The Dew Eagle
by Priya Dabak
Zitkala felt her heart beat faster, as she hid in the bushes watching the ritual.
Her father had started the hunt masterfully, and the beautiful white deer lay on the ground, splayed wide open, beckoning. It was a call to the Bringer of Rain.
All their efforts had proved futile. The Gods seemed not to have heard their prayers. After a hundred cold nights spent suffering, in dire need of water, Onatah, the clan mother, had finally sent her best hunters on this expedition.
Zitkala had snuck along, unbeknownst even to her father Achaana, the hunt leader. Ever since she was a little girl, Zitkala had heard mesmerizing tales of the Eagle Dance. Her father was the only warrior of the clan to have seen Oshadagea, the Dew Eagle. Now, she watched entranced, as the stories of her childhood played out before her.
The sacrifice lay on the ground and the group of hunters waited along the edge of the clearing. They beat their sticks on the ground and chanted. Achaana danced closest to the silver stag. He stomped his feet to the steady thuds and prayed for the Eagle of the Dew to bless him, once again, with his presence.
The sky tremored and the chants grew louder. The hunters danced to a driving rhythm and their tapping steps quickened. Urged on by the heavy gray clouds gathering above them, their voices boomed.
Suddenly a high pitched screech pierced the skies. The mist parted and they stopped singing, breathless. He was here.
Achaana had described Oshadagea as a red eagle, with tremendous wings that could obscure the sun. The servant of the God of Thunder was powerful and honorable, almost a God himself. But as the darkness split, Zitkala saw so much more.
His wings were blood, streaked with fiery shades of molten copper. He shone with violence; each feather was like a dagger, his massive talons could scratch chasms into the earth. He wheeled above them with ruthless passion, circling the hunters, as the wind raged. When the first bolt of thunder rumbled the heavens, he descended to the ground.
Oshadagea lowered his golden beak into the offering. The hunters waited. When he was satisfied, he looked up at Achaana. A moment passed, as man and eagle stared at each other. Then Oshadagea dropped his head in a slight bow. As their leader returned the gesture, the hunters whooped, rejoicing. The Dew Eagle glanced around at the brave men in appreciation; they had proved themselves worthy.
That was when Zitkala, still crouched behind a bush, first saw Oshadagea’s eyes. All that was ruthless about his demeanor disappeared. His glance was sharp but kind. Peering at his eyes, everything that her father had said about the Dew Eagle made sense. She was in the presence of something indescribably pure, free of brutality, holy.
Achaana stepped forward, not wishing to keep the Eagle waiting. He cautiously approached Oshadagea, who twisted around and tilted his body towards the leader of the hunt. In a hollow on his back, between his mountainous shoulders, the Dew Eagle carried a pond of crystal blue water.
Zitkala watched as Achaana plucked out a long feather from Oshadagea’s shoulder and dipped it gently into the dew-pond. One single drop, Zitkala remembered, served an infinite purpose. Achaana wrapped the feather in the cloth Onatah had given him. The clan mother would use it to finally bring water to their land. Even as he did that, the God of Thunder sent his approval with a drizzle and a bolt of lightning.
Their mission complete, the hunters began to depart, each one looking back a final time at the majestic Oshadagea. Zitkala didn’t dare get up until they were all out of sight. She listened to them treading their way through the trees. And she stared at the Great Eagle, full of awe, expecting him to take wing and disappear into the mist. But he remained in his place, watching the hunters leave.
Zitkala began to worry. She must keep close behind the group. All alone she might lose her way in the forest.
Tearing her eyes away from Oshadagea and careful not to make a noise, she stood up, facing away from the ritual area. A twig crunched, and Zitkala turned around to find the Great Oshadagea towering above her. His amber eyes rested curiously on hers.
Enraptured by his beauty, unaware of her surroundings, Zitkala reached up to him. Barely hesitating, she touched his nape, and beneath her fingers, the feathers glowed golden. Time seemed to stop around them.
Something deep inside Oshadagea reared up under her touch. He felt warmth, where there had only been fire. Never before had a woman laid eyes on the Cloud Dweller and never had the Great Eagle seen within a woman a warrior’s soul.
For long moments, Oshadagea stared at Zitkala, until he felt a powerful tug at the back of his mind. The Great God was calling him. A vibrating roll of thunder that followed confirmed it. Stretching out his wings, slower than ever before, reluctant and careful, Oshadagea took off in a whirlwind. Hovering up above, the Cloud Dweller peeked down at her through the clouds just once, before disappearing into the heavens.
Zitkala walked home in a daze. She was soaked by the time she reached the longhouse. She pulled open the curtain of Onatah’s chamber and walked in to find the clan celebrating with song and dance. Her father looked at her questioningly. She approached him with a smile.
“Where have you been? I called for you as soon as we returned.” Achaana had grown wary of her antics. He expected her to be a woman now, when all she did was play hunter with the younger boys.
“Is it true?” Zitkala asked her father, deflecting his glowering stare. “Did you see the Great Oshadagea again?”
Pride gleamed on his face as Achaana described his encounter with Oshadagea.
As she listened, Zitkala smiled. Her father had only himself to blame for her enthusiasm for hunting. He had raised her on tales of his adventures. When she was little, he had taught her, in jest, to use his bow and arrow and to set snare traps. As a daughter of the clan mother, the leader of the tribe, Zitkala had barely known her mother. Onatah had had little time to spare for her youngest. As Zitkala grew older, other women had taken over the task of teaching her the duties of a young woman of the clan. But by then her father’s love for the hunt had already stolen Zitkala’s heart.
“I see you have experienced the joys of his blessing yourself,” Achaana added, scanning her wet clothes.
That night, Zitkala couldn’t bring herself to sleep. She sat outside on a rock, gazing at the moon hanging in the sky, afraid to let her guard down, terrified by the implications of interfering in a sacred ritual. Zitkala remembered how the forest had come to a standstill the moment she had locked eyes with him. She let her tears brim over. It was still raining, but neither the cold nor the wet bothered her. Zitkala was far too absorbed in her thoughts to notice the weather. Or the light that abruptly flared up the trees behind her.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around and found herself gazing into the very eyes that had haunted her throughout the day. That they now belonged to a man, made no difference. He stood before her as he had then, unmistakable, as sure as the spark in his golden eyes. Oshadagea.
When he smiled at her, Zitkala found herself smiling back. As she looked at him, shock and awe danced within her. He raised his hand from her shoulder and rested it tenderly in her hair. His face appeared curiously nervous and Zitkala’s smile nearly dissolved in apprehension. He moved his hand through her black hair, resting it again at the back, between her twin braids. He seemed to be exploring his own new form as much as he was learning about her. When he let his hand fall down to the base of her neck, she drew back instinctively, sharply, and he let his hand drop in alarm.
Zitkala realized that he was as new to her ways as she to his. She reached out and took his hand in hers, letting her fingers run over his palm. A playful excitement brewed inside her stomach. With every passing second, Zitkala grew further mystified and wondered if he could read her thoughts. When she scanned his fingers, finding roundish nails where there should have been sharp claws, he threw his head back and laughed. A piping cackle.
With the rain washing over them, Zitkala and Oshadagea spent the night on the rocks, engrossed in each other. Neither seemed able to utter a single word.
Zitkala woke up to the voice of her father. She was alone and even through the pouring rain, it was clear that the sun had risen. Achaana called her inside, to take shelter from the rain. Zitkala was drenched and cold, but in bliss. She told him not to worry about her. “Never again,” she whispered in a daze, but Achaana had already left.
Their prayers answered, the people of the clan set to work. The men layered the longhouse with bark to strengthen it against the rough weather. The women worked in the corn fields and spent the evening cooking at the fire pit. Zitkala accompanied the young women to gather fruit before the rain destroyed it.
After it grew dark and the others retired, Zitkala stayed outside, near the rocks. He came soon and they talked. Her heart leaped when Oshadagea admitted remembering her father from their first encounter; the Great Hunter, he called him. For the first time, Zitkala could speak freely about the one thing she truly cared about: the hunt.
So it went for many nights after. With him, she felt more alive than ever. She listened enraptured as Oshadagea told her about his world, serving the God of Thunder, the Guardian of the Skies.
And he shared the story of the warrior who had set ablaze the sacred forest in a tribal war. Countless had perished. The young man was brought before the Gods to be punished. But in his eyes the God of Thunder had found flames of remorse. He had offered the warrior a chance to atone for his unthinking violence. Oshadagea’s fiery eyes rested on her then and she saw in them the still blazing repentance and loyalty. Her soul shimmered and tingled under his gaze. The pelting water cocooned them and the rest of the world ceased to matter.
One afternoon, when Zitkala was asleep in her chamber, Waki walked in. As Onatah’s faithkeeper, Waki provided peace and spiritual guidance to the clan. The woman informed Zitkala that she had been summoned to the clan mother’s chamber.
When she asked Waki what the matter was, the faithkeeper reprimanded her for coolly resting in spite of the worrisome state of the clan. “Onatah will tell you the rest.” Surprised by the disapproval in Waki’s voice, Zitkala trudged off to meet her mother.
In the chamber, her mother and father sat at the centre. The Elder Mother and the Chief were surrounded by the rest of the clan. When Zitkala entered, Onatah gestured her to take her place in the circle. The sadness in her mother’s eyes shocked Zitkala.
When Onatah spoke, her voice shook. “It has rained for a hundred nights and it will for a hundred more, unless we stop it. I have failed you. You ask me to help you, but I have no answers for you. I have stood by, helpless, and let you lose too much, too many people.”
Zitkala felt her throat clench up as she heard her mother curse the endless rain. Onatah’s words crushed Zitkala’s heart with sadness. It was her fault, too absorbed in her own world to notice that the rain wasn’t a boon anymore, hadn’t been for a long time. But anger roared within her when Onatah blamed the Dew Eagle for their plight.
“Did we not ask for this, Mother? For the rain? Did we not pray to the mighty Oshadagea?” Zitkala whispered his name with reverence.
Onatah replied calmly but the others stared at Zitkala in disbelief. “We asked for water to drink, Zitkala, but surely not these monstrous floods. We watched on, with nothing but faith for a better tomorrow, trying in vain to appease the Gods, even as the rain washed away our food. But what about your brother? Did we deserve what happened to Hakan? Could we overlook that?”
Zitkala was stunned. What happened, she wished to ask, but swallowed the words in shame.
Onatah looked around at her family. “I won’t let my pride lead to another failure. We need someone who can steer us in the right direction. For our new beginning, I appoint my eldest, Nituna.”
Nituna walked to the center, stood beside the Chief and swore to protect the clan. They marked the end of Onatah’s reign by dousing the fire pit with water. Another ritual fire was then lit to welcome the new clan mother.
Zitkala slipped away out of the chamber. She resolved to bring the matter to an end once and for all. If her mother could sacrifice her position for her people, she could do this. Zitkala promised herself to talk to Oshadagea and end the rain.
The sun set and he came. She ran up to Oshadagea, her head crowded with things to say. But as his eyes buried into her, each word of reproach vanished from her thoughts. A warm glow of love sprouted in her stomach and swept across her, soothing the chaos inside. Losing him was impossible. He slipped his arm around her and Zitkala fell into his embrace, letting go of the guilt plaguing her.
The following day, Zitkala avoided the clan, especially her parents and Nituna, and spent all daytime waiting for nightfall. For the first time, she was truly aware of the ceaseless downpour. Her heart thudded at the sight of their broken homes. With every stroke of lightning, she watched her world shatter.
There was no one outside that night. As the sky became blacker, the clan retreated further into the shelter and warmth of the longhouse. Her incomparable solace, Zitkala thought with a shudder, was the bane of their existence. She couldn’t deny it anymore. Her love had left destruction in its wake. She knew it was time to talk to Oshadagea. But that night, it was no ordinary rain that poured over them. It was a thunderstorm.
Zitkala sat on the rock waiting for Oshadagea, searching for the silver moon in the sea of black clouds. The thunder shook the ground and blasted all around her. She waited, but he did not come. The storm frightened her, but she vowed to stay there until he arrived. When she heard the rough rustling behind her, she turned eagerly to see her lover. But it wasn’t Oshadagea.
Walking into the clearing was a man in silver clothing. His hair was whiter than lightning, his eyes were deep like the Great Lake on a starless night and his skin had an ivory sheen. A scorching glow hung around him. He was no man at all, and Zitkala fell to her knees, fear and wonder coursing through her.
“I am Hino, God of Thunder. And you must be Zitkala, warrior princess, daughter of Achaana, the Chief Hunter.” His smile transformed into a thunderous cackle.
In that creeping instant, after a hundred raging storms, the world was swallowed up in silence. Even the clouds seemed to shy away. Hino broke the quiet and his words shook Zitkala’s heart.
“Oshadagea will not come. He must not come. Every night he disobeys me, the Storm rages on. You bring despair to this world. It must stop.”
Zitkala wanted to wail at this injustice fate had done her, cry and thrash and plead for her love. But the words froze in her. Oshadagea had nourished warmth in her and now, Hino doused that fire with chills. His presence meant an end. Oshadagea would never come.
“I would not alight on the earth for a mere mortal. And never in this shell.” He smiled to himself. “But Oshadagea is my friend. The Prince of the Skies in love? I had to see. You.”
His voice faltered.
“And you are no ordinary mortal. I see in you what he sensed. You are the daughter of the Hunt. A woman with the soaring passion of the Cloud Dweller himself. It is unheard of...”
Hino let the ponderous silence wash over them, let his rare words of praise sink into her consciousness.
Once again, Zitkala stared up into the depths of his inky eyes. With a staggering breath, she poured out to him all the life left inside her: four words.
“But I love him.”
“And he you.”
“Then is that not enough?” She spoke with childlike petulance.
“It is indeed enough, more than what most are blessed with. But love is not above duty. Don’t give it that cruel twist. The world depends on the Great Eagle and he has a duty towards it, for reasons beyond mortal comprehension.”
“I know the reasons,” Zitkala retorted with pride, recalling Oshadagea’s fiery eyes.
“Then you know him as well as I. And you love him for who he is. Don’t make him the cause of this misery. Let him go. If you cling on to him, your petty insistence will turn you into someone he would never love. The woman who destroyed her own land. Do you wish it?”
A part of Zitkala knew he was right, but the rest of her ached with terror.
“But how can I live without him?” she asked.
“You won’t be without him. He will watch over you. What you do for your people, you will do in his name. True love transcends physical presence. Whatever obstacles destiny throws in its face, love shall survive them. And someday, it might even bring you together.”
Knowing her fate was sealed, Zitkala collapsed to the ground, her face buried in her hands, crying. After a long time, she looked up and saw no one, and she wondered, in the silence of the night, whether he had ever been there.
Then she noticed something: it was not raining.
The clan was overjoyed to see a clear sky the next morning. They celebrated with a feast. For many days, the men and women set aside their work and reveled in the Great God’s blessing. Onatah was at peace with her decision. This became Nituna’s first victory as the new clan mother. Only Zitkala grew disconnected and restless, much to her father’s dismay.
Soon after the rain stopped, Nituna decided to send out the hunters on another expedition, a show of gratitude to the God for answering their prayers. Achaana did not wish to leave for the Great Hunt knowing Zitkala wasn’t herself, but worry did not overshadow his duty.
On the night before he left, Achaana followed Zitkala to the rocks tucked away in the shade a little way from their longhouse. He called to her softly. She smiled but her eyes glistened with unshed tears.
“When are you leaving for the Hunt, Father?”
“Tomorrow. We have a long way to go, if we wish to please the Great God.”
“Tell me about him, Father, about the God of Thunder, the Guardian of the Skies.”
“There are many tales of the Great Hino. Of his power and his hunger. But with that violence and passion, comes a compassion that makes him no less than the Creator himself. Few know this tale of the God of Thunder and even fewer would acknowledge it. The story of Hino and Amitolane. Before the world as we know it came into being, a young warrior prince fell in love with his cousin. Amitolane was full of life, spirit and vibrant colour. And she loved him too.
“When the world was created, they played vital parts in its existence. They were made Gods and it was their duty to protect it, to protect us. The warrior became the God of Thunder, with a dangerous weapon, the courage to wield it and the heart to use it for good. And the sprightly princess became the Rainbow Goddess.
“But they were stuck, in an eternal cycle, in love but never meeting, always moments away from each other. So they are now: together and separate at the same time. He goes wherever he’s needed, and she follows him with a smile.”
Zitkala was on the verge of tears. The story paralleled her love for Oshadagea, and the inevitability of their separation distressed her. But then her father put an arm around her and said something that remained embedded in Zitkala’s mind.
“But we know their secret, don’t we? Every once in a while, the rainbow graces the sky with her presence, precious moments early, sharing the heavens with the rain.”
Achaana left early the next morning. A few nights later, the hunters returned, sooner than was decided. The Chief was fatally injured. The blow shattered Zitkala’s broken heart.
Zitkala had never seen her father look so worn. She stayed in his chamber through the night, unwilling to leave him in his final hour. They held on to each other, father and daughter, until the very end, saying wordless goodbyes with their eyes.
The coming years saw Zitkala replacing her father. For the first time, the clan welcomed a woman as their Chief Hunter. She traveled far and wide, daring herself and leading the hunters into adventures beyond their imaginations. She did it all with an unspoken wish to please Oshadagea, sacrificing every first deer of the hunt to him. The clan prospered, every Eagle Dance brought happy showers to the thirsty, but the honour of having met the Dew Eagle remained with Achaana. As the years climbed on, Zitkala’s hope waned, but her loyalty never did.
When she was old and weakened, and the memory of her only love palely glowed in a far off past, Zitkala found herself often wandering back to that cluster of rock near her old chamber, where she had first discovered herself.
One evening, years and years after the Storm, a frail old faithkeeper trudged into clan mother Nituna’s chamber.
“The hunters have returned,” she said. “You must come.” She sounded worried.
Nituna followed Waki into the hunters’ chamber. Zitkala lay on a mattress, her thin hands folded over her stomach.
“I only need to rest.” She seemed to be protesting to a healer. On seeing Nituna, she smiled her ever innocent smile and beckoned the clan mother closer.
Nituna could hardly stand to look at Zitkala’s wounds. Even her face was scarred.
“You shouldn’t worry.” whispered Zitkala, smiling reassuringly and Nituna was astonished, for the millionth time, by her bravery. Deep in Zitkala’s eyes was an image of Achaana.
That night, the skies favoured the earth with the first rain of the season. Early in the morning, even before the first beam could shine through the slit in the curtains, Nituna was woken up by a raucous commotion near her chamber.
Outside, a large crowd stood staring at the sky. Following their gaze to the parted clouds, Nituna saw the strange light glittering down to them from the heavens. Kneeling in its center was a man unlike any she had ever seen. On the ground before him lay Zitkala, motionless. He paid no heed to the hushed whispers around them. He only had eyes for the Huntress. Thrilled, Nituna gazed on.
Zitkala woke up with a start. She saw the amber-eyed man and gasped aloud. Even as Nituna wondered if she was dreaming, the man stood up and a flare of fiery orange dazzled through him, rendering them all momentarily sightless.
What Nituna saw next filled her with devotion and she bowed to the ground, the clan following her. Looming over Zitkala, who was fearless as ever, stood a huge red eagle.
Zitkala raised a trembling hand towards him, echoing a treasured beginning. A shiver of surprised reverence ran through the clan when he bent forward and gently nuzzled against her palm. The Dew Eagle whistled, a low drumming sound, salty tears welling in his eyes and flowing down to Zitkala’s face. The notes fluttered around them, little sprinkles of light, and he healed her wounds with his music.
Oshadagea bent to the ground, and looked around at the people. He swiftly inclined his head when he saw the clan mother and Nituna nodded in return. Zitkala looked at her, her eyes ablaze with an amber fire. It was no illusion. Even through the mist and rain, Nituna could see she was in the presence of the holy. She smiled and bowed to her Chief Huntress.
Zitkala appeared to shudder with pleasure as she climbed onto the Eagle’s back, perching herself gently behind the sacred dew-pond. When Oshadagea took flight, Zitkala clutched on to his shoulders. The sky boomed a welcome and he soared up.
Long after the crowd had dispersed, Nituna stood under the skies, under the still gushing rain. Overcome with awe, she watched the firmament thunder in celebration and through that parting in the gray heap, a rainbow smiled down at her.