By Nghi Vo
21 May 2012
To the south, the Perfume River cut through the city of Huế, where sorcerers bred black magics and where brave girls won their fortunes with nothing more than a rice bowl and their clever wits; but where the widow named Thanh and her son lived, the river was not nearly so rich or satisfied.
Thanh had not always been a widow. Years before, she had worn waxy white flowers in her hair and married a tall man with a quick shy smile. They married on the banks of the river, but less than ten years later, they had taken him for soldiering. Now nothing remained of him but the smile, which lingered on the face of his son.
Where the father had held a spear, his son held a net, and every morning, Danh would leave his home and follow the fish. The fish of the Perfume River were not as monstrous as the catfish that lived in the Nine Dragons River, or as clever as the sturgeon that lived far away in the river called China's Sorrow, but they were sly enough, and a day when he could bring home enough to eat and to sell was cause for celebration.
"One day you are going to follow the river to Huế and never come back," Thanh said, helping him mend the nets. Her lean, learned fingers found the rips and tears and she mended them with a wooden twine needle that was older than her son.
"That's a horrible thing to say," Danh said, smiling wryly, but she knew that he thought of his father and whether fortune could be more easily skewered with a sword than caught with a net.
She had raised him well, though, and every day, when the sun touched the river and turned it to gold, he came back up the bank, singing her own old song about the fish who fell in love with the tree.
Thanh listened for the song, but finally there came a day, ten years after they had taken her husband to war and seventeen years after she had given birth to their only son, when it did not come.
She did not tell herself that he had run away to the capital and she did not tell herself that he was talking with his friends under the broad leaves of the apitong tree. Instead she set aside his portion of rice and ate her own, ignoring the gnawing worry, and when it grew dark, she hung their paper lantern in the door.
All night, Thanh started at shadows and dreamed of her son singing her old song, but the morning showed the paper lantern burnt out and his pallet undisturbed. She ate the portion of rice that she had set aside for him and slipped on her grass sandals, walking down the steep path to the water.
The other fishermen had not seen him, and neither had the women who planted new sprouts in the rice paddies. Thanh was not as young as she once was, but she moved slowly and steadily, her eyes open and searching.
The sun was beginning to set when she saw the blue of a jacket she had recently mended through the tall cane, and then she could see what was left of Danh's fishing boat as well. It was splintered and scattered, crushed past use. Taking her courage in both hands, she ventured further into the swaying stalks.
She saw her son first, and the tiger second. There was a great deal of mud stirred up, and it hid the blood, and though she first wanted to hide her face, she forced herself to look. Fear hollowed her like a gourd, but behind the terror was a sadness that was much worse. She knelt in the mud to straighten his arms and legs and to cover his face with a broad banana leaf.
Thanh ignored the tiger, who sat with all four feet underneath him like a statue in a temple, but no temple statue had ever had a muzzle so red. He rose to four feet, as if he meant to leave, and then he pressed his belly to the ground as if he meant to pounce. Finally he sat back down, staring at her with his round face tilted to one side.
"You are not afraid," he said uncertainly.
"Everything that I should be afraid of has already happened," she said to the tiger, "and what I have to fear does not come from tigers any more."
The tiger made a chuffing sound through his stiff whiskers. He was still young, but in those days, tigers were bigger, and when he stood, his back was nearly level with her shoulder.
"What scares you more than tigers?" he asked her.
"Growing old alone," she said. "Growing hungry, which tigers understand better."
The tiger understood hunger at least, and as he watched her move her son's limbs and straighten his torn clothing, he began to feel something like shame.
The village was so far from the capital that it did not have a monk to oversee the burial. Instead, they laid Danh out in the house that he had shared with his mother and placed a chopstick between his teeth. His mother waved one of his shirts in the air above his body, calling for his soul to come back (it had been known to happen), and after that was done, the people of the village came to pay their respects.
It was only a small village, and by the morning of the second day, everyone had come by to commiserate with the twice-bereaved widow, to offer their compliments on what a fine son she had had, and to offer her pounded rice cakes and roasted bananas that she could eat when she grew tired of her vigil.
She sat in the dark house waving the flies away from Danh, and though she tried, she could not sing the song about the fish who fell in love with the tree. Instead, she nibbled on a rice cake because grief does not stop hunger, and she waited for them to tell her that his grave was finished.
Tigers move silently when they wish, and even though he wore the form of a man, she did not hear him until he made a chuffing sound, tigerlike despite his human face.
She looked up to find the tiger dressed like one of the graveyard ghouls, a coarse and stained white cloth wrapped around his hips. His face was round and soft, but along his tanned skin were the shadows of his stripes, the sure sign of what he really was.
"I am sorry for the loss of your son," he said haltingly. "But tigers must eat."
"Do you think that is what I wish to hear now?" she said, glaring at him. She brushed the flies away from Danh again, and they buzzed angrily in the air.
"Old widows need to eat as well," the tiger said uneasily and he presented her with the leg of a wild boar, wrapped in banana leaves.
He was a guest who had brought food, and she finally rose to take it from him, laying it on the rough bench with the rest of the funeral food.
When she turned back, he was gone, and she sat back down, picking up her cloth to shoo away the flies.
The last fish that Danh had smoked was not yet eaten when there was a soft scrabbling at the door.
Thanh heaved herself to her feet, blinking and wondering when she had last risen. When she opened the door, she was not sure how surprised she was to be met by a young man with the faintest hint of stripes along his bare arms and legs.
"You again," she said with a frown. "Have you come to eat me as well?" The tiger looked down and tucked one foot behind the calf of the other. He looked so much like a half-grown boy that she found her frown unraveling like a rope. Her sharp eyes spied the string of yellow fish that was slung over his shoulder.
"You brought food."
". . . Yes."
For just a moment, she wanted to ask the tiger why he hadn't come to eat her, and if he hadn't come to eat her, then why he had eaten her son. Instead she only shook her head and opened the door further for the tiger to come inside.
The tiger was nervous in the dark house, but he sat quietly enough while she offered him a cup of water and one of the funeral rice cakes.
They sat in the dark, sipping their water and nibbling on their rice cakes, and finally she asked him what made him so nervous.
"I was born in a cage," he told her, eyes flickering from corner to corner. "In the house of a great king."
"Then I suppose that makes you a prince?" she said uncertainly.
His smile was all at once wild and shy, as surprising as a tiger sitting with a widow and pretending to enjoy her poor food.
"No, I am not a prince, I am a tiger."
They sat like that, uncomfortable in each other's presence. The sun sank in the sky and the shadows in the dark house lengthened until enough time had passed that neither guest nor host would be ashamed of the tiger's departure.
She got to her feet, more easily this time, and opened the door for him, and for a moment he towered above her. This close, she could see his stripes even more clearly, and how his brown eyes would flicker to something now more like jade, now more like citrine.
"You don't have to fear me eating you," the tiger said awkwardly, fiddling with the string that had held the fish.
Thanh puffed air through her lips, making a sound that the tiger found strangely familiar.
"I was never afraid of that," she told him.
He looked at her and knew it was true. The strangeness of it buzzed around his naked ears like flies during the summer. He shook his head, as if uncomfortable in his skin, and started towards the river; after all, the small deer would soon come to drink.
She watched him go, his back so much straighter than a fisherman's would be, and he was almost gone into the dusk before she spoke.
"Thank you for the fish," she called. "Come back when you wish."
For a moment, she thought he would turn to speak, but he only paused and then kept walking down the path, where the Perfume River and a night of good hunting waited.
The meat the tiger brought was always welcome, and because they say there are fewer doors in the country than in the city, it found its way to other homes in the village as well.
Most people knew about the tiger's visits to Thanh. In richer times, perhaps, there would even have been a protest, or a pit trap, but the soldiers had come again and taken their toll of pigs and young men. The meat that he brought was welcome, and though he would never have thought so, that welcome started to change him into something that was less tigerlike than it was before.
Two or even three nights a week, he would walk up the path to the widow's door, some fish strung on the same woven cord drawn over his shoulder, or part of a wild pig tucked under his arm. He would sit and she would offer him water, and though their talks became easier, they were never comfortable until the night that he came with nothing at all.
He appeared at her door later than usual, and though she would not say that she had been looking for him, there was a certain relief when she heard his scratch on the door.
Thanh opened the door and there was blood on his face. She did not scream, for she had seen much worse in her time. Instead, she brought him inside and sat him down.
The cut was clean, deep, and sharp, and after he held a cloth to it for some time, it stopped bleeding.
"I didn't come for your nursing," he growled, more tigerlike than he had been for some time. "I only meant to apologize. The deer were too quick today."
Thanh shrugged, wringing out a clean cloth and taking the stained one away from him.
"Times are thinner than they were and the deer are too quick for everyone," she said absently. She considered the wound for a moment and the tiger who sat on her floor, more sulky than wounded and holding a cloth to his head like a surly child.
"It was no deer that did that," she said finally.
He glanced at her and then glanced away, staring at something on the ceiling with unblinking eyes.
"The deer were too quick," he said discontentedly, "but the water buffalo did not look quick at all."
She looked at him for a long moment and then she lightly slapped his shoulder, making him chuff in surprise and look up at her.
"You stupid thing," she said, not unkindly. "Surely you didn't try to take on the herd?"
He frowned up at her so fiercely that she knew at once that he had done precisely that.
"The herd belongs to the village, not that that means anything to you, but did you really think that the water buffalo would be afraid of you?"
Tigers were bigger in those days, but the water buffalo were just the same, and unless they are alone, water buffalo are never afraid of tigers. In Thanh's village, they sent the children out to watch the herd, but it could just as easily be said the other way around.
"I didn't want the children," the tiger muttered, and if he had had his real face, his head would have dropped low to the ground and his round ears would have flattened to his head.
"The buffalo didn't know that," she told him calmly. She took the wet cloth from his hand and inspected the cut critically. It would heal well enough, but there would be a scar.
He made a noise of discontent, but she thought that after this he would be wise enough to leave the village herds alone. Then she wondered why she was so concerned about the wisdom of a tiger.
"You don't have to apologize for not bringing food when you come to visit," she said. "You do not have to have an excuse to come to visit at all."
"That is what your people do," he said stubbornly, and though he never again came empty-handed, sometimes it would only be a handful of wild rice or half a yam she suspected that a wild pig had left unearthed.
Rice and yams were things that a tiger might have scorned to bring no matter where he was going, but then he was not quite the tiger that he had been before.
The first hundred days of mourning passed, and still the tiger showed up. On the full year anniversary, he brought her a young sika deer, and did not stay, though she found herself wishing that he would.
In the village, there was talk of another company of soldiers who would come to take the village's sons away. Some of the women started talking about sending their sons away, to relatives further in the country, or even to the city of Huế itself, but Thanh felt that it was foolishness.
"The soldiers will always come, and my friends are sending their sons away before their time. It's only creating tears."
The tiger looked up as though his mind was somewhere else. For some weeks now, he had looked restless.
"Do tigers have wars?" she asked finally. His eyes went as hard and brittle as jade and he turned to the south, where the soldiers went.
"Not like that," he responded uneasily, and then he was not so different from a person after all; when the words were waiting, they could sometimes be uncorked by silence.
"When tigers go to war, it is a private thing," he said finally. "It only ever involves two tigers, or, if one of the tigers is young, it might involve his mother."
"We would call that just a fight," Thanh said thoughtfully, and he dropped his chin to his chest, not out of shame, but only because he was not sure he could explain.
"No, it is not a fight."
The tiger got up and began to pace, moving in and out of the shadows. Sometimes, his shadow had a tail and sometimes it didn't.
"A fight is a personal thing, one person against one person. When a tiger decides he has cause to war on another, it becomes . . . bigger, more serious."
"I think you've not seen people fight before," the widow said mildly, and though the tiger grumbled, he let it pass.
"Wars are fought for territory, for greed, and because we cannot imagine doing anything else. War is . . . the eradication of another."
"Ah, now that makes sense," Thanh muttered.
"War is malice. Otherwise, we would settle it with only a little blood and call it done."
His eyes went to the river and cut to the south, turned hard and distant again. He started when she reached over and brushed the slick hair at the base of his neck.
"War is the end," he said in a whisper, and he would not look back at her.
The rains came, and Thanh watched them fall from the step of her door. The tiger still came, but he was more restless than he had been before. Sometimes he spent whole afternoons lying just inside her door, watching the rain balefully.
"It will end eventually," she said soothingly.
"It's not the rain." The tiger looked up at the sky and again towards the south. "I love water."
"I didn't mean the rain."
It is usually a poor idea to go looking for tigers, but when two weeks had passed without him appearing at her door, Thanh decided to do just that. She packed the last of the meat the tiger had brought into a bag, and she fetched herself a heavy stick that she could lean on. She did not tell her neighbors where she was going because they would likely not approve, and she left just before dawn.
She found the paths that were used by tigers, deer, and poachers alike, and as she walked under the low gray sky, she whistled a tune about a fish who fell in love with a tree.
By midmorning, the sky had darkened to something closer to black, and the first heavy drops of rain had started to fall. Thanh pulled her leaf hat more securely under her head and wished that her coat was warmer.
She guessed it was near noon when the rain started to come down hard enough that it hurt, and she took shelter underneath the boughs of a tall tree. From where she sat, she could see the Perfume River, the waves choppy and dark. The fishermen would be out even in the rain, but it would be a poor day's catch unless some lucky fisherman netted a magical golden carp. It had been known to happen.
Thanh sneezed, feeling the cold settle into her bones, and she knew that it was not going to get any warmer.
"You could have chosen a better day to disappear," she said disconsolately.
"I didn't decide on the season," the tiger said quietly, and she nearly leaped up from her position by the tree.
She had not seen him in his true form for quite some time, and it came as a shock to her. He had brought her meat, he had sat in her home, he had let her fan the flies from him, but he was still a tiger. He was still orange striped with black, with a round face and curious green eyes.
"During the warm days, it would have been easier on me," she said, sitting back again and trying to find the driest spot.
"Because of course everything I do must make things easier on you," he said quietly, but he lay down by her side. After a moment, she ruffled her fingers through his fur. Underneath the dense guard hairs, his fur was almost completely dry.
They watched the rain together, and even if he glanced nervously to the south from time to time, he was quiet enough.
"Do young tigers go to Huế?" she asked him. "I've heard that all manner of things enter the city."
He thought about this, looking up at the broad dripping leaves and then down at the loam between his feet.
"Sometimes," he said uneasily. "Some tigers choose to live with men. It is simpler among them than among other tigers."
She made a soft chuffing noise that told him what she thought of that, but only asked, "Are you going to go to the city?"
"No," he said, after respectfully giving the matter some thought. "I prefer the country."
There was no waiting for the rain to stop, so after a few more moments, he allowed her to put a hand on his back and climb to her feet. The paths were too narrow for them to walk side by side, so she walked ahead and he walked behind her, following her all the way back to the village.
After that, he never went for more than a few days without coming by, even if it was only to push his head in the door.
"It's not a war yet," he said, coming to sit cross-legged on the floor. He wouldn't let her come close enough to look, but she could see that he was moving badly.
"It's close enough if you are limping," she said with a frown.
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, not moving at all.
"Are you worried I'll run off to Huế?" he said. "I told you I wouldn't."
She bit her lip and looked him over again, wishing that he were a little less proud or perhaps a little stronger. Thanh had lived long enough, though, that she knew that wishing was never enough, so she put down a large bowl of water instead. He had told her that it was uncomfortable and strange to drink out of a cup, and that the bowl was far better.
He dipped his head to the floor, his long hair brushing the surface of the water. The tiger moved so stiffly that he didn't mind when she cupped her hard palm to the back of his head. He smelled like the forest; no fisherman or farmer had ever smelled like that.
The tiger looked up at her suddenly, eyes round and green, and he batted her hand away sulkily.
"I'm not going anywhere," he muttered suddenly, and despite what she knew about wishing, she wished that he was telling the truth.
He brought her meat, but everyone knew that you couldn't live on meat alone. On a cool, misty day, Thanh walked along the river's edge, keeping her eyes open for the lush thatches of water spinach that appeared like magic after the rains.
Of course she was thinking of the tiger, but she was thinking about other things as well. She was thinking about seeing the water pull back from the banks again, and she was also thinking about a young woman in the village, whose stomach had swelled soon after her husband had left for Huế. It was a shame, but perhaps the young man would come home after his soldiering was done. It had been known to happen.
There was only a slight warning rustle of grass, and then the tiger passed within a whisper of her side. It stood ten paces before her on the path, its head low to the ground and its eyes bright.
Thanh had never had a name to call the tiger with, and she stood there, frozen and wondering why after all this time he should choose to do such a thing.
Then her wits returned to her, because this tiger was taller even than her own, and the stripes that shadowed his side fell in a pattern that was strange to her.
She did not know how to speak to a tiger that she did not know, so after a brief pause, she took another step forward. The first one was hard, but the second one was less so, and the third one almost easy.
The tiger watched her with no expression in its eyes, and so it stayed in the middle of the road and she kept walking. She wasn't sure what she would do if it would not move, but then, when she could see the play of light over stripes that were less black than they looked, the tiger simply moved, disappearing into the forest like a stone sinking beneath the water.
She counted to ten and then she counted to ten again, and then she sank to the dusty path; her shaking knees would no longer support her.
After a few moments, though, when no tiger came to devour her, she climbed back to her feet and continued her way along the path.
He was waiting for her at her doorstep a few days later, after she returned from visiting with one of her neighbors. The weather was turning over, hot and wet, and he paced by her door, so agitated that he looked like he would have liked to sit down and yowl like a house cat.
"You saw him on the road," he said. "You saw him on the road and you did not tell me."
"Oh?" she said, looking at him with her hands on her hips. "So you are proposing to follow me every time I need to leave the village?" He frowned at her, and if his ears weren't poor human ones, he would have laid them flat against his head in displeasure.
"Of course," he said sulkily. "What else should I do?" She saw that somehow she had hurt his feelings, and shaking her head, she walked past him into her home. She brought him a bowl of water and sat down, watching him pat his fingers into it restlessly. He was uninjured, but there was a harried, haunted look in his face that she had seen before.
A few years ago, the soldiers had come, and thankfully Danh had been too young, and far too slight to interest them. Instead they had come for Linh's son, sixteen years old and already strong as one of the water buffalo.
Linh had wanted to hide her son away, but that would have meant trouble for them, trouble for all of them; instead, they had done their best to give him and the four other men the soldiers thought fit a proper send-off.
There was a sad little dinner, and Thanh had sent her son home early. The men were resigned—after all, it was only luck that had not carried them off sooner—but Linh's son, whose name Thanh could not even remember, looked pale in the flickering firelight. It was fear, but it was more than that.
It was loss she had seen in the boy's eyes, and she had seen it before, when the soldiers took her husband. Now she saw it on the face of the tiger who had killed her son.
This was just as bad.
The next day, she went to see the water buffalo. There was still some time before they would be put to the harness, to turn over the fields and earn their keep; now they simply ate the tall grass and wandered where they wished.
The largest bull was tall enough to see eye to eye with a man, and his coat was coarse and black. She came up on his right side, because everyone knew was blind on his left, and he turned his head towards her slowly, careful not to wake the small girl who slept on his back.
"You were born the same year as my dead son," she said softly, offering him a handful of sweet grass. "Now perhaps I might ask you for a favor?"
The story went as far south as Huế, where sorcerers who knew of tiger wars and buffalo tribes shook their heads in surprise.
There was nothing strange about two tigers going to war over territory. It was the way of tigers to fight and roar, and if they fought until one tiger was dead, then that was one less tiger to worry about.
However, a tiger war that was brought to a halt by water buffalo, that was something else again. The stories were confused, but of course everyone knew that water buffalo feared nothing but disappointment, and that once a water buffalo began, it would go on until the end.
One of the tigers, the larger one, the one that had come north when his own forests held more woodcutters than deer, he had taken one look at the remorseless hooves and heavy horns and decided that there was easier territory to be had elsewhere.
Water buffalo keep their own counsel, and tigers only speak rarely, so it was a scholar who had to speak for them, writing the words of a traveler who had spoken with another traveler who had seen it.
In the dying days of the Lê Dynasty, there were two tigers whose fur was orange as fire and whose eyes were as green as the delta. One came from the south and one came from the north, and where they met, the sky shook apart with thunder and the river boiled with their fury. They threatened to tear apart heaven, and then the water buffalo appeared.
The four water buffalo, with horns that could span the river, stood like a wall between the two, staring down the tiger from the south, and because they are the most stalwart under the eye of Heaven, the tiger shrank away, never to be seen again in that part of the world.
The story was remarkable, but perhaps not as remarkable as a rain of jade pebbles from a clear sky, or a simple muddy carp who became a dragon for a single day. It was written down in a few places, spoken about in a few others, and finally it was just a story of the kind that mothers tell their children.
A few days later, the tiger came to her home, lingering outside until she invited him in.
"What a strange thing you have done," he said, prodding at his bowl of water. He had not bothered to wear a human shape that day, and she was pleased that he trusted her not to be frightened.
"People do strange things," she said. "Perhaps we are more complex than tigers after all."
"Have you forgotten—"
"I forget nothing," Thanh said sharply, and he dropped his head to his paws.
The sun was setting over the Perfume River, and they went outside of the house to watch it. After a long moment, the tiger spoke again.
"I am not leaving," he said. "Not to the capital, and not even for more territory."
"What a good thing," she said, allowing herself a smile. "Neither am I."