"Tonight the dew glows white beneath the moon, but the brightest moon shines on the home of our youth." Thinking of My Brothers on a Moonlit Night by Du Fu
When the sharp winter winds sting my eyes, and my white coat is weighed down with ice, I remember my childhood by the shores of the Tsangpo river, at the base of the Great Bend. It may have happened a century and a half ago, but these memories are still clear, sparkling crystals suspended in the net holding together my contorted existence.
My blood draws ancestry from the last weretigers of Asia. I don’t know much about them. Their numbers had already dwindled to a mere dozen by the time I was born, and they were lonesome creatures to begin with, more beast than man, avoiding the company of others, including their own kind.
My mother, half beast, half human as she was, had been a wandering scholar. She told me of a time she only walked on two legs, travelling between Tubo, Koguryo and the Southern Sea, gathering knowledge like a sponge. For twenty-five years she denied her tiger form, and walked on two legs. Then she had me, and only walked on four.
Thanks to her I grew up with stories about the dynasties of Qin, Han and Tang, about their emperors, about the period of the Warring States, and about the gods. At night she lulled me to sleep with the old tales of the Legend of the White Snake, or the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd. She composed poetry and wrote the symbols with a human hand on the walls of the cave we lived in. She was looking forward to teach me how to write when I would turn seven. Unfortunately, the Wheel of Time had other plans.
At the age of five I lost my mother. She left one winter morning to hunt, and never came back. I have never been so scared. The loneliness and fear I felt during those days had marked me.
I remember the cold eating me from the outside, and hunger eating me from the inside as I trembled on the stone floor of our hiding place. I watched the daylight turn to night, and then to daylight again, through the narrow opening in the mountain. She did not return.
In my tiger form I was old enough to hunt myself, but I didn’t dare leave the cave. We always hunted together, I had never been on my own out there in the forests.
I would have died from starvation if not for the snow leopards.
On the evening of the fourth day, just as the sun was going down behind a mountain peak, a shadowy creature jumped in the cave. It was running away from something. It had red eyes and sharp claws, and smelled like a corpse. It crawled up the walls, then turned to face the entrance, hissing menacingly.
I made myself as small as I could, huddling in a corner, not breathing, not moving, trying to stay invisible. However, a five year old tiger was already close to adult size, and my coat was white to boot. It was a testament to the menacing power of the predator hunting such a thing, that it did not see me.
A moment later a snow leopard leaped through the twilight, and attacked. Another followed, smaller in size, and limping.
I covered my eyes with my paws, quivering with fright. The hissing and roaring were so violent and loud, they reverberated on the walls of the cave and escaped outside, echoing in the mountain gorge.
When I looked again, I saw one of the felines bite the monster’s front leg. The creature trashed and kicked the leopard in the chest, flinging its body on the wall behind my back. It dropped in front of me with a loud thud.
I must have whimpered, for the beast turned to me, and we stared with widened eyes at each other for the span of several breaths. Then a loud crack pulled our attention back to the horror scene.
The smaller leopard had closed its fangs around the monster’s throat and was fighting to keep its hold, as the creature was frantically trying to shake it off. Its companion growled, leaped on its feet and dived, biting the juncture between head and spine. A sideways twist and the monster went limp.
For a long while, the only sounds in the cave were the harsh breaths of the leopards, and the beating of my heart. A long time passed before any of them released their holds. Then, as if answering a signal, the smaller leopard opened its mouth and stepped away. The other followed.
They circled the monster, pushing the body with their snouts, alert for any possible attacks. There was no blood on their muzzle from the kill, but I was too much in shock to find it strange. At last, they sat down, their gazes trained on me, and I wished for the floor to crack open and swallow my body.
Where is your Mother, child?
The words reached me as a thought, spoken in a male voice, and the question needed repeating to make me realise one of them was communicating with me.
I managed to find my voice. “I… I don’t know. She left three moons ago, and never came back.”
The leopards stepped back hearing me speak. They looked at each other, then looked around the cave. The smaller one stood on two legs, with the front paws on the wall, and examined my mother’s symbols. The other came closer.
You speak like a human, the male said.
He’s a weretiger. This time the voice reaching my mind was female. Are you not, child?
My stomach chose that exact moment to growl.
The female leopard took a place next to her mate. When was the last time you ate? she asked.
“Five mornings ago… I think.”
The male stood and prowled toward the slain creature. It bit into the chest and exposed its ribcage. Everything was rotten inside, from the meat, to the yellow bones. The only part not marred yet by the putrefaction was the heart.
Come here, he said in a tone that allowed no objections.
I pushed up on four shaky legs, and made my way warily closer to the unmoving body. From my vantage point it had looked like a shadow, but up close I saw it had a canine body, like a hairless oversized wolf.
Eat the heart. It will give you enough strength to climb down the mountain.
I was confused. “Why would I need to climb down the mountain?”
Because you’re going to come with us, the female said.
“But what about Mother?”
She whined. No mother leaves her child to die of hunger. She is probably dead.
It struck me with the power of a boulder rolling down a slope. It was the truth. My eyes filled with tears.
“She can’t be,” I said foolishly.
Eat. Gain strength. Live so that someday you can find out what happened to her.
I squeezed my eyes shut and whimpered. I should have searched for her sooner.
With a vicious snap, I ripped through the monster’s chest and dug for the heart, as if it had been the reason my mother was gone.
I ate. I cried and I ate.
Tsangpo river, at the base of the Great Bend
Tubo = Tibet
Koguryo or Goguryeo = part of the ancient Korean Kingdom, situated in the North and Center of the Korean Peninsula