Corn Maiden ~ Holly Sierra
The search for the Corn Maidens
A Zuni Legend
The people in their trouble called the two Master-Priests and said: “Who, now, think ye, should journey to seek our precious Maidens? Bethink ye! Who amongst the Beings is even as ye are, strong of will and good of eyes?”
Then they added, “There is our great elder brother and father, Eagle, he of the floating down and of the terraced tail-fan. Surely he is enduring of will and surpassing of sight.”
“Yea. Most surely,” said the fathers. “Go ye forth and beseech him.”
Then the two sped north to Twin Mountain, where in a grotto high up among the crags, with his mate and his young, dwelt the Eagle of the White Bonnet.
They climbed the mountain, but behold! Only the eaglets were there. They screamed lustily and tried to hide themselves in the dark recesses. “Pull not our feathers, ye of hurtful touch, but wait. When we are older we will drop them for you even from the clouds.”
“Hush,” said the warriors. “Wait in peace. We seek not ye but thy father.”
Then from afar, with a frown, came old Eagle. “Why disturb ye my featherlings?” he cried.
“Behold! Father and elder brother, we come seeking only the light of thy favor. Listen!”
Then they told him of the lost Maidens of the Corn, and begged him to search for them.
“Be it well with thy wishes,” said Eagle. “Go ye before contentedly.”
So the warriors returned to the council. But Eagle winged his way high into the sky. High, high, he rose, until he circled among the clouds, small-seeming and swift, like seed-down in a whirlwind. Through all the heights, to the north, to the west, to the south, and to the east, he circled and sailed. Yet nowhere saw he trace of the Corn Maidens. Then he flew lower, returning. Before the warriors were rested, people heard the roar of his wings. As he alighted, the fathers said, “Enter thou and sit, oh brother, and say to us what thou hast to say.” And they offered him the cigarette of the space relations.
When they had puffed the smoke toward the four points of the compass, and Eagle had purified his breath with smoke, and had blown smoke over sacred things, he spoke.
“Far have I journeyed, scanning all the regions. Neither bluebird nor wood rat can hide from my seeing,” he said, snapping his beak. “Neither of them, unless they hide under bushes. Yet I have failed to see anything of the Maidens ye seek for. Send for my younger brother, the Falcon. Strong of flight is he, yet not so strong as I, and nearer the ground he takes his way ere sunrise.”
Then the Eagle spread his wings and flew away to Twin Mountain. The Warrior-Priests of the Bow sped again fleetly over the plain to the westward for his younger brother, Falcon.
Sitting on an ant hill, so the warriors found Falcon. He paused as they approached, crying, “If ye have snare strings, I will be off like the flight of an arrow well plumed of our feathers! “
“No,” said the priests. “Thy elder brother hath bidden us seek thee.”
Then they told Falcon what had happened, and how Eagle had failed to find the Corn Maidens, so white and beautiful.
“Failed!” said Falcon. “Of course he failed. He climbs aloft to the clouds and thinks he can see under every bush and into every shadow, as sees the Sunfather who sees not with eyes. Go ye before.”
Before the Warrior-Priests had turned toward the town, the Falcon had spread his sharp wings and was skimming off over the tops of the trees and bushes as though verily seeking for field mice or birds’ nests. And the Warriors returned to tell the fathers and to await his coming.
But after Falcon had searched over the world, to the north and west, to the east and south, he too returned and was received as had been Eagle. He settled on the edge of a tray before the altar, as on the ant hill he settles today. When he had smoked and had been smoked, as had been Eagle, he told the sorrowing fathers and mothers that he had looked behind every copse and cliff shadow, but of the Maidens he had found no trace.
“They are hidden more closely than ever sparrow hid,” he said. Then he, too, flew away to his hills in the west.
“Our beautiful Maiden Mothers,” cried the matrons. “Lost, lost as the dead are they!”
“Yes,” said the others. “Where now shall we seek them? The far-seeing Eagle and the close-searching Falcon alike have failed to find them.”
“Stay now your feet with patience,” said the fathers. Some of them had heard Raven, who sought food in the refuse and dirt at the edge of town, at daybreak.
“Look now,” they said. “There is Heavy-nose, whose beak never fails to find the substance of seed itself, however little or well hidden it be. He surely must know of the Corn Maidens. Let us call him.”
So the warriors went to the river side. When they found Raven, they raised their hands, all weaponless.
“We carry no pricking quills,” they called. “Blackbanded father, we seek your aid. Look now! The Mother-maidens of Seed whose substance is the food alike of thy people and our people, have fled away. Neither our grandfather the Eagle, nor his younger brother the Falcon, can trace them. We beg you to aid us or counsel us.”
“Ka! ka!” cried the Raven. “Too hungry am I to go abroad fasting on business for ye. Ye are stingy! Here have I been since perching time, trying to find a throatful, but ye pick thy bones and lick thy bowls too clean for that, be sure.”
“Come in, then, poor grandfather. We will give thee food to cat. Yea, and a cigarette to smoke, with all the ceremony.”
“Say ye so?” said the Raven. He ruffled his collar and opened his mouth so wide with a lusty kaw-la-ka- that he might well have swallowed his own head. “Go ye before,” he said, and followed them into the court of the dancers.
He was not ill to look upon. Upon his shoulders were bands of white cotton, and his back was blue, gleaming like the hair of a maiden dancer in the sunlight. The Master-Priest greeted Raven, bidding him sit and smoke.
“Ha! There is corn in this, else why the stalk of it?” said the Raven, when he took the cane cigarette of the far spaces and noticed the joint of it. Then he did as he had seen the Master-Priest do, only more greedily. He sucked in such a throatful of the smoke, fire and all, that it almost strangled him. He coughed and grew giddy, and the smoke all hot and stinging went through every part of him. It filled all his feathers, making even his brown eyes bluer and blacker, in rings. It is not to be wondered at, the blueness of flesh, blackness of dress, and skinniness, yes, and tearfulness of eye which we see in the Raven today. And they are all as greedy of corn food as ever, for behold! No sooner had the old Raven recovered than he espied one of the ears of corn half hidden under the mantle-covers of the trays. He leaped from his place laughing. They always laugh when they find anything, these ravens. Then he caught up the ear of corn and made off with it over the heads of the people and the tops of the houses, crying.
“Ha! ha! In this wise and in no other will ye find thy Seed Maidens.”
But after a while he came back, saying, “A sharp eye have I for the flesh of the Maidens. But who might see their breathing-beings, ye dolts, except by the help of the Father of Dawn-Mist himself, whose breath makes breath of others seem as itself.” Then he flew away cawing.
Then the elders said to each other, “It is our fault, so how dare we prevail on our father Paiyatuma to aid us? He warned us of this in the old time.”
Suddenly, for the sun was rising, they heard Paiyatuma in his daylight mood and transformation. Thoughtless and loud, uncouth in speech, he walked along the outskirts of the village. He joked fearlessly even of fearful things, for all his words and deeds were the reverse of his sacred being. He sat down on a heap of vile refuse, saying he would have a feast.
“My poor little children,” he said. But he spoke to aged priests and white- haired matrons.
“Good-night to you all,” he said, though it was in full dawning. So he perplexed them with his speeches.
“We beseech thy favor, oh father, and thy aid, in finding our beautiful Maidens.” So the priests mourned.
“Oh, that is all, is it? But why find that which is not lost, or summon those who will not come?”
Then he reproached them for not preparing the sacred plumes, and picked up the very plumes he had said were not there.
Then the wise Pekwinna, the Speaker of the Sun, took two plumes and the banded wing-tips of the turkey, and approaching Paiyatuma stroked him with the tips of the feathers and then laid the feathers upon his lips.
Then Paiyatuma became aged and grand and straight, as is a tall tree shorn by lightning. He said to the father:
“Thou are wise of thought and good of heart. Therefore I will summon from Summer-land the beautiful Maidens that ye may look upon them once more and make offering of plumes in sacrifice for them, but they are lost as dwellers amongst ye.”
Then he told them of the song lines and the sacred speeches and of the offering of the sacred plume wands, and then turned him about and sped away so fleetly that none saw him.
Beyond the first valley of the high plain to the southward Paiyatuma planted the four plume wands. First he planted the yellow, bending over it and watching it. When it ceased to flutter, the soft down on it leaned northward but moved not. Then he set the blue wand and watched it; then the white wand. The eagle down on them leaned to right and left and still northward, yet moved not. Then farther on he planted the red wand, and bending low, without breathing, watched it closely. The soft down plumes began to wave as though blown by the breath of some small creature. Backward and forward, northward and southward they swayed, as if in time to the breath of one resting.
“‘T is the breath of my Maidens in Summer-land, for the plumes of the southland sway soft to their gentle breathing. So shall it ever be. When I set the down of my mists on the plains and scatter my bright beads in the northland(7), summer shall go thither from afar, borne on the breath of the Seed Maidens. Where they breathe, warmth, showers, and fertility shall follow with the birds of Summer-land, and the butterflies, northward over the world.”
Then Paiyatuma arose and sped by the magic of his knowledge into the countries of Summer-land, - fled swiftly and silently as the soft breath he sought for, bearing his painted flute before him. And when he paused to rest, he played on his painted flute and the butterflies and birds sought him. So he sent them to seek the Maidens, following swiftly, and long before he found them he greeted them with the music of his song sound, even as the People of the Seed now greet them in the song of the dancers.
When the Maidens heard his music and saw his tall form in their great fields of corn, they plucked ears, each of her own kind, and with them filled their colored trays and over all spread embroidered mantles, - embroidered in all the bright colors and with the creature-songs of Summer-land. So they sallied forth to meet him and welcome him. Then he greeted them, each with the touch of his hands and the breath of his flute, and bade them follow him to the northland home of their deserted children.
So by the magic of their knowledge they sped back as the stars speed over the world at night time, toward the home of our ancients. Only at night and dawn they journeyed, as the dead do, and the stars also. So they came at evening in the full of the last moon to the Place of the Middle, bearing their trays of seed.
Glorious was Paiyatuma, as he walked into the courts of the dancers in the dusk of the evening and stood with folded arms at the foot of the bow-fringed ladder of priestly council, he and his follower Shutsukya. He was tall and beautiful and banded with his own mists, and carried the banded wings of the turkeys with which he had winged his flight from afar, leading the Maidens, and followed as by his own shadow by the black being of the corn-soot, Shutsukya, who cries with the voice of the frost wind when the corn has grown aged and the harvest is taken away.
And surpassingly beautiful were the Maidens clothed in the white cotton and embroidered garments of Summer-land.
Then after long praying and chanting by the priests, the fathers of the people, and those of the Seed and Water, and the keepers of sacred things, the Maiden-mother of the North advanced to the foot of the ladder. She lifted from her head the beautiful tray of yellow corn and Paiyatama took it. He pointed it to the regions, each in turn, and the Priest of the North came and received the tray of sacred seed.
Then the Maiden of the West advanced and gave up her tray of blue corn. So each in turn the Maidens gave up their trays of precious seed. The Maiden of the South, the red seed; the Maiden of the East, the white seed; then the Maiden with the black seed, and lastly, the tray of all-color seed which the Priestess of Seed-and-All herself received.
And now, behold! The Maidens stood as before, she of the North at the northern end, but with her face southward far looking; she of the West, next, and lo! so all of them, with the seventh and last, looking southward. And standing thus, the darkness of the night fell around them. As shadows in deep night, so these Maidens of the Seed of Corn, the beloved and beautiful, were seen no more of men. And Paiyatuma stood alone, for Shutsukya walked now behind the Maidens, whistling shrilly, as the frost wind whistles when the corn is gathered away, among the lone canes and dry leaves of a gleaned field.