The Wife of the Thunderer
An Iroquois Legend
Many years ago a young woman lived with her father's sister in the village of Gaugwa, close to the great falls of Neahga. Her other relatives had died of the sickness which came each year to the people of her village. Although she was beautiful, hardworking and kind to everyone, she was not treated well. She was dressed in the oldest clothing and made to do the worst tasks. Despite it all, her beauty shone through the dirt and ragged clothes. Many men thought they would be glad to marry her, but her aunt would give no man permission even to visit their Lodge. As the years passed by, Ahweyoh-whose name means Water Lily-became more and more certain that she would never be allowed to marry.
Then one day, during the moon when raspberries ripens as Ahweyoh was grinding corn her aunt came to her with a wide smile on her face.
"Make ready, Girl," the aunt said. "Tomorrow you will carry marriage bread to the man who will be your husband."
Ahweyoh's heart lifted in her chest like a hummingbird taking flight. "Who is the man I am to marry? Is it Big Tree? Is it Grey Eagle?"
"Neh," said the aunt, "I would never allow you to marry any young boaster such as those two. I have found a perfect husband for you. Tomorrow you will become the second wife of Sweaty Hands."
Sweaty Hands! Of all the men in the village there was no one more unpleasant. It was said that he beat his wife so badly that often she could not walk for a whole day's journey of the sun across the sky. His face was as ugly as his manners. He was short and fat as a woodchuck in the summer and he never had a good word for anyone. He was even said to be a coward in battle. It was rumoured that the wealth he had in his lodge had been gained only by treachery or by evil medicine.
"My aunt," Ahweyoh said, "you are teasing me. Surely you do not want me to marry that awful man."
But the aunt did not smile. Instead her face grew ugly as Sweaty Hands.
"Girl," said the aunt in a loud and angry voice, "I will not allow you to speak that way of a man who has given me such fine presents for your worthless self! You will carry the marriage bread to him tomorrow or I'll whip the skin off your back." To prove her point the aunt took a willow switch and brought it down several times across the girl's shoulders until the switch broke. Then, turning her back, the aunt walked away and left Ahweyoh weeping. She did not hear the words which her niece spoke in a soft but determined voice.
"Neh," Ahweyoh said, "I will never marry such a man. First I will die."
That night, when Grandmother Moon looked down from her sky and all others in the village slept, a single small bark canoe left the shores of Cayuga Creek. Her paddle moving with short sure strokes, its lone passenger steered the boat into the rushing waters of the Niagara River. Down stream the rumbling noise of the great falls of Neahga could be heard. Then, as the current swept her faster and faster downstream, Ahweyoh threw away her paddle.
"Forgive me, my parents," she said, raising her hands. "Now I must join you in death. I give myself into the hands of the Thunderers whose voices come from the great falls." Folding her hands in heap, she sat calmly as the bark canoe rushed downstream, was lifted as if it weighed no more than a drifting leaf and catapulted over the lip of the great falls. She closed her eyes, waiting to he smashed to pieces on the rocks below.
But, instead of striking foaming water and great stones, she felt herself land on something which stopped her fall. She opened her eyes. She was at the base of the falls. In front of her like a great wall of ice flowed the falling water and her face was moist with the mist. She was resting on a big blanket which was held firmly by three men. Ahweyoh looked at them and then looked quickly away. Surely this was a dream. They were dressed in warrior costume and on the head of each was a single large feather. They were more handsome and strong than any men she had ever seen before.
One warrior was taller than the others. On his back was a pack basket filled with pieces of flint stone. "Little Sister," said the tallest of the men, "We heard you call our name. Often have we watched you from above as you worked without complaining. We have seen how you always give thanks for the fruits of the earth and for the good rain which we send. It was not right that one such as you should end her life in this way."
Ahweyoh could hardly believe her ears. This man was He-noh, the Thunderer and the others were his helpers. These men were the ones who ranged the sky, sending down the rain to help the earth, the ones whose lightning bolts terrified evildoers and protected the good. Often had she heard it said that the Thunderers lived beneath the great falls, liking the sound of its thunder. Now she knew it was true.
"Nyah-weh," she said, "I thank you for my life." All three of the men smiled at her. "Come," said the leader. His voice was deep and rumbled like the thunder, yet it was filled with peace. "You shall stay with us now."
So it was that Water Lily came to dwell with the Thunderers. As time went on it became clear that there was love between her and the leader of the Thunderers and the two were married. Things went on happily for them and when the space of four seasons had passed Ahweyoh gave birth to a son.
"Now, my wife," said He-noh, "You must go for a time to live among your own people. Our son must know what it is like to be a human being. When the time is right, you shall return to us again."
"Nyoh," Ahweyoh said. It was right. Though she had been badly treated by the aunt, she longed to see her own people again. Their son should know something of the human world.
"Now listen well," said He-noh. "These are matters of great importance. As you bring up our son you must remember to keep him hidden away. Tell no one who his father is. As he grows, caution him never to grow angry at anyone. As long as he remembers this, he can remain among human beings.
"Now that you are returning to your people, I must tell you why it is that so many have died of sickness. Under your village in a great burrow lives a monstrous snake. This snake eats the bodies of your people after they die and have been buried. It does not come out of the earth for fear we will kill it with our lightning stones. It goes to the places where your people drink and it poisons the waters so they will die in numbers to satisfy its appetite. This it does once a year. Then it sleeps until again it feels hunger. Soon it will wake again. Before it wakens, you must tell your people to move to the Buffalo Creek."
Bearing her husband's words in mind, Ahweyoh returned to her people at Gaugwa. Her face shone like a cloud touched by the sun and her clothing was so fine and beautiful that the people did not recognize her. But Sweaty Hands and the aunt thought this strange woman with a child whose face was covered in its cradle board looked something like that girl they had lost. To the Clan Mothers Ahweyoh spoke her words of warning with such simple eloquence that they were convinced of the truth. They in turn spoke to the Council of Elders and before three sunrises had come and gone the whole village had moved to Buffalo Creek.
That night the monstrous serpent woke. It crawled through its burrows to poison the springs. Then it waited in a hole beneath the place where the Gaugwa people buried their dead. For the space of a moon it waited, yet no dead bodies were buried. Its hunger grew greater and greater. Finally it pushed its head out of the earth to see what was wrong. Around it was a deserted village.
The monstrous serpent grew angry. How could they dare to move away! Scenting the trail they had taken, it came out of the ground, heedless of danger. It crawled into the lake where their canoes had gone and began to go up Buffalo Creek.
Looking down from a cloud in the sky, He-noh and his warriors saw that the time was right. As the serpent came up the narrow creek, its body filling it from one bank to the other, He-noh hurled a thunder stone. It struck the serpent in its side, making a terrible wound. The monster squirmed and thrashed about, trying to turn around and seek the safety of the deeper water, but the Thunderers struck again and again. To this day the banks of that stream are curved in the spot where the monstrous serpent shoved against its sides.
At last the monster was dead. It began to float downstream and entered the river. Down it floated until it reached the great falls and lodged against the stones, its body stretching across the river like a broken circle. For a time the water was held back. Then a great piece of the falls broke away. The place where the monstrous serpent's body became caught is today called the Horseshoe Falls. As the stones fell, they destroyed the place where the Thunderers had lived. Though the great falls still echo their voices, no longer would He-noh and his helpers dwell beneath the falls. From that day forward, their dwelling place on earth has been far to the west.
Now the people of Gaugwa were happy. They gave great honour to Ahweyoh and built for her a lodge at the edge of the village. She asked to be allowed to live there in seclusion and no one thought of troubling her... except the aunt and Sweaty Hands. The aunt began to spread stories about this woman with a baby and no husband. Sweaty Hands asked again and again why it was that no one was allowed to see the child's face. Most of the people would not listen to such gossip, saying that Hawenio, our Creator, did not like human beings to talk badly about each other, but still the aunt and Sweaty Hands persisted. Seasons came and went. The baby grew to be a small boy crawling about the floor of the lodge, but still no one was allowed to see his face.
Finally, one night, the aunt and Sweaty Hands could stand it no longer. They would go together and confront this woman who so resembled their Ahweyoh of old. If indeed she was that girl, she would be forced to marry Sweaty hands, baby or not! The aunt brought a willow switch and Sweaty Hands carried a stick which was shaped like a snake. Some of the people in the village saw where they were headed and thought to stop them, but a wise old woman shook her head.
"Neh," she said, "wait a bit. Those who think evil of others usually bring it upon themselves."
When the aunt and Sweaty Hands reached the lodge of Ahweyoh and her son, they paused at the door. A stick had been leaned across the doorway. This meant that those within the lodge did not wish to be disturbed. They paid no attention and pushed their way in. There, in front of a small fire, sat Ahweyoh. Across from her, his back turned to them, her small son sat, playing with some chips of flint. "Ha-a-ah," said the aunt in her loud angry voice, "now I know you, my niece. You will come with us now and marry this man as I promised." She stepped across the fire and grabbed Ahweyoh by the arm. raising the switch to strike her. Sweaty Hands stepped forward to grab Ahweyoh's other arm, but as he did so he looked for the first time into the face of Ahweyoh's son.
The eyes of the boy caught his attention. At first they were the clear blue of a calm sky, but as they took in the sight of these two people threatening his mother, they became as grey and dark as a thundercloud. With an angry shout the boy hurled the chips of flint in his small hands at the two intruders. Immediately two bolts of lightning struck the aunt and Sweaty Hands. When the smoke cleared, Ahweyoh and her son stood there alone.
From the sky came a great cloud. As it touched the earth He-noh and his two helpers stepped down.
"Now," said He-noh, "it is time for you both to return to us."
And so it was. Ahweyoh and the son of He-noh joined him. From that day there were four Thunderers, for the boy grew up to join his father. At times, though, the Thunder Boy comes down and walks on the earth, remembering the short time when he was a human being. And when storms roll across the sky you can sometimes hear the lightning answer from below as Thunder Boy and his father speak to each other.
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