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Stone Boat

( Originally Published 1917 )

AT night about the lodge fires the old men tell that many years ago, before the white men came, there lived in a village of the Six Nations, Abeka, a young hunter, who was straight and tall and keen of eye. All of the signs of the forest were to him as spoken words, and he knew all the woodland paths and the trails of the wilderness from the great portages of the north to the great falls. Some said he could talk with the birds and the little creatures of the woods. He knew the ancient songs of his people, and more than one dusky maiden hoped for the sound of his wooing flute. At last his fancy turned toward a girl of his own village, a slim black-haired maiden of his tribe. Before the moon of strawberries had waned their marriage was arranged, and runners hurried away to the neighboring villages with summons to the wedding feast.

The young hunter brought to the hut of his love the soft pelts of the deer and of the beaver. Baskets and blankets, beads and quill embroideries, were gathered in the huts of the related families, and even the dogs of the village scented the coming feast. But even as the runners went forth with the tidings a strange sickness fell upon the girl, and although the priests and doctors beat their drums and said their incantations, and the women wailed and lamented, the promised bride faded suddenly to her death and was buried by the wailing women in a grove beyond the village.

Day after day Abeka went out alone and inconsolable to wander through the forest, or to crouch near the body of his beloved among the silent trees. The old men spoke gravely of his renown as a hunter and sought to arouse his pride and turn his thoughts back onto the bright course of youth, but nothing availed to break the gloom of his despair or lighten the dark current of his musings. Many days, with fasting and prayer, he spent near the body among the trees, and sought to thrust aside the veil which separated him from the one whom he had loved. All of the traditions of his people he turned over in his mind and strove to discover in the winter gloom of the snow-cold forest the beginning of that path which the old men said led from the land of the living to the land of souls.

As he thus sat mourning on a winter night a dark cloud shadow shut out the moonlight and in the moment of half darkness his startled eyes saw the trees about him change their places and silently fade back from before him. The shadow swept away and there in the moonlight, glittering with its carpet of snow, lay a broad path leading away to the south. Taking up his bundle and his bow and arrows he set out eagerly, followed by his faithful dog, along this trail of light. Many a day he tramped on through the snows that now seemed to thin away beneath his feet, and across frozen streams which at last gave away to broken ice and then to living water. Over hills and through great silent valleys he followed the path, now leading into green fields under sunny skies, through the sapling groves fresh with the verdure of summer and alive with the music of birds. Squirrels chattered at him from the boughs, and the red fox slipped across his path, and so he passed out of the stark brilliance of winter into the gardens of spring, and out of spring into the warm fulness of summer. Striding happily along through this verdant land he came to a great grove of beeches and of cedars whose floor was carpeted with flowers, and he passed quickly through it and up to the crest of the ridge over which the grove ran, and there the path led straight to the door of a rustic lodge. Before it stood an old man with long snow-white hair. His deep-set eyes were as brilliant as the winter stars, and over his shoulders fell a robe of skins and he held a staff in his hand.

Abeka began boldly and eagerly to tell of his long journey, but the old man stopped him. "I expected you," he said, "and have just risen to bid you welcome to my abode. She whom you seek passed here but a short time since, and being fatigued with her journey, rested here. You too, enter my lodge and rest and I will then satisfy your inquiries and give you directions for your journey." The young hunter, who so long had been buoyed up by the earnestness of his quest, felt suddenly the fulness of his hunger and fatigue, and went into the lodge and refreshed himself and lay down upon a couch of boughs. After a deep sleep he arose and came out to find the old man still standing in the doorway.

"You see yonder gulf," he said, "and the wide-spreading plain. Beyond it is the land of souls. You stand upon its border and my lodge is the gate of entrance, but you can-not take your body with you. Leave it here with your bow and arrows, your bundle, and your dog. You shall find them safe upon your return."

He stepped to the youth and laid his withered hand upon him, and suddenly the young man felt a new vigor and lightness and started forward upon the plain. As he went, the birds sang to him, and all the creatures of the woods and of the plain seemed to greet him, and to speak to him, and all the world seemed natural and real except the trees and they, to his astonishment, offered no barrier to his passage, and he seemed to pass right through them. All day he journeyed thus joyously over the grassy plain until he came to the edge of a broad lake. Far out upon it he saw the shining shores of an island which seemed like a rapturous vision of eternal and happy life thus set apart in the clear waters of the lake. Joyfully he ran to the margin and found there a stout canoe. He was puzzled by its whiteness, and his heart sank as he saw, upon approaching, that the canoe was of stone. But the spell of the old man was still upon him and he confidently grasped the boat and pushed it out into the water and fearlessly jumped into it.

As a mere boy he had learned to handle a canoe, as a youth he had journeyed far in the frail craft of his people, framed with strips of sapling, covered with the clear bark of the birch tree and sealed with pitch. So he confidently balanced himself in his stone boat, seized a stout paddle which lay in the bottom and drove its blade sharply into the waters of the lake. He was charmed by the soft air, the brilliant sunshine and the voices of birds, and could not take his eyes from the sparkling waters in which the boat seemed to hang suspended. Hearing the stroke of a paddle he looked up and saw another canoe approaching. It too was of stone, and as he gazed, his paddle stroke unfinished, the face in the other boat turned toward him and with a rush of joy he recognized the lost one whom he had so long sought. Together, with dashing strokes, they directed their course toward the island in the lake and it seemed to him that now his quest had succeeded no peril of any world could daunt him, but as they approached the island they saw great waves with lofty crests rushing toward them and he cried out in fear lest they be lost. But as they entered the first bubbling foreswell of each wave, the following mass seemed to melt away before them only to disclose the new terror of a following wave. Through the clear water they saw far below heaps of bones, which, the hunter believed must be the bones of those who had failed in this last test of his journey. Others he saw struggling and sinking through the clear depths, and he noticed that only canoes of little children met no waves in their journey.

At last they reached the white beach of the beautiful island, and, hand in hand, and with their faces shining with joy, they left their canoes and wandered happily along its shores. Abeka knew from the trees and the birds that cold never came to this land; that its people never knew want or sorrow or sickness or starvation, and that it was always a land of joy and of plenty. In a tumult of thank-fulness and joy he put his arms about the girl for whom he had so long grieved, and began to tell her of his long journey. A vision of the old man came to his mind and with it the remembrance that he had left his body at the lodge and must return for it. All the joy seemed to have gone from him and his confidence gave way to an uncertainty and bitterness that were almost pain. He slipped to his knees upon the white sand and buried his face in his hands as he heard a voice, as of the Master of Life, saying : "Go back to the land from whence you came, your time has not yet come. The duties for which I made you and which you are to perform are unfinished. Return to your people and accomplish the acts of a good man. You will be the ruler of your tribe for many days. The rules you will observe will be told you by my messenger who keeps the gate. When he surrenders back your body he will tell you what to do. Listen to him and you shall afterward rejoin the spirit which you have followed, but whom you must now leave behind. She is accepted and will be ever here as young and as happy as she was when I first called her from the land of snows."

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