It ended when Jack found her heart in the midden. It was undigested and wet with saliva, buried in thorny durian husks.

§

It started when she met Tien in the glade.

The glade was her father’s territory. He was guardian of the treasure buried shallow in the soft earth under the grass, buried deep under the great roots of old trees, scattered like roe across the streambed. She played with it as a pup, shining stones and twisty metal the same colour as her pelt. Father had been already old. A golden jackal in name only, fur gone to rust and grey. They talked little since the day Father sniffed at her hindparts and said she smelled like her mother.

Jack didn’t remember her mother.

“She was your sister, too.” Father had said, cackling. “So was your grandmother, and hers. Soon we’ll make you a new sister.”

She thought about that. “I don’t want cubs,” she said. “I want to explore outside the glade. Meet new people.”

“You can’t leave,” Father said, “You’d never come back. I need you to make me new daughters.” She’d tried to leave before, curious about the world beyond. The bramble barrier closed tight against her, and Father nipped her crossly when she came back with her tail between her legs.

That was the day she first tried putting her paws aside for hands. Father didn’t like that, either, he sighed from his corner of the burrow. His glade magic was strong, but unlike hers. He could not change. Or perhaps he just refused to.

“The glade magic is a curse for sons,” Father would say. “Only for sons, my daughter.”

She didn’t understand why he called it a curse when it was so powerful. He made weather mild, food plentiful: voles, squirrels, even hares. She had just cracked a lizard open, noisily slurping it, when she smelled Tien approaching.

He was not the first treasure hunter to find the glade. Anyone except Jack could enter or leave. But Father’s magic hid the treasure from strangers, and kept them from bringing harm to the glade. She had no fear of him.

But Tien wasn’t interested in treasure. He offered Jack cooked meat from his pack. She tore into the richness of it, overwhelmed by the spices. Tien stroked her neck and her ears flattened in pleasure.

“Stay away from him,” Father told her later, but he always said that. “The last human who was my friend was a king. He got me stuck here looking after his shitty shiny rocks for a thousand seasons. Why do you think I refuse to make sons?”

Jack rolled her eyes. The glade magic let him hold back monsoons and blow out forest fires. It was a gift, not a curse.

“You could walk away and let humans take the treasure,” Jack said. The shiny things were not that interesting. She hadn’t even played with them since she was a whelp.

Father’s hackles rose. “I promised,” was all he said.

Tien came back often, bringing cooked meat. They talked.

On the sea–green grass beside the stream, she made herself a human face. Until she wore her human eyes, she didn’t understand green.

Tien ran his hands over her smooth skin in wonder and hunger. Her own whimpers sounded strange. He laughed when she licked his face, and taught her how to lick tongues in the human way. He gave her a name, Jackery, and said it meant “to be remembered”.

He taught her to remember and to want.

She was not shy of nakedness, but shy of mating. It made her think about Father. She would squirm out of his hands, pull her fur around her. Fall to four paws and lope into the undergrowth to crouch and close her eyes. Tien smelled like palm–water left in the sun, sweet and fierce.

When he asked her to marry him, she made him explain about marriage. Then she said yes.

§

Jack stroked Father’s head goodbye with her new hands. Father grumbled, but didn’t stop her. His fur felt odd on her bare palms.

She thought he howled when she left, but her unfamiliar ears were insensitive. Her nose was a clumsy lump of cartilage on a flat face, smelling almost nothing. The single pair of teats made her unbalanced. Walking on two legs felt like falling. But the eyes were a wonder.

The wedding was beautiful, Tien said. He wore a dagger with a jewelled hilt in his belt, the blade hidden in the sheath. She wore nothing. Her wedding dress was her careful face. The cheekbones, Tien told her, were exquisite, the curled lashes maddening.

Tien officiated his own wedding. “Jackery of the Glade, will you be taken?”

“I will,” she said, and cried when it didn’t rain and it didn’t shine from the clouded sky.

“It’s a bad omen,” she said to Tien, who didn’t understand. “When a jackal marries, it’s supposed to rain and shine at the same time. Father told me it happened when he married my sister–mothers.”

Tien wiped her tears and kissed her muzzle. “Your face is slipping, my wife. You’re not a jackal any more.”

She forced her face into smoothness while he took his dagger and cut out his heart. He gave it to her to eat. While she chewed, looking at his eyes, he cut her heart out. She didn’t even feel it. He put it in his mouth in one great swallow, and she laughed.

They honeymooned that evening. Tien called the fine golden down on her body her “fur” to comfort her.

In the morning, while he took her from behind, she raised her face to the bright sky and raindrops wet her cheeks.

She sensed Father watching from the undergrowth and missed her fur. She took Tien’s shirt and struggled into it. It smelled like him.

Tien brought back fruit covered in tough green thorns, so sharp they drew blood from her palms. They stank but when he sliced one open, the flesh was yellow and sweet. Tien dug a refuse–pit for the husks, and in the evening they made a fire.

While he was gone the next morning, she lazed with her hands to her roiling belly. Too much new food, but oh, the pleasure of cooked meat. The stench of durian was everywhere. It made her queasy.

She crawled over to the midden and vomited. She couldn’t smell anything except durian, but she knew green when she saw it. The red of her discarded heart stood out among the thorns.

§

Jack ate her own heart for strength, shivering. She barely noticed when Tien returned. He stepped knee–deep into the stream and pulled a golden circle out of the water. It shone in the sun.

“I’ve killed your father,” he said. He held a spear with blood on the barbs. “My greatest heist, even if I had to lose my heart.”

“How?” Jack asked, voice breaking into a whine.

“I put a son in your belly,” Tien said. “I knew the terms of the king’s spell. A male child inherits and the old guardian loses his power.”

“But I don’t want cubs,” Jack said. She patted her belly. “I’ll make it go away. I have the changing magic.”

“It’s too late now,” Tien said, with a trace of the old patience with which he’d explained marriage or kings or gold or any other strange human thing. “You’ve helped me break your father’s magic. Without it, he was just an old jackal. Now the treasure is mine.”

He was watching her carefully. She could read human body language better now, and understood the casual grace of his spear, the way he was braced for an attack from jackal–height.

“I don’t care,” Jack said, at last. “I never cared about the treasure. You can have it if you want. I don’t care if you killed Father. He kept me trapped here and you’re my husband.” She walked over to Tien and ran her hand over his face. “Now we can leave this place together.”

It was almost true. She didn’t care about the treasure and she did love him, if this was love. When she stabbed him in the belly with his own dagger, it was for Father.

When she cut open his gut, that was curiosity. She had never cut with anything but teeth. Tien fell to his knees, trying to pinch shut his wound and hold the red sea washing out of him. He made noises like a dying hare.

Her belly settled a little. She was hungry, after all.

When she dropped to all fours and snagged a corner of intestine in her jaws before darting away, unraveling him, winding him into the treasure glade by his guts, that was cruelty. She had finally learned a human thing.

She dropped it when she reached the glade’s edge, Tien’s screams fading behind her.

The bramble barrier parted, and she slipped beyond into the rain and the shine.

Vajra Chandrasekera lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and is @_vajra on Twitter. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Stupefying Stories and Ideomancer, and has been nominated for a Rhysling Award.

2 Comments

  1. OOH. Such an elegant twist on a traditional animal-wife story.

  2. Just… wow.

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