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Tiger, tiger burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry? – William Blake
It is well after midnight when Nakry leaves her modest house for the dirty streets of Kampot Province, stepping out into the narrow, moonlit lanes with the alleys radiating ominous shadows. She is a pretty girl, with flowing black hair and large, sparkling green eyes. Unsavory types gaze at her hungrily, making her feel uncomfortable. She pulls her clothes more tightly around her and keeps moving towards the bar. Like most nights, Nakry is prowling for her drunk of a husband. She should just let him rot in the street, but he has all their money and they need food. If he returns in the morning and there is nothing hot for him on the stove, she knows he’ll beat her. He has such a temper when he’s been drinking. She begins to see the drunkards stumbling out of the bar and peers at them carefully. She rolls over a man passed out in the street to get a good look at him and hears someone say, “Heng, isn’t that your wife outside?”
Nakry looks up toward the sound to see her husband ambling towards her, “Hey! What are you doing here!? Stop ruining my night. Go back home and cook.” The men watching from the doorway of the bar start to laugh, “You tell her, Heng!” Nakry frowns, “I didn’t come to bother you, just give me some money and I’ll leave you alone.” Heng looks surprised, holding up his coin pouch, “Hey! I need this money to drink. Just get out of here and we’ll talk about it at home!” “No, please… just a little for food.” She goes to grab the pouch and Heng becomes furious, his face turning red. “Don’t touch my money,” he yells, striking Nakry hard in the face. She cries out and the men cheer. “You sure showed her!” Nakry covers her face and runs as Heng goes back to the bar. Nakry doesn’t even know where she’s running to, she’s so embarrassed she just wants to get away. It was one thing for Heng to hit her, but to make her look foolish in front of the other men in the province was just cruel. Through her tears she can feel the sting of a cut under her eye that is bleeding, her fingers coming away tinged
with scarlet. She stops at a spring to wash her face and get a drink. The ice cold water helps her to stop sobbing so hard. As she sits, catching her breath, she hears footsteps behind her. She turns to see who approaches and hears a soft, feminine voice, “Don’t be frightened, dear. I heard you crying and came to help. Husbands can be such trouble, can’t they?” Nakry looks up, surprised, “How did you know?” The woman is older, short and stout, with large, round glasses and adorned with jade jewelry. Her black hair is tied in a long, tight braid. She sees Nakry’s wounds and her eyes widen, but she stops herself from saying anything about them, “Oh, us women know each other. We can always tell.” The woman reaches out to stroke Nakry’s hair. Nakry leans into it and says, “I am tolerant of him and patient, but it infuriates me to be disrespected in front of so many people.” The older woman seems concerned, “He beat you like this, in front of others?” Nakry nods sadly. The woman continues, “Such things are beyond what a dutiful wife should be made to endure. I cannot stand by and continue to let a beautiful girl like you be harmed in this way.”
Nakry sits up, looking very serious, “What is there that we can do?” The woman strokes her chin, thinking for a moment. “Say, have you heard of the Devil-Tiger?” Nakry is shaken by the thought of it, her face growing a little pale. Children whisper of that horrible creature and it haunts their nightmares… a savage fiend with a black heart devoid of mercy. Nakry nods gravely, “The terrible jungle monster that devours the souls of the weak and the cowardly? Of course, all children in Cambodia know the tale. I could only pray that it would find my husband in the night and put an end to his cruelty.” The woman says, “There is a way, but you must have courage… for he is a powerful being that thrives on fear. Many are so frightened of the Devil-Tiger that they do not know that he also lives by very strict rules, mandated by heaven. Bon Om Thook approaches, the Water Festival. The Devil-Tiger is a shen of fire and his strength will be diminished on that night. Yes… if we work hard we can prepare you to face him, demanding he bring justice to you!” Icy shivers streak down Nakry’s body and she shudders, the thought of somehow working with the Devil-Tiger was revolting to her. Could such a monster ever be trusted to keep its word? Even more, did she have the courage to face him? “How do you know he will keep his word?”
“The Devil-Tiger was once a disgraceful husband, even worse than your own. His wife was very special, a treasure from heaven more precious than the finest jade. He was a monster to her, committing unspeakable acts of anger against his bride. One night, while stumbling home from a night of drinking, he was killed on the road by thieves. His wicked soul sank down into the depths of Yomi, the Thousand Hells, where the Yama Kings tortured him endlessly. Then, when they had broken his black spirit, the heavens offered him an opportunity. If he would pledge his soul to wreak vengeance against the foolish and dishonorable, they would return him to the middle-kingdom to live again. Heaven is a severe master and dictates strictly how the DevilTiger must live. One false step and they will end his life and return him to Yomi… I can assure you he will never let that happen.” The old woman’s words are almost too much for Nakry to accept. Believing the Devil-Tiger to be trustworthy was difficult enough, but to think that he was once married to a beautiful girl… it almost seems a joke. Though, in the end it was not either of these things that make Nakry hesitant, but instead the fear that she could not gather enough courage to even look the Devil-Tiger in the face. “I believe what you say… but, where will I find the courage to face him?” “You will see. Together we will prepare you for each of the DevilTiger’s moves. Knowing he cannot harm you will give you courage because you will have power over him. This will strengthen your heart.”
Nkary nods, “I will do it.” The old woman nods, “Good. Tomorrow evening, after your husband leaves for drinking, come to my hut at the bank of the river, by the north end of the village.” Nakry nods, “I will come. Thank you for helping me… Lady…” “Lady Rathana.” “And I am Nakry.” Lady Rathana gives Nakry another tight hug, “Now, be off. Here are some coins so you can get some food at the dawn market for your husband.” Nakry looks over to the East and sees the first tiny glimpses of light creeping up over the trees. She takes the coins and kisses Lady Rathana’s cheek. “Thank you.” She stands and hurries off towards the market, wiping a tear from her face with the back of her hand. II. The next night approaches quickly. Nakry is very excited about visiting Lady Rathana, but Heng seems in no hurry to leave the house, content to read his newspaper and comment foully about what is printed. She has to fight the urge to shoo him out, lest he get suspicious about why she wants him to go so urgently. Finally he becomes so disgusted by the news he storms out, not bothering to say anything to Nakry as passes by her hanging the laundry outside. He just crumples up the newspaper and throws it in the walkway where
she’ll have to pick it up. She finishes hanging the sheets and picks up the newspaper, tossing it in the bin of papers she uses the light the fire. She puts a pot of fish stew over the flames to slow cook while she visits with Lady Rathana. When she is sure Heng is far enough away, she closes up the house and heads toward the Lady’s. It is not far from her own home and soon she sees the little, riverside hut and Lady Rathana bent over with a small broom, sweeping the area outside of her door. She looks up when she hears footsteps, “Ah, Nakry! I’ve been waiting, come inside.” As Nakry approaches the house, she can smell a familiar aroma, a savory broth with the faint tang of lemons, like a soup her mother used to make. Nakry hasn’t smelled that scent in so long that she quickens her pace to reach it, not even realizing it. When she reaches the door, the woman is already serving her a bowl. “Here, this ngam nguv is fresh, we can’t work on empty stomachs you know.” Nakry takes the bowl and has a seat, “Thank you, I’ve missed this soup. I haven’t had it since I was a child.” She puts the bowl to her lips, the warm, lemonish, chicken soup tasting delicious and feeling so soothing as it goes down. Nakry did not want to say it and risk disrespecting her mother, but Lady Rathana’s ngam nguv was better. “Your soup is wonderful. It strengthens the spirit as well as the belly.” The lady acts shy, “Please, you flatter me too much.”
She pours them both cups of steaming tea from a pot nearby, “I hope you are ready, for tonight we prepare you to face the DevilTiger.” Nakry nods solemnly, “I am ready, but I still do not understand what we can do to protect me from a demon as wicked as him.” The lady says, “Do not worry… remember what I told you? The Devil-Tiger must live by a strict code and we can use this against him. The Devil-Tiger can only gain power over you if he ingests your chi. He will only have three chances to do this, and if he fails it is you who will have power over him. The first way he will try to steal your chi is by eating your flesh.” Nakry looks horrified, “But I am not strong enough to fight him off, how can I stop him from devouring me?” Lady Rathana picks up a box of black lacquered wood, “With this.” She opens the lid to reveal a gorgeous necklace of droplet shaped stones of blue jade. Nakry’s eyes widen, “It’s so lovely… I have never seen jade of that color before.” Rathana pushes the box at Nakry, “Yes, blue jade, almost as rare as the fabled yu ying jade. Here, put it on.” Nakry pushes the box away, “No, I couldn’t… it’s much too valuable.” Rathana insists, “You must, shen like the Devil-Tiger cannot stand being too close to blue jade, it causes them harm. His favorite way to eat flesh is to leap out at the unsuspecting from the darkness,
taking them off guard, and landing on them with his claws and fangs. But… the Devil-Tiger will be in for quite a surprise when he tries that on you.” Encouraged by the Lady’s words, Nakry reaches for the necklace and puts it on. Immediately she can feel the power Rathana spoke about. Though it was subtle, Nakry could swear she felt it pulsing. “Thank you… I will return it as soon as this business is done.” Rathana shakes her head, “No, I wouldn’t dream of it. I have been collecting jade my whole life while a sweet girl like you has none. You deserve it, especially after you defeat the Devil-Tiger.” Nakry makes a small smile, “I have not done it yet.” “But I know you can,” says Lady Rathana, “believe in yourself! For the next of the Devil-Tiger’s tricks you will need this.” The lady pulls out another box, made of cardboard. She removes the lid and opens the layers of tissue paper. Inside is an ivory colored corset that laces in the front. Nakry has seen such things in fine ladies’ shops, but the sight of it here confused her. “It is very nice, Lady Rathana, but how can that stop the DevilTiger?” Rathana turns the corset over, showing Nakry the smooth back, which looks very firm. She gives it a rap with her knuckles and it makes a knocking sound. “See, it’s inlaid with whale bones to give your back a lovely shape, but it also makes it very resilient. The
second way the Devil-Tiger will try to dominate you is by drinking your blood. But… he is very cruel… preferring to lash his victims viciously across the back with a whip, opening terrible wounds that draw blood which he then licks off of the leather strap.” She holds up the corset, “Thankfully, this garment will withstand the strength of his lashings and he will become frustrated.” Nakry looks at the item with wonder, thinking about how the lady became so wise. Rathana adds, “The force of the whip may still knock you to the ground, but do not fear. Simply stand up again and face him.” Nakry nods, “And the final way he will attempt to control me?” Lady Rathana grins, “With a kiss… in which he will try to steal your breath. But, the Gods forbid him to fool around with married women. So all you must do is tell him you are married. He will sense the truth of these words and it will be done.” The lady begins to laugh, “Isn’t it funny that the same terrible husband you wish to be rid of is actually helping to get rid of himself by being married to you! It’s almost too good to be true!” Nakry giggles too. It serves Heng right, she thinks to herself, being part of his own demise… for too long did he beat and degrade her, mocking the role of husband. “Tomorrow night, when all the men from the village take their money to Phonm Penh to bet on the Kompok Province boat at the festival, you
will take a boat up the river to the temple at Angkor Wat. It is in the thick jungles around the temple that the Devil-Tiger prowls.” Nakry shudders at the thought of entering the dark wilderness; the jungles were savage places, certain death to the unprepared. “Will you not come with me, Lady Rathana?” “No, child, I cannot. You must make this journey alone. But my spirit goes with you in every gift I have provided to evade the Devil-Tiger’s grasp.” She serves Nakry another steaming bowl of the soup, which Nakry savors, letting the broth go down slowly, so she can feel every drop of it warm the inside of her belly. “Thank you, Lady Rathana. I go to prepare myself for tomorrow.” “Good night dear. I will meet you at the river dock, just after the men have left.” As Nakry leaves the hut, she can hear Lady Rathana humming an old song. Once at home, Nakry places a huge bundle of fresh incense on their household shrine. The orange slices are there from the morning, but she adds a few more flowers. Nakry never forgot her daily devotions, but tonight she entreated the spirits for special intervention, to give her the strength to face the Devil-Tiger. She prays until she hears Heng come through the door, jumping up to serve him his stew.
III. Though the water festival does not start until sundown, it is on everyone’s minds from the moment the sun rises. Many people wake up early to follow the province’s boat, throwing flowers along its path for good luck, as it travels to the capital city for the big race at night. Larger families go to the city in carts pulled by oxen, the children chattering excitedly about the fireworks and treats they will have in only a few hours time. Heng leaves much earlier than usual to fish this morning, hoping to make extra money off of the people wishing to travel with food to the festival. After collecting a hefty sum, he begins drinking early with his friends, in preparation for the festivities. Nakry remains at home, deep in prayer before the shrine, strengthening her spirit for what is to come. In her meditative state time passes quickly and soon she hears the men departing for the festival. She stands and goes to the place where she hid the gifts given to her by the lady. Carefully she slips on the whale bone corset, lacing it tightly in the front. She then slips the fine, jade necklace around her neck. Somehow the items help Nakry feel safe, as if they were a kind of armor. Filled with a new found reserve of courage, she leaves her home for the river. At the river dock, Lady Rathana is waiting with a simple boat of branches and reeds. She holds it steady so Nakry can step in.
“You found strength, I can feel it. Take the boat until you reach the temple. It will not be long until you find him.” She kisses Nakry on the cheek and gives the boat a small shove down the river. Nakry looks back, smiling, “Thank you Lady Rathana. You will see me again soon.” The lady nods. “I know dear.” The river is dark and lonely. Nakry’s mind wanders to the days when she and Heng were first married. He has always been an excellent fisherman and he was able to offer her parents a hefty dowry of money, fish and other goods. He was not the most handsome man in the village, but Nakry knew his fishing would give them a comfortable life. In the beginning days he hid his drinking well. Nakry had no idea how much of his earnings went to liquor. Soon after she discovered it, she also discovered how horrible his temperament became while drunk. She still wonders how he was able to hide his violent nature for the first year of their marriage. Many women say they grow accustomed to being struck, but it has never been this way for Nakry. Every time Heng hits her she feels the same sense of shock and violation. With her mind so lost in thought, the journey passes quickly on the river and soon she can see the outline of Angkor Wat temple against the full moon. The sight of it makes her cold, for she knows she must face the Devil-Tiger, but there is anticipation as well… for when it is over she will be free of Heng’s dominance. As she steps foot onto the shore, there is the burst of large fireworks in the sky.
First, bright red, Nakry’s favorite color, and then green, their fires lighting up the night. The warm glow of the explosions snap her thoughts out of the past and provide a little comfort because she has always liked fireworks. The lights fade from the sky as she steps deeper into the jungle. Suddenly there is a near deafening howl, like that of a terrible beast, which echoes through the jungle. Nakry freezes, terror threatening to overtake her… she feels as though the Devil-Tiger can smell her and is telling her he knows she is there. Lady Rathana’s words come to her mind, reminding that the Devil-Tiger gains power from fear. She touches the jade about her throat and feels the corset hugging her body snugly, each a reminder that she is not powerless against him. Lady Rathana’s gifts steel her against the fear building in her chest and she presses on. The jungle is eerily quiet and every step feels like a lifetime. Nakry has no idea where she is going, focused only on finding him. Suddenly, something like a fluid shadow leaps out from the trees. Before Nakry can react, the thing is nearly upon her. She can see its terrible man-like face baring its wicked maw of fangs and wild eyes like a demon full of hateful fire. Her knees want to buckle at the horror, but she gasps and remains fixed to the spot. It raises its hand, sharp nails like knives tearing out from its fingertips. Just as the beast moves to sink them into Nakry’s flesh, there is a bright flash from the jade necklace and the shadowy form is thrown back from her with great force, its body slamming into a tree and twisting limp like a cheap doll. Nakry is thrown off guard, the force of the impact nearly causing her to fall as well. She looks down in shock to see the
precious necklace crumble into dust and fall away. She looks back at the Devil-Tiger and he is already up, nearly standing, but still hunched over as if winded. His dress is nothing like Nakry expected
-- so modern: tight black pants, boots, black leather coat and a shirt that looks like fishing net. The Devil-Tiger speaks in a strained, but surprisingly human voice, “Blue jade… clever child… too bad I seem to have broken it.” He laughs darkly, quickly unsnapping an inky leather whip at his side and cracking it in the air beside her. She turns to look in that direction and he snaps the whip again, the leather grabbing her by the arm and spinning her forcefully so that her back faces him. He draws the whip back then theb rings it down again, giving her a hard lashing with it across the back. Nakry jerks forward from the impact, but the whip merely slashes through her clothes, the corset keeping it from her skin. The Devil-Tiger growls, savagely striking her across the back two more times in rapid succession. The force of the last blow is too much and Nakry falls to her knees with a soft groan. The DevilTiger rushes over with a hungry look, but hisses when he sees that her back bears no blood. He grabs her by the arm, yanking her up furiously, looking her in the eyes. Up close, Nakry is shocked to see the Devil-Tiger is devastatingly handsome. His features are perfect, skin like white porcelain and depthless eyes of black. There are no signs of the fangs or bestial rage she witnessed before. At this moment, he almost seemed tender. He says to her, “Since I could not tear your flesh or make you bleed, you leave me no choice but to take your breath.”
His red lips look delicious to Nakry, but at the same time she is repulsed as they approach her mouth. She pushes the Devil-Tiger away with her hand, “No, our lips must not touch. I am a married woman.” The Devil-Tiger takes a final look into her eyes, a deep look that Nakry can feel reaching into in her soul. An expression of anguish crosses his face and he whispers “It is true…” He sinks to the ground, howling that same terrible howl that fills the jungle sky, except this time Nakry knows it is filled with defeat. The Devil-Tiger looks up at Nakry, eyes penitent, “I have failed to take your chi… thus I am indebted to your service. Is it this cruel husband of yours that you wish brought to justice?” Nakry nods. The Devil-Tiger stands and grins fiendishly, “I will enjoy giving him the lesson in pain he deserves. You have endured much suffering and from it found strength to face me. Be proud.” The thought washes over Nakry like a ray of warm sunlight… she had never thought that something good could ever come from Heng’s beatings, but it was true… she was strong now. Strong enough to defeat the Devil-Tiger is strong enough to defeat anything. The Devil-Tiger says, “Before I go to fulfill my obligation, you must tell me… how did you prepare to face me so well? Not only did you know how I would strike at your chi, but you came during the water festival and wearing blue jade. Such is more than luck or even careful study.”
Nakry blushes, “I must be honest, I had help from a woman in my village, the Lady Rathana.” The Devil-Tiger begins to laugh uproariously, the laughter filling the jungle just as much as his howl. “Now I know the Heavens have a sense of humor! Let me tell you this story… Many decades ago a sweet and delicate jewel of a maid married a pathetic fool. He was terrible to her, not only beating her, but degrading her as though she was worse than garbage. Little did the fool know that his bride was actually one of the kami, a celestial spirit of earth sent to live among humans. To disrespect one of the kami is to disrespect the heavens themselves. One night he got what he deserved and was killed by thieves. He was tortured in the Yomi world by the Yama Kings for what he had done to his bride. The maiden was such a sweet natured spirit that she prayed to the heavens on his behalf, telling them her husband was poisoned by alcohol and that he should be given another chance. The heavens chastised him endlessly, but in the end returned him to the Middle Kingdom to wreak vengeance on the wicked.” Nakry nods, “Lady Rathana told me that story. You are the fool.” “Yes, it is true, I was the fool. But I am sure what she did not mention is that my bride was the Lady Rathana herself!” Though Nakry finds it hard to believe, it all makes sense this way. How else would the Lady know so much about the Devil-Tiger and have so many tricks to help her?
The Devil-Tiger laughs again and waves his hand. A large fire springs forth before the two of them. “I will return you to your village before stalking your husband. Take my hand and jump with me into the flames. Do not be afraid, we will not be burned.” The thought of it makes Nakry nervous, but she has endured so many strange things tonight that this was not so different. She takes the Devil-Tiger’s hand and they jump together into the fire. Everything goes bright and a heat engulfs her body, hot, but not burning. She feels the Devil-Tiger give her a gentle shove and suddenly finds herself on the floor before the hearth fire in her home, the Devil-Tiger nowhere to be found. Her body feels exhausted and her emotions are drained. All she can do is make it to the bed and collapse. IV. Nakry is awoken just before dawn by the sound of something at her window. She gets up quickly to investigate and sees a swirl of inky shadow slip out through the curtain, it moves just like the DevilTiger did and the sight of it gives her a shudder. The thought of him in her home makes her feel uneasy. Feeling like she won’t get any more sleep she moves to the kitchen to make some tea. It is then that she sees it. A large stone from the hearth had been moved aside to reveal a secret hiding place. Nakry peers inside suspiciously, but to her surprise she finds that it is full of money! Immediately she knows Heng had been hiding it from her their whole life, making her beg for the smallest thing. For a moment, she wants to be furious, but then
she realizes Hengis no longer going to disrespect her. Thereis a knock at the door. Nakry pulls her robe tighter and opens it to see one of the village elders, his face very serious. Everything is kind of a blur, but he says he is sorry to tell her that her husband was found murdered in the road by thieves. That is what she needed to hear… a sudden weight leaps from her chest and she begins to cry. The elder pats her on the shoulder then leaves her to her mourning… little does he know that they are tears of joy.