Pruned feet and a tiny crab trying to make a home in her raven hair.
That’s how she woke up. It took a moment to realize where she was, blinking in tropical sunlight already well over the horizon. Then she went a bit crazy trying to get the pink crab out of her hair. It flew through the air and landed with a splash in the clear, blue water next to her.
Mei hadn’t known where to sleep the night before. Afraid that the large feline predator living somewhere nearby would see her as easy prey, she’d been too scared to stay the night in the ruined village or even to make an absurd attempt at climbing a tree. After all, she had already seen for herself that the big cat was capable of the same.
With few options, she’s crawled over the dark rocks forming one edge of the little bay, going out into the ocean. Careful not to cut herself on barnacles and oysters, she crawled to a spot as far out as she could go, gentle waves all around her. Water protected her on three sides. Putting her back to the last rock, she sat and faced the island, sword across her legs and a pistol in each hand. She’d waited for hours, watching to see if the jaguar would come for her. Apparently, she’d fallen asleep at some point. Likely due to exhaustion. She was still recovering from her ordeal.
At least the cat seemed to have left her alone. That was good. Except that she found her feet had fallen into a puddle of water in the rocks during the night, and having been there so long, they were far too sore to move and impossible to walk on. She had to dry them in the sun for over an hour and gently massage them before she could move on them.
It had not been a comfortable place to sleep. Her body was sore; her back hurt. Hungry, she picked some more fruit from the one tree she’d come across. That alone was not enough to quench a rising thirst though. Glancing inland, she new she had to go back for fresh water. It was too bad that she had nothing to hold carry it with so as to avoid returning to the spot in the future. Then again, she really couldn’t afford to stay around here any longer. She needed to get moving. Soldiers would be hunting her. She wasn’t sure how big the island was, but surely it wouldn’t take them too long to come across her.
Pistols in the deep pockets of her jacket, rapier in hand, she picked her way through the grasses and trees towards fresh water. While she paid some attention to the ground in front of her, being in bare feet and all, she kept her wary eyes on the land before her. Because she might not be alone.
That heightened awareness might have explained the way her mood lifted. To her surprise, walking along in the Caribbean wilds, she felt…good. Up at dawn, or not too long after. Tramping through the brush. Preparing to drink water from a pond. It was like camping. If one forgot about the prison and guards and all that.
Breathing deep, a smile took over her features. She was not used to air this clean. That thought made her laugh out loud. She was used to living in a city where the smog got so bad you could routinely see the filth in the air. People often wore masks. Sometimes you couldn’t even go outside. A lot of folks died every year from the pollution produced from forest fires, crop burning, car exhaust, factory smoke, and other sources.
But now? Another inhalation and it felt illicit to be breathing such good, clean air, like a drug. It gave her energy and hope.
There was something primal about being here. The plentiful plants all around, the beautiful and untouched scenery, the pure air — it felt so natural, so right to be here. There was something intrinsically missing from a life lived only in the city, the way an animal lives in a concrete zoo. Despite all the comforts offered by city life, a part of her felt like she belonged here.
She also felt like working toilets belonged here. Discretely of course. Because suddenly feeling the urge to do her morning business, squatting in the open bush was an experience that could be improved upon.
Finding the waterhole again was actually easier than she’d thought. She pushed through the heavy ring of vegetation and the dangling vines from the fig trees. Not wanting to alarm the jaguar if it was still nearby, her eyes slowly worked her gaze over the edge of the water and the tree branches all around. Finding herself in the clear, she edged into the water a bit, trying not to sir up silt.
In the real world, drinking from still water like this would not be advisable. Severe sickness could easily result. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be an issue here. It hadn’t been last time she’d been here, so she hoped for the same this time. So she crouched and dipped her hand, drinking several times. It was a bit warm, but refreshing. Fed up with using her hand, she put her mouth down and drank directly.
It was good. Satisfied, she lifted her head.
The grass to her right parted. The jaguar, yellow and white fur covered in black spots, pushed its head and shoulders through and stared at her.
“Fuck!” she swore and threw herself back.
The big cat sank back, startled.
Falling back on her ass, she scrambled for one of the pistols in her pocket. With her other hand, she waved the sword back and forth in front of her. “Back off!” she shouted. The pistol was deep in the pocket and the flintlock caught on the way out. She had to pull hard, twisting it around in desperate frustration, heart hammering in her chest. It came free and she fired it.
The loud bang and the smoke scared both of them. But she didn’t hit anything with the shot.
The jaguar leapt to the side of the shot and landed in a defensive crouch, now visibly hostile. Eyes narrowed, seemingly taking in her weapons specifically; teeth bared. It hunched its shoulders.
“Go!” she shouted again, anxiously waving her sword around. “Get lost!” Would acting big and being loud scare it off? Or just upset it more?
It did not seem to like the sword at all, eyes swivelling to follow it. The jaguar darted forward towards her and pounced, pushing off of its powerful back legs. Claws reached for her face.
Mei screamed and ducked, weakly hacking with the blade, though it touched only air as the cat sailed overhead. She didn’t wait around. She threw herself forward and ran. That was probably stupid, but one pistol needed two minutes to recover and the other was in a pocket. She was panicking. She blindly crashed through the forest and ran out into the long grass beyond.
She heard the jaguar giving chase. But there was nowhere to go in front of her and she wasn’t going to be fast enough to outrun it. She skidded to a halt, dropped the empty pistol, switched the sword to her off hand and dug out the other pistol.
The jaguar had a bead on her. With calm intensity, it ran directly for her, muscles standing out in its lithe body, yellow eyes unblinking.
The pistol came free. She aimed and pointed.
The jaguar snarled at the sight of the gun and dodged. But the bullet dug into the ground in front of it, throwing dirt up in its face. The big cat leaped away to safety, then turned and glared at her, not moving. It watched her.
Now both of her pistols were empty. Mei panted. She pocketed the gun in her hand and picked the other up, gripping the barrel and wielding it like a club.
The two stared at each other for several tense moments.
Mei swallowed. She lowered her weapons and very slowly backed away. Hopefully it would recognize this as her attempt to reduce aggression. She couldn’t tell where she was going and hoped she wouldn’t trip and fall, but she had to put distance between them. She desperately hoped the jaguar would just give up. “Go away!” she urgently whispered, not shouting anymore.
She wanted nothing more than to not fight this thing. She was completely outmatched and didn’t stand a chance. Keeping her body hunched and low, feeling her way with each step, she backed up more and more. Recalling something about dogs and staring them in the eye because of dominance, she slightly averted her eyes, watching a spot next to the big cat, hoping the same was true here.
The jaguar watched her, body tense, tail barely moving. But it didn’t advance. It stayed where it was.
Mei breathed deep, and then her heel hit something and she fell back onto her butt. She panicked and leaped to her feet again.
The cat was gone.
Whirling in every direction, sword tip pointed in front of her, she grew even more frightened. The only thing scarier than a monster is a monster you can’t see coming for you.
Her nerve broke. She turned and bolted for the beach. Running with all her might, she ignored sharp grass and rocks and dashed over the land onto the sand. Only at the waterline did she spin around, weapons in front of her and the ocean at her back.
She was alone.
Chest heaving, she waited. She watched. But she was not followed. After a couple of minutes, she sagged and sat down hard on the beach.
It took the better part of an hour for Mei to pull her shaken self together. Some of that was convincing herself that the jaguar would keep away now, because it would be wary of her. We all lie to ourselves like that sometimes. The truth can be scary and we need to find a way to move forward.
Sitting in the sand, she debated what to do. The idea of trying to hike overland to the port to steal a boat wasn’t very appealing with the jaguar in there, somewhere, waiting for her. She could circle the island via the beach and shore.
Her stomach growled. What she really needed was a good meal. Those fruits were delicious, but not enough. She craved meat.
A glance around revealed a white bird with black wings floating in the water behind her. A seagull? No, it was bigger. And it had black feathers. A…pelican? No. Albatross, that’s what it was. Probably. Maybe?
Would it taste like chicken? But how would she cook it? A problem for later. First she needed to kill it. Despite the danger she’d just been in, her mouth was already watering at the thought of something decent to eat.
Rising, she left her sword and took a gun in each hand. With measured steps, she stalked the bird, her feet slipping into the cool water. It rose up to her knees, then her thighs. She made sure to keep the pistols above the waves, as they wouldn’t work wet. But she had to get as close as possible because she had no skill with these. She’d never hunted before in her life either. Pointing with one arm out, squinting along the sights as if it might help, she tried to time the shot as the bird rose up on a wave. She pulled the trigger.
A splash meters away startled the bird. It gave her an indignant look and then lazily took flight.
Mei cursed. She pointed the other pistol with her off hand. Using instinctual judgement, she fired, just barely remembering to lead her shot, firing where the bird would be, not where it was. Not that she had any hope of actually hitting it.
Through the puff of white gun smoke, she saw the bird tumble in the air. It fell, then flapped its wings, once, three times. But it lost altitude and curved towards the beach a short ways away.
She grinned and shouted with joy. Splashing carelessly, she pushed through the water towards the beach.
The jaguar exploded from a patch of tall grass not ten meters away. Long, loping strides carried it over the sand at high speed. The bird didn’t even have the chance to land. The great cat leapt impossibly high and powerful jaws snatched the bird from the air, crushing it.
Mei stood, dumbfounded, her jaw hanging open.
The jaguar turned and looked back at her. Then it leisurely trotted away, vanishing into the bush.
She blinked. “You…thief.”
Ok. That had been unexpected. Also unexpected was the fact that the cat must have been sitting there on the edge of the beach, just out of sight all this time, watching her.
Her legs gave out and she crumpled. Bird? She didn’t need the bird. It wasn’t as if she could make fire to cook. Well, the guns might start— No. She couldn’t. The cat deserved the bird. The hungry cat that might be a lot less hungry after eating the bird. And less likely to eat her. So the cat taking the bird was good. Very good.
She settled for more fruit. Another trip to the outdoor toilet told her that her body wasn’t entirely happy with eating so much of it and nothing else.
The sun was only now reaching its zenith, so there was a lot of daylight left. She pondered her next move. With the cat eating, perhaps now was the time to strike out for the port or some town? Then again, that probably wasn’t the only jaguar around, was it?
She eyed the beach, particularly the opposite direction the jaguar had gone in. She should start walking.
But, honestly, she just wasn’t up to it. She was tired and sore from both escaping the ship and not sleeping well. Her stomach was not in great shape. And she was scared. And somehow she’d have to sneak through people, fight them, steal a boat, and then miraculously escape? It felt impossible. A single jaguar had almost killed her. What chance did she have against a town full of armed guards?
Whatever confidence she’d had on the ship evaporated. Escaping had just been luck. She couldn’t do this.
Drifting over to the shade of a nearby tree, she let herself break down. It didn’t matter that the jaguar might come back. It didn’t matter that soldiers might come by. She couldn’t take anything else right now. She just needed to cry.
After a long personal time out, Mei reluctantly composed herself. But she was in a miserable mood. Despite knowing it was foolish, that she needed to get up and do something to save herself, she stubbornly told that internal voice of wisdom to fuck right off. She didn’t think she could do it. Couldn’t escape this island. All she was going to do was get herself caught while trying. So she kicked at the white sand and refused to budge. She’d just sit here and enjoy her freedom while she could. For hours she just stared at the water.
But then the sun eventually set behind her, throwing the sky into deepening shades of magical violets and blues. Her hunger gnawed at her, and she reluctantly got up and ate a few more of the fruits. She plucked two and saw that the only ones left were unripe. Guess she was going to have to move on from here whether she liked it or not. Whatever.
Feeling despondent, she wandered down the beach in front of the ruined village. Where should she sleep tonight? She wasn’t really inclined to go back to sleep on the rocks in the water. Should she risk staying in one of the dilapidated buildings?
She thought about the jaguar. She wasn’t sure how big the meal of albatross had been, but she thought she remembered something about hunting cats not eating every day. Maybe it would be sated and not come after her in the night. It’s not like they were malicious and killed for sport, right? Right?
Hiking into the remains of the village, she chose the house with the fewest holes in the walls. She entered. The floor was sand and dirt. Slouching into a corner, she put her guns in front of her and kept the sword in hand. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was out of the wind and much drier than the last place she’d slept.
She rested her head against the wooden wall behind her and let herself drift off. Her eyes began to close.
Something scuttled across the sand in front of her.
Coming awake, she saw the giant centipede, longer than her hand. Mei recoiled and screamed. She climbed out the nearest window and threw herself away from the building.
Right. Abandoned house: dry, rotting, probably home to creepy crawly things. She shuddered. Time for a new place to sleep.
The beach. She looked at it. The beach was open, clean. No creepy crawly biting spider or snake or centipede things there, right? Probably not.
But she’d be open to the jaguar or soldiers.
Feeling industrious after doing nothing all day, she tore a plank out of the remains of the fence. Much was rotted away, but she used what she had to dig a hole in the beach. It wasn’t large, just enough for her to curl inside. She got down to damp sand and then stopped, leaving a layer of dry. The sand she dug out, she piled in a ring around the hole. Kicking and punching, she took more boards from the fence and house. These she stuck into the wall of sand like a palisade. Of course, any human would see it and know it for something human made. So she tore up some grass, gathered dead branches and palm fronds, and piled them up around the sand fort.
Crawling into her nest, she pulled a few more planks and fronds up over her head, balanced on the makeshift wall. Through a few cracks, she could see the stars above. Huddled there, she slowly drifted off to the sound of the ocean crashing onto the beach. And hoped she’d be safe.
For at least one more night.