by Parudesi (パルデシ)
Once upon a time there lived a young prince whose parents sent him to a forest ashram to learn from the ascetics, as his father before him had gone to prepare for his reign.
The prince was to live in the ashram, pure in mind and body, to learn the seven great works of literature and the positions and movements of the celestial bodies. He was to study the scriptures and the art of warfare and the correct modes of address for people of all ranks. He was to train his body in all the required martial arts that he might be a fit leader for his people when his time came.
He was also to learn humility, living in the ashram where all students were treated equally, regardless of caste or family wealth and all participated in the daily chores of the community.
On the day that the prince was to leave for the ashram, he woke before the edge of the sun had crept over the horizon. In darkness, shivering a little, for the chill of winter had not yet dissipated entirely, the prince washed at the edge of the stream that flowed through the palace grounds. Then, he submitted to his attendants dressing him in clean cotton robes and went to bid his parents goodbye.
His mother marked the symbol of their household god on his brow with sacred ash and circled his head thrice with her hands when he knelt to touch her feet. Then she cried and embraced him several times. His father squeezed his shoulders hard and slapped him lightly on the back, giving him permission to go.
The prince had never known anything outside the palace where men stood ready to dress him and feed him. In his home he could not drop the core of an apple without an attendant leaping to pick it up and fetch him another. In the ashram he was beaten twice in the first week, once for wasting food and again for forgetting to sweep the common area where the students sat to learn their lessons.
After his second beating, he wandered disconsolately down to the river with a clay pot to fetch water, scrubbing his eyes roughly with the back of his hand. His bad humour made him careless and he approached the pool without looking to see what animals might be there already. Crouching to fill the vessel, he heard a low rumble. His head jerked upwards and he looked straight into the yellow eyes of a tiger, crouched on the opposite side of the pond.
The vessel dropped from his nerveless hands into the pool. He could not look away, even as the tiger cocked its head in a considering fashion. Tigers were not aggressive by nature, but coming this close to one was gross provocation.
The tiger made up its mind and began to pad towards him, around the side of the pool. The prince trembled, unable to move. Suddenly, a pair of hands grabbed him around the chest and hoisted him into the trees. “Stupid!” he heard a voice say before he fainted.
He woke to find himself lodged securely in the branches of a large peepal tree. Further down the same branch there was another boy, swinging his legs in the air and humming tunelessly. The afternoon had advanced into evening and bird song was loud in the air.
“I have never seen anyone stupid enough to go that close to a tiger,” the boy said.
The prince flushed, but there didn’t seem to be much to say in his own defence. “Thank you,” he said, feeling distinctly foolish. Looking at the boy, he realised that he couldn’t possibly be from the ashram. He was dressed, not in the robes that all students were required to wear, but only in his long tangled hair.
“You just came, didn’t you? I saw you walking through the forest some days ago.”
The prince jerked his chin in a curt affirmative. “I need to go back,” he said. “I was supposed to fetch water and they’ll be wondering where I’ve gone.”
“Aa. Well, you’d better be off then.” The boy hesitated. “You can come back sometime if you want,” he said, sounding carefully offhand. “I’ll show you how to listen for animals so you don’t get eaten by a tiger.”
The prince did go back, somewhat to his own surprise. He had never met anyone like the boy before. He lived alone in the forest, had lived there for as long as he could remember. He said the wolves had taken care of him when he was too young to hunt. The prince was disinclined to believe him at first. Then, when the boy gave a long ululating howl and a large grey wolf appeared at his side, the prince became less sceptical.
The boy did not observe any of the ritual practices, though he could not be said to be ungenerous. He had, in fact, made a practice of offering his choicest kills to his new acquaintance whenever they met. The prince had been torn between horror and amusement at being offered a prime piece of deer, as though he were not a student and forbidden to eat meat.
“No, thank you.”
“I’m sure it is…but I can’t eat it.”
The boy looked mutinous, so the prince said: “I’ll sit with you while you eat it.”
The prince studied the boy through his lashes as he ate. The boy was uncouth, his parents would have said. Dark by birth and with exposure to the intense heat of summers spent running naked through the forest. Not even the acceptable milk tea colour of most of the people of his kingdom, but a brown so dark as to be close to black, in which the whites of his eyes and his teeth flashed startlingly bright. His hair was long and tangled, with a tendency to hang over his eyes in blue-black clumps. He ate his food with impolite relish, tearing at it with both hands and all of his front teeth, not slowly, scooping his food up with the right hand as civilised people did.
But then, as an abandoned wild child, he would have had no one to teach him how to act. And his skin colour was hardly his fault. So the prince, a thoughtful boy, felt it was unfair to judge him for either.
In the months that followed, the prince often felt that the boy treated him as a cub – too weak to survive on his own and therefore to be protected. The boy cuffed him on the side of the head occasionally, when he thought the prince was being slow; pushed him impatiently this way and that when eager to show him something; groomed him when the mood took him, running his fingers through the prince’s hair (as though his own were not twice as matted).
At first, it irritated the prince beyond bearing. He used to storm off, shaking with rage, vowing never to meet him again. He always broke his promise, though, bored with his friends at the ashram within a matter of days and unable to resist the appeal of a wistful pair of eyes peering through the foliage of the banyan tree directly above the ashram.
The boy did, after all, know an amazing amount about the forest. He knew, for example, where each and every breed of animal lived; which plants were good to eat and which not; how to swing from vine to vine among the trees without ever touching the ground, as though he were flying.
The prince knew that he should never have touched the boy. At home, his parents and their priests would have shaken their heads in horror and made him take several baths and undergo a purification ritual. The prince told himself that he did not care; the boy had saved his life, after all.
So he pushed his parents’ strictures to the back of his mind, climbing happily onto the boy’s back when the boy found him too slow to keep up with him and splashing and pulling him underwater when they played in the forest pools. He tried to teach him how to write using areas of smoothed wet mud as slates and guiding the boy’s fingers in the shape of the characters, but the boy had little interest in anything that involved sitting for long periods.
Years went by and the prince and the boy grew taller. Their voices broke and then deepened and their wrestling matches took on a wholly different intensity. The prince’s eyes lingered on the sun-dappled play of muscles in the boy’s back as he leapt through the trees.
They stayed longer and longer in the forest pools by mutual unspoken consent and when, as they lay drying on the bank one day, the boy pulled the prince towards him, both of them were expecting it. Dark hands slid down a paler back, stroking the curve of the prince’s hip caressingly, as the prince rested his arms on either side of the boy’s chest. The prince pushed his tongue into the boy’s mouth in response.
The boy’s lashes quivered on his cheek as his eyes fell shut, his expression oddly vulnerable. The prince stroked his matted hair away from his forehead and kissed each eyelid gently.
They fumbled rather awkwardly that afternoon, pushing and rubbing against each other jerkily, not knowing exactly what to do with their bodies. At some point, the boy arched upwards with a sharp cry to slump back, sated and sweaty, and the prince joined him not long after.
There were other afternoons and nights spent learning each other’s bodies. Their fingers grew more agile and their minds more inventive till one night the prince found himself on hands and knees, mounted as though he were a bitch in heat, the boy rutting into him with all the force of a fierce young animal. Try as he might, the prince could not bring himself to believe that this pleasure-pain, this intensity of feeling as the boy took him could be wrong. He shoved his hips back to meet the boy’s thrusts, small cries escaping his throat as they reached their release together.
For a time, they were happy. The prince had lost track, perhaps wilfully, of the number of years he had spent in the forest ashram. Thoughts of the succession, of an eventual return to the palace were pushed to the back of his mind. But then, as inevitably had to happen, a messenger came from the palace.
The boy was upset when the prince told him he was leaving. His face grew tight and unhappy and the prince wasn’t sure his halting explanations made any sense to him. What, after all, would ‘responsibility’ and ‘duty’ mean to someone who had never done anything he didn’t want to?
“Don’t go,” the boy said. “They can’t make you go. You can live in the forest with me.”
The prince was silent. “I have to go,” he said at last, his own sadness making his words harsh. “I’m not like you. I can’t do what I want all the time.”
The boy’s mouth turned down.
“Go, then! I don’t care!”
He whirled off into the trees. The prince looked for him each day until he left the ashram, but the boy never came.
In the palace, everyone was civilised. The noblemen’s sons who had been selected as his companions were refined and polite, pale-skinned and soft-spoken. No one laughed raucously or played practical jokes on him.
The prince missed ashram life more than he ever thought he would. He missed his friends, the simplicity of the lifestyle and the nearness of the forest. But most of all he missed his boy.
Watching a street tumbler perform somersaults and flips, he was reminded of the boy’s casual grace as he swung from a tree, his carefree joy in running headlong through the forest, the prince on his back.
One evening, the prince found flowers outside his window – jasmine and marigold and wild roses flung together in an untidy heap. His heart leapt and he craned his neck out of the window, searching wildly for a dark, lithe figure.
Arms came around him from behind and he bumped his head against the window frame as he turned around. The boy was smiling at him and the prince thought his heart would burst with joy.
He flung his arms around the boy and kissed him soundly on the lips. “Ah! It’s good to see you,” he said. “How did you find me?”
“It was hard. I can’t smell anything properly here.”
The boy let him go and turned around to crouch on the floor. The prince climbed onto his shoulders and the boy climbed out of the window and up the wall. They reached the roof of the tower and sat dangling their legs over the wall as the sun set.
The prince could faintly hear the evening song of the birds in the palace garden and the bustle of the servants lighting the lamps below. It all seemed very far away.
“I missed you,” he said.
The boy looked pleased. “You look weaker,” he said, which the prince took to mean that he had grown less tanned. “They’re probably not feeding you properly.” His fingers wandered over the prince’s chest and back, dislodging his robes.
“Possibly,” the prince said, smiling. His own hands grew busy and the boy made an inarticulate sound and pushed him down on the roof.
They spent three days together. The prince told his attendants that he was sick and not to be disturbed and that his food should be left outside the door.
Each day, the boy looked more and more longingly through the window till at last, on the evening of the third day, he said: “I can’t stay here. It’s too loud and there aren’t enough trees, there’s no proper food.”
“I know,” the prince said and realised that he had been waiting for the boy to say it.
“Will you come back with me?”
They sat in mute misery for a while. Then the boy took his hand and kissed his palm. “Visit me sometimes,” he said and disappeared through the window.
The prince’s father died and he became king. He enjoyed a long and prosperous reign and was loved by his people. His wives dealt amicably with each other and he sired many sons and daughters. He travelled through his kingdom often and met with the common folk to discuss their problems.
When he grew old, he gave up his throne to his eldest son and retired to the forest as an ascetic. Although his wives begged to come with him, the king refused, saying he could not deprive his children of all their parents at one stroke. When he went into the forest, he took nothing with him except the simple robes of bark that he was wearing.
Did the prince meet his boy again? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. After all, wild creatures have a short lifespan. They can die of disease, of hunger, of wounds inflicted by other animals. They can die of loneliness, too.
You may imagine whatever suits you best.
Author’s note: Debt to Kipling thankfully acknowledged, though I am sure he would be turning in his grave if he knew The Jungle Book had inspired this.