When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

It isn’t true that the full title for When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain was originally meant to be When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain With Her Two Tiger Sisters and Considered Eating Cleric Chih but it could have been. Except that at that point it would have been politic to mention the mammoth and her rider Si-yu because without the two of them the tigers probably would have eaten Chih before they could even begin a proper conversation.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Cleric Chih returns from The Empress of Salt and Fortune, this time far up in the mountains. They are hoping to get up and over a high pass, and arrange for a member of the mammoth corps, Dong Si-yu, take them up, hoping to make the way station by dark. The two of them have ridden Si-yu’s mammoth Piluk through woods and snow, and the refuge is in sight when “A deep and jagged snarl erupted from behind them, like something tearing through the stretched and scraped skin between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. Piluk bugled with alarm as Si-yu swore.” (Ch. 1) Tiger! Not just one, for Chih soon sees streaks of orange on both sides.

The way station’s barn is in sight, and it’s big enough to hold mammoths, thus offering a refuge from the tigers. Between them and the barn, Chih sees two figures on the ground. “On his back, face obscured by the hood of his sheepskin coat and arms thrown out as if he had hoped to catch himself was Bao-so [attendant at the way station and friend of Si-yu’s family]. A stocky naked woman bent over him, and she draped her arm over his belly with a casual ownership, immune to the blistering cold.” (Ch. 2) A hurtling mammoth with two passengers breaks up the sinister tableaux. “The mammoth’s speed was ponderous, but it was like a mountain had started to move. If it was coming for you, you didn’t care how fast it was coming, and that was apparently what the naked woman thought as well because in two bounds she was away and lost to the shadows.” (Ch. 2)


Si-yu scoops Bao-so up from the ground, and the four of them make it to the barn. One tiger was in there ahead of them, but it did not want to face a rushing mammoth head on and slipped out. “Three tigers waited beyond the shelter of the barn [the naked woman had turned back into a tiger], and as the last of the light faded from the sky, the largest one started to laugh.” (Ch. 2)

A laughing tiger is bad, a talking tiger is worse.

“Stop it!” Si-yu cried. “Stop it, talk like a person!”
No, no, the tiger is a person. It is only that the tiger is a person that might eat us if we get too close, Chih thought, but before they could shape that thought with their mouth, the tiger made a chuffing sound, still threatening, less unnatural.
For a moment, the air between the barn and the tiger grew strangely dense, thick like boiled gelatin or a soupy fog, and then instead of a tiger, there was a woman there, the same one that Chih had seen momentarily next to Bao-so’s prone body.
The woman was of medium height, and her thick black hair was braided and coiled into multiple loops secured to her head by a wooden comb. … She was a handsome woman, but the animal impassivity of her eyes and the way her teeth looked a little too large for her mouth gave her a menacing look, the tiger in her sitting in wait beneath her human skin.
“There,” she said. “Now bring out the man so that my sisters and I might eat him.” (Ch. 3)

There are the stakes. What can be done?

“Begging your pardon, You Majesty, but our laws do not allow this,” [Chih] tried. …
“Ah. You are something like a civilized thing, and I suppose that I must treat you as such.”
“We would much prefer it, madam,” Chih said respectfully, and the tiger turned towards the darkness, though her two sisters stayed to watch… (Ch. 3)

Chih hopes that the tigers can be persuaded or distracted enough to hold off eating them until more mammoths, expected the next day, arrive at the way station and drive the tigers off.

“Why are we talking to tigers?” asked Si-yu.
“Because they are talking to us,” Chih said, stifling a somewhat hysterical giggle. “They can talk, and now they’ve seen that we can. That’s—that means that they’ll treat us like people.”
“But there’s still a chance that they’re going to eat us.”
“Oh yes. Some people are just more … edible than others if you are a tiger.” (Ch. 3)

Introductions are made — the one who has changed into a woman is Ho Sinh Loan — but the tigers still insist that the other three will soon be dinner. Chih invokes the law again, and says “I have come north instead to listen to your stories and to glorify your name.” Flattery does not impress the tiger: “It doesn’t taste very good, and it has never filled a stomach.” Chih tries another tack, and mentions in passing another tiger queen, Ho Thi Thao. That brings Ho Sinh Loan up short: “What do you know about Ho Thi Thao?” Chih hopes for an opening and asks for her account of the marriage of Ho Thi Thao.

“No, I think you are going to tell us what you know instead,” said Sinh Loan.
“We’ll tell you when you get it wrong,” growled Sinh Hoa [one of the tiger sisters] abruptly, her voice like falling rocks. “We shall correct you.”
“Best not get it wrong too often,” advised Sinh Cam [the other sister], her voice like dangerous waters. (Ch. 3)

The queen’s vanity — she says the version of Ho Thi Thao’s story she knows is the true one — provides the opportunity Chih has been looking for. They are allowed to build up the fire and settle in for the extraordinary tale of the woman scholar named Dieu who, on her way to take the imperial exams, met and married a tiger. Vo’s novella hearkens back to the Thousand and One Nights, of course, and it’s a better meditation on storytelling than many a metafiction. The story of Dieu and Ho Thi Thao is set back in legendary times, and the differences between then and the times of Chih allow readers to reflect on how history is told, how changes are retained and remembered. The differences between tigers and humans are analogous to differences between human cultures, although tigers are more likely to eat up a person from across that barrier.

“Oh!” Sinh Cam exclaimed, sitting up in surprise. “That’s right! A bundle of bones tied up with their own guts, that’s what we say.”
“It’s a tiger’s term?” Chih asked. “I thought it was just what the ghosts of the examination hall did to those scholars who didn’t follow the proper sacrifices…”
“No, it’s ours,” said Sinh Loan pleasantly. “It’s what we call someone who is a disappointment. Because that’s what we turn them into. Please continue.” (Ch. 4)

There are parts of the story, especially the early years of scholar Dieu, that the tigers do not know at all. Then Chih comes to a part about Ho Thi Thao that the tigers know much more about, and they allow themselves to be drawn into telling more of their side of the tale. Curiosity and vanity.

As the night wears on, the tigers tell parts of their version of the story, revealing how they show affection, how they flirt, how they open a door to courtship or more, how they solemnize a marriage. They also show how meetings across barriers are ripe for misunderstanding.

[Dieu and Ho Thi Thao] were silent as they crossed the Oanh River, and when they came to the opposite side, Dieu gathered up her things and stalked away from the riverbank without a backwards look, taking Ho Thi Thao’s eyes with her.
***
Chich cleared their throat.
“Yes, metaphorically,” said Sinh Loan with great patience.
Chih nodded, making another note. In some of the Rose Moon ghoul stories they had heard, it wouldn’t have been. (Ch. 7)

The tales become a competition within the story. Perhaps the tigers have forgotten about dinner, Chih and Si-yu have certainly not forgotten about the hope of rescue. But they have to keep going. The story of Dieu and Ho Thi Thao has its own beauty, from both the human side and the tiger side. It’s a classic legend, open to numerous interpretations.

Chih does not get eaten — it’s clear from the beginning that this is not the kind of book whose main character dies tragically — but Vo keeps the suspense all the way through, with the tigers’ self-regard competing with their capriciousness and hunger. This second novella of cleric Chih is both straightforward exciting storytelling and an intelligent reflection on storytelling itself. Wholly satisfying.

+++

Cleric Chih will return in Into the Riverlands, scheduled for publication in October 2022.

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