An Achomawi Legend
Sixty little spider children shivered as they slept. Snow had fallen every day for months. All the animals were cold, hungry, and frightened. Food supplies were almost gone. No one knew what to do. Blue jay and Redheaded Woodpecker sang and danced for Silver Gray Fox, who floats above the clouds. Since Silver Gray Fox, the creator, had made the whole world with a song and a dance, Blue jay and Woodpecker hoped to be answered with blue skies. But the snow kept falling.
Finally the animals decided to ask Coyote. “Coyote’s been around a long time, almost since the beginning. He might know how to reach Silver Gray Fox.” They went to the cave where Coyote was sleeping, told him their troubles, and asked for help. “Grrrrowwwlll…go away,” grumbled Coyote, “and let me think.” Coyote stuck his head into the cold air outside and thought till he caught an idea. He tried singing in little yelps and loud yowls to Silver Gray Fox. Coyote sang and sang, but Silver Gray Fox didn’t listen, or didn’t want to. After all, it was Coyote’s mischief-making when the world was new that had caused Silver Gray Fox to go away beyond the clouds in the first place.
Coyote thought he’d better think some more. Suddenly he saw Spider Woman swinging down on a silky thread from the top of the tallest tree in the forest. “Spider Woman’s been on Earth a long, long time,” Coyote thought. “She’s very wise. I’ll ask her what to do.” Coyote loped over to the tree and lifted his ears to Spider Woman. “Spider Woman, O wise weaver, O clever one,” called Coyote in his sweetest voice, “we’re all cold and hungry. Everyone’s afraid this winter will never end. Silver Gray Fox doesn’t see m to notice. Can you help?” Spider Woman swayed her shining black body back and forth, back and forth, thinking and thinking, thinking and thinking.
Her eight black eyes sparkled when she spoke, “I know how to reach Silver Gray Fox, Coyote, but I’m not the one for the work. Everyone will have to help. You’ll need my two youngest children, too. They’re little and light as dandelion fluff, and the fastest spinners in my web.” Spider Woman called up to her two littlest ones. Spinnnnnn! Spinnnnnn! They came down fast, each spinning on eight little legs, fine, black twin Spider Boys, full of curiosity and fun. Spider Woman said, “My dear little quick ones, are you ready for a great adventure?” “Yes! Yes!” they cried. “We’re ready!”
Spider Woman told them her plan, and the Spider Boys set off with Coyote in the snow. They hadn’t gone far when they met two White-Footed Mouse Brothers rooting around for seeds to eat. Coyote told them Spider Woman’s plan. “Will you help?” he asked. “Yes! Yes! We’ll help!” they squeaked, and they all traveled the trail towards Mount Shasta until they met Weasel Man looking hungry and even thinner than usual.
Coyote told Weasel Man his plan. “Will you help?” asked Coyote. “Of course,” rasped Weasel Man, joining them on the trail. Before long they came across Red Fox Woman swishing her big fluffy tail through the bushes. “Will you help?” asked “Of course, I’ll come,” crooned Red Fox Woman. Then Rabbit Woman poked her head out of her hole. “I’ll come too,” she sneezed, shivering despite her thick fur.
Meadowlark wrapped a winter shawl around her wings, and trudged after the others along the trail to the top of Mount Shasta. The snow had stopped, but the sky was still cloudy. On top of Mount Shasta, Coyote barked, “Will our two best archers step forward?” The two White Footed Mouse Brothers proudly lifted their bows.
“Everyone listen,” barked Coyote. “If any one of us is only half-hearted, Spider Woman’s plan will fail. To get through the clouds to Silver Gray Fox, we must each share our powers whole-heartedly, our thoughts, our dreams, our strength, and our songs. Now, you White-Footed Mouse Brothers, I want you to shoot arrows at exactly the same spot in the sky.”
Turning to the others, Coyote said, “Spider Boys, start spinning spider silk as fast as you can. Weasel Man, White- Footed Mouse Brothers, Red Fox Woman, Rabbit Woman, and I will sing and make music. We must sing with all our might or the Spider Boys won’t make it.” “One!” called Coyote. Everyone got ready. “Two!” The animals drew in deep breaths. The Mouse Brothers pulled back their bowstrings. “Three!” Two arrows shot straight up and stuck at the same spot in the clouds.
“Whiff wiff! Wiff wiff!” sang the White Footed Mouse Brothers. “Yiyipyipla!” sang Red Fox Woman. “Wowooooolll!” sang Coyote. Rabbit Woman shook her magic rattle. Weasel Man beat his very old and worn elk-hide drum. The Spider Boys hurled out long lines of spider silk, weaving swiftly with all their legs. The animals sang up a whirlwind of sound to lift the spider silk until it caught on the arrows in the clouds. Then the Spider Twins scurried up the lines of silk and scrambled through the opening.
All the while, down below, the animals continued singing, rattling and drumming. The little Spiders sank, breathless, onto the clouds. Silver Gray Fox spied them and called out, “What are you two doing here?” The Spider Boys bent low on their little legs and answered, “O Silver Gray Fox, we bring greetings from our mother, Spider Woman, and all the creatures of the world below. We’ve come to ask if you’d please let the sun shine again. The whole world is cold. Everyone is hungry. Everyone is afraid spring will not return, ever.”
They were so sincere and polite that Silver Gray Fox became gentler, and asked, “How did you two get up here?” The Spider Boys said “Listen, can you hear the people singing? Can you hear the drum and rattle?” Silver Gray Fox heard the drum and rattle and the people singing. When the Spider Boys finished telling their story, Silver Gray Fox was pleased. “I’m happy when creatures use their powers together. I’m especially glad to hear Coyote’s been helping too. Your mother, Spider Woman, made a good plan. To reward all your hard work, I’ll create a sign to show that the skies will clear. And you two may help.
“First picture the sun shining bright,” called Silver Gray Fox. The Spider Boys thought hard and saw the sun sending out fiery rays in all directions. “Now, where sun-rays meet the damp air,” sang Silver Gray Fox, Picture a stripe of red, Red as Woodpecker’s head, Add a stripe nearby of bluest Blue Jay blue. The Spider Boys thought hard, and great stripes appeared of red and blue. Silver Gray Fox chanted, Now in between, Add stripes of orange, yellow and green! The Spider Boys thought hard. Then, dazzling their eyes, a beautiful bright arc of colors curved across the whole sky above the clouds. It was the very first rainbow.
Meanwhile, down below, beneath the clouds, the animals and people were so cold, hungry, and tired that they had stopped singing and drumming. Spider Woman missed her two youngest children. Each day she missed them more. She blamed Coyote for the trouble. So did the other animals. Coyote slipped away silent, lonely and sad. Above, on the clouds, the Twins rested. Their legs ached and their minds were tired.
Silver Gray Fox said, “You did what I asked and kept it secret. That’s very difficult, so I’m giving you a special reward. On wet mornings, when the sun starts to shine, you’ll see what I mean.” Then the Spider Boys spun down to Earth, and ran back to their mother as fast as they could. Spider Woman cried for joy and wrapped all her legs around her two littlest children. Their fifty-eight sisters and brothers jumped up and down with happiness. All the animals gathered around to hear the Spiders story. When they finished, the Spider Boys cried, “Look up!” Everyone looked up. The clouds had drifted apart. There, bridging sky to earth in a radiant arch, was the very first rainbow.
Sun began to warm the earth. Shoots of grass pushed up through the melting snow. Meadowlark blew her silver whistle of spring across the valley, calling streams and rivers awake. Coyote came out of hiding, raced to a distant hilltop, and gave a long, long howl of joy. The animals held a great feast to honor the rainbow, Silver Gray Fox, Spider Woman, the Spider Twins, Coyote, and the hard work everyone had done together.
To this day, after the rain, when the sun comes out, dewdrops on spider webs shine with tiny rainbows. This is the spiders’ special reward. You can see for yourself.