This story is by Rebecca A. Cathey and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Legend of Birdsong
In ancient days, when the world was new and before the rivers gouged scars into the earth’s skin, The Tribe lived beyond the sunset where the winds changed their courses and thunder gathered its power. Chieftains of The Tribe were strong, mighty warriors with many wives who sired many sons. The few daughters of the Tribe, those deemed too ugly or useless to be a chieftain’s wife, were the object of fierce competition among the unmarried sons.
Among the sons of The Tribe, the strongest and most handsome had yet to take a woman to his tent. His father decided Ank-Zee-Tuk should marry, but his son refused. There were none among the maids, Ank-Zee-Tuk declared, who suited him.
One night, a traveler passed through the village and spoke of a tribe camped beyond the mesas to the east in a wooded glade by a great river, a tribe whose sons were few and whose daughters were both numerous and beautiful. Among those daughters, he said, was a tribal princess of such rare, exquisite loveliness that none of her tribe’s warriors dared ask for her hand. They chose, instead, to pursue the ordinary beauties in their clan.
The maid’s eyes were the color of indigo sapphires, the traveler said, and her blue-black hair grew so thick and heavy and long that when she walked her two younger sisters needed to carry her braid for her. Her face was of such unmatched loveliness that it made the woodland flowers bloom in winter and the moon turn away in envy. When she sang, the birds became jealous and tried to swallow her melodies, for they had not yet learned to sing in those early days.
Ank-Zee-Tuk declared only this legendary beauty of the eastern tribe was worthy to become his bride. He determined to win her heart and hand by any means necessary and boasted to his fellow warriors saying he would not be refused. He donned his finest tunic and festooned his hair with beads and feathers. He took seven strong ponies, three baskets of grain, and a collection of crystals and rare stones polished by the currents of a stream to buy her should his charms fail to win her heart.
Ank-Zee-Tuk traveled many days until he reached the great river from which the sun rose. So broad and deep was the river that he could not cross. Not knowing which direction to travel, he sat on the river bank and called out to the river witch, “Can you guide me to the legendary princess? I have traveled many days to find her, but I know not which direction to go from here.” Receiving no answer, Ank-Zee-Tuck made camp for the night.
The next morning as the sun rose clean and shining from its nightly bath in the mighty river, Ank-Zee-Tuk saw a great geyser rise from the water. Within the spout was a dark shape with a long arm pointing to the south. He looked southward and saw clouds of many different types of birds flying in circles near the edge of the world. Surely, this must be the way, he thought.
The young warrior thanked his guide and tossed the feathers and beads from his hair into the river to pay the witch for her help, for witches never grant favors freely.
Ank-Zee-Tuk packed up his camp and continued his journey along the river’s edge in the direction of the birds. Along the way, he passed three young women, each more beautiful than the last. “Are you Oo-Ka-Ip?” he asked each one.
The first maiden, a pretty lass with golden hair and a dimpled smile replied, “I am not Oo-Ka-Ip, but if you give me your fine horses, I will point the way.” Ank-Zee-Tuk gladly gave the girl his ponies, and she pointed southward. “Only follow the river a little way, and you will find the famous beauty of our tribe,” the maid said.
Ank-Zee-Tuk traveled on until he met the second maiden, a beautiful girl with hair the color of flame and skin as smooth as milk. To his query, she replied, “I am not Oo-Ka-Ip, but if you give me your baskets of grain, I will point the way.” Ank-Zee-Tuk quickly gave this girl his baskets of grain, and she pointed southward. “Only follow the river a little way, and you will find the famous beauty of our tribe,” the maid said.
A half day’s journey further, Ank-Zee-Tuk met the third maid, a young woman whose beauty far out-shone the previous two maids. Stunned by her angelic face and graceful movements, he barely stammered his question. She smiled, a shy, sweet smile, and answered, “I am not Oo-Ka-Ip, but if you give me your crystals and pretty stones, I will point the way.” Ank-Zee-Tuk gave this girl his crystals and stones, and she pointed southward. “Only follow the river a little way more, and you will find the famous beauty of our tribe,” the maid said.
Ank-Zee-Tuk continued his journey, growing more and more weary with each step. His fine tunic was now covered with dust, and his hair, free of its decorative bindings, fell in unkempt tangles around his sweaty face. His blistered feet made him limp and stagger as he walked.
Ank-Zee-Tuk at last heard the roar of a waterfall and made his way through a patch of thick woods toward the sound. Surely, I am a sad and sorry sight, he thought. I must rest and refresh myself before I find my prize. He reached a small forest glade where he saw the waterfall and, near the water’s edge, he spied a young woman sitting atop a large boulder.
This girl cannot be the beauty, he thought, for she is plain of face and simply dressed. Her short-cropped hair was the unremarkable color of an owl’s wing. Her eyes, though kind, were only the common color of rain, and her skin was wind-chapped and rough.
He limped toward the falls and called out to the maid on the rock so as not to alarm her with his approach. “I have come in search of a famous beauty called Oo-Ka-Ip. Have you knowledge of where I might find her? I have no more gifts to trade for your help having given all away to others on my quest to find her.”
The girl smiled, and with a tinkling laugh beckoned him to join her on the rock. “Rest here, for you are worn and weary with your travels,” she said. Her voice was as melodious as a sandalwood lute, and he was charmed by the sound. Grateful for her invitation, he climbed up beside her and told of his adventures during his travels.
The maid was touched by the stories he told. Here is a warrior who has suffered and sacrificed much, and he has given all his possessions in his search for true love, she thought. Surely, he is worthy of finding that which he seeks.
She wiped the grit from Ank-Zee-Tuk’s handsome face with the edge of her sleeve and combed his tangled hair with the soothing touch of her slim, cool fingers. Ank-Zee-Tuk’s eyes grew heavy; he lay down upon the rock and fell into a deep sleep. While he slept, Oo-Ka-Ip removed the spell she had cast over herself to hide her beauty.
Ank-Zee-Tuk woke refreshed from his slumber and found Oo-Ka-Ip sitting beside him in her natural form. Her braid, as blue-black and shining as a raven’s wing, curled about him, and she turned her indigo sapphire eyes upon him with a smile. “I am the maid you seek,” she said.
The young warrior and the princess were soon promised to wed. Tragic legends, however, are never fated to end happily. Oo-Ka-Ip’s fame had spread throughout the land, and her habit of sitting by the waterfall became known to warriors of another tribe who plotted to capture the famous beauty and carry her away to their village.
The would-be kidnappers surprised Oo-Ka-Ip and Ank-Zee-Tuk in the glade by the waterfall and surrounded them. The lovers ran into the river to escape their attackers, and the weight of Oo-Ka-Ip’s braid began to drag her beneath the water’s surface to the hungry arms of the river witch waiting beneath the waterfall.
Ank-Zee-Tuk desperately tried to save his betrothed, but he could not. The couple went down holding each other in an eternal embrace and, just before the waters covered them, they cried out each other’s name. As their voices rose to the sky, clouds of birds gathered above them, and each caught a piece of the young lovers’ names and swallowed it.
And so, this is how these birds found a voice. To this day, the owl hoots “Oo Oo,” the crow’s call is “Ka Ka,” the sparrow sings “Ip Ip,” the nuthatch says “Ank Ank,” the warbler cries “Zee Zee,” and the robin’s call is “Tuk Tuk.”