Thomas Doty – Storyteller
Panther and the White Duck Women
Along the Rogue River, the people tell this story....
The oak leaves along the river were gold, glowing in the sun, all fluttering and waving in the wake of the fall breezes.
Panther and his younger brother Wildcat lived in a plank house where the river rushed like the wind. And downriver, on the other side, where the river slowed and gathered fog, Coyote and his mother lived in a poor house made of bark. Inside the house, it was cold and damp. There was no fire. Coyote hadn't bothered to gather any wood.
Panther spent the days hunting, bringing home plenty of deer. His younger brother worked long hours drying the meat, filling the house with deer meat for the coming winter. The fall sun shone at Panther's house. The fire burned warm inside, sending breezes of smoke out the smoke hole.
Far to the west, across the ocean, in the Village Beyond the Sunset, people told stories of how good a hunter Panther was. Two young women who were living at the village started on a journey. They were sisters, and people called them White Duck Women.
They left their home one morning when the rising sun shone warm and gold, and they paddled across the ocean to the mouth of the Rogue River. They started walking upriver into the fog. They were going to find Panther and marry him. As they neared Coyote's house, the fog was so thick they could hardly see the trail.
They had heard plenty of stories about Coyote back in their village, stories that had been told for years and years. Before they started, an elder of the village told them, "Stay away from that one. He's full of tricks and you can't trust anything he says."
Coyote was pulling bark off trees when he heard them coming.
"What should I do?" he asked himself.
Now Coyote kept tapeworms as pets and he was always asking them for advice. He sat under the tree and said to his tapeworms, "There are two good looking women coming toward my house. What should I do?"
The largest tapeworm said, "Now that depends what you want to get out of the situation."
The middle-sized tapeworm said, "We all know what Coyote wants. A couple of wives to do all his work. He's such a lazy lout."
"I don't like the way you two are talking."
The smallest tapeworm spoke up, "Say, Coyote, why don't you turn that bark you're peeling into planks? Make a nice looking house for a change. Spruce up your reputation a bit. Those women will be very impressed."
That gave Coyote an idea. He ran to his house and covered the bark with planks. He brought his mother a stone bowl and pounding stone, hung fancy beads on her dress and told her to sit and pound acorns into flour.
He said, "Now listen, you old bat. When these two women come here, don't say a word. Just pound acorns and keep your trap shut."
Coyote scampered back down the trail through the fog. He sat down and waited for the White Duck Women.
As they got closer, Coyote could see their shapes in the fog, and he liked how they walked. They walked up to Coyote and he said, "Hello, friends. Is there anything I can help you with?"
The elder sister said, "We are traveling to Panther's house. Do you know where he lives?"
"Why, this is your lucky day. I am Panther. I'm the one you're looking for."
The White Duck Women stared hard at him through the fog. The younger sister started sniffing. She nudged her elder sister and whispered, "That is not Panther. That one is Coyote. Look at his ragged tail and his ribs poking out. A good hunter wouldn't have ribs like that. And just take a whiff. Phew! That one's Coyote for sure!"
But the elder sister said, "No, you are wrong. This must be Panther."
Coyote said, "My house is just up the trail. It's a fancy plank house, the nicest one around."
Without saying another word, the White Duck Women walked upriver through the fog to Coyote's house.
They went inside. It was cold and damp. There was no fire. Coyote's mother sat in one corner, pounding acorns.
They hadn't been inside long when the younger sister said, "Old woman, could you tell us where Panther's house is? We are looking for Panther."
Coyote's mother stopped pounding. "Upriver, on the other side, that is where Panther lives. He lives in a nice house. He and his younger brother work pretty hard. He's not lazy like my own son."
The White Duck Women thanked her and continued upriver. They paddled across the river, and as they got near Panther's house, the sun was shining. The river crashed over rocks and logs, crashing and crashing like the waves at their own village.
* * * * *
Coyote came back through the fog to his house. He went inside and said to his mother, "Well, where have your daughters-in-law gone?"
Coyote's mother said, "What are you talking about? I have no daughters-in-law. Who would want to marry you?"
"Those two good looking girls came here to marry me. Where have they gone?"
"Those two? Not them! I sent them on upriver. They didn't come here for you. They were looking for Panther."
Coyote got steaming mad. He lunged at his mother, grabbed her by the neck and strangled her. Then he threw her into the dead fire pit and covered her with old ashes.
He rushed out of the house, swam the river and chased after the White Duck Women, upriver, toward the place where the sun was shining.
Back in the fog, Coyote's mother sang as she rolled in the ashes, bringing herself back to life.
* * * * *
Coyote caught up with them just before they reached Panther's house. He jumped around, screaming, "Now you two won't be young any more! You'll be nothing but old women!"
When the White Duck Women arrived at Panther's house, they looked old. Their basket caps were worn out, their teeth gone, their faces wrinkled, and they carried walking sticks to help them along.
They went inside. Wildcat was sitting in one corner, drying deer meat. But Panther wasn't there. He was hunting.
The White Duck Women sat by the fire and waited for Panther to come home.
* * * * *
It was evening when Panther came home with the deer he had killed. The sun went down in a blaze of red and orange, and the stars came out, lighting the sky.
When he went inside he took one look at the White Duck Women sitting in the warm blaze of the fire, and he said to his younger brother, "Wildcat, these must be our grandmothers. They have come here to visit. Give them soft food to eat. Give them deer liver."
The White Duck Women, looking old and weary, feasted on liver until everyone curled up near the fire and went to sleep.
Next morning, and all day long, Panther hunted deer. Wildcat stayed home and prepared food for the winter. And the White Duck Women made themselves useful by gathering and pounding acorns.
Four days went by, clear fall days, the sun shining bright, the river crashing downriver below the house, and Wildcat giving the White Duck Women plenty of soft liver to eat.
* * * * *
On the fifth day, the White Duck Women were pounding acorns outside the house, in the warm sun, and they looked older than ever, wrinkled and bent over.
When they were done with the pounding, they started to leach the flour through river water in a basket. Some of the water dripped on the elder sister's hand and turned it all smooth, without wrinkles.
"Oh, younger sister, look here. Look what the water has done to my hand!"
The elder White Duck Woman rushed down to the river and put her whole arm into the water, and it was all smooth and young again. She splashed into the water, into the flow of the river, and came out on the other side, young and pretty.
Her sister followed behind. They both bathed in the river, letting the swift water come up all around them, and they went back to being young again. They swam back across the river, climbed the bank and went back into Panther's house, taking the acorn flour with them.
They made acorn soup for Wildcat and said to him, "Your brother Panther has been calling us your grandmothers for a long time now. But we really came here to marry him. We were young then, like we are now. But Coyote did us wrong. Now we are going away, downriver toward our home."
The White Duck Women left Panther's house and started their long journey. They didn't cross over the river until they were well past Coyote's house.
* * * * *
Wildcat climbed onto the roof and called out, "Oh, elder brother, your wives have gone away! Come back, elder brother, your wives have left!"
When Panther got back to the house, Wildcat told him the whole story. Panther went to one corner of the house and took a string of dentalium shells and strung them across the house. Then he stood a rock acorn pounder up and said to Wildcat, "I am going now. If this string of shells breaks or the pounder falls, you will know that I have been killed."
He went out of the house and started downriver.
* * * * *
The days were moving into winter, cloudy and cold, and the wind had blown all the oak leaves off the trees and scattered them every which way. They littered the banks of the Rogue River, dead and brown.
Panther kept a fast pace and soon he saw the White Duck Women ahead of him. He took his bow, fitted an arrow and shot it over their heads. But the White Duck Women did not look back. They picked up the arrow and put it in one of their baskets. Again, Panther shot an arrow. And again they put it away without looking behind them.
They were getting close to the ocean. The wind blew hard and the fog was thick, full of salt and the crashing of the sea.
When the White Duck Women arrived at the mouth of the river, Panther caught up with them. They talked to one another and the White Duck Women called Panther their husband. They brought him a canoe to paddle on the journey across the ocean to their home, the Village Beyond the Sunset.
But the elder sister warned him, "Do not look into the water, even though you hear voices from below. Whatever you do, do not look into the sea."
The White Duck Women started paddling across, and Panther followed in his canoe. The wind was blowing. Mist swirled over the top of the water. When they reached the breakers, the White Duck Women were feeling close to their home. Panther was feeling at home as well, thinking, "These waves sound just like the river where it rushes along below my own home."
They went through the breakers and into the open sea. Panther followed behind. It was feeling less like home to him now, the wind whipping the surf into spray, soaking him to the bone. The mist was so thick he could hardly see the women ahead of him. He was thinking of the warm fire back at his house and a good meal of deer meat.
Then the voices started, rising through the spray: "Ugly-mug Panther. Cat eater. Claw foot."
Panther was getting mad. He hissed to himself, trying to keep from looking into the water.
The wind tossed the voices around his head: "Lazy hunter. Stink tail. Vomit face!"
That last one had done it. Panther couldn't stand it any longer. He grabbed his bow, fitted an arrow, leaned over the side of the canoe, looking and looking through the mist and the spray, into the water. But before he saw a thing, a giant head burst through the surface, hollow eyes filled with sea mist, the mouth opening wider than wide, and with a whistling, sucking noise, swallowed down Panther, canoe and all.
Then there was nothing but the wind and the ocean and the foam.
* * * * *
Wildcat was sitting inside by the fire, listening to the winter wind blow across the smoke hole, when he heard the string of dentalium shells snap, and the rock acorn pounder fall over and break into pieces. And he knew that his brother was dead.
He crawled onto the roof of the house and sat in the cold wind, crying and crying:
The wind got stronger and blew Wildcat off the roof, but he crawled back up and wailed:
alas, o elder brother
alas, o elder brother
alas, o elder brother
o elder brother
o elder brother
For hours and hours Wildcat sang his brother's death song. Then, exhausted, he went back inside the house. The fire had gone out a long while before. He dug into the fire pit, put aside the ashes, and he crawled in, curling up like a dog. He stayed there for a long time, listening to the wind:
* * * * *
When the White Duck Women reached the Village Beyond the Sunset, the ocean was smooth and the sun was shining, like it was spring. A warm breeze blew and the people of the village were sitting outside.
They paddled through the waves onto the beach and looked behind them. No Panther. They waited a while, looking and looking, but Panther wasn't anywhere to be seen. They only saw the cloud of foam and mist and winter wind where it roared across the sea.
They called to their friends, "Our husband. He is lost. Someone come help us."
Many people gathered on the beach. It was decided that the best thing would be to try diving for Panther where the White Duck Women had last seen him.
They all paddled into the ocean, toward the place where the wind was blowing the sea wild. Many people dived, looking for a sign of Panther, but no one could reach the bottom. The water was too rough. They got down a certain distance, then floated back up. After many dives they had to give it up. They paddled back to the Village Beyond the Sunset.
When they got there, they saw someone sitting on the beach in the sunlight, weaving a basket. It was Mudcat Woman, and she wasn't weaving any ordinary basket. She wove this one out of sunrays. As sunrays moved across the ocean and shone into the water, she reached out from the place where she was sitting on the beach, grabbed them and twined them into her basket. Her basket was getting finished quickly and it glowed with the fresh warmth of a spring day.
The people gathered around her and asked, "What kind of a basket is that?" and "Will it help to find Panther?"
"I can get close to him," she said in a soft voice. "All of you just floated up, but I can get close to him."
The people urged her on, telling her to hurry or Panther might be lost forever. But she would not move until she had the basket finished. She kept saying, "I can get close to him."
At sundown, as the last sunlight hit the water, the basket was done.
Mudcat Woman stood up and walked into the ocean. She waded through the breakers and disappeared under the water, carrying her basket of sunlight. As nighttime floated over their village, the people watched the sun-glow from Mudcat Woman's basket grow fainter as it gained depth below the waves.
The White Duck Women went to their house. They sat inside by the fire. They didn't eat and they didn't speak. They sat staring at the red flames of the fire for a long time.
* * * * *
Mudcat Woman swam below the waves through the darkness, the basket of sunlight making a torch to light her way. She swam through the wavering seaweed, past huge sea rocks covered with white shells that shone like stars in the darkness, past underwater caves where glowing eyes stared out at her. She swam where the depths of the ocean started rocking, and the underwater currents of wind blew the green and yellow plants into a dance, and the huge underwater trees swayed, and the water turned cold, as if winter had blown itself to the bottom of the sea.
She swam on until she came to the cave of the sea monster, the one who had swallowed up Panther. She could see the monster from the entrance, coiled like a serpent, his head on the floor of the cave, sleeping, though his eyes were half open. She swam like the current past those eyes to where Panther's bones were lying in a heap. She put them in her basket, and swam out of the cave, away through the swaying ocean forest, out of the cold depths of winter, away toward the village. And the sea monster slept on in his cave.
As Mudcat Woman came out of the water, the sun was coming up, sending its warmth across the sand. People were waiting there.
"Look!" someone shouted. "There she is!"
Mudcat Woman walked across the beach to the sweat house and went inside. People helped to heat the rocks and Mudcat Woman dripped water on them. The steam started rising, and the air inside the sweat house got hotter and hotter.
Mudcat Woman set the basket of sunlight near the heated stones. The twining still glowed and cast a warm light across Panther's bones. Mudcat Woman sat in the sweat house, singing and chanting, for several days. On the morning of the fifth day, she went outside.
It was just before sunrise. She sat on the beach by herself and sang to the ocean and the sun and the coming spring.
After a while, there was a noise inside the sweat house. The door pushed open, and Panther stood in the morning light, looking like he had always looked.
* * * * *
Early the next morning, Panther and the White Duck Women left the Village Beyond the Sunset and traveled back across the ocean and upriver toward Panther's house.
"Perhaps by now," Panther was thinking, "my younger brother has thrown himself into the river."
They went upriver into the foggy place where Coyote lived. Across the river they could hear him pacing around and talking to himself, "When is that ugly-faced Panther going to get tired of those haggy women? It's been a hundred days! I'm an important person. I can't wait forever."
From inside Coyote's house, a voice whispered, "Important? Maybe. But not so very clever...."
Panther and the White Duck Women went on out of the fog. The sun was shining. A warm breeze was blowing. As they got closer to Panther's house they heard the crashing river, and they all felt they were coming home, the river roaring into their hearts.
When they got to Panther's house, there wasn't any smoke coming out of the smoke hole. They went inside. The fire was dead. Panther went over to the fire pit and found his younger brother Wildcat curled up in the ashes.
"Oh, my younger brother. You are dead from grief! My wives, take him to the river and wash the soot off him."
The White Duck Women carried Wildcat down the bank and bathed him in the river.
Panther sat inside his house, his thoughts turning sadder and sadder. As he listened to the spring breeze blow across the smoke hole, his ear caught a voice blowing past. "O elder brother," it was saying. "O elder brother!"
Panther went to the door and looked down at the river. And there was Wildcat, waving to him and climbing back toward his house.
* * * * *
Panther and Wildcat and the White Duck Women lived on at Panther's house. Panther brought home many deer and everyone worked to keep the house filled with food. The sun shone bright. The Rogue River crashed below. The oak trees sprouted new leaves and turned the world green. And downriver, in the fog and the cold, Coyote kept counting the days, as the breezes spun the seasons, scattering words that seemed to grow out of the fog, "Coyote, important? So they say. But sometimes he's not so very clever...."