(from the Colville Native American tradition)
Long before humans were born most all the animals felt pretty gray. Was it because the sky was always gray and always about to rain? Was it because there was never enough to go around? Never enough to eat? Never enough comfort?
All day long the animals scratched out a living. They knew they were missing something, but none of them could figure out what it was. This made them feel pretty grouchy. At night they came together to puzzle and fret over how bad their day had been—Mine was bad—No, mine was badder—Don’t you know, mine was baddest of all.
Bears couldn’t muck out enough skunk cabbage. Black-tailed deer couldn’t quite reach those high willow shoots to nibble. Termites weren’t giving themselves up to the crows and flickers. Moles broke ground, coming up for air just starving for bugs and worms. Then all the animals would go to sleep in a bad mood. This went on forever. Or it seemed like forever. How bad was your day? Oh, mine was worse. No, mine! NO, MINE—WORST OF ALL!
One evening a crow flew in a little late to the gathering. He began cawing and cawing and made a scene. They told him to pipe down.
“No, no, this is big. I saw something.”
“Something? You saw something? Is this one of your jokes?”
“No, something BIG! A hole in the sky, right up there. Look up, go on and look!”
They all craned their necks but the sky was turning dark.
The squirrel chirped. “Looks like rain, I gotta scramble.”
“No, no,” the crow cawed. “Listen—up there. Can’t you hear those beautiful sounds?”
They all cocked their ears toward the darkening sky. Even the mole twisted and strained. “I don’t see. I don’t hear.” His ears were too tiny and his eyes were just dots.
“Wait, wait, listen.” The crow hopped around in the circle. “It’s all so beautiful. Come on, try to listen.”
They listened and they heard the faintest sounds coming on the breeze, floating down from a hole up there in the dark. But the sounds faded, and everyone was too tired to listen anymore. They crawled into their hovels or fluttered up to their branches, and fell asleep.
Next day the crow was chasing off the red-tailed hawk, and they both saw that hole in the sky, still up there, and they heard those beautiful sounds. That evening, as they told everyone, the sounds floated in on the breeze. Everyone listened. Everyone wanted to hear more.
Red-tail shook his feathers and strutted around. “If I can exercise and eat right I’ll get so strong that I can fly up there and catch some of those sounds. I’ll bring them down.”
Everyone liked this plan—everyone but rabbits and mice and moles. They scurried underground. But they didn’t need to worry. A bear brought a big salmon to the hawk, and so he was well-fed every day with salmon for a week. He exercised and built up his flight muscles.
Frogs croaked in the marshes. Birds chattered in the branches. The hawk straightened his red tail and fluffed up his back feathers. A hermit thrush hopped out from a bush. He saw the hawk’s fluffiness and flew onto the hawk’s back. The hermit thrush liked it there, soft as a mossy nest. And red-tail didn’t even feel him.
The hawk clamped down his back feathers and trapped the thrush inside. Red-tail didn’t know it. He flew away, up toward that hole in the sky and the beautiful sounds. He circled higher, circled higher and higher. But red-tail couldn’t quite fly there. He swooped and tried again. But the air was too thin. He was too exhausted. He was too heavy. So he fell back down.
As soon as he started to fall, his back feathers loosened and let go of the hermit thrush. Little gray bird wasn’t too heavy or out of strength. This air was not too thin for him. He flew right up into that hole in the sky toward all those beautiful sounds.
He fluttered through those vibrating sounds. They made him feel like a chick again, and like a chick he opened his mouth wide, and even WIDER. Beautiful sounds flooded in and kept flooding in, so that he felt light and happy. With them inside, he dove back down to the forest.
But the animals were gone. That big hawk brought back nothing, only one more bitter failure. They all went home. And here was the hermit thrush, all alone, wanting to share this beauty inside him. So he found the bears, opened his mouth and coughed up big grumbles. He flew over the deer and whistled into them sniffs and squeals. To crows, flickers, and chickadees he gave chortles, pipings and little peeps. He gave croaks to the frogs and squeaks to the mice, and he almost missed the mole in the ground. He gave him just that tiny grunt.
But the hermit thrush kept all the most beautiful sounds for himself. On a lazy afternoon, hidden in the forest, he’ll sing out a trill in the gray air, running up high—and higher—the way he remembers from that hole in the sky.