A tale by Eugene Marckx
Long ago when the first people lived on the earth a young man left all his family, and his tribe, and went out on his own across the hills. Did his folks miss him? Did he ever think of going back? No one knows. He wandered through river valleys and over high ridges, hunting and fishing. Some days he had plenty and some days nothing at all.
One day he climbed a steep mountain with heavy forest all around it, and he found a lake up there. He liked that lake, hidden in the trees, and he built a Long House above the shore. Why? A Long House is for a big family. But he had that house and the lake all to himself.
Deer and elk came to that lake, and a lot of other animals. That water held a secret. Anyone bathing in it got new strong life again. Even trees near the lake were big tall yellow firs and cedars thicker than four, five men could reach around. Fish came from the sea to spawn in the streams there, and they didn’t die. They swam back to the sea. They were the first Steelhead salmon and Cutthroat trout.
But that man never bathed. He set out fish traps and he dried all the fish. He shot every deer and elk he saw, horns or no horns, and he dried all the meat into jerky. He stored all of it in his Long House. Well, he couldn’t eat it all. But he wanted it all. He didn’t want to share that lake with anyone. Funny thing, if he had taken even one bath in that water, what could he have known?
The animals started coming to bathe at night when he was asleep. All day he worked pretty hard with his fish traps and shooting and drying, and then running after any echoes he heard around the lake. So at night he slept pretty hard.
But one night a lot of splashing and laughing woke him. Women laughing. He got up and ran at them to drive them off. But then he got an urge to catch one of them. And he did. Oh, she screamed and fought and kicked, but he dragged her back and the others got away. There at the Long House door he was tying her down, and he saw she was looking up to the sky. He looked up too. Over the trees were stars, like cinders from a fire, swimming way up to the moon.
He liked this woman. He let her loose during the day, and she worked for him. In her spare time she wove a little basket from fine cedar roots and bear grass, and she kept it shut tight in a corner where she slept. He was curious, but she saw where his eyes went.
“I will open my basket for you when you are ready.”
Well, that bothered him. Maybe hiaqua or some other treasure was in her basket. He told himself it wasn’t hers. It was his. She was his. One day she went out over a slope picking salal berries, and he couldn’t stand it anymore. He opened her little basket. He opened it—and closed it again. He left it just the way he found it. When she came back she looked at him.
“You opened my basket.”
“Nothing. You made a big secret, but there’s nothing in your basket.”
“Nothing? What is in there is very great.” She picked up her basket and walked right out the door and right down to the lake. She walked right into the water and right down under the waves.
The man kept thinking, Nothing. Pretty soon the lake began to drain off. He started running around the shore. Nothing, he could do nothing to stop the lake from draining down a hole in the bottom. And that’s what he had left, a big hole. He went up to his Long House, but his dried meat and fish had gotten spoiled.
So he set out to wander the hills again, like before, but now all the animals and fish saw him coming. They scattered and hid away. He dug for roots, but they were old and hard, or punky and full of worms. He searched the fields for camas bulbs, but the bears had got there first, and the same with the berries. He began to starve, more and more every day. So then one day he just picked a spot near a stream and sat down with an open heart and an empty belly.
Night and day he sat there and got weaker, but he had a sense he better not take even one sip of water from that stream. But he did something then that he’d never done. He took a bath in the stream and washed himself all over, without taking one sip. Every day he washed. But he was getting to the end of his life.
One night he looked up to the stars and cried out. One star floated down—basket woman. She kept her distance, but he was too weak to make a move. How long did he sit and stare at her? But then she opened her basket. What did he see?
His eyes began to burn with the first tears he’d ever shed. They burned on his cheeks. A flood of them peeled off his old leathery skin. All night he kept shedding tears, and he lost sight of her, but when morning came he knew without seeing that she was still around.
As weak as he was, he crawled down to the stream and took a sip of water. There was a little trout under the bank that offered itself. He splashed it onto the rocks. Then he made his thanks and roasted and ate it. Every last one of its bones he saved and dropped them into the stream to make a return for that trout.
Now the trees and bushes and birds, all the lives around him, he treated like family. And they were, even the stones. He had family after all. Some nights he caught sight of a star dropping down. That’s when he knew that her basket was still full. May it be so. It was his prayer. And may it still be so.