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The Widow

by Salim Kingo

Tengzi of the Reindeer People, a bitter, tired old man, always wanted what he could never quite reach. His cousin Jarchigudai strutted like a buck in the spring because his son Subutai had been elevated to the rank of general in the Great Khan’s army. Tengzi had no sons. Tengzi’s children, four in all, had died in birth or shortly after. His wife, her heart quartered, vanished on a winter night and walked into the land of the dead where, at long last, she gave her children names and sang them songs.

The old man knew none of that. All he knew was he had no sons, no wife, and no youth left. One early spring day, he went hunting for rabbits but found only snow. He sat hard on the ground beside a birch tree and lamented his fate. “You’re lucky,” he told a buzzard perched above him. “You don’t need a wife to cook for you.” A sharp breeze whistled through the meadow and tossed about the small clouds of white hair at Tengzi’s temples, tickling his ears.

The bird mocked him with a squawking laugh. “Careful, up there!” Tengzi said, combing the wisps back with his fingers. “I may be old, but I can still shoot an arrow right through you.” This was an empty threat and the buzzard knew it. Tengzi could never bring himself to harm a bird. “Yes, you’re lucky,” he said again. “You don’t hunt. You only wait there. You just eat anything dead.”

At this realization, Tengzi stood as quickly as his thin legs would let him. Maybe the buzzard was waiting for him, he thought. Best not to encourage the thing by sitting still. Tengzi brushed snow from the cold wool covering his backside and gathered his bow. He gazed up. The buzzard had no interest in him. It looked only to the south. “Hmm,” Tengzi said. “What’s there?”

Walking south, his boots crunched on frozen grass, surely scattering any rabbits. No dinner tonight! Deep creases in his face channeled cold wind into his ears. But above and beyond the cold noises, he heard something else: a woman’s voice, crying out meekly.

Tengzi’s pace doubled. The scent of cinnamon and roses pulled him forward faster still, until in the shadow of a leafless tree he found the source of the rare but unforgettable aroma. He’d never seen anything like her before, and he knew in a moment she was something other than human.

Her cheekbones, impossibly high, set below amber eyes rounder and fuller than he’d ever seen in the women of the Reindeer People. Her lips were the color of sunrise. Her skin reminded him of dark and polished wood, rich and oiled like the crossbeams of a royal palanquin. The woman lay on the grass, wearing swirling layers of multicolored cloth, blue trimmed with gold, layers of yellow and green, black and silver, contrasting with the drying red of blood across her exposed abdomen.

Despite the cold, despite the blood, Tengzi felt a churning inside, mulling embers brought to life in a firepit thought long dead. “Are you hurt?” he said, immediately aware of how stupid he sounded. “Our camp is near.”

“Do you have amrita?” she asked, her voice like distant bells. He had never heard the word before but understood it without knowing how he understood. She wanted a nectar not from the human realm.

“I have a skin of reindeer milk,” he said, patting a pouch at his waist.

She shook her head slowly. No. Sit with me, she told him with a slight curl of her finger.

Tengzi untied his outer robes without thinking, and draped the heavy blue wool across her shoulders. Bare-chested, he sat, scarcely feeling the cold, least of all when she lay her hand on his.

The moment she touched him, Tengzi’s mind exploded in images.

A battlefield. Tengzi had never before seen a place so green, so hot and lush with grass. It felt like a hundred springtimes at once. A beautiful sight, even when strewn with violence. He saw the Devi, golden-armored beings riding elephants, giant birds, and horses that rode upon fog.

Against them, hordes of gigantic demons who grew larger when enraged, with crowns of severed fingers and belts of skulls, the Asura wielded clubs fashioned from tree trunks banded with steel and decorated with tanned strips of flesh from fallen enemies.

The Asura fought deep in gleeful savagery; the Devi relied on strategy, brave but calculated. Vanastha, a great warrior, led the vanguard, charging fearlessly into chaos of the Asura, but caught a horrible blow from a club that sent the Devi flying, an arc of blood flowing like a rainbow of rubies. Vanastha, near dead, flew from the battle, tumbling through the sky past Mount Sumeru, past the Iron Circling Mountains, taking days to descend and touch ground here, in the land of the Reindeer People.

Vanastha took her hand from Tengzi. The old man blinked hard, the suddenly broken enchantment left him shocked by the normal world of the forest. He swallowed a few times, as if to digest ideas. “I have never seen such a battle!” he said. “Even Subutai has never seen the like, I’m sure. It’s remarkable you, a woman, lived! To fight such vicious enemies. What glory!”

“The Asura are vicious and cunning. I am fortunate indeed to have survived,” Vanastha said, as a spasm of pain shot through her spine. “But without amrita, I may not survive much longer. Unless—”

“Yes?” Tengzi said, eager. “What can I do? What can I do?”

Vanastha sighed, shaking her head. “No, I cannot ask for so much. It is improper. You are but a kind stranger.” But just then Tengzi saw a flash in his mind of a powerful young warrior, leading the Khan’s forces. The mighty youth had Tengzi’s eyes and mouth, but dark skin and very high cheekbones.

Tengzi’s mouth worked silently like an air-drowning fish. “That... that was surely my—”

“Our son,” Vanastha said. “I have shown you a possible future. If you heal me, I will restore your youth and give you a fierce son. But you must be willing to do exactly as I wish.”

“Anything! Yes! Anything at all!”

“I need your blood.”

Tengzi took a step back. “Blood? Ah, my blood, you say?”

The beautiful being furrowed her brow, prudently. “Only a little. A few drops a day until the moon is full. You did say you’d do anything.”

“I suppose,” he said, thinking once again of the handsome warrior his son would be, not to mention the act that would bring the boy into the world. “Yes. I’ll do it.”

The moon would not be full for eight days. The camp would not move on until the reindeer gave birth to the spring fawns, so there was no hurry. Tengzi fabricated a dozen equally flimsy excuses to move his yurt to the birch grove. “Your wife’s cooking smells terrible. I must get away,” he told Jarchigudai. “I’m an old man and my wind is unkind to all nearby,” he told a young woman, a great niece or cousin, he was unsure. She only laughed and said this was well known to all. To the village shaman, he said he wished to worship the moon in peace.

He dared not tell the truth, as he feared the women would be jealous of Vanastha’s beauty. He dared not tell the men, either. Once she was his woman, properly, carrying his son, he would introduce her as his new wife, but not a moment before.

Vanastha did not wish to mingle with the tribe, either, staying all day in the yurt. By night she would drink blood from a cut on his thumb. It could hardly be counted as “a few drops” but he endured, for the thrill of seeing part of him in her mouth, whatever the circumstance.

After feeding her, Tengzi lay his head in her lap and she showed him grand visions of heavenly palaces, epic battles, rakashas, mahoragas, kimnaras and other creatures he had never heard of before. In the morning, lightheaded but serviceable, he hunted rabbits, until time came to feed Vanastha again.

The night of the full moon, Vanastha took Tengzi by the hand. “Your time has come,” she said. The heavenly creature lay back. Slow as sun rising, she pulled aside her skirt, revealing the smooth skin of her legs more and more, until all of her celestial beauty filled his eyes. Desire swelled in him as it had never before, even when he was a young and healthy man. He knelt between her legs, untying his belt and unwinding a very old, worn breechcloth. She nodded, her eyes speaking: Yes, my rescuer. Yes, my hero.

The sweet pool of her warmth, familiar to his every nerve by instinct and yet beyond any sensation he could name, so filled Tengzi’s senses that he barely realized that she had bitten into his wrist this time and had begun to drink blood from him with a great appetite. His heart beat like a shaman’s drum and his breath filled with fire. With every thrust he knew less and less where he ended and Vanastha began.

At some point they must have rolled, for now Tengzi lay supine, eyes closed in ecstasy. The rhythm of bodies changed. Vanastha’s hips became aggressive, Tengzi’s legs spread wide, taking pleasure in. Breasts swayed. Tengzi’s slim hands explored Vanastha’s muscular shoulders. So strong. Tengzi felt full, deep as a lake. Pulses of delicious honey and thunder gathered within Tengzi, ready to spill, even as a notion, far back in the mind, grew, saying, “This is not right.” But right or wrong, Tengzi’s body came in engulfing waves as Vanastha pumped and spasmed, supernatural seed shooting up inside like a hot spring.

Vanastha’s lean body, slick in the moonlight rolled to his back. Tengzi, gaping, bewildered, clutched her heaving breasts. Breasts? Tengzi screamed. “You! You. How? A woman? You’re not a woman? I’m a woman? What evil is this?”

“Evil?” Vanastha laughed, low and coarse. “What’s evil about becoming a woman? A young one, at that. I’m quite fond of it from time to time.”

“But...” Tengzi gasped, examining herself roughly. “I never wanted to be a woman!”

“However else did you think you were going to have a son?” Vanastha asked.

Tengzi screamed again. “How will my people treat me, looking like this? How will my ancestors know me when I pray to them?”

“Don’t be a fool,” said Vanastha, looking a little angry. “I promised you youth and a strong son. You are young and you carry our child. I have kept my word, as you have kept yours. As for your ancestors, they’ll know you or not. I am not concerned.” Vanastha took one of his colorful skirts and tied it on as a loincloth. “Thanks to you, I’m healed. The battle with the Devi continues.” He pushed aside the flap opening and stepped out into the night.

“You’re not leaving!” Tengzi said, throwing her old blue coat over her naked body. “How dare you do this to me!” she said, striking Vanastha across the face. The handsome creature’s eyes glowed like coals. He breathed in deeply, taking the darkness into him, swelling, growing, until the lithe golden-brown body distorted utterly into an inky blue beast, taller than a birch tree. Fangs pointed out in daggers and spirals.

You’re not a Devi either? Tengzi thought. Serves me right for trusting a stranger.

“If I strike you,” Vanastha the Asura said, his voice booming through the night, “you and our son will die. I let you live instead. Consider yourself very fortunate indeed.” Vanastha leapt southward, each step a hundred miles long.

Tengzi never saw the Asura again.

That night, the young woman invented a new life for herself. She came from a southern tribe, as she later told the Reindeer people. She’d secretly run off to live with the venerable and wise Tengzi, whom she’d met while hunting. She carried his child, conceived in a night of passion so intense that Tengzi had died at its apex. Where was his body? Sadly, destroyed in a fire. Lust and friction, you see, lit the hides aflame in the yurt moments before Tengzi took his last breath. A testament, said the young widow, to the power of her late husband’s virility.

In time, they called her the Widow Tengzi, even after she remarried. Her ancestors recognized her and her descendants imagined her. A famously bad cook, she preferred to be known as the mother of a beastly warrior. Her son Surgan grew up to serve under his kinsman Subutai, fighting for the great Ogedei Khan. Some say that when Surgan became angry, he grew taller. Only those who never met him called this impossible.

Copyright © 2020 by Salim Kingo

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