Klamath - Coyote and the Salmon
One day back in the Beforetime, Bear and Eagle came home from their fishing with bad news.
"The salmon are gone from the river!" roared Bear.
"We did not see a one," shrieked Eagle in anger.
It was terrible news. Of all the fishes in the river or sea, the salmon was the tastiest. In two days the animal people were to have a feast-and what was a feast without salmon?
"How can there be no salmon?" cried Crane.
"Someone has stolen them all," Eagle said sadly.
Gloom settled down on the village like a great, gray cloud. The sun still shone, the grass was still green, and the hunters came home with good meat, but the animal people sighed as they ate, and thought of the feast to come.
Coyote sighed loudest of all, for he loved salmon more than anything in the world. But Coyote was as clever as he was greedy, and so he began to think.
"Who could steal so many fish?" thought he.
"Not Pelican. Where would he hide them? Not Sea Lion. Not even he could eat so many."
Coyote frowned and paced up and down. "It cannot be Fox,' said he to himself. Fox's den was near a pond, but his pond could not hold even thirty salmon. Thirty thousand had vanished. Or more. Then, too, the animals7 path to the north passed along Fox's pond's rim. If there were salmon in it, someone would have seen.
But there were other ponds. One lay below the waterfall near the house of the Ixkareya.
And the two Ixkareya were she-witches.
Coyote grinned, and thought some more, then trotted off to find an alder tree.
From the trunk of the alder tree Coyote pulled two large pieces of bark. Now, alder bark on the inside is very red, and so when Coyote had cut them into the shapes of fish, they looked a little like salmon. Seen from afar, they looked very much like salmon. Coyote smeared them with deer marrow, wrapped them in leaves, put them in his quiver, and set out for the witches' house.
Now, the witches were young and good looking, but did not have many visitors. So when, as they sat by their cookfire roasting acorns, they saw Coyote coming up the trail, they were pleased.
"He is very handsome,' said the elder.
"Such a bright, shiny coat and bushy tail,' whispered the younger.
"A fine evening, Ixkareya," called Coyote as he drew near.
"A fine evening," said the witches, nodding.
And so they talked together of the weather, then gossiped about the animal people of the foothills and the plain. As they talked. Coyote took a sideways look at the pond at the foot of the waterfall. There was no sign of salmon.
"Have some of our acorns, Ki-yoo," offered the elder witch as Coyote seemed about to go.
The younger held out the basket.
Coyote took a pawful and thanked them politely. "They will go well with my supper of fish,' said he. He pulled one elder-bark salmon a little way out of his quiver so that they might see, and then pushed it back out of sight.
The two witches looked at each other as Coyote turned to go.
"Where did he get salmon?" hissed one.
"No one has salmon,' muttered the other. "We should know."
They watched Coyote go, gathering wood on his way. He did not go far. On a flat place a little uphill from the house by the waterfall, he built a fire.
When it had burned down to a bed of bright coals, he speared his bark fish on a willow stick.
The two witches watched and whispered and frowned at each other as Coyote pretended to roast the fish over the fire. The deer marrow melted and spit as it spattered in the fire. The witches ate acorns as they watched, and wondered whether Coyote would offer them a share of the salmon.
He did not. And their mouths began to water.
"Since he has salmon, let us fetch some of our own," they said at last. And taking woven mats to hold over their heads, they stepped through the waterfall and vanished.
In a flash Coyote sprang up and dashed to the waterfall's side. He poked his head in through the water just far enough to see what lay beyond.
Beyond the curtain of water lay a great cave, and the great cave was filled with a pond greater than that which lay out under the sky. Behind the dam that made the great pond, the water flashed with thousands of salmon. There were so many salmon that the witches, standing at the pond's rim, "had" only to dip in their hands to pull out a fat fish.
"Tso!" crowed Coyote to himself. And he hurried back to his campfire.
At nightfall Coyote made a great show of yawning. He smoothed a place on the ground near his fire and made a bed of pine needles. Then he lay down and pretended to sleep. It was not easy, for he could smell the real salmon roasting.
At last, when the witches had eaten, one yawned and said, "I am sleepy, too."
"We must be careful," warned the other. "We must keep watch until the stranger has fallen to the bottom of sleep."
Coyote breathed deeply and sleepily, and all the while he listened. And all the while he listened, the witches argued whether he was truly asleep. So Coyote began to snore.
"Hai! I told you he was asleep," said the one, and together they went into their house.
When the moon went down behind the hill, Coyote slipped down across the trail and under the waterfall. There he set to work. He pried out rocks and pawed at the earth until he had made a great hole at the end of the dam. The water ran out in a rush, and with it the fish. Salmon swam past Coyote's legs and leaped over his back in their eagerness to be gone.
Inside the house of the Ixkareya, one murmured in her sleep, "Do you hear the waterfall laughing?"
But the laughter was Coyote's.
And ours. For if Coyote had not freed the salmon, there would be none in the Klamath River or the sea today.
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