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Jungle Favour Go With Thee

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"Wood and Water, Wind and Tree,
Jungle-Favour go with thee!"
-- "The Outsong", Rudyard Kipling
There is a curiousness to the Jungle. It is both life and sickness. Time lived amongst its trees and beasts leaves a sickness in the heart that fills it fuller and more free while there, but leaves it ever-yearning when away. The Jungle is not meant to be a place for men, and where men go, the Jungle sickens in turn. Mowgli though, you will remember, is as much wolf as man and as much man as wolf. The Jungle does not die from housing him, but his heart is full of it, and to break away is to feel the weakness begin and etch deeper every step of every day.

He leaves and comes, leaves and comes. Little frog of the Jungle no longer. He is man-sized when Mowgli again finds Messua, who entreats him to stay with her and her child. He does. The pack of men she lives alongside does not mark him as a demon, but they chatter and play with their mouths and Mowgli finds no real brotherhood among them. Neither the ones whose skin is as nut-brown as his own, though less weathered, nor the ones who are pale as the hide of Hathi's scar are kin to him. Not truly. He lives in Messua's hut on the edge of the village, and outside the wolves who are his brothers sing of their hunts, and Mowgli lies in the hut that is like the cage a broken lock once freed Bagheera from, and he listens, and keeps his own songs caged. They rush through his veins and gather in his chest, pulsing like a second heart. Some nights he cannot stand the double drumbeat and he slips out the window and into the long grass, runs along the damp earth and hunts alongside his brothers.

He is strong, and when the droughts come again his family does not go hungry. When the traders come with their elephants and guns, the pelts Messua has to trade are finer and more plentiful than any other. The white men tell his story amongst themselves, and Mowgli hears the laugh in their voices as they speak. "If thou speaketh to beasts, speak then to mine," one bids, his body clumsy and thick as Baloo, in his youth, before age robbed him of his vibrance. Mowgli looks at the hunting hounds at his heels, tails a-wave like the tails of the dhole, eyes dim and dull, nothing of the jungle left in them. He doesn't speak the language of the soulless beasts, and the white men laugh as he leaves.

He is proud, still, and the next morn when the fat white hunter sits, smoke billowing from his mouth and lies spilling from his tongue, Mowgli drops the carcass of a scarred old wolf before him, ugly holes from white man's bullets marring his hide. "His death-song spoke of the fire-shot that failed to fell him. The sons of Chil flew overhead and sayeth it was thou who shot and could not kill even an old Won-tolla wolf, who was a season from missing his kill," Mowgli tells him, scorn lining his words. In the jungle behind him, Bagheera roars and the four bay their laughs that sound like death to men who cannot speak the tongues of jungle-born. The white hunter shivers and the men behind him laugh and none forget again that Mowgli was of the Pack, and the Jungle, and walks in worlds and speaks in tongues that they never will..

The head of the village has eyes sharp as Tabaqui's had been, and he casts no stones and calls for no burning. Instead he offers his daughter as wife. Mowgli knows nothing of wives and words and marriage, but she smells of freshness and newness and it reminds him of the Time of New Talk, and of spring. She quakes in fear when he touches her, but Messua teaches him to speak gently, as he would to the poison people of Cold Lair, who hold death in their fangs. To move slowly, as he would when approaching a cow new from calving; when a stray step and a harsh sound could make her charge.

The seasons drift on and on, and Mowgli slips from windows and into jungles less often. When he catches his own scent, it is of smoke and men-villages. He dreams of Council Rock, and lame tigers, but his days are made up of hunting and beast-tending and the doe-dark eyes of his woman-wife who lost her fear and grows instead familiar and tender. He thinks of her as he does of Messua, and as he does of Kaa, and as he does of Gray Brother, for she is kind as few men have been, and wise in her way, and loyal beyond what he knew men were capable of. She is something altogether new and she teaches him of the pleasures that can come of being a man, and being not alone.

Bagheera's last hunt comes when he has roamed afar. The great panther's black coat had shot through with gray, and his step slowed, but still, Mowgli had not thought him near his last kill. It is Gray Brother who brings word, and Mowgli does not hear his song of mourning until the wolf is at his door, and his wife is screaming in the night. Messua calms her and draws her back into the hut they all share as Mowgli runs and weeps. Baloo had gone long seasons past, and the four had become the three, all of their steps slowed, their eyes dulled. "To be man is to see all thou hast grown beside die and be gone," he says.

Gray Brother licks his toes and nuzzles his knee. "Perhaps that is why man goes to man, in the end."

His voice sounds strange to Mowgli's ear. Like a tongue he learned as a child but is forgetting as he becomes a man. "I am Mowgli, the Frog. I am Mowgli, the Man. I am Mowgli, the Wolf. I am all of this and so I am none of this. When then will I find a place I can hold as home?"

"Thou art a man," the three-who-were-four tell him, muzzles against the cloth that covers once bare legs, teeth tugging at hair cut short. Rough tongues lap at a cut on rough feet softened by boots and sandals. "Thou art man, still. Little brother no longer," Gray Brother repeats.

"I am man. But brother, always," Mowgli speaks, and they sing out in agreement and shadow him back to the man-village.

The winter takes two more, and it is Gray Brother alone who presses a wet nose into the stomach of his own daughter when she is born. "Was ever thy skin so soft and naked? Little frog she is. A blow from Bagheera's paw could have ended her." The wolf paces a stiff-legged circle around the child. The child's mother sits nearby, quivering with fear for her cub, and tensed to strike and spring. Mowgli thinks of Raksha, who had been The Demon before she was Mother. Some things transcend Jungle or Man. There is nothing so fierce as a mother standing over her cub.

The child is weak-limbed and cannot even turn over. It would be food for any jungle-peoples. Mowgli wonders if he was this weak. Wonders how it was he didn't fall to the teeth of Shere Khan before ever his song began. He only didn't because Mother and Father Wolf took him to the Looking Over.

It falls to him to protect his cub, now. Were he still in the jungle, he could teach her to hunt and to sing, teach her the master words he sometimes forgets, now. Teach her of the treachery of the bandar-log, who are too much like men, who even now Mowgli sees every so often when Men weave reeds with their hands or sit and talk of their own cleverness. Years amongst men, though, and he knows nothing of men, trusts them little, loves them less. Not in the way one born to it does. He knows not how to protect a cub from a world that makes no sense.

Yet, he must.

The hut is his lair and the mother and wife and brother who share it are his pack. The walls begin to close in and hold him still and captive. The night Gray Brother sings the song of his own last hunt, Mowgli dreams of Council Rock, and the Lone Wolf atop it again. Look well, look well, O wolves he calls, and the people of a Jungle he was once Master of gather and watch his naked frog-daughter roll. Man goes to man, Bagheera tells him, and in his dreams he is vital as he was in Mowgli's youth, rich black and sleek muscled. But men hold faith with no one, mancub. The panther growls and the Pack parts and Buldeo blunders heavy-footed up the path, a familiar ankus raised above his head, aimed at the naked man-cub beneath him.

Mowgli wakes with a buried growl in his throat and his hands fisted. He aches to take his cub and his wife, his aging mother and her half-grown son and run hot-foot away and into the Jungle until he remembers that he is Master and the Jungle comes once more back to Mowgli. But when he steps outside the distant calls of wolves and kites are foreign.

He misses those who were his friends and kin. When he bids hello to a passing snake, the hiss of its answer sounds strange and garbled to his ears. "Remember me to Kaa, who is to thee as thou art to the thin worms that dig in the dirt, from Mowgli, who is master and friend to him," Mowgli tells the footless thing as it winds its way up the tree.

"Kaa is no name known to me, man-thing who speaketh as if middle-jungle should know him," the snake replies, and Mowgli's heart aches to think of the thick coiled, wise Kaa gone too away where he cannot follow.

"We be of one blood, ye and I," Mowgli tells him. The snake vanishes upward, leaving him with a hiss that says he is of no blood with men. Above him, one who must be the son of Chil's sons wheels and dives out of sight, his call trailing shrill and free. For moments, Mowgli cannot remember what it says at all. For half that space of time, he wonders if ever he could truly understand at all.

The hunting is good that season, and his daughter learns to crawl on fat, weak limbs. He holds her and thinks of the fat wolf cubs who would roll beneath his feet in the days when the Pack reformed, and Akela stretched at his side as Phao called forth the Seeonee to look them over. He sits with her at day, when his wife goes with the women for water and to chatter, and she crawls over his feet. "When I was as thou art, I was a wolf," he tells her, and growls. She growls back and bubbles over with laughter, tiny clever fingers tangled in his hair. There is nothing of the Jungle in her. He thinks to teach her, and then thinks of his dreams, and how even still he feels sick with want for what is no longer his to have, and he teaches her nothing. Better to be born man and stay man than to run as a wolf and die in a man-village.

His wife's father calls him son, and brags of him to those who will listen. He entreats Mowgli to hunt for more pelts to trade, and scowls when Mowgli refuses to hunt more than what is needed. He will not strip the Jungle bare to appease the greediness of men. When the white hunters come through, they bring men with servants, elephants, and tents bigger than any hut the village has built. With them is a man half again Mowgli's age, scars lining his body and an empty, sunken hole where once an eye was. They gather for stories and trade, and Mowgli holds his daughter as she strokes an elephant. When Mowgli asks if ever it knew Hathi or his sons, the elephant does not answer. When his father-who-is-not-his-father asks him if he'll guide the white men through the jungle, he refuses, and they laugh and say they don't need the village's savage, they have their own, raised by the monkeys.

Mowgli looks in the one eye of their guide and sees nothing of the Jungle. He speaks in the tongue of the Hunting people. "If thou had dwelt with the bandar-log, thou would have lost more than thine eye," he tells the man. His daughter claps her tiny hands, and the man bares his teeth in a sad mockery of a growl. "Thou art led by lies," he tells them, but they do not listen, and he goes his own way. He feels the glare of his wife's father on his shoulders and thinks that by a word, he had once let in the jungle on a greater village than this, and that by a few words, if only he remembered them, he could do so again. Instead, he goes forth to his work and tries to imagine how the jungle must have swallowed that village by now, and left no trace of those who cast him out ever having trod there.

In the fall they return with the body of a white man who fell to the marshes, his elephant with him. The guide is gone, and in a cage a tiger is trapped, young as a cub that's barely left its mother's teat. It paces and snarls, swiping at thick wooden bars. Mowgli feels the thud of old hatred and new sadness clash in his chest and creeps out on silent feet when the darkness lies thickest. He breaks the lock and bids the tiger go free. "Remember that 'twas man who caged you, and man who freed you, and let your teeth never tear manflesh as payment," he tells the cat.

It growls its answer, and for a moment Mowgli is again a mancub, singing his song of victory atop the hide of Shere Khan. "For thee, and the lock thou broke, then, I will hunt not men." A striped tail lashed and half-mad eyes met his. "It is only by thy word that it is thus."

By morn, the tiger is gone, and Mowgli gathers up his wife-woman and child. Messua watches with old, watery eyes, and bids him farewell as she would her son, and as she would the forest Godling she never quite stopped believing he was. "Nathoo, my son," she calls him, and he kisses her head. Her too, he will watch go, should he stay. Too many things has Mowgli the Frog had to bid goodbye.

Man goes to man, and so it goes, and so it goes. Mowgli the Frog would forever sicken for want of the Jungle, but would never sit comfortably there again, for his Jungle was the one of his youth, and long since dead. It was time Mowgli lay dead with it, and Nathoo, instead, live as a man.

He followed the white men to the cities with their towers and stone, their dead-eyed beasts of burden and toothless dogs. His daughter would grow among men, with Nathoo, her father, and Mowgli would remain forever among trees of the Jungle.

Ahae! My heart is heavy with the things that I do not understand.