My original Tales of the Chinese Zodiac appeared on Strange Horizons and, unsurprisingly, covered the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. When the stories were collected into a chapbook by Tropism Press, we added three new tales: Owl, Carp, and Mantis. This is the story that didn’t make the cut, printed here for the first time. I’m still trying to make it work, and still falling short.
Tales of the Chinese Zodiac
by Jenn Reese
In the strange days known as the Year of the Eagle, one of those great predators came to nest on the roof of Li’s hut. It made Li nervous. That knife-sharp beak, those talons strong enough to rend flesh and crush bone. But the eagle made no threats. Instead, it brought Li offerings of mice and shrews. When Li took ill with fever, the eagle beat its great wings to keep him cool and kept one eye open and watching, the whole night long.
When he recovered, Li decided to seek answers in the mountain, for he had heard of an old wiseman and his servant who lived near one of the peaks. The eagle came with Li, soaring overhead by day and guarding his camp in the darkness. When Li sang a quiet song by fire, the eagle perched nearby to listen.
Finally, Li found a small cave nestled high in the white dragon’s mountain and was greeted by the wiseman. The man’s servant offered Li fresh fruit and water and rice, and a place to sit, but Li wanted nothing. Instead, he spoke quickly of the eagle and its behavior.
The wiseman, who had once been a wealthy lord when he had cared for such things, smiled and nodded. “You have lost someone,” the old man said, “and now the eagle has found you. In this there is balance.”
Li looked at the eagle with its fierce eyes and proud neck. It looked nothing like his wife, who had been short and hated birds, and who had died four seasons ago. “My wife is now an eagle?” He reached a hand toward the great bird, but pulled it back without touching a feather.
The old man and his servant laughed.
“Not entirely,” the old man said, “the eagle is still an eagle.” He motioned for his servant to bring the plate of plums. “Its memories of that life have faded, but its feelings have not. It is not a woman who loved you once, it is an eagle that loves you now. Such feelings often survive the circle of life, death, and rebirth.”
The old man’s hand lingered over the fruit. His servant selected the juiciest and placed it at the tips of his master’s fingers.
Later, when the lectures were done and Li and the eagle began their journey back down the mountain, the wiseman and his servant sat together on a smooth log and watched the sunset. When the light was gone, the old man helped the servant to his feet. While the moon began her steep climb into the night sky, the two men embraced, then went together into the cave.
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