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A short story by Abbie Farwell Brown

The Robin Who Was An Indian

Title:     The Robin Who Was An Indian
Author: Abbie Farwell Brown [More Titles by Brown]

The name of Robin makes us think at once of the jolliest and most sociable of all our little brother birds. In every land the name is a favorite, and wherever he goes he brings happiness and kind feeling.

The American Robin is not the same bird as his English cousin, though both have red breasts.

It was in a different manner that our little American friend came to have the ruddy waistcoat which we know so well.

There was a time, so the Indians say, a very early time, long, long before Columbus discovered America,--even before histories began to be written,--when there were no Robins.

In those days in the land of the Ojibways, which is far in the north of the cold country, there lived an old Indian chief who had one son, named Iadilla. Now among the Ojibways, when a boy was almost big enough to become a warrior, before he could go out with the other braves to the hunt or to war, there was a great trial which he must undergo. Other lands and peoples have known similar customs. You remember how, in early Christian times, long, long ago, Galahad and other boys had to fast and watch by their armor during the long night hours before they could become knights, to wear spurs and shield and sword? In just the same way a brown Ojibway lad had to make a long fast in order to win the love of his Guardian Spirit, who would after that watch over him to make him brave and strong. It was a very important event in a boy's life, like graduation from school or college nowadays. For this meant the graduation from boyhood into manhood, the winning of a warrior's diploma.

The father of Iadilla was a brave warrior, a famous chief. But he wished his son to become even better, wiser, greater than he had been. He resolved that the boy should fast longer and harder than ever a lad had fasted before. For he believed that this was the way to make him the noblest of his race. Iadilla was a fine handsome lad, but he was the youngest one who had ever made the trial, and there were many bigger boys than he who were not yet warriors. The other chiefs said that he was not yet old and strong enough.

But Iadilla's father declared that it was time, and bade his son gather courage and pride for the ordeal. "For," he said, "it will be no easy matter, my son, to become the greatest chief of the Ojibways."

"My father," replied Iadilla, humbly, "I will do as you wish. I will do what I can. But my strength is not the strength of the bigger boys; and I think it is yet early to talk of my becoming greatest of the Ojibways. Yet make trial of me, if you wish."

The father of Iadilla had made a little tent of skins where the boy was to live during his fasting time; where he was to lie without food or drink for twelve long days, waiting for a message from the Guardian Spirit whose love was to be the reward of such a trial.

When the time came, the old man led Iadilla to the lodge and bade him lie down on the bed of skins which had been prepared for him. And Iadilla did as he was bid, for he was a brave and obedient lad.

The days crept by, the long, long days of waiting, while Iadilla lay in the lodge bearing hunger and thirst such as no Ojibway lad had ever before known. All day and all night he lay still and spoke never a word. But a dreadful fear was in his heart lest he should not be able to endure the fast for the twelve days which his father had set.

Every morning his father came to the lodge to praise and to encourage him, and to rejoice in one more day checked from the long time of fasting. So eight days passed, and the old man was proud and happy. Already his dear son had done more than any Ojibway lad, and the whole tribe was praising Iadilla, saying what a great chief he would be in the days to come.

But on the ninth morning, when the father peeped into the lodge to see how bravely his son was faring, the boy turned his head toward the door and spoke for the first time in all those long days. He was very thin and pale, and his voice sounded weak.

"My father," he said, "I have slept, and my dreams were sad. I have slept, and my dreams were of failure and weakness. The time does not please my Guardian Spirit. It is not now that I can become a warrior. I am not yet strong and old enough. O my father, I cannot bear the fast longer! I am so hungry, so thirsty, so faint! Let me break my fast, and try again in another year."

But the father sternly refused, for he was ambitious. "Nay, lad," he cried, frowningly. "Would you fail me now? Think of the glory, think of being the greatest of Ojibways. It is but a few short days now. Courage, Iadilla, be a man in strength and patience."

Iadilla said no more. He wrapped himself closer in his blanket and drew his belt tighter about his slender waist, trying to stifle the hunger gnawing there. So he lay silently until the eleventh day. That morning his father came to the lodge, beaming proudly.

"Bravo, my Iadilla!" he cried. "Only one day more, and you will be released from your fast." But Iadilla clasped his hands beseechingly.

"My father," gasped the poor boy. "I cannot bear it another day. I am not fit to be a great chief. I have failed. Give me food, or I die!"

But again the father refused. "It is but a day now," he said, "but a few short hours. Bear a little longer, Iadilla. To-morrow I myself will bring you the finest breakfast that ever a lad ate. Courage, boy, for the few hours that remain."

Iadilla was too weak to answer. He lay motionless, with only a gentle heaving of his breast to show that he still lived. His father left him for the last time, and went to prepare the morrow's goodly breakfast, while the tribe planned a fine festival in honor of the young hero.

Early on the morrow came Iadilla's father to the tent, proudly bearing the breakfast for his brave boy, and smiling to think how gladly he would be received. But he stopped outside the tent door surprised to hear some one talking within. Stooping to a little hole in the skin of the tent he peeped in to find who the speaker might be. Imagine his surprise to find Iadilla standing upright in the middle of the tent painting his breast a brilliant red, as Indians do in war time. And as he daubed on the colors he talked to himself. He spoke softly, yet not with the weak voice of a starving lad; and his face was very beautiful to see, despite its pale thinness.

"My father has ended my Indian life," he said. "My father, too ambitious, has put upon me more than my strength could bear. He would not listen to my prayer of weakness. But I knew, I knew! And my kind Guardian Spirit knew also that it was more than I could bear. He has shown pity, seeing that I was obedient to my father and did my best to please him. Now I am to be no longer an Indian boy. I must take the shape which the Spirit has given me, and go away."

At these strange words the father broke into the tent, exclaiming in terror,--

"My son, my dear son! Do not leave me!"

But, even as he spoke, Iadilla changed into a beautiful Robin Redbreast with soft feathers and strong, firm wings. And, fluttering up to the ridgepole of the tent, he looked down with pity and tenderness upon the heart-broken chief.

"Do not grieve, father," he sang. "I shall be so much happier as a bird, free from human pain and sorrow. I will cheer you with my merry songs. Oh, I have been hungry; but now I shall get my food so easily, so pleasantly on mountains and in the fields. Oh, once I was thirsty; but now the dew is mine and the little springs. Once I traced my way painfully by forest paths through bog and brake and tangled brier. But now my pathways are in the bright, clear air, where never thorn can tear nor beast can follow. Farewell, dear father! I am so happy!"

He stretched his brown wings as easily as if he had worn them all his life, and, singing a sweet song, fluttered away to the neighboring woods, where he built his nest, and lived happily ever after.

And since that day the glad little Robins have lived as that first one promised, close by the homes of men, and have done all they could to cheer us and make us happy. For they remember how, once upon a time, their ancestor was a human boy.

[The end]
Abbie Farwell Brown's short story: Robin Who Was An Indian