In Love With Father Sky: Algonquin tale The Rough-Face Girl
I ran across this story in an illustrated children’s book: image above obviously. Most reviewers tout it as a Cinderella story, and that’s true, for our nameless protagonist is indeed a cinderbiter (see my previous article on cinderbiting here). Rafe Martin fleshes the story out nicely, but out of respect for copyright I choose the version from Charles G. Leland’s The Algonquin Legends of New England, available here on sacredtexts.com.
The story is attributed to the Micmac tribe. Currently the proper name is Mi’kmaq. They are a First Nations people of the Northeastern Woodlands, indigenous to the areas of Canada’s Atlantic Provinces and the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec as well as the northeastern region of Maine. (Wikipedia article) I offer here respect for these people and their culture. I offer thanks for this story, collected by a member of the White peoples; collected for reasons of the cultural devastation of colonialism. The collection was published in 1884.
There may be other recorded versions Martin had at his disposal, I don’t know. But on with the story. Leland titles it The Invisible One- a good choice as we shall see, whether or not it was his idea.
There was once a large Indian village situated on the border of a lake. At the end of the place was a lodge, in which dwelt a being who was always invisible. He had a sister who attended to his wants, and it was known that any girl who could see him might marry him. Therefore there were indeed few who did not make the trial, but it was long ere one succeeded.
And it passed in this wise. Towards evening, when the Invisible One was supposed to be returning home, his sister would walk with any girls who came down to the shore of the lake. She indeed could see her brother, since to her he was always visible, and beholding him she would say to her companions, “Do you see my brother?” And then they would mostly answer, “Yes,” though some said, “Nay,” — and then the sister would say, “Of what is his shoulder-strap made?” But as some tell the tale, she would inquire other things, such as, “What is his moose-runner’s haul?” or, “With what does he draw his sled?” And they would reply, “A strip of rawhide,” or “A green withe,” or something of the kind. And then she, knowing they had not told the truth, would reply quietly, “Very well, let us return to the wigwam!”
The shore of the lake is a space of healing and transformation, a liminal space. All shorelines are. Liminal means a space between two worlds, neither here nor there. The sister is a kind of gatekeeper, no? We can imagine her as an intermediary between the terrain of the conditioned egoic personality and the soul (water is often a symbol for soul). The Invisible Being is unseen because he is nonmaterial; he is the essence of Creation, that which lies beneath appearances. He is love in the sense of unity consciousness. We may say that we wish for such a love, for such a vast state of being. But something guards us from slipping into that ecstatic state, from passing the threshold.
We may come to the shore, but we are in our heads, is the lesson in this bit concerning the sister’s questions. We are stuck in the mundane, the seemingly solid ground of the known. The girls’ answers are reasonable; they are guessing from their worldly experience, from what they know through their senses. By the way, the Mi’kmaq are moose hunters according to the Wiki article. So the moose-runner is a sled for moving carcasses, I assume. Perhaps the runners were, or still are, made from moose antlers or bones. The “haul” is what the hunter has to bring home. Martin’s questions are different from these; what is his sled runner made of, and what is his bow made of.
And when they entered the place she would bid them not to take a certain seat, for it was his. And after they had helped to cook the supper they would wait with great curiosity to see him eat. Truly he gave proof that he was a real person, for as he took off his moccasins they became visible, and his sister hung them up; but beyond this they beheld nothing not even when they remained all night, as many did.
Martin makes the Invisible Being’s bow and quiver visible. So, as is the case with many of us, the girls in the wigwam have enough evidence to know that there’s SOMETHING beyond the veil, something amazing. But we don’t know how to “marry” it- to join with it, to truly experience it on an intimate level, beyond the realm of ideas, of wishing and hoping.
That’s the set up. Enter our protagonist- and antagonists:
There dwelt in the village an old man, a widower, with three daughters. The youngest of these was very small, weak, and often ill, which did not prevent her sisters, especially the eldest, treating her with great cruelty. The second daughter was kinder, and sometimes took the part of the poor abused little girl, but the other would burn her hands and face with hot coals; yes, her whole body was scarred with the marks made by torture, so that people called her Oochigeaskw’ (the rough-faced girl). And when her father, coming home, asked what it meant that the child was so disfigured, her sister would promptly say that it was the fault of the girl herself, for that, having been forbidden to go near the fire, she had disobeyed and fallen in.
The youngest of three in teaching tales is pretty much guaranteed to be the cosmic one, who will through unconventional means attain that which the older two siblings desire but lose out on. The youngest is the stupid one, the simpleton, the fool, the lame one, the last one who will be first. Three being that ubiquitous cosmic number in teaching tales, we can assign body, mind, and soul to the three. The mean oldest sister seems very body-focused, or materialistic. That’s an attitude that may tend us toward a measure of cruelty to the soul, and to the spirit. Materialistic folks often see those with soulcentric values as wearing rose-colored glasses, as cowardly suckers wasting their time on pipedreams and castles in the clouds.
Super materialistic people basically ignore and/or punish that soulcentered aspect of self and other, for it makes them feel weak, right? They rely on their physical reality to keep them feeling confident and safe. When their soul pops up, they take no responsibility for it. Rather they push it away, are angry and denigrating, for the soul can make us doubt our control over life, can get in the way of our ambitions. It doesn’t do what we want it to do- which is to serve the desires of the flesh, as the old Christian saying goes.
Those of us who have made it to the lake of transfiguration in some regard, have usually suffered for the sake of the soul. We have usually been betrayed and burned over and over again by the cruelties of commission and omission in an unenlightened society. It’s hard to find someone reared in a dysfunctional, overcompetitive culture that doesn’t have some traumatic history. The story is telling us that our wounds, our disfigurations, are hiding an innate beauty, are hiding love. Humans are innately lovers of stability, and require a push into the transformation zone. Trauma is the common goad.
The second daughter, we can designate as the human mind. Folks who think about life, who are able to put themselves in another’s place, for example, will tend to be less categorically hateful of the metaphysical, the invisible. For the mind is that organ which deals with the unseen as a crucial aspect of its very nature, in the form of ideas, beliefs, visions, and other imaginings. In fact the material world is not all that “real” to the mind, particularly to those who aspire to spiritual or religious enlightenment.
So we could say the second sister tries to follow the Golden Rule sometimes, but she’s mostly powerless against the very materialistic first sister. The material world’s conditioning traumas, our physical pain, are at the core of our human existence. For example, the essence of rape is metaphorically all around in my society, but the physical act of rape makes it very, very real.
The youngest one is, of course, representing the soul in the sister trinity. We could use the trinity of body, mind and spirit, as well. ‘Spirit’ often means both soul, and higher consciousness; the invisible or nonsensory aspects of the multiverse. The Invisible One, being portrayed as literally high, is more of a spirit being, the youngest daughter more like the human soul.
Now it came to pass that it entered the heads of the two elder sisters of this poor girl that they would go and try their fortune at seeing the Invisible One. So they clad themselves in their finest and strove to look their fairest; and finding his sister at home went with her to take the wonted walk down to the water. Then when He came, being asked if they saw him, they said, “Certainly,” and also replied to the question of the shoulder-strap or sled cord, “A piece of rawhide.” In saying which, they lied, like the rest, for they had seen nothing and got nothing for their pains.
When their father returned home the next evening he brought with him many of the pretty little shells from which weiopeskool (M.), or wampum, was made, and they were soon engaged in stringing them.
That day poor little Oochigeaskw’, the burnt-faced girl, who had always run barefoot, got a pair of her father’s old moccasins, and put them into water that they might become flexible to wear. And begging her sisters for a few wampum shells, the eldest did but call her “a lying little pest,” but the other gave her a few. And having no clothes beyond a few paltry rags, the poor creature went forth and got herself from the woods a few sheets of birch bark, of which she made a dress, putting some figures on the bark.
And this dress she shaped like those worn of old. So she made a petticoat and a loose gown, a cap, leggings, and handkerchief, and, having put on her father’s great old moccasins, — which came nearly up to her knees, — she went forth to try her luck. For even this little thing would see the Invisible One in the great wigwam at the end of the village.
Truly her luck had a most inauspicious beginning, for there was one long storm of ridicule and hisses, yells and hoots, from her own door to that which she went to seek. Her sisters tried to shame her, and bade her stay at home, but she would not obey; and all the idlers, seeing this strange little creature in her odd array, cried, “Shame!” But she went on, for she was greatly resolved; it may be that some spirit had inspired her.
The little paragraph about the wampum shells probably indicates that the crafting of something worthy, some form of abundance, is begun in our protagonist’s life.
This section where the girl Oochigeaskw’ dresses herself to meet the Invisible One reveals a few things. The eldest calls her a lying little pest; interesting in the light of the youngest representing the human soul. The soul contributes much that can never profit us in the material sense, to the frustration and irritation of most. The soul activates dreams and visions, compassionate feelings, love and connections that seem impossible and odd and frightening, dangerous to our success or even survival. It involves us in experiences, like infatuation, that feel like greatness, like abundance and expansion and beauty. Then we shift back to the mundane consciousness and the soul’s joy is experienced as a lie.
The soulful one, the Fool, is often shoeless, unprotected from the natural world. She dresses herself in her father’s old boots. Is it a metaphor for understanding the archetypal masculine, walking the proverbial mile in her father’s shoes? She softens them with water, the alchemically feminine element where the Invisible One’s sister holds court. This tale is definitely an alchemical one; a story of inner transformation. And many of these alchemical tales feature a woman learning about the masculine archetype, and/or vice versa. That’s certainly the case with the well known Cinderella- although the Disney version doesn’t count, for it’s pared down from the Grimm’s.
That she clothes herself in birch bark is most obviously a sort of back-to-nature thing, the opposite of her sisters’ primping human pride. Natural, unornamented innocence is a recognizable soul quality, as is its innate connection with the soul(s) of everything else; Nature, in this case. Our human soul is our connection with the soul of the natural world. The “figures” or symbols she draws on the bark are the soul’s provenance as well. This art of symbolism I practice is the magical, intermediary language between the material world and the soul’s terrain, for soul is the translator between the spirit world and the material.
The reference to clothing “worn of old” is soulful, too. The soul loves that which is old, for it loves that which has stood the test of time, that which embodies some measure of eternality. The ancient reminds us of the eternal. It’s the Velveteen Rabbit orientation. The soul orchestrates our wisdom development, and it takes time for human wisdom to develop. Wisdom is grounded in eternal love, which is a “forever” experience. In The Velveteen Rabbit, time, love, and adversity make the stuffed animal “real” in a sense that mechanical toys lack all potential for. In this case “real” means soulful, intimate, loving.
In the shaming scene we see the recognizable cinderbiter/Cinderella theme; those who would move beyond the mundane must brave inner and outer shame and ridicule. Shaming is significant of social conditioning, and our social conditioning could be the strongest obstacle in opening to worlds beyond the mundane, to marrying The Invisible.
Now this poor small wretch in her mad attire, with her hair singed off and her little face as full of burns and scars as there are holes in a sieve, was, for all this, most kindly received by the sister of the Invisible One; for this noble girl knew more than the mere outside of things as the world knows them. And as the brown of the evening sky became black, she took her down to the lake. And erelong the girls knew that He had come. Then the sister said, “Do you see him?” And the other replied with awe, “Truly I do, — and He is wonderful.” “And what is his sled-string?” “It is,” she replied, “the Rainbow.” And great fear was on her. “But, my sister,” said the other, “what is his bow-string?” “His bowstring is Ketaksoowowcht” (the Spirits’ Road, the Milky Way).
I think of this “erelong the girls knew that He had come” as indicating they were sitting in silence on the shore, tuning into the soul and spirit worlds. I am a bit irritated by all the women being “girls” in the old school way. Surely the sister was a woman at the least! But that’s one of my personal beefs.
Notice the liminality again in the detail of the brown sky turning black. They have stepped from the edge of the day and the night, into full on darkness, the land where we can’t see the material world without assistance. It is with an inner eye that they see now.
Martin uses bow for rainbow and Milky Way for runner, which makes more sense actually. The sister-gatekeeper is wise, for she sees beyond appearances. She can tell our little scarred one sees The Invisible, truly experiences it, for she is awed, and afraid. She is not in her head; she is feeling it, one with it.
Father Sky is a worldwide archetype. Indeed, Christianity has a “Father in heaven”. In many mythic and religious systems, the sky is the Great Father and the Earth, the Great Mother. The sky is so vast, so ungraspable, it is not comforting; it is frightening, especially the night sky devoid of the sun. We tend to think of good old material Mother Earth as the comforter, the life-giver and life-sustainer, but the healthy masculine also holds these qualities in ways different from the feminine.
“Thou hast seen him,” said the sister. And, taking the girl home, she bathed her, and as she washed all the scars disappeared from face and body. Her hair grew again; it was very long, and like a blackbird’s wing. Her eyes were like stars. In all the world was no such beauty. Then from her treasures she gave her a wedding garment, and adorned her. Under the comb, as she combed her, her hair grew. It was a great marvel to behold.
Then, having done this, she bade her take the wife’s seat in the wigwam, — that by which her brother sat, the seat next the door. And when He entered, terrible and beautiful, he smiled and said, “Wajoolkoos!” “So we are found out!” “Alajulaa.” “Yes,” was her reply. So she became his wife.
In Martin’s version, the girl bathes in the lake; this cements the whole baptism idea, as the sister must have been meeting people by the lake for some purpose, right? So that makes sense. We see that the bride is one with the groom, for her hair is long, and like a blackbird’s wing. The blackbird is a creature of the sky, and the black is the night sky, as are the stars in her eyes. She has joined her feminine soul with that of the night sky; it is a sacred or alchemical marriage. Like the fairy tale “happily ever after”, this event is an inner one, for “In all the world was no such beauty.” (I wonder if it ought to be “there was no such beauty”. There are a number of typos in the article.) The sister takes the place of the Cinderella fairy godmother in glorifying Oochigeaskw’ ‘s appearance.
She had been meeting him already(“so we are found out”), her days of isolation and social castigation pushing her away from the mundane into deep soul and spirit connection. Father Sky is symbolically more like spirit, the masculine invisible, while the feminine ability to connection and intimacy is soul. But all that doesn’t really matter, and varies according to interpretation.
The point is that they had meetings before; she had inklings and inspirations. But now, they are truly wedded; they are one. She now embodies his qualities to some extent. Perhaps she makes a spiritual commitment here. She experiences the love of The Invisible when she sees the sky. She will walk her path ahead fortified by her closeness to and understanding of Father Sky, learning from and partnering with his archetypally masculine power and glory.
The sister-gatekeeper is the inner witness who “found out”. As an aspect of the girl’s inner world, like the elder two, she no longer stands in the way, testing and challenging the girl’s right and ability to connect with the Invisible. Pride, resentment, competition, greed, victimhood, anger and revenge- all such drama had to go before Father Sky could be seen for what he truly is, the masculine power of Creation itself. The elder sisters in the story represent and instigate these challenges to the seeker of wisdom and unity consciousness.
So there it is! Another lovely story of transformation. The wounded woman has reached a new level of self love and self authority; Father Sky represents self authority, as do kings. Self authority means taking responsibility for our lives, basically, including our wounds. Self authority isn’t subject to inner or outer shaming tactics; we learn to love ourselves enough to leave that crap behind us. The story teaches that it’s not about walking down the aisle, having nice black hair or a fetching wardrobe. Inner love is available to all regardless of trauma, of socioeconomic status or physical appearance. Once again, the last has become first. Yay!
For more on the pairing of masculine and feminine, here is an amazing song by Vienna Teng on the subject. Teng’s Aims album contains some of my favorite alchemical poetry. The title, Landsailor, refers to a symbolic task in some European fairy tales, where a man is asked to build a ship that sails on land, usually to wed the princess and gain a kingdom. Land is feminine earth element, sailing is masculine air. So it’s the earth and sky metaphor again. Notice the song’s references to the sky and vastness, and “every commoner made a king”.
Landsailor, sail on time
Rain or shine, I know you can
Cloudraker, share your finds
All your wonders at my demand
Tamer of night
Blossom of hours unleashed
Make me a lawbender
Safe from the chill and heat
Your power flows through me, transformed
Here’s where I was born
Endless summer, ever spring
A vast preserve
Aisle after aisle in reach
Every commoner made a king
Noble and prized
Feed me beyond my means
Build all my wildest dreams
But there’s a storm outside your door
I’m a child no more
Headless and faceless
Tireless and seamless, behind these walls
This is my progress
When you don’t notice my lines at all
Split the world open
Delve ever deeper in my alchemic arts
Crack the ciphers to free up your mind
Your life, your heart
Landsailor (I’m your landsailor)
In the bed that we’ve made (In the bed that we’ve made)
May every nail be shown (May every nail be shown)
Great lifebringer (Great lifebringer)
The price that we’ve paid (The price that we’ve paid)
Time that you made it known (Time that you made it known)
I want to be your bride in full (Oh be my bride in full)
Shield my eyes no more (Shield your eyes no more)
Oh, I am altered now for good (Altered now for good)
Shield these eyes no more (Shield these eyes no more)