Once upon a time, a long time ago, the hills and valleys of southeast Ohio were populated by a long-forgotten tribe of Native Americans. They were a mighty people, with fierce pride and unwavering courage. They were peaceful and welcoming, but they loved their hills and valleys and would do anything to protect them. The chief of this tribe was called Eagle Feather. He was the strongest and bravest of all the warriors. He loved his family and his people, he worked harder than anyone else, and he was first in line in battle, whenever a rare battle came. His headdress was magnificent: it was a crown of finest eagle feathers, gathered for years from the hills and valleys of their precious piece of the earth.
Eagle Feather had a young son named Little Feather. Little Feather was the oldest of his children, the next in line to be chief. Little Feather tried hard to be like his father: he would follow the warriors into the forests on their hunts, he would trudge through the thicket behind the other men as they patrolled the hills. Little Feather wanted nothing more than to be a great warrior.
But Little Feather was still only a boy. He loved to play in the stream with his friends after he did his chores. The stream was deep within the forest, far from the village. During the daytime, the place was magical and beautiful. But Little Feather and his friends were always sure to be back in the village by nightfall.
You see, even though he longed to be brave like his father, Little Feather was very afraid of one thing: the woods at night. He had heard stories of the deep, dark woods after the sun hid away, tales of monsters and treacherous beasts that grabbed at the unlucky wanderer. No one wanted to be caught amongst the trees once darkness fell.
One day, Eagle Feather announced to the village that the time had come for the men of the tribe to go beyond the hills to hunt. Game was beginning to be scarce, and though the air was still warm and the days were still long, winter would soon be upon them. As the warriors readied to set out, Eagle Feather pulled Little Feather aside.
“My son,” he said. “When I am gone, it is up to you to take care of your mother and little brothers and sisters. You must be the man of the family. You must watch over them like I watch over them. Can you do this?”
“Of course,” Little Feather answered eagerly. His eyes glittered; he was going to protect them just like his father always did.
“Little Feather,” his father said sternly, grasping his son’s little shoulder. “Do you understand what this means? When I go away, you’re responsible for getting everything they need. You must help your mother watch the little ones. You must build the fires and help cook the meals. And most important, you must refill the water jug from the stream every day.”
“I can do that, Father,” Little Feather assured him. He tried to steady his gaze, square his shoulders like he’d seen the older boys do. “I will watch over them, and help with the cooking, and fetch the water. I’ll do all of that. I won’t fail you.”
Eagle Feather held his son’s gaze for one moment longer. Then he nodded kindly and turned to go off with the other warriors. Little Feather watched them as the departed. Then he went and filled up the water jug.
For many days, Little Feather did exactly as his father had instructed him. He cooked meals and wrangled his brothers and sisters. He helped his mother gather food and make warm winter clothing. He filled the water jug every evening before sundown.
“Little Feather,” his mother said to him one day. “You’ve been working so hard, and I am so proud of you. But you’re still a boy, and you should go to the stream today with your friends. I can manage here. Just do this one thing: take the extra water jug and fill it for tomorrow before you come home this evening. You must not forget! It is very important.”
Little Feather was thrilled. He felt as if he hadn’t gone out to play in so long; he’d been trying so hard to be the man of the family. He gave his mother a quick kiss on the cheek, grabbed the water jug, and ran off after his friends, towards the woods and the stream. It was a bright, beautiful, sweltering day. He couldn’t wait to jump into the water.
They played for hours, but it only seemed like minutes. Before long, the shadows began to lengthen. The friends knew they must rush home soon, so they wouldn’t be caught in the woods after dark. When they arrived back in the village, Little Feather’s mother met him outside.
“Where is the water?” she asked Little Feather. His heart dropped. He had left the unfilled jug at the stream, and night had descended quickly. “We don’t have water for tonight or tomorrow, Little Feather,” his mother continued. “You must go back and get some. You promised your father that you would take care of your family. It is up to you, Little Feather.”
“But it is dark! And I can’t go through the woods at night!” Little Feather exclaimed, his voice small and thin with terror.
“You must,” his mother replied. “You must do what your father told you to do.”
So, with trembling knees and racing heart, Little Feather turned around and walked resolutely back towards the woods. He knew he had no choice. He had to face the monsters that lurked within. He had to get the water. He came to the edge of the forest and peered down the long, shadowy path. It was so black he could barely see his feet on the ground before him. The boy closed his eyes and willed himself to be brave like the warriors. He took one step. Another. Another. When he opened his eyes again, he saw nothing but darkness. His heart leaped in his throat. He crept slowly, arms out to his sides.
All of a sudden, something swung down hard, hitting him in the face with blinding force. Little Feather dropped to his knees – it must be one of the monsters! He flailed his own arms wildly, though he was terrified the monster would rip one of them off. This was it. He was going to die, or at least be torn apart by the horrible creature. He stepped forward a few more paces. Nothing. He froze, listening for the monster’s heavy, evil breath. A few paces more.
Before he knew it, Little Feather had toppled over onto the ground! He skittered hurriedly away from the spindly arm that had tripped him, shouting all the while. He was convinced, at this point, that the monsters knew he was there and being quiet would do him little good in the long run. They were surely going to eat him anyway. Not only were the monsters reaching out for him from up high, now they had gone for his ankles too! He jumped up and another monster slashed his arm with its wicked finger. Little Feather spun around, resolved to at least try to fight off the beast. But he lost his balance and fell backward, so close to an open mouth full of a thousand tiny, pointy teeth! He screamed madly, abandoning all hope, scrambling to his feet once more and tearing away down the path.
He ran faster than he had ever run before. He flew faster than the eagle, faster than any bird or animal that had ever lived. He ran all the way through the wood, down the once-familiar path. At each twist and turn, another monster reached out to capture him, but he kept running. He tripped when a hand grabbed for his ankle; rolling and twisting out of its grasp, Little Feather got to his feet again and continued his sprint. Finally, he made it to the stream. He dove into the water in his haste and his fear, as though the soft current could protect him from the death he was sure was trailing after him.
Little Feather hid in the water for some time, only his nose poking above the surface. Nothing came. He heard no screeches or growls, save for the quiet hoot of the owl. Slowly, he edged out of the stream, toward the water jug he had foolishly left sitting on the shore so many hours before. Shakily, he filled it up, then turned to face the woods once more. This time, he would not begin slowly. This time, he would sprint the entire way. He would stop for nothing. He would think of nothing but making it out alive, no matter what the monsters did to him.
He was petrified.
But he ran. Oh, he ran! Faster than the deer, swifter than the fox, Little Feather was a flash of lighting in the forest! The monsters reached out to him again, smacking him in the face and tearing at his legs – he did not trip this time, he was running too fast. The fearsome teeth snapped at his sides and the claws lashed out at his arms, but he did not stop. The water sloshed onto the ground as he ran, but he barely even thought about that. All he wanted was to get home.
Finally, the trees became thinner, the moonlight shone a little brighter. He saw the fires of the village; he saw his mother waiting for him by the edge of the trees. He screeched to a halt in front of her, and, setting the water jug at her feet, Little Feather collapsed to the ground. Only now did he realize how much he hurt, how cold he was, how torn up he felt. Blood trickled down her face and arms and legs. Bruises dappled his sides and his chest. Within his moccasins, even his feet were raw. He looked up to his mother.
“Little Feather,” she said simply, quietly. She did not look angry, but she did not look satisfied either. Little Feather waited for her to pick him up, to wrap his wounds and call him her hero. But she did not do any of that. She only stood and looked at him, a small crease between her brows.
Little Feather was angry now. He had just risked his life in the woods! Did his mother not care? Did she not realize that her oldest son has almost been eaten?
“Monsters!” shouted Little Feather. “They – in the woods! They attacked me! Ripping and clawing! And – look, they bit at my sides! I almost died! The monsters almost got me!”
“Little Feather, quiet,” his mother said, just as even as before. “You did not get any water.” Little Feather’s wild eyes found the water jug he had dropped at her feet. It was empty. All the water he had gotten had spilled out in his haste. “We need water. You must go back and get water.”
“No!” yelled Little Feather. “I can’t! Not tonight!”
“I need you to. This time, when you go back, do not run.” His mother pulled him to his feet. “When you go into the woods, shake the monster’s hand.”
“Shake – the – what?” Little Feather could not believe his ears (had the monsters perhaps ripped those off after all? he wondered). “Shake it’s hand? How can I do that!? It will eat me!”
“Listen to what I say,” his mother commanded softly. “Reach out, and shake the monster’s hand. Do not run. Don’t be afraid this time.”
This was it. This was the end, Little Feather was positive. What did that mean, shake the hand of the monster? His parents had never led him wrong before… but this could not end well. Still, Little Feather was obedient. He turned and walked to the edge of the dense forest. He took a step in. Another step. Another. He felt his heart pound against his chest, but he made himself extend his arm above him, searching for the arm of the monster that had attacked him first. He felt something – the arm was bumpy and rough and long. He squeezed his eyes shut and grasped the arm. Shook it. Prepared for the pain he was sure to come.
Little Feather opened his eyes. His hand was still wrapped around the arm, but nothing else was happening. Curious as to why his impending death had not commenced, Little Feather ran his hand up the arm. It felt strangely like –
“A tree branch,” Little Feather whispered. All it was was a tree branch. It was not a monster at all. In his fear, he had merely forgotten to duck for this branch that stuck out onto the path. He edged forward, patting the ground with his foot, searching for the monster arm that had tripped him. Then he felt it, thin and knobby. He crouched down, reached out, and grasped it as well, still not convinced that something wasn’t going to attempt to eat him. But he found this, too, felt familiar, not sinister at all. He touched the thing with both hands…. it was not an arm either. It was only a root, one that he had hopped many times in the daylight, but failed to remember this night.
Little Feather went down the rest of the trail like this. He reached out to his sides and took the hand of the monster. But he found, each time, that all he was touching were more branches, more roots. The teeth were thorns. The claws were simply pointy twigs, made to feel sharper because of his previous speed.
When he reached the stream for the second time that night, Little Feather had no new cuts or bruises. But inside, he was horribly ashamed. What he had childishly believed were monsters were only natural things, things the dark had made evil but were really unchanged. He walked back to the village after filling the water jug, head hanging with shame. He remembered, like he always had remembered in the daytime, to dodge every obstacle.
When he got back to the village, Little Feather left the jug with his mother and silently climbed into bed. The next day, the warriors returned. He was too embarrassed to look at his father, so Little Feather tried to hide. But Eagle Feather found him anyway.
“Little Feather,” Eagle Feather said, his voice low and unreadable. “Come with me. The whole village is gathered.”
Little Feather followed his father to the center of the village. He knew he was about to be shamed in public – perhaps yelled at or banished, even, for his foolishness and cowardice. Now he would never be a great warrior. He wouldn’t be anything. Eagle Feather stood with Little Feather in front of the village. Little Feather dropped his head and closed his eyes. Eagle Feather plucked the small feather from the band on his son’s head. Little Feather was horrified – this was the worst punishment. All he had was that one little feather to define him in the tribe. Now, he had nothing. If he was going to be sent away, though, Little Feather wanted to go out with a small shred of dignity. He lifted his head, squared his shoulders like he’d seen the older boys do, and looked his father in the eye.
Eagle Feather smiled. He reached up to his own headdress and plucked out a single, majestic eagle feather and placed it into Little Feather’s headband.
“My son,” Eagle Feather proclaimed. “Last night, you were called upon to confront your greatest fear. You went into the woods and met with the monsters within. And though you were afraid, you honored me by completing your task. And instead of running, you shook the hands of the monsters.”
“But they weren’t monsters at all,” said Little Feather sadly. “They were only trees.”
“Our monsters are real to us, even when they are not real monsters. Only when we meet them with a sure heart and a brave face do we see them for what they really are.” Eagle Feather was beaming at his son. “You are now ready to become a great warrior. You are no longer Little Feather. Now, you too will be known as Eagle Feather.”
And from that day on, Eagle Feather joined his father and the other warriors, this time as part of their ranks. He grew up to become a mighty warrior and a brave, good chief. To this day, when we go into the woods, we know not to be afraid like Little Feather once was, and instead to face our fears with courage. It is only then that we can see in the dark, and become who we were meant to be.
-A Camp Aldersgate campfire story, passed down through the years, and now written for those to come.