Dezbah, the old Navajo woman, watched the footrace through black, sunken eyes. The wisdom of many years told her Nabah would not win. The coughing seized her chest again, and her breath came in short gasps. The sickness of the chest she had endured as a child had now returned with fresh vengeance.
Her dark eyes cast a look of disappointment at her son as he darted past. Seeing her, he dug his toes in the dirt faster, throwing out clouds of dust, but he did not win the race.
She knew Nabah would never be the Flying Eagle of her great-grandfather’s prophecy. The holy people had not granted her desire. It must be that the tchindi, the evil ones, had found a lock of her hair.
Her eyes followed the flat table of brown earth near Shiprock, New Mexico, to a jagged mountain of rock. She remembered the days she had made Nabah climb it to make him strong. “You fill your moccasins with gravel and run and climb. Then your feet will be strong.” He had ignored the cutting sting of his feet, for he feared her strength. But his climbing was slow, and Dezbah felt pain in her heart.
Long ago when Dezbah was young and the morning’s dew was fresh upon her brow, she had sat at the feet of the great singer, her great-grandfather, and had listened to his prophecy: “From my seed shall come a mighty warrior of great strength. Like the Great Eagle he shall fly over my people. In the footrace he shall win the prize of many lambs. He shall have magic to make the fire appear. He shall teach my people to walk the rainbow to the Holy Yei.”
Listening to the prophecy, Dezbah had felt the drum within her beat faster. She must become the mother of the Flying Eagle. Inside her this strong warrior would grow. Surely the Holy Yei would take the weakness from her.
She ran each day with the rising sun, and a singer came to call the words of the Shooting Chant Prayer:
Let me drink the dewdrops again,
Let me taste the yellow pollen again,
Let me live in beauty again,
Let me walk in strength again …
With the strength of her spirit she conquered the sickness of the chest. And she promised herself: “I will always carry the ashes out of the hogan before the rising sun so the sun will not get angry with me. I will master the art of weaving beautiful rugs to please the ancient spider woman. I will keep gall medicine against witches and other evils of the night.”
She chose a strong brave for a husband, and their paths joined. But in the next 25 years she bore Bahe only daughters. In disappointment she called for the prayers of the Blessingway Ceremony, and in the twilight of her child-bearing years she bore him a son. They named him Nabah Tsosie, for he must earn the name of Flying Eagle.
Dezbah sang to her son, placing his head toward the fire so he would grow tall as the corn. “I will make you soup from the heart of a goat so you will have a strong heart. I will tie a squirrel’s tail to your cradleboard to protect you. For you shall teach our people to walk the rainbow to the Holy Yei.”
But Nabah did not grow tall. His legs grew short and bowed. In his seventh summer she told him: “Fill your mouth with water. Run fast with only the air of your nose. Then your lungs will be strong.” With the force of her spirit she made him run with the rising sun, in the noonday heat, and in the glow of the moonlight. Nabah suffered in silence while the daughters of the old woman laughed at their mother’s foolishness.
Now as she watched Nabah’s bowed legs in the footrace, she knew he would never win the prize of many sheep. As she turned from the race, she admitted that Nabah had never cared for the way of the Dineh. He could not remember the chants. His mind was filled with dreams of a pickup truck and television. His favorite foods were potato chips and soda pop. When he had taken the sheep out to graze for the first time alone, he had been afraid. Dezbah had turned away in disgrace, away from the dark stares of her daughters.
So the old woman wove rigid designs into woolen rugs.
In Nabah’s 12th summer he first heard of his Lamanite heritage in the hogan of the family Grey Eyes. Dezbah prayed to the Great Spirit to remove the senseless white man’s words from her son’s heart.
When Nabah came to his mother to tell her what he had learned, she beat him with a stick. “Get out! You foolish boy! You will never become the Flying Eagle of your great-great-grandfather’s prophecy. You have the heart of a coyote.” She had never beaten him before, and she fell to the ground coughing. The color she coughed up was not good. She would send for the hand-trembler to recommend a cure. And the singer chanted:
Let me drink the dewdrops again. …
Let me walk in strength again. …
The coughing diminished, but the old woman never walked in strength again.
Nabah and his father chose to join the church of their fathers, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were baptized together. Dezbah turned to silence and would not speak. And when Bahe sent Nabah to live with the white family in Phoenix, she let him go. She could no longer endure the pain of him before her eyes.
Each year in the Season of the Beating Sun when Nabah returned, he had grown huskier and more familiar with the white man’s customs. And each year Nabah found the old woman had shrunk a little from her disease and the relentless baking of the sun.
When he returned with hair beginning on his chin, his father frowned at this white man’s custom but did not speak of it. Instead he said to his son: “Go to the old woman. She wants to make peace. She has only a little wind left in her.”
Nabah plucked the fine hairs from his chin and then went to his mother. She looked small in her shriveled body, but he made slow steps to where she sat weaving in the hogan. “My mother, I am sorry. I have come … to make peace.”
Turning, she reached up a bony arm and pulled him down to her. “Yes, my son. I must leave you in peace. You are not to blame. A sick ewe cannot bring forth a prize lamb.” And her mind wandered: “The holy people are angry with me. It must have been that the tchindi found a lock of my hair. In the autumn of my life I know. It is I who lost the footrace.” And the coughing racked her frame. As she continued her weaving, Nabah sat silently watching. He felt the weight of the prophecy, like a heavy rock, upon his shoulders.
Nabah left his mother’s hogan for the last time. For in the Season of the Bearing of Lambs, the drumbeat of life in the old woman’s chest faltered, then faded, then stopped.
An emptiness filled Nabah’s heart at his mother’s parting, for although in life he had feared her, in death he longed for her strength.
Nabah stayed again with the white family, but their food no longer filled him. A hunger gnawed at him. In the summer he returned to Shiprock to herd sheep, but he found the spirit of the old woman still there. And the weight of the rock remained upon his shoulders.
Wandering alone onto the flat, baked desert, Nabah felt the emptiness inside. He sat with a vacant stare as the sun walked her path across the sky. Then slowly he filled his moccasins with gravel and sharp stones and filled his mouth with water. He ran. He ran stumbling across the hot, dry sand, past the jagged mountain of rock, faster as the stones cut deeper. He ran until the wind within him jabbed with painful stabs and his feet within his moccasins oozed with blood. He collapsed in a tortured heap on the hot, healing earth. A great cry burst from his throat: “Shima, my mother! I am not a mighty warrior. Release me! Oh, Shima! Shima!” And he fell into an exhausted sleep.
The moon had replaced the sun’s silent vigil when Nabah awoke. As he lifted his aching body from the cooling sand, within him flowed the warmth of relief. He breathed in the fresh, free air deeply. Again he felt the hunger, but now he knew how to fill it. He must have truth.
He returned to the white family and entered college where he studied history, and he learned more of his people. At first he read timidly, afraid of the answers. He read of the hunting days, the warrior days; he read of the banishment to Bosque Redondo and felt pain; he read of the enduring days, the rebuilding days, and slowly the fire was kindled. The beauty of the Navajo legend flickered in his mind. When he studied the height of the Lamanite culture, the flicker burst into flame. He felt a surge of strength, not in his legs, but in his spirit. Within him grew a desire to go to teach his people of their greatness.
As Nabah’s shoulders broadened, he was called on a mission to another part of his own Navajo nation. In wonder he boarded the airplane and flew with wings like the Flying Eagle to Arizona, where he went with the strength of truth among his people. They were the sheep, and he baptized them with water and with fire. And he helped to diminish the darkness in the land. Then with a pounding in his heart, Nabah understood. But the old woman was gone. And the drumbeats of ancient ancestors echoed down through time as Nabah taught his people how to walk the rainbow to return to their Heavenly Father.