The Hero Twins and the Swallower of Clouds


“No good thing can be done by any one man alone.

It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell.”

Black Elk Speaks


It’s an old story that’s still good. It’s about a giant. He feeds on clouds. When the great tall thunderheads and the round, dark low clouds pour down from the high snowy mountain passes in the deep north and billow by out of the long west, migrating across the desert sky to bring water to the Peoples of the Pueblos and crossing the vast tablelands and high plains of the southwest, the giant seizes the clouds from the sky in his fierce fist and wrings the water from them. And so the earth and all its holy life are denied the common blessing and the sacred right and the great gift of rain. Many mighty Zuñi warriors will go up to the Dowa Yalanne mesa in the fierce light of the setting sun. They’ll try to kill the Swallower of Clouds, but none of them’ll come back.

None until the twin warrior brothers, Áhaiyúta and Mátsailéma, stood up and stepped forward to heed their people’s call and the sacred summons of the Priesthood of the Bow. But even the Hero Twins, great as they were and as they will be, would never set their hot and weary, dusty heroic feet in their beautiful adobe pueblo with its cool sunlit and shadowed circular kiva again.

It should also be spoken, here in the beginning, that all of this was way back long, long ago between the Moon of the Great Sand Storm and the Moon of No Name in the spring of the earth when the world was very young and very green, radiant, fresh and new and all language under the sun was one.

On the morning of the hundred-and-first day of no rain, the Hero Twins set out from their pueblo to topple the Great Swallower of Clouds. Each brother wore a leather helmet and a radiant cotton kilt and a bright embroidered war-shirt with a white buckskin cape and ankle-high moccasins made of deerskin and yucca. Áhaiyúta carried his silver spruce bow and a quiver of flint-headed arrows. Mátsailéma bore a warclub carved out of piñon pine and his black-flint-edged knife sheathed in a buffalo-hide belt he wore slung over his chest. Each brother, also, carried a feathered prayer stick to plant in the earthen crown of Dowa Yalanne after they’d toppled the giant.

The sun was up and the early wind was in the trees, as the Warrior Twins set their feet west to the good red road. But it had not rained for the hundredth night, now, so there were no leaves on the trees and the desiccated land was wind-seared and sun-scorched, cracked and dusty, ochre and dry, baked-to-the-bone like the desert lands west of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. In their hearts and hands, the brothers bore the hopes of their people and of the four-leggeds of the plains and the wings of the air.

Along their journey to the west, the Warrior Twins met Grandmother Spider. She was perched on the rachilla of a shining stalk of withered maize, weaving a silken web. They asked her if she was well, and she asked them where they were going.

“We’re going to topple the giant,” the brothers said. “The giant who wrings and swallows the clouds and so steals from the earth and all its holy life the sacred common rain. The shared sacred rain from which the holy green corn grows and the peoples of the pueblos live. No one man should be allowed to hoard and devour all the rain of earth. The rain’s a gift given to all, and all should be allowed to share in that great gift.”

Grandmother Spider nodded silently. She said she knew of the giant. Knew his old trick. “He lives high up on the holy steep-walled Dowa Yalanne mesa. It is very high and very hot up there on the mesa. No green corn grows there anymore, and for eons now no gods have wrought no lightning and fashioned no thunderclaps up on that high holy tableland, though in another age they did. Way back before the Great Flood changed the world, and the Ashiwi people received the sacred conch shell and the precious seed corn.”

“That’s us!” the Warrior Brothers Áhaiyúta and Mátsailéma said in delight upon hearing Grandmother Spider’s shining story. “That’s our story, Grandmother Spider! We’re the Ashiwi People of the Pueblo of Zuñi.”

“There’s no pine, spruce, aspen, or silver spruce up there on Dowa Yalanne in that fierce ether to shade you bald two-leggeds from the sublime light of the sacred sun.” Grandmother Spider went on with her warning. “The giant will lift his foot to create a shadow and tell you to step into it. He will say it is very cool there in the cool sweet shade beneath his foot. Once you are there in the shadow of his foot, where it is very sweet and cool, he’ll bring his heel down and crush you.”

Their hearts sank. The Hero Twins looked at the clear cloudless sky in anguish. Not a sole cirrus or cumulus in it. No water bird, peyote bird, or thunderbird, either. With their parched lips, the brothers shaped a prayer. “Grandmother Spider, tell us, what should we do?”

“I will be there,” Grandmother Spider said. “When the old trickster lifts his foot, I’ll weave a silken shining web beneath his heel so that he cannot bring it down and crush you. When his foot is raised and he’s standing on one leg and his balance is poor, his giant eye blinded by the radiant gleam of the silken web and the shining light of the sacred sun, work together and roll a great rock at him and topple him from the holy mesa top.”

“If we topple the old giant from the steep-walled holy mesa, the sacred rains, male and female both, will return?” the Twins asked with hope and horror in their muddled human hearts and awe and wonder in their shining dark eyes.

Grandmother Spider nodded silently. “Topple and kill him.”

The Hero Twins thanked Grandmother Spider and set out again on their way west toward the high country and the holy Dowa Yalanne and the elemental land beyond Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. Singing as they crossed the sunlit desolation. The land that in the ancient days, back in time immemorial, before story and song and corn came to mankind, they called the Land West of Long Mountain. Wild lyric voices lilting, resonating through the sun-singed wilderness. The Warrior Twins with exhilaration and energy westward walked. Nothing moving in the devastated desert land, and no singing save their own parched voices.

Past the Meadow-Where-the-Goldenblack-Bees-Swarm-in-Springtime-and-the-Fine-Powdery-Yellow-Pollen-on-the-Wondrous-White-Wind-Flies-and-the-Wildflowers-Bloom-with-Summertime, now still and silent. No goldenblack bees whirring and whorling in the arid pollenless air, and not a sole sunflower blossoming. Their courage resummoned and their heroic hearts full of the primeval song of creation, the primordial earthsong of praise and determined again on toppling the giant who swallows the clouds and so desecrates the land, robbing the earth and all its myriad and wondrous and diverse rich green life of the shared and sacred, male and female, common life-giving rain. The vital and most-precious gift of water.

Remember, old friends, all of this was back long, long ago, the storytellers say, in the Spring When the Hero Twins Went to the Long West to Kill the Great Swallower of Clouds and So Save the Earth and All Life Under the Sun.  

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