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 that was 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’d 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 mussels, she’d 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’d 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. 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 trees she’d come across. That alone was not enough to quench a rising thirst though. Glancing inland, she knew that she had to go back for fresh water. It was too bad that she had no container to hold 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. Marines or 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 the pond. 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 around 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 people die 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 deliciously 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 in the wild too.
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 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 over the edge of the water and the tree branches all around. Finding herself alone, she edged into the water, trying not to stir 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 the last time she’d been here, so she hoped for the same this time. 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.
“Ah!” she exclaimed and threw herself back.
The big cat sank back, startled.
Falling back on her butt, 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 clumsily 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 her 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. 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 utterly 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 again. She panicked and leaped to her feet.
The cat was gone.
Whirling in every direction, sword pointed in front of her, she grew even more frightened. The only thing scarier than a threat is a threat 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 with her 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 Mei the better part of an hour 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 but 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 out there, somewhere, waiting for her. She could circle the island via the beach and shore.
Her stomach growled. What she 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 when 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 and 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 with 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, twice, three times. But it lost altitude and curved towards the beach a short distance 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 a 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. 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 many of the 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. It was bare bones, just a skeletal structure with boards hammered up for walls and a grass thatch roof. 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 a giant centipede, longer than her hand. Mei recoiled and screamed. Grabbing her weapons, 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 and clean. No creepy-crawly, biting spider or snake or centipede things there, surely? Probably not.
But she’d be open to the jaguar or soldiers. Could she do something about that?
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, anyone 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 to disguise it as a natural outcropping of growth.
Crawling into her nest, she pulled a few more planks and fronds up over her head that she balanced on the makeshift walls. 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.
Mei woke to faint voices. She opened her eyes and felt stiff and sore from being curled up in the cramped fort all night.
Wiping sleep from her eyes, she put her face to a crack in the boards and looked out. No one was there. She tried a different space between the old boards but could see nothing up or down the beach nor inland. So she looked out to sea.
A small vessel with a single, triangular sail drifted along just off the coast, close to shore. She could make out several figures on board, sailors in blue uniforms, marines in red. They lined the rail of the ship, studying the beach. Something glinted.
Mei ducked without thinking. Worry attacked her. Binoculars? A telescope? She bit her lip. Her fort was right in the middle of the sand. Surely they’d be able to tell how human-made it was. She hadn’t really done enough to disguise it, had she?
Raising herself very slowly, she peered outside again.
The ship seemed to take forever to sail by. The marines moved about like they were excited about something. They must have noticed her fort.
She examined the beach again for signs they might have picked up on—and saw her footprints. She’d been walking all over this beach.
A deep, sinking feeling took hold. She groaned. You’d think she would have learned this lesson already. How lazy and stupid had she been? Of course, the beach would be the first thing they’d search and it would be easy to pick up signs that she’d been here. Viciously angry with herself, she punched herself in the thigh, wanting to be punished for such an avoidable mistake.
Despair growing, she looked out at the ship again. Would they return to their port and come for her on land? Or would they storm the beach?
The ship sailed on. Maybe they hadn’t noticed her after all? Dare she hope?
Suddenly, everyone on the ship exploded into frenzied action. The sail shifted and the vessel immediately tacked to change course.
Puzzled, Mei searched the sea.
A much larger vessel had appeared on the horizon. From the top of the tallest mast flew a red and gold flag: Spain. And it had every single sail out, trying to catch all the wind it could. Clouds of smoke appeared on the bow of the Spanish ship. Moments later, Mei heard the boom of cannons.
The men on the smaller, English ship ran about like mad. Turning had cost them speed and it looked like the Spanish ship had the advantage.
She hoped to see the English sunk, but they managed to disappear around the end of the island, cut off from her vision, the Spanish ship following shortly thereafter.
She sat back in her shelter and considered. Had the English seen her, or was she just feeling paranoid? She wrestled with that for a while but couldn’t answer.
Recalling the fact that she wasn’t alone on the island, she scanned the land once more. Deciding it was safe, she climbed out. No jaguar pounced on her, trying to crack her skull open with its big teeth so that it could devour her juicy, delicious brains. So, an excellent start to the day.
She put her hands on her hips and frowned. What now? She cast a glance at the fruit tree and sighed. Her stomach rebelled at the thought of eating more. Well, perhaps she should go for more water. She was dehydrated and feeling groggy and slow. But—there was that jaguar that eats humans.
Feeling discouraged, she gave up for the moment and stumbled to the edge of the ocean, where she plopped down in the white sand.
A flash on her jacket caught her attention and she looked down at her apparel. Several award decorations had been pinned to the left breast. With perverse pleasure, she removed them, cut them to pieces with her sword, and enjoyed tossing the captain’s medals into the surf. Then she realized that she was polluting and scrambled to her feet, disgusted by her thoughtless actions.
Stepping into the water, she waded through small waves. The ocean was quite calm at the moment. Then a flash of colour in the water made her stop. Because everyone’s first thought the moment anything moves in the water is—shark.
Of course, that was silly. The water was only knee deep and sharks weren’t generally bright colours. She advanced even more slowly though, not wanting to scare off whatever it was. To her delight, she discovered that the ribbons she’d tossed now floated, attracting fish. Several of all kinds and colours darted around or lazed about, taking the occasional peck at the surface.
Her stomach rumbled. Raw fish was a lot more appealing than raw bird. She licked her dry lips and raised her sword.
Mei was certain her presence would simply scare off the fish. But to her excitement, they only moved off temporarily. If she stood still in the water, they slowly returned. Some were even curious enough to investigate her bare shins and feet. It was fascinating to watch!
She was hungry. Very hungry. Could she spear one with her sword? It was probably way too difficult. She’d likely miss it because of the way light refracted in the water. Or she might stab herself in the foot. That would not be fun. Still, she had to try.
Feeling like a primitive ancestor in the wilds hunting for her survival, she gripped the sword’s hilt with both hands, tip pointed straight down safely between her feet. Her heart beat faster in anticipation and hope, but she kept the rest of herself calm. When a bright yellow fish appeared at the edge of her vision, she watched it. It approached slowly. It wasn’t overly large, but it seemed unafraid. Closer it came…closer. She stabbed down. There was solid resistance as the sword tip hit the fish and the blade drove into flesh.
She screeched with glee. Carefully, she tilted the sword so the fish wouldn’t slip off and raised both weapon and prey into the air before her. Triumphant hunter with her spoils, she turned back to the beach.
The jaguar faced her.
Her smile vanished.
The great cat’s golden eyes were on her own. Its head was low, shoulders hunched, one paw in front of the other. The tail hovered low to the sand. It had frozen in the act of charging her, wanting to attack her from behind while she’d been blind. Now it watched for her next move.
She panicked but remained in place. If she hadn’t turned at that exact moment, she’d already be dead. And if she didn’t do something brilliant right now, it would still pounce.
The two stared at each other.
Her heart felt ready to burst out of her chest. Warily, she lowered the sword a little, pointing the tip at the animal.
The jaguar took a fast step closer to the water’s edge, eyes on the blade for a second, then back to her face.
Her mouth went dry. Did this cat have something against weapons? She pulled the sword back a little.
The jaguar didn’t react.
Something told her that trying to shout at it and scare it off wasn’t going to work. It was not intimidated by her. The fact that it had been hanging around so close by and watching her confirmed that. Could she change tactics and try being nice? She mentally snorted. It was a wild animal, not a house pet. But what did she have to lose, other than her life?
Careful not to move too fast, she raised her free hand to the impaled fish. It still wiggled back and forth, dying by not dead. Easing the fish off the blade and hoping she didn’t drop the slimy thing, she made an underhanded toss and sent the fish towards the cat.
Her aim wasn’t great. The fish landed a meter away from the jaguar, just inside the white bubbles of surf in the sand.
The cat dodged sideways, body tense, and its head turned to see what she’d thrown.
The fish flopped around.
The jaguar glanced at her. Then it crept closer to the fish. It sniffed it. Raising its head, it gave her another long, considering but suspicious look.
“It’s a gift. Breakfast,” she whispered. “Eat up.”
The jaguar blinked. Then it lowered its jaws and took up the fish. Padding easily over the white sand, the great cat took up residence about ten meters away and then lay down. It took the fish between its paws and began eating.
She swore. It was not running away this time. If she tried leaving the water, it would attack her in seconds. She saw her pistols on the sand but knew that she’d never make it to them in time if the cat decided that it wanted to stop her.
She gazed down the beach. Should she make her way through the water and put some distance between them? She understood now that, possibly being spotted by the English ship earlier and the presence of this jaguar, it wasn’t safe here. She had to leave. She bit her lip. She didn’t relish leaving those guns behind though.
The jaguar had finished its meal by the time she looked back. It was staring at her again. And those eyes were so intelligent.
She felt something brush her shin and looked down. Losing one of their members hadn’t warned the other sea creatures off. She met the jaguar’s eyes. Could she catch another? Maybe a few? If she put the cat into a food coma, it might be too lazy to do anything to her.
She decided to try it. But spearing fish wasn’t easy and her first attempt had been lucky. Still, the fish obligingly stuck around as she struck multiple times with her rapier. And after a while, she caught a second, then a third and a fourth fish. The fourth was the biggest, longer and fatter than her forearm. She threw each and every one towards the jaguar. Her somewhat girlish throws didn’t always make the fish go very far. But the cat did come down and retrieve her offerings. And she watched him gorge on them. She could practically see his belly bulging from all the free food it was getting.
The fourth fish went unfinished. The jaguar, apparently stuffed, left the half-eaten thing in the blood-soaked sand, then it moved a few meters away and flopped down.
Mei grumbled. Great. It had decided to sunbathe and sleep off its food coma. Right in front of her. And practically on top of the guns. This was not going her way at all. But perhaps it would eventually leave. At least it didn’t seem as hostile anymore. In fact, it didn’t seem to see her as a threat at all right now. Perhaps she should be insulted. But it could be doing what she’d seen plenty of house cats do, that lack of interest might only be a pretence. Cats thought they were competent actors; they weren’t. She knew it was constantly aware of her presence, no matter how nonchalant it pretended to be.
If she ran or swam off, she’d be leaving behind the guns. She’d need weapons or perhaps something to trade in the future. So while it dozed on the beach, she watched the cat and backed up until the water was at her chest, swimming and refreshing herself. This was likely as close as she was going to get to a bath for a while.