From the Seneca story: Haton-dos, the Listener. A telling by Martin Shaw.
There was once a boy making trouble in the village. There’s always a boy making trouble in the village. He was sent to the hut of his uncle, a place where the settlement drifted into the vastness of the dark forest. One day, this uncle – a shaman – sent him out to listen to the sounds of the wild: not to wrestle a mountain lion, not to slay a bear, not to steal the whisker from a wolf, but just to listen.
He heard the chickadee, the bear, the bleak honk of raven. For many years he stayed under a great tree and learned many things: that discipline was the dance partner of wildness; that animals returned to the same song-lines again and again; that caution and daring were related. His old friends grew to become warriors and village-men, proud and adored, whilst he lived almost forgotten. When people mentioned his name in the village, they scratched their head and looked quizzical. “Whatever happened to him?” He was a mystery. He was becoming ghost. But his capacity to listen deeply to the nature of things grew vast. Over the years it got so he could call animals to his very breast.
One day, very quiet, as dusk approached, he heard a song from the mountains in the far west:
“I am coming to be your wife. I am coming to be your wife. I am coming to be your wife. I am coming to be your wife.”
It was the deepest thing he’d ever heard. Tears pricked his eyes and he ran back to his uncle.
His uncle smiled, saying, “You would never have been able to hear that song without your years under the tree. You must prepare to meet such a one.” Uncle opened a chest filled with beautiful garments for a man to wear. A fringed coat of skins, bone adornments, and buckskin leggings. He was a dark fox. “And here’s the other news,” said the uncle gravely, “she’s bringing her mother. The Woman of the Far West will come flying on a canoe that moves through the air, her nine sisters behind her and her mother at the very back. This is a dark mother, extremely powerful. She does not necessarily have your best interests at heart. She will test everything you’ve learned, and will not hesitate for a fraction of a second to kill you if you do not pass those tests.”
The next day, the boy, whom we shall call the Listener, stilled himself under the trees in the hope that he may, just possibly, be lucky enough to hear the song again. Early next morning, at dawn, a sweet wind came, and again the singing:
“I am coming to be your wife. I am coming to be your wife. I am coming to be your wife. I am coming to be your wife.”
The canoe did indeed float towards him through the air, with the shining one at the very front – the youngest daughter – her nine sisters behind her, and, at the far back, a teeth-gnashing blur of feather, guts, and bleak, disappointed eye: the dark mother. It floated right up to him. His back straightened, he jutted out his jaw, but the canoe just floated regally past, as if he wasn’t there.
Once witnessed, once his eyes had been on them, they picked up speed and kept heading east, not looking behind them. A pace no warrior from the village would have been able to keep up with. But the Listener was not a warrior from the village. He had a horn in his belt that when he placed to the soil consumed time and space, and he could travel miles in just seconds. Without such a horn, no man can keep pace with the feminine, and the only way to get such a horn is in the deep forest. Soon, he was pacing alongside the canoe. The sisters tried not to look delighted, and The Being at the Back spat crow feathers and hurled scalding buckets of urine to slow him down, but to no avail.
At dusk the women camped, and the Listener arrived, but kept a respectful distance. Other suitors had arrived, called by the other sisters. As an offering the men tracked down a bear in a hollow tree, took its life, and gave it as tribute to the Dark Mother. Even after her eating, there was enough for everyone. That night there were two fires: one for the women, one for the men. As the men slept, the Dark One came and with magics removed all their clothes, made a tree bend its crown, and placed them on its top branches. When the men woke in the morning their bodies were blue with cold and the women gone. Once the clothes were recovered, the men filed in behind the Listener as he produced his horn and they continued. Somehow they were all caught in the grace of his own gifts, traveling with speed.
Again the women were surprised when the men met them at their camp at the end of the day. They were not used to being met in such a fashion. Again the men risked many dangers to feed the women. That night the Listener crept over to the women, asked the tree to bend its head, and using his cunning removed their clothes from their bodies. He then reached into the cold ashes of the fire and hurled them into the air. Immediately it started to snow.
When the women quickly awoke, snowflakes on their curves, they changed shape to climb or fly up to rescue their clothes – one as bat, one as squirrel. Nothing worked. Pretending not to see the commotion, the Listener stood, majestically lost in thought by the men’s fire, till a daughter came and asked for the return of the clothes. Instantly he agreed and soon the women were warm by their fire again. “But no more tricks!” said the young man.
Again the women traveled east in their canoe, towards their home. Again the men shuffled swiftly over the soil, as the Listener’s horn conducted both time and earth to bend in accord with his desire.
They came to a vast mountain, made entirely of ice. The women effortlessly ascended on their canoe, over the top and then down the other side to their ancestral home. No such luck for the men.
They could get no purchase on such a smooth and freezing surface. It was an ancient, impenetrable divide. Many wanted to give up, exhausted. But the Listener reached into his bundle and produced a bird – a robin – and placed the robin on his head. As the robin sang its sweet heart-filled song, the ice melted where the Listener placed his hands and feet. Who knew such a thing could happen?
The Listener gave one piece of advice as the men started to climb. “As you move over this mountain, many voices will speak to you, try to lure you from these footholds of the heart. They will flatter you. But I tell you this as the Listener: there are voices in this world it’s best not to listen to.” They started to climb, and the last of the ten men was indeed caught by such persuasions. He hesitated just a moment and slipped from the very top of the ice, falling to his death. He landed on an enormous pile of the bones of Those-Who-Had-Been-Seduced.
At the other side of the mountain, the Dark Mother did a little jig to welcome the men into camp, bells rattling from her wrists. She had a home made of bark, with ten fireplaces, one for each daughter. But she took the men to a house of ice, not warmth. “Settle here, and I’ll bring you some food.” Once inside, the Listener again cautioned the men to not sit down. That they would die if they did. In fact the door froze immediately and they were trapped. Only the song of the robin melted it.
The Dark Mother returned with dried apples in hominy, but of course they were really leeches not apples. So as not to be impolite – even in an assassination attempt – the Listener sucked up the hominy through a hollow tube (fashioned from an arrow stem) that kept the leeches away. The men were hungry, but they were alive.
That night, the Dark Mother has a nightmare. Who knew that such beings have bad dreams? When the Listener woke her from her wailing and shrieks she said, “I had such a terrible dream: that you went to the lake and killed the red otter.” It felt like a strange instruction. He asked the Woman-From-the-Front-of-the-Canoe, “Who is the red otter?” She replied, “The otter is my mother’s husband.
And I must be fair with you – if you go the lake, the east door of the house must be kept moving or you will die.” The Listener tied a line to his leg and the other end to the door. One of the men kept watch so that the door would be kept flapping and not close. He went to the rainy lake and gave it water-speech. Waves erupted, air thick with moisture, writhing with lake animals. Finally, and lastly, the red otter. He killed the otter, dressed the animal and chopped it finely. As he did so the waters started to rise and gave chase to him. He turned with the remains of the otter and ran with all speed.
He was almost free when one curl of wave licked his ankle and flayed it raw to his very bone. For a moment he was lame, almost finished, till he came into the quiet of a safe, wild place. He spat on his fingers, rubbed it on the wound, and was made well again.
On return to the camp, the Dark One was keen for just a taste of the meat. But he made the feast entirely for the delectation of the spirits: the Giant-False-Faces who came from the trees with their mud-turtle shells and their paddles, and they feasted till the dawn.
That night, the Dark One dreamed again. This time it was of the Listener killing the King of the Birds, a being that resided at the top of an elm tree. He found out that it was the Grizzly Beings’ eldest son. Again, a strange directive. Again he tied himself to the door, again he searched and killed, again he made a soup for the spirits. The Dark Mother screamed for just a feather, just a fragment of bone, but he resisted. The beings made their ancient dances and gurgling songs and feasted till the sun rose, then left and disappeared, like columns of blue smoke.
The next night, it was the Listener’s turn to have a bad dream. He gnashed and wailed so loudly that the Dark Mother woke him up by bashing his head with a corn pounder. That revived him.
“What did you dream?” she crooned, teeth glinting in the firelight, saliva dripping in great, acidic droops to the floor. “I’m not that naive.” he replied. “You’ll have to guess.”
Well, she couldn’t, and neither could her daughters. Finally, it appeared, their time together was coming to an end. Both men and women stood outside the bark-house as the dawn approached and the robin started to sing. It brought such heat that the lodge burst into flame, and at that moment, the Dark One and the nine sisters writhed and turned and changed shape: into screech-owls, foxes, snakes, bats, and any number of powerful, ancient beasts. They shot out into all four directions and seemingly out of this story altogether. But when The Listener gazed at the One-From-the-Front-of-the-Boat, he could not be sure that all the other beings did not reside inside her.
The men went to that enormous bone-pile, touched by moss, like a great ivory hill. All the ones fallen from the mountain. The Listener made them gather trees like an enormous tepee over the bones, released them to fall and shouted, “Look out for your lives!” Of a sudden, the bones re-animated, lurched back into flesh, hair, eyes, life. Lots of blinking humans, looking for a home. There is a price when you wake things up. Each of the nine men took on a large group of the people – some who had not seen their home for hundreds of years – and started out to build new communities, new cultures.
The Listener and the Daughter were finally alone. They traveled together for a while, heading east, until a day came where they arrived at a swamp. It turned out that the Daughter had a secret brother whom no one visited, a deer, whom she carried out of the dark grasses and showed to the Listener. She said, “I have to warn you. You are entering a time of aloneness. This is not new to you; but beware. You will come to a longhouse and there will be no way round it. You must walk through it. But you must not look at the voices that call to you in the dark. If you do, you will lose your sight.” And with that, she fell to the ground, changed into the form of a duck, and disappeared into the muddy streams. A holy thing, comfortable on land, water and in air.
He walked on alone. Some say for many years; into the middle of his life. He walked a road that had many others on it, much chatter and distractions. But sure enough, one day he came to something so vast he could not skirt around it. He entered the longhouse and was completely immersed in darkness. He kept his eyes straight ahead, for the tiny chink of light he could see was around the far distant door. He was resolute. He almost made it. And at the very last moment, a light, melodious voice, so fragrant and beguiling, made him turn his gaze just for a second from the glint. Just a second. And standing there was a spirit, shrouded in a buckskin robe, a robe adorned entirely with men’s eyes.
In a second, his eyes leapt from their sockets, scuttled across the floor and onto the robe, jostling in amongst thousands of others. Hard hands grabbed him and hurled him, blind, out into the scrub outside the longhouse. Left for dead.
And dead he would be, were it not for his capacity to listen, as he did as a boy, to the emanations of the forest. Just enough to find streams, berries, the occasional squirrel. But it was a life that marked him. Thin-Man-Stumbling, scratched and bereft, reduced and reduced again in stature to little more than a crawler. But it would appear he crawled through different ages and times: from the erotics of the cave hunt to the time of the seeding and the field. One day he realised, astonished, that he had come to the edge of the forest. His hand stroked a stem of corn.
He realised he was in a growing place. A young woman kept the field of corn, and when he heard her voice, he caught, just for a second, the cadence of the Bright Daughter, from so many years ago. Surely a mistake. Just his battered heart. The once great hero bent low and offered his services as a scarecrow, to simply keep the birds away from the harvest. The woman went to consult with her mother inside the hut. He heard an odd cackle, and for a moment froze. Surely not. But then he heard kind words of support and encouragement, and he put thoughts of the Dark Mother to the back of his mind.
His appearance surely scared the birds, and he would sit alone for many hours by the gently moving corn. He loved that sound. At dusk the Maiden would sometimes sit with him and they would listen together. One day he heard the movement of animal, and asked for a bow and arrow. A blind man with a bow and arrow? The old woman only had a smoky bow and one arrow – some say crooked – that had hung above her fireplace these many years. But she gave it to the man, he tilted his head and shot true, and a deer gave itself to the intention. The women were glad and began to skin the deer, and, on some strange instinct, he asked for the eyes of the animal. He placed them in his sockets and could see! Not quite how a man sees, not quite how a deer sees, but somewhere between.
In time that vision began to fade and he began to hunt again. This time elk, then bear. He would see with their eyes. It continued this way for a long time. One night the Maiden came to the Scarecrow Man, put her hot hands on him and they took their fill of each other. In time twins were born, Scorched-Body and Burnt-Belly, little scampish tricksters. They found their father’s animal gaze alarming, and so elected to get his real eyes back. They grew not by years, or months, but by hours.
They found that great longhouse. Scorched-Body became a duck, and one of the woman-spirits came out to chase him. One feather whispered up between her thighs and she became pregnant. A baby was soon born – and even spirits love a baby – and the mood in the longhouse lightened a little.
The baby wailed and wailed until they let him play near the buckskin robe. He searched and searched until he found their father’s eyes – somehow he knew – and he even rescued his own bow and arrow too.
On return to the corn-field there was immense relief and joy. For the first time the Listener really saw what his children looked like. He beheld them. He cried for a long time. The boys grew into great defenders of all the secret and good things of this world, and traveled far telling healing stories of their father and mother. One day, seemingly by chance, they wandered into the village from the beginning of their father’s life and met a very old man at the edge of things. The uncle.
He asked them if they knew any wise old women. In time, they and the uncle returned to the corn-field. It was very strange, when the Uncle met the Corn Maiden’s mother it was if they had known each other all along. They became close in the richness of their wisdom and years.
And as far as I hear it, they are all still there, laughing, eating and telling tales: the Uncle, The Mother, the Twins, The Corn-Maiden and the Man who Learnt to Listen.