From the author: A boy abandoned in the jungle. A pack of wolves who live by the jungle's Law. A fierce tiger, a cunning panther, and a deadly python. You know these characters... or do you? This re-envisioning of Kipling's Mowgli stories begins with a simple question: What if Mowgli hadn't been raised by the wolves?
Moonlight touched the banks of the Waingunga River, and the tigress left her lair, stretched, and sharpened her claws. Inside, she could hear the soft mewlings of her cubs; their eyes were open now, and they were restless in play, though they would soon settle into quiet during her absence.
She was lean, her sunset-orange coat stretched over her frame until her stripes echoed the sunken shadows of her ribs. It had been many nights since she had eaten well, but tonight there was the scent of sambhur on the wet wind, and it lured her with thoughts of a feast enough to restore her to all health--all but for the limp in her right hind leg. That had been with her since she was a cub as small as her own now in the lair. Standing with ears held keen to the sounds of the jungle, she vowed nothing would keep her from this night's hunt.
She paused to drink at a nearby pool, her whiskers brushing ripples on the silver surface. Along with the well-hidden cave, this pool had been her reason for settling in this place, once the heaviness in her belly had warned how soon her cubs would come.
The sambhur were used to this place. They were wary--of course they knew her scent--but had not yet been wary enough to seek new water. She caught a flicker of movement--step of hoof, twitch of ear--and waited in the grasses. She could not run well, not even the short distances of her kind; her old lameness saw to that. But she could wait, and lie still, as still as the moonlight on the calm surface of water.
The sambhur that came was a young buck, proud of his antlers, too young yet to know the danger without his learned mother at his side. The tigress was in the water all at once, her jaws at his throat an instant after, pulling him down, his sides heaving in the same rhythm as hers, the water calming back to light splashes in the shallows... and then all was still, and his eyes empty.
She dragged the kill halfway back to the lair, until her leg ached enough to force her to stop and eat. She did not stop until she was far past full, and then she covered the carcass and returned to her cubs, grateful that soon enough, she would have milk again to give.
She was napping when the new sound came. Voices she did not know; talk she could not understand, coming fast and sharp and cracking to her sensitive ears. Only one sound she knew, one hiss and crackle: the sound of fire. It forced her ears back flat, for she remembered fire, and the memory was not pleasant.
Still. She must know where it was, to move her cubs should they be in its path.
It was a small fire, and she crouched in the undergrowth several minutes, watching the flames and the curious things suspended over them. Once she had convinced herself that the flames could grow no larger, she turned her attention to the forms crouched around it. She pulled her lips back from her teeth. Men.
She knew of Man, as all the jungle-people do. She thought them odd and of little use for much else besides fear and destruction. No wonder they tended the Red Flower, she thought suddenly; they shared its purpose.
She watched the men a few moments longer, then, satisfied, crept back to her lair. She paused at her kill to scrape a bit more dry leaf and soil over it, and it was there that she heard her cubs crying.
When she reached the lair, she saw them, three striped scraps of fur, dangling by their scruffs. Held by men.
Her roar echoed to the hills.
One man dropped the cub he held, in the mad scramble into the trees. She heard a crack like thunder--another sound, another memory--but there was no pain, and she did not concern herself. The second man was dead the moment she was on him. How easily man's flesh tears, she thought, how softer than a deer's hide it was under her teeth. She allowed herself a moment to see that the two cubs were safe, then followed the third man into the jungle.
To what can one compare her? She was the rush of storm-cloud and wind, so swift, so silent. She was arrow and brush-fire and lightning. Her leg burned, and its fire swept into her heart, scorched her lungs, blazed in her eyes.
This man was a fool, a fool to run and a fool to lead her back to their camp, but he ran, as men do, to safety, without thought. Only her lameness gave him a sporting chance, and her rage overwhelmed that weakness. Through the jungle they ran, thief and tigress, bursting through creeping vines, crashing through brush, until all the jungle was awake and knew of her hunt.
And then the man stumbled, suddenly, within sight of camp, and fell, still clutching the cub to his chest, down a steep drop, tumbling, fur and flesh and stone and dust.
She slowed, panting. The man lay strangely, unmoving, and his eyes were empty as the sambhur's. She grunted a mixture of satisfaction and disappointment at this, then picked her way down and pawed at the warm, broken body until she found her cub.
It did not move, either.
She bathed it, chuffing, stroke after stroke, refusing to accept what her keen sight told her. Its back was broken.
Above her, she could hear the crackle of the fire and the voices of those who tended it. There were quick exclamations and the sound of much movement, all the sounds of men, of those who had taken so much from her. Without thought, she bolted to the camp.
She came roaring, bounding into the camp, and the men scattered before her. She ran straight through the campfire, flame singeing her coat, her pain lost in fury. She wanted to take every last one, until all were as still, as empty-eyed as her cub, her lost son, the first to be born.
But she was exhausted, weak with grief and the chase, and finally half-lay, half-fell in the clearing, among the scattered remains of men and their tools. The fire died to embers, and the embers to ash, and silence settled over the abandoned camp.
At last she roused herself. She had two cubs still, two cubs who might now be in danger for the sake of her foolish chase. She padded out of the clearing, half-dazed, and stepped into the ashes, singeing one paw-pad where they had not yet fully cooled. She pulled back with a cry of surprise and pain, and she was even more surprised when, with a rustle of underbrush, her cry was echoed.
Curious to see what man had left behind, she followed the sound to its source: a child, whose wide eyes grew even wider at the sight of her, whose dimpled hands reached up at the moonlight that edged her whiskers. Who laughed when she sniffed at him, and patted at her wide velvet nose.
How small and soft and naked it was! -- all waving limbs and staring eyes, like the creatures that lived in the pool by her lair.
But it was a man, or would be. And she had not yet tasted her fill of man's blood that night. Let this one, then, be the finish. One cub for another. It was only right.
In the great, fire-fierce heart of the jungle cat, something stirred, beyond anger, beyond grief, beyond mere respect. There was something of her kind in him, she thought, this bold boy-child who, though naked and helpless, could look a tigress in the eye without a whimper.
She mouthed him and carried him back to her lair. The two others were close by, well-hidden and safe. At last, when all three were at her side, she bathed them in turn, tiger-cubs and man-cub. It was then, with his bare skin shining under the strokes of her rough tongue, that the name came to her.
"Mowgli," she murmured. "Mowgli the Frog I will call thee."
And with her three cubs nursing contentedly, Shere Khan of the Waingunga fell into deep, dreamless sleep.
All the next day, Shere watched her cubs at their play and thought of what had been done. Mowgli had already learned that a tigress' tail was obviously meant for her cubs to catch and tug, and her cubs were now just old enough to find that a smooth-skinned man-cub is the easiest creature in all the jungle to stalk and pounce.
Moonrise brought a visitor, the only other in the jungle who could dare to approach her with her cubs.
"Good hunting, Tabaqui," Shere called as he approached.
The jackal had already scented the man-cub, and now he crept closer for a better look. Muscles tense, ears back, he sniffed the boy, and Mowgli looked up and into Tabaqui's eyes. The two stared for a moment, until Tabaqui broke the gaze with a whine.
The jackal turned to Shere Khan and spoke softly, cautiously.
"Is this wise?"
Shere stretched her paws until the claws showed. "Will any save thee dare to question?"
Tabaqui looked worried. "There are those in the jungle who may. The Seonee pack already bays for thee, Shere Khan."
"What will they bark at now?"
"They call thee against the Law, for changing thy hunting-grounds without warning."
Shere Khan snarled, and her cubs pressed against her. Even Tabaqui flinched for half an instant. Only Mowgli ignored the sound, playing with pebbles and bits of jungle-vine.
"And what am I," asked the tigress, "to be bound by dogs' law? How many rains have I called these lands mine--how many, Tabaqui, before they came, with the Law that covered all the jungle?"
"Many," Tabaqui agreed. "But--they also are many, and thou only one. Though," he added, with a cringe, "surely, one of thy people is worth many a gray dog with more teeth than thought."
Shere Khan, eyes half-closed, considered this. At last she sighed and spoke. "Tabaqui, thou knowest I changed ground for these at my side, as there were no safe places to bear on the old grounds. Any bitch of theirs would do as I did. I would bid thee tell them such, if I thought they would hear. Yet they hear nothing but their own baying, the same Law, once and again."
"Thou will hear something new when they hear of--of--" He cast a glance at the man-cub.
"Mowgli," Shere Khan said, with a growl under the name. "And thou wilt bring the word to them?"
"I shall not," Tabaqui said, with a last sniff at Mowgli, who made a grab for the jackal's tail. "I shall not, but well thou knowest, there are many ears in the jungle, and many more tongues than mine. Good hunting, O Shere Khan." And he disappeared into the jungle.
Two days later, another came to her lair, this one softly silent as the fall of twilight: Bagheera, the panther.
"Good hunting, O Shere Khan," he purred. Then his moonstone eyes caught sight of Mowgli sleeping by his mother's side, and Bagheera drew in a sharp breath.
"So it is true," he breathed. "I thought it a heat-dream of Ikki's--but it is true!" He padded over to Mowgli and sniffed the boy's black hair. "So Shere Khan fosters Man."
"He is no Man," said Shere Khan with a growl.
"I may be no cub," Bagheera purred, "but I yet can see a bullock without calling it a sambhur. Whatever thou may tell thyself, what do thine eyes see?"
Shere said nothing, only gazed at her cubs for a long moment. Then she turned back to Bagheera. "Their Law says nothing of who may foster cubs, nor when, nor how. I wish no trouble from the Jungle."
"What thee wishes!" Bagheera tore the earth with his claws. "What thou will have, O Huntress, is war with the Free People! Is that among thy wishes?
"I tell thee, so that none may say I did not-—take the man-cub to Man! Whether thou wish it or no, it is where his trail must end, for I know Man." His voice grew soft enough for only Shere Khan's ears to hear. "I know Man, and thou knowest I tell thee true."
"He is of the jungle, as my cubs are," Shere insisted. "He is mine by right--he did not fear me, even when his own people left him behind to run from me. That marks him to be mine, and I will challenge anyone"--this in the low, deadly voice of the jungle-mother--"anyone, who says otherwise."
"And when thou can no longer run a trail? Who then shall guard him?"
Shere chuckled. "When he is grown a tiger, he shall guard himself."
Bagheera shook his head. "Mark me, tigress, this is folly. I can call it nothing else. The Jungle will forgive much. The Law may say 'kill not for the pleasure of killing, and seven times never kill Man,' and even that they will forgive, for any mother's heart knows such rage. And yet..."
Bagheera's voice was lower than the rush of water in a stream-bed, but it had the power of the Waingunga when he continued. "Take the man-cub to Man, O Shere Khan, or the wrath of the Jungle will come upon thee--and him. And I tell thee now, it will not be my fight."
Shere Khan washed her cubs in turn, and when she spoke again, it was as if to them, or to herself.
"We hunted the same ground once, O panther," she said, "and in those days I called thee 'Brother'. Then came the pack, and I saw thee accept their Law as one might wear Man's collar--thee, who had always walked alone and apart."
She turned back to Bagheera. "Is this, then, the day that I shall call thee 'cat' and drive thee away from my grounds with fang and claw?"
Bagheera did not drop his gaze but stood, his green eyes locked on her gold.
"It is not," he said finally. "I will leave thee always rather than bring that day. Good hunting, Shere Khan, to thee and thy cubs." And he became a shadow among the leaves, and then even the shadow faded from her sight.
And so Mowgli grew, lean and strong on tiger's milk, then on the kills of his mother. Shere taught him the ways of the jungle, when to be silent and when to strike, how to stalk and how to leap, how to know the weakest of the herd and avoid the horns of the deer to give the killing bite.
Mowgli, for his part, spent much of those days asking endless questions, and Shere named every creature of the jungle, who was friend and who was foe--though she made it clear that, above all else, tigers walk their own trails.
"And what is that?" Mowgli asked one day, pointing to an odd creature near their trail.
"Ikki," Shere said, "the porcupine--ay, watch his quills, son; they sting."
"And what is that?"
"The jungle creeper that marked us with their stripes; have I not told thee that tale a hundred times?"
"And," said Mowgli, looking around for something else, "and, and--what am I?" he asked finally, pointing to himself.
Shere Khan chuffed and nuzzled him. "Thou art a tiger, Mowgli."
Mowgli frowned. "They call me man-cub when I pass them in the jungle."
"And thou listens to monkey-chatter? Ay, son, listen: The jungle-people have not our eyes. They look at thee and see man-cub, as a sambhur would look at me and see a shadow. But I"--tenderly--"I know thou art a tiger, as I knew when I saw thee first."
And Mowgli rested by his mother's side and was content. He knew, then, that she would always be there to protect him, from the dangers of the jungle and the Seonee wolves who were their enemies. And if Shere could not defend him, certainly his lair-brother and sister, tiger Karu and tigress Mehadi, would. Already his siblings were on their own, and they watched over Mowgli often, when Shere's travels or hunts took her off her son's trails.
One sunset, many days later, Karu padded into the clearing licking fresh blood from his whiskers and ruff.
"What fell to thee, brother?" asked Mowgli, eagerly, for he had not yet hunted. (It must be said, in those days he would sooner share another's kill than take one of his own—thinking, as all boys, that it was better to let another do the hardest work.)
"Chital, but Chil finishes. Have thee no claws of thine own, Little Brother?" Karu settled himself into the most comfortable position his swollen belly would allow.
"Not as easy as thine," said Mowgli. "What I catch barely fills me until sunrise."
"Go, then, and see if Mother yet has milk for thee, cub," Karu teased.
"I will share with thee," said Mehadi, chuffing.
"Thou wilt keep him a cub, sister," said Karu. "Let his belly go empty along with his claws, and then he'll learn as we did. He'll tear into no more of my kills."
"What do I lose, thou greedy cat?" Mowgli replied, tugging at one of Karu's ears. "Even Chil complains he gets bone and hide."
"Ay, thou talkst too much to the jungle. What am I, one of those whining wolves, to share my dinner a haunch apiece? Go hunt, and leave me to sleep."
"Ay, that's what thou art!" Mowgli climbed onto the tiger's back, first trying to pull at Karu's whiskers, then bouncing his weight on Karu's side. "Great striped dog, greedy dog--no care for anyone!"
"Waugh! Little Brother, off me, or thou wilt have my meal after all!" He cuffed Mowgli, but as always, the tiger-claws were sheathed, and barely a hundredth of his strength was in the blow.
Mowgli turned and picked up his spear, dragging the point along the ground. "Look well on me," he grumbled. "Thou mayest never see me again, for I may die of hunger, and thou would do nothing."
Karu chuckled as he watched him go. "Good hunting, Little Brother."
Mowgli thought of many names to call his greedy brother as he wandered the jungle looking for something to eat. At last, tired of spearing nothing but air, he settled on a handful of palm-nuts and was looking about in hopes of honey when he came upon a still pool with the clear moonlight shining on it. And all at once he knew that something--someone--was watching him.
Mowgli gripped his spear, told himself he was a tiger, not a silly deer to freeze and be caught, and scanned around him. Then there was movement from the edge of the pool, and in the twilight it looked as if the darkness and moonlight were unraveling along the still water. Then, ripples... coming closer.
He thought first of Jacala, the crocodile, but this shape had no armored back; indeed, it seemed to go on the same forever. At last, he remembered his mother once speaking of a very old and dangerous creature, a great snake who ruled the Middle Jungle.
Mowgli watched the python uncoil, and his eyes were wide with curiosity as layer after layer of patterned muscle stretched in his direction. He told himself he was not afraid. He was, after all, the son of a tiger, and he liked to think he knew the ways of the Hunting-People, and how to tell when they were hungry or full, dangerous or quiet.
"So this"--Mowgli's attention snapped back as the python spoke--"this, then, is the Man-cub."
"Not Man-cub," Mowgli said, with all his pride in his stance. "Tiger."
"I have seen many tigers, but thou, little cub, are a sort new to me." But his voice was kind, and even though there was a hint of laughter in it, there was also respect. The python knew, just as well, how to recognize a hunter. "What dost thy mother call thee, then, tiger?"
"Mowgli. And thee?"
"Bold indeed thou art, to demand a name so! I am Kaa, ancient of the jungle, reborn countless seasons. I knew of thy mother when she was yet a cub, and her mother, and hers, even so. And now the jungle brings me thee."
Kaa stirred, and swayed his dance.
"Come, then, if tiger thou art. Look well, O Mowgli, son of Shere Khan!"
Mowgli watched, and Kaa watched him.
"Ay, come a step closer, then, as I bid, as all the folk of the jungle do; closer, a step closer, to Kaa!"
Mowgli did not stir, but looked on curiously. What was this meant to be, this strange speech? He watched as the python turned, and swayed, and turned again. Then, at last, Kaa was still.
"Ah," said Kaa, and the word was a hiss and a breath and a long, long sigh, and there was silence many moments after.
"Cub," he said at last, "hear me. Were thou not Man, thou wouldst have been mine. None born of the jungle resist. Know what thou art: tiger in heart, ay, but Man, truly, until thy death. Anything else is Bandar-log's play, and no more."
Mowgli's voice rang out. "I am the son of Shere Khan, brother to Karu and Mehadi. I am no other. And"--here it must be said he faltered, but kept on--"and no spotted worm will name me otherwise."
Kaa studied the boy. "Impudence," he said softly.
In the next instant, Mowgli was flat on his back in the shallows, heavy muscle beneath him, above him, a great squeezing pain at his chest until he could not breathe. And all he could see was the python's yellow slitted eye before him.
"Thou wilt learn respect, at least, for those who carry strength to end thy life."
Another coil moved to his throat. Mowgli grasped at it weakly. His breath was gone, and he found he could not draw another.
"Thou art but one of this jungle, cub. And even a tiger fears the name of Kaa. Remember that well."
Just as the jungle turned black, the coils released. Mowgli gasped, coughed, and finally breathed. How sweet the air was!
"What say thee, manling?" Kaa gathered his coils and waited.
"I... I will remember, O great Kaa. I... thank thee... for the teaching." It was as much as he could manage before coughing again, and he winced at the pain in his ribs.
Now there was something like laughter. "Well-spoken! Come. My pool is thine, as long as thy memory stays true."
From then on they were friends, and though Mowgli often wrestled the great snake in play, as he did with Karu or Mehadi, the coils never again touched his throat, nor stopped his breath. Kaa's pool was the best spot for a cool nap on the hottest days, though Karu and Mehadi thought him mad to even go near, and Shere so worried for her son that Mowgli stopped telling her when he went.
Thus and thus, then, did many days pass, until seasons became long years. Mowgli learned to hunt so well that he rarely went hungry, and indeed sometimes shared a kill with his siblings, though Karu said it was hardly worth the meal to endure Mowgli's teasing insistence that the tiger's belly should go empty along with his claws.
Mowgli's days were sleepy and comfortable, his nights adventure-filled but safe. Though he did not always know it, his mother, brother, or sister was rarely far from his trail, and each in turn had to save the man-cub from his own curiosity.
And then, one spring the mohwa tree did not flower, and the rains did not come. The jungle turned to brittle vine and dust, the deer to tough hide over jutting bone. Mowgli ate better than most, digging grubs with nimble fingers and climbing for honey and nuts, but he could not interest Karu or Mehadi in anything but meat, and they ranged far in their hunts.
Mowgli and Karu were sleeping fitfully when Mehadi, panting, brought the word back. "The Peace Rock is dry. Hathi calls the Water Truce."
"Well he may," Karu grumbled, "he has little to lose by it."
"Hush," said his sister. "The Law is right in this, and thou knowest."
"I would sooner drink blood than water," Karu sighed, but he put his head on his paws and said nothing more.
"Blood? There is no blood left in the deer," Mowgli joked. "Tear them open, brother, and thou wilt get a mouthful of dust."
Karu opened one eye. "And thou wouldst know, great hunter of grubs?"
Mowgli stood and took up his knife. "Come, brother, we'll find a buck for thee--and the best haunch to thee, sister, for all the kills thou shared when I was a cub. I know a place where the grass is still tender, and the Law does not forbid us to hunt there."
Karu got to his feet, and Mowgli felt a sudden pang at how thin he was. "All right," the tiger said, "we go. But I will break thy head if thou art fooling, for it is too hot to run a hunt and still go empty when all is done."
It may be said that, indeed, Mowgli had had sport with his brother on hunting-grounds before, but this time he spoke true. The sambhur they saw would have been barely a good meal for the kites in any other season, but the two looked wide-eyed at them in the dust of the drought.
"Brother," Karu said, "I barely trust my strength. I would not hunt as the dogs do, but..."
"We will not speak of it, then, beyond this day." Mowgli tracked the nearest buck, then leapt, tearing at its hide, and ran it back to where Karu waited. Even as weak as the deer was, it took a terrible amount of their strength to finish it off, and Mowgli was badly bruised by one kick of its hoof.
"We will see, then," Karu panted, "if thou art right about the blood."
Mowgli grinned back and cut the belly open--then raised his head and held his knife ready. Karu heard it, too: a low growl, getting closer, then another joining in, and then three wolves stood before them, bristling.
They lunged for the kill, but Karu swiped at them and snarled. "I should have known, Little Brother," he said as they cringed back, "fresh meat does always bring flies."
One wolf came close enough to snatch a bit of hide before dancing back. "We will take this," he said, "and then, we will finish with thee, cat!"
Mowgli drew himself up. "We are two, O dogs of the hills."
"We are three," another wolf replied, "and we have had full gorge since thee, and we will have it again."
"Full gorge on the kills of your betters," said Karu. "Great hunters thou art--nay, jackals, every one!"
The wolves snarled at that, and Karu gave them his own voice back. But Mowgli could see that, indeed, the wolves were better fed and better rested, and though it tasted sour in his mouth, he knew what was wise, just as Karu did.
Karu turned to him. "Come, Little Brother. We will settle this"--he glared back at the wolves, their muzzles deep into the carcass--"when the rains come, and I will pay them many times over for it. O bush-tailed thieves!"
The whining laughter was his answer. Karu growled in his throat, but followed Mowgli back to their lands. "Thee and I, Little Brother," he said on the way, "we will go to the pack when the rains come. I will see them gone from our land. We will hunt them together, thee and I. When the rains come."
"Ay," Mowgli said, "when the rains come." And he looked to the clear sky, and tasted dust. "Go back and sleep, Karu. I will hunt again."
The rains still did not come, and the jungle suffered it with silence and patience--all, perhaps, but Shere Khan, who paced by her old cub-lair, trying to ignore the pangs that made her stumble, the limp that made her weak.
She had not eaten in many days. The sambhur and chital were wary and restless, and each day without a kill lessened the hope that she could ever bring one down.
So it should be right, she thought, to die of hunger. A lame tigress, given more days than she ever should have had, even allowed to bear cubs and see them hunt...
She stumbled again, fell, and lay on her side, panting.
She thought, for barely a moment, of Karu and Mehadi. But they walked their own trails now, as they should, living or dying as the jungle allowed. As it should be. She would not go begging to her own kind, like a wolf-pup mewling for milk. She would lie here, until hunger took her.
She decided this, and kept it well for several minutes. Then, slowly, she got to her feet.
She would hunt. There was no honor in it, to be certain. But she would live.
She set off to the village of Man.
Shere Khan crouched by the cattle-pen, and every thought was a curse against Man, who penned his cattle so close to the cover of the jungle, whose dull, slow creatures gave her a way to live when the jungle ruled she must die. In her anger she chose the fattest bull, knowing she would bring him down with no trouble, when she could not have taken the weakest buck.
Silent she was, and swift as her great fatigue would allow. Her teeth met at its spine, and then it was back to the jungle, as far as she could bear to drag the bull, until she was shaking with hunger and weakness, so much that she worried she might collapse and die with her teeth in the hide and warm blood on her tongue.
She stopped and rested. The jungle was silent, but she was aware, then, of someone near. Very near, and she had been too tired and weak to even take note.
She turned with a snarl, but the sound died in her chest, and she stood, panting, staring.
"Mother," Mowgli said softly.
What she had meant to be a challenge to a rival turned into a low, sobbing moan. Shere lowered her head.
The jungle had wanted her to starve. She had not wanted to wait for its slow death; she had defied it. And now, what was she? Cattle killer, the shame of the tiger, of any of the Hunting-People. Here now, before her own son.
Perhaps the Seonee pack did well to despise her.
She saw that he bore his knife. She did not look up from the ground when she spoke.
"Kill me, O Mowgli, my son. Take thy knife and cut my hide from my bones, and drape it around thee. For thou art a hunter, and thou deservest the coat thy shamed mother wears.
"The jungle's death was too slow, my son. In mercy, perhaps thou wilt be swift."
And she waited.
Mowgli's grip tightened around the stone knife. He knelt and slashed the blade across the bull's belly, spilling the rich entrails onto the ground. He reached for the heart, the liver, and held them out to her, not in reproach, but gently, tenderly, as she had fed him his first meat so long ago.
She had to know, and so at last she lifted her gaze to his. There was sorrow in his eyes, deep sorrow, but no shame.
The stone knife tore the kill, and Shere Khan ate until she was full. She did not hear Mowgli when he left; he faded silently into the jungle, as she had taught him.
Mowgli wandered through the jungle, barely aware of the trail he followed, of the wind that rushed back and forth and whispered something over and over in the treetops. As if he were dreaming, the scene at the dead bull repeated again and again in his mind. The bull. The knife. His mother...
The voice at his back startled him. "Thou art walking blind, brother."
He turned, and Mehadi emerged from the jungle-cover.
"A foolish thing," she continued, eyes sparkling, "in a tiger's land."
Her humor faded when she saw his face. "Brother! What ails thee?"
It took a long time, but he told her, and by the end of it he had buried his face in the white fur at her ruff, and the fur was wet. Mowgli drew back, sobbing. "What is this?" he asked, breath catching. "Am I dying?"
Mehadi chuffed and licked the salt from his face. "No, Little Brother," she said at last. "Those are only tears, such as men use." She rested her chin on his shoulder and let him wrap his arms around her neck. "Let them fall, Mowgli," she whispered. "They are only tears."
The sky opened then, tearing itself apart in a flash of lightning. Mowgli held tight to his sister's neck and wept, and the rain ran down his back, washing the dust from his skin. The rains, at last, had come.
It was just past twilight the next day when Mowgli heard the Stranger's Hunting-Call: "Give me leave to hunt here, for I am hungry." His hand closed around his knife, but it was not a voice of the Free People; rather, the low purring roar meant for only those nearest to hear.
He sensed the presence before he turned: the panther, Bagheera, crouched on the lowest limb behind him. The cat was all blunt, sleek muscle, and his moon-bright eyes gleamed gold and green as he spoke.
"Is the great Shere Khan's yearling cub deaf to the Law?"
Mowgli stared steadily back. "Hunt, then, for food, but not for pleasure."
"Well spoken. So thy mother did teach thee." He dropped to the ground in one flow of ebony muscle, but his gaze never left Mowgli.
And Mowgli, for the first time in his life, broke the hunter's stare first, turning away. "If thou hast a thing to say, then say it. I have my own hunt tonight."
"Thy mother and I shared land once," Bagheera purred, "when the sambhur were fat and many, and no hunter's belly went empty."
Mowgli did not turn back. "They are thinner now, and fewer."
"Ay, and the jungle smaller each day."
This talk is like Kaa's dance, Mowgli thought. All circles, and what purpose?
"It was Man," said Bagheera, "who killed Shere Khan's mate, the father of thy lair-brother and sister."
Now Mowgli turned. No one had ever spoken of his father, and in his childish way he had assumed he never had one.
"Ah, so now thou wilt hear me," said Bagheera. "Ay, man-cub, thy people are hunters as well, and their prize not flesh, but the striped coat and the blood-taste of revenge. Man brings death to the jungle. So it has always been, and every creature knows this."
"I have given thee leave to hunt. If thou hast more to ask--"
Bagheera snarled. "Is thy skull so thick? I come in warning, man-cub, as I tried to warn thy mother so long ago. The Free People wish thee both gone from these lands--thou for being Man, and thy mother for bringing thee to the jungle, and letting thee live. Now that thou art of age to be good sport, and not a naked cub, they are begging Akela to strike."
"And what are the wishes of dogs to me?"
"Thou art thy mother's son, well enough," said the panther under his breath. "I warn thee, man-cub, sleep but lightly. Look well and listen well, for they mean thee and thy mother great harm. And..." Here Bagheera hesitated. "Perhaps there is something of my kind in thee, for I shall give thee more than I should. Look to the Red Flower."
Had Mowgli truly been a tiger, his ears would have instantly pricked up and forward. "The Red Flower," he repeated, as if dreaming.
"Ay," Bagheera breathed. "More deadly, more fearsome it is than any people of the Jungle. Yet men have tamed it, and Man thou art. The Red Flower alone might save thy mother--and thee."
A hint of a smile touched Mowgli's lips. "No lair-kin of mine, and thou drives this kill to me?"
Bagheera turned to leave, then looked back over his shoulder as if embarrassed. "Perhaps I, too, see in thine eyes that which stayed thy mother's fangs."
He looked at Mowgli, and under the cat's stare Mowgli felt as if everything he was, and would be, had been seen and understood. "We be of one blood, ye and I," Bagheera said, using not the common Bear accent of the Hunting-People, but the jungle-cat rumble and hiss.
The cat held the stare a moment longer, then turned away. "I shall not come to thee again," he said at last. "Farewell, O Mowgli, son of Shere Khan. Farewell and good hunting!"
"Good hunting," Mowgli replied, but already his thoughts had ranged far beyond the jungle. He did, indeed, have a great hunt before him.
For days afterward, Mowgli walked many trails alone. He left the jungle for the first time and went to the village of men, and he watched there until he had seen everything while none had ever seen him. He had learned well the tiger-stealth, and it served him well among the huts of the village.
He learned the ways of the Red Flower, the fire no creature of the jungle could bear to call by its right name. He learned what to feed it to make it grow, and how to bank it--this with a few burned fingers--when it became too wild. Indeed, he thought once with surprise, it is a thing very like the Hunting-People. He remembered his first meeting with Kaa, and how the snake could be gentle or deadly, how words could feed anger or calm.
At last he returned to the jungle, and Karu met him as Mowgli was carrying the little pot of ashen coals.
The tiger sniffed at it, then danced back, shuddering. "Brother!--that is a fearsome thing. Wouldst thou carry the cobra about thy neck, and walk so boldly?"
"It is well kept," said Mowgli, and he boasted a bit. "It is easy to keep small unless I feed it."
"Take care what thou feeds it, then!" Karu took a step forward again, closer this time before flinching back. When his gaze met Mowgli's again, there was something new and different in his eyes, and Mowgli did not like it.
"Brother," Karu said roughly.
Mowgli set the pot of coals carefully aside. His heart was wild in him. His only thought was that Karu should not look at him this way, not as he had seen the dogs of men fawn over their masters in the village.
Karu moaned and dropped his head to Mowgli's feet. "Now I know thou art a man, and a man's cub no longer."
Mowgli took hold of the tiger's ruff and pulled him up. He wanted to shake him, wanted anything to put out that strange worship-light in Karu's eyes. "I am thy brother," Mowgli said fiercely. "I nursed at thy side, on the milk of Shere Khan, as thou did, Karu. As thou did." He felt the tears starting again and fought them back, speaking through clenched teeth. "Hear me!"
Karu met Mowgli's gaze, trembled, then sighed heavy and deep and long. "Ay," he said at last. "Ay. Forgive me, I--the Red Flower makes cubs of us all, Brother. Thou knowest. And if thou art a man by it, thou art my brother still."
Karu pressed his great head hard against Mowgli's chest, and his words thrummed in Mowgli's breastbone. "We be of one blood, ye and I."
And though Mowgli's heart knew he was still a tiger, he knew as well that for the rest of his days, he walked a new trail, carrying the Red Flower, and that even with Karu and all the others who would be beside him, he must walk this trail alone.
So it would be. Heart heavy, he picked up the pot of coals and went on.
Mowgli rested the day by Shere's old cub-lair, pouring half a dozen smooth white pebbles from one hand to another, thinking of many things and remembering how he used to play. He crawled into the lair and slept out the worst of the heat in the darkness, and he dreamed of being a cub again and pulling Karu's tail. When he woke, he felt hungry and strange. The dream lingered like a scent-trail, leading him--where?
To the first scent in his memory, he decided, and set out to find his mother.
His trail took him to the far edge of the jungle, close to the ploughed fields. Mowgli checked his coals, thinking he could get more if he needed, but they were still safe, and he was glad of it. He had no stomach for being among men again.
And then he heard a sound that rose the hair on his neck and chilled him through in spite of the heat. It was a desperate, keening howl coming from very near his trail--rising, rising, then dying away into a sob.
He cleared a space for the Red Flower, then pressed carefully through the jungle-growth until he saw what made the sound: a young wolf no more than a year old, one leg caught tight in a snare.
This, then, is Man's hunt, Mowgli thought. He need not even track his prey. Clever--and terrible.
The wolf caught his scent and snarled.
Mowgli stood before him. "We be of one blood, ye and I," he said softly.
Still the wolf bristled with what strength remained in him, but blood and foam flecked his coat, and the fear-scent hung so heavy around him that even Mowgli was engulfed by it. At last the wolf found words.
"Away from me, Man. Away!--or I'll take thy life with mine."
"I will have thee free," Mowgli insisted, and he knelt to reach the snare, then pulled back as the wolf's jaws snapped a hairsbreadth from his hand.
"Brother--" Mowgli tried again.
"Man is no brother of mine. We know thee. We know"--he gasped a breath and went on--"thy mother brought thee here to be her claws against us. We know! And thou--thou wilt not touch me. Away!"
Mowgli tried once more, and this time the wolf's jaws shut on his arm. Mowgli pulled free and staggered back, bleeding and dazed by the sheer hate in the young wolf's eyes, the hate that at last had even driven out fear and pain.
He will not even take his life from me, when I ask nothing, Mowgli thought. I never thought... I never thought...
The wolf's eyes were closed now, his breath no more than a shallow panting. After many long moments, Mowgli edged close again. There was a faint growl, but nothing more, nothing left.
Mowgli's blood dripped on the ground, and the wound burned, but he worked with hands and knife until the snare came loose. "Thou wilt die free, at least," he said under his breath.
He reached a hand to touch the wolf--then stopped and stood. "And I will not touch thee, as thou wished."
Mowgli cast one last glance at the ploughed lands beyond the jungle, then turned and walked slowly back to his trail.
The next afternoon, Mowgli rested at Kaa's pool, pillowed on the python's great coils. Kaa napped, savoring the wayward goat Mowgli had found and driven to him, but Mowgli, despite the drowsy heat, could not sleep.
"I can nearly hear thy thoughts, manling," said Kaa, stirring at last. "Thy mind must be the only thing of the jungle that can follow so many trails at once."
"Ay, and lose its prey on every one," Mowgli sighed.
"It is the Red Flower?" Kaa cast his tongue toward the pot of coals.
"Bagheera was right about its power," Mowgli said. "He must be right as well about the Seonee pack. I know the Free People hate me, and yet... Is the jungle so small, that there is no room for us and the Free People?"
"Thou thinkst of the yearling wolf-cub in the man-trap."
Mowgli trailed his fingers in the muddy water and did not answer.
"Manling," Kaa said gently, "not all of the jungle are brothers. The Free People have hated and feared thy mother long before she came to thee. It is not thy doing."
"And yet it will be my doing, when I carry the Red Flower to them. This I have chosen."
"To save thy mother. To save thyself, manling. When one is hungry, one does not let the sambhur pass by to wait for smaller prey."
Again Mowgli said nothing.
Kaa sighed. "I did not wish to tell thee, but perhaps it will stay thy mind. The Free People say the trap was thine. They smelled thy blood and knew thee. But hear me--the men of the village set the snare to catch the wolves that kill their cattle."
Mowgli's voice was no more than a whisper. "The Free People hunt bullocks?"
"The young among them do, now that Akela grows older and an idle leader. Were Baloo still the teacher of the cubs, it would never be so. But the Bear has been dust for countless skins now, and the Free People teach themselves what they will.
"Akela knows well what his people do among the ploughed lands, and he says nothing when they blame thee and thy mother for Man's displeasure with the jungle." Kaa settled his coils and rested. "Ay, manling, chew that haunch a bit and then tell me what thou thinkst of the Free People."
Many moments passed before Mowgli replied. "Bagheera said Man brings death to the Jungle."
"And who brings Man to the jungle? A tigress who fosters a naked frog, to raise it as a tiger, lair-brother to her cubs? Or the wolves who raid the herds of the village, and the Head Wolf by choice blind and deaf to their hunt? Who brings death to the jungle?"
Kaa sighed. "I have felt the earth beneath me and the water around me, and I know the Middle Jungle well enough to know the coming of a storm. The moon is full to-night, and the Seonee pack is hungry and restless. I tell thee, I feel they will strike this night."
Mowgli rose and splashed himself in the shallows, and the cool water cleared his head. "This night is one, then, for my mother and me. I must find her." He picked up the pot of coals, fed it carefully to keep it ready, and turned to Kaa. "My life has been thine more than once, O Kaa. I will see thee fat with goats as long as I live."
Kaa chuckled. "Thy life is thine, O Mowgli. Take it and keep it well, for I tell thee: In all the days left to me, I shall never again hope to see such a great tiger as thee. Good hunting!"
And Mowgli was off, running through the night, the Red Flower winking in its bed of ashes as he went. He moved as quickly through the jungle as he could while still remaining silent, but for all his speed, it was Tabaqui who came first to Shere in the moonlight.
The jackal's sides heaved so with each breath that the outline of his ribs was as plain as Shere's stripes. "The Free People," he managed, "the Seonee pack--they come for thee tonight. I passed them not a quarter-league back. Where is Mowgli?"
"My cubs walk their own trails now," Shere replied. "I daresay my Man-son could bite as well as any dog." Shere stood and stretched and breathed slow and deep. This, then, was the hour for which the bullock had given her strength. This was the hour for which she had stayed alive.
"Tell me, Tabaqui, my old friend, does the Head Wolf run his pack to this hunt?"
"Akela is first on the trail."
She pulled her claws down the nearest tree and stepped back, satisfied. "It is well."
"They will have a surprise yet," the jackal chuckled. "They came to me--ay, sent a wolf to me, the Dish-licker, to learn thy place, and kill me." Tabaqui licked his lips. "I tasted his blood before I sent him back, but I told him thou had eaten another bullock, and drank, and that thou slept. They will not expect thee awake and swift."
"Thou does me service," Shere said. "If I yet live at daybreak, O Tabaqui, thou may claim a debt of me."
Tabaqui laughed. "No matter; it is good sport for me." He disappeared into the undergrowth, but his call came back high and long: "Good hunting, O Shere Khan! Long life and good hunting to the children of Shere Khan!"
Shere settled herself and waited, saving all her strength for the battle to come. No doubt they would show themselves before the attack, for Akela loved fine words too much to strike her down silently.
And at last, the Head Wolf stood before her. He was alone, but she caught the scent of the pack and knew, from the flickers of movements beyond, that the others waited just out of sight.
Shere got to her feet slowly, deliberately, then stretched and yawned, showing her fangs.
No doubt Akela had a speech planned for this moment, but just as he drew breath to speak--or perhaps, if Shere was wrong, to howl his pack forth--there came a new sound that stopped them both.
Shere understood it first, for she knew it well from the last days of her mate. Men were making a wide circle into the jungle, beating drums--she caught the scent of Hathi's people--carrying blazing torches to set the jungle alight, to drive them out where guns could make quick sport of them. Man had come to the jungle at last.
Akela listened and at last understood, and whatever words he had planned turned into a snarl. "Thou brings this down on the jungle. Thou and thy--thy cub. Thy Man. The blood of the jungle on thy claws, thy fangs, Shere Khan!"
The tigress stared cold flame into the head wolf's eyes. "So has it always been," she said, almost too quietly to be heard over the approaching din. "So thou hast always said. Whatever befalls the jungle--ah, my doing! Would that I had such powers, dog. I would use them well."
There was silence, but Akela saw the great cat's claws extend.
"The blood of the jungle on my claws, the taste of it on my tongue," said Shere Khan, eyes slitted. "So thou hast said. So shall it be."
She leapt, and only a quick, tumbling roll kept Akela unharmed. The wolf scrambled to his feet and snarled back a challenge without words. Shere Khan crouched again, and there was wild laughter in her voice.
"Call thy pack, O head wolf! 'For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack!' See, I learned thy Law, as well as any suckling pup!"
"As thou wishes." Akela tipped his head to the red sky and howled.
And they came, the Seonee pack, bristling and snapping, foam on their lips and hot blood in their hearts. There were no words among them; their Head Wolf had said all for them. They swarmed over the lame tigress, and their snarls had the rushing rumble of summer thunder.
Shere struck out on all sides, ears flat, claws raking red into gray coats, teeth sunk deep wherever she could clamp jaws against flesh, muscles straining and rippling to throw them off, to turn for her next attack.
Still, Tabaqui had spoken truth all those years ago: They were many, and she only one. After only a few minutes her flank was laid open to the bone, her lame leg useless, her breath wet and heavy. Still she fought, snapping a young wolf's spine at the neck, breaking another's back with a well-timed blow, roaring when another's bite drew blood. There was only one, now, whose blood she cared to taste--Akela--and she fought the others back to reach him. Beyond them, flames hissed in the treetops, and far in the distance she could hear Hathi trumpeting warning to the jungle.
Akela called out to her. "Leave our Jungle and we shall give thee safe passage."
Shere laughed the deep, terrible laugh of the tiger. "I leave my land only in death."
Akela's lips curled back from white teeth, and he called the others off. "So shall it be, then. I would leave thee crippled to wait for Man's death--ay, and to beg him for it."
He sprang for Shere's throat--and a blow knocked him off his feet. He scrambled back from the heat to see Mowgli standing over him, the Red Flower blossoming endlessly on the branch he carried. In that instant, Shere struck with the last of her strength. Her teeth met in the nape of the Akela's neck, and it was ended.
Mowgli stood among the wolf-pack, his wild black hair tossed over his shoulders, sweat gleaming on his brown skin, eyes reflecting the Red Flower's terrible light. The wolves looked upon him, and saw that he was man-cub no longer, but Man, and of the jungle, and not of it, and lord over them all.
They trembled, and many wolves ran, those who knew of traps and guns, and those who did not know but ran for no reason they could understand, for a fear they could neither name nor face.
Mowgli swung the branch in a wide circle, scattering them. Sparks rained onto the wolves' coats, and their yelping rang in his ears. He stood in the Red Flower's heat and felt it burning in his blood, and wildness overcame him, and he yelled at the wolves as he struck--"Back, ye dogs! Back when a man speaks!"--right and left, and he laughed until he could not catch his breath, and the tears ran down his cheeks, and then he did not know if he was laughing or crying, or why, as the wolves ran, and the branch caught the undergrowth afire.
At last the wolves were gone, and the madness slowly drained from him. He wanted, then, suddenly, to sleep, long and deep where he stood, but one thing only kept his eyes open.
He looked for his mother and found her lying nearby, her coat stiff with dried blood and wet with fresh.
She saw him but could not lift her head. Mowgli knelt and held her head, pressing his cheek to her forehead. Then she was speaking, almost too softly to hear.
"Listen," she was saying, and when Mowgli had his ear to her stained muzzle, "Listen, child of Man..."
For an instant, terror seized him, for he thought she had died, so still she was. Then, at last, she coughed blood and breathed again.
"I loved thee more," said Shere Khan, "than ever I loved my cubs."
That was the last.
Mowgli remembered the rest very dimly, like the strangest sort of waking dream.
He remembered Karu on one side of him, Mehadi on the other, getting him to his feet. How slippery the ground was, how dark. And everywhere a strange, heavy, acrid scent that was very familiar, but he could not think of what it was.
He remembered seeing Akela, and the sight drove him mad. He hacked at the carcass until the tigers pulled him away, and even checking their great strength, they had to pull until their teeth tore his flesh. He left his knife there and never saw it again.
He remembered hearing howls in the distance, farther and farther away, and then, very close and strong, the scent of smoke and ash, and how red Karu and Mehadi's coats looked.
"What is this, Brother?" he said dully, stopping. "The jungle looks--so strange..."
"The Red Flower grows to the banks of the Waingunga," said Karu. "Men will follow." He chuffed and licked Mowgli's hand with his rough tongue. "Come, Little Brother."
Karu urged him on. Mowgli laid one hand on his brother's back, the other on his sister's, and together they led him deep into the jungle.
They say he roams the jungle still, the man with the tiger's deadly light in his eyes.
They say he carries no knife, no spear, no gun, that his only weapons are the two great cats who hunt for him, who do his will.
They say he hunts sambhur, hunts chital, hunts wolves, hunts Man.
They say that when the moon shines full on the banks of the old Waingunga that he takes the tiger's shape and roams the hills and villages, seeking Man's blood, Man's children. They tell hushed stories of him around many a woodcutter's campfire, where every long shadow could be his, and when they speak his name, it is in a whisper:
Mowgli. The tiger's son.
This story originally appeared in the author's personal website.