly found himself sinking slowly downward, held up by invisible hands, yet ever sinking closer and closer to Earth. Soon he could see its green hills and the swans floating on the water. Until at last he rested on a grassy island in a great lake. Lying there, and looking up at the sky, he could see the tipi descending, too. Down it softly drifted, until it in turn sank upon the island. And in it were his father and mother, Osseo and Oweenee -- returned to Earth, to live once more among men and women and to teach them how to live. For they had learned many things in their life upon the Evening Star and the children of Earth would be better for the knowledge.
As they stood there, hand in hand, all the enchanted birds came fluttering after them, falling and fluttering through the air. Then as each one touched the Earth it was no longer a bird but a human being...
Each was a human being, yet not quite as before. For now they were only dwarfs, Little People, or Puk-Wudjies, as the Indians called them. Happy Little People they became, seen only by a few. Fishermen, they say, would sometimes get a glimpse of them dancing on a summer night in the light of the Evening Star.
The Little People became great helpers to humans. They warn of pending danger and find plants deep in the forest to cure the sick. It is now a custom to honor the Little People with gifts tied to tiny poles stuck in the ground near the place where they live.
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