Klamath - How Coyote Stole the Sun
Back in the Beforetime, while the darkness Little Brother Weasel let loose still lay deep on the plain, every day was worse than the last. The animal people went around in circles. They bumped into each other and trees and their own houses. The bird people flew up and down, crashing into each other or the treetops or the ground. The darkness was so thick on the plain that it swallowed up even the light of the stars Little Brother Weasel had spilled from Roadrunner's bundle. And the darkness was full of the fog he had freed.
It was terrible. Fur and feathers grew damp. The ground grew cold. Teeth chattered. Beaks clattered. No one knew when to get up or go to sleep. The trees lost their leaves, and the grass withered. At first there was plenty to eat, for the oak trees dropped all their acorns, but only Wolf and Fox and Coyote, who had keen noses, had any luck at hunting. Even so, it was not long before they too grew lean and bony with hunger, for as they blundered about in the dark the deer could hear them coming, and the rabbits and mice kept to their holes.
"Tell us what to do," said the animal people of the plain to Sandhill Crane, their medicine man. "Tell us what to do,' begged the animals who found their way to his house. "Tell us what to do," pleaded the folk who bumped into him in the dark. Crane could only sigh, for he had no answer.
Ki-yoo the Coyote grew angry. "If Crane does not know what to do," Coyote thought, "he should make something up. Something is better than nothing."
And because something is better than nothing, Coyote ate up his last acorn, and trotted out into the darkness. There must be a better place for animal folk to live. And he. Coyote, would find it! He followed his nose to the river, the river to a creek, and the creek to a trickle of water that slid down from the foothills of the white-teepee mountain.
There, at the hill's foot, his nose caught a shimmer of a whiff of a sniff of the most delicious aroma he had ever smelled. It was nothing like the clear fresh tang of trout. It did not have the sharp, rich aroma of freshly killed venison. Yet even so, it brought to his mind mouthwatering visions of bounding deer and leaping fish.
So Coyote followed his nose.
As he trotted up into the Foothills Country he could think of nothing but the scent he followed. He did not notice the dim light ahead until after a while the darkness around him gave way to gloom. Bare, shadowy trees appeared along the trail and suddenly Coyote saw that he could see.
"Ha, hai! What can this mean?" thought he, and he trotted on all the faster.
Ahead, the light was brighter still. The trees wore leaves. The country began to be dry and warm. And the delicious smell was stronger than ever. When at last Coyote came near the place where the light was brightest, he spied the village of the Foothills People ahead.
Now, hungry Coyote might be, and brave, but he was cautious and cunning too. He sat and waited and watched. He waited until a fox, one of the Foothills People, left the village and came trotting down the path with his bow and quiver of arrows slung over his back.
"Hai, now we shall see!" thought Coyote.
In the twitch of a whisker he changed himself into a fox just like the other. The shadings on his fur, the notch in one ear torn in an old fight - all was the same. As Coyote-Fox trotted up the trail Fox had trotted down, he grinned. Not even Fox's mother could have told the difference between them, for Coyote's magic was strong. But, magic or no, the closer he came to the Foothills Village, the lower Coyote's bushy tail drooped and the harder he panted in the heat of the light in the sky above.
For the village had a Sun!
A Sun that hung from the sky on a rope.
In the village not a head turned as Coyote passed among the lodges. When he stopped to drink from a pitch-lined water basket, the pups and kits nearby did not pause in their play. One of the wives looked up from stirring soup in a cooking basket by the fire where cooking stones heated and acorn cakes baked. But she turned back to her work, and Coyote-Fox trotted on to the next fire circle.
Cookfires! Coyote marveled. The Foothills People had not only a Sun, but cookfires! The wonderful aroma that had drawn him through the darkness must have come from the haunch of venison roasting on the spit of the second fire. Its fat sizzled and spat and dripped onto the red coals.
It smelled not at all like raw venison. Coyote sniffed, and shivered with pleasure. He touched the meat and quickly licked the juice from his paw.
Hai, hee! It tasted as good as it smelled. His empty stomach rumbled as he turned away.
"I have seen what I came to see," Coyote told himself. "I must go before Fox returns."
But then his stomach growled again, as loudly as any grizzly. And he could not bear to go. So he did not. He stayed, sleeping in the shade, until the chief of the animal wives called everyone to eat. Coyote - Fox ate his fill of mush and fish and roasted meat, and afterward slipped away. Changing back into his own shape, he turned his nose toward the downhill path and hurried toward the dark below.
Down in the dark. Coyote returned by the way he had come. He followed his nose to the trickle of water, and followed the trickle to the creek to the river. But between the riverbank and the village on the plain he lost his way more than once. When at last he reached home he hurried to tell Crane of the wonderful land where the animal folk had not only a Sun and fire and good food, but wives and pups and kits and chicks.
"It is truly wonderful," exclaimed Coyote.
Crane was not so sure, for he was fearful of all things new. "The dark is bad, but this Sun sounds dangerous. It could burn our eyes and feathers and fur."
Coyote was alarmed. "Must we sit in the dark and starve, then? The hunters of the Foothills People have light to see and shoot by, and the wives bake acorn cakes and roast good meat. But we have no food to feed wives, and with no wives we have no pups or chicks."
Crane tossed his beak in pride. "We are strong. We have no need of what we do not have. If you must have them, then go back to your Foothills People."
Coyote went off and away in a huff.
"And so I will!" said he.
Once back in the foothills Coyote waited in the bushes by the village trail until he spied a bobcat coming out to hunt. Once the bobcat was past, he turned himself into just such a one. Bobcat's wife could not have told the difference. Brown-spotted coat, tufted ears-every hair was the same.
In the village Coyote-Bobcat made himself at home again. He ate the good food. He watched the pups at play. He admired the Sun. It was wonderful even though it was very hot. And yet. . .
And yet, Coyote could not be happy. He could not forget his people in the flatlands. How could he be happy while they hungered and shivered down in the dismal dark?
There was nothing to do but go home again. As soon as he reached his own village, Coyote sniffed Crane out and told him again how pleasant life in the Foothills Village was.
"And they take the Sun down at night so they can sleep. In the morning, if a cookfire has gone out, they poke a stick in the Sun to get fire to light it again. Then they hang the Sun up and have light to hunt and gather acorns by. A Sun is a wonderful thing. If we had one, you would like it. I know you would."
Crane rattled his feathers and hunched over against the cold. "Perhaps," said he, but still he was not sure.
"We could try to buy it," Coyote said eagerly.
"Not so fast, Ki-yoo!" Crane shifted from one long leg to the other. "I know you! You would bring this Sun here with no thought how we could make it work. How would we hang it up? Our plain is much farther from the sky than the foothills are."
"I will think of something," Coyote said, and he pestered Crane until at last, to be rid of him. Crane agreed that Coyote should ask the Foothills People how much shell money they would take for the Sun.
And so it was that Coyote went in his own skin to the Foothills Village to learn how much the Sun would cost. But the animal people there would name no price. Sell their Sun? Never! Not even a sliver of it. And they ran at Coyote and bit at his heels and chased him down into the foggy dark.
After the Foothills People turned back to their village. Coyote sat on a log on the border between the dusk and the dark, and thought. They would not sell the Sun. So he would have to steal it. That would not be easy. The Sun was kept at night in a house made of sod with no window at all. Its door was guarded by Turtle, Sun's Keeper, and Turtle guarded it well. He slept for no more than two or three minutes at a time, and when he slept he kept one eye open wide. It was said by the Foothills People that at the fall of a leaf on the roof near the smokehole, or the pit-pat of the smallest foot past the door, the Keeper of the Sun would be up, with an arrow ready to his bow.
How, Coyote puzzled, could he steal the Sun without stealing Turtle too?
At last he thought of a plan. He crept back up the trail and hid himself in a clump of bushes below the village. When the hunters came out again in the late afternoon to hunt, Turtle came too, gathering twigs and broken branches for firewood.
Quickly Coyote circled up and around. When he saw Turtle returning, he lay down across the top of the trail and turned himself into a large, crooked oak tree limb.
"Hai!" cried Turtle. "What luck! This will burn slowly and last all night." He set aside the pine boughs he had gathered and hoisted the heavy limb onto his back to carry it to Sun's house. There he dropped it atop the woodpile beside the fire circle and went to gather more before dinner. Coyote-Limb lay still. He was glad indeed that a tree limb could not feel hunger, for the smell of good meat roasting filled the house.
After the evening meal, the Sun was brought in for the night and put in a basket across the fire from Coyote-Limb. Turtle built up the fire, then picked up the limb and placed one end in the fire. But it would not stay. Because it was crooked, it would not lie flat.
"Limb, lie flat on the fire and burn!" scolded Turtle, but every time he pushed it down, up it turned again. At last he lost his temper, lifted it up, and dropped it-plop!-in a shower of sparks across the fire. One end fell close to the basket in which the Sun slept.
"Burn from the middle out, then!" snapped Turtle. Turning away, he did not see that, because of Coyote's magic, the limb did not burn at all.
Coyote watched and waited until Turtle settled down with one eye on the door. "Sleep, Turtle," he sang under his breath. "Upija, upija. Sleep, sleep."
Turtle's head drooped little by little until at last his chin rested on the floor. One eye closed and then, very slowly, the other. Soon Turtle began to snore.
Coyote-Limb tilted silently toward the Sun. Then, changing quickly back to his own shape, he hopped off the fire, popped a lid over the Sun, snatched up the basket, and dashed out and away.
Turtle awoke at once. "Hail" he shouted out. "The Sun is gone! Someone has stolen the Sun!"
All of the Foothills People ran out into the night, crying, "Thief! Thief!" But they could not discover which way Coyote had gone, for he, coming from the land where all was night, was more sure-footed in the dark than they. While they bumped into each other and cried, "Thief! Thief!"
Coyote bounded down through the foothills and into the darker dark below. When the cries of "Thief!" had died away behind him. Coyote lifted the basket lid enough to light his way, and trotted straight home, smiling to think what a welcome he would have.
But it was not the welcome he looked for. When the animal people of Coyote's village saw the Sun they covered their eyes and ran into their houses.
They shouted and scolded and would not come out until Coyote covered it up again.
"It hurts our eyes!"
"Hai, how bright!"
"How are we to sleep with that shining through the thatch?"
"Take it away!"
Coyote took the basket to Crane, but Crane was afraid too, and would not take it.
"It was your idea," said Crane to Coyote. "I don't know what to do with it. We cannot hang it from the sky as your Foothills People do. If you wish to keep this Sun, Ki-yoo, you must think what to do with it."
Coyote went off in a huff. His friends were freezing in the damp and dark, and not a one of them had thanked him. Hai, ha! He would show them!
So Coyote slung Sun's basket on his back and traveled west to the place where the sky's edge meets the earth's edge. There, at the West Hole in the Sky, he took Sun out of his basket and ordered him to roll out through the hole and down under the World until he came to the East Hole in the Sky.
When he arrived there, he was to come up and travel west, shining first on the Foothills People, and then on the plain. When he came again to the West Hole, he was to go under the world as before so the animal people could sleep. And every day he must do the same.
Because Coyote's magic was strong. Sun obeyed.
And when morning came and Sun rolled up across the sky. Crane and the others were glad at last. They could see where they were going. The days were warm. There was game to hunt. And all the trees and grasses grew again
Back in the Beforetime: Tales of the California Indians [the Klamath River region in the north to the inland desert mountains and the southern coastlands] Retold by Jane Louise Curry, 1987