Swift-Runner and Trickster Tarantula

In the long ago time there was only one Tarantula on earth. He was as large as a man, and lived in a cave near where two broad columns of rock stand at the base of Thunder Mountain. Every morning Tarantula would sit in the door of his den to await the sound of horn bells which signalled the approach of a young Zuni who always came running by at sunrise. The young man wore exceedingly beautiful clothing of red, white and green, a plaited headband of many colours, a plume of blue, red and yellow macaw feathers in his hair knot, and a belt of horn bells. Tarantula was most envious of the young man, and spent much time thinking of ways to obtain his costume through trickery.

Swift-Runner was the young Zuni's name, and he was studying to become a priest-chief like his father. His costume was designed for use in sacred dances. To keep himself strong for these arduous dances, Swift-Runner dressed in his sacred clothing every morning and ran all the way around Thunder Mountain before prayers.

One morning at sunrise, Tarantula heard the horn bells rattling in Swift-Runner's belt. He took a few steps outside of his den, and as the young Zuni approached, he called out to him: "Wait a moment, my young friend, Come here!"

"I'm in a great hurry," Swift-Runner replied.

"Never mind that. Come here," Tarantula repeated.

"What is it?" the young man asked impatiently. "Why do you want me to stop?"

"I much admire your costume," said Tarantula. "Wouldn't you like to see how it looks to others?"

"How is that possible?" asked Swift-Runner.

"Come, let me show you."

"Well, hurry up. I don't want to be late for prayers."

"It can be done very quickly," Tarantula assured him. "Take off your clothing, all of it. Then I will take off mine. Place yours in front of me, and I will place mine in front of you. Then I will put on your costume, and you will see how handsome you look to others."

If Swift-Runner had known what a trickster Tarantula was, he would never have agreed to this, but he was very curious as to how his costume appeared to others. He removed his red and green moccasins, his fringed white leggings, his belt of horn bells, and all his other fine clothing, and placed them in front of Tarantula.

Tarantula meanwhile had made a pile of his dirty woolly leggings, breech-cloth and cape--all of an ugly grey-blue colour. He quickly began dressing himself in the handsome garments that Swift-Runner placed before him, and when he was finished he stood up on his crooked hind legs and said: "Look at me now. How do I look?"

"Well," replied Swift-Runner, "so far as the clothing is concerned, quite handsome."

"You can get a better idea of the appearance if I back off a little farther," Tarantula said, and he backed himself, as only Tarantulas can, toward the door of his den. "How do I look now?"

"Handsomer," said the young man.

"Then I'll get back a little farther." He walked backward again. "Now then, how do I look?"

"Perfectly handsome."

"Aha!" Tarantula chuckled as he turned around and dived headfirst into his dark hole.

"Come out of there!" Swift-Runner shouted, but he knew he was too late.

Tarantula had tricked him. "What shall I do now?" he asked himself. "I can't go home half naked." The only thing he could do was put on the hairy grey-blue clothing of Tarantula, and make his way back to the village.

When he reached home the sun was high, and his father was anxiously awaiting him. "What happened?" his father asked. "Why are you dressed in that ugly clothing?"

"Tarantula who lives under Thunder Mountain tricked me," Swift- Runner replied. "He took my sacred costume and ran away into his den."

His father shook his head sadly. "We must send for the warrior chief," he said. "He will advise us what we must do about this."

When the warrior-chief came, Swift-Runner told him what had happened. The chief thought for a moment, and said: "Now that Tarantula has your fine costume, he is not likely to show himself far from his den again. We must dig him out."

And so the warrior-chief sent runners through the village, calling all the people to assemble with hoes, digging sticks, and baskets. After the Zunis gathered with all these things, the chief led the way out to the den of Tarantula.

They began tunnelling swiftly into the hole. They worked and worked from morning till sundown, filling baskets with sand and throwing it behind them until a large mound was piled high. At last they reached the solid rock of the mountain, but they found no trace of Tarantula. "What more can we do?" the people asked. "Let us give up because we must. Let us go home." And so as darkness fell, the Zunis returned to their village.

That evening the leaders gathered to discuss what they must do next to recover Swift-Runner's costume. Someone suggested that they send for the Great Kingfisher. "He is wise, crafty, and swift of flight. If anyone can help us, the Great Kingfisher can."

"That's it," they agreed. "Let's send for the Kingfisher."

Swift-Runner set out at once, running by moonlight until he reached the hill where Great Kingfisher lived, and knocked on the door of his house.

"Who is it?" called Kingfisher.

"Come quickly," Swift-Runner replied. "The leaders of our village seek your help."

And so Kingfisher followed the young man back to the Zuni council. "What is it that you need of me?" he asked.

"Tarantula has stolen the sacred garments of Swift-Runner," they told him. "We have dug into his den to the rock foundation of Thunder Mountain, but we can dig no farther, and know not what next to do. We have sent for you because of your power and ability to snatch anything, even from underwater."

"This is a difficult task you place before me," said Kingfisher. "Tarantula is exceedingly cunning and very sharp of sight. I will do my best, however, to help you."

Before sunrise the next morning, Kingfisher flew to the two columns of rock at the base of Thunder Mountain and concealed himself behind a stone so that only his beak showed over the edge. As the first streaks of sunlight came over the rim of the world, Tarantula appeared in the entrance of his den. With his sharp eyes he peered out, looking all around until he sighted Kingfisher's bill. "Ho, ho, you skulking Kingfisher!" he cried.

At the instant he knew he was discovered, Kingfisher opened his wings and sped like an arrow on the wind, but he merely brushed the tips of the plumes on Tarantula's head before the trickster jumped back deep into his hole. "Ha, ha!" laughed Tarantula. "Let's have a dance and sing!" He pranced up and down in his cave, dancing a tarantella on his crooked legs, while outside the Great Kingfisher flew to the Zuni village and sadly told the people: "No use! I failed completely. As I said, Tarantula is a crafty, keen-sighted old fellow. I can do no more."

After Kingfisher returned to his hill, the leaders decided to send for Great Eagle, whose eyes were seven times as sharp as the eyes of men. He came at once, and listened to their pleas for help. "As Kingfisher, my brother, has said, Tarantula is a crafty, keen sighted creature. But I will do my best."

Instead of waiting near Thunder Mountain for sunrise, Eagle perched himself a long distance away, on top of Badger Mountain. He stood there with his head raised to the winds, turning first one eye and then the other on the entrance to Tarantula's den until the old trickster thrust out his woolly nose. With his sharp eyes, Tarantula soon discovered Eagle high on Badger Mountain. "Ho, you skulking Eagle!" he shouted, and Eagle dived like a hurled stone straight at Tarantula's head. His wings brushed the trickster, but when he reached down his talons he clutched nothing but one of the plumes on Tarantula's headdress, and even this fell away upon the rocks. While Tarantula laughed and danced in his cave and told himself what a clever well- dressed fellow he was, the shamed and disappointed Eagle flew to the Zuni council and reported his failure.

The people next called upon Falcon to help them. After he heard of what already had been done, Falcon said: "If my brothers, Kingfisher and Eagle, have failed, it is almost useless for me to try."

"You are the swiftest of the feathered creatures," the leaders answered him. "Swifter than Kingfisher and as strong as Eagle. Your plumage is speckled grey and brown like the rocks and sagebrush so that Tarantula may not see you."

Falcon agreed to try, and early the next morning he placed himself on the edge of the high cliff above Tarantula's den. When the sun rose he was almost invisible because his grey and brown feathers blended into the rocks and dry grass around him. He kept a close watch until Tarantula thrust out his ugly face and turned his eyes in every direction. Tarantula saw nothing, and continued to poke himself out until his shoulders were visible. At that moment Falcon dived, and Tarantula saw him, too late to save the macaw plumes from the bird's grasping claws.

Tarantula tumbled into his den, sat down, and bent himself double with fright. He wagged his head back and forth, and sighed: "Alas, alas, my beautiful headdress is gone. That wretch of a falcon! But what is the use of bothering about a miserable bunch of macaw feathers, anyway? They get dirty and broken, moths eat them, they fade. Why trouble myself about a worthless thing like that? I still have the finest costume in the Valley-handsome leggings and embroidered shirt, necklaces worth fifty such head- plumes, and earrings worth a handful of such necklaces. Let Falcon have the old head-plumes."

Meanwhile, Falcon, cursing his poor luck, took the feathers back to the Zunis. "I'm sorry, my friends, this is the best I could do. May others succeed better."

"You have succeeded well," they told him. "These plumes from the South are precious to us."

Then the leaders gathered in council again. "What more is there to be done?" Swift-Runner's father asked.

"We must send your son to the land of the gods," said the war chief "Only they can help us now."

They called Swift-Runner and said to him: "We have asked the wisest and swiftest and strongest of the feathered creatures to help us, yet they have failed. Now we must send you to the land of the gods to seek their help."

Swift-Runner agreed to undertake the dangerous climb to the top of Thunder Mountain where the two war-gods, Ahaiyuta and Matsailema, lived with their grandmother. For the journey, the priest-chiefs prepared gifts of their most valuable treasures. Next morning, Swift-Runner took these with him and by midday he reached the place where the war-gods lived.

He found their grandmother seated on the flat roof of their house. From the room below came the sounds of the war-gods playing one of their noisy games. "Enter, my son," the grandmother greeted Swift-Runner, and then she called to Ahaiyuta and Matsailema: "Come up, my children, both of you, quickly. A young man has come bringing gifts."

The war-gods, who were small like dwarfs, climbed to the roof and the oldest said politely: "Sit down and tell us the purpose of your visit. No stranger comes to the house of another for nothing."

"I bring you offerings from our village below. I also bring my burden of trouble to listen to your counsel and implore your aid."

He then told the war-gods of his misfortunes, of how Tarantula had stolen his sacred clothing, and of how the wisest and swiftest of the feathered beings had tried and failed to regain them.

"It is well that you have come," said the youngest war-god. "Only we can outwit the trickster Tarantula. Grandmother, please bestir yourself, and grind some rock flour for us."

While Swift-Runner watched, the old grandmother gathered up some white sandstone rocks, broke them into fragments, and then ground them into a powder. She made dough of this with water, and the two war-gods, with amazing skill, moulded the dough into two deer and two antelope which hardened as quickly as they finished their work.

They gave the figures to Swift-Runner and told him to place them on a rock shelf facing the entrance to Tarantula's den. "Old Tarantula is very fond of hunting. Nothing is so pleasing to him as to kill wild game. He may be tempted forth from his hiding place. When you have done this, go home and tell the chiefs that they should be ready for him in the morning."

That evening after Swift-Runner returned to his village and told how he had placed the figures of deer and antelope on the rock shelf in front of Tarantula's den, the chiefs summoned the warriors and told them to make ready for the warpath before sunrise. All night long they prepared their arrows and tested the strength of their bows, and near dawn they marched out to Thunder Mountain. Swift-Runner went ahead of them, and when he approached the rock shelf, he was surprised to see that the two antelope and the two deer had come to life. They were walking about, cropping the tender leaves and grass.

"I call upon you to help me overcome the wicked Tarantula," he prayed to the animals. "Go down close to his den, I beg you, that he may be tempted forth at the sight of you."

The deer and antelope obediently started down the slope toward Tarantula's den. As they approached the entrance, Tarantula sighted them. "Ho! What do I see?" he said to himself "There go some deer and antelope. Now for a hunt. I might as well get them as anyone else."

He took up his bow, slipped the noose over the head of it, twanged the string, and started out. But just as he stepped forth from his den, he said to himself: "Good heavens, this will never do! The Zunis will be after me if I go out there." He looked up and down the valley. "Nonsense! There's no one about." He leaped out of his hole and hurried toward the deer, which were still approaching. When the first one came near he drew back an arrow and let fly. The deer dropped at once. "Aha!" he cried. "Who says I am not a good hunter?" He whipped out another arrow and shot the second deer. With loud exclamations of delight, he then felled the two antelope.

"What fine game I have bagged today," he said. "Now I must take the meat into my den." He untied a strap which he had brought along and with it he lashed together the legs of the first deer he had shot. He stooped, raised the deer to his back, and was about to rise with the burden and start for his den, when cachunk! he fell down almost crushed under a mass of white rock. "Mercy!" he cried. "What's this?" He looked around but could see no trace of the deer, nothing but a shapeless mass of white rock.

"Well, I'll try this other one," he said, but he had no sooner lifted the other deer to his back when it knocked him down and turned into another mass of white rock. "What can be the matter?" he cried.

Then he tried one of the antelope and the same thing happened again. "Well, there is one left anyway," he said. He tied the feet of the last animal and was about to lift it when he heard a great shouting of many voices.

He turned quickly and saw all the Zunis of the village gathering around his den. He ran for the entrance as fast as his crooked legs would move, but the people blocked his way. They closed in upon him, they clutched at his stolen garments, they pulled earrings from his ears, until he raised his hands and cried: "Mercy! Mercy! You hurt! You hurt! Don't treat me so! I'll be good hereafter. I'll take this costume off and give it back to you without making the slightest trouble if you will only let me alone." But the people closed in angrily. They pulled him about and stripped off Swift Runner's costume until Tarantula was left unclothed and so bruised that he could hardly move.

Then the chiefs gathered around, and one of them said: "It will not be well if we let this trickster go as he is. He is too big and powerful, too crafty. To rid the world of Tarantula forever, he must be roasted!"

And so the people piled dry firewood into a great heap, drilled fire from a stick, and set the wood to blazing. They threw the struggling trickster into the flames, and he squeaked and sizzled and hissed and swelled to enormous size. But Tarantula had one more trick left in his bag. When he burst with a tremendous noise, he threw a million fragments of himself all over the world-to Mexico and South America and as far away as Taranto in Italy. Each fragment took the shape of Old Tarantula, but of course they were very much smaller, somewhat as tarantulas are today. Some say that Taranto took its name from the tarantulas, some say the tarantulas took their name from Taranto, but everybody knows that the wild dance known as the tarantella was invented by Tarantula, the trickster of Thunder Mountain, in the land of the Zunis.

Indigenous Peoples' Literature Return to Indigenous Peoples' Literature
Compiled by: Glenn Welker

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