Zuni Folktales by Frank Hamilton Cushing
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THE PRAIRIE-DOGS AND THEIR PRIEST, THE BURROWING-OWL
Once, long, long ago, there stood in Prairie-dog Land a large Prairie-dog village. Prairie-dog Land is south of Zuñi, beyond Grease Mountain; and in the middle of that country, which is one of our smaller meadows, stands a mountain, which is a little mound. All round about the base of this mountain were the sky-holes and door-mounds and pathways of the grandfathers of the Prairie-dogs. In the very top of the mount was the house of an old Burrowing-owl and his wife.
One summer it rained and it rained and it rained, so that the fine fields of mitäliko (wild portulaca) were kept constantly fresh, and the Prairie-dogs had unfailing supplies of this, their favorite food. They became fat and happy, and gloried in the rain-storms that had produced such an abundant harvest for them. But still it kept raining, until by-and-by, when they descended to their fields of mitäliko, they found their feet were wet, which they did not like any more than Prairie-dogs like it today.
Now, you know that in some parts of the meadow of Prairie-dog Land are little hollows, in which the water collects when it rains hard. Just in these places were the fields of mitäliko. And still it rained and rained, until finally only the tops of the plants appeared above the waters.
Then the Prairie-dogs began to curse the rain and to fall off in flesh, for they could no longer go to the fields to collect food, and the stores in their granaries were running low. At last they grew very hungry and lean and could hardly get about, for it rained and rained day after day, so that they dare not go away from their holes, and their stores were all gone.
The old ones among the Prairie-dogs, the grandfathers, called a great council; three or four of them came out of their houses, stood up on the mounds in front of their sky-holes, and called out "Wek wek,—wek wek,—wek wek,—wek wek!" in shrill, squeaky voices, so that the women and children in the holes round about exclaimed: "Goodness, gracious! the old ones are calling a council!" And everybody trooped to the council, which was gathered round the base of the Burrowing-owl's mountain.
—-Now," said the chief spokesman or counsellor, "you see those wretched rainers keep dropping water until our fields of mitäliko are flooded. They ought to know that we are short of leg, and that we can't go into the lakes to gather food, and here we are starving. Our women are dying, our children are crying, and we can scarcely go from door to door. Now, what is to be done? How can we stop the rain?—that is the question."
They talked and talked; they devised many plans, which were considered futile, most of them having been tried already. At last a wise old gray-cheeked fellow suggested that it would be well to
apply to their grandfather, the Burrowing-owl, who lived in the top of the mountain.
"Hear! hear!" cried the council in one voice,—whereupon the old man who had spoken was chosen as messenger to the Burrowing-owl.
He climbed to the top of the mountain, with many a rest, and at last got near the doorway, and sitting down at a respectful distance, raised himself on his haunches, folded his hands across his breast, then cried out: "Wek wek,—wek wek!"
The old grandfather Burrowing-owl, not in very good humor, stepped out, blinking his eyes and asked what was the matter. He said: "It isn't your custom to come up to my house and make such a racket, though true enough it is that I hear your rackets down below. It cannot be for nothing that you come; therefore, what is your message?
"My grandfather," said the Prairie-dog, "in council we have considered how to stop the irrepressible rainers; but all of our efforts and devices are quite futile, so that we are forced to apply to you."
"Ah, indeed," said the old Owl, scratching the corner of his eye with his claw. "Go down home, and I will see what I can do tomorrow morning. As you all know very well, I am a priest. I will set aside four days for fasting and meditation and sacred labors. Please await the result."
The old Prairie-dog humbly bade him farewell and departed for his village below.
Next morning the Burrowing-owl said to his
wife: "Put on a large quantity of beans, my old one, and cook them well,—small beans, of the kind that smell not pleasantly." He then bade her "Good morning," and left. He went about for a long time, hunting at the roots of bushes. At last he found one of those ill-smelling Beetles, with its head stuck way down in the midst of the roots. He grabbed him up, notwithstanding the poor creature's remonstrances, and took him home.
When he arrived there, said he: "My friend, it seems to me you are making a great fuss about this thing, but I am not going to hurt you, except in one way,—by the presentation to you of all the food you can eat."
"Bless me!" said the Tip-beetle, bobbing his head down into the ground and rearing himself into the air. Then he sat down quite relieved and contented.
"Old woman," said the Burrowing-owl, "lay out a dish of the beans on the floor." The wife complied. "My friend," said the Burrowing-owl to the Tip-beetle, "fall to and satisfy yourself."
The Tip-beetle, with another tip, sat down before the bowl of beans. He ate, and swallowed, and gulped until he had entirely emptied the dish, and began to grow rather full of girth.
"Not yet satisfied?" asked the Owl. Old woman, lay out another bowl."
Another large bowl of the bean soup was placed before the Tip-beetle, who likewise gulped and gulped at this, and at last diminished it to nothing. Now, the Tip-beetle by this time looked like a
well-blown-up paunch. Still, when the old Owl remarked "Is there left of your capacity?" he replied: "Somewhat; by the favor of a little more, I think I shall be satisfied."
"Old woman," said the Owl, "a little more."
The old woman placed another bowl before the Tip-beetle; and he ate and ate, and swallowed and swallowed, and gulped and sputtered; but with all the standing up and wiggling of his head that he could do he could not finish the bowl; and at last, wiping the perspiration from his brow, he exclaimed: "Thanks, thanks, I am satisfied."
"Ha, indeed!" said the Owl. Both the old woman and the Tip-beetle had noticed, while the feast was going on, that the Owl had cut out a good-sized round piece of buckskin, and he was running a thread round about the edge of it, leaving two strings at either side, like the strings with which one draws together a pouch. Just as the Tip-beetle returned his thanks the old Owl had finished his work.
"My friend," said he, turning to the Tip-beetle, "you have feasted to satisfaction, and it appears to me by your motions that you are exceedingly uncomfortable, being larger of girth than is safe and well for a Tip-beetle. Perhaps you are not aware that one who eats freely of bean soup is likely to grow still larger. I would advise you, therefore, when I lay this pouch on the floor, with the mouth of it toward you, to run your head into it and exhale as much wind as possible; and to facilitate this I will squeeze you slightly."
The Tip-beetle was not very well pleased with the proposition; still he by no means refused to comply.
"You see," continued the Owl, "you are at once to be relieved of the serious consequences of your gluttony, while at the same time paying for your food."
"Now, this is an excellent idea, upon my word," replied the Tip-beetle, and forthwith he thrust himself into the bag. The old Owl embraced the Tip-beetle and gently squeezed him, increasing the pressure as time went on, until a large amount of his girth had been diminished; but behold! the girth of the bag was swelled until it was so full with struggling wind that it could hardly be tied up
Outside, the rain was rattling, rattling.
Said the old Owl to the Tip-beetle: "My friend, if you do not mind the rain, which I dare say you do not, you may now return to your home. Many thanks for your assistance."
The Tip-beetle, likewise with expression of thanks, took his departure.
When the morning of the fourth day came, and the rain still continued, in fact increased, the old Owl took the bag of wind out to the mount before his doorway.
Now, you know that if one goes near a Tip-beetle and disturbs him, that Tip-beetle will rear himself on his hands and head and disgorge breath of so pungent a nature that nobody can withstand it. Woe to the nose of that man who is in the neighborhood! It will be so seared with this over-powering odor
that it cannot sneeze, though desiring never so much to do so. You know, also, if you touch a Tip-beetle who is angry, all the good water in Zuñi River will not remove from your fingers the memory of that Beetle, whenever you chance to smell of them. And you know, also, how small stewed beans with thick skins affect one. Conceive, then, the power of the medicine contained in that little bag.
The old Owl, taking up a stick, hit the bag one whack. The clouds, before so thick, glaring with lightning, trembling and swirling with thunder, now began to thin out in the zenith and depart, and the sunlight sifted through. The Owl hit the bag another stroke,—behold, afar off scudded the clouds as before a fierce blast. Again the old Owl hit the bag. The clouds were resting on the far away mountain-tops before he had lowered his stick. Then, with one mighty effort, he gave the bag a final whack, wholly emptying it of its contents, and the sky was as clear as it is on a summer's day in the noon-time of a drought. So potent was this all-penetrating and irresistible odor, that even the Rain-gods themselves could not withstand it, and withdrew their forces and retired before it.
Out from their holes trooped the Prairie-dogs, and sitting up on their haunches all round about the mountain, they shouted at the tops of their shrill voices, "Wek wek,—wek wek, —wek wek!" in praise of their great priest, the Grandfather Burrowing-owl.
Behold, thus it was in the days of the ancients.
And for that reason prairie-dogs and burrowing-owls have always been great friends. And the burrowing-owls consider no place in the world quite so appropriate for the bringing forth, hatching, and rearing of their children as the holes of the prairie-dogs.
Thus shortens my story.
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