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Blackskin

from The Strange Story Book





In an Indian town on the North Pacific Ocean there lived a chief, whose
ambition it was to be stronger than other men and be able to kill the
sea-lions down the coast. On the coldest mornings in winter he might be
seen running down very early to bathe and the village people followed
him into the water. After he had swum and dived till he was quite warm,
he would come out and rush up a hill, and, catching hold of a big branch
on a particular tree, would try to pull it off from the trunk! Next he
would seize another tree and endeavour to twist it in his hands like a
rope. This he did to prove to himself that he was daily growing
stronger.

Now this chief had a nephew named Blackskin, who besides appearing weak
and delicate, was never seen to bathe and seemed terribly frightened
when the boys pushed him into the water. Of course, they could not know,
when they saw Blackskin sleeping while everyone else was enjoying
himself in the sea, that he was merely pretending, and that as soon as
they were asleep, he rose and went down to the shore by himself and
stayed in the sea treading water for so many hours, that he had to float
so as to rest his feet. Indeed, he would often remain in till he was
chilled to the bone, and then he damped the ashes of his fire in order
to make them steam, and put his sleeping-mat on top. The villagers, who
only beheld him in bed, thought him a dirty fellow; but in reality he
was cleaner than any of them, and was never known to lie or to steal. If
they laughed at him for his laziness or his cowardice, he took no
notice, though he was strong enough to have picked them up with one
hand, and thrown them over the cliffs; and when, as often happened, they
begged him, for a joke, to bring them in a large log for their fire, he
was careful to make a great fuss and to raise it very slowly, as if it
was very hard to lift.

'A lazy fellow like that does not deserve any food,' said they, and so
poor Blackskin seldom had enough to eat.

* * * * *

Things went on like this for some time, and Blackskin bathed constantly
unknown to anyone till one night when he heard a whistle.

'Someone has seen me,' he thought to himself, 'well, if so, I may as
well come out,' and he walked up the beach in the direction of the sound
till he reached a short man dressed in a bear-skin. To his surprise, the
man caught hold of him, picked him up, and flung him down on the sand.

'I am Strength,' said he, 'and I am going to help you. But tell no one
that you have seen me, for as yet you are not strong enough to do that
which you wish to do.'

These words made Blackskin very happy, but he was quieter than ever, and
the boys and villagers counted him a poor-spirited creature, and did not
mind what tricks they played on him, even though he did belong to the
family of the chief. They ordered him about just as if he had been a
captive taken in war, and he bore it quite meekly, and when the little
boys wrestled with him he always let them win the match.

'Fancy a great, big man being thrown by a child!' cried those who
looked.

Yet, in spite of all this, Blackskin was contented, for after a few more
weeks of bathing, he felt there was nothing that he could not do quite
easily. Then one night he heard the whistle again, and on the shore
stood the same man, who signed to him to come out of the water.

'Wrestle with me,' said the man, and as soon as they had seized each
other, he added:

'Now you have strength at last and do not need to go into the sea. Do
you see that tree? Try and pull out that big branch.' Blackskin ran over
to the tree, and pulled out the branch with ease, and even put it back
again, which was harder.

'Very good,' said the man, 'Next, twist that other tree right down to
its roots,' and Blackskin did that also, and afterwards untwisted it so
that it seemed just as before.



* * * * *

He had hardly got to bed, when the people began to run down to the sea,
for it was their bathing hour. And the boys, as they passed, came in and
pulled Blackskin's hair, and cried:

'Come and bathe with us,' but as usual he answered nothing. After they
all returned from bathing, the chief went up to the tree and pulled out
the branch, while the people shouted for joy that at last he was strong
enough to do what he had sought to do for so long.

And Blackskin lay in bed and listened. Next, the chief found he was able
to twist the other tree, and they shouted again, and the chief felt very
proud and thought himself a great man. By and bye they came again to
Blackskin and laid hold of his feet to drag him from his bed, laughing
and saying as they did so:

'Your chief has pulled out that branch and twisted that tree. Why
couldn't you?'

'To-morrow we will hunt the sea-lions,' said the young men to each
other. And one of them added:

'I wonder which part of the canoe that great strong Blackskin will sleep
in.'

'Why, in the bow, of course,' answered a boy, 'then he can land first
and tear the sea-lions in two before any of us,' and they all laughed
again. But Blackskin, though he heard, took no notice, as was his
custom.

All that day the people visited the tree to look at the branch which the
chief had pulled out, and in choosing the strongest men among them who
had bathed with him in the sea, to hunt the sea-lions. The store of meat
they had in the town was nearly exhausted, and it was time they
collected more; but the island on which the animals lived was very
slippery, and it was not easy for the men to climb over the rocks.

* * * * *

That night Blackskin took one more bath and then he went to his uncle's
wife, who never made fun of him like the rest, and said:

'Will you give me a clean shirt and something for my hair?'

'Have you been bidden to the hunt?' asked the wife, and Blackskin made
reply:

'No; I have not been bidden, but I am going.' So she got ready some food
and tied it up in a small package for him, and gave him the clean shirt
and what he wanted for his hair.

He was the last to reach the canoe, and the men who were seated in it
cried when they beheld him:

'Don't let him come! Don't let him come!' But Blackskin was determined
to get in, and seized the canoe as they were pushing it off. In vain
they struck his fingers to force him to let go; and to their amazement
he easily dragged back the canoe, till it was near enough for him to
jump in. Finding they could not keep him out, the men began to speak
rudely to him, till the chief stopped them.

'Let him alone,' he said; 'he can bale out the water if it should come
in;' so Blackskin sat in the seat of the man that bales, wondering
within himself if his uncle had suspected anything when he had pulled
back the canoe with the men in it. But as the chief said nothing,
Blackskin supposed he had been thinking of something else at the time.

When they were close to the island, the chief waited till the canoe was
lifted by a wave, and then he leaped on shore. He seized one sea-lion
and killed it, and managed to seat himself on the back of another; but
the sea-lion gave a sudden spring and threw the chief high into the air,
and he fell down heavily striking his head against a rock, so that he
died at once.

Blackskin had seen it all, and was sorry. He opened his bundle of
clothes and put on his shirt and his hair ornament, while the rest stood
round watching.

'I am the man who pulled out that branch and twisted that tree,' he
said, 'and now, bring the canoe closer in!' As he spoke he walked the
length of it upon the seats, which broke under him, so that those who
were sitting on them were thrown to the bottom. Very frightened they all
were when they heard the crash, lest he should revenge himself on them
for the way they had treated him. But he did not even look at them, only
jumped ashore as his uncle had done, and climbed straight up the tall
cliff, hitting some sea-lions on the head as he passed. When he reached
the big one which had killed his uncle, he slew that also, and carried
them all to the shore, piling them up in the canoe.



There was enough meat to last them many months, and Blackskin was still
piling, when suddenly the men in the canoe pushed off, and paddled home
again, and this was because of their dread of Blackskin. They made the
canoe fast and told the people of the town that it was Blackskin who
pulled out the branch and twisted the tree, and that for very fear they
had left him on the island of the sea-lions.

'Why did you do that?' asked the people. 'Trouble may come of it.'

* * * * *

So Blackskin found himself alone on the island, and as there was nothing
to make a fire with, he rolled himself, head and all in his blanket, and
went to sleep. After a time he was wakened by a noise which sounded like
the beating of sticks, and someone called out:

'I have come after you.' He sat up and looked round, but only saw a
black duck swimming towards him.

'I have seen you already,' said he, and the black duck answered:

'I was bidden to fetch you. Get on my back and be sure to keep your eyes
tight shut till I tell you to open them.' And Blackskin kept his eyes
tight shut till the duck called out:

'Now you may open them,' and he opened them and found that he was in a
fine house, though he did not guess it was the house of the sea-lions.

Of course, the people of the town knew nothing of the black duck, and
they mourned for the chief and for Blackskin, who had been left to
perish on the island, and the chief's wife mourned most of all.

'Why did you do it?' she asked many times, and the townspeople
repeated,'Why did you do it? A strong man like that is scarce.'

Then the chief's wife begged some of the young men to cross to the
island and bring back her husband's body; and this they did at last, but
they could not find Blackskin's.

'Where can he be?' they said. 'Can the tide have taken him, or a wild
beast have eaten him? We must consult the wise man.'

And the wise man told them that Blackskin was not dead, but would come
back again some day; and this troubled them more than ever.

* * * * *

All this time Blackskin was quite happy in the house of the sea-lions.
He had grown so used to them that they seemed to him quite like human
beings, though when he thought about it, he knew of course they were
not. One day he heard a young sea-lion crying with pain, and his people
could not tell what was the matter. Then Blackskin came and examined
him, and declared that he had a barbed spear-point sticking in his side.

'This wise medicine man has found out why he cries,' said one; and
Blackskin answered:

'I am not a medicine man, but all the same I can take out that
spear-head!' And after it was out, he washed the place with warm water.

The young sea-lion was very grateful, and as he belonged to a powerful
tribe they wished to reward Blackskin for his kindness, and said to him:

'Anything that belongs to us, you may have if you will.'

'Give me, then,' answered Blackskin, 'that box that hangs overhead.' Now
the box was a magic box which could bring the wind out of whichever
quarter you wanted it, and this was what happened. The sea-lions pushed
the box up and down the surface of the sea, and whistled, and called to
the wind as you would call to a dog, saying:

'Come to this box! Come to this box!'

They were sad at parting with it, and would have wished him to ask for
anything else, but they would not break their word and showed Blackskin
how to get into it, and bade him on no account to take it near whatever
was unclean.

Then they said farewell to each other, and Blackskin packed himself
carefully into the box (which was rather small for a tall man), and in a
minute he was blown far out to sea.

'West wind! West wind! Come to this box,' he cried, and the west wind
came, and blew and blew, till it blew him to the shore, not far from his
own town. And when he saw where he was, he got out and shook himself and
stretched his arms and legs, and hid the box away in the branches of a
tree. After that he walked home.

The first person he saw was his uncle's wife, who welcomed him gladly,
for next to the chief she loved Blackskin better than anybody. He then
sent a messenger to beg all the townspeople to assemble together, and
they obeyed; but those who had been cruel to him came unwillingly, for
they feared his wrath always, and hoped he had disappeared for ever. And
when they lifted their glance and beheld him strong and tall and able to
force men to do his will, even though they liked it little, they
trembled more than before for the doom he might pronounce on them. As
for Blackskin, his eyes shone with an angry light; but he said to
himself:

'It is my own fault. If I had not let them do as they like, they would
never have dared to treat me in that way. It is not just to punish them:
I will forgive them.' But before he had time to tell them so, the men
who had left him on the island had run away in terror, and hid
themselves in the woods; thus they were not present at the assembling of
the people, nor heard of the welcome given him by many. Then Blackskin
looked round him, and spoke these words, and some who listened to him
hung their heads with shame:

'You know of yourselves what cruelty you showed me, and you do well to
be ashamed of it; and those who are cruel to people because they think
they are weaker than themselves will always have reason to feel shame.
Remember this, and do not make fun of poor people any more, as you did
in the days when my uncle was chief.'

This is what Blackskin said.

[Tlingit Myths and Texts, recorded by John R. Swanton.]




Next: The Pets Of Aurore Dupin

Previous: What Became Of Owen Parfitt?



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