This is one of the myths of the Makawe, a fictional band of people who lived in the Red River Gorge in Kentucky over 1,000 years ago. It’s a small piece of my novel, but a central myth to the story that I’m working through. This isn’t the exact version in the novel, but an adaptation for a short reading I did last summer. It will undoubtedly go through some major revisions as I work on the novel. I read it on WMMT, the radio station at Appalshop on June 7,2014. I was invited to read as part of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative annual literary reading during the Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival.
THE RISE OF THE DEER MAIDEN
Many generations ago, even generations before Grandmother, there was a young girl named Winita. She was the most beautiful girl in the village. The year that she became a woman, she turned away from every man who offered affections. Her dismissal deterred all except one,
Hosimo, whose lean build stirred interest from the other women in the village. He went to Winita several times, bringing her gifts of shell necklaces and perfect apples from the tops of the trees. Each time, Winita sent him away. The two had been close friends in childhood, so she was kind in her rejections at first, but he grew angrier and angrier each time and persisted. His obsession with Winita led Hosimo to follow her everywhere, and she began refusing to speak with him or to accept his gifts. The other women of the village began to drive him away when he came near Winita, so Hosimo disappeared into the forest, his brow dark with desire for what he could not have.
One day, Winita went to the river by herself to bathe, not knowing that Hosimo had never stopped watching her, and was in a tree nearby even then. He grew excited when he realized that Winita was alone and even more excited when she removed her skirt and waded into the river. As Winita bathed and swam, Hosimo slipped quietly down from the tree and stole Winita’s skirt. He thought he could make her give him a chance, that she would have to give him something in return for her skirt, or she would have to walk shamefully back to the village. When Winita returned to the riverbank, there was Hosimo, watching her and waiting. She tried to cover herself, but he pulled her hands away. So Winita kicked Hosimo and ran. He followed, angrier than ever before. He caught Winita by the hair and threw her to the ground, blinded by longing for her to return his feeling, and took away her choice to be with him. Winita fought him, but could not deter Hosimo, could not free herself from his wild grasping. When she tried to scream, he cut off her air to silence her, and in his passion, he choked the life out of her.
Hosimo realized what he had done too late. All the light had gone out of Winita’s eyes, she was now only a vessel that her spirit must be released from. Ashamed of himself, Hosimo wrapped Winita’s skirt around her and carried her scraped and bloody body back to the village.
When he confessed his actions to the elders, they bickered about what should be done with him. The male elders thought Hosimo should be castrated for using his manhood as a weapon. The female elders wanted him killed for taking Winita’s life. Hosimo sat and listened while they debated through the night about his fate. When the moon started to set, the two-spirit one interrupted the elders’ arguing. He said they must not,in all of this, forget to release the spirit of Winita.
So the village prepared a palakeen for Winita and wrapped her body in a white deer hide before carrying her up to Koona Kis where they burned her body according to the tradition. When the elders blessed her spirit to rise, sparks flew from the fire, causing the people of the village to draw back. The flames from Winita’s body burned high and hot, and in only a moment, her body transformed into smoldering ash. What arose then was not the smoke of the spirit that the Makawe expected, but something that no one had seen before.
A fawn lay in the ash, its head curled nearly under itself, shaking as if afraid of something nearby. But then it stood and shook off the ash. Its body looked like any fawn’s, spotted and tan, with four legs and a tail. But instead of a fawn’s face, with wide eyes and twitching ears, the upper body of a woman—of Winita—grew out of its neck. Her body was taller than it had been in her life, and her shoulders broader and stronger. She had a quiver strapped to her back and carried a short bow in one hand. Atop her head was two wide branches of antlers, each prong tipped in blood.
The people cowered as she walked around, looking into each man’s face. Her jawline still held the beauty of her youth, but the blacks of her eyes were widened, like a deer’s. When she looked toward the torch used to light her pyre, they glowed against the darkness behind her. When she drew close to Hosimo, he ran from her. The Deer Maiden caught him easily, cornered him against a crabapple tree. He begged her to forgive him. In response, she pulled an arrow from her quiver, drew the bow, and fired a shot through his heart, pinning him to the tree. His blood seeped into the tree roots, making the seed forever poisonous and the fruit sour.
Deer Maiden turned to the people and said that she could see in every man the potential for what Hosimo became, and that the men should live apart from the women. They could come only during the buffalo migration, offering the bounty for women’s favors, so the line of the Makawe could continue. This is the tradition we still follow. And Deer Maiden watches eternally from the forest—any man who does not comply with a woman’s choice will meet the same fate as Hosimo.