Akiowa stood gazing at the totem. Remembering. Grieving. It was blue-grey stone fashioned like an eagle, nothing like the white wolf of her clan, its festival decorations sprays of spring blossom not the colourful craftwork her people would have enjoyed making. Yet its spirit was the same, and memories of the last time she’d seen the white wolf rock threatened to overwhelm her.
As though summoned by the memories, a young girl, her face creased with worry, hurriedly approached the totem. There similarity ended, for she touched the rock with hand and forehead, pushed something under the blossoms, then rushed away, all without noticing Akiowa.
Satisfying curiosity, Akiowa uncovered a scrap of painted rawhide, an eagle’s vivid essence soaring in brilliant colours. Wonderful work. But puzzling. Why had the girl left it there in such a strange manner?
Spring was ever a busy time – clearing, weeding, re-making the long mounds for the crops, burying rotten fish to improve the soil, planting seeds of maize, then beans and squash. Yet the women of Akiowa’s village still found time to talk or paint, while men boasted of old hunts and children played. Not here. Everyone worked, in fields which stretched as far as Akiowa could see. She wandered through the village, past mounds of thick-skinned squash – the mainstay of winter’s diet, but enough still remaining for the rest of the year – but no one noticed her until she gave the Storyteller’s call.
Work stopped. People stretched, laughing, and began making their way towards her before a man of middle years waved them back. Dark looks, loud grumbles, but they obeyed as he hastened to Akiowa, brushing black soil from his hands.
“Storyteller, welcome. I’m Qaletaqa, headman now. I regret the Storytelling must wait, for there’s much to do and we cannot waste daylight, but please rest in my home till evening.” He led her towards a neat earth lodge. “My wife will bring refreshments. There she is with my daughter,” he added as a woman came from the fields, a girl Akiowa recognised following behind.
“I saw your daughter at the totem,” said Akiowa. “The hide painting she left there was exquisite.” Immediately she wished the words unspoken, for his face clouded.
“Here’s my home, Storyteller. Please enter. I must speak to my wife.”
Conscious she’d somehow blundered, Akiowa scurried inside, then gasped in wonder. The lodge’s walls were decorated with painted hide, each image as brilliant and beautiful as the eagle. She was still glorying in them when Qaletaqa’s wife entered with a pitcher and a plate of honeyed cakes which she set on the ground.
“I fear I displeased your husband by speaking of the painted eagle,” said Akiowa guiltily.
“He disapproves of my painting.” The woman’s voice was flat, dead.
“But…” Akiowa gestured at the walls.
“They’re from before he became headman. Now he sees it as time wasted when I should be helping grow crops to feed us.”
“There would surely be food enough without your toil.”
“Yes. But he cannot forget the famine when he was young. Many died, including his sister. But you must excuse me. I must return to the fields.”
Remembering the pleasure-seeking villagers with their flame-water, Akiowa couldn’t blame Qaletaqa for his prudence. Yet it had clearly gone too far.
“Spear, we must help him see a middle path.” As she was considering how to do this, Qaletaqa appeared.
“Storyteller, you must help me. I’ve tried to guide my people, to convince them how hard we need to work. I remind them often enough of The Bee, the Butterfly, and the Cicada – you told that story when I was a child, when that feckless Chunta was headman, and I’ve heeded its lesson. But they no longer listen. There’s magic in your words. Tell the story when I ask for it. Make it the last story, so it stays with them.”
Akiowa wanted to refuse, to argue with him, but he clutched her hand. “Please.”
She understood his care for his people, his fear. “Yes.”
But, once he’d left: “Spear, when you tell an old story, does it have to be told the old way?”
Akiowa wasn’t sure if the villagers asked only for stories of idle hours and beautiful things, but those were the ones the spear chose. Then, finally: “Last Story. The Bee, the Butterfly, and the Cicada.”
Villagers groaned, Qaletaqa beamed, and if anyone wondered why “Last Story” not “Old Story” understanding soon came, for the hard-working bee never had a beloved sister in the traditional tale, a sister who was dying. Qaletaqa drew in a sharp breath, then leaned forward, listening closely. When the butterfly and cicada came begging for food and shelter and the bee rebuked them for idleness – for they’d danced and sung all summer long instead of working – he nodded.
“The bee would have turned them away,” said the spear through Akiowa, “but his sister stopped him. ‘As you love me, dear brother, welcome them into our home. For when the pain was great, the charm of the cicada’s song soothed me; when I despaired, the grace of the butterfly’s dance reminded me of life’s loveliness.’ And though the bee still thought them idle creatures,” – more nods from Qaletaqa – “he fed and housed them for his sister’s sake, for he loved her dearly.”
Slowly, in this new story, the bee came to recognise his mistake. In working to provide for his sister, he’d forgotten her happiness, forgotten the need for pleasure and beauty. When his sister died, the butterfly and cicada mourned with him, and ever after were welcome in his home.
Qaletaqa no longer nodded, but stared into space, into memories.
“So ends this story,” said Akiowa. “So ends this Storytelling.”
Sighs from the villagers, some tears, then one great sobbing breath from Qaletaqa. “My sister,” he cried. “I cannot forget my sister.”
“Nor should you. But remember her joy, her delight in beauty. Honour that, and your people’s need for joy and beauty. Honour your wife’s great gift.”
Akiowa sat beside him, the villagers pitied him, his wife and daughter held him, and the spear’s magic prevailed. Qaletaqa recognised his mistake.
There would be another Storytelling in the morning. A day of grace, not work, and a future of happiness. And Akiowa would continue her journey.