Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Raw earth and full bellies

Priestesses smelled like forbearance and cheap incense, not raw earth and full bellies.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is an exquisite thing, the second book in the Singing Hills Cycle by Nghi Vo. This time the cleric Chih is accompanying Si-Yu and her mammoth when they are waylaid by hungry shapeshifting tigers. To stave off sleep, and to stay alive, Chih tells the tale of the love affair between legendary tiger Ho Thi Thao and human scholar Dieu.

She had turned out to be a better traveler than she had thought, or at least, she had not been eaten by hungry ghosts or had her skull stolen by fox spirits yet. She had mostly stopped panting whenever she needed to climb a rise, and she had learned early on that you never passed a priestess and her road shrine without offering something, even if it was only a tiny coin, a bun, or a prayer.

[I read the first book with a heart full of sadness, while staycationing in my own city. I read the second book with a heart full of hope while vacationing just outside the city. I wonder how much my state of mind contributes to my overall impression of these books. How much of the serendipity is actual, how much have I constructed?

I read the above before venturing out to the monastery. The lady at the cheese shop confirms they take cash, credit, even prayers (but if that's the preferred payment, she may have to charge extra — prayers aren't worth what they used to be). I seriously consider buying a zither at the antique shop down the road from the inn where I'm staying; then I read about the tiger queen correcting Chih's facts, "her voice as taut as a zither string." The countryside shapeshifts around me.]

The royal felines interrupt Chih regularly, so Chih can annotate the story with the cultural context they provide. The versions of the legend differ depending on who is telling it and whom they are telling it to. Even a love story is propaganda embodying guiding principles.

"When she shared the food that Scholar Dieu offered her rather than eating it all, she was expressing... fond feeling and fascination. When she offered her name without asking for Scholar Dieu's, she was opening the door."

"Opening the door for what?" asked Chih, fascinated in spite of themself.

Sinh Loan waved a thick hand. "To any number of things. To a courtship. To a single night of love. To something that would last far longer. To an opportunity to know her more and better. For more."

The fascination and infatuation flourishes, in spite of or inspired by their species and cultural differences.

As the sun grew ripe and started to drop towards the horizon, Scholar Dieu read the poem, and as she did, it came to Ho Thi Thao how very beautiful she was. She had been beautiful in bed for three nights, which was important, and she was beautiful now, when she was angry at having her way blocked. It came to Ho Thi Thao that perhaps she wanted to learn how else the scholar was beautiful, and even in what ways the scholar might be ugly, which could also be fascinating and beloved.

I feel overcome by love and beauty (even the ugly is beloved). These books are mythic: weightless and transportive. 


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