Small Duck

All the people of the new world were glad that the swamp beasts were dead, for now the wading birds and the smaller water animals could build their homes among the reeds and willows without fear of harm from these enemies. "Now there will be more land on which we can live!" exclaimed First Woman. But even as she was speaking they all heard the long shrill whistle of the gray grebe that was watching the ocean shore at the north; immediately following this they heard a similar warning from the south. From the sound they knew that great walls of angry water were rolling toward them from those two directions, and were being lashed into waves by the mighty sea serpents who lived in the ocean caves. "Why did we come to this land?" the First People were asking each other. Then they said, "We are still in danger of being drowned!" After this was said, several people started voicing complaints. "There is nothing here for us to live on except the plants and food we brought with us, and when that is gone we will starve!'' "How many have been swept away by the ocean waves?" asked a third. "Several of our children and nearly all of our Old Ones who could not run fast," was the reply. So they all looked sad and discouraged as they gathered their belongings to make a hasty trip to a high mesa around the central lake. There the Ant People had built the land so high that the waves could not reach them. "Is there any way in which we can destroy the water monsters?" First Woman wanted to know. "Destroying one or two would do no good," replied First Man. "The ocean is so vast that it shelters many monsters of many kinds." First Woman considered this and then said, "We should have a high wall all around the borders of this land so we can live safely without fear of being carried into the ocean by the angry waves. All the First People agreed to this and nodding their heads said to each other, "Yes! Yes! That is right. We need mountains such as we had in the lower world to stand between us and the dark water." Now the ants, the earthworms, the gophers, and the prairie dogs that had built comfortable homes underground were the earth movers. As soon as it was decided that walls must be built on all four sides of the land, First Woman asked the Ant People to build the wall at the east, the gophers were requested to do the same in the south, earthworms were to go to work in the west and prairie dogs in the north. So these Earth People went to the four sides of the land and started to build earthen dams along the shores. Bit by bit they placed the soil in ridges, but when old Ocean saw what was taking place he gave a mighty roar and sent his waves smashing across the land so the ridges were washed away and the beach along the ocean was low as ever. When the people saw how easily these dunes had been washed away, they all said to each other, "We must have rock to build our mountains, as earthen hills are of no use." "Did anyone bring rock or even small stones from the lower world?" First Man asked. No one answered. His question started the people to thinking. "Where can we find the rock we need?" they all wondered. None was in the center of the land, nor as far as they could see. Then First Woman sent Locust to fly around the edge of the land to find any stones the great waves had washed onto the shore. Locust made the journey quickly and returned with the report that there were no stones. Now the First People became quite discouraged and began thinking of the high mountains, the peaked rocks, and the pleasant hills of the country in which they had lived before coming to this flat land. They knew they could not go back because those places were now all under the ocean, but oh, how they wished this new country was not so flat! If only there were something they could do about it! Now First Man, who really possessed a great deal of magic power which he used only on occasions of dire necessity, being fearful of diminishing its strength, pondered a long time and then said, "Who among you is considered very brave? I have a plan whereby we will be able to build a wall of mountains all around this land, but I need a very brave person to help. Who is willing to do a very dangerous thing to help me carry out this plan?" And he looked around at all the Dine'e', at the animals, the birds, and all who were standing in the circle.

"I am brave!" screamed Eagle as he stood with folded wings and flashing eyes not far from First Man. "I can fly among the clouds when the deep thunder rolls and the lightning flashes! I can fly straight toward the face of the sun! I fear nothing!" "I am brave," growled big Bear as he lifted his shaggy head above all who were standing near. "Look how big and strong I am, and how I can enter the darkest caves with no fear of the lion or the wolf who might be hiding there!" "I am brave!" sang fat Bumblebee as he flew above First Man's head. "Everyone knows that I carry a poison arrow, and they all step from my path when they hear my war chant." Then he buzzed his wings until they looked like silver spray, to show how fast he could fly. "Very well!" said First Man as he looked from one to the other, considering the three who claimed to be brave. "I am glad three brave people are here, for if the first one fails in this mission, the next will surely succeed." He was silent a moment and then continued, "Are you willing to go down to the mountains, that are now at the bottom of the dark waters, to find stones of four colors to bring to me? On the east mountain lies a stone of clear white crystal, on the south mountain is a stone of blue turquoise; at the west will be found a stone of yellow jasper, and at the north lies a stone of black jet. Someone must bring me those four stones; I need them to form the hearts of the four mountains." When he had finished speaking, a great silence fell upon the people who were looking hard at the three who had declared their bravery: big Bear, fat Bumblebee, and Gray Eagle. Then Eagle spoke in a low, shamed voice saying, "I cannot do that. I would lose my breath in the dark water, and if my feathers became wet and heavy I would never be able to fly back to land." Spreading his great, gray wings he flew far away into the sky. Now all the people turned to look at big Bear who had said that he was not afraid of anything. Bear stood first on one foot and then on the other while he hung his head and examined his paws, so as not to look at the waiting people. "I cannot do that!" he grumbled. "I am not as strong as the black Sea Monster, and I cannot see under water, so I could not find the four stones." Then big Bear shuffled away to hide in his dark cave where the people would not see him. "I cannot do that!" whispered fat Bumblebee as he alighted on a low bush and buzzed his wings very fast, trying not to seem ashamed. "The dark water would not be good for my wings or for my beautiful velvet coat, and I cannot swim at all." Then he flew away to his home. First Man and all the First People were very sad and disappointed when these three had gone, for it seemed that no one would carry out his plan. Everyone was afraid to go down into the dark water to find the four colored stones he needed to make this new world a safe place in which to live. No words were spoken, but everyone was thinking that someone else should be brave enough to go. Beaver looked at Turtle, and Otter looked at Frog, each one thinking that the other was a good swimmer and should offer to make the trip. Then suddenly they all heard a small, soft voice that said, "I am not brave! I am very much a coward in my heart! I cannot fly high in the face of the sun, nor can I walk into the deep cave where a lion might be hidden. No people step from my path when they meet me, for I carry no poison arrow and I sing no war chant, but if no one else will go to the bottom of the deep water for the four colored stones, at least I can try." Then small Duck stepped forward and stood in front of First Man and First Woman. Now when the First People saw that it was small Duck who had spoken these brave words, they acted very surprised and were extremely rude. They shook their heads and laughed and nudged each other. "Look," they said to each other, "what a great thing it is that small Duck thinks he can do!" And someone remarked, "As soon as he is in the deep water, the black Monster or Sea Serpent or Scaly Fish will swallow him like a ripe thimbleberry. Besides, how could such a small person bring four heavy stones from the bottom of deep dark water?"

But First Man walked over to small Duck and said, "Very well! You can try! No one could do more than that!" Then he took off his beaded medicine bag and slipped the strap over small Duck's head so the bag hung down on the soft feathers of his breast. "Take this with you," he commanded, "and when you find the stones of four colors, slip them quickly into this bag where they will be safe. Whatever is placed in this medicine bag belongs to me, and no one will dare to touch it or take it from you. When he had finished speaking, he sprinkled small Duck from head to foot with sacred pollen taken from the great bulrushes that grew at the edge of the lake. This he did so small Duck need fear no harm from the deep dark water. But First Man had no magic words or powerful medicine to give small Duck to use against the slimy Sea Serpent, Scaly Fish, or the black Water Monster. The First People stood around watching these preparations and feeling very sorry for small Duck. They knew now that he really was going to dive into the deepest part of the ocean and try to find the four colored stones which First Man needed to build his mountain wall. They said, one to another, "He is much too small! His wings are not wide enough and he cannot stay under water long enough! See how the medicine bag hangs down in front of him! It will slow his progress so the monsters will overtake him! He cannot swim fast with that on his neck! I fear we will never see small Duck again." Small Duck paid no attention to these remarks, but they did little to bolster his courage, and his heart beat fast with fear as he walked toward the water. At the water's edge he spread out his swift, smooth wings and widened his long beautiful tail of which he was very proud. No other water bird boasted a tail as long and graceful as that of small Duck. He looked around quickly to see if his friends were watching and then, with a couple of hops, he soared into the air and flew far away over the dark water. He flew and he flew until he had left the land out of sight behind him and, finally, he came to the center of the ocean where the water was the deepest. There he folded his wings over the medicine bag, pointed his bill straight down and dropped fast. Oh, so fast! into the dark water. Down, down went small Duck like a swift arrow, and the water grew colder and colder and the light grew dimmer and dimmer. "How can I ever know when I reach the mountains?" thought Duck. But suddenly the medicine bag, which had led the way, hit something solid. "This is one mountain," thought small Duck. "This is where I must find one of the stones. Gazing about, he saw a white stone that shone so brightly he knew it must be one of the stones First Man wanted. Picking it up quickly, he popped it into the medicine bag. Now he must move to the south before the sea monsters knew he was here. At the southern mountain he found the blue stone; at the western mountain he picked up the yellow stone; and in the north he found a stone of shining black jet. Now small Duck had the four stones safe in his medicine bag, and, so far, he had not been bothered by the Water People. He had come as fast as a streak of silver light and he had worked so quickly that the stones had been found before the Water People could recover from their surprise. But when he turned his bill upward and started paddling his feet to swim toward the surface of the water, he saw a long, shining serpent with open jaws coming straight toward him. Small Duck paddled this way and then he paddled that way, but all the time he did not forget to go upward as fast as he could. When he looked to the other side he saw a great scaly monster with many teeth swimming dangerously near. Again he was obliged to dodge this way and then that way to avoid being caught, while still going upward to reach the surface. Small Duck was becoming very tired now and the medicine bag, which had been of help when he was going down into the water, was so full of heavy stones that the strap rumpled the feathers and hurt his neck. He had not realized that the stones would be so heavy. "Shall I slip this strap from my neck and drop the bag of stones into the deepest part of the dark water," thought small Duck, "or shall I open the flap and drop just one stone to make the bag a little lighter?" As he was slowing down to do this, he saw a great, brown monster moving toward him with three long arms reaching out to grab him. Quick as a flash small Duck changed his course and darted upward, forgetting all about his decision to throw away some of the stones. He remembered that First Man and all the First People would be waiting for him at the edge of the water and that they would expect him to have all four of these colored rocks. Nor could he drop the medicine bag which belonged to First Man, no matter how much it hurt his neck, for if it was gone, First Man would lose all his magic power. Bravely small Duck clung to his heavy load and paddled faster with his feet. Just when the great-fish-with-many-teeth made a grab at him, small Duck's head popped out of the water into the clear air. Then his shoulders came above water and he spread his wings with a cry of joy. But alas! At that moment Scaly Fish leaped ahead and made a grab at him, and closed his jaws with a snap right on small Duck's long, beautiful tail! For a moment the brave little duck felt himself being pulled back and back toward the dark water. "Oh! No!" he cried, "this will never do at all!" And with a great flapping of wings he broke loose and flew upward leaving the longest feathers of his beautiful tail caught in the shark's cruel teeth. It was not easy to fly with most of the feathers missing from his tail, and he was so very tired from his swim, but he would not give up now. Straight as an arrow he flew toward the land where all the First People were waiting to see if he would ever come back. Hosteen Hawk was the first to see him from a great distance and began screaming, 'Here he comes! Here he comes! I can see him! I can see him!" Then Falcon, whose eyesight was very keen, cried, "He is carrying the heavy medicine bag! He has the stones! He has the stones!" By that time everyone could see small Duck flying toward them over the dark water. They were all very excited and jumped up and down crying, 'He has returned from the deep ocean! He has brought the four stones!" Small Duck was flying slowly now as he was very weary and the bag was fast becoming too heavy. He folded his wings and landed in front of First Man, who was standing not far from the water's edge. Small Duck was glad that his perilous mission had been accomplished. He said nothing for he was having a hard time gasping for breath. When he slipped the strap from his neck, First Man took the bag and started to open the flap; all the others crowded around to get a glimpse of the contents. While this was being done and no one was looking at him, small Duck slipped away and hid himself in the tall reeds that grew by the water's edge, for he was quite ashamed of his short tail. He was hoping that when the big scaly fish opened his jaws the long, beautiful feathers from his tail would float to the shore where he could find them. So he stayed in the shallow water among the reeds to watch for them, but he never found them, and to this day all ducks have short tails. First Man had taken the heavy medicine bag to open it while all the First People crowded around to obtain a glimpse of the four stones that had been brought from the mountains under the dark water. They were quite disappointed when they saw them, for they did not look any different from the stones they had used for building their houses in the lower world. But First Man seemed satisfied and said, "Yes, these are the right ones! Now we will soon have four mountain walls to protect us from the raging ocean waves." He took out the white stone and carried it to the eastern edge of the land; he blew on it four times so that it grew higher and higher with each breath, until he ceased blowing. Going to the north of the land, he again blew four times, and the tall white rock spread in that direction until it could go no further. First Man then blew on the opposite side and the land grew in that direction, forming a long range of white mountains that completely shut out the ocean along the eastern side. First Man took the blue turquoise stone to the south and shaped a long range of blue mountains there, in the same way he had created those in the east. Then he created a range of still higher mountains in the west, and in the north he made many black peaks. Now the land was completely surrounded by high mountains, but in growing so large and wide, they had spread over the countryside so far that little space remained on which the First People might live. When First Man saw how small the level land had become, he called the four Wind People to come to his assistance. Each of the four winds blew with all its might against one of the mountain walls and, one by one, each of the mountain ranges moved slowly back into the water, leaving mesas, small hills, valleys and desert land where they had been standing. So when the winds ceased blowing, all kinds of land were present on which the First People could make their homes.

Now when all this was finished and the First People felt safe from the ocean waves and the hungry sea monsters, they began looking around to see what had become of small Duck. They wished to thank him for his bravery and to say they were sorry they had made fun of him. They searched and searched, but small Duck was nowhere to be found. He had hidden himself in the reeds and tangled grasses, as he did not want the First People to laugh at his short tail. When they failed to locate his hiding place, First Man said to all the people, ''Small Duck proved himself the bravest of all. He undertook the hard and dangerous task even when his heart was full of fear. He brought us the four stones that now stand like a great fortification between us and the dangerous waters. From now on, no one of us shall ever try to harm small Duck, or destroy his nests." And to this day, that law is carefully observed by the Navaho people.

Navajo Folk Tales; Frank Johnson Newcomb, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque; 1991 (Second Printing)