When you’re sleeping outside in the fresh air, you tend to get up with the dawn, or shortly thereafter. Which is about the time that the brunette woman in the cage screamed.
Mei was startled into wakefulness and saw the thief on the other side of the bars going through the same. She looked around while blinking sleep from her eyes, feeling groggy. It had not been a restful slumber. The late-night party and the shallow bullet wound in her shoulder had conspired against her.
The brunette had her back pressed up against the bars, hands on her mouth and eyes wide.
And there, directly across from her, was the farmer. His head leaned against the door of his cage, face forever locked into an expression of fear, his mouth hanging loose, eyes open and empty.
Mei quickly turned her head away at the sight, feeling her heart thud. How horrible!
The thief jerked and the brunette screamed again.
This was enough to draw the attention of their captors. The tired night guard strolled over with an annoyed expression and saw the corpse. He mumbled something and then turned and shouted, calling more warriors over. More men came out of their huts and wandered over. Some yawned, others stretched. A few had spears in hand. One was still naked and entirely unconcerned about it. However, none of the men were wearing anything more than loincloths, so it wasn’t a huge omission.
They surrounded the cage. Tattoos just glared at them in return, his eyes calculating. The way he sat in his cage appeared to be casual at first glance, but a closer look revealed that he was ready to throw himself out the door if it opened. The Caribs were smart. They knew this and were taking no chances. Four spears pointed directly at Tattoos, threatening him. One preemptively stabbed at him, drawing blood from his shoulder.
Tattoos cursed and said something in a Slavic language. But he didn’t relax and his eyes remained intense.
A warrior opened the cage door. Two reached in and grabbed hold of the dead farmer, dragging him out.
Tattoos burst forward but didn’t even make it to the door before four spears jabbed him in the chest.
He winced and stopped rather than impale himself. The wariness in his eyes turned to hate.
They removed the corpse and dropped it on the ground. Slamming the cage door shut and re-chaining it caused Tattoos to bare his teeth in frustration. The warriors stood around and argued, fingers pointing at the body, then at Tattoos. They seemed mildly angry. Two warriors grumbled and grabbed the farmer under the arms and dragged him to the center of the village. They dumped him next to the central firepit.
Women were already risen and more rising and going about morning chores throughout the village. An older woman, the one who’d led the butchering of the first guard they’d delivered, stood over the body and frowned. She argued, but the warriors just pointed back at the prisoners. The woman also glanced their way and scowled. Perhaps it was too soon to slaughter another; they already had meat from another guard smoked and waiting, so this would be wasteful. But there was nothing for it; they weren’t going to let the meat rot. The older woman glumly waved at other females and grabbed a knife to get to work.
Mei turned away, her empty stomach clenching. She had no interest in watching the process a second time. Instead, she looked at Tattoos.
He appeared to be disappointed and sour. He gave the cage door a couple of vicious kicks which did nothing, then sat back and glowered at the Caribs. His wounds didn’t seem to affect him. Or if they did, he pretended that they didn’t.
“You murdered him,” Mei accused the man.
Tattoos didn’t even bother to look her way.
“How could you?” she asked. “Why?”
Tattoos looked at her like she was stupid and sneered. “I don’t kill.”
“Then how did he die?”
“Don’t know.” The man gave a careless shrug that mocked his alleged innocence. Then he smiled in a greasy way. “But they no eat us today, hmm? They eat him.”
“You bastard!” the brunette screamed at him. “Elijah was kind! He’s never hurt a soul. He was worth ten of you!” She was crying again and flung herself at the bars, reaching out to claw at him.
Tattoos just leaned out of the way. “Back off, blyat.”
She snarled and reached farther until he grabbed her arm and bent it back, threatening to break it. Only pulling it back saved the limb. The brunette backed away. “Murderer!”
Tattoos only laughed.
Mei felt a heaviness in her gut. So this was the type of person she would be trapped in this prison with, huh? The worst of humanity. People who kill without provocation. Who think nothing of cutting a precious life short. She shouldn’t be surprised, but it was one thing to imagine it and another to experience it.
She wanted to live, to escape this village of cannibals. Even if she did, how would she ever survive in this world if she had to rely on people like this? Tattoos was arrogant and callous and utterly heartless, a murderer. Her eyes swept over to the other man, the self-proclaimed thief. He was quiet and cowardly. Neither could be trusted. And it was disheartening. They were just as morally corrupt as the people who’d put her in prison in the first place.
For a brief moment on the deck of that ship when she’d first arrived in this world, she’d thought that maybe she could rebel and become a pirate in order to win a fortune in here and then buy her freedom, despite the odds.
But that might have been a fool’s dream. You couldn’t achieve anything like that alone. You needed help, a team. Like in the real world, success thrives best on cooperation. But these weren’t people you could rely on. They’d stab her in the back in a heartbeat if it profited them. That bastard sitting across from her hadn’t thought twice about murder just to get a weak shot at escape or to buy himself another day.
Feeling sour and depressed, she decided to ignore the other prisoners. She looked over at the jaguar. The cat might kill her too if they’d both been out in the wild, but it would only do so because it was either hungry or she’d done something to harm it. It had had the chance to kill her and had chosen not to. A dark laugh inside of her spilled forth when she realized she trusted the wild predator more than the two human males sitting next to her.
Her eyes rose and took in the Carib village at that thought. Was there a parallel here? She shook her head and turned back to the animal.
The poor cat still lay on its side, tied down and trapped. Its eyes were hooded and it panted rapidly. No doubt it was in pain. She examined the bindings and wondered if they were cutting off circulation. Carefully reaching her arm through the bars, she put her hand in front of the animal’s nose.
The jaguar stopped panting and tried to lick its dry lips and sniff her. It whined when she touched its head and stroked the soft fur but didn’t try to bite her.
What a magnificent creature. It was too bad that she couldn’t reach the cat’s back legs to release it, even if releasing it right next to her might be super foolish. Still, she could probably get this contraption off its head or untie its front legs if she really tried…
A gasp caught her attention and she looked up.
A little boy stood just outside the cages, staring at her and the cat. He couldn’t have been more than one or two years old, and he was—adorable. The boy was utterly naked. His eyes were wide open in wonder and he had a finger in his mouth. His hair had been trimmed in a black bowl cut and his little belly protruded. Food stained his left cheek. He took a step closer. The jaguar fascinated him.
Mei smiled at him and spoke in that high-pitched way that everyone does when they meet such small children. “Hi. It’s ok. You can come closer. It won’t bite.” It couldn’t, even if it tried.
The boy, of course, couldn’t understand her. The tribe didn’t speak English and he was very young. But in the innocence of childhood, he didn’t understand that the big cat and the woman in the cage might be dangerous. Like a child in a zoo, he was just curious. So he took another baby step closer.
An older woman in the village squawked loudly. When the boy didn’t respond, she squawked again. Finally, a young woman hustled over. She had very long, straight hair and moved tiredly. Her bare breasts were still heavy with milk. She only glanced at Mei before pulling the child away and lightly scolding him. She took the boy’s tiny little hand and slowly walked him back over to where she and others were sitting around cooking and making crafts.
Mei watched and it took her a while to realize that she had a genuine smile on her face. Well, who could help it? He was so cute!
And it seemed like the little boy was just as taken with her. He came back only a half-hour later, waddling unsteadily on his chubby legs, a bright orange flower in one hand. His arm was outstretched as he made directly for Mei, offering it to her. He said something in toddler language.
“For me?” She beamed at him. “It’s so pretty!” she gasped and gently accepted the flower through the bars.
The boy jumped back, arms bunched protectively over his chest, and threw a worried—and guilty—look over his shoulder.
The overworked mother ran over once again and scooped him up into her arms. This time the look she gave Mei was uncertain; she even tried to awkwardly smile for a brief moment before she spun away and carried the boy off. “Arau…” she repeated and continued to scold him.
He tried to lean out of her arms and pointed back at the jaguar. “Arau! Arau!”
The mother laughed and nodded, saying something affirmative and tickled him, making him giggle. Was the boy’s name Arau? And did the word also mean jaguar in their language?
Mei stared down at the flower in her hand. She sniffed it though there wasn’t much scent. But it was a welcome spot of colour and a welcome gesture. It became a little harder to blindly hate the cannibals for what they did to other people. And for what had happened the previous night. Or rather, it became more difficult to blindly hate them all as a group without recognizing their individual differences.
“Kids, huh?” the thief commented.
Mei glanced at him. “He’s cute. I wish I could speak their language.”
“Language?” the brunette scoffed. “Primitive savages. Who would want to talk to monsters?”
Mei sat back. She was a journalist. And for a while, she’d forgotten that. So, perhaps for the first time, she really looked at the people before her. “Yes, they’re primitive in some ways. Are they savage? Some of them are cruel,” she agreed. “But they’re not monsters, not all of them, or perhaps not everyone is, not completely. They’re human. They’re a mix of good and bad, like most of us.”
The look in the brunette’s eyes indicated she considered the idea crazy. “You’re defending them?”
Mei took a breath. “Remember when they, um…cleaned the body last night?”
The woman paled. “I don’t want to talk about that. Stop.”
But Mei continued. “They took out the eyes and the brains. But did you see what they did with them? The eyes they gave to someone I think is blind. And the brains to a woman I’m guessing has senility issues or forgetfulness.”
The woman was caustic. “Superstitious nonsense.”
“Yes. It is,” she agreed. “But there is kindness behind it, a thoughtful reason for what they do. A desire to help others. And that proves that there is good in them. Just like how the little boy came over to give me this flower.”
The other woman’s eyes blazed. “It doesn’t change what they’ve done. And how can you defend them when they’ve kidnapped us. They’re going to kill us and eat us!”
Mei nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah. Probably. But maybe they need the food. Or maybe they think eating other people gives them strength or something and don’t know any better and no one has come along to educate them. Or maybe it’s just a way for them to strike out at the foreign invaders coming from Europe and disrupting their world. How many of them have been slaughtered by English or Spanish killers we call soldiers?”
“You’d compare us to them?” The woman was offended by the idea. “We’re nothing like them.”
“Aren’t we though?” She pointed at Tattoos. “He’s a murderer. Is he any different from the ones who kidnapped us?”
That wasn’t something the other woman wanted to hear. She turned away, putting an end to the conversation.
A Carib woman came around with food and water. She placed a couple of small, old, bruised fruits in front of each cage along with a cup of water. The prisoners ravenously inhaled it all.
Mei, though, hesitated. She watched the jaguar next to her, meeting those yellow eyes. It continued to pant. So, before the Carib woman could depart, Mei poked a hand through the front of the cage and called to her. “Excuse me! Wait!”
The woman turned, wary.
Mei tried to put on a kind smile. She pointed at the feline. “What about him? Food? Water?” She mimed both.
The Carib woman frowned and her eyes shifted, half glancing over her shoulder at the village.
Mei repeated herself, speaking and pointing.
The woman took a couple of steps closer and peered into the last cage. Then she gave Mei another cautious glance and strode off.
Mei watched her approach a pair of warriors. Luckily, neither was the rapist from the previous night. The woman politely spoke and gestured and both men turned to look at the cages. Then one nodded and the two men walked over to the cages while the woman went to fetch something.
The warriors stood in front of the jaguar’s cage and checked inside. One male wore a headband with white feathers. The other sported a shell necklace with a turquoise stone in the center. They conversed, perhaps debating something, while the woman approached with a bowl of water and a small fish. But then came the problem of how to give the food and water to the cat.
Mei picked up on this at once. She mimed cutting between and separating her ankles. “Cut him free. Please? Cut the cords off.”
Behind her, the thief scoffed. “Are you crazy? He’s right next to you. You want him to reach his claws through the bars and kill you?”
The brunette was no more helpful. “Don’t be foolish. Let the cat die. It’s the just governor’s damn pet anyway.”
But Mei was insistent. She smiled hopefully at the Caribs and continued to mime. She even went so far as to reach into the cage and touch the contraption around the jaguar’s head.
The warriors’ eyes widened and they both panicked at seeing her reach into the cage. They waved her off and shouted something at her.
But Mei just smiled and continued to argue her case. “Please? Free him? Eat? Drink? Water?” She mimed cutting the head cage with her hand.
Tattoos snorted. “Stupid.”
One of the warriors breathed a soft laugh and turned away.
Even the other smiled. He pounded his chest with a fist.
The first looked thoughtful. Then he motioned the others to wait. He walked off to one of the huts and returned a minute later with a set of leg irons and a grin as he held them up.
The other male nodded. Together, they locked one end of the leg irons to the cage and the other to the upper leg of the jaguar, just above the calcis, or heel bone. They argued about whether to remove the head device or ankle restraints first but ultimately choose the head.
The jaguar, of course, was spooked by all this and desperate to escape. So it struggled, albeit weakly, at the restraints.
While she understood the danger from the now-frightened animal, Mei reached through again and stroked the jaguar’s head. With a gentle touch and soft words, she tried to calm it, with some success.
The head device was undone, though they left it on for the moment. Then the ties around the jaguar’s ankles were cut away.
The great cat whined as circulation came back.
Both warriors quickly backed away and shut the cage door, relocking it at arm’s reach.
Mei smartly retracted her hand as well. She surprised herself as she felt a moment of gratitude to the warriors, despite the overall situation.
They all watched to see what the feline would do.
The jaguar pathetically flopped about a bit, shaking its head to get the device off and had some trouble moving its legs. It had been trapped in that position for too long. But, slowly, it half rose and pushed away towards the back of the cage. Whipping its head back and forth, it flung the device off. Except for the leg iron, it was now free to move about or bite. And it glowered at the warriors.
One of the males motioned for the woman to put the bowl and food down. She shook her head and refused, putting it on the ground and backing away. One of the men laughed.
The other nudged him and pointed to Mei.
In agreement, they put the items in front of Mei’s door and pointed at the jaguar with challenging smirks on their lips. One nodded with his head towards the animal. Feed him.
Mei gave them a flat stare. She looked over at the cat.
Its eyes moved back and forth between the humans and then towards the fish.
Very slowly, Mei reached out of her own cage and grabbed the fish. Then she tossed it through the wall she now shared with the jaguar, a fact that she was suddenly having second thoughts about.
The fish landed on the opposite side of the cage. The jaguar merely glanced at it. Then it stared at the humans again. However hungry it was, it did not trust them.
They waited, but the jaguar didn’t so much as move. Perhaps it was trying to recover and marshal its strength. It did seem intelligent.
Mei decided to risk the water. The bowl was just small enough to squeeze between the bars. She brought it into her own cage first and had to fight the urge to drink it all herself. She was still so thirsty! But she ignored that fact and very, very cautiously slid the bowl into the jaguar’s cage. She was ready to snatch her arm back at the slightest movement from the cat.
Yet it didn’t strike, though it did watch her.
She pushed the bowl far enough from the bars that the cat would be able to drink from it, then pulled her arm back. She had to swallow. Her heart was racing. Looking up at the warriors, she mimed drinking. “Water?” She pointed at herself.
The warrior with the necklace nodded readily and motioned to the woman, who ran off and returned with an animal bladder of water. She refilled Mei’s cup three times as Mei rapidly downed each one.
The other prisoners, of course, clamoured for more as well. Despite being in the shade, the Caribbean temperatures were hot and they had barely had anything to eat or drink in almost two days. Unfortunately for them, they got nothing more and gave Mei dirty looks.
Mei didn’t feel bad for them at all. Well, except for the redhead.
The redheaded woman still lay on her side, virtually comatose, staring past Mei at the jaguar. She hadn’t responded to the food and drink and her share had greedily been split by the other two in her cell.
The warrior with the feathers, grinning and more confident, approached the front of the cage and squatted in front of the jaguar.
It made a low growl.
The warrior hastily backed up and the two men laughed. They joked a bit and then wandered off. The woman, too, went back to her chores.
The jaguar watched them go. Only when they were safely gone did it gingerly move towards the water bowl, moving stiffly and likely in much pain. But it lapped all of the water up before it lay down on its side, far from Mei, looking tired. It sniffed at the fish, still not trusting it. But it must have been starving. Eventually, it bit into the small meal and devoured most of it.
Mei sat back in her cell and relaxed. However, she did so as far away from the jaguar’s side as she could. This put her right up against the redhead, with only the bars between them, but the other woman didn’t move or say anything.
The rest of the morning was fairly quiet as the Carib villagers went about their daily routine, though she noticed pockets of people glance their way now and then. And everyone wandered by at some point to marvel and point at the jaguar. It made her feel like just another animal in the zoo. But Mei was able to get the water bowl refilled easily enough and earned admiration from the villagers for being brave enough to reach into the great cat’s cage to retrieve the bowl and then put it back.
It was lunchtime and the villagers were eating when the boy returned. Like all the other Carib children, he had come by earlier to watch the jaguar. But this time, he came alone. And he wanted to play. With Mei.
The toddler waddled up, looking very serious, little wooden ball in hand. He tripped and fell on his face, making Mei clap her hand to her mouth in sympathy. But the little boy bravely got right back up and kept going. He stood in front of Mei’s cage, held the ball out, and then giggled proudly, giving her a big smile.
“What’s that? A ball?” Mei asked.
The little boy pulled his arm back and threw it. The wooden ball clunked off the front of the cage and fell to the grass.
Mei scooted forwards, her joints sore from being in the cage for so long without being able to properly stretch out. But she reached through the bars and got the ball. “Catch!” She tossed it back.
The little boy watched the orb fly through the air, his eyes alight and his mouth wide. With all his strength, he clapped his hands together—and the ball bounced off his chest. He laughed and clapped his hands, then awkwardly bent over and picked up the ball with one hand. He threw it again, grunting as he put all his effort into it.
Mei couldn’t help but laugh. The ball flew wide of her hands, but she managed to reach out and get it again. Another underhanded toss went off the boy’s head. He looked stunned for a second, then smiled and drooled a bit and stumbled after the ball.
The two of them played for several minutes before they were noticed.
A shout came from a warrior fixing a spear in front of a hut. It wasn’t one of the ones who had freed the jaguar earlier. He had a thick nose piercing made of wood and a necklace of shark teeth. Slamming his spear on the ground, he stormed over and slapped the boy in the head, bowling the toddler right over.
The little boy blinked up, his eyes began to water in confusion and pain, and then he bawled at the top of his lungs.
“Arau!” The mother jumped to her feet and flew over, but she wasn’t fast enough.
The warrior bent down and rudely slapped the boy on the head again a couple of times, perhaps ordering him to be quiet.
The boy had fallen within arm’s reach. Instinctively, Mei reached out and grabbed his arm. She pulled him close and put her arms protectively over him. “Back off!” she shouted at the warrior. “Leave him alone, you bastard! He’s a child!”
This only set the warrior off. He rose and kicked the front of the cage and shouted at her.
But Mei took the blow and didn’t move back. “Get lost!”
The anxious mother hesitated as she drew level with the angry warrior, but only for a split second. She dove and reached for her child.
Mei pulled her arms back and nodded at the woman, handing the boy over. But she kept her angry eyes on the warrior.
The woman gave Mei a thoughtful look and then fled with the crying little boy in her arms.
Mei glared at the angry man standing over her.
Unfortunately, their antics had drawn the attention of many others. It was, after all, a tiny village and everyone could pretty much see what went on at all times. So a half dozen more men, young and old, wandered over in curiosity or anxious to be part of whatever interesting was going on.
Mei’s anger fell away, replaced by a worried sense of foreboding. What was going on here?
They stood in front of the cages: conversing, debating, arguing. Fingers were pointed at all three women. But most of their attention was on Mei, and that made her even more anxious. And it was on Mei that they eventually decided on whatever it was they were trying to figure out.
Mei tried to back away, but there was nowhere to run. And she did not like the way they were all looking at her.
“Oh-oh,” the thief mumbled. “You’re next.”
She quailed. No. Not yet. Not ever. This couldn’t be happening. She didn’t want to be eaten!
The men formed a semicircle around her cage. A warrior ran up with a key and they unlocked the chains. Then they opened the door and a pair of strong hands reached inside to grab her.