In The Tiger’s Cage
Lyang is a golden-eyed girl who lives trapped in the Tiger’s Cage, a walled city marked by repression and authoritarianism. Her sister, on the verge of death, makes one last request: to fetch the water she needs to quench her thirst. But not everyone has the right to water in the Cage, and Lyang ends up resorting to a poisoned well hidden in the shadow of the wall. In front of the well, the golden-eyed girl meets two ghosts capable of fulfilling her dark wish and changing the course of history.
Read the original story in Portuguese here.
The Tiger’s Cage was a city of moans and smells that the wind could not separate. The moaning of the mines, for example, stank of sweat and coal; that of the brothels had a certain perfume, too strong and intoxicated by drink. Those with the smell of blood were the most common, they came from everywhere and, even so, one could easily discover their origin. Bloody moans with the smell of clay were always from the dark alleys; those that got lost in the intoxicating sweetness of teas were those from the surgery houses, because the doctors always tried to disguise the smell; and the heavier ones, that carried blood, iron and fire, the ones that appeared from one hour to the next and crawled through the cramped streets of the cage, these were those of the Tiger, of the White Tiger from within the walls.
There was still another moan, soft, discreet, the only one without smell, the saddest. It appeared to all, this time in a bar, downstairs, in the suffocating shadows of a basement, before the golden-eyed girl.
“Water, sister… Water.”
In response, the girl turned the clay pot over. There was not another drop. Lying on the straw bed, her sister stretched her neck and licked her cracked lips.
“I’m sorry, Lyang. It was for both of us, wasn’t it?”
Lyang, sitting on her stool, did not answer. The candle flame flickered beside the headboard, illuminating her sister’s sweaty forehead.
“Do you think you can get more? Just a little more…”
She motioned for the girl to come closer. She whispered in her ear: “He loves me, the general. I feel he does. You’ll understand when you’re a woman. He will get us out of here. It’s all planned, we just have to wait.”
Lyang pulled away, biting her lips. For a second, the candle flickered. For a second, they were consigned to the shadows.
“Good, my sister. Good.”
The little golden-eyed girl picked up the bucket and left her sister. She knew where she had to go. She climbed the stairs, ran under the bar tables and out the kitchen window. Over the red roofs of the cage, the grey wall watched her on her way, quiet, watchful.
Lyang went to knock on the door of Mrs Bai’s house. The moans from there smelled of milk.
“She’s gotten worse, hasn’t she?” Mrs Bai was like that, she always knew things. She didn’t ask Lyang to come in, she stood in the middle of the door like a fat statue marking the border. The babies were bawling inside. “I’m sorry, dear. I wanted to help, but I don’t have any more cards. You used my last one, don’t you remember? We’re already out of a drop too, and we have newborns here.”
Lyang bowed her head, squeezing the bucket harder and harder. It felt too heavy, even empty.
“Look, dear, why don’t you go and see Doctor Dalam? He must have water and he’s a good person.”
The golden-eyed girl forced a smile and thanked Mrs Bai for her kindness. The doctor would help for sure. He had tried to treat her sister, and always attended to the beggars and children in the cage. But first, Lyang needed to try something one more time, so she hurried down the stinking alleys to the nearest well.
The wells were the most odorous spots in the city, especially during the mornings. Coal, sweat, milk, alcohol, perfume, breads, all mixed together in a noisy soup of people. The queue that day exceeded three corners, but everyone had golden eyes and took pity on little Lyang, giving way.
A guard was checking cards, his white robes glistening in the crowd. His companion was distracted, sitting on a wooden box beside the well. He was drawing something in the sand with a knife, but smiled at Lyang when she approached.
“Card” the other remembered. He touched the hilt of his sword as a warning.
“Sir, my sister…” she stammered. The bucket weighed more and more in her hands.
“Card!” said the guard.
“She is ill.” Lyang lowered her face. She could not look at him, her impure eyes would end up dirtying the whiteness of those clothes.
Some lad in the queue wanted to help her: “It’s Miss Caia, sir! She’s very sick. Her poor sister just came to get some water.”
“Card!” the guard insisted, drawing his sword a little. The steel sparkled in the pale sunlight.
“Use mine, miss. I lend it to you.”
“Card! From her!”
“Hey, hey!” the sitting guard interrupted, still with the knife on the ground. “A lot of people use to get water from the wells on the wall. Their water is very good for old people, beggars… or someone like your sister. There’s plenty of water there.”
The girl’s golden eyes burned. She tried to hold back her sobs, but couldn’t. She ran away. She would never show her tears to a white tiger.
There was still Doctor Dalam to turn to, so little Lyang wiped her tears in a dark alley and walked straight to the house of smelling alcohol and teas with the sun rising in front of her. That day there would also be the smell of burning, of burnt flesh.
The clinic was right on the edge of the poor neighbourhood, that way the golden-eyed girl had to dodge three guards making rounds in the street. She hated them. The white robes had nothing of purity or kindness.
Lyang had another unpleasant surprise in her wanderings. When she arrived at the clinic, a crowd of adults wouldn’t let her pass. They barred the entrance, murmuring with each other. They were so close together that Lyang could hardly pass between them, barely able to identify what they were looking at. She even tried to squeeze in there, but a lady pushed her back.
“Go home, girl! It’s the tiger, he was here.”
The girl held the bucket even tighter. She peeked through the walls of the clinic looking for a window. The curious people whispered: “Look at the feet. It was the tiger, there’s no doubt about it.”
“How could they do that? He wasn’t doing anything bad.”
“That’s right, exactly. He wasn’t doing anything bad.”
Lyang ran to the sides of the house and found an open window. In a leap, she was already inside the clinic, searching and smelling all the liquids she could find. Doctor Dalam made a point of leaving his room as clean as possible. Not a speck of dust slipped in the morning light, no webs flickered under the patients’tables. If everything was so clean, surely there was water somewhere.
On the polished shelf, medicinal plants shared space with jars and sachets of spice. The girl looked for what she wanted, but only found wine bottles with liquids that stank a lot. She ended up coming across an old bread lying beside a chair. She ate it sitting on the floor, just below the window through which she entered, so that no one would witness the crime, although those people would hardly take a peek inside the clinic, so entertained were they outside. The dry bread sucked all the saliva from her mouth, but she didn’t regret eating it.
She observed the cupboard before her, on the opposite wall. Under it was a crumpled ball of paper. It made no sense in a well-kept clinic like that. She stood up and headed for the cupboard, her last resort. It was then that she noticed something different. In the middle of the room, the floor creaked softly, sinking a little. Maybe it was a basement.
Lyang ignored the fact for a while, curious to know what was on that paper. She took it from under the cupboard and unmolded it. It was a simple drawing, not so difficult to produce, a circle divided into two parts, one black and one white. The girl knew it, as did everyone else in the poor neighbourhood: Guan-Hin, The Symbol of Truth. Guan was the black half, with a small white circle inside. Hin, in turn, was the white half, with a small black circle inside.
Letters were scrawled around the design, and although Lyang had never learned to read, she knew what they meant.
There is a shadow in the light, and a light in the shadow.
The girl made a point of crumpling the paper again. The tiger was the darkened light in their lives, but the illuminated shadow had never appeared. Perhaps it would never appear.
The buzz outside began to subside. It was a good thing Lyang had noticed, she ran to the middle of the room where the floor was sinking. She found a tiny knocker and pulled it tight. It really was a basement, and better, full of barrels.
However, the buzz of curious people ceased completely, preventing her from descending the wooden staircase. Her bucket was near the open window; on the other side of the window, there was no one. Still, something had muted everyone.
Lyang could have reacted in three different ways in that situation: if she gave in to curiosity, she would go to the window to take a peek; if she gave in to fear, she would lock herself in the basement and the bucket would stay outside; and if she gave in to luck, she would stand by and wait for everything to pass. None of these options would save her sister, so she just ran like any other child. She left the bucket, jumped out the window. He left without looking back. Still, she managed to notice the reason for such silence, because the white light of a guard is not hard to be noticed.
The white light saw her too and followed her once again.
Lyang ran as far as she could. She left the streets and shot across the empty plains before the wall as the sun rose idly in the sky. The grass made his legs itch, the smell of bush reddened his nose. Despite this, she kept running away from the enamelled armour, the glowing flags, away from the clutches of the White Tiger. She was a criminal now, worse, she was a golden-eyed criminal. She did not want to have her feet burned. How would she bring water to her sister?
But that city was a cage. No matter where she went, the tiger would always sniff her out.
The girl passed a wooden hut in the shadow of the wall. An old man with broken legs watched her, sitting on the veranda floor, curious. However, when Lyang begged for water, he remained motionless, quiet. The white hair clogged his ears, perhaps he was deaf after all. And there, beside the hut, under the cold shadow of the walls, was a well.
Lyang could not ignore it.
Lyang had no option to ignore it.
The well was ancient, with engravings lost in the stones of the railings. The grass was so tall it almost covered it, hiding it from inattentive eyes. On it, a bucket tied with a rope awaited the girl’s arrival.
Lyang thanked the Humble Goddess softly, apologised for the crimes of that day, pulled up the bucket and peered into the stifling darkness of the well. It stank, it stank so bad that Lyang fell backwards. It looked like garlic, or rather rotten egg. But there was a glow inside, she realized, surely of water.
A white light came closer. If Lyang hadn’t been in the shadows, she would have barely noticed it. It was the guard again, the same one from Doctor Dalam’s clinic, the same one from the wooden box. He stopped in front of the hut. The old man watched him, still quiet.
Lyang almost cried again. She could have run, but now she had no option to run. So, determined, she held the rope of the bucket, headed for the stinking well and… stopped to listen. Yes, listen. Something was splashing in the water between hurried whispers:
“Don’t lick your lips, you hear? I don’t want you dead yet.”
“Psst! Look! It’s a girl, she won’t see us. Quiet!”
Two lights flashed in the background, two white masks in black robes: a boar and a dog. Lyang didn’t need to listen any longer. It was the ghosts. The ghosts had penetrated the wall!
The guard moved forward, faster, crunching the grass with his boots. The ghosts ducked. Lyang, struggling to contain the smile on his lips, brought his index finger to his mouth. He stretched it out:
Warning given, the shadows dissolved into the wall of the well. Lyang held the bucket and quietly tossed it. He drew water nonchalantly and stepped away from the well. She untied the rope, head down so the guard would not see her sparkling golden eyes, nor her smile.
The guard stopped in front of her, looked at her angrily. He kicked the bucket away. The rotten water slid over the mushrooms of the well, straight ahead.
He ran to the bucket and shouted in the direction of the hut: “Hey, old man! You’ve got water there, haven’t you? Fill that bucket!”
The old man stood up.
“Yes, sir! Wait a moment, please.”
Having said this, the old man entered the hut.
The girl remained motionless beside the guard, it was certain that if she stared at him her eyes would be burned with such whiteness. Under the feet of the two, the earth was sucking up the rotten water very slowly.
Lyang was surprised at the old man’s strength when he came carrying a barrel. She could have commented, but no, she had a choice there, so she just watched him fill the bucket and return to the hut. The guard kicked the wet earth.
“Go! You’ve already wasted too much time.”
Lyang carried the bucket on her chest as if holding a newborn baby as she walked back to the city. The water was clear, without any smell, as all water should be.
She arrived at noon at the bar, but the owner barely complained about his disappearance, nor did he mention making up for the lost hours. He only gave a sad peek out of the corner of his eye as Lyang came down the basement stairs.
The golden-eyed girl didn’t bother to light the unlit candle. She let herself drown in the dark lake, took a deep breath, sat beside the bed on her stool and wet sister’s cracked lips. She waited for her to say thank you. When his eyes finally grew accustomed to the darkness, he watched that face that rested in silence. Its skin would glow if there weren’t so many wounds.
So Lyang soaked a cloth and began to wipe the bruised skin. Perhaps the stains would dissolve with such pure water. She even rubbed a little. Her sister did not complain, nor did she say thank you.
At no time did the owner of the bar appear in the basement to call the golden-eyed girl.
And when night fell, the golden-eyed girl cried.
Her moans and sobs drove the customers away. And then, yes, the owner appeared to apologise and pushed her out into the cold, stinking night of the streets.
Lyang huddled in a dark alley, away from the yellow and red lamps of the city, away from all the living. No glint of gold would spark in eyes with so much water. Her legs throbbed, stiff as wood. The girl then sat with her back against the bricks of the wall. Customers passed by towards the bar, the temples, the brothels, everywhere there was light. But Lyang only longed for the darkness of that alley, the only one that embraced her, the only one that made her invisible to everyone’s eyes.
But she would still be sniffed out, no doubt she would be.
At midnight, bells began to toll. The girl, almost asleep, opened her red eyes and peered up at the sky. There was no moon, only stars, a bunch of them, white torches in a sea of shadows. The bells continued, louder, more vibrant, closer and closer. The windows of houses lit up at the noise, people complained.
Lyang stood up without quite understanding what was happening. Soldiers were coming in stride with their robes made of clouds. Some held lamps and torches, others truncheons and swords.
“Lock the doors! No one is to be seen outside the house! Only open for the Emperor’s officials!”
Lyang groaned. Would she be safe in the shadows of that alley? The bells were beating, as hurried as the girl’s heart. Would they be nervous too? Would they be afraid?
Lyang smiled and looked at the stars again. So many lights, in such a dark sea.
“The ghosts! The tiger was killed!”
She could have laughed. Instead, she ran, as fast as she could, as far as she could. She left behind the fat owner of the bar, the stinking streets of the cage, the corpse in the basement. It dodged the white lights of the tiger, smiling, always smiling, in such a dark night.
He did not lose his way, for it was not possible to lose sight of so great a wall. The hut was empty, no sign of the old man with broken legs — he had walked off, surely. Lyang headed for the well, a hole black as tar. The rope from the bucket was hanging there.
Lyang stared one last time at the glittering city. Children screamed, parents moaned. There was fire in some corner, its golden sparks flying like fireflies. She tried to understand what they were shouting, but it was too far away. It didn’t matter.
The golden-eyed girl grabbed the rope and climbed down, drowning once more in darkness. The rotten water made her nauseous. She filled her lungs and let herself sink. She couldn’t lick her lips, couldn’t die yet. She groped the walls, feeling the stones disintegrating at her touch. She found the tunnel. And she went in.
Dawn was rising on the other side of the wall. Lyang emerged from the river like a stinking rabbit, her lungs aching. She stared at the golden desert ahead, the rosy clouds of dawn, the blue mountains on the horizon. Three shadows were walking on the sands. Lyang would follow them at any cost.
She was not surprised when she reached them, nor were they. Their costumes were entirely black, save for the animalistic masks. The leader, in a boar mask, tried to thicken his voice at first, but Lyang realized it was a woman. The one in the monkey mask was surely the old man with broken legs. And the dog looked like a young boy, only a little older than Lyang, and chatted happily with the girl.
They were ghosts. They didn’t care about the smell of poison that permeated their bodies, nor did they care about the screams and laughter between their teeth. Outside the cage, the wind would blow their smell and their moans away, far away. The White Tiger would never sniff them out, even if it were still alive.
In that infinite desert, the golden-eyed girl accompanied them as the sun rose before them. The masks glowed, brighter and brighter, whiter and whiter.
Like a light in the shadows.
All rights reserved to Paulo Rogério Moreira da Silva, 2021.
Cover Image: Panachoi_stand via Pixabay
Cover Art: Paulo Rogério Moreira da Silva
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places and situations are fruit of this author’s imagination or used as fiction.
Any similarity with reality or real facts is mere coincidence.
All rights reserved.