The sound that a porcupine quill makes as it is being crushed flat between a set of teeth is unpleasant. It’s a sound similar to stepping on a Japanese beetle or snapping a femur. A truly nauseating crunch. Hearing it once is enough to set a person’s teeth on edge. However, hearing the sound incessantly has a certain numbing effect. The sound becomes so irritating that the brain tunes it out. All of the sudden what was once grating becomes nothing.
Perhaps that is what happened to the old woman. She had been flattening quills beneath hear teeth for so long that she had just developed the ability to ignore the sound. Or perhaps she had simply gone deaf. Either way, the sound didn’t seem to bother her. The woman had no human company to distracted with the noise, just her wolf Shunka Sapa, who was large and black and beautiful. Shunka Sapa never took his large amber eyes off the woman while she worked. He spent his days resting beside her, licking his paws, very rarely leaving. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year he watched whilst she crushed quills between teeth that had long since flattened with age. To Shunka Sapa, it felt that the old shriveled woman had been sitting on her stool for more than a thousand years working to flatten quills for a blanket strip that would eventually decorate her buffalo robe.
Shunka Sapa was certain it had been more than a thousand years. He still remembered when the old woman had taken him to her hidden cave dressed in the same rawhide clothing she still wore to this day. He was an offering from her people. The ones who had lived and aged and died in the Badlands for as long as she could remember. In all the time Shunka Sapa had been with the old woman there had been no one to stumble upon the old woman’s cave. Even now, with the white man’s roads, cars and tourists, no one has discovered the cave. Shunka Sapa firmly believed this was because the Badlands protected its secrets, keeping the mystical from the mundane.
The old woman was surely mystical, for how else could she be old without aging and complete the same task day after day? Shunka Sapa watched whilst no other people came to see the old woman. He often wondered if she got lonely or what her life when she was young – if she was ever young. He would never know though, because she never spoke. Flattening quills was quiet tiring work, so not speaking was her reprieve.
A few steps away from where the old woman sat working on her blanket strip and Shunka Sapa lay, a huge fire blazed. The woman lit the fire well over a thousand years ago and has kept it going ever since. The fire kept her and Shunka Sapa warm in the damp cave. It also provided sufficient light. Over the fire hung a large earthen pot, the kind that her people had used long before the white man came with his kettles of iron. Shunka Sapa thought that surely someone had to have helped the old woman lift the pot over the fire, for it was larger and heavier than Shunka Sapa himself.
Inside of the pot wojapi was boiling and bubbling. The wojapi was good and sweet and red and sticky. The berry soup was Shunka Sapa’s favorite, a taste that he acquired from the old woman. She never finished her bowl, but instead left them to Shunka Sapa to lap up with his large flat tongue. The pot of wojapi had been boiling for a long time, ever since the fire was lit. It never soured, and the pot never emptied.
Every now and then the old woman got up to stir the wojapi in its huge earthen pot. She was so old and feeble that it took quite some time for her to get up from her stool and hobble over to the fire. Her knees would ache and her ankles were often swollen. Leaving her stool to stir the pot required immense effort. The moment that her back was to Shunka Sapa he would begin to pull the flattened quills out of the old woman’s blanket strip. He had been doing this since the old woman had first brought him to her cave. This way she could not make any progress, and her quill work would remain forever unfinished. The Sioux – Shunka Sapa’s people – told him that if the old woman ever finished her blanket strip, then at the very moment that she threads the last porcupine quill to complete the design, the world would come to an end.