Out of the Box: How Raven gave light to the world, by Leslie Hebert

Anonymous / Haida
Retold by Leslie Hebert

Before I gave birth to the child, I lived alone with my father in a cold world of eternal night. 

Outside the door of our longhouse a thick blackness covered the earth. It was so dark that when I took my cedar basket to the river for water, I held my hands out in front of me to brush away branches I could not see.  Inching slowly along the path, I felt the ground with my toes so as not to trip over rocks or tree roots.  

Now there were three of us, my father, myself, and my strange son, Yaahi. With his glossy black hair and dark skin, he was a mystery created from the darkest essence of the world.

The only relief from the frigid darkness was the softly glowing fire in the center of our lodge. The light from the flames cast an orange carpet onto the ground where we sat and sent fragrant clouds of cedar smoke up to the smoke hole in the roof above. 

As I watched Yaahi, he seemed to disappear into the flickering shadows like a bird of the night, leaving only the echo of his harsh voice.

“Grandfather,” he croaked, “Show me the box!”

My father carefully and deliberately unwrapped the red and black blanket protecting the great cedar box and spread it out on the ground. He placed the box on the blanket and slowly ran his fingers along the deeply carved outlines of oval black eyes and sharp red beaks etched into the smooth brown wood.

“What’s in the box, Grandfather?”

“Why, just another box, child.”

“Show me!” the boy cried hoarsely.

“Before I show you, we need to sing together.”

They chanted rhythmically. My son’s high rasp joined my father’s deep, warm voice, as Grandfather used both hands to gently lift the lid and place it on the blanket. He reached in and lifted out a smaller, identically decorated box.

“What’s in that box, Grandfather?”

“Ah, that’s my secret, child.”

“Show me,” he cawed. Tears welled up out of his ebony eyes and down his dusky cheeks as Grandfather sat in motionless silence. 

I told Yaahi to stop bothering his grandfather, but his tears only came faster as he cast himself onto the ground screeching in agony. Even though I had warned my father many times not to give in to Yaahi’s tantrums, he relented and told the boy to sit next to him. Yaahi dried his tears and sat listening calmly as the old man began:

“There is a ball in the box, a ball of light. All the light in the world. Light a hundred times brighter than the light of our fire. Light that can fill our whole lodge. Light that can paint the pitch-black canopy of the sky a bright, shining blue.”

And then suddenly Yaahi began to change. He was transforming before my eyes. 

“Show me, Grandfather!” he commanded. 

The croak in his voice gone, Yaahi’s words resonated with a power that compelled his grandfather to obey, to open the lid of the inner box and release the brilliance within. Shivering with fear and anticipation, I saw the outspread arms of my raven-child sprout shining, jet black feathers. His feet curled downward. His toes became talons. His sharp ebony beak pecked down into the box to seize the glowing ball.  He flapped his newly formed wings once, twice, three times as he followed the cedar smoke up and out of the smoke hole above to release warm golden daylight into the world. ◆

This piece is from the Winter 2022-2023 issue of Parabola, DARKNESS & LIGHT. The full issue is available to purchase on our online store.