The Telling of Tales


Strong Medicine

By Andre Norton

The date for this story is unknown ~ the original manuscript is typed on the onion-paper that went out of style in 1970s.

Beat now the story drum and let all harken to a Great-Grandfather tale of what happened in the days when the Thunder Bird counted the “whens” of his children and not the “nows.”

There was a young warrior, Black Gull, of the Sea Coast People – they who go forth upon the Bitter Water to take the seal and whale, who dance the Dance of the Sea Otter and the Storm Birds. He was a hunter whose lodge never looked for food or fur, but he was a hasty youth and one who thought after he acted.

One morning he went to the shores edge heedlessly, not watching where he placed his feet. Thus he trod upon a basket of clams new gathered, and tripped, to fall upon his fish spear so that the shaft broke. He was angered, not at his own clumsiness, but at the basket. So he drew back his foot and gave it a great kick.

The clams shot out, most to be lost in the sand. And the basket itself, though very cunningly woven, was broken. For this Black Gull was to be sorry, as shall be told.

For that basket had been shaped by the hand of Bitter Aspen, and she was one who had medicine powers. Moreover she had little liking, even before that day, for Black Gull, since he had twice beaten her grandson at wrestling.

Thus having seen from a distance, the despoiling of her basket and the loss of the food she had gathered so patiently. Bitter Aspen returned to her lodge and took up her medicine things. Wrapping about her, her heaviest robe, she went up to the rocks of the sea cliffs and there she purified herself with sweet smoke, and she spun the prayer sticks, and she made strong medicine. Thereafter she sat and watched the sea for space, until there was a rippling of waves and she knew her magic had been successful.

One of the shore fishers reported that a strange seal had been sighted, and that it possessed a blue coat, not a common pelt. Knowing that this must be a medicine animal, the tribe came down to the shore to watch it swim lazily back and forth, for it seemed to be without fear of hunters, but watched the men and women on the sands even as they watched it.

Then the hunters brought their harpoons, for each wanted to take such an animal that its power might in turn be his. But as each threw at what seemed to be a very easy target, he failed. Until they said one to another that there was no taking of this seal. But Black Gull did not agree and he got into a canoe and made to follow the seal, though wise men on shore spoke against such folly.

The seal showed no fear, swimming just a little beyond the canoe, always leading Black Gull further out. But, as they came so into the middle of the bay, Black Gull thought he saw a chance for a proper throw. And he hurled his harpoon, giving a shout of triumph as he saw it went home in the seal’s body. However the animal gave a great leap forward and the force of the jerk on the harpoon line brought Black Gull with it, out of the overturned canoe, dragging through the waves. Now he discovered he could not let go of the line, but that he was as fast as if the harpoon was in his body. While the seal, swimming as strongly as if it bore no wound at all, headed out for the open sea.

It continued to swim on and on towing Black Gull away from land, so that those on shore lost all sight of him, and said, one to another, that he was indeed gone and that none of them might expect to see him again. Day spead and twilight came, and still the seal swam on untiringly. But when darkness covered the ocean, that force of pull suddenly slackened and Black Gull found himself alone.

He kept afloat, and now and then swam. But, not knowing in which direction land lay, he thought that death was close. So at last he began to sign, weekly, his death chant. The grey of dawn was then upon him. But as the wave bore him on, still struggling to keep his head above water, he saw a darker shadow. And, with the last of his strength, he pulled to it, to find an overturned canoe floating sluggishly.

This was no small fisherman’s canoe, but a mighty one which might be a Chieftain’s war vessel. And Black Gull was able to draw himself up a little on it. Though his plight was little better than it had been. The sun was bright and hot and it made him see queer things, such as monsters rising out of the deep, ready to swallow him.

Then a black gull, his own medicine and totem, lit on the edge of the canoe and walked along it towards him. The gull spoke to him in his own tongue, saying to hold on and there would be a better end to this than he now thought. So he held as best as he could.

Maybe he slept then. But at last a sharp cry made him raise his head slowly. And a fierce pain in his outstretched hand brought him even farther awake. He looked into the bright eyes of the gull, and the bird pecked at him once again. Beyond the bird he saw the rise of land against the water. Screaming, the gull took off towards the land. And feebly Black Gull followed his totem bird, using his last strength to reach a beach and drag himself out on the sand, without power to crawl farther.

There he was found by those who had their lodges on the island. And they treated him as an enemy, tying his hand and foot with thongs of hide, bringing him into their village as a prisoner. There they held council within Black Gulls hearing and decided at last to offer him to the sea god.

Then Black Gull spoke in as large a voice as he could summon: “Do not give me to the sea. Can you not see, you stupid ones, that the sea has already spat me back upon the land and does not want me?”

The Chief of the island people came to look down at Black Gull, who glared back as fiercely as he could.

“Who are you who dares to speak so?”

“I am Black Gull –” returned that warrior proudly.

“And who – or what is Black Gull?”

“The mightiest of all warriors.”

“Which is a great boast from a man who lies with our thongs cutting his flesh to make him our prisoner,” returned the Chief coldly.

“But for a man who can prove what he said, it is no boast but the truth,” answered Black Gull as stoutly.

Now the rest of the island warriors had crowded in to hear, and they began to demand that he indeed prove that he spoke the truth. Black Gull looked about, meeting the eyes of one then another, and always with such defiance and pride as to impress them that was no common man.

“Put against me the greatest of your warriors, and I shall prove that I am the better.”

“This man must have strong medicine,” the Shaman came forth, swinging his demon rattle, puffing towards Black Gull the sacred smoke from his pipe, thus warding off what dangers the stranger might bring among them. “Let his show us how strong.”

Slowly the Chief nodded. One of the warriors cut Black Gull’s bonds. Then they brought him into the Chief’s lodge and put about his shoulders a robe of soft seals fur, setting before him a pot of stew still steaming from the fire. He filled his empty stomach eagerly, wondering the while what proof they would now demand of him.

As the elders, the Chief, and the Shaman waited for him to finish eating, they puffed on a pipe they passed from hand to hand, all the time watching him without seeming to stare openly. Black Gull knew that whatever trials now lay before him would be such testing as he had not faced before, so not only his body but his wits must serve him.

When he was done, the Chief spoke: “Sleep now. Let it not be said that the People of the Otter did not act fairly in all ways.”

Leaving him in the lodge they went away. Black Gull, rolled in his new robe, closed his eyes.

“Gull,” he called in thought to his totem, “Be with me now, even as you were upon the sea.” And he put his hand on the medicine bag which hung at his throat, in which was the wing pinion of a sea gull. So did he fall asleep.

The next morning the Chief led the way inland to the center of the island where was a lake, deep and very blue. He pointed to it and said:

“So deep is this lake that no man has ever touched the bottom of it. But our young men know it well and move in it as easily as if they wore the fur of the sea otter on their bodies. Let this stranger prove that he dive into its depths and stay below its surface longer than Aksanti, and we shall believe that he speaks a part of the truth.”

There stood forth from among the warriors a young man with the deep chest of one who could put much air in his lungs. Black Gull looked to him and then to the blue water. Something fluttered on the surface and he saw there a drift of weeds, caught in it a feather. And he said within his heart:

“Thanks to you, oh, my totem, for showing me in this way how to win.”

The young warrior dove cleanly from the rocks into the lake and the Shaman counted aloud, moving one stone from a pile at his right hand to a place by his left. He counted ten, and then another four, before the diver arose to the surface and made his way back to the shore.

Black Gull threw aside his belt and loin cloth, stepping out of his moccasins and dove in turn. Under water he swam to the drifting tangle of weeds and took his place beneath it, rising under it every five counts to gulp in air. And so it was, the Shaman made a count for him of ten and ten, and another ten for good measure. Until at last Black Gull swam to shore. Those waiting him there held their hands before their mouths in astonishment that any man could stay so long under water.

The Shaman swung his rattle fiercely as Black Gull climbed to take up his moccasins and belt.

“If you are a seal spirit,” the old man cried, “then go back into the sea from which you came!”

Black Gull laughed. “I am no seal spirit, but a man. All of my clan can as well or better.”

That night they feasted. The young men danced and the old told tales of great deeds done when the world was younger and the Thunder Bird still visited men. But when Black Gull went to sleep in the lodge, once more he held to his medicine bag and thought of the Gull who was his totem and protector.

And he dreamed a great power dream, wherein he wandered through a valley such as he had heard tales of from roving hunters, where the earth gave forth steam and heat to burn a man. It seemed that he would die unless he found a way out. So he searched, with less and less hope. Then he saw a bird flying low through the smoke and steam, and he stumbled after, to come to a narrow crevice between two rocks. Though that seemed too narrow for him to win though, yet such a struggle he did. But in the midst of struggling he awoke to find it dawn and the Shaman and the Chief with him.

They brought him to a place by the shore where had been set up two sweat lodges. Again a warrior came forward and took his place by the entrance of one. While the Chief led Black Gull to the other.

“It shall be seen if you are one who can master water in another way,” said the Chief. “For to him that stays the longest in the heat of these lodges shall go the coup.”

To Black Gull in a little while it was his dream of the night come true, for the heat of the steam was great. Yet he must stay within it as ever and again the door was loosed and another pail full of water dashed upon the heated rocks. He began to grow weak and fearful that was indeed one test which he could not win.

Then he remembered his dream, and thought it had been sent to him with a purpose. So he examined the floor of the lodge which was of earth. It was difficult to see well through the steam and vapour, so he felt about him with his hands. And found against the back wall was a rock embedded in the ground. With a sharp pointed stone he dug and at last moved it a little, finally raising part of it so he could claw at the looser soil under it.

He worked carefully but with haste. And shortly he had a space into which he might crawl, and an opening beyond through which he could breathe the fresh air and feel cooler.

Thus he would go there for a time when he could no longer endure the heat and steam, and then wriggle out when heard those who brought fresh hot stones and water to the lodge. At length, when there seemed there would never be an end, he heard the sound of the Shaman’s rattle. So he shoved the rock back into its hole, packing back the earth about it. He had hardly finished before the lodge curtain was pulled aside and the Chief and the Shaman beckoned him forth.

“Seal person you say you are not, but are you lizard?” the Chief greeted him as he crawled into the open. Above the sun was well toward the west, and Black Gull knew that he had won the second of the tests.

Once more they feasted most of the night away. But Black Gull noticed that while the old men spoke to him with courtesy, the young ones gave him black looks. And he thought that, even if he won the third test they set for him, yet he might lose if they had their way. So he asked a question now and then of those about him, such questions as he thought would those that any man might ask. And thus he learned that this island must lie to the south and west of his own shore country, and there was no way back unless he could take one of their canoes and dare the sea.

But the warriors were ever about and he could not reach the canoes. Nor could he think of any plan which might be successful.

With the morning the Chief and the Shaman came again to Black Gull. They sat awhile, smoking their sweetly scented willow bark, not speaking while Black Gull wondered more and more what new trial they had devised. At last the Chief said:

“You are indeed a man of great and strong medicine, stranger from out of the sea. But will your medicine work for more than one sun, one night -- without ceasing?”

“What mean you?” asked Black Gull.

“Can you go without sleep for a night, a day, another night, and yet more? Our warriors are strong. They have taken the war trail over the bitter water and they have kept awake so. Is this also true of you?”

“Try me,” replied Black Gull. Though now he could see no way out for him.

“So be it,” agreed the Chief. “This night shall you begin, and matched with you our strongest warrior.”

Black gull needed time to think, so now he said: “Each man has his own medicine. Therefore I must go apart to consult my totem.”

The Shaman nodded. “This is a proper thing.”

Black Gull walked away from the village, but not toward the shore nor the beached canoes. For he knew that eyes watched him. And, though none would follow on his heels, yet all he did would be seen.

He came to a wooded place and laid himself down beside a fallen tree well eaten with rot, his hand laying on his medicine bag while he thought:

“Gull, show me how I may come out of this.”

Perhaps he would dream again. But, though he closed his eyes, yet he remained awake. Then he opened them to look about him. It chanced that, lying as he did he first saw the soft wood of the log. An ant ran busily along it, and in the here – there travels of that he could read no message. But the wood itself – ah – the wood!

Black Gull put out his hand as if he would draw himself up, and between fingers he pinched off a goodly portion of the spongy stuff. Hoping no one saw, he hid what he had taken between his belt and his body. Then he went on, to the rocks beside the lake where he had won the dive. There he sat for a space, staring down into the water, but thinking very fast and clearly. So desperate was his plan, but it was one, he was sure, his medicine had meant him to try.

At last he went back to the village. And at sunset the Shaman and the Chief brought him to a small lodge set apart from the others. Beside it was another before which stood a young warrior. At a nod of the Chief’s he entered the lodge, and the Shaman spoke to Black Gull:

“The both of you shall stay in these lodges, and each measure of time one shall look in upon you. He first sleeps shall be the loser.”

“So be it,” agreed Black Gull.

Once within the dark of the lodge he brought forth that which he had scraped from the rotted tree, and found, to the leaping of his heart that he had chosen rightly. For in the gloom it glowed a little. Then he set himself with patience to wait.

At intervals the flap of the lodge was raised and one looked in upon him. So it went for the first night, and the following day, and into the second night. Still black gull waited in patience. He sat with his back against the lodge wall, away from the door, and did not change his position, save that with the coming of the second night he drew his robe about him to cover his head and shoulders.

It was near the second dawn that he judged he must go. For those who had been on watch during the night must then tire. And he had been working steadily to loosen the back of the lodge.

Swiftly, after an inspection, he slipped out of the robe, fastening it to the lodge wall, rolling inside it one of the sleeping mats which had been left so enticingly near. At the top of the mat he set two pieces of the glowing wood from the tree, that they might seem as eyes when the torch was flashed in the door and the guard looked within.

Eel-like Black Gull wriggled through his hole and lay tight pressed against the earth, waiting for any alarm from the guard. When that did not come, he dared to crawl into the bushes, and so reached the shore and the canoes.

The large ones were beyond his strength to launch. So he must choose a small one, never meant to go far off-shore. This he pushed into the water, fearing any moment to hear the camp aroused behind him. But it slid into the water and he swam beside it, so any watching might think it had drifted free of itself.

Out it went, until at last he was able to board it and take up a paddle. But how dared a man venture so upon the sea? For, save for the island, there was no land to be seen. Only he had heard that a current ran past the island which would take him north and east, and so perhaps again near his own shore. When he felt the pull of that upon the canoe, he ceased paddling and sat with his right hand against his medicine bag, listening for any alarm from the island.

When the dawn broke the island was far behind. But in the canoe he had no food, no water. There was nothing, save a harpoon and its lire coiled about it. Black Gull pushed at that.

“Small use!” He was tempted to hurl it overboard, remembering how his harpoon brought him into trouble. But so much had he now learned – that it is better to think before acting. And a harpoon was not only a hunting tool, but a weapon.

“I am Black Gull,” he chanted, “I have won free from the island, and from the sea! I am a hunter and a warrior, and I am not yet a dead man! Hear me, bitter water, empty sky, Father Sun – I am not yet a dead man! There is strength in my arm – my body –”

He held high the harpoon so that the sun shone bright upon it.

“I make medicine,” he continued. “For as the gull fly over the sea, so shall this canoe take me also. Gull, I am your clan, your brother –”

There was a beating of wings, and indeed gulls dropped from the sky to wheel over the water ahead. Something wallowed there, beat the waves with feeble splashing. Black Gull took up the paddle and sent the canoe towards that. To see that a small whale, and one already half dead, struggled there, foam washing readily from its side wherein was planted a harpoon.

Above the gulls screamed and Black Gull, hardly knowing why, cast his own harpoon at the creature. The weapon went home cleanly and the whale gave a great lurch forward, towing behind it the canoe and Black Gull. As it had been with the blue seal, so was it now with the whale and he was borne on and on.

But more and more blood colored the waves and the great beast was tiring. Still it swam, always north and east, pulling the canoe as if that had no weight at all.

All though the day so it went, and always the cloud of gulls screamed overhead. Though the whale paused now and then, yet always would it once more start on again. At sunset its pauses grew longer, it moved more feebly, but still Black Gull did not throw off the line. For the gulls were still above, and two or three lit on the edge of the canoe, paying him no attention, but watching the dying whale.

Twice in the night did that journey end and begin again. When the sun arose the line of the harpoon was no longer taught and Black Gull, weary from lack of sleep, saw that the body of the whale rolled in the shallow waters of a small bay. And this bay, its rocky walls, were known to him!

He heard shouting on shore and saw canoes pushing out, the men in them eager to get such a feast of fine, rich meat. Then did Black Gull wave his paddle aloft. And he croaked, for his mouth and throat were very dry, the hunting song. For his was the harpoon in the kill, his the first meat honor. And so as they came near the men in the canoes fell silent, for to them it was if the dead had returned.

But Black Gull greeted them all by name and they took heart and paddled forward to cast lines on the whale and bring in it for dulling up. While all the village came to share such bounty.

Only in the upper rocks Bitter Aspen cast dust upon her head and broke her prayer sticks, tore asunder her medicine bag. For who can bewitch a man whom the Thunder Bird and the sun so favors? Who has such strong medicine? And she wailed upon the wind until a gull cried in answer.

 “The Telling of Tales

Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
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Donated by – Victor Horadam and Sue Stewart

Edited by Jay Watts ~ aka: Lots-a-watts ~ May, 2015

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