Read enough legends and motifs begin to emerge: the lakes, the rivers, and seas, dangerous mysteries lie beneath those glittering depths, sacred secrets that can reveal the true nature of your very soul.
Take for example a young orphan boy taken in by the chief of a tribe of Blackfeet, a tribe that once roamed Alyse’s Montana home. This young orphan boy stood on the cusp of manhood, eager to take his place among the heroes of his people. He begged of his grandfather to tell him how make this crossing, how to bring greatness to his tribe.
Grudgingly, the chief shared with him an ancient legend. At the bottom of a lake, he said there were powerful spirits which kept the ponokamita, the elk dogs. Any warrior who could find a way to win these elk dogs would surely be remembered among his people. How it would ease their burden to have these beautiful beasts to help carry their possessions, to aid them in the buffalo hunt!
opened the door of hope to him, he would do anything to reward that act of kindness and love.
So the boy learned the ways of men, the proper medicine for the journey. The elders crafted him a shield with symbols of protection; he cleansed himself in the sweat bath and learned the ways of pipe and prayer.
The chief himself packed the dog’s travois and chose the day of his grandson’s departing. That day before dawn, he took him to the edge of the village. There he cleansed him with cedar and sent him on the path.
The Great Mystery Lake.
Was he ever to reach it? The boy and his dog now struggled not only against not knowing and impossible hope, but also against hunger, thirst, weather…and exhaustion.
Opening his eyes to the dazzling midday sun, the boy found himself facing a beautiful young child. The child told him that his grandfather had been expecting him. “Please come with me,” he said. Then he sprang up and transformed into a shining kingfisher. In a flash of color, the bird-boy dove straight down into the lake.
It parted for him. He found himself descending the lakebed into a small valley with a beautiful white tipi at its center. The kingfisher flew down from that tipi and transformed back into a young boy. He invited him into his grandfather’s home. The boy dined on fine delicacies with the white haired spirit of the lake until his great hunger was satiated. Then the bird-boy took him out into the valley.
The boy marveled at their speed, power, and beauty. The bird-boy beckoned him onward and taught him the glorious freedom on riding on the great beasts’ backs. Then the bird-boy beckoned him closer. “I want you to have what you have come for.” And he told him how it was to be done.
A glance at the spirit chief’s feet would grant him a wish. Like the hunting of a cautious animal, it took patience and alertness, but finally the boy was rewarded. Not feet at all, but the hooves and legs of an elk dog! The spirit chief quickly re-covered his legs and asked the boy what he wished. Having been properly counseled, the boy asked for three things: his rainbow-colored quill belt with the songs of the elk dogs, the medicine coat with the magic for catching elk dogs, and a herd of the elk dogs themselves.
The spirit chief exclaimed at his boldness, but granted his wishes, including a rope of white buffalo hair for catching the beasts. The chief explained carefully how to claim the herd for his people. For four days the boy would walk north without looking back. The elk dogs would not follow. On the fourth day, the elk dogs begin to overtake him on the left. Still he could not look back. When the last of the elk dogs galloped past him, he would lasso the last and ride it and the herd would become his own.
Bidding farewell to his hosts, the boy followed the spirit chief’s instructions, waiting until the last great beast galloped past to leap astride him with the help of the medicine coat and the lasso. Then he guided this thundering herd of proud, wild buffalo horses home to his people and to the pride and wonderment of grandfather, the one who had believed.
Sometimes we come to these shores in our lives. We carry the many stories of our lives with us, in packs upon our backs. We gaze into those glittering waters. We know we have to step forward; we know we have to set those packs down on the gravelly shore and take with us into those waters only the results of those stories, not the stories themselves, those excuses cannot come with us.
It is time to enter into a new personhood, if not the transition from child to adult, then the transition into a new time-of-life. Will the lessons be enough to part the waters? Will we have gained the boldness and cleverness to win the prize at the bottom of the lake? Will we be able to make peace with the secret selves the spirit of the lake will reveal?
Is it simply too many voices that I hear? Is that the confusion? Partly. That long list is but a sliver of what clamors from behind. But the rest of the confusion is more complicated. A body whose threatening possibilities slowly become reality. I have friends who face much worse and I draw from their strength. We all have something. Knowing what’s coming, I take responsibility and prepare to minimize the effects. But an identity divided between vital youth and aging limitations is baffling on a daily basis.
Another is the knowledge that I have become what I set out to be. No matter where things go from here, I have become a professional writer. I have become a member of a strong, close family. I have become a member of beautiful, supportive community. I’m not sure I know how to put away the weapons of tooth and claw and just enjoy and nurture these things that a quiet part of my mind never believed I was capable of having. And maybe that quiet part of me is responsible for that aspect of the unsettling.
But the biggest quandary as I lower my pack to the lakeshore is the unsuspecting jarring I constantly receive in this newest journey. I feel comfortable and confident in who I’ve become…until I run up against external perceptions. And then the I am forcibly shown a picture of myself that does not match my own perceptions nor those that I’ve grown accustomed to others holding of me. I am surrounded now by people who do not know my stories. They do not know the excuses behind my ideals, attitudes, and actions. And so they make their own. And I am left feeling disjointed and awkward…and confused. Who is this person that they see? How does it relate to me and who I am trying to be? Is this a sign that I need to adjust my path? I find myself squatting at the edge of the water, poking at it with a stick, wondering if I’m really ready to follow the bird-boy into the unknown.
But then I drop the stick and push back to standing, a small smile playing at my lips. After more than thirty years of playing in the world of story, I should know better. Whether they know the epic tale that has led up to me, or just glimpse a page of the saga, no two people will ever come away experiencing the same story, the same me. And as the hero of my own journey, I know where I am going. I will follow the bird-boy—in my own way, in my own time. I will listen to the threshold guardians. I will keep the warnings that resonate and discard those that sound only of fear. I will step into the water.
There are secrets down there waiting to be discovered.
If you would like to read the whole intricate and beautiful story of the orphan boy who brought the elk deer to the Blackfeet people, visit First People.