THERE WAS ONCE KWE
There was once a fisherman named Kwe who would go out on the sea and cast his nets, hauling in fish and occasionally treasures, for his family and community.
He was a canoe builder and known for his sturdy design and excellent craftmanship. This renown was exponentially exaggerated when one day, a boy tricked his sweetheart into climbing into one of Kwe’s canoes. The boy then paddled his love far out to sea, supposing that he’d show off. But the current was strong on account of an ensuing storm, and they were drawn farther and farther out to where the winds picked up and the storm closed over them.
In this turmoil the boy lost the oars. The two youths survived the storm, but were adrift at sea for many desperate days. Then, in an unexpected turn of events, the canoe washed back up onto the shores of their village. Nobody could explain this miraculous recovery, so they began to say that Kwe’s canoe was so well designed, it could guide him home without any oars.
With this reputation, Kwe had a lot of people willing to trade with him. But since he refused to trade any more canoes (on account of this dangerous rumour that might lead to reckless behaviour), he traded in fish, and shells he pulled from the sea. In exchange, he acquired an assortment of goods such as furs, quilts, gadgets, nets, feathers, and his most valuable object (aside from the magic canoe): a bowed instrument with three variously tuned strings.
FINDING SOMETHING STRANGE
One crisp summer morning Kwe gathered up his instrument and net, and set out to sea for a few days of fishing and song. He paddled as far as he could for ten hours, which was his habit since his canoe (though perhaps not magical) was extremely reliable and navigable over long distances. And today he went even farther than he had ever gone with the intention of doing a bit of exploration.
He watched the surface of the water carefully for signs of disturbance, and followed the paths of fish who were caught in an undercurrent he desired to trace. He was admiring the shape of the sea when he noticed in the distance a few birds in the sky, moving up and down from the horizon in odd formation.
“Interesting” he mused, and paddled out to see what the commotion was about. As he approached the horizon, there was revealed the mast of a ship, and then the ship itself, which was half submerged, and rocking ominously. Hovering just above it was a cloud; a very interesting cloud. Kwe, in awe of the vessel, wondered (as a man of design), how far it had come, what its purpose and capabilities were, and how many people were needed to move it across the water. And finally, what was causing it to sink (he intended to help if he could).
As he paddled closer, he observed finer points of the ship. It had great ochre sails which were rolled up, and rows and rows of massive oars resting in their little windows along the sides of the ship. It had two steering oars on either end, conjoined to a lever. He also saw little figures of people moving back and forth on the ships deck, hauling water over the edge in an attempt to stop it from sinking.
As he drifted even closer, he noticed a strange contraption stretching up into the cloud above. It appeared to be a kind of pump, and was drawing water up out of the inside of the ship, into the buckets which the men were dumping overboard. His gaze, which briefly passed over the men, was abruptly drawn back up to the cloud above which he noticed was not actually a cloud at all, but another ship- an airborne ship, covered in mist.
“Brilliant!” He gasped to himself. “An airborne canoe! This is fascinating!”
Kwe paddled even closer with enthusiasm and shouted up to the men in the ship, attracting the attention of one large surly fellow named Borin. “Oy! Sir, my name is Kwe. Are you in need of assistance?”
Borin nodded and beckoned his men to drop a rope and hoist Kwe aboard. When Kwe anchored his canoe to the ship and climbed aboard he was greeted by the scene of several dozen weary men hauling water pumped from the bowels of the ship, and dumping it overboard. They seemed tired, and worn as if they had been working for days.
Borin embraced Kwe and began to introduce them:
“We were guests of the sea drifters. This is their ship- an impressive vessel of a people who live entirely at sea, moving coast to coast, providing for themselves, keeping off land and out of politics. But my people, we come from a land-locked region ravaged by war.”
At this point Borin paused, and Kwe nodded for him to continue.
“We are not sea people. My village was under threat, so I led our people to the coast to beg passage to another continent. A sea-drifter named Maris kindly offered to navigate this ship and got us this far. But we have his assistance no longer due a sudden and tragic accident. We are stranded and your help would be welcome.”
Kwe smiled and introduced himself:
“I am a canoe builder, and my village relies on much of the ocean; we build our homes on the land like otters and hunt inland as well. We are not a warring people, but we know of these things from our dark days. Since those days of our village, we have been teaching our children diplomacy so that they may always have hope of peace. I am glad to extend a hand of peace: You can rely on my help.”
BORIN EXPLAINS THEIR PREDICAMENT
Borin sighed in relief and clapped Kwe on the shoulders in friendship. He then gave Kwe a tour of the situation. He described how they had been travelling in one direction for a short while when an onslaught of lightning bolts showered their ship with holes. Maris disappeared in the chaos (presumably dead) and the ship began to sink.
Then a cloud drifted over them. But it was not a cloud; it was a ship covered in mist generated by its vacillating engines. This Cloud-Ship sent their sky-men down and installed a great pump. They then instructed the crew how to use it: all they had to do was draw water from it and dump it into the ocean and they would remain afloat.
“These sky-men must have great technology and understanding”, remarked Kwe. Borin frowned and continued:
“Perhaps they have, but it is only sparingly used to our cause. We have been drawing water constantly for two decades. True, the ship is not sinking farther, but we are not making progress either”. It was Kwe’s turn to frown. He was shocked that they lasted as long as they did under such conditions.
Borin explained, “Thanks to the Cloud-Ship’s engines, we have been spared decay and our ship is as preserved as it was the day we encountered the lightning. But many think we would be better off sinking.” Borin paused and glanced upwards with a grimace. “They keep us afloat, and if they leave, we will certainly sink. But we must get out of this situation or we will be doomed to a life of desperate water pulling. Few of us even has the energy to remember the hopes we set out with.”
Kwe felt compassion for the labouring crew and took Borin by the hand promising to do what he could.
THE WHISPERING PLACES
He began making rounds to each of the people on the ship, asking them what they knew of the lightning bolts and the water. No one seemed to be able to tell Kwe much more than Borin did, but he held an open mind.
Finally, he reached a young girl who had been born on the half-sunken ship about a decade past. “Child, tell me, what do you know about this vessel?”
The girl smiled and lead Kwe to every corner of her secret play palace in the vessel. She told stories of each room, of the dangerous places, and of the whispering places.
“Will you show me one of these whispering places?” Kwe inquired, with an encouraging smile. The girl led him to a place in the bowels of the ship where the waterline was visible near the bottom. She reached below the water along a wall and motioned to Kwe to do the same. When he reached under the water, he felt a small increase in pressure where it was evident water was leaking in. It was very subtle- something an experienced canoe builder might notice, or a girl whose life was on board.
Smiling, he picked up the little girl, brought her to the deck, and gave her a pretty shell to play with. He then approached Borin. “Sir, I believe I have located one of the leaks below, and suspect there are many more filling your ship with water. Let me show you this.” And Kwe took Borin to the whispering place, and had him learn to feel for the leak.
Then Kwe made his proposal: “I would like to try and seal them up, but I will need a favour. I will need your men to increase the amount they are pumping long enough for me to fix the upper leaks, and then we can look for more farther below.” Borin agreed to this and encouraged the men to increase their work. They gladly did so, feeling there might be a change in their fortune; hope is the best motivation.
After much hard work on the part of everyone, the upper leaks were temporarily sealed. When the water level dropped dramatically with continued pumping, Kwe and Borin located several other leaks and sealed those as well.
USELESS CLOUDS ABOVE
After many days the boat began to straighten itself out and rise out of the water to its former height. Meanwhile, Kwe took note of the ship’s design and was able to gather ideas for his future canoes. He also showed Borin how to navigate to nearby coastal areas, as well as how to retrace their journey home, based on information Borin shared.
Kwe, during moments of rest and conversation, learned more about their reasons for seeking refuge and gave the crew some tips on diplomacy and treaty making that his village held important. In light of this, the crew decided to chance a journey back home since it had been two decades and there could be opportunities for peace in their homeland. At last it was time to part ways, and the crew cooked a sea food feast and danced to celebrate their success. Kwe played his instrument, and learned some new songs from the crew.
Now, in all this great commotion the cloud above remained aloof, apparently unconcerned of any change. Borin and his men attempted to get their attention, but it was without result. In the end, they tossed the pump into the sea and sailed away without a good-bye to the Cloud-Ship.
LEGENDS OF THE LITTLE CANOE MAN
What became of the land-locked nation is that they survived, built a village near their original homeland, and became agents of diplomacy in their conflicted region.
They also acquired a new interesting lore about benevolent Sea-drifters, and otter people who paddled the oceans looking for stranded folk. Over time, stories of little canoe men, or otters, would spread coast to coast, island to island.
Many listen in awe as storytellers describe how the Little Canoe Man, whose most valuable resource was alternately a shell, or an instrument, or a wand (depending on the version), came upon the desperate sunken-ship people. In the story version, the Cloud-Ship incarnated as a trickster or fiend, who -after attacking the ship- offered to help, but instead secured the crew’s inadvertent agreement to yield-less labour (including, for dramatic effect, a virgin daughter).
Fighting off the mist-obscured trickster was obviously the consistent victorious ending- sometimes with the help of the intended virgin sacrifice.
The storytellers ask: “Why did the little man succeed?”
The storytellers always answer: “Because he wanted to know the crew, and for the crew to know him. The trickster never hopes for such things, and so they lose, and make everything they touch desperate.”