Tiger lily, p.1
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       Tiger Lily, p.1

           Jodi Lynn Anderson
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Tiger Lily


  For the girls with messy hair and thirsty hearts


  I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,

  I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,

  I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

  —Walt Whitman, “To a Stranger”



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  She stands on the cliffs, near the old crumbling stone house.

  There’s nothing left in the house but an upturned table, a ladle, and a clay bowl. She stands for more than an hour, goose-bumped and shivering. At these times, she won’t confide in me. She runs her hands over her body, as if checking that it’s still there, her heart pulsing and beating. The limbs are smooth and strong, thin and sinewy, her hair long and black and messy and gleaming despite her age. You wouldn’t know it to look at her, that she’s lived long enough to look for what’s across the water. Eighty years later, and she is still fifteen.

  These days, there is no new world. The maps have long since settled and stayed put. People know the shapes of Africa, Asia, and South America. And they know which beasts were mythical and which weren’t. Manatees are real, mermaids aren’t. Rhinoceroses exist and sea monsters don’t. There are no more sea serpents guarding deadly whirlpools. There are pirates, yes, but there is nothing romantic about them. The rest is all stories, and stories have been put in their place.

  Now, the outsiders keep their eyes on their own shores, and we keep our eyes on ours. Too far off route, we’ve been overlooked, and most of us don’t think about the world outside. Only she and I are different. Every month or so she comes here and stares toward the ocean, and all the village children whisper about her, even her own. It has become such a ritual.

  And when she surfaces from her dream, she calls me by my old name, though no one uses it anymore. And she turns to me, her eyelashes fluttering in the glare that surrounds me, and whispers to me in one short syllable.



  Let me tell you something straight off. This is a love story, but not like any you’ve heard. The boy and the girl are far from innocent. Dear lives are lost. And good doesn’t win. In some places, there is something ultimately good about endings. In Neverland, that is not the case.

  To understand what it’s like to be a faerie, tall as a walnut and genetically gifted with wings—who happened to witness such a series of events—you must first understand that all faeries are mute. Somewhere in our evolution, on our long crooked journey from amoeba to dragonfly to faerie, nature must have decided language wasn’t necessary for us to survive. It’s good in some ways, not to have a language. It makes you see things. You turn your attention, not to babbling about yourself, broadcasting each and every thought to everyone within earshot—as people often do—but to observing. That’s how faeries became so empathic. We’re so attuned to the beating of a heart, the varied thrum of a pulse, the zaps of the synapses of a brain, that we are almost inside others’ minds. Most faeries tune this out by only spending time with other faeries. They make settlements in tree stumps and barely venture out except to hunt mosquitoes. I get bored by that. I like to fly and keep an eye on things. That was how I saw it, from the beginning. Some would like to call it being nosy. That’s what my mother would say, at least.

  That morning, I was on my way to see about some locusts. They’d invaded and eaten all the good parts of a faerie settlement near the river, and I had never seen a locust before. I was flying along on a curiosity mission when I passed the girls in a manioc field.

  They were out cultivating the tubers—in the tribe, a woman’s job. All in their early teens: some of the girls were awkwardly growing but still thoroughly in their skin, with gangly limbs that expressed their most passing thoughts, while others were curvy, and carrying those curves like new tools they were learning. I recognized Tiger Lily instantly; I had seen her before. She stood out like a combination of a roving panther and a girl. She stalked instead of walked. Her body still held the invincibility of a child, when at her age it should have been giving way to fragile, flexible curves.

  These were Sky Eaters, a tribe whose lives were always turned toward the river. They fished, and grew manioc in the clearing along its shore. A Sky Eater wandering far into the thick, unnavigable forest was like a faerie wandering into a hawk’s hunting territory. It happened only rarely. So when they heard the crashing through the trees, most of the girls screamed. Tiger Lily reached for her hatchet.

  Stone came through first, splitting through the branches. The other boys rallied behind him. And Pine Sap, last and weakest of them all, brought up the rear. They were all breathless, shirtless, a muscular and well-organized group with weedy Pine Sap trailing at the back.

  Stone gestured for the girls to come with them. “You’ll never believe it.”

  The girls followed the boys through the forest, and I grabbed a tassel of Tiger Lily’s tunic because I, too, was curious, and she ran faster than I wanted to fly. And then we cleared the last of the trees leading to the cliffs, and the way to the sea was open, and I heard a noise escape Tiger Lily’s lips, a little cry, and heard it on the other girls’ lips too as they arrived behind her. There upon the water was a large ship, a skeleton against the sky, collapsed and flailing into the rocks close to shore, broken apart and drowning. The scene was all deep blues and grays and whites and the wild waves lifting it all like deep gasping breaths.

  Looking closer, I could see little pink people—tiny, falling and clinging. I knew right away they must be Englanders, a people we knew of from across the ocean.

  “They’re dying,” one of the girls breathed—a reedy thing I knew to be named Moon Eye—gesturing with her thin arms.

  Between the ship’s decks, the rocks soared. Pieces of it raced into the sea and disappeared. Little people dropped from it in droves.

  Pine Sap elbowed Tiger Lily’s arm; he pointed, his finger snaking to trace a line farther in. One little rowboat moved toward shore like a water bug, but we could see that it was caught in the breakers.

  It had only one occupant—a fragile figure, a lone man. He was making for the shore with all his might and getting nowhere. As we looked on, the waves buffeted him, until finally he was knocked from the boat, though
he somehow managed to cling to its bow. He looked to be as good as dead. But seconds later, he hurled himself back on board.

  The tiny boat looked fit to capsize, was half full of water already, and the man was not an adept seaman, constantly turning the boat broadwise when it should have been pointed vertically against the waves. Still, he rowed, and rowed, and despite everything, and to our utter surprise, the boat suddenly lurched its way out of the breakers and into the calm waters by the beach. He collapsed down and forward for a moment, as if he might be dead, and then began to row, calmly, toward the shore. Several people in our group let out their breaths. I did too, though no one would have heard me.

  To me it seemed like he was trading one deadly place for another, and that drifting back out to sea was no less dangerous than walking into the island without knowing its dangers. The forest would eat him alive, even his bones.

  The young people of the tribe were all looking at each other with a combination of exhilaration and fear, except for Tiger Lily, stony and unreadable, her eyes on the man below. Pine Sap grabbed her hand and pulled her back from the cliff’s edge; she had been standing so close the wind might have blown her over.

  “They’ll be deciding what to do about him,” Stone said.

  Because all Neverlanders knew what danger Englanders brought with them.

  The children raced home to see what the village council would do. I stayed and watched the ship floundering in the waves for a while longer, then flew to catch up.

  That was the beginning, or at least the beginning of the beginning, of the changes that were coming for Tiger Lily: the arrival of one little man on one little lifeboat. By that day, I had known of Tiger Lily for years. I also knew a little of her history: that Tik Tok, the shaman, had found her while he was out gathering wild lettuce for medicine, under a flower—either abandoned there or hidden from some peril by someone who didn’t survive to come back for her. He’d named her Tiger Lily, after the flower she was under, bundled her into his arms, and taken her home. When she’d grown old enough to seem like a real girl, he’d built her a house next to his down the path that led to the woods and moved her into it. He didn’t want her borrowing his dresses.

  Tik Tok lived in a clay house he’d built himself—the most intricate in the village. It was my favorite home to sleep in when I was passing through, because it had the best nooks, and a faerie always likes to sleep in tight places for fear of predators. He’d seen the same constructions done in one of the other tribes on the island—the Bog Dwellers, who lived in the mud bogs among the old bones of prehistoric animals—and he’d dragged the whole rib cage of a beast home piece by piece to make the frame. With a craftsmanship possessed by no one else in any village, he’d fashioned shelves and windows, to create a dwelling that put the rest of the tribe’s simple houses to shame.

  Now he was sitting by a warm fire inside, as the sun was setting and the night was growing cool, as it often did at the end of the dry season. He wore a long dress of raspberry-dyed leather—his favorite—and his hair braided down his back, a leather thong tied around his head with a peacock feather in back. His posture was straight and graceful as any woman’s. His eyes were closed in concentration, and his lips moved in a conversation with the invisible gods that, as shaman, he visited in trances. Out of breath, Tiger Lily moved into the room soundlessly and hovered, waiting for him to finish.

  In a village where everything was uniform and tidy, Tik Tok’s house was like a treasure trove. The firelight cast shadows on the curved walls where he kept his curious collection of belongings: tiny bird skulls, feathers, a few stones that looked like any other stones but which he treasured, and a beloved collection of exotic items that had washed ashore over the years, which he had found scouring Neverland’s shores. A book, the pages stuck together, the ink blurred. A tarnished metal cup. And, most beloved of all, a box that told time—still ticking away, its mechanism having somehow survived a shipwreck or a long journey across the sea from the continent. The Englanders divided the endlessness of the world into seconds and minutes and hours, and Tik Tok thought this was wonderful.

  Tiger Lily moved across the room quietly, examining the clock, the little metal bit he used to wind it, and bending her ear to the loud, steady ticktock, which Tik Tok had renamed himself after in a solemn ceremony attended by the whole village.

  Now she sensed a movement, and turned to see that he was observing her.

  “Well, my little beast, I hear we have a visitor,” he said, looking her up and down with an amused smile. She always managed to look like a wild beast, mud-stained and chaotic. Her hair was constantly escaping her braid to cling to her face, stuck to her, covered in dirt.

  “Will we help him?” she asked.

  Tik Tok shook his head. “I don’t know.”

  Tiger Lily waited for him to say more, trying her best to remain in respectful silence.

  Tik Tok smeared away some of the charcoal he used to line his eyes. “Have you seen my pipe?” he asked.

  He stood and moved about the house, searching. He had carved it over two weeks of long intricate work, but it was the fifth one he’d made. He was always losing things. Finally he found it buried under his covers.

  He turned his attention to her question, and sighed. Englanders had come to Neverland before. They’d brought their language with them and given it out as a gift to the Bog Dwellers, who had given it to the other tribes in turn over the years. But they’d also brought a strange discomfort to the wild, and they’d been loud and careless in the forest, and gotten themselves murdered by pirates, who hated their fellow Englanders more than anything else on earth and liked to kill them on sight. They’d brought fevers and crippling flus too. But it wasn’t any of this that the Sky Eaters feared.

  The Englanders had the aging disease. As time went on they turned gray, and shrank, and, inexplicably, they died. It wasn’t that Neverlanders didn’t know anything about death, but not as a slow giving in, and certainly not an inevitability. This, more than the beasts of their own island, or the brutal pirate inhabitants of the far west shore, was what crept into their dreams at night and chased them through nightmares.

  You never could tell when someone would stop growing old in Neverland. For Tik Tok, it had been after wrinkles had walked long deep tracks across his face, but for many people, it was much younger. Some people said it occurred when the most important thing that would ever happen to you triggered something inside that stopped you from moving forward, but Tik Tok thought that was superstition. All anyone knew was that you came to an age and you stayed there, until one day some accident or battle with the dangers of the island claimed you. Therefore sometimes daughters grew older than mothers, and grandchildren became older than grandparents, and age was just a trait, like the color of your hair, or the amount of freckles on your skin.

  It was because of the aging disease, Tiger Lily knew, that the Sky Eaters wouldn’t want to help the Englander. They didn’t want to catch what he had.

  But something about the tiny lone figure, floating from one certain death into another, tugged at her—I could hear it. (As a faerie, you can hear when something tugs at someone. It’s much like the sound of a low, deep note on a violin string.)

  “He won’t survive without our help,” Tiger Lily said. “We’re supposed to be brave, aren’t we?” The wrinkles in Tik Tok’s face moved in response. The story they told was familiar to her.

  “I’m not a stranger to your love of lost causes, dear one. But you have to be careful who you meet,” he said, stoking a pipe thoughtfully. “You can’t unmeet them.” He took a long drag of his pipe. Being near Tik Tok always gave one the feeling that everything in the world was exactly in the place it ought to be, and that rushing through anything would be an insult and a waste. “And you should be thinking of other things. You’re getting too old to run wild like you do. Clean yourself up. Brush your hair. Try to look like a girl.”

  “I will, if you try to look like a man.”

/>   He smiled wryly, because they both knew how impossible that was; he didn’t have it in him. Tik Tok was as womanly as a man could ever be, and everyone just accepted it, like they accepted the color of the sky, and the fact that night followed the daytime. Grudgingly, he gave Tiger Lily a puff of his pipe. They sat and watched the colors outside the window. From my perch on a shelf, I inhaled the unfurling wisps as they dissipated: the tobacco made the colors thick, the smells richer. Outside, visible through the window, everyone was dispersing from the fire. The girls were walking ahead and the boys were running to catch up. There was, as always, a dance going on between them, one that I’d never seen Tiger Lily take part in.

  She lay on her back and pushed her feet against the wall, wiped a layer of sweat from her neck though the air was chilly. She tapped her feet at the wall in a troubled rhythm.

  Tik Tok gave her a knowing look. “You’re restless. Everything is too small for you, including your own body. That’s what it’s like to be fifteen. I remember.”

  There was a noise in the doorway and they both glanced up to see Pine Sap, pale, with Moon Eye behind him looking pensive and sorry, the way she often did.

  “They’ve decided to let the Englander die,” he said.

  I was asleep on a leaf by the main fire when I heard her come out of her hut.

  She went to the river to wash, after everyone else had gone to bed. Crocs sometimes made their way this far inland, but I knew she wasn’t as scared of them as some of the others, and that she liked to swim alone, after dark. Following her back to her house, I saw there was one candle burning among the huts. Pine Sap’s. He was probably up working on a project, or thinking his deep thoughts. I knew, from nights I’d slept in the village, that he was an insomniac.

  When Tiger Lily emerged again from her house and into the square, she’d gathered up a bagful of food.

  She set out before the sun came up, her arrows strapped to her back.

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