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The Red Indian Fairy Book by  Frances Jenkins Olcott

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LEGEND OF THE TRAILING ARBUTUS

(Iroquois)

[323] MANY, many Moons ago, in the far Northern Land beside the Lakes, there lived an old man alone in his lodge. His locks were long, and white with Age and Frost. The fur of the Bear and the Beaver covered his body, but none too warmly, for the snow and ice were everywhere.

Over all the Earth was Winter. The North Wind rushed down the mountain-side, and shook the branches of trees and bushes as it searched for song-birds to chill to the heart. But all living creatures had crept into their holes, and even the bad Spirits had dug caves for themselves in the ice and snow.

Lonely and halting, the old man went out into the forest seeking wood for his fire. Only a few fagots could he find, and in despair he again sought his lodge. He laid the fagots on the fire, and soon they were burned; and he crouched over the dying embers.

[324] The wind moaned in the tree-tops, and a sudden gust blew aside the skin of the Great Bear hanging before the door. And, lo, a beautiful maiden entered the lodge.

Her cheeks were red like the petals of Wild Roses. Her eyes were large and glowed like the eyes of the Fawn at night. Her hair was black like the wing of the Crow, and so long that it trailed upon the ground. Her hands were filled with Willow buds, and on her head was a crown of flowers. Her mantle was woven with sweet grasses and ferns, and her moccasins were white Lilies laced and embroidered with petals of Honeysuckles. When she breathed, the air of the lodge became fragrant and warmer, and the cold wind rushed back in affright.

The old man gazed on her in wonder. "My daughter," said he, "you are welcome to the poor shelter of my cheerless lodge! It is cold and desolate, for I have not wood enough to keep my fire burning! Come, sit beside me, and tell me who you are, that you wander like a Deer through the forest. Tell me also of your country and your people who gave you such beauty and [325] grace. Then I, who am the mighty Winter, will tell you of my great deeds."

The maiden smiled, and the sunlight streamed forth from the grey clouds and shot its warmth through the roof of the lodge. Then Winter filled his pipe of friendship, and when he had put it to his lips, he said:—

"I blow the breath from my nostrils and the waters of the rivers stand still, and the great waves of the lakes rest, and the murmurings of the streams die away in silence."

"You are great and strong," said the maiden, "and the waters know the touch of your breath. But I am loved by the birds, and when I smile the flowers spring up all over the forest, and the meadows are carpeted with green."

"I shake my locks," said Winter, "and, lo, the Earth is wrapped in a covering of snow!"

"I breathe into the air," said the maiden, "and the warm rains come, and the covering of snow vanishes like the darkness when the sun awakens and rises from its bed in the morning."

"I walk about," said Winter, "and the leaves die on the trees, and fall to the ground. The [326] birds desert their nests and fly away beyond the lakes. The animals hide themselves in their holes."

"Oh! great are you, Winter," said the maiden, "and your name is to be feared by all living things in the land! Cruel are you, Winter! More cruel and cunning than the tortures of the Red Men! Your strength is greater than the strength of the forest trees, for do you not rend them with powerful hands?"

"But when I, the gentle maiden, walk forth, the trees burst into leaves, and the sweet birds build again their nests in the branches. The winds sing soft and pleasant music to the ears of the Red Man, while his wife and papooses sport in the warm sunshine near his wigwam."

As the maiden ceased speaking, the lodge became very warm and bright. But the boasting Winter heeded it not, for his head drooped upon his breast, and he slept. The maiden passed her hands above his head, and he grew smaller and smaller.

The bluebirds came and filled the trees about the lodge, and sang; and the rivers lifted their [327] waves and foamed and leaped along. Streams of water flowed from Winter's mouth, and he vanished away, while his garments turned into glistering leaves.

Then the maiden knelt upon the ground, and took from her bosom a cluster of delicate flowers, fragrant and rose-white. She hid them beneath the leaves, and breathing on them with love, whispered:—

"I give you, O precious jewels, all my virtues and my sweetest breath. Men shall pluck you with bowed head and bended knee."

Then she arose, and moved joyously over the plains, and among the hills, and through the valleys. The birds and the winds sang together, while the flowers everywhere lifted up their heads and greeted her with fragrance.

So always in the early Spring, wherever the maiden stepped, grows the Trailing Arbutus.


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