retold by S.E. Schlosser
A young warrior came to the coast with his wife and mother one summer and settled in the place where Sitka now stands. It was a summer of hardship for the family because the fish stayed away from the coast and the game had moved far away over the mountains. The warrior set traps and laid nets in the water and wandered many miles hunting for food, but he found nothing. The family had to eat berries and green sprouts and dig for roots to eat. Even so, there was barely enough each day to keep the family going.
The old mother, who was nearly blind, began to lose health and strength as the days went by with little food. In sharp contrast to this was they pretty young wife, who stayed strong and healthy and just picked at her meal each evening. This puzzled the young warrior, who felt himself losing his vigor as the days went by, but he could find no reason for her good health in this time of adversity.
Then his old mother came to her son very early one morning and told him a sad and cruel story. The old mother had awakened the night before from a dream of cooked fish to smell the reality in the air. She opened her old eyes and saw a fish roasting on a small, flickering fire. The starving old mother saw her son’s wife crouched near the fire and she heard the girl eagerly chewing the hot fish. The old mother cried out to her son’s wife to give her a morsel, but the girl was selfish and told the old woman that the fish she smelled was just a dream. When the old mother begged for just a single bite of fish, the girl denied her request. The old woman kept up her cries until the selfish girl took the bare bones from the last fish and thrust them into the old woman’s hands, burning her flesh. Then the old mother wept bitter tears and retreated back to her corner.
When he heard his mother’s story, the warrior cautioned her to say nothing to his wife. When the selfish girl awoke, the warrior treated her in his customary manner, but he kept watch to see what she would do. That night, when she thought everyone lay sleeping, the young wife crept down to the shore and summoned a school of herring to the shore using a magic spell. She swept two of the largest fish into her basket and took them back to the lodge to cook.
Unbeknownst to her, the warrior had followed his wife. He took care to memorize the strange words of his wife’s spell, and then slipped quickly back to the lodge and into his blankets before she returned. He lay so still that the girl never suspected that he was watching as she cooked and ate the fish, carefully burying the bones so that her family would not know what she had done.
In the morning, the warrior went out hunting and caught a fat seal. That evening, the whole family feasted on the rich meat, and soon the selfish young wife lay fast asleep in the lodge. At midnight, the young warrior rose and went to the shore. Using his wife’s spell, he summoned the herring and filled a basket with the largest of the fish. When the girl woke in the morning, she saw her husband and his mother eating roast fish beside a crackling fire. The old mother savored each mouthful and kept darting triumphant looks at the selfish young girl. Then the young wife knew that her shameful behavior had been discovered.
After greeting her husband pleasantly, the young girl left the lodge and walked casually toward the woods. As soon as she was out of sight, she took to her heels, running as fast as she could toward the mountains, fearful of her husband’s wrath. She heard the warrior call her name, and heard him running after her. She flung herself up the mountainside, clambering up a large bolder that stood in her way. As the girl climbed, she felt her body growing smaller and smaller. She gasped in fear as she realized that the magic she had used so selfishly was turning against her in punishment for the crimes she had committed against her starving family. She felt feathers sprouting from her arms and face, and when she cried out, the only sound she could make was a soft hooting noise.
By the time the young warrior reached the boulder, the girl’s transformation was complete. He found himself face to face with a small owl that gazed up at him with his wife’s large, pleading eyes. He reached out to her, not knowing what to do or say. The owl backed away from his hand, and he saw the humanity fading from its eyes. The owl shook itself, stretched its wings, and flew away into the forest, hooting plaintively.
The warrior gazed after his transformed wife sadly. He had planned to treat her gently, to woo her away from her selfishness with his love and his kindness. But the evil forces she had used so selfishly had taken her and there was nothing he could do but return to his lodge and tell his old mother what had happened.
To this day, the plaintive hoot of the owl may be heard in the wilds of Alaska, reminding those who hear it of the price a young girl once paid for her selfishness.