How The Coyote Danced With The Blackbirds - Zuñi
How The Coyote Danced With The Blackbirds Zuñi
One late autumn day in the times of the ancients, a large council of Blackbirds were gathered, fluttering and chattering, on the smooth, rocky slopes of Gorge Mountain, northwest of Zuñi. Like ourselves, these birds, as you are well aware, congregate together in autumn time, when the harvests are ripe, to indulge in their festivities before going into winter quarters; only we do not move away, while they, on strong wings and swift, retreat for a time to the Land of Everlasting Summer.
Well, on this particular morning they were making a great noise and having a grand dance, and this was the way of it: They would gather in one vast flock, somewhat orderly in its disposition, on the sloping face of Gorge Mountain,--the older birds in front, the younger ones behind,--and down the slope, chirping and fluttering, they would hop, hop, hop, singing:
"Ketchu, Ketchu, oñtilã, oñtilã,
Ketchu, Ketchu, oñtilã, oñtilã!
Âshokta a yá-à-laa Ke-e-tchu,
Blackbirds, Blackbirds, dance away, O, dance away, O!
Blackbirds, Blackbirds, dance away, O, dance away, O!
Down the Mountain of the Gorges, Blackbirds,
Dance away, O!
Dance away, O!--
and, spreading their wings, with many a flutter, flurry, and scurry, keh keh,--keh keh,--keh keh,--keh keh,--they would fly away into the air, swirling off in a dense, black flock, circling far upward and onward; then, wheeling about and darting down, they would dip themselves in the broad spring which flows out at the foot of the mountain, and return to their dancing place on the rocky slopes.
A Coyote was out hunting (as if he could catch anything, the beast!) and saw them, and was enraptured.
"You beautiful creatures!" he exclaimed. "You graceful dancers! Delight of my senses! How do you do that, anyway? Couldn't I join in your dance--the first part of it, at least?"
"Why, certainly; yes," said the Blackbirds.
"We are quite willing," the masters of the ceremony said.
"Well," said the Coyote, "I can get on the slope of the rocks and I can sing the song with you; but I suppose that when you leap off into the air I shall have to sit there patting the rock with my paw and my tail and singing while you have the fun of it."
"It may be," said an old Blackbird, "that we can fit you out so that you can fly with us."
"Is it possible!" cried the Coyote, "Then by all means do so. By the Blessed Immortals! Now, if I am only able to circle off into the air like you fellows, I'll be the biggest Coyote in the world!"
"I think it will be easy," resumed the old Blackbird. "My children," said he, "you are many, and many are your wing-feathers. Contribute each one of you a feather to our friend." Thereupon the Blackbirds, each one of them, plucked a feather from his wing. Unfortunately they all plucked feathers from the wings on the same side.
"Are you sure, my friend," continued the old Blackbird, "that you are willing to go through the operation of having these feathers planted in your skin? If so, I think we can fit you out."
"Willing?--why, of course I am willing." And the Coyote held up one of his arms, and, sitting down, steadied himself with his tail. Then the Blackbirds thrust in the feathers all along the rear of his forelegs and down the sides of his back, where wings ought to be. It hurt, and the Coyote twitched his mustache considerably; but he said nothing. When it was done, he asked: "Am I ready now?"
"Yes," said the Blackbirds; "we think you'll do."
So they formed themselves again on the upper part of the slope, sang their songs, and hopped along down with many a flutter, flurry, and scurry,--Keh keh, keh keh, keh keh,--and away they flew off into the air.
The Coyote, somewhat startled, got out of time, but followed bravely, making heavy flops; but, as I have said before, the wings he was supplied with were composed of feathers all plucked from one side, and therefore he flew slanting and spirally and brought up with a whack, which nearly knocked the breath out of him, against the side of the mountain. He picked himself up, and shook himself, and cried out: "Hold! Hold! Hold on, hold on, there!" to the fast-disappearing Blackbirds. "You've left me behind!"
When the birds returned they explained: "Your wings are not quite thick enough, friend; and, besides, even a young Blackbird, when he is first learning to fly, does just this sort of thing that you have been doing--makes bad work of it."
"Sit down again," said the old Blackbird. And he called out to the rest: "Get feathers from your other sides also, and be careful to select a few strong feathers from the tips of the wings, for by means of these we cleave the air, guide our movements, and sustain our flight."
So the Blackbirds all did as they were bidden, and after the new feathers were planted, each one plucked out a tail-feather, and the most skilful of the Blackbirds inserted these feathers into the tip of the Coyote's tail. It made him wince and "yip" occasionally; but he stood it bravely and reared his head proudly, thinking all the while: "What a splendid Coyote I shall be! Did ever anyone hear of a Coyote flying?"
The procession formed again. Down the slope they went, hopity-hop, hopity-hop, singing their song, and away they flew into the air, the Coyote in their midst. Far off and high they circled and circled, the Coyote cutting more eager pranks than any of the rest. Finally they returned, dipped themselves again into the spring, and settled on the slopes of the rocks.
There, now," cried out the Coyote, with a flutter of his feathery tail, "I can fly as well as the rest of you.
"Indeed, you do well!" exclaimed the Blackbirds.
"Shall we try it again?"
"Oh, yes! Oh, yes! I'm a little winded," cried the Coyote, "but this is the best fun I ever had."
The Blackbirds, however, were not satisfied with their companion. They found him less sedate than a dancer ought to be, and, moreover, his irregular cuttings-up in the air were not to their taste. So the old ones whispered to one another: "This fellow is a fool, and we must pluck him when he gets into the air. We'll fly so far this time that he will get a little tired out and cry to us for assistance."
The procession formed, and hopity-hop, hopity-hop, down the mountain slope they went, and with many a flutter and flurry flew off into the air. The Coyote, unable to restrain himself, even took the lead. On and on and on they flew, the Blackbirds and the Coyote, and up and up and up, and they circled round and round, until the Coyote found himself missing a wing stroke occasionally and falling out of line; and he cried out: "Help! help, friends, help!"
"All right!" cried the Blackbirds. "Catch hold of his wings; hold him up!" cried the old ones. And the Blackbirds flew at him; and every time they caught hold of him (the old fool all the time thinking they were helping) they plucked out a feather, until at last the feathers had become so thin that he began to fall, and he fell and fell and fell,--flop, flop, flop, he went through the air,--the few feathers left in his forelegs and sides and the tip of his tail just saving him from being utterly crushed as he fell with a thud to the ground. He lost his senses completely, and lay there as if dead for a long time. When he awoke, he shook his head sadly, and, with a crestfallen countenance and tail dragging between his legs, betook himself to his home over the mountains.
The agony of that fall had been so great and the heat of his exertions so excessive, that the feathers left in his forelegs and tail-tip were all shrivelled up into little ugly black fringes of hair. His descendants were many.
Therefore you will often meet coyotes to this day who have little black fringes along the rear of their forelegs, and the tips of their tails are often black. Thus it was in the days of the ancients.
Thus shortens my story.
Zuñi Folk Tales, by Frank Hamilton Cushing . Introduction by John Wesley Powell. and is now in the public domain.