The Last Tiger by Lyn McConchie

The Last Tiger
Lyn McConchie

Yashi stared up at the billboard. It told all who could read that ‘The Last Tiger is now able to be observed by courtesy of the Emperor.’ She studied the picture. She knew what the words said only because a passerby had read them to his friend in awe. Not so much over the tiger as that the Emperor himself would open the pleasure gardens to the rabble. Yashi was seized by the majesty of the picture, the orange and black stripes seemed to glow, but the eyes were sad. How did it feel to be the last of your kind, she wondered.

Another who could read shouldered her casually aside. He glanced at her as he did so. Just another worthless girl. He ignored the warm peach glow of her skin, the hair – black as soot – that fell thickly past her perfectly shaped ears. Her almond eyes were gentle and her small figure – ah, but that was why she was ignored, clad in the blue rags of the lowest of the low that told all that she was just another beggar.

In her case this wasn’t quite true. She was orphaned, dwelling in a great city where for her there was no real home, but she was no beggar. She worked for Li, the old fruit seller, her sleeping place beneath the fruit stands once the small shop was closed. Still, if she wore rags, they were clean as she was herself. The old man was not cruel, he allowed her a half day each week, and she might eat any of the fruit past its best and no longer suitable for the customers. Once a day she was given a heaped bowl of rice, once a day a bowl of good hot soup. She did not starve, and in his own crotchety way, her employer was kind.

Yet Yashi was lonely. Once there had been a family, so many years ago that her memory dimmed. Once she had been the third child of loving parents, but she was not the only one bereft. Death had come silently to the city ten years ago, taking almost a quarter of the population.

It had struck hardest amongst those of the lower classes. They could not flee to summer homes high in the mountains as could those who were wealthy.

Yashi had lived on alone – her parents, her brothers and sisters – all lay within the common grave where they had burned the bodies to ashes to kill the silent death. It had been the order of the Lord High Priest himself, and obeyed by all as the word of the Gods. It was the death which had allowed the child to survive. With far fewer beggars and orphans about, Li had taken her to work for him where once he would have looked elsewhere.

Still, there was no future there for her. She would grow old and bent and, when she could no longer work, she would starve. Li’s son did not like her, even now he occasionally urged the old man to be rid of her. It was his claim that a young orphaned boy would work harder for less. Yashi thought this untrue, a boy would eat more even if he were stronger, but there was no arguing with the master’s son.

All that summer, the pleasure gardens remained open for the city. Yashi heard comment this was because of recent unrest. The Emperor wished to appear benevolent towards even the lowest of his people. She did not care. Each half day of freedom she could walk within green trees, lean over the stone wall and watch as, far below, the tiger sunned himself upon his rocks. More and more her heart sorrowed for him. He too was orphaned and alone. He was the last of his kind – and he was beauty – a majesty which should not die. When he was gone, something would be gone from them all. She listened as wise men talked. Hearing for the first time of other beasts and birds which were also gone forever. But while she was sorry for them all, it was the tiger which truly grieved her. He was so proud, so beautiful, and so alone.

If only she could have found a mate for him. She imagined it. To appear at the gates of the gardens at sunrise leading a sleek tigress. How all would marvel. They would stand in awe of the girl who could do such a thing. Yashi laughed silently at herself. He was called ‘The Last Tiger’ because he was, and where would a lowly girl such as she find a tiger? She returned to her work hiding a small sad smile at her folly. Dreams were well enough, but the Last Tiger could not mate with a dream.

That week was worse than usual. The days were hot. Customers made querulous by the daytime heat snapped often at her. It was not her fault, but Li’s son used it as an excuse to complain loudly to his father.

“See, even the customers speak angrily to her. She is worthless and lazy. We should be rid of her, find a young strong boy.”

His voice sank to a mutter as Yashi strained to hear. She caught a word here and there, enough to guess what he suggested. Master Li was old, soon he would wish to give over the fruit stall to his son – but there was no grandson, only a grand-daughter. A child sallow of skin with one shoulder a little higher than the other. Nor would there be more children. The wife could not be cast off either – her father was an official for the Emperor, it would be impolitic to anger him.

Yashi sighed quietly. She knew the way the son’s mind worked. If they took in an orphan boy of respectability they could mould him to their liking. In time they could wed him to the grand-daughter but demand as a bride-price that he take the name of Li. It would be his wife who would be the woman of property. This would ensure she could never be ill-treated despite her looks.

On her next half-day, Yashi slipped away to watch the Last Tiger again. As always, he paced up and down beneath the stone wall. In some ways, she thought as she watched, he was fortunate. It was true he was alone, but he did not have to fear being cast out of his home. He slept, not under ancient wood redolent of slightly too-ripe fruit, but in a warm den, cunningly crafted from stone by the Emperor’s orders. He ate meat, more of it in one meal then many in the city saw in a whole year.

He did not have to fear the malice of small-minded men. He belonged to the Emperor alone. A terrible price would be paid by any who harmed him. His bed was warm straw, trees and bushes sheltered him, and green grass was his to walk upon as he wished. None woke him early to work through the heat of the day.

Yashi looked down at where black and orange majesty prowled. For a moment his gaze turned up to meet hers. She shivered, there was such a depth of sorrow and loneliness there. How could she have felt him more fortunate that herself? She might walk alone to the end of her days but at least she would do so amongst her own kind. He was forever and always The Last Tiger.

She returned home to curl beneath the fruit stand. There she was found by her master. She had no need to ask, from the shamed look on his face it was clear. The son had at last prevailed. Li pressed silver into her hand. Yashi had no false pride, the few coins might be all which stood between her and the only other work she was likely to obtain.

“There is the outer shed,” Li whispered. “I will leave the door unlocked. Come there at night so long as you have need of shelter.”

Yashi nodded silent thanks. It would save the price of another place – for a little while. But it would not be long before the son found it out. Then, that refuge too would be denied her. She tucked the coins into her ragged blouse, creeping away as dawn broke. She would bid The Last Tiger a final farewell, then she would chose.

Her feet carried her to the wall. She was the first to walk the gardens so early and she found a sad delight in it. She looked down as the tiger emerged from his den. He was bright as the sun, proud as the Emperor, strong as the Great River. But he was also the last, alone and lonely. She was one of a multitude, but she too was alone and lonely.

She had planned to seek work but she knew for her there would be none. Her silver would last for a small while, then she would have no other choice. The brothels of Han Shu were always open to a young pretty girl. Better death though than the life they would give her. Within her mind the choices revolved. A Priest passed her then, his robe brushing her ragged trousers as she decided.

There was nothing for her, no place to go, no honourable work. Yet all her life she had heard that within the Temple even the most humble might ask aid of the Gods. For the first time in her life she had silver to lay upon the altar. If there was no reply she could only die a little sooner. Better a swift clean death than the slow dying of honour and life. With a final look at the pacing tiger, Yashi turned to leave the gardens.

The Temple was far, two hours walk, but she walked strongly, pausing only to buy food from a stall she passed. Once at the shrine, she paid a copper coin for entrance to the baths. One should come before the Gods as clean as possible, it did them honour. Fed, cleansed, her rags brushed, she drank of the clear water offered her. Then she walked slowly towards the inner rooms. Through one door, then another before she reached the huge inner room where sat the statues of the Gods.

Humbly, she laid her tiny offering upon the altar before the one she had always reverenced. In the candlelight, the black eyes seemed to study her. She bowed low, as to an Emperor, then began to speak. As was custom she made no sound, forming the words slowly and clearly in her mind while keeping her eyes fixed upon the face of the One she petitioned. When she had finished her tale, she waited.

Suddenly, within her hands clasped before her, she felt weight. Yashi gaped down. Clutched in her fingers rested a wooden box, the corners of silver. The single sign inlaid within the lid was that of the God, and in precious jade. Then, within her mind, an order formed slowly.

“Paint The Last Tiger!”

She bowed low again, her mind whirling. She had never tried to paint. How should a girl so poor as she was, have ever been able to purchase the means. But she had come here, asking for aid, and aid had been given her. She would obey. She bowed to the ground a third time, and her mind formed answer.

“As you command, Great One. I thank you for your kindness.” A smile seemed to curve the painted lips as Yashi departed.

She walked back through the busy chattering streets, the box cradled in the breast of her threadbare blouse. She paused to eat again, there were a few coppers remaining to her yet. Those last should be used to buy her food in the dawn before she went to do the bidding of a God. She slept well in the outer shed and rose before any came. At the entrance to the gardens, she purchased rice wafers stuffed with goat cheese. She drank from a cup as the water seller passed, then she entered the gardens.

Before the wall, she opened the wooden box, gazing upon the contents. The brushes were of finest hair, the paints the purest colours. There was a small horn cup where she could place water to mix the paints. She lifted it then stood frozen in horror. She had spent her last copper. No water seller would give her water without payment. But the God had ordered her to paint and paint she must. She had said she would obey.

She stood and as her dilemma sank in, she felt hot tears spring to her eyes. Her fingers clung to the rough stone before her, pain flowering as they were scraped by sharp edges. A tear splashed onto her hand. Yashi suddenly smiled. Within the human body was liquid of several kinds. She would use that. The God would understand and would it not be, in this way, more of an offering?

She scraped the tears from her face, the blood from her grazed fingers. Then she began to paint. When that wetness was used she spat into the tiny cup and again the paint flowed smoothly from her brushes. She had few standards to judge by. She had never seen the great paintings of her people. But under the movement of her fingers the Last Tiger emerged in all his splendour.

She finished, and still her hands yearned to continue. She began to paint again, a mate to walk with him, to bear his cubs and keep him from loneliness. The colours glowed from the rice paper she had found folded within the box. She had only the tail to complete so she scraped more blood from her hands, spat again into the cup. Then she was done and Yashi smiled at her work. But what was she to do with it?

The God had said nothing of that. She had been told to paint the Last Tiger, this she had done. Perhaps a wealthy man in the city was to see her work – purchase it from her so she might paint others? She had no idea but as she folded the box closed, the Last Tiger ceased to pace. His gaze met hers, but this time he roared. The sound rolling across the gardens until Yashi’s ears rang and she felt weak. The city, what had she do to with a city which had cast her out?

The painting clung strangely to her fingers. She put the box down carefully so she might fold the painting without damage now the colours had dried. Again the roar came from below. The sound was pleading, hopeful, yet still underlying it was a desolation of loneliness. In her hands the painting was changing. Yashi stared. That – that was her! But she had not painted a portrait. She had painted a tigress, a mate for the Last Tiger who walked forever alone.

It had been a wish, a dream, yet as she watched, the tigress slowly altered until it was the girl herself who stared out from the paper. It fell from her hands as she began to shudder. She looked down over the wall. The gaze staring up at her was filled with love, filled with warmth, it called her. Here she would be safe, cared for, protected and loved always. She would have no need to sell herself to survive, no need to be pitifully grateful for a shed door left open.

Yet it was not for these things that Yashi relaxed into the changes which were taking place within her. It was for the love and hope which gazed longingly upwards. Sorrow called to sorrow, loneliness to loneliness – and a young tigress leaped lightly down from the incurving top of the stones to join her mate. The Last Tiger was alone and lonely no more.

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