The First Tears, an Eskimo folktale, Retold by Anne Twitty

How the First People learned to cry.

Photo by Steve Halama

One day First Man went out seal hunting along the seashore. He saw many seals. He chose a seal, and carefully crept up behind it, but with a splash, it tumbled into the water. He looked around and found another seal and crept toward it even more carefully, but just as he was about to reach it, it too splashed into the water.

This went on and on. At last, there was only one seal left on the rocks. Man thought that this time he would be so quiet that the seal would notice nothing, but as soon as he began to move toward it, it slid off the rocks and swam away.

Then Man stood up, and in his chest he felt a strange feeling. The strange feeling seemed to fill all the space in his chest. Suddenly, water began to run from his eyes. The drops of water ran from his eyes and down his face. When he felt them, he put up his hand and caught some of the drops. He looked at them. They really were water. Then, without knowing what he was going to do or even wanting to do it, he felt loud cries breaking from him. As he headed for home, the loud cries continued, and the water went on running down his face.

When Man’s son saw him coming, he called to his wife and to his mother. “Look!” he said, “Here comes Man making such a strange noise!” When Man came closer they were all surprised to see the water running down his face. But after he told them the story of the seals they were all stricken with the same strange sickness, and they began to wail along with him. And this is the way people first learned how to cry.

From Parabola Volume 11, No. 3, “Sadness,” Fall 1986. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing

By Anne Twitty

Anne Twitty writes, translates, interprets, and lives in Brooklyn and elsewhere. She was awarded a 2006 NEA Translation Fellowship to suppor the translation of Maria Negroni's novel "Ursula's Dream."