A Contest (Chapter 27 from ‘The Crying for a Vision’)

Chapter 27

A Contest

Many games were played during these days. Many strenuous contests were held among the young men, some merely for fun but some made brutal for a serious testing of skill and courage. The results would be remembered for a long time to come.

By one such contest an obscure boy suddenly made a name for himself among the seven bands—though whether he actually won the contest was furiously disputed and no one knew what to think of him, whether to praise him or fear him or mock him. Well, but this is what they did do: they told the story for years afterward.

One morning a hundred men gathered at the bend in the river for a shooting contest. Each had seven arrows, every arrow made by that man’s hand.

Across the river targets had been set at various distances. These were pieces of rawhide cut in the shapes of animals, some so far away that their position had to be explained: “It’s by that boulder, just at the tip. See?”

All day the long-distance marksmen eliminated themselves. By the middle of the afternoon there were ten men shooting, always seven arrows at a time. Soon there were four—who sent their arrows through great arcs out of sight, yet who could strike the figures in their hearts. Ah, the Lakota were proud of their expert relatives! Men roared. Women made the tremolo of encouragement. Children stared in astonishment. Soon but two were left and finally there was one man whose shooting was farther and more accurate than anyone else’s.

But this man was not yet declared the winner. Rather, he had earned a place in one more contest.

Everyone, even this marvelous shooter himself, turned toward the double-long tipi where Fire Thunder sat in calm indifference. They all smiled for there was not one Lakota heart which did not know his reputation.

They said, “Let Fire Thunder try.”

And indeed, he rose and came forth. This last warrior deigned after all to come forth and try.

So the rawhide image of a goose was shown to each contestant then carried so far away that certain men had to hide near it in order to see if it had been hit.

The best of the rest of the men, the winning shooter, went first. He released each of his arrows with careful deliberation. A shout went up at the target: “All seven! Ha ha, all seven arrows have found the belly of a single goose, ha ha ha!”

People cheered. It was a good day filled with excitement and wonderful display. And it wasn’t done yet. Hi ho!—how could Fire Thunder improve upon such shooting?

Well, that mighty man stepped forward, a cottonwood for height and strength: he always seemed taller when he passed near a person than that person had remembered, his eye colder, his muscles more like ropes. Fire Thunder strode to the edge of the river, drew an arrow from his quiver, notched it and prepared to shoot.

Exactly then a boy appeared beside the man. He must have distracted Fire Thunder because the arrow which he released tore water.

Ahhh! People felt an immediate anger toward this boy. Who was he to destroy the moment? Why was he here? To do what? To shoot? He wants to shoot? Now?

He was lean and stripped. Yes, like every other contestant he carried a bow and seven arrows. His face was calm and solemn, his eyes huge with watching, his hair so long it fell in a black rain over his shoulders and lower than his waist.

Fire Thunder, on the other hand, had lost his calm. His eye- brows drew together, his nostrils flared.

Small signs, but the people read them and began to berate the boy. “Get out of here! You have no sense. You’re a distraction. Besides, you’re too late. Don’t you see who is shooting now? Get out of here!”

But here came the first surprise of this story:

Fire Thunder himself raised a hand to silence the people and in a voice as soft as the river’s flowing—lo, how swiftly the man regains his cold obsidian calm—he said, “Let the atkuku wanice take a turn.”

He said, Atkuku wanice. Well, perhaps he knows this hokshila. Perhaps he wishes to teach someone humility. So the people said, “Let him shoot. Why not?”

Then came the second surprise:

Great Fire Thunder suddenly drew and shot not over the river but straight up into the heavens, six arrows so rapidly the first was still rising when the sixth leaped from the bow. Then he placed his weapon on the ground and said, “Flying north at the top of the sky are six feasts for six bands of Lakota.”

Though everyone else kept gazing upward he did not. He fixed the boy with a steadfast, expressionless stare. Like a serpent. No longer wrathful. No longer anything. Ice.

“There!”

All at once, nearly choking on their astonishment, their heads cast back with looking, people were pointing and shouting, “There! Look there!”

Down from the blue sky came two bodies tumbling round and round, four bodies, then six—swans! Their long necks flopping, their wings torn loose in the wind, some were thrashing, some dead, each with an arrow protruding, arrows painted with no color at all, no adornment, as was Fire Thunder’s custom. These swans hit the ground with great thumps. Big birds. Five of them lay still. Fire Thunder walked over to the sixth, whose feet kicked sideways in the dust, and crushed its head beneath his foot.

Oh, what a wild cry went up after such a remarkable performance, a hooting, people beating one another on the back. None but Fire Thunder had even seen the swans in heaven. Yes, yes, this was a good day.

But that warrior, forever fair, raised his hand again and stepped backward, offering the field to the black-eyed boy. Ah, yes, the boy. People had forgotten about the boy. Well, maybe this would be entertaining. A joke, a little laughter. How could anyone do better than Fire Thunder, let alone a boy of no repute at all?

There were women among the observers who felt pity for the child. He did not seem arrogant to them. It didn’t look as if he deserved to be humiliated.

Well, but he didn’t hesitate. He shook his hair back. He took a position in the center of the open space and laid down his bow and raised his hands to the blue sky and—here was the third surprise of this story—he prayed.

He called in a sing-song voice: “O Wanbli Galeshka, are you ready to die? Am I worthy to receive your life? Surely it is a glorious life. Would it give you honor to grant me that life? If so I ask for it. If not I could not take it with a thousand arrows. I beg you, remember my mother with mercy.”

People looked upward. There was no eagle there. They looked back at the silly boy and began to grin.

“Who is this? Which band is he from?”

But the boy had already notched a long arrow and had drawn the sinew of his bow so far back that his thin arms trembled.

Then he shot. The arrow went with a whine and seemed in fact to gather speed the higher it flew—until the silence of the round sky swallowed it.

The boy leaned on his bow as if it were a walking stick. People glanced up and down several times.

Someone said, “Gone. That arrow’s gone.”

They began to feel ashamed for having listened at all and a little chatter started here and there as if the day were over.

“Shut up! Listen!” Someone was shouting, “Listen!”

Well, they did. There was a thin sound, distant, distant, growing.

Do you hear that?

Yes, yes, I do. What is it?

Soon it became a shriek, a high-pitched disastrous scream descending at an impossible speed.

And here was the fourth surprise of the day, the reason the story was so long remembered:

Directly over them the people saw the figure of an eagle, his wings laid back, his beak thrust earthward, coming. The feathertips vibrated so madly that they made a shrieking sound. As in a holy manner every Lakota saw the yellow eye of this eagle clearly, acutely, and they saw that it was seeing them, one by one, blinkless and accusing.

The backs of their necks tingled. People dropped to the ground and covered their heads.

But just before it hit the earth, that eagle spread his wings and caught the air and landed lightly on one claw just in front of the boy. Look! In the other claw was an arrow.

And look! The eagle, fully as big as the hunter he faced, held the arrow out until the boy reached and took it—then he opened his beak and shattered daylight with a most terrible cry, then he leaped into the wind again and on huge flaps rose to heaven and vanished.

No one cheered after this shot.

Fire Thunder uttered a low curse and stalked away. People stood up and sought some little dignity after such an open display of fear. It had just been a contest. A game. Why did it have to turn so serious?

The day had ended poorly after all. No, they were not happy with this child. It was not in admiration that they told the story later that year. It was because the boy was strange and this had been their first evidence. It was because the boy would finally have very much to answer for.

“Who is this hokshila?” they said. “To whom does the boy belong?”

“His name is Moves Walking.”

“He comes from Slow Buffalo’s band.” “He doesn’t belong to anyone.”

“Ah, yes. Atkuku wanice. Yes. Yes.”

A queer child indeed. Even after receiving the attentions of a spotted eagle, when someone else might have swaggered through camp in public pride, this boy was heard to sob, to weep and to whisper: “O Mother, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was not worthy of the eagle’s life.”

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