Welcome to installment #6 of the Chasing Shadows – Making Amends series. For more information or to read the previous scene, head to this page.
Intent on making it to her home before any of the clan stopped her, Kecil hurried through the village. Too many times she’d been subjected to the ridicule, the taunting… the stares. Automatically, she palmed her neck, covering the birthmark which spanned from her right ear to collarbone. She forced her hand away from the imperfection and repositioned the basket of fruit banging against her hip, quickening her steps.
Teman, her binturong companion, took up a wobbly gallop but slowly fell behind, his short legs not built for speed.
Her bamboo hut appeared in the distance. Weather beaten and in constant need of repair, it took all her effort to keep the hovel standing some days. Still, tension faded from her body at the sight of the sanctuary. Only two huts to go. Kecil glanced back and mentally urged the binturong to waddle faster. “Hurry.”
Soon they both could relax. She faced forward and plowed into Gemuk.
“Clumsy girl,” he said as he shoved her face.
Kecil fell and just missed Teman who hobbled out of the way with a hiss. Scrambling to her knees, she pulled her only friend into her arms and petted the raised hair at the scuff of his neck. “Shhh.”
Gemuk inhaled deeply. “I don’t know why your father let’s you play with the food.”
Kecil held Teman all the more tighter, wishing she could mask the sweet smell of binturong strong in the air. Keeping her eyes to the ground lest Gemuk see her anger and retaliate, she pulled the upturned basket closer.
Gemuk sucked air between his teeth, and the repulsive sound grated on her ears.
“A runt like you never should have survived.” He’d driven that barb so often, it’d begun to pierce her heart as true.
Kecil remained silent and reached for a dirty mango with a trembling hand.
“Hey, you hear me?” He planted his foot against her shoulder and kicked her backward.
She landed hard and scraped her butt on impact. Unable to stop her gums from tingling as her fangs lengthened, she glared at him.
“Oh.” Gemuk smirked. “She has a bit of spice left in her after all.”
Kecil rose to her full height—the smallest of her clan—and craned her neck to meet his sallow eyes. “Let me pass.”
He loomed, towering over her. Overfed with the kills of others, he was the largest wehr-tiger she’d ever encountered. Trepidation filled her as she faced him—a fish against the crocodile.
Teman snarled and nipped at Gemuk’s ankle, but a solid kick sent her poor friend flying with a ragged yelp. Teman recovered and bared his teeth as he shuffled back, moving exceedingly fast for a binturong. Brave though he was, a thirty pound animal was no match for a wehr-tiger.
Kecil fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around her friend’s neck, struggling to rein him in. Her heartbeat quickened as Gemuk drew closer. More afraid of the consequences of showing fear than anything he could do to her, she boldly met the dark look he narrowed on her.
“…on Kecil.” The sound of her father’s voice drifted near.
Gemuk crouched to her level, his voice low. “You’ve eluded me. But there will come a time when I’ll find you alone… out of the safety of the clan… beyond the eyes and ears of your father… and then… neither you nor that tasty morsel will be safe.”
He looked over his shoulder then strode away, every step landing with confidence. His skin took on an orange hue before fur bursted forth and filled in the lighter color with black and white stripes. As large and magnificent in his tiger form as he was in human, few dared cross him, and Kecil believed every word he said: one day he would find her alone.
Not until after Gemuk turned a corner and the curve of his tail disappeared from sight, did Kecil release her friend. She scrambled to retrieve the fallen fruit and grabbed the last one just as her father came into view.
“Looks like you’ve been busy, Cili Padi.” Her father used his pet name for her—chili peppers so small they were like grains of rice. He squatted as Teman lumbered forward and clambered into his arms.
“You dropped one.” Her father reached for a stray plantain before rising with Teman on his shoulder, the binturong’s favorite perch. Already her friend had his long prehensile tail wrapped around her father’s waist like an extra arm.
“You mind?” Her father held up the plantain and cocked his head toward Teman.
“Of course not, Bapa.” Kecil picked up her basket and juggled it on her hip as her father pealed the top half of the starchy fruit and handed it to Teman.
Her insatiable friend wasted no time grabbing the treat between two paws and chomping the tip. His narrow jaws smacked sloppily, smashing the plantain to a pulp.
“That’s quite a load you’ve got there.” Her father reached for the basket, but she pulled back.
“I’ve got it, Bapa. I’ve brought it this far.”
He chuckled. “That you did. Forever independent. Sometimes you remind me of my sister. She was like you before…” His cheer faded, leaving his frozen smile in a grimace.
…before she lost cub after cub, like my mother. Pregnancies and birth were often hard on the clanswomen… and for the babies. Kecil had barely survived childhood herself—the runt of the litter, but remarkably the only survivor of three. She touched his arm. “I wish I could meet her. Everything about her sounds wonderful.”
He turned stark eyes toward her before he blinked, and his smile took on joy again. “Yes, she is. You’d like her. She birthed a litter shortly before I left. The cubs wouldn’t be much older than you.”
If they lived, which was unlikely. A sickly litter, he’d lamented often while in the midst of despair, but Kecil kept quiet. Today was a good day for her father, and she wanted to enjoy his happiness as long as possible.
She took the last few steps to the hut she’d occupied all her life. Small but efficient, the hut was little more than a shelter meant to protect a wehr-tigress and her cubs from the elements. Not that Kecil would ever have her own litter. Underdeveloped, her grandmother had said after the last season passed without Kecil going into heat.
Kecil set the basket down, pulled out a young coconut, and handed it to her father.
“Thank you.” He took it with a smile, and his eyes creased in the corners, reminding Kecil how he’d aged since her mother’s death. “I stopped by to see how you were doing.”
“Fine.” So used to shielding her father from unpleasantness, the lie slipped off her tongue with ease. She squashed the bitterness which threatened to rise at their reversal of roles.
Once tall and proud, her father now stooped as if her mother’s death sucked a bit of life out of him every day. Little more than an empty shell, he boded the time until the next life took him to her again.
His eyes wandered to the inside of the dwelling, stopping on the baskets in a corner.
The ones made by her mother were so old the colors had faded nearly to white, creating a bold contrast next to the newer taupe ones.
Her father’s brows peaked in the center, and his smile faded. His pale green eyes glistened before he closed them. Not once had he stepped foot into the hut since he’d learned of his mate’s death—never forgiving himself for failing to protect his territory, always taking the blame.
The sullenness was broken as Teman poked his pink tongue into her father’s ear.
“Bah” Her father cringed as he pressed the binturong’s head away, not quite avoiding a second flick to the cheek.
Kecil laughed. “He’s too big to carry, Bapa.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” Her father eased his burden to the ground.
Without a backward glance, Teman padded into the hut, rested his front paws on the basket of fruit, and pilfered through the assortment but jerked away when Kecil covered his findings with a wicker lid.
“I’ve got something better for you.” She picked a few strangler figs drying on the line she’d strung along a wall and placed them on the floor mat. Not fond of the seedy fruit, she gathered them solely for her friend’s benefit.
“That’s why he never learned how to fend for himself,” her father said.
“Bapa.” Kecil withheld the sigh building in her chest. She’d heard it all before… traveled down the path too many times.
“Nothing to do about it now.” Her father shook his head. “You couldn’t have known how to train a young cub. Not when—”
“Please, Bapa.” She held out her hand. “Let me open your coconut.”
“Huh?” He lifted the green fruit, staring as if it were a foreign object before refocusing on Kecil, his eyes crinkling at the corner as he considered her. “Still the size of a cub.”
He thrust the coconut at her. “No. You keep it. It’s too nutritious to waste.”
Kecil’s neck heated; her ears burned. Even her father saw her as inferior with her small size. She turned away, hiding her embarrassment as she weighed the lid of the basket down with the fruit. By the time she looked up again, all she saw of her father was his back as he walked away, his faded blonde hair which matched her own fluttering in the wind.
She sat heavily on the front step. Her petite size made her undesirable, and rightly so. What male wanted a weak female, who was too small to bare young safely? If she could even bare young. Nearly twenty summers and she’d never gone into heat.
Already the clan had given up hope on her and sent Kasut and Tebal to seek potential females to strengthen the clan… fertile females. If their mission was unsuccessful, it could mean the disbandment of the shrinking group. After all, only Kasut was mated.
The time had long passed for the other three adult males—Gemuk, Tebal, and her father—to seek mates of their own. Kecil knew little about the world outside of her clan, but her understanding was unmated males were transient. Having the three linger for years was unprecedented.
As much as she loved her father, she longed for him to light with happiness… like when her mother lived. If it meant he needed to journey away and find a new mate, so be it.
There was no doubt in Kecil’s mind. Her father stayed to protect his family where he’d failed before. Despite his past failures, he shouldn’t have to sacrifice his future for her—not for one so insignificant and unworthy.