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on the cliff by the river
by Benjamin Rosenbaum

A woman steps off a cliff.

No. That's not the right place to start. Begin again.

I stroked the woman's forehead.

No. Begin again.

A woman sleeps near the edge of a cliff, curled around her baby. The baby's tiny lips are slack, its eyelids flutter once. The woman's hand -- dirty, the nails chipped -- spreads over the chest and stomach of the baby. Her shoulders bend down, knees curl up, to shelter it. She sleeps with a frown.

Her feet are bare. Her toes are caked with the dirt of a long journey. Her robe is torn.

A crow watches them from a treetop.

It is dawn and, if the woman would look up, she would see the dripping trees in front of her and white peaks of mountains rising over them. And behind her, beyond the cliff face, she would see the glittering spray of the waterfalls that descend it, and the necklace of lakes lit gold by the sunrise, and the cranes and crocodiles surfacing in them, black specks leaving triangular wakes on the gold water.

There is a soft padded sound on the rocks before her.

The woman's eyes open.

A tiger lounges on a pile of rocks. One slack paw drapes off the edge. The tiger's head is bent down, as if nodding. His eyes are half-closed.


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The baby stirs, fusses. Its eyes open, squinch shut again. It makes fists, and opens its mouth to scream.

The woman pulls her robe open and presses her nipple to the baby's mouth.

It drinks, greedily.

As slowly as the moon rises, the tiger's head ascends. He lifts his nostrils to the air and sniffs.

The woman gets to her feet, the baby pressed to her breast.

The tiger's eyes flick open. His irises are green, the slitted pupils black.

The woman takes a step back. Now she is close to the cliff edge. She shuffles along it, watching the tiger, setting a course around him towards the jungle.

The tiger moves like water flowing. He seems too relaxed to have left the rock at all. He seems lazy, lazy, lazy. Yet he is already between the woman and the jungle.

His tail flicks, swishes in the dust. Twitches. Rises like an angry cobra.

The watching crow wants breakfast. I cannot force the crow to let me use its eyes, for the mountain is not mine. But I am fascinated. I coax the crow to keep watching, promising it sweet bits of meat.

The tiger unsheathes his claws.

The baby pulls away from the breast, milk beading on its lips. It twists against the arm that holds it, grabbing the woman's thumb in its hand. It sees the tiger and its eyes widen. It cranes its head back and opens its arms wide in an embrace. Come play!

The woman looks behind her. The rock face is sheer below, but roots poke out of the cracks. One sturdy root, the width of her wrist, has burrowed out of the rock and then burrowed back into it. Like a handle in the rock, a few feet below her.

The baby is giggling at the tiger and flirting -- first burying its face in the woman's shoulder, then quickly turning back to grin at him. The woman reaches her foot back over the cliff and leaves it there, in midair. Then she stands still, one foot resting on nothing. What strength this must take! Now I can see her foot with my own eyes, far above me. The muscles of her calf are tight with effort.

Why is she doing this? At first it seems strange, then I realize: she is trying to fool the tiger about where the cliff ends.

The baby watches the tiger with shining eyes.

The tiger looks behind him, as if bored with the woman. He looks back at her. His long pink tongue flicks over his whiskers.

The tiger growls, and it is so deep and sudden it seems elemental. It seems as if the mountain growls.

Sweat runs down the woman's temples, down her back.

The tiger moves like a torrent of water in a flooding stream, so fast --

But all the woman has to do is push back with the foot on stable ground and bring her legs together. As the tiger pounces, she falls straight down.

She holds the baby tight with one hand. The other is poised. She sees the root. She grabs it. It fits her hand perfectly.

She slams into the cliff face. She sticks her elbow out (it gashes against the rock) but other than that she cannot protect the baby. Its body is squeezed between hers and the rock.

The baby doesn't mind. It giggles.

And the tiger? Does the tiger believe the woman's trick? Does it pounce through where she had been standing, falling over and past her and down to the golden lakes?

No, I am sorry to say. The tiger knows the mountain well. It lands just at the edge of the cliff and lounges there, looking amused.

I can see all three of them now, with my own eyes. I crane my head up out of the water. The morning air is cool against my teeth.

The woman hangs from the root. Her feet kick, looking for a foothold, but find none. There is a bit of root sticking upward out from the cliff face at knee level. She leans her knee against it.

How long can she hang there, holding the baby?

The baby wraps its fingers in her hair. It cranes its neck, pointing its chin at the sky. It giggles at the tiger.

The tiger stretches out one long limb. It strokes the woman's arm. It reaches down. The tips of its claws brush her hair.

The woman's face is wet, and dark from blood under the skin. Are those tears or sweat? I imagine they are tears of rage and frustration.

By pulling her legs up to her chest and kicking away from the cliff, letting the root go, she would win for herself and her child a few moments of flight - the baby would laugh - followed by a very sudden, very certain death.

But, I think, she is one of those who believe that every moment of life that can be had is worth having.

Or maybe she merely does what she can bear to do.

The tiger licks his lips.

The woman lifts her foot and feels the stub at knee level with her toes, testing it. Then, pressing the baby to her chest with her elbow, she takes hold of the hood of its garment with the same hand.

She plucks the baby away from her chest by the hood. But it hangs onto her hair, protesting.

"Woo!" she says to the baby, and blows in its face. "Woo! Woo!" The baby squeezes its eyes shut and scrunches its nose. Finally it lets go of her hair to rub its eyes.

The woman reaches down -- her body is shaking now -- and hangs the baby by its hood on the stub of root.

The baby kicks and waves its hands. It squawks angrily.

The woman brings her free hand up to the root above and hangs there for a moment, resting her forehead against the rock. "Sshh," she says.

The tiger growls. It is so deep, surely she also feels the rumble through the rock.

I have other duties to attend to, but I cannot take my eyes away from the tiny figures above.

I have been wondering if I would rather eat the woman or take her for a lover.

I am very hungry lately.

And she is awkward, scrawny, with a plain face and rough, bony hands.

And it is very tiring for me to take a human form.

Still, I cannot stop watching, and I find I want to stroke her long limbs, those shaking muscles straining against gravity and fate.

They leave their cities so rarely now.

The woman leans against the cliff. She reaches her right arm out along the cliff face. Her hand scrabbles among the cracks in the rock. She tries to drive a finger in, to get a handhold; perhaps she means to traverse across the rock face, to get away from the tiger, to find help.

Perhaps she trusts a stone that slips at the last moment. Perhaps her cramped hand on the root just relaxes of its own accord. Suddenly she is falling.

No, you can't go in the water again. Look how cold you are, you're shivering.

Because you're warm-blooded and I'm not, that's why.

No, no! You'll always be warm-blooded. And you'll never have my teeth or my tail or my armor. You won't change. Stop asking!

Fair? Nothing is fair.

Yes, you belong with me, don't worry about that. Don't be upset. You belong with me now. Hush.

Hush. Listen to the story.

She fights the whole way down. She digs fingers against the rock. She hits the slightly sloping part and spreads her arms, digs her toes against the mountain.

Another drop. She bounces off a jagged crag. A bone in her arm snaps.

Then she is sliding, rolling in dirt, on a little promontory that juts from the mountain. At the end of it she drops again. Her legs shatter.

I dive into the cool water. I don't want to see.

Eventually there is a splash at the edge of my domain. I move there swiftly.

Once I pull her onto the beach, I show her my human face.

Her pupils have grown huge. Her breath is rough and bubbly. She cannot speak. Her eyes are wild, but also halfway beyond this place.

Why did she leave her city? What was she fleeing, or seeking?

I stroke her brow with a human hand, until she sees no more.

Then I drag her body down and store it in one of my caves. When it rots, I will shake the sweet flesh from the bones and swallow it. The tiger stalks into the forests. The baby hangs on the root, sleeping.

The tiger is angry.

He thinks they should not have abandoned us. He thinks they should come back out of their cities and fight him.


The baby is not eaten by the tiger or the vultures. It does not starve. What happens to the baby is another story.

Yes, I know you want to hear it, little one. But this is not the time. Not yet.

Hush. Sleep now. In the morning we will swim together.


Benjamin Rosenbaum lives with his wife and small daughter in Basel, Switzerland, where he writes software and science fiction, poems and essays. He is a graduate of the 2001 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Look for his work at Strange Horizons and Vestal Review, and in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.


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