Thomas Doty – Storyteller


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Journey to the Land of the Dead

At Coyote's Paw, the people tell this story.

On a fall morning, a man and a woman were married in a meadow along the banks of the Klamath River. The sun rose bright red, scattering stars of light across the morning, across the surface of the sleepy river. The man and the woman were married in the dawn light.

That night, as the sun sank red downriver, the night turned cold, filled with stars. In the middle of the night, the woman got out of bed to put more wood on the fire. Walking across the dirt floor in the dim light, she stumbled and fell into the coals and was burned so badly that she died.

Her husband woke up as she screamed. He saw a flash of light and a red glow. The husband got out of bed and followed the red glow out of the house and along the river trail. The night stars were sharp and reflected in the still flow of the river. The husband followed the glow as it rose into the sky and joined the walking stars of the Milky Way, who travel quickly toward the Land of the Dead. But now it was night, and those who traveled that trail were sleeping. He could see the glow of their campfires along the edge of the Milky Way.

The husband kept on, running as fast as he could, getting nearer and nearer the glow. When he came up right behind it, he saw the shape of his wife inside a circle of red light.

Then it was daytime, and she went traveling the sky trail. Her husband followed behind, trying to keep up. Looking down, he could see the rapids in the river where it rushed through a canyon.

On he went, catching up with her at night as she camped along the trail, then nearly losing her in the daytime as she moved with the swift running of the stars.

For five days he followed his wife along the trail of the Milky Way, and finally, on the fifth night, he arrived at the Land of the Dead.

He could hear music, people singing and dancing and having a happy time. For a long while he watched from a distance, listening to the songs, watching the smiling faces of the dead, their sure feet moving to the singing and the rhythm of deer-hoof rattles. And he could see his wife, dancing among the dead ones.

He moved in closer and asked the fire-tender if he could have his wife back, but the fire-tender shook his head no. "Not now," he said.

The husband sat down. He was tired from all that running, and he fell asleep.

And the singing and the dancing went on and on, and on through the night...

In the morning, the red sun started rising and woke him up. He looked to where the dead ones had been dancing. They were sleeping, their bodies like white ash.

The fire-tender walked up to him and gave him a stick, a fire-poker. He told the husband to gently poke each of the sleeping dead ones. When one of them rose up, that one would be his wife.

The husband started poking the white-ash bodies, one here, one there ... carefully ... gently.... He came to one that had a bit of a red glow around it. Gently he poked it, and it rose up, and when he looked closely, he saw the shape of his wife.

He picked her up, put her over his shoulder and started back along the trail.

At first she weighed nothing at all. But as he carried her nearer his home, she grew heavier and heavier.

He put her down to rest. There was a flash of light ... and she was gone.

He followed her back along the trail, found her again at the Land of the Dead, put her over his shoulder, and carried her back toward his home. Again, she got heavier and heavier.

But he was getting close. He could feel the cool air near the river. They were nearly to the door of the house, but he was so tired and she was so heavy, he had to put her down.

Again there was a flash ... and she was gone.

Two more times he traveled to the Land of the Dead and failed to bring his wife home. The fire-tender told him he could not try again. He was told to go back home and in a short time he and his wife would be together.

It was dark when he got home. The stars were bright. He went inside his house, lit the fire, and crawled into bed. Outside, the Klamath River flowed smooth and wide, stars sleeping on its back.

He slept through the night. The fire died down to a bed of coals. And next morning, as the red sun started rising up, the husband traveled along the trail of the Milky Way, and he never came back.