LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

Tiger Baby, by JY Yang

burntbright01

Felicity wakes from a dream of hunting. She moves her hands, sleep-heavy, and is surprised to find them human-shaped, with hairless fingers that curl and end in flat, dirty nails. Sheets tangle around her legs, clinging damply to fleshy thighs, knotting around an inert lump she comes to realize is her body.

Sometimes, not always, she forgets she is human. Especially on mornings like this, with her mind’s eye still burning bright, breathing forests of the night. The taste of her true form lingers: not this body with its rock of pain nestling in between neck and shoulder and the blood pounding in the head and the rancid feel of its dry mouth. Feli closes her eyes, hoping to slip back into the wonderful light darkness, into her true flesh, dread hands dread feet running across warm concrete, searching, singing, wind sluicing through striped fur as she streaks through the neighbourhood.

The door makes a loud noise and she startles into wakefulness, craning her head to look. Her mother stands in the doorway, knuckles flush to wood. “You don’t need to work today? You’ll be late.”

Resentment surges up like a storm wave, like a predator springing from the grass. Her mother does not understand, will never understand, standing in the doorway with her faded shirt and heavy pear-hips and shiny face beginning its irreversible droop. She sees her grandmother reflected in there, worn away by time until the eyes held only emptiness. Wherever her wild streak comes from, it is not here. Feli drops a hand to the bedspread. “I’m awake.”

*

She can’t remember when it started. Which came first, the dreams or the realization of what she was meant to be? How many youthful hours did she spend in corners, softly reciting Blake and feeling a weighty truth?

Her earliest memory is of tigers, swimming in a moat. How she watched one, on the rock above, pace back and forth in the enclosure, while her father shouted warnings about staying put and her infant sister cried to no one in particular. She is too young to know the word majestic, but from that moment she compares everything to the effortless rippling of muscle under skin, and finds it inadequate.

She was born in 1986, the Year of the Tiger, the Fire Tiger. These things happen for a reason.

The knowledge of her true form has been with Feli so long, she’s stopped noticing how it flavours her life. In the shower, glass walls thick with fog, she imagines the water streaming down fur instead of pale, spotty skin. Breakfast—eggs and kaya toast—tastes like cardboard, like tree bark: she wants fresh meat, she wants heft she can tear into, she wants to drink lightly salted blood and not kopi, scalding and bitter. Walking to the train station, the cadence of her arms and legs falls into a feline rhythm, propelling her past the other commuters. Phantom muscles move under her skin, unhobble her from the limitations humanity picked up when it split from its mammalian ancestors. She read that on the internet.

Robert from IT talks to her at work. He always talks to her at work. A Chinese man with a soft belly and a hairline wearing thin in the middle, he somehow manages to find time in his morning to hover over the semi-partitions of her cubicle, stringing together words that she makes monosyllabic replies to. In her first weeks on the job one of the ladies, a generic over-powdered law clerk who had moved on a few months later, had told her: “He only talks to you because you’re single.” That had been five years ago, when she’d still had her toes dipped in her twenties. Five years later, nothing much has changed, except the size of her trousers and Robert’s bald patch. It’s not that she finds him unpleasant. But Robert is like a wolf to her, strange and canine: she has no use for his loping gait and pricked ears and readily wagging tail.

He tries to ask her if she’s doing anything tonight, without actually ever asking. She gives noncommittal replies without ever saying no. Her voice rumbles low as she says, “Robert, you know month-ends are very busy for Accounting,” and her throat tickles, as if there’s something stuck in it, like the flexible hyoid bone of big cats that allows them to roar where domestic cats cannot. The sound she wants to unleash would send this entire open-concept office scampering. Scaring Robert isn’t worth that.

At night she brings the bag of feed down to the void deck. As she spills it on a spread of newsprint, the neighbourhood cats come up and rub against her legs, one after another, like subjects paying respects to their queen. She beckons to their de facto leader, the green-eyed orange moggie, who leaps into her lap and stretches. These times, with the weight of cat in her lap and the smell of fur against her skin, are the realest parts of her day. She purrs and growls as they swarm around her, their eyes glittering sparks. They will eat only after she leaves.

Her friends ask her sometimes why she doesn’t keep a cat, doesn’t invite one of the strays she loves so much into her home. But she looks at the eyes burning in the dusk and she knows that she could never inflict that on them.

The moggie in her lap rumbles, the closest it can manage to a roar. “One day,” she says. “One day they’ll stop asking.”

*

It’s funny how time slips past, in between the chunks of work and sleep and feeding the cats, and days roll into weeks roll into months and years. Feli continues the motions of getting up every morning and eating her cardboard breakfast and compressing herself on the way to work and back. The surface of calm she presents to the world hides the fearful symmetry she keeps in the roiling deep.

*

The Lunar New Year comes around in an explosion of reds and golds, showers of drums and cymbals and recordings of the sound of firecrackers. Smiling relatives hide pot bellies in starched shirts and wrinkles in extra layers of makeup, passing around sweet, sour, salty, deep-fried excuses for affection in little plastic bottles with red screw-on lids. Years of going through these obligations have dulled the stabs of pain in Feli’s neck and shoulders that these reunions cause. She has learned to suppress her flight instincts, to put on a sickle-cell smile when asked the tickbox questions she gets every year.

But this year the aunts and uncles leave her alone for the star of the exhibit, swarming around the younger sister who ripens like a fruit, peppering her with questions. About the new house, how big, the due date, did they know the sex? Her sister, with big veiny feet and hair swept into a loose homely bun, entertains them with toothy laughs and fluid sweeps of her straight white arms.

Feli feels pity for her and the comfort she feels. It’s the same pity she feels when she looks at the dull faces of the office workers who surround her on morning commutes. Her sister will never know what it’s like to be free, will never know the sensation of running in the night, will never know the pleasure of growling low and feeling it deep in the lungs.

Feli wonders about the child growing in her sister’s belly. It, too, will be born in the Year of the Tiger. Will it be like its Auntie Feli? Impossible. And Auntie Feli. What an ugly collection of syllables.

Her mother stands with her sister, glowing, looking younger than her sixty years. Afterwards, after the yu sheng has been tossed, her father speaks to her on the sidelines, as the bulk of the family gather around the television with disposable plates of the mess. Tells her how they are thinking of selling the flat, her mother and he, downgrading to one of those three-room flats. She’s turning 36 and now she’s finally eligible to buy government flats as a singleton, and there were a few public launches coming up with studio apartments, weren’t there?

Cornered, she can only nod mutely, her hands flexing and unflexing. She can’t imagine a house, its confines suffocating her, weighing her down like a brick. She looks out of the window. Leaping away would be easier. Vanish into the night.

*

Her parents are bothered because she hardly goes out anymore. She comes home right after work on weekdays (to feed the cats) and stays in most weekends (because she feels too lazy to go out cycling anymore and the board gaming sessions have become tedious). They invite her to their movie nights, try to get her interested in whatever’s on the television, as if that would settle the wild bones rattling inside her.

She talks to Andy. “It’s that Blake poem,” she says, “I keep seeing and hearing it everywhere. Sometimes at work, I’ll see the words on my spreadsheet instead of numbers.”

Andy was the only one who hadn’t laughed when Feli had told her the truth back in school. The sunlight catches in her hair as she leans back into the grass of the Botanic Gardens. “Is it just the poem bothering you?”

“Everything is bothering me. I have dreams every night now. I feel like, I don’t know, something’s about to burst out of me. Like it’s getting harder to hold it back.”

“You’re just getting more in sync with your true self. Becoming one with the tiger.” Andy’s fingers flutter. She likes animals, draws pictures of half-human creatures with animal heads, and talks about herself as though she were a lynx. Sometimes, listening to Andy babble on like a shopping mall water feature, she thinks they could have taken their friendship to a different level, if she hadn’t ignored Andy’s advances. But Andy peppers their text conversations with nuggets like *flattens ears* and *offers sympathy paw*, and each one grates under the skin like badly fitting joints. Such things should be kept private; broadcasting them to the world is crass. Shameless.

No, Andy understands, but she doesn’t understand. Feli smiles and stretches beside her, focusing on the smell of the grass, the sunlight warming her belly. The turmoil she has to keep inside herself. It’s like smothering a forest fire with a second-hand blanket.

*

She knows something is wrong even before she pads into the senior partner’s cubicle. It’s the small hushes that have been descending in pockets of the office, the subtle shunting of emails and duties in the weeks before, the pow-wows that see upper management cloistered in one of their mahogany-lined rooms. Even Robert hadn’t come by that morning.

The firm is run by two men, an older and a younger partner. She can talk to the older one, Yong Chew, a grandfatherly figure who sees reason and could be persuaded. But it is Walter, the younger partner, who wants to see her. He has a face like a marble sculpture, blank alien eyes. Her hands curve as she sits down, a curling motion playing at her lips.

“There’s no good way to say this,” Walter begins.

“Am I being fired?”

A soft huff comes out of Walter as he leans back in his chair. “Well, if we’re going to be so direct.”

Rushing heat spreads from her stomach to her fingertips, crackling softly. “I am being fired.”

Walter sighs. Feli’s predator gaze focuses on the lines under his eyes, and the grey in his hair that hadn’t been there when she had started in the job. She feels sorry for him then, sorry for a life that is hollowing him out from the inside. “You know we’ve been trying to cut costs in the last few months. Times are tough. We need to downsize, it’s the only way.” Walter clears his throat. “It was a difficult decision, but the accounting department was one of the areas we identified. And we, uh, we made a decision.”

“I understand.” If they had to pick one person to keep, it would not be her. It would never be her, this ill-fitting, elusive thing.

He leans forward, his face and demeanour telegraphing sorrow. “Nobody wants this, Felicia.”

“Felicity.”

Walter’s eyes flicker downwards. She rises to her feet, hands crouched on the table for support. “I’ll pack my things.”

*

The house is dark. Feli sits on the edge of the bed, soaked in sweat, imagining a stone sinking to the bottom of the ocean, the glow of its burn fading as it descends into a watery grave. She is afraid to sleep, afraid that when she closes her eyes she will be irreversibly pulled into a chasm at the bottom of the ocean, filled with the sideways glances of her colleagues and Robert’s wilting look and her parents’ concerned eyes.

So she stares straight ahead. Down, down, down she sinks.

Felicity, the girl, is burning away, sloughing off in ashy bits that fall away into the water. There wasn’t much left of her to begin with, she thinks, from a distance. She feels her human body get up and move towards the door, and she realizes this is instinct: like a caterpillar knowing when it’s time to find a branch and become the butterfly it’s meant to be. Her strides are long and lazy as she slips out of the front door, naked as the day she was born, feet padding across bare concrete and warm, unwashed lift-landing tiles.

It is time.

Soon, she will be walking these grounds in a new body, four hundred pounds of flesh and power, great heart beating, fearsome mind burning with the fire of a hundred furnaces. She will cover a thousand paces in one bound, nobody to stop her or tell her where to go. It will be deadly. It will be terrible.

Downstairs she goes, into the deserted void deck, hair spilling over shoulders, hands held out. The lights flicker and extinguish with a hissing sound as she passes them by, plunging the space into sequential darkness. In the inkiness pairs of eyes glint, reflecting moonlight, pupils blown. Her flock has come to her, mouths open and mewing. The orange moggie pushes to the forefront, eyes expectant.

It is time.

She gets down on her hands and knees. “I’m here,” she whispers. But the sound comes out as a long, high noise. The topography of her throat is changing, the genetic material fluttering and resettling into another pattern. As a child she had watched the National Day Parade, how groups of dancers would change one picture into another by flipping coloured boards, exposing the underside, exposing the other nature. The boards of her physical self are changing. Her bones are compressing. Her skin is changing. She crouches on the ground as the wave of boards sweeps over her.

It is time.

The gathered cats fall silent and still.

Claws click on the ground. No more tangly fingers. She stretches and a tail flicks behind her, a strange and new sensation. A pleasing one.

Yet something seems wrong. The feel of her muscles is nothing like in her dreams.

She opens her eyes, her freshly shaped eyes, and everything is crisper, more alive—and looming. Walls tower above her. The green plastic dustbin in the corner looks like the Incredible Hulk, an impossible mass she will never be able to jump on top of, much less knock over. She stretches forward, and delicate, sienna paws come into view, striped gently with white.

The orange moggie looks at her, pleased.

She opens her mouth, pushes air through her larynx, tiny chest constricting—instead of a roar, there is a meow. The lump in her throat, the hyoid bone, is small and stiff and makes little noises. Meow. Meow. In the glittering eyes of the orange moggie with its tail-flicks she sees a lifetime of stalking through gutters, fighting with rats, and finding quiet spots under stairs to nap.

This is it. This is who she is. Not a dread terror of the night, but a small supple being that slips through the cracks like water. She jumps on the spot, once—twice—experimentally: her back arches and her feet have a wondrous spring to them. How light and free she is, with her new sight and ears sharp as bowls.

The cats around her meow their welcome.

The orange moggie comes close and brushes slightly past her. No more ear-rubs; they are equals, now. She purrs briefly, then springs away. She understands their new code, the code of the cat, where boundaries are both protection and respect.

The gathered felines spring away into the night, dispersing in a thousand directions like a firework. She joins them. Behind her, the lights of the void deck flutter back to life, casting their mottled shadows over the blank space where the girl used to be. She doesn’t look back.

 *

Issue 5 (Winter 2015)

Many thanks to Math Paper Press for their kind permission to reproduce this story, which first appeared in From the Belly of the Cat (2013). —RR

Story copyright © 2013 by JY Yang

Artwork copyright © 2015 by Likhain

JY Yang (a) has stories published or forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Apex Magazine; (b) gets crushes on cities, buildings, and various public transport systems; (c) lives in Singapore with two small Pomeranians and an army of succulent plants named Lars; (d) can be found tweeting excessively about the eldritch delights of the various Scandinavian languages at @halleluyang.

Likhain (artwork) is a queer Filipina artist who tells stories through calligraphy and ink, watercolour and poems. She finds great joy in creating art to accompany rich, deep stories with diverse, complex themes and, apart from commissions, is currently working on an art series based on Philippine mythology and folklore. She lives in regional Australia with her partner and two ridiculous Pomeranians, and spends her nights dreaming in the Philippines.

 

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This entry was posted on February 12, 2015 by in Stories.
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