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Brushwork, Chapter Four: Coming Together

Originally published June 19, 2008.

Read: Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three

Wherever I went, men followed. Strong men, fast men, men that wanted me dead and flayed. I ran and ran, eating seldom, sleeping less, but the men followed. I found myself pressing further and further into the lands of men, for they were jungle men and I knew the lands of men as well as the jungle.

I did not think about where I was going, only that I needed to get away. I was tired, and I felt old, and these men were fierce with anger because I had destroyed their brother, and laid waste to his bones.

They found me, and they chased me one last time. There was a garden wall before me, and I leapt.

It was something of a shock when my tiger appeared before me, so many years after we first met. It had been long enough that I would not have laid odds that he was alive, and yet it made sense to me, in a way. He had always been something of an unusual cat. We regarded each other searchingly, until there was a clamoring commotion in the hall and armed men burst through the entrance to my garden, with spears and swords at the ready. My husband was among them, talking to their leader, and they seemed in agreement.

I asked then, as they circled my tiger, “Excuse me, dear husband, but what is all this? Why are you all so agitated with my pet?”

I went to my tiger, and knelt by him, my skirt growing stained by the grass, and touched his neck, burying my face in his fur. He nuzzled at me, gentle.

“This is your pet, my wife?” My husband asked.

“Oh yes, my husband,” I answered. “Did not I mention that I bought him?”

“These men say they chased a tiger in here, my wife.”

“Oh yes, my husband,” I said again. “And my tiger chased it away again.”

The men protested, but my husband took my word above theirs, for I was his princess and his wife and they were common peasants. They were sent away, and we were alone.

I awoke from my slumber to find my princess and her tiger wrapped in embrace, her fingers trailing in the water, her eyes closed. She slept, and I rose to the surface. The tiger, still beautiful, but aged into his beauty, regarded me.

“Did you know all this would happen?” He asked me.

“I did not,” I replied. I hesitated. “Will you stay, this time?”

“I will stay,” he replied.

We watched each other, as the day faded into darkness, and it was enough.

Brushwork, Chapter Three: Life Apart

Originally published June 19, 2008.

Read: Chapter One Chapter Two 

It could be said that much of what transpired in that ensorcelled place was a mystery to me. While I was there, it seemed I moved in a dream, all parts choreographed and fixed. The creatures I met there were more than real, and the few minutes there were as real to me in comparison as all the rest of my years combined. When I left that garden, my limbs had grown strong, my teeth long, my fur lengthened and rugged. I had come into my prime without noticing.

I traveled past the dwellings of man, out into the wild reaches. There I found deer and swallow, and found it good. I slept beside running water, and dreamed of patterns of orange and black. I woke, and killed again, and traveled further into the forest, fording a river, pausing to chase wild pig. Again I feasted. Muddy, I went for a swim, and bathed myself with long, slow licks. My fur shone, and I was languid in the summer sun.

It would mean less than nothing to you, my dear, to relate all the days that passed under the sun and moon where I did naught but kill, eat, bathe and sleep, but it must be related that these days occurred, for they are at the heart of my character. I learned in that time that I was both meant for only that and meant for more than that, for I thought often of love in those days. I wanted to be known by someone, and to know them. I wanted someone to be near me who was neither prey nor stupid, beneath me. I did not know what I wanted, but it frustrated me not to have it.

I suppose to you it will seem a betrayal of what was, and what is to come, to say this, but it is truth. I found love, passionate and harsh, with another of my kind, only about a year after I left that garden. We made love like tigers, and parted as tigers do, and I watched from afar as she raised our cubs. They grew tall and strong, and went their ways. I fought one, for it would have encroached on my territory, and fought another male of my kind for the right to get her with cubs again, and won. Again she raised my cubs, and I found another mate, though not for want of one. Her territory was near mine, and it would have hurt my pride not to have her.

My life was good there, and I had many children. Some of the females stayed nearby and became my mates, and the males went their way and mattered naught to me. For a tiger, this life of claw and bone and anger was better than any sweetness, more soothing than any touch, more fulfilling than any easy meat. I grew old with passion and languor. I feasted. I played. I swam. I lived.

There is a truth to my life that should be evident to you by now, my dear. I was born with a skill not common in tigers, the speech of men, and their ability to reason. I thought little of it in my youth, and thought little of it again in my years of freedom, but in my next tale it mattered more to me than anything.

It came to pass that a hunter came to my woods, and I evaded him with little thought, spending my days in the trees, considering whether to kill him sooner or later, and how sweet his flesh would taste. Man was a rare treat. I hesitated too long, and he killed my first mate, who had grown old and half-blind while I still felt young and strong. He skinned her, and ate the flesh from her carcass, his fire a brand in my forest.

I stalked him and leapt, scattering his fire and leaving him in the dark, with my claws pressing him into the earth. I asked him, “Did you stop to pray, that her spirit might find rest? Did you ever think that any would miss her, or that she might have cubs?”

He stammered in the language of men, “I am a hunter. I kill. She was prey, and I needed the money she would bring. If she had cubs, I can kill them to, so that they do not suffer. She is a tiger, and every tiger lives alone.”

I tore his throat out, because I did not feel like talking anymore.

The death of a man is like an evil curse. It haunts the lands around it, and draws ill luck to it. I left my home that night, and traveled on. I would find a new home, and again I would find a life for myself. Alone.

I was a princess, and expected to marry, but I did not. How could I explain that all I thought of when I thought of marriage was a tiger’s bloody teeth? No one knew I was in the garden that night, and I did not care to explain. My father put up with me, for some reason, and I was sheltered and protected by him as long as he lived. When my father died, a new lord came, and he wed me and bedded me. I was fond of him, after a fashion, but my heart stayed distant, and he reacted with distance of his own, though I think he would have loved me if he could have. He was a good man.

I had no children, and eventually he brought his brother’s sons to live in his household as his own, to take the lands when he was gone. I lived as I had always lived, quietly, in my garden and in my rooms. I never wished to know the larger world, and never did.

I was not lonely, because I knew no other existence.

In the end, when the choice was going mad with boredom and doing something about it, I locked my mind away, deep within myself. I lived as a fish must live, sometimes, for food and water and sunlight above me. I circled in my pond, and my mind slept.

Brushwork, Chapter Two: Goodbyes

Originally published June 19, 2008.

Read: Chapter One

I reached out with my paw to touch her, and she flinched away from me. I know now that it was with her word that the spell was released, and she thought I was going to harm her. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, though she was too scared of me to see it yet.

It was with faint regret that I said to her, “You really are beautiful.”

She was, she is. Such a fish there has never been, near as long as my foreleg, with stripes in all the holy colors, with scales that shone like fire and eyes that were like nothing I’d ever seen before. I was young then, and had never met a sorceress before.

The need to breathe struck me and I lunged for the surface, breaking through it with a great roar of delight and landing, sodden, on the soft bank. There I dripped, while before me a tableau of action halted mid-motion persisted.

In the years between my sixth and sixteenth birthdays, I would not say I thought often of what my fate might have been if that tiger had not disappeared as it had. I was not one to question fate, as a child, and felt that if my father told me that all was as it should be, such was the truth. It was reason enough to be proud, however, that even so fierce a beast could not defeat me, and in my pride I was unfortunate.

It came to pass that I, like the lotus flower, bloomed, and like the flower of the lotus I was full and curved as the gods intended. I did not much think of it, except as it was pointed out to me, busy with lessons and stories from my nurses. Ever I was guarded by my father’s men, who were loyal to him and respected him, and wished me no harm. Even when I was struck by some fancy and thus insisted on carrying it out, still I was obeyed and respected by men much my senior in years and in acumen.

On the night following my sixteenth birthday, the captain of my father’s guard came to me and on bended knee took my hand in the garden. He asked, “Will you marry me, your highness? For I have looked at you from afar, and I must have you for my wife.”

I did not move to reclaim my hand, but I looked at him with unkind eyes. I asked, “Have you put this question to my father?”

He replied earnestly, “Your highness, you are the only one who I care about. If you will marry me, I will convince your father.”

Since he had always been good to me, I did hesitate, but I felt nothing for him, and honesty insisted I tell him so. “I will not marry you, I think. I am sorry.”

He shook his head, and stood, still holding my hand in his own. He was not taller than me, but he seemed to loom dark. “I cannot accept that, your highness,” he said, stepping forward. We were close enough that our sleeves might brush against each other. “I will not.”

I do not know what would have happened then, and I do not care to speculate on such matters. Instead, let us say that it was at that moment that my tiger appeared, slick with water in the starlight, and he bared his teeth at us and growled.

The captain of the guard still held my hand in his when he drew his sword with the other, but the tiger was a rush of motion and the captain screamed, and choked, throat red as the tiger’s jaws, breath crackling and breaking, ending, dying.

My tiger looked at me and grinned, teeth so red, and licked his lips free of the captain’s blood. I was frozen, and could not move. I could hardly even breathe, the effort of breathing making me tremble.

His tail flickered, near the edge of my vision, the very tip of it swishing, and he grinned at me. I shivered, I admit.

Then, as if he made up his mind, the tiger turned, soaring over my garden wall in a tremendous leap.

It seemed to me that this was his way of saying goodbye.

Watching them together was the hardest thing I had ever done. I could not know whether the tiger’s promise would hold, or whether she would scream and call more guards, or whether the man who I used the tiger to destroy would destroy him in turn and take for himself the kingdom as some few of my visions suggested.

It did not help that he had been my constant companion of ten years, and now he was gone, and further away with every moment. It did not help that my beautiful charge was grown and did not need me anymore.

It did not help that I ached to speak with both of them, just once. Just once more.

Brushwork, Chapter One: First Meetings

Originally posted June 19, 2008.

In a land far off, with mountains capped in white and waterfalls that go on forever, where men wear conical hats and women have hair like the wings of ravens, there are strange and fantastic things, my dear. There are peaches that grant immortality, and a woman and a white rabbit that live on the moon. Dragons sleep under the water, and in the boughs of trees you can find the elusive phoenix.

There are so many wonders in this fantastic land that it is little surprise that even the lowliest of creatures is amazing. Yes, I am speaking of that lowliest of creatures, that common ape, the thoughtless and ugly, that creature of gangly limbs and graceless lines. Even man is amazing.

My limbs are not long. My every movement is grace. In every particle I am superior. The orange of my fur glows like forest fire, and the black in it is the color of starless night. My eyes see farther, my ears are sharper, I can track the moon by its scent.

This human had hair as black as mine, and skin like umber, and eyes that flashed when she spoke. I knew what I was going to do with her the moment I saw her.

When I was six and playing in my father’s garden, a tiger leapt the wall and tried to attack me. He meant to eat me, I am sure. He leapt at me, but did not realize I was playing on an island in father’s pond. He made a tremendous splash, and I got quite wet. I ran inside while he was underwater, and father’s men didn’t find him when they searched.

Before the little princess came along, I belonged to her father, his most trusted advisor, but her birth changed that. He charged me with her welfare and nothing else. That was why I prevented her death at the claws of the tiger.

I had been planning the spell all day, but this was the first time I had seen the tiger, too busy after my vision of blood and gore to look at the creature who would create the catastrophe. The first thing I remember thinking after he dropped into the water was, My stars, he’s beautiful.

Even then, young and lithe with youth, he was smarter than he looked, and his gaze pierced me, leaving me frozen.

“Let me out of here, wise one,” he said to me, in his voice like a growl.

I, who was both fish and sorceress, replied, “The spell will be broken when you tell me what I want to hear.”

He paced, tail snapping, fur streaming in the water, paws slow to rise and slow to fall, as I swum slow circles around him. He snapped at me, but his ivory teeth did not touch my fins.

“Your scales… they shine like metal. Black, like varnished iron, and amber. Some are white, like….”

“I am not vain,” I replied. “That is not what I want to hear.”

“Then tell me,” he snapped, and I wanted nothing more than to do so, for he was so beautiful, and so fierce.

I had a duty.

“I cannot. You must learn it on your own.”

“May I ask questions?” My tiger asked.

“You may,” I replied, angling back and forth in front of him, languid and watchful.

“Who are you, sorceress?”

“I am koi.” Koi need no names amongst themselves. We are, and we know we are.

“Why are you here?”

“To protect.”

“…but she is human. She is nothing. She is beneath you, sorceress.”

I turned a somersault of negation. “It is my choice to make, and I made it. She is protected.”

“If I promised not to hurt her, would you let me go?” He asked.

I considered for a moment, but a tiger’s promise is a tricky thing. “No. No, I don’t think so.”

“Then what?” He asked. I had no answer for him, so we circled each other in silence for a time that stretched on.

You should understand, my dear, that time underwater has different properties. Time underwater is cool and slow, and only occasionally does speed come into it. Time stretches to accommodate the seeking mind, and that is what happened then. While we circled, time passed above, though our circling only seemed to last minutes in that blue domain of mine. With my other eyes, I watched my princess grow and strengthen, taking heart from the tiger in her dreams. Her eyes flashed with his pride and her limbs drew strength from his will, and her father was proud that she was so blessed.

In that time that lasted ten years, his thoughts were ever on her, and her thoughts ever on him, and I rode the waves between them and was their connection and their anchor. What little I understood of fate and destiny insisted, though my heart cried out, for in the moment I saw him I fell a little in love, and naught had changed that yet. For me it was an eternity and a few moments, but for him it was only a few moments.

There is a law, my dear, that anything one is for one’s sixteenth birthday, one is forever. Our princess was tall and beautiful, fierce and loyal, savage and glorious, gentle and playful. On her sixteenth birthday she wished to the stars that she might have a tiger all her own, for she would not be afraid this time.

I know not whether it was my magic or her wish that prompted him, but at that moment, so short a time and so long a time later, that he said, “If I promised to love her, would you let me go?”

And I said, “Yes.”