There were very few to whom the rain-maiden showed herself. The fortunate ones who saw her were haunted by visions of infinite loveliness, diamond raindrops in a shower of sunlight, furiously falling rain leaving maiden shapes behind. She was deeply loved by the bear-man. The father of the bear-man was a man who had gone hunting and been turned into a bear. He returned to ravage people’s maize fields and was shot dead by his clansmen. The bear-man was part man, part bear, not a man in a bear’s body as his father had been. So there was a part of him that understood the world of men well. And the other part of him was fully bear. He thought nothing of chasing humans away if they were intruding on his hunting grounds. He never minded the hundreds of bees running after him and stinging him as he ran from them with his paws and whiskers smeared with liquid honey.
The bear-man could be gentle with those who were gentle but he knew how to defend himself against those who were aggressive. One morning he was crawling down to the stream when he saw someone had arrived before him. It annoyed him a bit. The other animals acknowledged that this part of the stream belonged to the bear-man and they took care to bathe below or way above his portion.
He had never had an intruder before and so he paused momentarily, wondering how to deal with the stranger. As he stood waiting, the figure at the water-hole turned around and let out a little gasp at sighting him. She was amazingly slender. The bear-man’s irritation evaporated and admiration took its place. The maiden had long hair that reached to her waist. When she moved, the bear-man thought perhaps she had washed her hair in his stream water because it looked wet and incredibly silky. But when he looked again, he saw that her hair was made of rain! She moved with light grace and came close enough to him so he could hear her voice above the rushing of the stream water.
“I’m sorry if I have kept you waiting, bear-man,” she said.
“But, but how do you know my name?” asked the bear-man incredulously, “and who are you?”
“Everyone in the forest knows your name, and I have myself seen you many times. I am the rain-maiden, my father is the rain and in raintime, we two have seen you resting in the hollow of the oak tree, sometimes fast asleep.”
The bear-man thought she was the most beautiful creature he had seen. He loved her immediately. But when she moved, he could see himself reflected in her hair – a lumbering, fur-covered being in the ungainly body of a bear with as much grace as a hippopotamus. How can someone like her ever love me? He thought and he grew angry at the thought. In a very gruff voice, he said, “Go away, find your own stream, you’ve wasted my time.” The rain-maiden was surprised; yet she spoke gently: “You know, bear-man, I think I know you better than that. You are actually a kind being, I have seen your kindness to others smaller and weaker than you. I don’t believe you mean what you’re saying.”
The bear-man felt agitated by her transparency. He wished he could tell her how he really felt. But if she scorned him, or worse, if she laughed at his looks, he’d want to die. Don’t risk it, he thought, I don’t mind my friends and neighbours making fun of me but if she were to tell me how funny I look, I couldn’t bear it. So he stamped on the ground a bit and said, “No, I like being on my own. I don’t want to be kind or friendly to anyone, today, tomorrow or ever and the sooner you learn that, the better, Miss Smartypants.”
The rain-maiden looked hurt and the bear-man felt sorry inside but he’d already said too much and he feared she might retaliate and say cruel things to him if he said he was sorry. So he thrust out his chest and stood taller than his eight-foot frame and roared, “Do you hear?” so loudly the leaves on the trees shook and some fell to the ground.
The rain-maiden did not linger after that show of great unfriendliness. She ran out as fast as her nimble feet could carry her. The bear-man thought he heard a huge sob as she went past him. The path she ran down was scattered with tears as big as raindrops. “Could I have made a mistake?” wondered the bear-man to himself. But it was too late by then. With the rain-maiden gone, the bear-man felt unbelievably empty. He went over all that he had said and done and tried to convince himself that he’d done the right thing.
But his heart within him was not at ease. “She thought I was kind, no one has ever said that to me,” he said to himself, “people think I’m a troublemaker. They’ve always tried to shoot me. I hate it when small boys pelt stones at me with their slingshots. The flesh wound that I got from a hunter’s gun last summer still troubles me. No, people don’t think I’m kind at all. But what about the other animals? Why, if they saw me going soft they’d be all over me. The little dormouse would never leave my tree-stump and he’d be cadging food off me forever. They keep their distance because they think I’m big and bad. If word got around that I am actually kind, they’d give me no peace.”
So the bear-man struggled with his true self and the public image he had built up over the years for his self protection. And the tension grew and grew. The bear-man could not sleep. Things changed for hm. Honey now left a bitter aftertaste in his mouth and he began to lose weight. One morning he would wake up and shout “I’m not kind, I’m the meanest bear in these parts.” The next morning, he would whimper to himself, “But I am kind. I like being kind.” So this went on as he struggled to resurrect the real self he had hidden beneath for so many years.
In the meantime, the rain-maiden had run away to another part of the forest and when she had wept a day and two days more and a half-day, she rose and left the forest where the bear-man lived. The rain-maiden never returned. When raintime came round, the bear-man sat in his tree stump and waited. But he did not see the rain-maiden again. Sometimes his heart leapt inside him when he saw rain fall so fast and furiously it looked like her hair plastered against a tree. But when it cleared, all that he saw was a rain-drenched tree. Even now, he lives on in that forest, does the bear-man, afraid to step out of his bear-skin and become his true self. And every raintime he looks for the rain-maiden.
Easterine Kire's first novel, A Naga Village Remembered, was the first-ever Naga novel in English to be published. Her latest book is Bitter Wormwood, a novel on the Indo-Naga conflict, which was shortlisted for the Hindu Fiction Prize 2012. Easterine is founder and partner in a publishing house, Barkweaver, which gathers and publishes Naga folktales. She lives in Norway and performs poetry with her band, Jazzpoetry. The digital release of their jazz poetry concert recently topped the jazz chart in Norway.