The Moccasin Maker

by Emily Pauline Johnson

The Tenas Klootchman*

    THIS story came to me from the lips of Maarda herself. It was hard to realize, while looking at her placid and happy face, that Maarda had ever been a mother of sorrows, but the healing of a wounded heart oftentimes leaves a light like that of a benediction on a receptive face, and Maarda’s countenance held something greater than beauty, something more like lovableness, than any other quality.
    We sat together on the deck of the little steamer throughout the long violet twilight, that seems loath to leave the channels and rocky [?] of the Upper Pacific in June time. We had dropped easily into conversation, for nothing so readily helps one to an introduction as does the friendly atmosphere of the extreme West, and I had paved the way by greeting her in the Chinook, to which she responded with a sincere and friendly handclasp.
    Dinner on the small coast-wise steamers is almost a function. It is the turning-point of the [Page 227] day, and is served English fashion, in the evening. The passengers “dress” a little for it, eat the meal leisurely and with relish. People who perhaps have exchanged no conversation during the day, now relax, and fraternize with their fellow men and women.
    I purposely secured a seat at the dining-table beside Maarda. Even she had gone through a simple “dressing” for dinner, having smoothed her satiny black hair, knotted a brilliant silk handkerchief about her throat, and laid aside her large, heavy plaid shawl, revealing a fine delaine gown of green, bordered with two flat rows of black silk velvet ribbon. That silk velvet ribbon, and the fashion in which it was applied, would have bespoken her nationality, even had her dark copper-colored face failed to do so.
    The average Indian woman adores silk and velvet, and will have none of cotton, and these decorations must be in symmetrical rows, not designs. She holds that the fabric is in itself excellent enough. Why twist it and cut it into figures that would only make it less lovely.
    We chatted a little during dinner. Maarda told me that she and her husband lived at the Squamish River, some thirty-five miles north of Vancouver City, but when I asked if they had any children, she did not reply, but almost instantly called my attention to a passing vessel seen through the porthole. I took the hint, and said no more of family matters, but talked of the [Page 228] fishing and the prospects of a good sockeye run this season.
    Afterwards, however, while I stood alone on deck watching the sun set over the rim of the Pacific, I felt a feathery touch on my arm. I turned to see Maarda, once more enveloped in her shawl, and holding two deck stools. She beckoned with a quick uplift of her chin, and said, “We’ll sit together here, with no one about us, and I’ll tell you of the child.” And this was her story:
    She was the most beautiful little Tenas Klootchman a mother could wish for, bright, laughing, pretty as a spring flower, but—just as frail. Such tiny hands, such buds of feet! One felt that they must never take her out of her cradle basket for fear that, like a flower stem, she would snap asunder and her little head droop like a blossom.
    But Maarda’s skilful fingers had woven and plaited and colored the daintiest cradle basket in the entire river district for this little woodland daughter. She had fished long and late with her husband, so that the canner’s money would purchase silk “blankets” to enwrap her treasure; she had beaded cradle bands to strap the wee body securely in its cosy resting-nest. Ah, it was such a basket, fit for an English princess to sleep in! Everything about it was fine, soft, delicate, and everything born of her mother-love. [Page 229]
    So, for weeks, for even months, the little Tenas Klootchman laughed and smiled, waked and slept, dreamed and dimpled in her pretty playhouse. Then one day, in the hot, dry summer, there was no smile. The dimples did not play. The little flower paled, the small face grew smaller, the tiny hands tinier; and one morning, when the birds awoke in the forests of the Squamish, the eyes of the little Tenas Klootchman remained closed.
    They put her to sleep under the giant cedars, the lulling, singing firs, the whispering pines that must now be her lullaby, instead of her mother’s voice crooning the child-songs of the Pacific, that tell of baby foxes and gamboling baby wolves and bright-eyed baby birds. Nothing remained to Maarda but an empty little cradle basket, but smoothly-folded silken “blankets,” but disused beaded bands. Often at nightfall she would stand alone, and watch the sun dip into the far waters, leaving the world as gray and colorless as her own life; she would outstretch her arms—pitifully empty arms—towards the west, and beneath her voice again croon the lullabies of the Pacific, telling of the baby foxes, the soft, furry baby wolves, and the little downy fledglings in the nests. Once in an agony of loneliness she sang these things aloud, but her husband heard her, and his face turned gray and drawn, and her soul told her she must not be heard again singing these things aloud. [Page 230]
    And one evening a little steamer came into harbor. Many Indians came ashore from it, as the fishing season had begun. Among others was a young woman over whose face the finger of illness had traced shadows and lines of suffering. In her arms she held a baby, a beautiful, chubby, round-faced, healthy child that seemed too heavy for her wasted form to support. She looked about her wistfully, evidently seeking a face that was not there, and as the steamer pulled out of the harbor, she sat down weakly on the wharf, laid the child across her lap, and buried her face in her hands. Maarda touched her shoulder.
    “Who do you look for?” she asked.
    “For my brother Luke ‘Alaska,’” replied the woman. “I am ill, my husband is dead, my brother will take care of me; he’s a good man.”
    “Luke ‘Alaska,’” said Maarda. What had she heard of Luke “Alaska?” Why, of course, he was one of the men her own husband had taken a hundred miles up the coast as axeman on a surveying party, but she dared not tell this sick woman. She only said: “You had better come with me. My husband is away, but in a day or two he will be able to get news of your brother. I’ll take care of you till they come.”
    The woman arose gratefully, then swayed unsteadily under the weight of the child. Maarda’s arms were flung out, yearningly, longingly, towards the baby.
    “Where is your cradle basket to carry him [Page 231] in?” she asked, looking about among the boxes and bales of merchandise the steamer had left on the wharf.
    “I have no cradle basket. I was too weak to make one, too poor to buy one. I have nothing,” said the woman.
    “Then let me carry him,” said Maarda. “It’s quite a walk to my place; he’s too heavy for you.”
    The woman yielded the child gratefully, saying, “It’s not a boy, but a Tenas Klootchman.”
    Maarda could hardly believe her senses. That splendid, sturdy, plump, big baby a Tenas Klootchman! For a moment her heart surged with bitterness. Why had her own little girl been so frail, so flower-like? But with the touch of that warm baby body, the bitterness faded. She walked slowly, fitting her steps to those of the sick woman, and jealously lengthening the time wherein she could hold and hug the baby in her yearning arms.
    The woman was almost exhausted when they reached Maarda’s home, but strong tea and hot, wholesome food revived her; but fever burned brightly in her cheeks and eyes. The woman was very ill, extremely ill. Maarda said, “You must go to bed, and as soon as you are there, I will take the canoe and go for a doctor. It is two or three miles, but you stay resting, and I’ll bring him. We will put the Tenas Klootchman beside you in—” she hesitated. Her glance travelled up to the wall above, where a beautiful empty cradle [Page 232] basket hung, with folded silken “blankets” and disused beaded bands.
    The woman’s gaze followed hers, a light of beautiful understanding pierced the fever glare of her eyes, she stretched out her hot hand protestingly, and said, “Don’t put her in—that. Keep that, it is yours. She is used to being rolled only in my shawl.”
    But Maarda had already lifted the basket down, and was tenderly arranging the wrappings. Suddenly her hands halted, she seemed to see a wee flower face looking up to her like the blossom of a russet-brown pansy. She turned abruptly, and, going to the door, looked out speechlessly on the stretch of sea and sky glimmering through the tree trunks.
    For a time she stood. Then across the silence broke the little murmuring sound of the baby half crooning, half crying, indoors, the little cradleless baby that, homeless, had entered her home. Maarda returned, and, lifting the basket, again arranged the wrappings. “The Tenas Klootchman shall have this cradle,” she said, gently. The sick woman turned her face to the wall and sobbed.
    It was growing dark when Maarda left her guests, and entered her canoe on the quest for a doctor. The clouds hung low, and a fine, slanting rain fell, from which she protected herself as best she could with a shawl about her shoulders, crossed in front, with each end tucked into [Page 233] her belt beneath her arms—Indian-fashion. Around rocks and boulders, headlands and crags, she paddled, her little craft riding the waves like a cork, but pitching and plunging with every stroke. By and by the wind veered, and blew head on, and now and again she shipped water; her skirts began dragging heavily about her wet ankles, and her moccasins were drenched. The wind increased, and she discarded her shawl to afford greater freedom to her arm-play. The rain drove and slanted across her shoulders and head, and her thick hair was dripping with sea moisture and the downpour.
    Sometimes she thought of beaching the canoe and seeking shelter until daylight. Then she again saw those fever-haunted eyes of the stranger who was within her gates, again heard the half wail of the Tenas Klootchman in her own baby’s cradle basket, and at the sound she turned her back on the possible safety of shelter, and forged ahead.
    It was a wearied woman who finally knocked at the doctor’s door and bade him hasten. But his strong man’s arm found the return journey comparatively easy paddling. The wind helped him, and Maarda also plied her bow paddle, frequently urging him to hasten.
    It was dawn when they entered her home. The sick woman moaned, and the child fretted for food. The doctor bent above his patient, shaking his head ruefully as Maarda built the [Page 234] fire, and attended to the child’s needs before she gave thought to changing her drenched garments. All day she attended her charges, cooked, toiled, watched, forgetting her night of storm and sleeplessness in the greater anxieties of ministering to others. The doctor came and went between her home and the village, but always with that solemn headshake, that spoke so much more forcibly than words.
    “She shall not die!” declared Maarda. “The Tenas Klootchman needs her, she shall not die!” But the woman grew feebler daily, her eyes grew brighter, her cheeks burned with deeper scarlet.
    “We must fight for it now,” said the doctor. And Maarda and he fought the dread enemy hour after hour, day after day.
    Bereft of its mother’s care, the Tenas Klootchman turned to Maarda, laughed to her, crowed to her, until her lonely heart embraced the child as a still evening embraces a tempestuous day. Once she had a long, terrible fight with herself. She had begun to feel her ownership in the little thing, had begun to regard it as her right to tend and pet it. Her heart called out for it; and she wanted it for her very own. She began to feel a savage, tigerish joy in thinking—aye, knowing that it really would belong to her and to her alone—very soon.
    When this sensation first revealed itself to her, the doctor was there—had even told her the woman could not recover. Maarda’s gloriously [Page 235] womanly soul was horrified at itself. She left the doctor in charge, and went to the shore, fighting out this outrageous gladness, strangling it—killing it.
    She returned, a sanctified being, with every faculty in her body, every sympathy of her heart, every energy of her mind devoted to bringing this woman back from the jaws of death. She greeted the end of it all with a sorrowing, half-breaking heart, for she had learned to love the woman she had envied, and to weep for the little child who lay so helplessly against her unselfish heart.
    A beautifully lucid half-hour came to the fever-stricken one just before the Call to the Great Beyond!
    “Maarda,” she said, “you have been a good Tillicum to me, and I can give you nothing for all your care, your kindness—unless—” Her eyes wandered to her child peacefully sleeping in the delicately-woven basket. Maarda saw the look, her heart leaped with a great joy. Did the woman wish to give the child to her? She dared not ask for it. Suppose Luke “Alaska” wanted it. His wife loved children, though she had four of her own in their home far inland. Then the sick woman spoke:
    “Your cradle basket and your heart were empty before I came. Will you keep my Tenas Klootchman as your own?—to fill them both again?” [Page 236]
    Maarda promised. “Mine was a Tenas Klootchman, too,” she said.
    “Then I will go to her, and be her mother, wherever she is, in the Spirit Islands they tell us of,” said the woman. “We will be but exchanging our babies, after all.”
    When morning dawned, the woman did not awake.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Maarda had finished her story, but the recollections had saddened her eyes, and for a time we both sat on the deck in the violet twilight without exchanging a word.
    “Then the little Tenas Klootchman is yours now?” I asked.
    A sudden radiance suffused her face, all trace of melancholy vanished. She fairly scintillated happiness.
    “Mine!” she said. “All mine! Luke ‘Alaska’ and his wife said she was more mine than theirs, that I must keep her as my own. My husband rejoiced to see the cradle basket filled, and to hear me laugh as I used to.
    “How I should like to see the baby!” I began.
    “You shall,” she interrupted. Then with a proud, half-roguish expression, she added:
    “She is so strong, so well, so heavy; she sleeps a great deal, and wakes laughing and hungry.”
    As night fell, an ancient Indian woman came up the companion-way. In her arms she carried a beautifully-woven basket cradle, within which [Page 237] nestled a round-cheeked, smiling-eyed baby. Across its little forehead hung locks of black, straight hair, and its sturdy limbs were vainly endeavoring to free themselves from the lacing of the “blankets.” Maarda took the basket, with an expression on her face that was transfiguring.
    “Yes, this is my little Tenas Klootchman,” she said, as she unlaced the bands, then lifted the plump little creature out on to her lap.
    Soon afterwards the steamer touched an obscure little harbor, and Maarda, who was to join her husband there, left me, with a happy good-night. As she was going below, she faltered, and turned back to me. “I think sometimes,” she said, quietly, “the Great Spirit thought my baby would feel motherless in the far Spirit Islands, so He gave her the woman I nursed for a mother; and He knew I was childless, and He gave me this child for my daughter. Do you think I am right? Do you understand?”
    “Yes,” I said, “I think you are right, and I understand.”
    Once more she smiled radiantly, and turning, descended the companion-way. I caught a last glimpse of her on the wharf. She was greeting her husband, her face a mirror of happiness. About the delicately-woven basket cradle she had half pulled her heavy plaid shawl, beneath which the two rows of black velvet ribbon bordering her skirt proclaimed once more her nationality. [Page 238]

* In Chinook language “Tenas Klootchman” means “girl baby.” [back]