This is the first chapter of a post-apocalyptic, uh, anthropomorphic story I tried writing.
Tiger and Bird
by T.S. Lowe
“Weird we should save her just to have her die.”
Lei gave Jin a hard look. Jin didn’t meet it, preferring the thick, short claws of his bare feet. Round circles of calluses gave the human soles a distinct paw-like appearance.
“She just needs time,” said Lei, digging his fingers into the rag as he scrubbed the bottom of the wok—-hard.
“She’s running out of time.” Jin uncrossed his feet. “She wants to die.”
“You don’t know that.”
“She hasn’t even spoken a word. Maybe she’s sick.”
Jin snorted through his flat nose, nostrils narrowing. Then they relaxed and his heavy shoulders drooped with a sigh. “I’m sorry, brother.”
Lei didn’t turn to watch Jin leave. He just kept working the rag, harder and harder. The burnt rice had all but disintegrated by now, and he had probably already ruined the seasoning. Only when his knuckles started to protest at being skinned did he stop, arm burning and dirty black and brown suds splattered across his linen apron.
In the distance, kits from the village laughed and yowled intermittently between delight and displeasure at their play. In the corner of the courtyard, an old pair of men with gray hair shot through with occasional stripes of black or orange reminisced through a cloud of sweet pipe smoke, their voices like the murmur of a summer breeze. One of them had a long, thin tiger’s tail that twitched up every so often. Despite his efforts, he could still smell the after affects of Shu Lin’s ruined meal. Their sensitive noses would be smelling burnt rice for the rest of the week, no matter how hard they scrubbed the kitchen.
Slapping the torn rag onto a nearby stone, he poured out the sudsy water and twisted on his seat to lift the pump handle. Clear, cold well water gushed out of the faucet–too fast–and what part of him wasn’t wet from dish water got splashed. He wrinkled his nose and slowed it to a trickle, then rinsed off the wok. First, to dry it.
Though he knew the wok rusted every minute he allowed it to sit in his lap, he found himself lingering, numb and burning.
Shaking himself, he stood, stepped onto the porch, and into the kitchen, which was the most modern part of the house. Most of the electricity went to run the old, yellowed fridge and stove. A single bulb hung from the ceiling, dressed in a paper and bamboo lamp. Tugging the rag off the handle of the oven, he roughly dried the wok, then got out the plastic bottle of vegetable oil and covered each inch of black iron with it.
But he didn’t hang it up to let it dry. Instead, he plopped it back onto the stove and took off his soaked, muddy apron. The best way to re-establish seasoning, after all, was to cook with it.
He pulled out a large plastic tub of left over rice and some coconut milk. Once the water drops he flecked onto the wok popped and danced, he scooped in the rice, some salt, and the milk.
Sweet is easier to swallow, he thought as he worked. Salt is important to replenish the body’s nutrients, but not too much. Just enough to compliment the sweet.
He scooped in some sugar as well, but just enough to balance out the coconut’s cream. His ladle moved with a sure dexterity that Shu Lin envied. Jin often joked that he’d make someone a good wife someday.
With a small prayer to the gods, Lei scooped the sweet rice stew into a bowl, grabbed a spoon, and made his way out of the kitchen and down the hall to where a door had been left open. Sunlight warmed the planks of the wood from the window inside the room. Lei turned into it to find the huddle of scraggy, gray feathers right where he had left it. For all the world it was just a lump of feathers, the size of small child, seemingly hiding away in a shadowy corner away from the sunlight pouring in from window besides it.
He took a steady breath to ease the painful drop of his stomach.
“Hey,” he said softly. “It’s me, Lei. I brought something for you.”
The feathers didn’t so much as twitch. He hadn’t expected them to. Since three days ago, she had all but turned off any notice of the outside world. He knew she could hear him. Whether she could respond, though, was another story.
Despite all that, he still made his tread quiet as he crossed the room and kneeled by her side. He nestled the bowl in his lap with one hand as he worked his hand into the feathers to find the edge of the wing.
“You need to eat.” His throat tightened and he swallowed. “Come on, this won’t hurt your stomach or anything. It’s sweet and gentle, even on a baby’s pallet.”
He found the hard ridge of a bone and pushed it aside to reveal the rest of their strange guest.
Despite the illusion her curled wings had given, she wasn’t a small child, but a teenager, with her knees to her chest. Her skin was as gray as her feathers, and her hair a long mess of dark ash. Shu Lin had bathed and groomed the mess into a long braid, but strands of it had still managed to work themselves out, though they didn’t stick to her cold, dry face, which held sunken eyes and hallow cheeks.
He had to swallow again at seeing the girl’s staring, dark eyes. She could be already dead. But her neck had a pulse, and even as he counted the beats she blinked and glanced over at him. Her eyes could have been a purple-like blue or brown. Or perhaps they had always looked like dead coals.
He couldn’t help but become hyperaware of the warmth of the bowl in his lap as he grew cold. He hadn’t wanted Jin to be right.
But the dark eyes that looked back at him had gone far away from hope. They looked out at him from a soul beyond feeling.
He let her wing fall against the floor with a muffled flop. Tears burned the corners of his eyes.
“What happened to you?”
She didn’t answer. She never had, not from the moment they had found her curled up in the mess of thorns. After all their efforts to carry her back home and bind the strange girl’s wounds, she might as well still be back in the bush.
As the first tears blurred his vision, a steely determination rose up against the pain.
To be fair, he first tried to offer her the spoon of food like he and the others usually did, coaxing, promising something that tasted nice. But, as usual, her lips did not budge and her gaze eventually slid back to staring into nothing.
“I’m not going to let you die,” he said. “Whatever happened to you is over. You’re okay now. And I know what it’s like to not have the strength to go on.” He hesitated, but only for a second before hardening his resolve.
Putting the bowl to the side, he leaned against the wall next to her and gathered her into his lap. It was much like moving a stiff doll, and how light and bony she felt against him made his gut clench with sympathy. Once he got her situated so her head rested against his shoulder, chin tilted up so her pale, ashen face looked unseeingly up at his, he scooped some of the sweet rice into his mouth and chewed as he pinched her nose.
As with everything the others had done to her, she took it with glazed apathy. When the cracked lips parted for a breath, he leaned down and pressed his mouth against hers.
She flinched as the sweet rice poured across her tongue. With his fingers on her nose, she had no choice but to swallow. When he pulled back to let her breathe, the dark eyes were blinking rapidly, startled.
He gave her a dry smile. “Now you can either feed yourself or I’ll just keep doing that.” His smile widened to a smirk as he could tell she was licking the remains of the rice from off the inside of her mouth. “You like it, don’t you? Remembering how hungry you are now?” And elated from his success, he scooped some more rice into his mouth, chewed, and managed to get another mouthful into her.
He felt her hands pressing against his stomach, but weakly. So weakly, in fact, he realized the only reason she hadn’t pushed at his shoulders or chest was because she hadn’t the strength to lift her hands that high.
“Bitte,” she breathed–her first word.
Whatever it was, it sounded like a protest. Not recognizing the word, he figured Jin’s hypothesis that she spoke another language could be true, so he tried to show more than tell as he lifted up a full spoon and raised his eyebrow.
“Open,” he said, flicking her bottom lip with the back of his clawed thumb.
In answer, she pressed her lips closed.
So he pinched her nose again. The third mouthful, even against her pushing, was pathetically easy. Which was why he didn’t bother asking the fourth or fifth time. He just scooped, chewed, pinched, and put his mouth to hers. It had been messy the first few times, and bits of rice and coconut milk had dribbled down the corners of her mouth. But he managed to figure out the timing and use of his tongue to keep most of the food where he wanted it.
When the spoon hit the bottom of the empty bowl, he released her. Tear tracks ran from the corners of her eyes to her hair, which had become considerably ruffled. The eyes looking at him were definitely not dead now, but bright, asking why?
He didn’t answer, only scooped up the bowl to return to the kitchen. And since he was anxious she would fight him by trying to make herself puke, he hurried back just to find her sound asleep against the wall he had leaned her against, her long pale legs and some of her gray feathers within line of the warm sun.
Smiling, he wrapped her up in a comforter and carried her outside, where he lay her in the sun besides the old men and asked them to keep an eye on her. Everyone knew about the strange bird girl Jin and he had found, but no one outside of Jin, Shu Lin, Yetsu, and himself had really gotten a good look at her. Lei shifted uncomfortably at their scrutinizing stares.
“I ain’t ever seen a real bird person,” said Old Jiang, the one with the long tiger’s tail.
“We ain’t had noth’n to do with any bird people,” said Yu Chao, who scratched a thin patch of fur under his slightly pointed, human ear.
“Just make sure she doesn’t try to throw up or anything,” said Lei impatiently. “And can you not puff like chimneys in her face like that?”
“Calm down, we ain’t heartless,” said Old Jiang, putting out his pipe with a wad of cloth as he said it. “How long you need us to sit here?”
“Just until I can get Shu Lin over. She owes me.”
Both of them chuckled like the old, dried out reeds they were.
“Boy,” rasped Yu Chao. “You can’t make any woman owe you. She just lets you think that.”
“Whatever,” said Lei with an impatient roll of his eyes. “I’ll hurry, okay?”
“You do that. Aren’t you running late for work anyhow?”
But Lei had already leapt over the porch and out across the threshold.