A Story From: United States
Read Time: 6 to 10 mins.
For Ages: 5 to 7yrs.
ONE AUTUMN, a Passamaquoddy girl and her three older brothers went to the forest to hunt for a game over the winter. They found a good place to make camp and built a wigwam. Since she was the youngest, each morning after her three older brothers went hunting, the girl took care of the camp, gathered fresh firewood, repaired holes in their wigwam, and prepared dinner. Before nightfall the brothers would return carrying the game they captured, and over dinner they would all share stories of the day’s adventures.
One night at dinner the brothers were silent. “Why are you all so quiet?” said their sister. “Today I saw strange footprints to the north,” said her eldest brother, “like those of a man, but much larger.” “So did I,” said the brother who ventured south. The third brother, who hunted toward in the west, nodded in agreement. No one needed to say anything else because they were all thinking the same thing: a Chenoo must be nearby, the cruel, brutal giant cannibal from the far icy north.
After a tense minute the eldest brother smiled and said, “Oh, it must have been tracks of a bear.” And they all laughed with relief and joked how they had been fooled by mere bear tracks. But the girl did not laugh. She, too, had seen tracks when she gathered berries to the east, and knew they were not the tracks of a bear. They were from a Chenoo.
Before sunrise the next morning, the brothers left to hunt. But the girl did not tend to her usual tasks. She cleared the wigwam and piled each bearskin that she and her brothers slept upon in a single pile in the center. Beside the bearskin pile she laid baskets filled with berries and fruit. She gathered fresh firewood, then sat by the fire and waited.
While the sun was still low in the sky a very large shadow was cast over her fire. Out of the woods stepped the terrible Chenoo. Huge and horrible-looking, he looked fearsomely at her. The sister smiled pleasantly at him and said, “Grandfather, my heart is glad that at last you have come to see us. Where have you been for so long? I prepared a fire for your lunch. Or perhaps you would like to lay down inside first and rest. Your bed is made and there are baskets of fruit by it. You look tired from your travels.”
The Chenoo was amazed beyond measure at such a greeting where he expected yells and prayers, and in mute wonder let himself be led into the wigwam.
The girl said she was sorry to see him so woe-begone, she pitied his sad state, she brought a suit she had stitched to fit him, she told him to dress himself and be cleaned. He did as she bade. He sat inside the wigwam on the bearskin bed. He did not lie down and looked surly and sad, but kept quiet.
She arose and went out. She kept gathering wood for the fire.
The Chenoo rose and followed her. She was in great fear. “Now,” she thought, “my death is near; he will kill and devour me.” The Chenoo said, “Give me the axe.”
She gave it and he began to cut down the trees. She had never saw such chopping! The great pines fell right and left, like summer saplings; the boughs were hewed and split as if by a tempest. Soon the pile of wood was twice as high as the top of their wigwam. She cried out, “Grandfather, there is enough! You must be tired from all your cutting, please rest.” So the Chenoo laid down the axe, walked into the wigwam, sat down on the pile of bearskin rugs, still in grim silence. The girl continued to gather wood and remained silent outside the lodge until he slept.
Before darkness fell her three brothers returned from their day’s hunt. She walked quickly to them and with a fierce look said, “Brothers, you will be pleased to know our Grandfather is in the tent.” Surprised, they started to object but she firmly held her hand outstretched and said, “I’m sure Grandfather will be glad to hear all about your adventures later, but first we must be silent and give him time to rest.”
At that moment the huge, hairy head of the Chenoo looked out of the wigwam. Before her brothers could cry out with alarm, the girl said with a smile, “Grandfather, you have awakened! I am glad, because now your grandsons have come back and we can all have dinner.” Turning to her brothers, she said with as light a voice as she could muster, “And how was it with the hunt today?” “Not so good,” gulped one of the brothers, staring fixedly at the Chenoo, “all I have is this hare.” “And I a goose,” mumbled her second brother, also staring at the Chenoo. “I got a deer,” offered her third brother.
The Chenoo spoke. “Granddaughter,” he said, “have your brothers brought no other game?”
“Whatever your grandsons have hunted today I will cook for your dinner, Grandfather,” said the girl, “in honor of your visit.”
The Chenoo said nothing but disappeared into the woods. When he returned he carried three full-grown moose, one under each arm and a third wrapped around his shoulders. That night they enjoyed a feast like no other since they had set up camp.
When it was time to sleep, the Chenoo filled the wigwam so the girl and her three brothers had to lay down on the dirt outside. But it was more than the roots and rocks underneath that disturbed their sleep; each one lay awake all night in terror.
In the days that followed they began to realize the Chenoo was useful to have around, as he could hunt better than twenty grown men. After a few days, he built his own wigwam nearby, and the brothers and their sister moved back into their own. He ate most of what he captured, but there was plenty of bear meat and venison leftover for the rest of them, and the pile of skins they had been saving for trading grew and grew so high that before long they began to worry it would take many trips to transport it all in their canoe. They stopped worrying that he would eat them, though the chances of dying by accident were quite high since he swung trees around like kindling, didn’t watch where anything would smash, and the three brothers and their sister were far too polite and respectful to correct him about anything.
Eventually the winter days warmed into spring. One day the girl said, “Grandfather, soon it will be time for us to return to our village.”
“I would like to come with you,” said the Chenoo. “But your people would scream if they saw me. I need your help.”
“Of course, Grandfather, anything at all,” said the girl.
“Build me a sweat lodge and bring hot coals to it.”
The girl was surprised he would ask for this since she knew the Chenoo was from the icy north and always sat far back from the camp fire. Still, they built the sweat lodge and when it was finished and had brought in plenty of hot coals, the Chenoo went inside. The sweat lodge pulsed with an orange hue from the heat of the burning coals, but the Chenoo called out, “Bring more hot coals.” This they did, several times. The girl heard the Chenoo moan and cough, then she heard no more sounds. “Grandfather, are you all right?” she said.
“Yes,” said the Chenoo in a voice they barely recognized. “Bring more coals.”
So they brought more hot coals to the sweat lodge and stood a great distance away, as it was searing with heat. After many long minutes the door creaked open. Out stepped what must have been the Chenoo, yet seemed much more like a normal, very old human man, hunched over and wrinkled, with a white beard that reached to his knees. His wounds had healed; his teeth no longer grinned wildly all the time. The expression on his face seemed gentle. He leaned over and coughed, and out came a piece of ice in the shape of a man.
The girl knew what this must be. It was well known that the heart of the Chenoo was made of ice and was shaped like a man. This icy heart is what made him so fierce.
“Throw it in the fire, Granddaughter,” said he. And she picked it up and threw it into the campfire but it was so fiercely cold that it put out all the flames. So she restarted the fire and her brothers chopped the icy heart into fragments with a hatchet until, bit by bit, they finally melted it.
The man who used to be the Chenoo then smiled. “Let’s go,” he said.
So they hauled their piles of bear and deerskins, and baskets brimming with dried meat, back to their village, where they traded the skins for whatever they wanted and shared the dried meat with everyone. And they all lived happily together for many years.
And that is the story of how the kindness of the girl melted the heart of the savage Chenoo.
A Native American/First Nation folktale retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2006. All rights reserved.
The Passamaquoddy. The Passamaquoddy tribe was part of a cluster of Abenaki tribes, connected by language, whose territory covered southeastern Canada and northern New England. Abenaki peoples included the Passamaquoddy, Micmac, Malecite, and Penobscot tribes. Like many other Native American/First Nation tribes, the Abenaki allied themselves with the French against the British in the "French and Indian War" of the early 1700s. The British won the war and virtually destroyed the Abenaki in 1724 and 1725. Today, descendants of the Abenaki live in northern New England and in the province of Quebec in Canada.
The Chenoo. The monstrous, ferocious cannibal giant with an icy heart is the central figure of the evil supernatural beings of the north. These beasts, continually described by Passamaquoddy and Micmac story-tellers, were known to tear up forests and rend rocks, and change the whole face of Nature in their hideous battles or horrible revels. The strength of the Chenoo was believed to depend on the quantity or size of the piece of ice which makes the heart, a piece of ice shaped like a little human figure, with hands, feet, head, and every member perfect.
Typically in Chenoo stories, this horrible being had been at first human, perhaps an unusually good girl or youth. From having the heart once chilled, she or he goes on in cruelty. This descent from goodness into utter wickedness is believed to track a dark superstition, older than we can now fathom. Though in the Chenoo stories a reverse turn is possible - in the Micmac stories a Chenoo can cough up its own icy heart, and in the Passamaquoddy versions redemption can be inspired by the kind intervention of a female.