Originally published in ROAR v.3 in 2011, this is a story which changed so much in the editing I didn't recognize it when it finally went to print. This is the final text, courtesy of the publisher.
James L. Steele
A tiger and a coyote hobbled through the dense jungle, leaning on each other. Their fur was matted down from exertion in the oppressive climate. Beads of condensation hung from their whiskers. They panted, drawing in breath after saturated breath. The air felt dense, suffocating, and their exhaustion sounded through each gasp that filled their lungs.
The jungle dripped with putrid moisture. The humidity was so high water could not evaporate, so it streamed off the treetops and down the bark, trickling its way to the spongy soil. At this level, the trees had the appearance of death, as the constant presence of water rotted the bark while it was still on the trees. Only by looking up could one determine they thrived in conditions like this.
The coyote, the smaller and younger of the two, was clad only in a loincloth decorated with his tribe’s design. He walked with his arm wrapped around the tiger’s shoulders, leaning on him as he bled from multiple slash wounds up and down his arms, legs and torso. Some had scabbed over, but most were still open and dripping blood on the path.
The tiger supporting the coyote was dressed in his own tribe’s colors around his waist, which served the purpose of tribal identification more than modesty or protection from the environment. He too bled from open wounds on his forearms. He held the coyote around the waist to keep him up. The coyote’s fur soaked up the tiger’s blood.
The path they walked on was thin, and hopefully unknown to the invaders. It wasn’t wide enough for the two to walk properly abreast, so the dense vegetation on either side scraped and pulled at their fur and tried to gouge out their eyes every step.
Paths like this were rare. Some areas were so thick with vegetation a trail couldn’t be cut through it, and even the smallest plant was as tough as the largest tree trunk. Anyone who tried to make a path through places like this would get his claws stuck, and the only way to free oneself would be to rip the claws from the hand. As a result, vast swaths of jungle remained unexplored, even by the native tribes.
The tiger would have carried the coyote if he could. Returning to his village with an ally across his shoulders would improve relations between their tribes, but he was too weak himself. Leaning on the wounded warrior would look just as good for their alliance. Perhaps it would become permanent.
As the hours passed, the tiger began leaning on the coyote for support as well. Their paces slowed. Panting did not cool them down. They kept walking, hoping the invaders were not following, placing their faith in the rumors that their enemy was incapable of following scent paths.
The narrow path ended at an enormous rock outcropping. Here the coyote let go of the tiger and they ascended the jagged rock. At each handhold they smelled faint traces of blood where previous climbers had cut themselves. They had no reaction, no unease at the implied danger. The coyote and the tiger had smelled so much blood today that it was like the constant squawk and chatter of birds—they didn’t even notice.
The coyote was the first to summit the plateau. He planted his paws on the rock, pulled himself up, then reached down and offered a hand to the tiger. The tiger didn’t need the help, but he took the outstretched hand anyway. The implication was that their tribes were no longer looking out for themselves, but for each other. The coyote pulled the tiger up until he stood on both paws.
The top of the rock was not even above the sub-canopy. It was shrouded in dreary shade, a vertical column empty of trees, vegetation, and life rose above them. They could see to the tops of the trees that grew around the rock. Vines blossoming with white flowers spiraled tightly around the massive kapok trees from trunk to crown.
The rock was ten paces across and covered in water fallen from the canopy. Water dripped onto it even now. The coyote led the way to the far edge, his body sagging in exhaustion. The humidity was even more pronounced up here, and no matter how deeply he tried to breathe it felt as if there was no fresh air in his lungs. He stopped at the edge and peered over. The path continued on the other side. He couldn’t see where it led for the thickness of the jungle.
A climb down was ahead of them. The coyote closed his eyes and moaned. A drop of blood fell from his leg and plopped in the standing water by his paws. His paw pads—cut to pieces by the terrain—stung in the cold water. The coyote stepped back without looking and sat down on the driest place on this rock. Groaning, the tiger sat next to him on the elevated protrusion. They leaned on their knees for some time and caught their breath.
The tiger opened his eyes and examined the coyote. He picked himself up and scooted closer, scented his abdomen. Their wounds had scabbed over during the long walk, and the tiger smelled infection underneath. He licked one wound hard a few times and broke it open. It bled profusely again and the tiger cleaned it as thoroughly as he could. The coyote, of a tribe normally too proud to receive help from a tiger, gladly accepted the aid. They had an alliance. There was no shame in it.
The tiger repeated the process on the numerous slashes on his abdomen and chest. When they were purged and the blood flow staunched, he rose, crouched in front of the coyote and cleaned the wounds on his arms and legs. After a while, the blood slowed enough for it to clot on its own. The tiger sat back down on the rock, and the coyote crouched in front of the tiger to return the assistance, attending to the cuts on the tiger’s forearm.
The battle earlier that morning had been the largest attempt at an invasion any of the tribes had seen. They had scouted the invaders massing weeks ago, and united as one tribe to meet this army. For generations the tribes had kept to themselves, defending their own territories, but for the first time, tigers, apes, coyotes, panthers—every thinking creature fought as one.
The invaders did not live in the jungle. They came from lands beyond. Instead of living within the jungle, they changed it to suit themselves, and they would not stop until this jungle was as flat and lifeless as the land they sought to escape.
The battle had lasted all day. The tiger fought with his claws. The coyote, with his teeth. The invaders had no claws, but they made their own out of metal and stone. The tiger and the coyote had each killed many of the enemy, evading the swings of the metal blades well enough to preserve their lives, but they were not unscathed. Both had suffered slices and scars so deep they still wept blood into the surrounding fur.
The tribes and the invaders had battled each other to a bloody stalemate. After it was clear that neither side could truly win, the surviving tribal warriors retreated to the jungle to regroup, away from the disorganized remnants of the invaders. Some of the remaining able-bodied invaders followed the survivors into the jungle and hunted them down. The tiger had been sneaking away when he had come across this wounded coyote. He was still breathing, so he picked up the canine and carried him to safety.
“I don’t think we were followed,” said the tiger.
The coyote was still licking the gashes on the tiger’s arm. He paused. “I hope not.”
It was the first either had spoken since the battle. The coyote resumed cleaning the tiger. The blood still flowed, and it worried the coyote.
“I am Kelm,” said the tiger. “What is your name?”
“Mas’i,” the coyote said, and resumed cleaning.
“Was it your first battle?”
The coyote cleaned out the cuts on the tiger’s other arm. The tiger sat in silence, wincing at the necessary pain. When the wound no longer bled freely and was cleared of dirt the coyote lifted himself back up to the ledge. He sat, leaned on his thighs, looking at his reflection in the pool at his paws.
“I’ve seen battle all my life,” said Mas’i.
“So have I.”
“I fell not for lack of experience. An invader caught me from behind—took me down and held me. The one I was fighting lunged with his blade, but I kicked around too much for him to get a killing strike on me.”
“The invaders formed a crowd around me,” said Kelm. “They always do. Too cowardly to take me one at a time. I spent the entire battle fending off a dozen at once.”
Mas’i was sure that was exaggeration, but he was not about to correct him. They sat and panted. Their paws bled in the pool. They watched the ribbons of blood dance.
“I’ve been fighting them since I was born,” Mas’i said. “My first battle was before I even matured.”
“So was mine,” said Kelm. “I was raised to be a warrior and defend my tribe against the invaders.”
“Yes. I was born for this.”
Mas’i looked up at the tiger, still hunched over. “They have Pori in your tribe, too?”
Kelm had wondered if other tribes called it by the same word. In times the elders recounted in stories, warriors were selected based on physical stature and ferocity, and such service was voluntary. But since the invaders came, certain families were selected for the honor of giving up their children to become warriors. Children were taken from their parents at birth and raised to fight. It was the only way to ensure there were enough warriors to keep the invaders out of the jungle.
“All tribes have Pori,” said Kelm.
“I always wondered if other tribes had born warriors…” Mas’i trailed off.
He panted. After a while of watching the ribbons in the pool, he picked up the thought again.
“The Pori masters had me chewing wood from birth so my teeth would grow in sooner, my jaw become stronger. Did they do that to you, too?”
“No, my tribe doesn’t fight with teeth. But our masters had us clawing pieces of wood before we could talk.” Kelm held one hand up. He flexed his hand, exposing his claws. Dried blood stained them. “It encouraged them to grow faster and stronger.”
Mas’i looked at them, nodded. “Our tribes never got along before. I never knew how the tigers really lived.”
“I know nothing about yours either,” said Kelm. “I was told your tribe lost to the invaders. Is that true?”
“Yes. They swarmed the plains to the north. My tribe fled to the trees years ago.” The canine stared at the pool for a time. Then he spoke again. “Tell me. Were you separated from the other children, too? You were not taught by the elder females, but by the Pori masters?”
“I was. The born warriors need to learn how to fight and survive, not how to read the stars, or search for fruit.”
“I was taught the same thing.”
“When the invaders arrived, the elders from many tribes came together and created the Pori. It is the same across every tribe, so we can stand together and fight as one when necessary, as we did today.”
“Of course…” Mas’i caught his breath. The ribbons stopped dancing. “Such an honor to fight for the tribe. For all the tribes.”
“It is a great honor,” said Kelm between heavy, painful breaths. “As Pori we are respected for defending our lands from the invaders so our tribes may flourish.”
Mas’i snorted and slowly looked up at Kelm. “That is… That is word for word what I was taught as well.”
“We fight so others may live.”
“We protect our paradise from the invaders…” Mas’i continued.
Kelm picked up exactly where Mas’i left off. “…who would destroy it. We fight for those who cannot fight for themselves…”
“…we were chosen for this purpose, and will be rewarded greatly for it in both life and…”
“…and in death.”
Mas’i stared at the tiger for a long time. Kelm looked back at the coyote, trying to read his eyes. He found nothing, but Kelm did not know how to read a canine’s expressions very well.
“Kelm… Is it really like that in your tribe?”
Kelm thought for a moment. “What do you mean?”
“We have an alliance do we not?”
“Maybe that’s how it is for the tigers,” Mas’i said. “But where I come from, things are different. I’ve watched the elders. I’ve watched the gatherers. I’ve seen their children, how they grow up. How they’re raised. I saw the childhood I never had. It’s nothing like I was taught.”
“I don’t understand,” said the tiger.
“My Pori masters taught me that the others are too weak to fight. They grow and hunt our food, so we must defend them. But I watched them hunt. I watched them farm. They’re not weak. They’re not helpless.”
Now Kelm sat up straight and looked at his coyote companion. Mas’i smelled of shock. It was the weariness of blood loss talking, Kelm was sure. He was about to suggest they rest here but the coyote kept talking.
“They’ve fended off the mindless beasts when there were no able Pori around. They can fight, and they’re just as good as any of us, and yet they stay in the safety of the village. The farmers… They have it so easy. Wake up, plant the seeds, let them grow… The hunters can defend themselves, yet they are allowed to stay in safety. We don’t defend the helpless—we defend the privileged.”
“Mas’i, if not for us, the invaders would have overrun us by now and destroyed everything! We are respected and honored in both this life and the next life for our duty. We are chosen to defend our home.”
“Chosen!” Mas’i shouted. He gasped for a moment and recovered from the exertion. “I saw the families who were chosen to give up their children! They are the families with no land to farm, nothing to trade, no standing in the tribe! They don’t have huts, they sleep outside and earn their food by breeding children for the Pori!”
Kelm’s muzzle hung open slightly.
“I saw the children. The ones who are not born warriors. They play. They learn about the stars and the gods. I… We… We never played. Since I could walk I’ve been training. Learning how to fight. How to kill. I was only fed when I fought better. How many young Pori I saw starve because they couldn’t keep up with the rest of us.”
Mas’i was crying. Kelm watched him. He sighed.
“My masters said the invaders kill the weak, and only the strong survived. My training was to fight the other Pori. The better I got at taking them down, the more I was fed. In those battles the weak would fall. Every day was a struggle to stay alive. I grew up in absolute terror of slipping behind—that’s why I became such a great fighter. It wasn’t out of honor, it was fear!”
The coyote sobbed for a while.
“I’m not respected, Kelm…” the coyote continued. “I’m born of the most detested families in the tribe and raised like the mindless beasts I eat! My tribe looks down on me because of what I am!”
Mas’i buried his eyes in his padded hands and sobbed. Kelm placed a hand on the coyote’s back and let the canine grieve for a moment.
“Mas’i, I… I never told anybody this before either. I dared not say it to anyone in my tribe. It is the same in my tribe.”
Mas’i sat up, removed his hands from his eyes and looked at Kelm directly.
Kelm nodded. “I thought I was the only one who saw things that way. I remember when I was still a cub I sneaked away from the Pori and walked into the main village for the first time. I saw how the people looked at me. They moved out of my way, but their scents were not full of respect. They were afraid of me. And ashamed. I felt it. I didn’t recognize it until years later, after I fought a few battles.”
Kelm removed his hand from Mas’i’s back.
“I also wandered into the huts of the elders, and the most respected families in the tribe. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I wanted to see them. They had beds, they had special leaves around the huts to keep insects out. They lived so easy compared to us…sleeping outside, eating the insects that crawled on us while we slept.”
Mas’i’s ears bloomed. He licked the newly formed beads of moisture from his whiskers. Kelm subconsciously did so as well.
“They prosper! We die! The high families live easy, while we live in fear of starving to death in our own tribe!”
Kelm nodded. “I saw that, too. I wondered… Were we chosen for an honorable task?”
Fire burned in Mas’i’s blood. “The lowest in the tribe give their infants away so the high families and the elders can live away from the fighting!”
Kelm nodded. Mas’i looked immensely relieved.
“Kelm, I never…” he swallowed his nerves. “I thought I was the only one who felt this way! I never told anyone because I was so afraid of showing weakness! The other Pori would turn on me if I didn’t stay strong!”
“I feared the same thing,” said Kelm. “I’ve lived my whole life afraid of being weak. Every day of my life I’ve been fighting to the death. First the Pori. Now the invaders.”
“And—and—everything is a fight to the death! I was taught we’re defending our paradise from the invaders but… When I was younger, I went with the hunters to protect them. I had that duty for months as part of my training. I was told to protect them from everything that posed a threat, and you know what I saw? Toxic bark on all the trees. Grass that can cut me to the bone if I walked through it. I saw frogs that would poison me if they so much as landed on my nose. Spiders bigger than my arm that could kill me with one bite. Ants crawled out of the ground where I slept and started eating me alive! Everything is out to destroy us! The invaders, the jungle, and our own tribes!”
“I know…” Kelm said, relieved to be able to speak these thoughts for the first time in his life. The coyote took a great risk by showing his weakness to Kelm, and it encouraged Kelm to express his own. “The masters told me that our land is a beautiful place. The invaders’ land was once like this, but they wiped it out, and if we don’t stop them our land will be stripped lifeless as well. In this jungle traveling from battle to battle I never found beauty.”
Kelm looked ahead idly. His eyes focused on the trees around the rock.
“Like those vines. I was taught they are the goddess’ tail wrapped around each tree to keep the birds and trees safe. But they’re covered in poisonous slime to keep predators off them. And the trees…”
He looked idly around.
“They secrete poison so the beasts don’t eat the bark, and to keep birds and insects from burrowing into them. I fell on a patch of those sharp grasses in a battle. I ripped myself out of it. Bled for days. Beasts picked up my scent and hunted me down while I found my way back to the Pori camp. Bees chased me for hours until they caught up to me. They trapped me in a patch of the jungle covered in prickly plants higher than my head. I suffered a hundred stings before I found water. By then I was bleeding so much I couldn’t see. When I reached the camp, nobody helped me. I dressed my own wounds—I dealt with the pain silently.”
Mas’i was crying for both himself and for Kelm. “Our elders tell us we’re defending our paradise from an invader who wants to destroy it! Maybe if we were living like the elders and the high families, the jungle would be paradise.”
“Selected for the honor of defending our land…” Kelm said, crying a little himself, finally able to be vulnerable in front of someone. “It’s not true. None of it is.”
“If one thing won’t kill us something else will! I smell venomous snakes hiding in those branches above our heads! I hear spiders crawling around on this rock! Centipedes and pincers are probably hiding in these pools. They’ll crawl in our ears while we’re asleep.”
“All so our tribes can live in their villages, where it’s cool and the snakes and insects don’t come near their fires.”
Mas’i’s face was so endearing. He looked at Kelm longingly. “Kelm… I’m so relieved you understand.”
“What made you tell me?”
“This last battle. I nearly died. If you hadn’t picked me up, I would’ve just lain there. I was fine. I could move. But I didn’t want to. I was hoping one of the invaders would kill me.”
Kelm nodded, and leaned forward on his thighs. “I thought of that, too. What would happen if I just let the invaders kill me? The suffering would be over. Only one thing has stopped me all these years.”
Mas’i looked sideways at Kelm.
“How could I face the gods? What would they do with me in the next life if I willfully died by the blade of an invader? I couldn’t bear to face the spirit life with such shame.”
“I feared that, too,” Mas’i said. “The gods punish those who abandon their tribes. But… But they also reward the captives who fight their way out of an enemy’s tribe. They would rather someone die trying to escape than live as a captive.”
Kelm looked at Mas’i, but before he could ask what he meant Mas’i continued.
“They smile on those who avenge themselves, who make their own way instead of remaining victims—especially if they fall in combat.”
Kelm blinked. The younger coyote seemed older than Kelm.
“I never thought of it that way before,” said Kelm. “The only way out is to fight. Not give up.”
The tiger looked absently at the poisonous vines clinging to the trees.
“There is a way,” said the coyote. “Kelm… If I asked. Would you? Would you kill me?”
Kelm’s ears folded against his head. From the corner of his eye he saw that the coyote had more life in him than ever now, and that disturbed the tiger. Yet he envied the coyote for having the courage to speak it first.
Kelm faced him. Mas’i lifted his neck, exposing his throat to Kelm. Kelm’s eyes widened and his ears flattened even more. Until this moment, he did not believe the coyote was truly serious, but to expose one’s neck to another… Even mates did not do that.
Mas’i gestured to his neck. “You rip my throat out with your claws. I pull yours out. Together.”
Kelm swallowed as he looked the coyote in the eye.
“It’s not weakness” said Mas’i. “It’s taking control of our fate! It will be a courageous death. The gods will respect us for fighting our way out of captivity within our own tribe.”
Mas’i’s confidence was intimidating, and it had been a very long time since Kelm had been in the presence of such a being. Only his Pori masters, other tigers, had ever radiated such power and certainty over matters of life and death. Not invaders, not the elders, no one else in his tribe. But this coyote… Mas’i scared him.
“C… Can you? Bite through my neck with my claws…in…?”
“The Pori made my jaws strong enough to break a leg in one bite. I can do it. Will you?”
Mas’i raised his muzzle a little higher. Kelm could not remember seeing the underside of anyone’s snout before. It made the possibility before him real.
Kelm absently reached out, fingers spreading and lightly touched Mas’i on the throat. He pressed his fingertips where the canine’s jugulars would be. He’d done it a thousand times on invaders, and even on a few tigers, but this felt nothing like that.
The coyote picked himself up and sat closer to Kelm. He wrapped an arm around Kelm’s back, braced himself against him and lightly closed his jaws around the tiger’s neck.
Neither moved. They both sat, holding each other in a death embrace. They panted in harmony. They breathed each other’s anxiety.
Mas’i was barely aware that all he had to do was clamp down and shake and he would kill this tiger…and be killed himself. But he didn’t move. He wanted to, but he hesitated. What if he was wrong about the gods?
Kelm realized all he had to do was flex his claws. They would slip out, pierce the coyote’s neck and it would be all over. He had no doubt Mas’i could bite down and kill him as soon as he felt the claws. Kelm flexed his claws, but not enough to push them out. He couldn’t push them out.
The fear rose up in both of them. Mas’i was starting to choke on it. But this was the only way. This was their chance to end it. All Kelm had to do was flex one muscle. All Mas’i had to do was close his mouth.
A high-pitched whining hovered around Mas’i’s ear.
Mas’i ignored the insect and gathered his courage to take what he had wanted for years. All he had to do was kill a Pori. It should not have been difficult.
Kelm’s hand trembled. The gods would respect him. Mas’i was right, wasn’t he? The gods would reward them for taking control of their fate wouldn’t they?
Out of pure habit Mas’i brought his free hand up to his ear and swatted the air. The humming moved away from him, and then quickly swooped back over it. He swatted at it again, loosening his grip on Kelm’s neck. The insect darted away and avoided the paw, and flew right back to his ear.
Kelm chuckled. It came out as a snort through his nose. His grip on Mas’i’s neck relaxed.
Mas’i’s gaze softened along with his grip. His attention was now on his ear, and on the tiger laughing at him. How could he laugh right—?
“AAHHH!” Mas’i screamed. The insect shoved something down his ear, probably trying to lay eggs in his skull.
He couldn’t help it; he let go of Kelm’s neck and jumped out of the tiger’s paw. He swatted at the humming over his ear. The insect withdrew its probe and moved away.
The humming stayed at a safe distance for a moment, then as soon as Mas’i’s hand was still, it returned to his ear.
Mas’i growled and turned to look at it, but with the slightest move to the left, it followed. To the right, it followed. Up, down. He waved it away again, and it dodged his hand and returned to his ear. Mas’i flailed around, splashing water up in geysers.
Kelm cupped his paw over his muzzle, but it didn’t help. He laughed through his padded fingers.
Mas’i was growling like a warrior facing a thousand invaders. He moved with the prowess of a Pori, swinging his head around, swatting and attacking the humming wherever it went, but it always returned to either ear.
Mas’i’s ears folded down, but the insect poked and forced its way down his ear with its proboscis.
“GRAAHHH!” He jumped up and swatted it. It only followed and probed his ears deeper. “RAAHHH.” The coyote jumped around and around.
Kelm couldn’t hold it in anymore. He let his hand drop and his laughter exploded. He doubled over, pointing at the coyote, trying to tell him, “You… you… it’s… it’s…” but he couldn’t finish. He dropped to his hands and knees, wrist deep in a puddle of water, pointing, spitting the first couple words over and over.
Mas’i lumbered and pranced around the rock, kicking water everywhere.
Mas’i heard the tiger laughing. He was about to shout at the tiger to stop laughing and help him. He turned his head to look at him—
But this time he stopped before he turned all the way. The humming moved to where his ear was about to go and hovered in front of his muzzle.
The little bird’s wings were moving so fast it appeared to be suspended in solid air. Its beak was long and hooked. It hovered around in front of Mas’i’s muzzle, appearing not to move, but to pop from one location to another, looking at the coyote long and hard from various angles.
The hummingbird zipped away, then back. It swooped past Mas’i, stopped at an ear and hovered there for a moment. Then it flew away. Mas’i turned and looked after it. Kelm was still on the ground laughing.
The hummingbird stopped at a set of vines clinging to a branch that hung beside the rock. It found a cluster of flowers, and hovered over one of them. Its beak disappeared down the flower for a moment, then it emerged and flew to the next flower.
Mas’i slowly stepped towards it. The hummingbird watched him approach, but continued drinking. Kelm picked himself up and stood next to the coyote, watching the bird hover from flower to flower. After sampling every flower, it darted up into the canopy. Mas’i and Kelm looked up at the same time.
The canopy was dozens of paces up the rotting bark of the trees that surrounded the rock. Hundreds of hummingbirds floated overhead. Flowers wrapped around the trunks of most every tree, and the birds huddled around clusters of blossoms. They fluttered through the empty space over the rock, filling it with so many birds Kelm and Mas’i couldn’t see the treetops.
Nests were built onto the vines and in the tree branches. Hummingbirds perched on them and gave the nectar to their tiny chicks, then flew back into the cloud over the rock and jostled for a place among the flowers.
Filling the gaps between the hummingbirds, countless fireflies winked in and out of existence. Kelm and Mas’i couldn’t keep their eyes still. Glowing patches drew their attention, then faded out whenever they looked at them directly.
Night was falling. All over the canopy tiny droplets of humidity rained down from the leaves. The firefly light caught the drops and made them sparkle on the way down, like the stars themselves were descending to meet them. As night fell, the canopy of hummingbirds and fireflies ventured lower and lower.
The sun set completely. Firefly light flickered around them. Hummingbirds darted past them in all directions, over their heads, between their legs, under their arms, racing to the open flowers. Kelm and Mas’i turned to look at everything. Numerous hummingbirds hovered around Mas’i’s ears, but quickly realized they were dry, and sped away.
A flash in front of Kelm’s eyes blinded him for an instant. He turned his head. Another flash in the same place blinded him again. The tiger crossed his eyes and looked in front of his face. A firefly had landed on his muzzle. Kelm’s first instinct was to swat the insect away, but his paw fell still. The insect lit up over and over.
Kelm smiled. He didn’t want to speak, terrified the noise would scare everyone away, and gripped Mas’i on the shoulder. The coyote turned and regarded Kelm just as the perched firefly flashed three times in a row. Kelm turned his eyes down at the insect, then up at Mas’i, smiling ear to ear.
Mas’i smiled, too, and turned around, looking up at the column of hummingbirds and fireflies that reached up from the rock to the tops of the trees. It was so bright the flowers remained open for the birds, the glow of the fireflies replacing the warmth of the sun.
The light echoed. The air sang with the whine of hummingbird wings. A few gathered around Mas’i’s ears again, probed for nectar, paused in confusion and moved on to sweeter flowers. One disappointed hummingbird landed on his muzzle and rested. Mas’i froze and stared in wonder. It preened its emerald wings, then stared at him. Mas’i backed up a step, groped the air until his paw touched fur. Kelm had been reaching for Mas’i at the same time, and they turned around and faced each other.
More fireflies had landed on Kelm and were lighting up a storm on the tiger. In a way he couldn’t describe, he felt honored. The extra light helped him see the bird perched on the coyote’s muzzle. Other birds noticed the first perching on the coyote and landed on his head and shoulders. They preened themselves. The coyote’s tail wagged like only a canine’s could.
Mas’i smiled, and so did Kelm. They were still, entranced by the ever shifting glow of the fireflies and the soundscape of hummingbirds. Birds landed on Mas’i and took off without so much as a breeze from their wings. Fireflies lifted off and landed on Kelm in a steady stream, making him part of a swirling river of light that spiraled from him, around Mas’i and up through the canopy.
The flowers began to close, no longer responding to the pale luminescence of the insects. As they did, the hummingbirds retreated to their nests. The fireflies dissipated and spread through the jungle, leaving quiet darkness behind.
The two born warriors looked around them. The few remaining fireflies still gave off enough light to see by. They saw the vines wrapping around the trees. Earlier, they saw these poisonous vines as a lethal threat—an ugly reminder of their daily battle for survival. But looking at them in this light, instead of poisonous vines clinging to trees, they could now see the goddess’ tail shielding the hummingbirds from snakes.
Instead of putrid, sticky air, they smelled plentiful, life-giving water on which the whole jungle depended. The trees no longer looked like rotting skeletons, but were full of life from canopy to floor.
Kelm and Mas’i remembered lessons the Pori taught them, but which they had long forgotten. They remembered small mammals burrowing underground, safe from predators, raising families while harming no one.
Small lizards crawled up the moist tree bark. They made their homes in branches covered in spongy moss, lying in tiny pools of water high above the jungle floor. They were born up in the trees, lived their whole lives in the canopy, and never had to touch the ground.
Spiders sat on beautiful webs covered in beads of water.
Abundant fruit grew from trees and bushes, free for the taking.
Kelm and Mas’i took in a deep breath. For the first time since they were very young, the air did not stink of death and danger.
Other memories came back to them—a flood of emotions long suppressed under a suffocating blanket of fear and aggression.
They remembered the elders in their villages out hunting with the families. The elders climbed trees and gathered fruit for the Pori, as well as the families low and high to eat and enjoy.
They remembered children laughing, climbing and playing in the trees. They had visions of the high families hunting side by side with the families who gave their infants to the Pori. Those families ate in the huts of the high families, sharing their food and water.
Both remembered the elders fighting and dying for the village, just as the Pori did. The hunters defended the village. The farmers shared their crop with the village. Low families and high families ate together, laughing.
Kelm and Mas’i looked at each other. They huddled together on the driest part of the rock and slept through the night. Nothing came by to disturb them.
They woke with the sun. Mas’i led the way down the other side of the rock and back onto the path. Kelm followed a couple paces behind.
“I had forgotten…” Mas’i said. He had been afraid to speak of last night for fear that if he spoke of it aloud, the memory would cease to exist.
“So many years of fighting,” Kelm said. “It was all I could think about.”
Mas’i looked around and above as he walked. His eyes were lifted up not in sorrow, but in wonder. “Has it always been there? Did I just not see it?”
“I never did. Until now.”
Mas’i’s gaze fell back on Kelm. He looked at Kelm with the same childlike wonder.
“We can still take control,” Kelm said.
Mas’i’s tail wagged. “We don’t have to go back to your village.”
Kelm’s eyes lit up with the possibility. “No… No, we could go back, but we can find other Pori—other villagers—who feel the same way we do.”
“We could change things.”
“Change how the Pori are seen by the tribe. End the separation.”
“Return to the tribe instead of just fighting for it.”
Mas’i’s pace slowed to a walk. Kelm walked right behind him for a few paces.
“How far away is your village?” said Mas’i.
“Another four day’s walk. Six, at this pace.”
Mas’i smiled. His ears bloomed. “Plenty of time.”
“We can think about it.”
Mas’i picked up the pace, but only a little. Kelm walked in arm’s reach of the coyote. The two born warriors walked along the spongy trail. Diffuse sunlight speckled their fur as they walked under tiny gaps in the leaves far above. Birds sang. Insects buzzed. Humidity trickled down from the leaves and landed gently on the ground below, splashing on the leaves of tiny ground plants. A whole world of possibilities was open to them. It was so beautiful.