Woodswise

IT'S possible she made the story up, but she never varied the words, so it's also possible the story was written down and she repeated it by rote. Grandmother was a fine storyteller, but she couldn't sing. That is, she sang a good deal but it was all on one note, which was flatter than a sled runner, and it was no fun to hear her. So when she tried to lull us grandchildren at bye-low time with ``Old Grey Goose'' or ``Every Little Wave,'' we'd beg her to shift to a story. The story I'm thinking about had a strong moral and may have been in the public lore, but I've never seen it in print and nobody else seems to know it. Was my grammie its author? We youngsters loved it better with every retelling and would beg for it again even after we'd just heard it. Grammie made it dramatic, acting things out and changing her voice. It had to do with ``a little boy about so big'' who was never called by name. He lived ``a while back,'' which put him in pioneer days, and he was ``just yonder,'' so he might have been a neighbor. He was a smart little boy, and one day he went to the river to see if he could catch himself a trout.

I've lost the sequence of Grammie's words, and I couldn't give you her gestures and voices anyway. As the boy fished, an ``old Indian'' came by. This old Indian was no stranger, as he lived close to the village and was friendly. But he did live in a wigwam the way his people did before the paleface came. So he came alongside the little boy, and he reached out with one hand to show the little boy how to jiggle his line to entice the wary trout. Instantly, the boy had his fish. So after that the little boy spent a lot of time with the old Indian, and the old Indian taught the little boy many things that only an old Indian could teach a paleface boy. So the little boy became woodswise, and the old Indian was proud of him. He could tell the otter's track from the mink's, the sugar maple from the swamp maple, the whistler from a pigeon, the moccasin flower from a cowslip, and Grammie would go on and on about all the important things the little boy came to know.

Then it came time for the little boy to go to school.

The school was just exactly the same kind of one-room school my grandmother had taught in before she married, except that this was before her time and the schoolmaster was a Harvard man. All New England schoolmasters in those days were Harvard men, and ever since then if you say Harvard in Maine, everybody laughs. It's like bananas, or Brooklyn. You don't have to be funny; you just say Harvard. Grammie knew that, so we always laughed.

Also, in those days, if you spared the rod you spoiled the child, and that was part of the story. This little boy came one afternoon when school let out to the tepee of the old Indian, and he was crying.

Now Grammie became an old Indian. ``Ugh! Why paleface sannup cry?''

Then she became a little boy. The little boy told the old Indian that the schoolmaster had whipped him because he didn't say his letters right. ``Ugh!'' And several times the little boy would come after school and tell how he got a caning because he couldn't seem to get his lessons right. Now the moral is building up.

One afternoon as the schoolmaster was locking up, he was grabbed unceremoniously by the old Indian, who wrestled him rudely down to the river and hurled him into his canoe. The old Indian shoved off and handed the paddle to the schoolmaster. ``You paddle!''

``I don't know how.''

``Me show.'' Then the old Indian demonstrated and passed the paddle back to the schoolmaster, who made a botch of it. The old Indian said, ``Little boy learn first time,'' and he tipped the canoe over. ``Now you swim!'' he said.

``I don't know how.''

``Me show.'' Then, because the schoolmaster didn't swim too well, the old Indian pulled him ashore and gave him a good spanking with the paddle. ``Paddle big help,'' he said.

There you have it. The schoolmaster got numerous spankings meant to speed his knowledge, but he didn't learn well, so the old Indian had to keep spanking. ``Spanking much help,'' he'd say, and apply some more. So Grammie would make us see that some people are smart one way and others another, and some aren't very smart at all. Getting spanked probably won't even things up.

Was mine the only grandmother who told that story?

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