Gateway to the Classics: For the Children's Hour by Carolyn S. Bailey
For the Children's Hour by  Carolyn S. Bailey

The Story of the First Corn

T HERE was once, in the land of the Indians, a brave young warrior named Hiawatha. In all the tribe there was no one able to run as fast as he, or shoot as far. No one else could build so strong a canoe. No one understood as well as he the songs which the wind sang and the calls of the birds. The beasts of the forest were all his little brothers, and he could tell how the beavers built their lodges, and where the squirrels hid their acorns, how the reindeer ran so swiftly, and why the rabbit was so timid. Yet Hiawatha was not selfish and proud because of all his knowledge; and he wished, always, that good should come, not to himself, but to all the tribe.

So Hiawatha, when it was the pleasant springtime, left his people and went far away to the forest, that he might be alone and ask of the Great Spirit a good gift for his people. He built a wigwam by the shining sea, and he ate no food for seven days, but fasted and prayed.

He wandered through the leafy woods and watched all the shy creatures which live there—the deer that jumped from the thicket, the rabbit in his burrow, the squirrel rattling his hoard of acorns, the pigeon building her nest among the pine trees, and the wild geese flocking northward. But still Hiawatha found no gift great enough for his people.

He went down through the meadow and saw the wild rice, the blueberry, the strawberry, and the gooseberry growing, and the grape vine which trailed over the elder bushes and filled all the air with its fragrance.

He watched the river where the sturgeon leaped, scattering the drops of water like beads of wampum; the yellow perch swam about like a sunbeam in the water, and the herring and crawfish leaped past. But the Indians had found all these treasures of the forest. In the winter the water would be covered with ice, and the meadows would yield no berries. The rabbit would sleep in his burrow. It was a new gift which Hiawatha wished to find.

So Hiawatha lay in his wigwam, upon his couch of leaves and branches, quite exhausted because he had eaten no food; yet still he prayed the Great Spirit to send a good gift to the Indians.

One evening as he watched the shining water and the setting sun, he saw a stranger coming through the woods. He was dressed in garments of green and yellow, and his hair was soft and golden. There were nodding green plumes upon his head, which bent down over his forehead, and he seemed to be walking straight from the sunset through the purple twilight to Hiawatha's wigwam. He came nearer, until he stood in the open doorway and looked with pity upon Hiawatha—so worn with fasting. In a voice as soft as the sighing of the south wind in the tree-tops, the stranger said:

"Your prayers are heard in heaven, O, my Hiawatha. You have not asked for greater skill in hunting, or greater craft in fishing, nor for triumph in the battle, but for a good gift for the tribe. I am your friend, Mondamin. Rise and wrestle with me, Hiawatha!"

So Hiawatha, very faint with fasting, came from his wigwam and wrestled with Mondamin until the darkness settled down upon the forest and he heard the heron crying her night song from her nest in the spruce tree. And as Hiawatha struggled, he grew each minute stronger.

"It is enough," cried Mondamin, "but to-morrow, at the sunset, I will come again to try you." And he slipped away as softly as the rain sinks into the earth or the mists rise from the water.

On the next day, and the next, Mondamin came, and Hiawatha wrestled bravely with him. And again, upon the sixth day, Mondamin came, standing tall and beautiful in his green and yellow garments, with the nodding green plumes upon his head, and he said:

"You have wrestled bravely, Hiawatha! To-morrow you shall conquer me, and your fasting and struggle will be done. Make a bed for me in the earth, where I may lie and feel the sun and the rains upon my head. Strip these garments, green and yellow, and these nodding plumes from me. Let no one disturb my slumber; no weed, or worm, or raven come near me. Only come yourself, Hiawatha, and watch me until I wake and leap into the sunshine."

So the seventh day Mondamin came and stood in the door of the wigwam and beckoned; and Hiawatha wrestled more nobly than before until he stood alone on the green sward and Mondamin, with torn garments and tattered plumage, lay at his feet.

Then Hiawatha dug a bed in the earth and stripped the green and yellow garments from Mondamin, and laid him down to sleep, with the earth very soft and light above him. And Hiawatha went home once more, but he did not forget the place where Mondamin lay sleeping in the rain and the sun, with his gay plumes and garments fading on the ground above him. Every day Hiawatha went to watch, and soften the earth about it, and drive away the weeds, the insects and the King Raven.

At last a small green feather shot slowly up from the earth, and then another and another. Before the summer was over, where Mondamin had slept, there stood the corn in all its beauty, with its shining robes of green and its soft, yellow tresses.

"It is my friend, Mondamin," cried Hiawatha; "he has given me a good gift for my people!"

And when the autumn came, and the soft, green leaves were yellow, Hiawatha gathered the ripe ears full of juicy kernels, and he stripped the husks from off them—just as once he had stripped Mondamin—and he called a great feast, to make known to his people the beautiful gift of the first corn.

— Adapted from Longfellow's "Hiawatha"
by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey

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