The Moccasin Maker

by Emily Pauline Johnson

The Legend of Lillooet Falls

    NO one could possibly mistake the quiet little tap at the door. It could be given by no other hand west of the Rockies save that of my old friend The Klootchman. I dropped a lap full of work and sprang to open the door; for the slanting rains were chill outside, albeit the December grass was green and the great masses of English ivy clung wet and fresh as in summer about the low stone wall that ran between my verandah and the street.
    “Kla-how-ya, Tillicum,” I greeted, dragging her into the warmth and comfort of my “den,” and relieving her of her inseparable basket, and removing her rain-soaked shawl. Before she spoke she gave that peculiar gesture common to the Indian woman from the Atlantic to the Pacific. She lifted both hands and with each forefinger smoothed gently along her forehead from the parting of her hair to the temples. It is the universal habit of the red woman, and simply means a desire for neatness in her front locks.
    I busied myself immediately with the teakettle, for, like all her kind, The Klootchman dearly [Page 178] loves her tea.
    The old woman’s eyes sparkled as she watched the welcome brewing, while she chatted away in half English, half Chinook, telling me of her doings in all these weeks that I had not seen her. But it was when I handed her a huge old-fashioned breakfast cup fairly brimming with tea as strong as lye that she really described her journeyings.
    She had been north to the Skeena River, south to the great “Fair” at Seattle, but, best of all seemingly to her, was her trip into the interior. She had been up the trail to Lillooet in the great “Cariboo” country. It was my turn then to have sparkling eyes, for I traversed that inexpressibly beautiful trail five years ago, and the delight of that journey will remain with me for all time.
    “And, oh! Tillicum,” I cried, “have your good brown ears actually listened to the call of the falls across the cañon—the Falls of Lillooet?”
    “My ears have heard them whisper, laugh, weep,” she replied in the Chinook.
    “Yes,” I answered, “they do all those things. They have magic voices—those dear, far-off falls!”
    At the word “magic” her keen eyes snapped, she set her empty cup aside and looked at me solemnly.
    “Then you know the story—the strange tale?” she asked almost whisperingly. [Page 179]
    I shook my head. This was always the crucial moment with my Klootchman, when her voice lowers, and she asks if you know things. You must be diplomatic, and never question her in turn. If you do her lips will close in unbreakable silence.
    “I have heard no story, but I have heard the Falls ‘whisper, laugh and weep.’ That is enough for me,” I said, with seeming indifference.
    “What do you se when you look at them from across the cañon?” she asked. “Do they look to you like anything else but falling water?”
    I thought for a moment before replying. Memory seemed to hold up an indistinct photograph of towering fir-crested heights, where through a broken ridge of rock a shower of silvery threads cascaded musically down, down, down, until they lost themselves in the mighty Fraser, that hurled itself through the yawning cañon stretched at my feet. I have never seen such slender threads of glowing tissue save on early morning cobwebs at sun-up.
    “The Falls look like cobwebs,” I said, as the memory touched me. “Millions of fine misty cobwebs woven together.”
    “Then the legend must be true,” she uttered, half to herself. I slipped down on my treasured wolf-skin rug near her chair, and with hands locked about my knees, sat in silence, knowing it was the one and only way to lure her to speech. She arose, helped herself to more tea, and with [Page 180] the toe of her beaded moccasin idly stroked one of the wolf-skin paws. “Yes,” she said, with some decision, “the Indian men of magic say that the falls are cobwebs twisted and braided together.”
    I nodded, but made no comment; then her voice droned into the broken English, that, much as I love it, I must leave to the reader’s imagination. “Indian mothers are strange,” she began. I nodded again.
    “Yes, they are strange, and there is a strange tie between them and their children. The men of magic say they can see that tie, though you and I cannot. It is thin, fine, silvery as a cobweb, but strong as the ropes of wild vine that swing down the great cañons. No storm ever breaks those vines; the tempests that drag the giant firs and cedars up by their roots, snap their branches and break their boles, never break the creeping vines. They may be torn from their strongholds, but in the young months of the summer the vine will climb up, and cling again. Nothing breaks it. So is the cobweb tie the Men of Magic see between the Indian mother and her child.
    “There was a time when no falls leapt and sang down the heights at Lillooet, and in those days our men were very wild and warlike; but the women were gentle and very beautiful, and they loved and lived and bore children as women have done before, and since. [Page 181]
    “But there was one, more gentle, more beautiful than all others of the tribe. ‘Be-be,’ our people call her; it is the Chinook word for ‘a kiss.’ None of our people knew her real name; but it was a kiss of hers that made this legend, so as ‘Be-be’ we speak of her.
    “She was a mother-woman, but save for one beautiful girl-child, her family of six were all boys, splendid, brave boys, too, but this one treasured girl-child they called “Morning-mist.’ She was little and frail and beautiful, like the clouds one sees at daybreak circling around the mountain peaks. Her father and her brothers loved her, but the heart of Be-be, her mother, seemed wrapped round and about that misty-eyed child.
    “‘I love you,’ the mother would say many times a day, as she caught the girl-child in her arms. ‘And I love you,’ the girl-child would answer, resting for a moment against the warm shoulder. ‘Little Flower,’ the woman would murmur, ‘thou art morning to me, thou art golden mid-day, thou art slumbrous nightfall to my heart.’
    “So these two loved and lived, mother and daughter, made for each other, shaped into each other’s lives as the moccasin is shaped to the foot.
    “Then came that long, shadowed, sunless day, when Be-be, returning from many hours of ollallie picking, her basket filled to the brim with rich fruit, her heart reaching forth to her home even [Page 182] before her swift feet could traverse the trail, found her husband and her boys stunned with a dreadful fear, searching with wild eyes, hurrying feet, and grief-wrung hearts for her little ‘Morning-child,’ who had wandered into the forest while her brothers played—the forest which was deep and dark and dangerous,—and had not returned.”
    The Klootchman’s voice ceased. For a long moment she gazed straight before her, then looking at me said:
    “You have heard the Falls of Lillooet weep?” I nodded.
    “It is the weeping of that Indian mother, sobbing through the centuries, that you hear.” She uttered the words with a cadence of grief in her voice.
    “Hours, nights, days, they searched for the Morning-child,” she continued. “And each moment of that unending agony to the mother-woman is repeated to-day in the call, the wail, the everlasting sobbing of the falls. At night the wolves howled up the cañon. ‘God of my fathers, keep safe my Morning-child,’ the mother would implore. In the glare of day eagles poised, and vultures wheeled above the forest, their hungry claws, their unblinking eyes, their beaks of greed shining in the sunlight. ‘God of my fathers, keep safe my Morning-child’ was again wrung from the mother’s lips. For one long moon, that dawned, and shone and darkened, that mother’s [Page 183] heart lived out its torture. Then one pale daybreak a great fleet of canoes came down the Fraser River. Those that paddled were of a strange tribe, they spoke in a strange tongue, but their hearts were human, and their skins were of the rich copper-color of the Upper Lillooet country. As they steered downstream, running the rapids, braving the whirlpools, they chanted, in monotone:

“‘We have a lost child,
A beautiful lost child.
We love this lost child,
But the heart of the child
Calls the mother of the child
Come and claim this lost child.’

    “The music of the chant was most beautiful, but no music in the world of the white man’s Tyee could equal that which rang through the heart of Be-be, the Indian mother-woman.
    “Heart upon heart, lips upon lips, the Morning-child and the mother caught each other in embrace. The strange tribe told of how they had found the girl-child wandering fearfully in the forest, crouching from the claws of eagles, shrinking from the horror of wolves, but the mother with her regained treasure in her arms begged them to cease their tales. ‘I have gone through agonies enough, oh, my friends,’ she cried aloud. ‘Let me rest from torture now.’ Then her people came and made a great feast and [Page 184] potlatch for this strange Upper Lillooet tribe, and at the feast Be-be arose, and, lifting the girl-child to her shoulder, she commanded silence and spoke:
    “‘O Sagalie Tyee (God of all the earth), You have given back to me my treasure; take my tears, my sobs, my happy laughter, my joy—take the cobweb chains that bind my Morning-child and me—make them sing to others, that they may know my gratitude. O Sagalie Tyee, make them sing.’ As she spoke, she kissed the child. At that moment the Falls of Lillooet came like a million cobweb strands, dashing and gleaming down the cañon, sobbing, laughing, weeping, calling, singing. You have listened to them.”
    The Klootchman’s voice was still. Outside, the rains still slanted gently, like a whispering echo of the far-away falls. “Thank you, Tillicum of mine; it is a beautiful legend,” I said. She did not reply until, wrapped about in her shawl, she had clasped my hand in good-bye. At the door she paused, “Yes,” she said—“and it is true.” I smiled to myself. I love my Klootchman. She is so very Indian. [Page 185]