Native American Tale of Pukwudgies or Fairies
ONCE there was a lovely young girl named Neen-i-zu, the only daughter of an Indian chief, who lived on the shore of Lake Superior; Neen-i-zu, in the Indian language, means "My Dear Life." It was plain that her parents loved her tenderly, and did everything in their power to make her happy and to shield her from any possible harm.
There was but one thing that made them uneasy. Neen-i-zu was a favorite with the other young girls of the village, and joined them in their play. But she liked best of all to walk by herself in the forest, or to follow some dim trail that led to the heart of the little hills. Sometimes she would be absent for many hours; and when she returned, her eyes had the look of one who has dwelt in secret places, and seen things strange and mysterious. Nowadays, some persons would have called Neen-i-zu "romantic." Others, who can never see a thing that is not just beneath their noses, would have laughed a little, in a superior sort of way, and said she was a "dreamer." What was it that Neen-i-zu saw and heard, during these lonely walks in the secret places of the hills? Was it perhaps the fairies? She did not say. But her mother, who wished her to be more like other girls, and who would have liked to see her marry and settle down, was much disturbed in mind.
The mischievous little fairies known as Puk-Wudjies were believed to inhabit the sand dunes where Neen-i-zu so often went to walk. These were the sand-hills made by Grasshopper, when he danced so madly at Man-a-bo-zho's wedding, whirling the sand into great drifts and mounds that may be seen to this very day. The Puk-Wudjies loved these hills, which were seldom visited by the Indians. It was just the place for leap-frog and all-hands-'round; in the twilight of summer days they were said to gather here in little bands, playing all manner of pranks. Then, as night came, they would make haste to hide themselves in a grove of pine-trees known as the Manito Wac, or the Wood of the Spirits.
No one had ever come close to them; but fishermen, paddling their canoes on the lake, had caught glimpses of them from afar, and had heard the tiny voices of these merry little men, as they laughed and called to one another. When the fishermen tried to follow, the Puk-Wudjies would vanish in the woods; but their foot-prints, no larger than a child's, could be seen on the damp sand of a little lake in the hills.
If anything more were needed to convince those doubters who did not believe in fairies, the proof was quickly supplied by fishermen and hunters who were victims of their tricks. The Puk-Wudjies never really harmed anyone, but they were up to many kinds of mischief. Sometimes a hunter, picking up his cap in the morning, would find the feathers plucked out; sometimes a fisherman, missing his paddle, would discover it at last in a tree. When such things happened it was perfectly plain that Puk-Wudjies had been up to their pranks, and few persons were still stupid enough to believe it could be anything else.
Neen-i-zu had her own ideas concerning these little men; for she, like Morning Glory, had often listened to the tales that old Iagoo told. One of these stories was the story of a Happy Land, a far-off place where it was always Summer; where no one wept or suffered sorrow.
It was for this land that she sighed. It filled her thoughts by day, when she sought the secret places of the hills, and sat in some lonely spot, listening to the mysterious voices that whispered in the breeze. Where was this Happy Land—this place without pain or care?
Tired out at night, she would sink into her bed. Then from their hiding places would come stealing the small messengers of Weenz, the Spirit of Sleep. These kindly gnomes—too small for the human eye to see—crept quickly up the face of the weary Neen-i-zu and tapped gently on her forehead with their tiny war-clubs, called pub-ga-mau-guns. Taptap—tap!—till her eyelids closed, and she sought the Happy Land in that other pleasant land of dreams.
She, too, had seen the foot-prints of the Puk-Wudjies on the sandy beach of the little lake, and had heard their merry laughter ring out in the grove of pines. Was it their only dwelling place, she asked herself, or were they not messengers from the Happy Land, sent to show the way to that mortal who believed in it, and longed to enter.
Neen-i-zu came to think that this must be really so. Oftener than ever, she made her way to the meadow bordering on the Spirit Wood, and sat there gazing into the grove. Perhaps the Puk-Wudjies would understand, and tell the fairies whom they served. Then some day a fairy would appear at the edge of the pines, and beckon her to come. That would surely happen, she thought, if she wished it long enough, and could give her wishes wings. So, sitting there, she composed the words of a song, and set it to the music the pines make when the south wind stirs their branches. Then she sang:
Spirit of the laughing leaves,
Fairy of the forest pine,
Listen to the maid who grieves
For that happy land of thine.
For that happy land of thine.
From your haunt in summer glade
Hasten to your mournful maid.
Hasten to your mournful maid.
Was it only her fancy, that she seemed to hear the closing words of her song echoed from the deep woods where the merry little men had vanished? Or was it the Puk-Wudjies mocking her?
She had lingered later than usual; it was time to go. The new moon swung low in the western sky, with its points turned upwards to the heavens. An Indian would say he could hang his powder horn upon it, and that it meant dry weather, when the leaves crackled under the hunter's feet, and the animals fled before him, so that he was unable to come near-enough to shoot. And Neen-i-zu was glad of this. In the Happy Land, she declared no one would suffer, and no life would be taken.
Yet it was a hunter that her mother wished her to marry, a man who spent his whole life in slaying the red deer of the forest; who thought and talked of almost nothing else.
This came into her mind as she rose from her seat in the meadow, and cast a farewell glance at the pines. The rays of the crescent moon touched them with a faint light; and again her fancy came into play. What was it that seemed to move along the edge of the mysterious woods? Something with the dim likeness of a youth—taller than the Puk-Wudjies—who glided rather than walked, and whose garments of light green stood out against the darker green of the pines. Neeni-zu looked again; but the moon hid behind the hills. All was black to the eye; to the ear came no sound but the creepy cry of the whip-poor-will. She hastened home.
That night she heard from her mother's lips what she had long expected and feared. "Neen-i-zu," said her mother. "I named you 'My dear Life,' and you are as dear as life to me. That is why I wish you to be safe and happy. That is why I wish you to marry a good man who will take the best care of you now, and will protect and comfort you when I am gone. You know the man I mean."
"Yes, mother," answered Neen-i-zu. "I know him well
enough—as well as ever I want to know him. He hunts the deer, he kills the deer, he skins the deer. That is all he does, that is all he thinks, that is all he talks about. It is perhaps well that someone should do this, lest we starve for want of meat. Yet there are many other things in the world, and this hunter of yours is content if he does but kill."
"Poor child!" said her mother. "You are too young to know what is best for you."
"I am old enough, mother dear," answered Neen-i-zu, "to know what my heart tells me. Besides, this hunter you would have me marry is as tall as a young oak, while I am not much taller than one of the Puk-Wudjies. When I stand up very straight, my head comes little higher than his waist. A pretty pair we would make!"
What she said was quite true. Neen-i-zu had never grown to be much larger than a child. She had a graceful, slender body, little hands and feet, eyes black as midnight, and a mouth like a meadow flower. One who saw her for the first time, passing upon the hills, her slight figure sketched against the sky, might have thought that she herself was a fairy.
For all her gentle, quiet ways, and her love of lonely places, Neen-i-zu was often merry. But now she seldom laughed; her step was slow; and she walked with her eyes fixed upon the ground. "When she is married," thought her mother, "she will have other things to occupy her mind, and she will no longer go dreaming among the hills."
But the hills were her one great joy—the hills, and the flowery meadows where the lark swayed to and fro, bidding her be of good cheer, as he perched on a mullein stalk. Every afternoon she sat, singing her little song. Soon she would sing no more. The setting sun would gild the pine grove, the whip-poor-will would complain to the stars; but the picture would be incomplete; there would be no Neen-i-zu. For the wedding day was named; she must be the hunter's wife.
On this day set for her marriage to the man she so disliked, Neen-i-zu put on the garments of a bride. Never had she looked so lovely. Blood-red blossoms flamed in her jet-black hair; in her hand she held a bunch of meadow flowers mingled with the tassels of the pine.
Thus arrayed, she set out for a farewell visit to the grove. It was a thing they could not well deny her; but as she went her way, and the hills hid her from sight, the wedding guests looked uneasily at one another. It was something they could not explain. At that moment a cloud blew up from nowhere, across the sun; where light had been there was now a shadow. Was it a sign? They glanced sidelong at the hunter, but the bridegroom was sharpening his sheath knife on a stone. Sunshine or shadow, his thoughts were following the deer.
Time passed; but Neen-i-zu did not return. Then so late was the hour, that the wedding guests wondered and bestirred themselves. What could be keeping her so long? At last they searched the hills; she was not there. They tracked her to the meadow, where the prints of her little moccasins led on and on—into the grove itself; then the tracks disappeared. Neen-i-zu had vanished.
They never saw her more. The next day a hunter brought them strange news. He had climbed a hill, on his way home by a short cut, and had paused there a moment to look around. Just then his dog ran up to him, whining, with its tail between its legs. It was a brave dog, he said, that would not run from a bear, but this one acted as if he had seen something that was not mortal.
Then the hunter heard a voice, singing. Soon the singing stopped, and he made out—far off—the figure of Neen-i-zu, walking straight toward the grove, with her arms held out before her. He called to her, but she did not hear, and drew nearer and nearer to the Spirit wood.
"She walked like one who dreams," said the hunter, "and when she had almost reached the woods, a young man, slender as a reed, came out to meet her. He was not one of our tribe. No, no! I have never seen his like. He was dressed in the leaves of the forest, and green plumes nodded on his head. He took her by the hand. They entered the Sacred Grove. There is no doubt that he was a fairy—the fairy Evergreen. There is nothing more; I have finished."
So Neen-i-zu became a bride, after all.