Manabozho & The Maples
TITLE: Manabozho & The Maples
GENRES: Fantasy, mythology, cultural.
SUMMARY: Why maple syrup is so hard to get. Based on a Native American (Ojibwa) myth.
WRITING STATUS: Completed.
WRITING DATE: Circa 2002.
LENGTH: 2600+ words.
CONTENT WARNINGS: Mild adult language.
COPYRIGHT: This story and all characters, unless otherwise stated in the Disclaimers, are copyright © tehuti_88 and may not be used or distributed without permission. The reader is free to print out or download a copy of this story for offline reading as long as the author's copyright information remains upon it. Please do not distribute; if you wish to share this story, send a link to this page.
DISCLAIMERS: Ocryx and his "species" are © the Haunted Theatre of Mackinac Island. Certain characters are from Ojibwa mythology. Although aspects of this story are loosely based on Ojibwa mythology and culture, artistic license has been taken as this is a FANTASY story. Please take note that this story was written around 2002 and that my writing style and understanding of the mythology I created may have changed vastly in the meantime.
ADDITIONAL INFO: First place in a now-defunct mythology contest, Writing.com.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This short story ties in with the Manitou Island serials listed above; as such, it might not make much sense out of context. I wrote this story based on a prompt ("Spider, maple syrup, the moon"), but thought that it fit in rather well with my Manitou Island fiction, seeing as Manabozho (also known as Manabush or Wenebojo) appears in those serials. So this can be considered an indirect tie-in. This is based on an actual myth about why people have to work so hard just to get a little bit of syrup from a tree. You can thank Manabozho for that. (One major corrective note, there should really not be leaves on the trees during maple-tapping time, but perhaps things were different back then?) Original myth used: "The Menominee say that Nokomis, the grandmother of Manabush or Wenebojo, showed him how to insert a small piece of wood into each maple tree so the sap could run down into the [sic] placed below. When Manabush tested it, it was thick and sweet. He told his grandmother it would never do to give the Indians the syrup without making them work for it. He climbed to the top of one of the maples, scattered rain over all the trees, dissolving the sugar as it flowed into the birchbark vessels. Now the Indians have to cut wood, make vessels, collect the sap, and boil it for a long time. If they want the maple syrup, they have to work hard for it." (From http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-183.html)
THE SPIDER WRIGGLED, trapped in a gooey web that slid down the side of the tree. Slid actually was not the best word, considering it was barely moving at all. The tiny creature flailed its sticky legs at the air and the moonlight glinted off the amber-colored beads adhering to its body. Manabozho leaned down and peered at it curiously, tilting his head this way and that as it struggled futilely to free itself. It could not have been trapped long, as its movements were still quick and energetic. He doubted it would last much longer in the chill air, though.
He tried poking a finger at it, and its little legs clung onto him. He pulled but it stayed stuck to the tree and just wriggled some more. He made a face at the stickiness on his fingertip and wiped it off on his clothing, then poked at the spider a second time. He feared he might have hurt it this time, so could think of no better course of action than to simply put it out of its misery. Then he tried wiping his fingers off again but this gooey stuff didn't want to come off so easily.
With an annoyed sound he resorted to licking his hand, then paused. He looked at his glistening fingers and then back at the tree. Whatever the goo was, it tasted sweet, sugary. Almost like honey, but with a woody tang. He frowned. He'd never known before that trees could simply emit a sweet as if it were waste.
He poked his fingers into the sticky stuff now and pulled his hand back, watching the fluid stretch out in long amber tendrils glistening pale in the moonlight. How odd. He'd noticed the goo before but he'd never thought of eating it. He licked at it again and was pleasantly surprised. Go figure, that this stuff that he'd thought before was a waste could taste so pleasant.
He wiped his hand off once more and went to fetch a birchbark container. As it was, the goo trailed down the sides of the trees to puddle uselessly on the ground below. If it were edible, why not gather it? He retrieved a container and returned to set it below the tree, but the sticky substance just flowed past it, adhering it to the trunk. That wouldn't work. So he walked in circles around the maple for a few moments as he thought. He pictured waterfalls, water sluices. Some sort of device to prompt the gooey substance out, to guide it into the container. Struck with an idea, he hurried off into the woods again to seek out a young sapling. This early in the year, there were plenty.
Taking an ax, he cut off a splinter of a young branch and sharpened it, hollowing one side. He returned to the dripping tree and carefully cut a notch in the side, near where the amber goo flowed. When he did this he made certain to place his hand upon it and say a thank you to the manitou which doubtlessly dwelled within it, for injuring its home so. Then he gently tapped the slivered stick into the gouge and placed the birchbark container underneath it. He stood back and watched as the goo slowly, languidly began to slide down the stick. He could do that for only so long before his impatience got the better of him, and he had to wander off before going insane. It might be a more convenient method, but it was still very tedious.
He busied himself gathering more birchbark containers, cutting off more splinters of wood, and similarly tapping the rest of the oozing maple trees in the area. The goo from one of them...sap, he'd heard it called...wouldn't be enough to make much use of. He might as well make the most of the night that he could.
Suppressing a yawn, licking off his sticky hands a final time, he rubbed his eyes and departed for home. He could gather up what was left behind in the morning.
However, he didn't quite get that chance. When he returned, still yawning, in the morning, he was surprised to hear all sorts of noises coming from the clearing where the maple trees stood. He crouched down behind a bush and peered out with some puzzlement.
Some of the natives of the Island had beaten him to the trees. He didn't know how, if they'd smelled the sap collecting, or had just happened across it by accident, but either way they had found the half-filled containers and, just as curious as he had been, they'd stopped to look them over. Several stood gazing at them, and at the tapped trees; a few others picked up a container or two, sniffing at the thick substance slowly dripping down into the birchbark. He half hoped they wouldn't decide to taste it, as he had. No such luck, though. Someone poked his finger in and gingerly sampled it, then murmured in surprise and handed the container to his companion. The men proceeded to pass it about, tasting the sap and looking at one another.
"How long has this stuff been flowing down from the trees?" one of them asked. "I never even noticed it before."
"Every spring it does it, about this time," said an older one. "I've seen it...but I never knew it had any flavor to it."
"I always assumed it was poison," another one admitted meekly.
"Maybe we were meant to find it, then!" the first one exclaimed, growing excited. He waved his hand. "Take a look, someone even set it all up for us to see. Someone wanted for us to find this and taste it! The manitous meant us to have it for ourselves!"
"You wish," Manabozho muttered under his breath.
"My wife will be wondering why I'm not back yet," the third native mumbled. "She's quite...strident when I'm late."
"Bring her some of this then--" a birchbark container of sap was shoved into his hands "--and see how much she sweetens." The others burst into laughter and collected the remaining containers from beneath the trees, making their way back to their camp, chattering about their intriguing find. Manabozho watched them leave, disappearing from sight, before standing up and clenching his fists with an irritated snort.
"'The manitous meant us to have it!'" he mimicked in a high-pitched voice. "BAH! I go to all of that trouble and it takes them merely MOMENTS to steal it all! What sort of gratitude is this, to just assume some manitou wanted them to have it and then make off with it...not even leaving a drop behind for the person who did all the WORK!" He broke off and paused, frowning at the ground, before a sly smile slowly came to his face. He rubbed his chilled fingers and looked at the notched trees standing behind him.
"Work," he murmured. "If I have to put work into it, then I should think they should, too."
With this, he hastened home to fashion more birchbark containers--as he'd used up all of his own the day before--and then hurried back to notch open more trees, pounding the little sticks into the wounds and setting the containers below. He knew the men wouldn't return until the next day...and he was certain they would, with the catch they'd made off with today. Humans were, after all, predictable creatures.
By the time nightfall came, the moon rising high and fat in the sky, the vessels were again half full; Manabozho retrieved a few to take back with him for his own use. He would be damned if he would be cheated so easily again.
"They'll grow lazy," he muttered as he hurried again to the clearing, a plan forming in the back of his mind. "I can see them now. Tossing away the birch buckets and simply lying upon their backs to let it dribble into their waiting mouths! Like cubs suckling from a mother bear! And never a SINGLE word of thanks to he who made any of this possible, aside from a pathetic 'The manitous meant us to have it!' Yes, well, maybe you were meant to have it, but that doesn't mean you can't get it without some sort of effort..."
He finished setting up the taps and containers, and then walked about looking skyward, seeking out the tallest tree. He found it near the far edge of the clearing and climbed to the very top. He could easily have gone to the top of the Island, Fort Holmes, or even into the spirit realm itself to accomplish his goal, but he wanted to be nearby to see the looks on the men's faces when they returned. It would be well worth the wasted sap.
Manabozho reached the top of the tree and made himself comfortable, waiting out the night. The spring air was still very cold, his breath forming clouds around him; he shivered and rubbed his arms all night, teeth chattering by the time dawn finally approached. Only then did he raise his hands high and shut his eyes, concentrating. He knew a few of the manitous of the clouds and rain, and called to them for assistance. Some spirits were very willing, if one knew the proper requests...and thank-yous. Something the men below had quite conveniently forgotten.
He wondered briefly if he would be so annoyed and vindictive if they had remembered to thank the trees, and him, for making their bounty possible...decided that yes, he probably would be, as they'd cheated him out of his meal...and turned his face skyward again when the rain started to trickle from the sky, then course, then pound. It struck the budding tops of the trees and poured down the branches, soaking the trunks. It seeped through the bark and through the wood to the trees' centers, mixing in with the sap, diluting it so it flowed more quickly into its containers. Manabozho smiled when he looked down at it in the dim light, the moon setting below the clouds far off behind him. Yes, there would be more sap for the men to gather come daylight...but thanks to the manitous, it would no longer be nearly as sweet.
When he felt the rain had run its course, he waved his hand and it thinned and then stopped, the clouds dispersing. The sun was already rising in the east and he settled himself back against the trunk to wait for the men to arrive, as he knew they would.
By the time the growing sunlight had dried most of the rain from the leaves, leaving the watery sap in the soggy containers, the men came wandering through, one of them pointing out to a few new ones the scene they'd come upon before. Manabozho sat forward and watched. The one in front noticed the fresh containers sitting under the newly tapped trees and waved his hand at them excitedly.
"I told you! Whatever manitou it was, they blessed us again! Look at this bounty!"
"You say it comes from the trees?" one of the newcomers prodded. "And it's edible?"
"Very much so, and very sweet! Come take a taste of it for yourself--then we'll bring it home with us!"
"Hardly a word of thanks to be had," Manabozho grumbled. "Perhaps I should have put worms in it instead, I suppose then they would be plenty grateful."
Rather than speak aloud he watched a small group of them approach one of the maples, its container overflowing with the gooey sap. The substance ran over the edge and onto the ground. They knelt down around it and one stuck in his finger and pulled it out, tasting it. He frowned, then made a face.
"It's all watery," he complained. "What was the point of calling us out here for this?"
"What?" the first brave asked, brow furrowing. He nudged his way forward and tasted the sap for himself, and also made a face, sticking out his tongue. "But...I don't understand it. It's all thin! It was thick and sweet like honey, before!"
"Bees make honey," the second native groused. "Not trees."
"I'm telling you, it was rich and sweet yesterday. Just ask them!"
A few of the other men who had accompanied him yesterday nodded their heads quickly. They each tasted the sap and came back disappointed.
"It's different from before--it's all bland!"
"It tastes as if someone poured water in it!"
"Are you sure these are the same trees? Maybe it tastes different, depending on where it comes from..."
Manabozho sat chuckling to himself over their confused reactions. They were so consternated over what could have possibly happened that he decided it was about time to take some pity on them; they were only humans, after all. He climbed silently down the trunk, landing on his feet and ducking behind it. With a wave and a small sparkle he had assumed the form of an older man, dressed as they were, slightly stooped and walking with a stick. He cleared his throat a little bit to get his voice just right, tapped his breast, and came out from behind the tree.
It was a moment or two before the natives saw him, and when they did they only stood up and stared as he walked by as if just passing through, leaning on the stick. He looked them up and down.
"Hm?" he inquired, on seeing their looks. "You all have some sort of business being out here in the middle of nowhere, this early in the day?"
"We were collecting this fluid here," the leader said, holding up one of the drenched containers. "It was thick and sweet yesterday, just like honey. Only now it's all watery." He sniffed at it and frowned. "We're not certain what happened..."
"Oh?" Manabozho came forward and craned his neck to peer into the container, sniffing at it himself. He snorted. "Oh, hah. Just maple sap. One'd think you've never seen it before."
The native blinked but said nothing. He looked into the container.
"I don't see anything wrong with it though," Manabozho went on. "Just looks like regular old sap to me. What's with the complaining, you had a bad morning?"
"No, it's...it's just odd. It tasted better yesterday. We came out here and there it was, waiting for us, the same as today. Only tasting different."
"Y'mean you just picked it up off the ground and ate it right from the containers?"
"Why, yes, of course. That was how we found it."
"You fool," Manabozho scoffed. "You don't pick it up and eat it. You have to boil it first! So it's edible!"
"Boil...?" The brave looked uncertain.
"Yes, of course! Boil it with hot stones and stir it until it gets stringy! Then strain it and work it until it's all even! Make sugar out of it! Everybody knows this is how you treat sap! Where have you been living, beneath the ground?"
The man flushed, obviously embarrassed. "Well...we didn't know this, yesterday...it seemed just fine, then! We didn't even have to do a thing to it!"
Manabozho waved at him dismissively and started hobbling off across the clearing. "Feh, you younger generation. Thinking you can get everything for free. I'll give you the one thing that is free--a little bit of advice. You can't get anything decent in this world anymore without having to WORK for it first!"
He left the group standing crestfallen in the clearing, holding their containers of maple sap. He couldn't help but have one last chuckle at their expense. True, he had a little stash of his own that he hadn't had to work for very hard, at all...but they were humans...and humans had to learn somehow, didn't they?
"Better them than me!" he confirmed, as he shed his disguise beyond their view and made his way back home to enjoy his well-earned snack.