This October, Strange New England will cover ghost stories in a special series of articles with a theme befitting Halloween (or The Day of the Dead, if you celebrate it). We will talk about those denizens of New England who never quite left after death, where they remain and their effects on the living. Just as New England’s history began with the First Nations that greeted European settlers, so will we kick off a whole month of spooky stories with an obscure Abenaki ghost story that comes with a twist.
There are not many versions of this story, but this one is inspired by the version retold by Tsonakwa and Yolai’kia in their book Seven Eyes, Seven Legs. To date, Tsonakwa and Yolai’kia have the most detailed retelling: Gluskabe and Pogunuk sat around their campfire late one very dark and very unusual night. Even in a time where there was no electricity, the darkness seemed to be thicker and blacker than normal. The sounds of wildlife were barely audible, if at all. Both the god giant and his blue and red fisher friend had to speak loudly to hear each other, but still struggled to be heard. They also threw a lot of wood onto their fire to bring more light and heat to their camp, yet it was still as cold and dark as ever. Both supernatural heroes knew that this was not an ordinary night at all. When the darkness and cold of the deep night was too thick to be penetrated by celestial and man-made light, supernatural mischief must be afoot.
They turned out to be right. The chieftains of the ghostly tribes were due to meet together on this night for an important occasion. Ghosts, like living humans, have a similar social hierarchy and gather together when the need arose. The ghostly leaders were to determine who among them was best suited to lead them all as the ‘grand sachem’ or grand chief of all of the ghosts. While traveling to the meeting place, they spotted their opportunity for the challenge they were seeking out. They all decided that whoever could scare these two larger-than-life heroes would be declared the grand chief of the ghosts. They knew Gluskabe and Pogunuk were great heroes who were not easily frightened, but if one of their number could scare these two heroes, he or she would be considered powerful enough and frightening enough to lead them all.
First, the ghostly figure, Screech Owl Woman, uttered a spell to secure the heroes’ backs to the large pine tree they were sitting against. Forced to sit up and watch, each ghost took a turn to scare the two larger than life heroes. They began with the least frightening ghost chiefs at first, to weed out those who were obviously unfit. They laughed at their non-spooky kinsmen as they each took their turn. Soon, their more frightening chiefs were taking turns. But much to every ghost’s dismay, none of their own frightened him. In fact, Gluskabe laughed with delight at them and told them how entertaining he thought they were. Meanwhile, Pogunuk began to fall asleep.By the time each ghost chief had taken his turn trying to scare the god-giant and his friend, no one was laughing at each other’s expense anymore. All of them were frustrated and annoyed that their efforts to be terrifying were resulting in the snoring and laughter of their intended victims.
But one ghost still laughed.
They all turned to hear the tiny laughter of a little ghost child. Tired and frustrated, one of the ghost chiefs then said to this ghost child “If you’re so brave, let’s see YOU scare the Great Gluskabe!” With little ceremony, the ghost child was forced to face the god-giant alone. His eyes grew wide and his little ethereal knees knocked together as he looked up at Gluskabe, who was so much larger than he was. Gluskabe began to feel pity for this little ghost child, who looked up at him with fear in his small, searching eyes. It is also possible that Gluskabe was also feeling very weary as well, since he was being deprived of sleep by this mass of ghosts. To end this tiresome contest once and for all, Gluskabe decided to pretend to be scared. He flailed his arms and legs all around and then proceeded to faint in an over-reaching display of mock fear. He even stuck his tongue out when he pretended to faint for added effect.
Gluskabe’s performance of being scared was so convincing, that it left all of the ghost chieftains astonished and humiliated. By the rules of their contest, the little ghost child that no one thought was frightening became the one who ruled them all. He became even bolder after this victory and stole Gluskabe’s tobacco pipe, holding it aloft with pride while the other ghosts, chiefs and all, escorted him to their meeting wigwam. As the dawn rose, Gluskabe saw the ghosts grow invisible. It now looked like the pipe was floating in the air down the dirt road all by itself.
As Pogunuk began to wake up, Gluskabe confided in his friend:”I should not have made such a big deal over such a small thing. Now, I’ve lost my smoking pipe.” They also were left struggling to get up, because Screech Owl Woman had not uttered a spell to get them unstuck from the pine tree. After much pulling and pushing, they finally managed to stand up and go after the stolen pipe with large pieces of pine bark still stuck to their backs. Bare patches were left on the pine tree as a result.
According to Tsonakwa and Yolai’kia, the Abenaki tribes never feared ghosts, because they knew from this story that despite being terrifying in sound and appearance, they were all led by a small, overconfident child who was far less powerful and frightening than he thought he was.
There is not much written about this story. However, it does contain a valuable moral: never make a big deal out of something small.