One of Several Short Stories
The Cedar Flute
A Short, Native American Story by Waking Spirit
Summer had long gone and the cold winds from the north blew eerily through the village. The gray smoke that billowed from the fires in the teepees of the village curled its way around the leafless trees of the forest as the freshly falling snow danced to the tune of the wind. It was a cold and bleak winter.
Inside his teepee, Little Crow sat huddled next to his father enjoying the warmth from the endless fire. Across from him, on the opposite side, sat his dear mother, Gentle Spirit, and baby sister, Little Spirit.
“Your older cousin, Smiling Boy, should arrive today from his village on the other side of the mountains” said Many Bears, Little Crow's father. “I hope his journey is safe on this cruel winter's day.”
“Smiling Boy is a good traveler,” said Gentle Spirit. “He will fare well with the cold but I feel sure his tummy will be in need of some good, hot food!”
Gentle Spirit raised herself up from the comfort of the thick buffalo hide blankets, which covered the floor of the teepee, and reached for the brightly colored shawl she had made earlier that same year. Throwing it around her shoulders she made her way out of the teepee and walked in the direction of the large timber and mud box that Many Bears had made to store the meats, which he had dried in preparation for the long hard winter months. The biting cold gnawed at her face as she trundled through the thick, crisp snow, which seemed to sigh at her every step. Reaching the box, Gentle Spirit crouched down to brush off the thick snow, which had almost completely hidden the box from view.
Back in the warmth of the teepee, Little Crow questioned his father about the visit of his cousin. “What is the purpose of Little Bull's visit father?”
The inquisitive expression on his son’s face made Many Bears smile, revealing his strong white teeth that sparkled in the light of the dancing fire.
“Smiling Boy’s journey is a special one, my son. He carries with him the song of the cedar tree. It is a very special song and one which you must learn and learn well for it will soon be time for you to join me down by the great lake.”
Little Crow looked up from the glowing fire and turned his head to face his father. “I don’t understand, father.” He whispered his words so as not to disturb the peaceful sleep his baby sister was now enjoying.
“You have much to learn, my son, and in time you will understand,” said Many Bears, nodding his head as he spoke.
Gentle Spirit stepped into the teepee and firmly tied the hide flap that kept out the cold winter wind. In her hands was a bundle of dried deer meat, which she then placed upon the huge stone she used to prepare her family’s meals. “A good hot meat stew will drive the cold from Smiling Boy’s bones” she said as she busily reached for the herbs and spices needed to enrich the flavor of the meal she was about to prepare.
Nodding is head in approval, Many Bears glanced at his dear wife whose slim body cast a soft shadow on the hide of the teepee. She was an excellent mother to his children and he could wish for nothing better in a wife. Both had known each other since their childhood days and their understanding of each other’s needs was shared without a spoken word.
Little Crow sat quietly, glancing at the flames of the fire, as his mind ventured into the words his father had said about the cedar song. “It seems a very long way to journey just to sing a song“, he whispered to himself. “And, on such a cold day too” he added.
The silver, evening moon was high in the sky when Smiling Boy entered the village. It was a very cold night with temperatures well below freezing and despite the many layers of fir clothing he had covering his tall body, he could not help but shiver from the biting winds. He was glad he had reached the end of his long journey.
“You are welcome to my home and the warmth of my fire,” said Many Bears as his nephew, Smiling Boy, entered the teepee. “You have traveled far. Please, sit beside me. Rest well while you tell me of your journey.”
The two men sat and talked while Gentle Spirit made ready the warming meal she had been preparing earlier. The thick stew bubbled gently in the huge clay pot; the very same pot that her mother had cooked so many meals in the past for her and her brothers, and the delicious smell filled the teepee. Smiling Boy looked away from the eyes of Many Bears as the rich aroma filled his head. “This is a welcoming home,” he said. “And, I am glad to be here.”
Gentle Spirit looked across at the two men and smiled. “You are always welcome here Smiling Boy and we are honored by your presence.”
“Your words are kind my aunt and I am grateful to hear them,” replied Smiling Boy.
Gentle Spirit paused from stirring the food in the stew pot as she reflected on the days she used to play with her dear brother, the father of their welcome guest. He was a fine warrior whose life was lost, along with her father’s during the great battle fought between her tribe and the white settlers who had invaded their land. They were sad days, she thought. With a soft and sad sigh, she continued to stir the food in readiness to feed her family and their guest.
Little Crow had been sitting patiently stroking the soft hair of his little dog whose body was outstretched in order to benefit from the warming heat of the fire. He looked across at Smiling Boy and spoke.
“When are you going to sing the cedar song, my cousin?” he inquired.
The two men turned their gaze towards Little Crow and then at each other. Many Bears tried desperately to keep his lips sealed as the uncontrollable urge to laugh at his son’s remark shook his whole body.
“My cousin is eager to hear the song of the cedar tree, and that is good, for he has much to learn” said Smiling Boy.
Many Bears raised his hand to break the conversation and spoke softly to his son. “There is much we have to do before you hear the song of the cedar tree, but now we will eat and then allow our guest to rest for the night. We will talk of this again when the sun rises.”
Little Crow awoke with an eager heart for today he would learn more about the song of the cedar tree. He hurriedly threw aside the heavy buffalo skin blanket that kept the cold night on the outside of his sleeping bed and raised his hands to his eyes to clear the blur of sleep that distorted his vision. Looking across the teepee he could see that his father was already up and talking to Smiling Boy.
“Come, my nephew,” said Many Bears. “We need to get some herbs for the ceremony from the store box.”
“Yes,” replied Smiling Boy. “And some sap from the forest for fixing the stones!”
Little Crow sat on his bedding, looking bedazzled at the words spoken by the two men. He could well understand why herbs would be used to perform a ceremony before singing the song of the cedar tree but what was it they were going to do with the stones he wondered?
The sound of his mother’s voice broke Little Crow’s thoughts as she called him to eat some freshly ground whole meal oats, which she had made into a paste and warmed over the fire. Adding a large heap of sweet honey which Little Crow himself had harvested from the nearby forest during the summer months, he began to break his fast.
“Mmm! This is so good, Mother. Thank you!”
“Eat and eat well my son,” replied his mother as she smiled upon the brightly lit image of her dear son as he sat by the fire.
Little Crow covered his mouth as he was forced to chuckle at the sight of his cousin’s head suddenly appearing through the opening of the teepee, his face filled with a smile of excitement. “Hurry Little Crow,” he said. We are going into the forest to collect the things we need for the ceremony this evening. Your father wishes you to join us.”
The evening moon shone brilliantly, lighting up the village with its rays of silvery light that danced among the teepees while Little Crow’s father began to prepare for the ceremony that was to be performed. Carefully, he placed a piece of buckskin on the ground just a short distance from the edge of the forest and began unpacking the leather pouch which contained the cedar flute that Smiling Boy had carried with him from his village on the other side of the mountains. As he laid the flute gently on the buckskin his mind drifted back to that time, so long ago, when this same ceremony had been performed by his own father and when he had first discovered the song of the cedar tree. He smiled to himself as he carefully placed the flute so that the mouth piece pointed directly at the moon and next to it, in a perfectly straight line he placed eight small, round turquoise stones, about half the size of an apple pip, and two larger ones the size of cherry stones. Next to the stones he placed a small bowl of resin, which had been extracted from one of the trees of the forest earlier that day.
Smiling Boy walked up to where Many Bears had made the ceremonial preparations and spoke softly. “All appears to be ready. It will soon be time!”
Meanwhile, his mother was helping Little Crow to dress in the clothes that were kept only for very special occasions. He looked so handsome in his tanned buckskin clothing and the glass beads that formed the traditional patterned trim on his clothing glimmered in the light of the teepee’s fire.
Smiling Boy walked back across the frozen ground to the teepee and called to Little Crow. “It is time for you to learn the song of the cedar tree, my cousin,” he said, as he pulled tightly on the buffalo skin blanket that covered his shoulders to keep out the bitterness of the cold evening air.
Little Crow stepped out of the teepee, closely followed by his mother, and together they walked to where Many Bears was sitting by the ensemble he had just finished preparing for the ceremony. Smiling Boy had already taken his place and was sitting on the opposite side of the ceremonial buckskin, facing his uncle. Little Crow sat himself down next to his father while his mother placed herself next to her son. Looking down at the things his father had laid out on the buckskin, Little Crow could see the cedar flute and he smiled. He was now beginning to understand what was meant by ‘the song of the cedar tree’.
As the moon rose higher in the night sky, making its way on its journey to greet the morning, the first small turquoise stone that had been laid out so neatly on the buckskin mat glinted as the light from the moon reflected its rays into the night.
“It is time,” said Many Bears as he reached forward to pick up the flute and the first turquoise stone that had received the blessing from the moonlight. Having already placed a small droplet of resin from the small bowl into a series of small, but shallow holes in the flute, between the playing holes, he carefully set the turquoise stone in its rightful position nearest the mouth piece. He then waited for the moon to shine its light on the second stone. Little Crow watched in wonder as the ceremony continued until the entire line of small turquoise stones had been placed in the flute.
The two larger turquoise stones were fitted last into the flute and took their place on both sides the wolf shaped tuning fetish that sat proudly over the sound hole. Many Bears looked at the completed flute, held it high towards the night sky and nodded his approval.
“It is done’” he said smiling across at Smiling Boy and turning to face Little Crow, he lowered the flute, holding it out for him to take from his hands.
Little Crow carefully took the flute from his fathers grasp and held it out in front of himself. He lovingly admired the workmanship and dedication that had obviously gone into its making and looked wondrously at the turquoise stones that seemed to radiate their very being under the light of the night time moon. He then placed the mouthpiece between his lips and blew gently into the flute. The sweet, mellow sound that flowed from the flute seemed to echo as it made its way into the forest just a few feet away. Looking at his father, still with the mouthpiece between his lips, he blew again, this time lifting his fingers from the holes that made the notes change. His father looked deeply into the boy’s eyes and smiled, as he knew his son had discovered the song of the cedar tree; a song which he would, one day soon, play every morning to greet the new day.
The following morning, Little Crow woke early from his sleep and reached excitedly for the new flute. Once again he admired the workmanship and ran his fingers gently down the long strips of leather that held the colored crow beads that decorated the flute. Placing the flute up to his mouth he, again, blew gently into it. The rich sounding notes filled the teepee and he looked across at his father as he raised his head from his sleeping mat.
“I see my son is awake and eager to play. Today I will take you with me to the lake side and we will play together,” he said as he raised himself from his bedding and outstretched his arms to loosen the stiffness from his body.
“Thank you, father. I will get dressed!” said Little Crow and he hurriedly reached for his clothing.
“But first,” exclaimed his father, “we will wash and cleanse our bodies. And, build up the fire for your mother so that she can prepare the food that will ward off our hunger once we have returned from the lake. Although this may be a special day for you,” he continued, “you must not forget all the things you have been taught.”
Outside the teepee it was another cold, bleak morning and a covering of fresh, white snow laid itself gently upon the land, as far as the eye could see. Smiling Boy, who had arisen early from his sleep in order to prepare himself for his long journey back to his village, stood outside in the weak, morning sun. “It is a beautiful day,” he said loudly, so that Many Bears could hear him from within the teepee.”
Many Bears stuck his head out of the doorway to the teepee and smiled at Smiling Boy. “It is a beautiful day,” he replied. “Perhaps you would join us down by the lake this morning.” As he spoke he could see that Smiling Boy had his own flute cradled carefully in his folded arms.
“I would be honored,” he replied, grinning in the boyish way that was so suited to his name.
Within a few minutes the three of them had left the confines of the village and had made their way down the path that lead to the lake which looked still and peaceful, as it gently reflected the rays from the sun back into the winter sky. Little Crow, Many Bears and Smiling Boy stood facing it, looking across it in wonder of its beauty, and slowly raised their flutes to their lips. The gentle sounds of the flutes bounced off the lake and filled the morning air and it was then that Little Crow understood and appreciated the song of the cedar flute; for it was, without doubt, the most beautiful sound he had every heard.
After they had finished playing, Many Bears looked down at his son, nodding his head approvingly.
Little Crow looked up to meet his father’s gaze and with an inquisitive expression asked, “Will you teach me all the songs that you know, my father?”
“I will teach you all that I know, my son, but always remember that it is not so much what you play as how you play that makes the sound of the flute so special. Before you play your flute, find a quiet place, sit for a while and empty your mind. Then play with the same feelings you hold in your heart. You have a good heart, my son, and your songs will sound across the land for all to hear.”
Little Crow smiled at his father, looked down at the flute he held gently in his hands, and raised it again to his mouth. With a soft breath he blew into the mouthpiece once more. The single note that emanated from the flute raced across the lake, hit the distant mountains and returned as softly as it was dispatched.
“The flute speaks back to you, my son,” said Many Bears laughing softly. Play it again!”
Little Crow once again blew gently into the flute and waited for the note to be returned by the mountains. But, this time it did not return. He looked up at his father with a puzzled expression on his face.
“It is just as I said, my son, you have a good heart and your songs will sound across the land forever - your note has already begun its long journey. But, come now, it is time for us to return home.”
With that, Little Crow, Laughing Boy and Many Bears began the short journey along the path that lead back to the village, each one being warmed from the cold winter’s day with the knowledge that Little Crow had learned another lesson that would stay with him forever.