The Hidden Valley

By Mary Joyce Capps

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    Silver Rain paddled her birchbark canoe with swift, sure strokes, dipping the spoon-shaped wooden oar first on one side of the frail shell and then the other. The bow was headed toward a distant point of land.

    Her grandmother, Mourning Dove, seated in the front of the canoe facing her, watched with approval. There were no noisy splashes or roiling of the water. The oar blade was inserted cleanly and lifted the same way at the end of each stroke. Bronzed muscles rippled in the arms of the slightly built girl as the boat glided silently across the deep blue water.

    Mourning Dove sighed. Where have the years gone? she wondered. It seemed only yesterday that she had been as young and strong as Silver Rain. Now, in the twilight of her life, the older woman would sit by the cooking fire grinding meal or she would tend her numerous small grandchildren while her sons’ wives did all the more strenuous chores. She had begun to eat a little less food each day, feeling that she was no longer useful to the tribe.

    “Where now, Grandmother?” Silver Rain asked quietly, letting the canoe drift. They had rounded the long finger of land, but how could this be the secret place of stunning beauty Mourning Dove had yearned to visit once more? They had reached a dead end. This was only a shallow neck in the huge blue lake where dense forest and tangled vines grew to the edge of the water. The girl was deeply disappointed. There was no hidden valley with a lacy waterfall, giant ferns, riotously blooming flowers, or moss-covered boulders here. The tribe had camped at many sites since then. Perhaps the years she carried had robbed Mourning Dove’s memory.

    “There! We go through the trees there,” Mourning Dove cried, pointing at what seemed to be a solid wall of trees. Her eyes glowed with anticipation and she turned to face forward.

    “Yes, Grandmother,” Silver Rain murmured gently. She paddled slowly, dreading the old one’s humiliation when she realized that her fading memory had tricked her.

    Suddenly the girl smiled with relief and quickened her strokes. There was a narrow path of water between the trees! It was like a silver thread. They were soon swallowed up by a cool green tunnel. The canoe raced over still, crystal clear water with little effort.

    Silver Rain, awed by the eerie lush beauty of the tunnel of overhanging trees, was not prepared for their abrupt emergence into the hidden valley nor for the cry of pain from Mourning Dove when she saw only a blackened, burned-over valley.

    Silver Rain had been named for the lacy waterfall that bounced down the cliff like a silver veil. And only that remained unchanged. The once-beautiful secret place was an ugly desolation. Months ago a forest fire, probably kindled by a lightning strike, had raged through these wooded hills. Black ashes and charred tree stumps littered the area. Not a single green leaf or blade of grass was left. It was a place of death except for a silvery speckled trout that leaped in a pool near the boulders beneath the waterfall.

    After her first agonized cry, Mourning Dove sat motionless. She did not speak again on their return to the camp. Then she entered her tepee and turned her face to the wall. She lay unmoving, refusing to even look upon the food and water Silver Rain carried to her.

    Silver Rain fled to the forest in misery. How could she rekindle her grandmother’s spirit? She sat quietly, watching a gray squirrel scurrying over a deep carpet of pine needles and cones. Is he hungry and searching for an acorn he buried last autumn? If he fails to remember the spot, a giant oak will stand here someday, she mused.

    The thought electrified Silver Rain. Racing to the village, she gathered the older children and whispered instructions. They snatched up baskets and scattered throughout the forest. The children worked together until dark, returning many times with their baskets filled with small trees, shrubs, ferns, and wild flowers. The women joined their efforts, carefully placing wet balls of mud and moss around fragile roots before repacking them in large storage baskets.

    Mourning Dove finally appeared at the door of her tepee and grasped Silver Rain’s wrist as the girl rushed by with a load of greenery. “Is something wrong? Why is there so much commotion? Have the men returned from their hunt?” she asked weakly.

    “No, the braves have not yet returned, Grandmother, and there is no trouble,” Silver Rain said, smiling. “We are noisy and busy because tomorrow at dawn we will start to restore your lovely green valley! Many baskets of seeds and small saplings have been gathered. We shall spread out over the hills and plant them. In a few years a new forest will rise from the ashes of the one you remember—but only if I can find your secret entrance alone,” she said slyly, watching her grandmother’s startled face.

    The girl’s dark eyes twinkled with mischief as she started on and then turned back. “It’s too bad you have no appetite, Grandmother,” she sighed. “Without food you will be too weak to ride in my canoe and guide me.”

    Mourning Dove bristled. “Your tricks do not fool me, Silver Rain. However, I do feel a bit hungry now, I think. Fetch my supper and I will eat. Tomorrow I shall lead you back swiftly. Your fumbling search for the secret water path might cause the plants to wilt. And I shall plant seedlings along the banks of the pools and the lower slopes while you young ones cover the high ground.”

    At dawn fifteen canoes left the campsite. Each looked like a tiny, green, floating island as they fell in line. Mourning Dove sat proudly in the bow of Silver Rain’s leading craft that was almost hidden by greenery. Her lap was filled with watercress, water hyacinths, and cattail reeds to restock the deep pool at the base of the waterfall where the speckled trout splashed.

    The emptied canoes rode high in the water as they glided back in the light of a full moon. The braves had returned from a successful hunt and a feast had been prepared. The chief announced that tomorrow the tribe would leave this site and continue its trek to northern hunting grounds. Silver Rain felt a pang as she thought that it might be a year or more before they camped here again, a year before she could see how the green growth was spreading over the blackened land.

    Mourning Dove stood at the water’s edge and gazed off toward her hidden valley. It was not likely that she would ever see it again, but it did not matter. The beauty would return slowly, perhaps in time for Silver Rain’s grandchildren to enjoy it. Nature would have mended the ravaged valley with the help of birds, squirrels and other small creatures, and with seeds wafted on the wind. But she and the children had sped up the process by many years. The thrill of such an accomplishment made her weariness fade away. To think that together they had restored a forest today!

    Illustrated by Ginger Brown