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art by Ron Sanders

Xuan the Tiger

J. Kyle Turner lives with his wife in South Korea, where he spends remarkably little time doing anything responsible. The remainder of his energies go into this sort of nonsense. This is his third publication with Daily Science Fiction, and they should really stop enabling him, or he'll think he can get away with doing it forever.

Winter came to the mountains, and Xuan walked home through the snow.
Her family lived in a yurt on the northern slopes of Changbai, nestled in the shelter of an overhang. Her father was a fisherman, and spent the winter next to holes carved in the icy river. Her mother was her mother. Xuan loved them both.
And Xuan loved the snow. When she was younger she would hold her breath and step quietly, making as little noise as possible. That was snow to her. Like the sky seeing how little noise it could make.
She walked home beneath eagles perched high on their rocks. She stood behind an evergreen and watched boars dig through the ice with their noses, searching for walnuts. And when she was nearly home, she came face to face with the tiger.
It had a broad face with a white muzzle and heavy front paws. Its winter coat had come in, and the long hair made its stripes indistinct. Xuan saw the fence between them, but not before the pain gripped her chest and her legs gave out beneath her.
The tiger watched, but didn't growl. It sat apart from the others, in its own enclosure. Xuan thought it looked very sad.
"You shouldn't run through the snow like that," her mother said. She stood over the sink, cleaning fish. Her back was to Xuan.
"I like the snow."
"You'll strain your heart, daughter. And then what will we do?"
Xuan was fourteen, an only daughter who knew she would never marry. "My heart is fine, mother."
"What's her name?" Xuan asked.
"Kiska," the man said. He was a conservationist, and he made sure no one hunted the tigers behind the fence.
"Why is she by herself?"
"When she gets homesick, she fights the other tigers, so we have to separate her." He talked to Xuan like she was a very young child. "She's from Russia."
Later, Xuan asked Kiska if the snow felt different in Russia.
Kiska looked at her for a moment, and then lowered her head onto her paws. She couldn't seem to look at anything outside the fence for very long.
"When summer comes, we can go down to the city and see a doctor," her mother said. "Won't that be nice?"
Xuan didn't say anything. She leaned her chin against the windowsill and looked outside, even when her mother walked over to brush her hair.
"Can she ever go home?" Xuan asked the conservationist.
"I don't think she remembers the way."
"She might. We could let her out and see."
He laughed and ruffled her hair, though she was nearly as tall as him. "It's too dangerous. She would eat us both."
She wouldn't eat me, Xuan thought.
In her dreams, Xuan was the tiger, and everyone else lived inside the fence. Once a day, she would walk close to her mother and let her marvel at Xuan's winter coat. Then the conservationist would let a deer out of the fence for her to chase, and she would leap and crash through the forest until she caught it.
One morning, Xuan woke up inside the enclosure. She stood up and shook her fur and stretched her back with a long yawn. A fresh layer of powder had fallen in the night. She took a deep breath of mountain air and let it out in a great huff.
She walked to the edge of the fence, where a small raven-haired girl stood with a hand between the bars. She licked the girl's wrist and the girl scratched her ear before saying goodbye.
Xuan spent the day running. So fast, and so strong! She felt like she could tear down the mountain with her claws. Her heart thrummed deep in her chest, and her lungs heaved like bellows. She went to sleep that night in a mound of snow, and woke up in her own bed.
And so it went. A day as Xuan the girl, and a day as Xuan the tiger. Xuan called it trading, because Xuan the tiger knew what it was like to be strong, and Kiska the girl knew what it was like to be free.
Summer came, and the doctor pronounced Xuan to be in perfect health. The conservationist moved Kiska to the larger enclosure where she could run with the other tigers. They traded every night.
The next winter, Xuan woke up in her bed on a night she expected to wake up behind the fence. Her bond with Kiska had grown, and she could feel the great cat far off to the north. She tried to trade, but Kiska pushed back, and Xuan the girl stayed Xuan the girl.
She put on her shoes and coat and took her father's bicycle out over the ice. She pedaled for miles and miles until the sun was about to rise. She found Kiska lying in the snow a mile away from a small village. Blood stained her fur and the snow beneath her.
Xuan thought of the villager waking up to find a tiger prowling in his yard. She imagined her mother waking up to find her bed empty, and the conservationist walking out to an empty enclosure. And she thought of Kiska, far from home and trying to go back, where the snow really did feel different after all. She thought of these things, and she cried.
She tried to trade, and when Kiska pushed back, Xuan pushed harder, until she was lying in the snow and the little raven-haired girl was crying above her.
Xuan the tiger was strong; even with the bullet pressed against her lung; even with Kiska the girl burying tears and kisses into her muzzle.
Overhead, snow started to fall, but Xuan felt very warm. She wondered if Kiska would make it home.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 7th, 2014

Author Comments

In a lot of ways, this story came along right when I needed it. I'd been floundering for a while, putting a lot of days in front of a blank page without anything to show for it. So I took a break, flopped down on the couch one Saturday, and watched whatever was on TV at the time. The show was an episode of Wild China, narrated by Bernard Hill. Halfway through the show, something clicked, and there I was, back in front of the keys, typing like I hadn't in weeks. The first draft came out almost exactly as you see it now. It was one of those rare moments where everything fell into place on the first try, and made me think that someday I might be able to do this kind of thing for real.

- J Kyle Turner
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