by Alvin Young
What baloney. “All I thought about was winning the race.”
It was no mistake of mine that I didn’t wake that fool up. I didn’t forget, I didn’t think about winning.
I thought about revenge. Vengeance.
Ok, that might’ve sounded a bit harsh. Especially since I’m supposed to be trying to clear my name. But you see, I’m the one who’s been wronged. It’s about time that someone cleared things up, anyhow.
The cat was the one who first lended a helping hand. Or rather, a helping paw. I was stranded in a snowstorm, shivering like mad. Although my heavenly hole was just a few meters away, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it. Just then, something warm and furry wrapped around me, almost like a cozy blanket. I almost fell asleep then and there. The sound of a meow was enough to startle me. What was a cat doing around here? And weren’t predators like them supposed to be snatching up prey, not snuggling with them? I had heard that his cousin, the lion, slayed five whole sheep in a few minutes.
“Don’t worry my friend, I’ve got you. Let me carry you home.”
It was a soft, calming, purring sound, that I’ve never heard before. It was actually soothing at the moment. I slowly nodded, letting my guard down.
At first, I had thought he’d carry me to my hole, but I guess he couldn’t see it. Instead, he carried me to his den. All the way, I was snuggled up behind his ear.
When I did get there, he treated me like a true guest. The place was huge, and I could feel how grand and majestic it was. It was a haven. No, heaven. I felt like I had died.
I was treated to a royal feast, or at least, a royal feast to me. It was only a fraction of what the cat was eating, but I was starving. While I scarfed down the pieces of fruit and cheese, I remember thinking just how lucky I was. Though in reality, I was trapped inside an hourglass, about to be buried, little by little.
After the initial night, the dream continued. We hit it off, and to me, we were like true friends. He had an interesting sense of humor, and we’d play hide and seek all the time (obviously I won most of the time, but he didn’t seem to mind). Time flew by, and in the blink of an eye, spring arrived. All the animals began to search for food, us included.
Within a week, we were referred to as the Oddball Combo. Nobody had seen such a combination, predator and prey, friends instead of foes. We truly did spend every waking hour together. However, some of my friends warned me of potential dangers. “Who knows what that cat is really up to?”
I dismissed their remarks, and continued to hang out with the cat. Little by little, my connections with my best mates began to die off. Desperate, I figured that I needed to talk to my wise friend, the beaver.
“Hey cat, would you mind if I went to the river bank?”
“Oh sure, I’ll be ready in a second.”
“Um, I meant, alone.”
The cat’s eyes widened a bit, staring at me quizzically. “No no, I insist. I’m your best friend, I’ll escort you there.”
I could sense something in his voice. Was it anger? Or fear? The tension was building up. I was running out of time.
“Fine, you can come with me to the river bank. I’m just meeting an old friend of mine, the beaver. He has a phobia of big animals though, so would you mind waiting outside? I might be in there for a while, so maybe bring your toy?”
The cat’s demeanor returned to normal, and before long, we were on our way. All the while though, I grew suspicious. What was it in his voice? Was he hiding anything?
When we got to the beaver’s, the cat said, “I’ll wait for you out here.”
“Thanks a lot, mate.”
I scurried inside, and the beaver was there awaiting me.
“You came really fast! You didn’t bring that cat with you, did you?”
“Um, no no, he’s back in his den, napping.”
“Really? He didn’t say he needed to meet someone?”
“I heard from the raven that he’s been communicating with the fox. Today is supposed to be the first time they meet.”
My jaw dropped. My tail stood on end. I could hardly believe it.
“I’m going to go check on him. I’ll be back if I find anything else.”
“Wait, don’t you want some-”
I was already out the door.
Sure enough, the cat was nowhere to be seen. I had to act fast. I scrambled as quickly as I could back to the den, and after what seemed like an eternity, I found a clue.
‘Meet at ||||||||’
What were all those lines? Why were they so tall-
Oh. They were meeting in the high grasslands.
It wasn’t far from here, and I ran as fast as my tiny paws could carry me. Before I even made it though, I heard an unmistakable voice.
“I need to get back soon. He’ll be expecting me.”
“Ooooh, noo need to woooorrry. I’m sure he’s taking his time. And you. You need to take your time. Build a good foundation, a good relationship. The fruit will ripen, but first, you need to build your plate. The platter, will commmme.”
“I got it. I’ll take my time. Besides, once he’s taken care of, as you say, it’s no doubt his friends will panic.”
I had heard enough. Traitor. Traitor. Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.
But, I needed a good time to strike back. I snuck here, and I needed to outsmart him. I needed a plan to pay him back for betraying me.
So for the next few days, I acted as if nothing had happened. And so did he. But I was seething inside, and I knew that I was running out of time. Out of air.
Eventually, my saviour came. The Jade Emperor. He announced the great race. It was then that the cat asked me to wake him up, so we could travel together. That traitor, he was probably going to ditch me then, drown me on the way or something to further devastate me. I knew the time was right. It was time to cast my lifeline. It was do, or never.
And so, I ditched him. I ran. I scurried. I plotted. I climbed aboard the ox. I leapt off of the ox’s head, leaving my past behind. By winning the race, I was safe from the cat’s evil plans. I was protected by the Jade Emperor, and my legacy would be passed on, not his.
Was I selfish? Was I a terrible thing, to have betrayed him? I do sometimes feel sorry for my younger generations, since they have to put up with a harsh enemy. But as for doing a terrible thing, no. He started it first. And as the first animal in the zodiac calendar, there is nothing more disgraceful than betrayal.
by Flora Chen
The first thing I register is the stillness. It doesn’t feel like the anticipation before a race, when all silences — hair raised, bated breath. No, it feels like the aftermath. When everyone has come and gone, the finish line trodden over again and again, the glow from the victors amidst the sea of those less successful. Empty.
As my mind lifts from the haze of sleep, a sense of unease begins to claw up my spine. It isn’t until I open my eyes that I realize why. The roaring river stares back at me … and nothing else. And that is the worst part — that there is no one else there. I am completely, undeniably alone.
Where has everyone gone? Could the contest have already come to an end? That can’t be it, I tell myself. The rat wouldn’t have left me behind. He would have woken me up so that we could both make it. He would never betray me.
I leave my resting spot, hoping to find the rat, or anyone else, but the longer I look around, the more my hope dims. And as I walk around, growing more frantic by the second, my thoughts find their way to the past.
I’d met the rat, or rather, found him shivering in the bleak winter snow, minutes away from his burrow but seconds from freezing over. I hadn’t intended to stop, not with the sting of the air and the roar of the snowstorm. It’d be so easy to feign not noticing him. But the rat was so small compared to the wide expanse of the frozen meadow. In that moment, it wasn’t even a choice. How could I leave him to freeze to death? I knew that it was most irregular — especially having just heard that my cousin, the lion, slew 5 sheep in the blink of an eye. But whatever he would have done, I found I couldn’t.
Hesitantly, I placed my paw on the rat. He was so cold that he barely jolted. I found myself softening without intending to. “Don’t worry, my friend, I’ve got you. Let me carry you home.”
As I tucked him under my ear, a familiar voice ebbed its way into my consciousness. It sounded like the lion. What are you doing? it asked, incredulous. Are you preparing to treat your meal to a meal? What are you playing at?
I forged forward through the roaring storm, jaw gritted, willing myself to focus on anything but the nagging noises and blistering cold. My gaze landed on a patch of darkness amidst the blinding white, and it struck me rather suddenly that it must be the rat’s hole. It was so small, so insignificant, and certainly not suitably equipped to help him cling onto life, as frostbitten as he was. Anyhow, he needed my assistance, and there’s no way I’d fit in that tiny home. I passed it without a second glance.
When we made it back to my den, relief pooled in my stomach as the rat, who had been completely still and silent during the trip, let out a squeak and twitched. I fed him some of my reserves, not expecting him to take much but not caring either way. It was a strange feeling, and despite the ever present doubt in my head, built into an image of the titanic lion, I was proud of what I was doing.
Yet still, it surprised me when the rat chose to stay. Though, I hadn’t given any indication that he should leave, the sky had cleared enough that he could find his way back to his hole. But come morning, he was still there. And, surprising me more, I’d accepted that fact.
We hit it off immediately. At first, I was hesitant — after all, the constant cloud of irony cast a shadow of doubt over everything we did.
It can’t last, I told myself, resigned to staying on edge.
It won’t last, sneered the same voice, a taunting sound that hadn’t ever left me, not since I’d first found the half-dead rat that winter day.
Then, something else began to take root in my worry, soon after spring began. The rat and I had continued on amicable terms, and although he may have assumed that we were the best of friends, I was more hesitant to consider that. The concern that something, whatever it may be, would go wrong hadn’t ever left me. It teetered on a precipice, the thought that by befriending the rat, I’d only be drawing attention to him. My cousin, the lion, did not frequently target small critters, considering them beneath him, but I was dreadfully certain that he’d make an exception to prove his point. I couldn’t let him do that.
But I also didn’t want to give up my friendship with the rat. I’d lived a solitary life for so long that this felt new, exciting, and I was not willing to lose it. There were no good options. When we were assigned the moniker of the ‘Oddball Combo’, I forced myself not to dwell on it. I thought that if I distanced myself enough, then there wouldn’t be anything to grieve too fiercely over if lost. But just like everything else, that didn’t last.
Though I hadn’t ever had a friend, I’d had casual acquaintances. It was impossible to survive completely alone in this world, and even I knew that. I’d heard about the surprisingly wise fox, and I made up my mind to speak to him. We arranged a meeting at the high grasslands in two weeks, and I scrawled a message for myself as to not forget.
The prickles of fear sharpened into spikes one spring day, the exact one I was supposed to meet with the fox. I worry that it may have been my fault altogether.
“Hey cat, would you mind if I went to the river bank?” We were lounging outside our den, pawing at the fresh dew and swatting lazily at daisies.
Curious. There was nothing peculiar about the river bank at this time, and there was nothing we needed. Could it be a trap? The rational part of my brain argued a resolute no, but I wanted to be sure. I had to. “Oh sure, I’ll be ready in a second.”
“Um, I meant, alone.”
My eyes widened a bit, before I could stop them. Alone. The nagging worry of a trap only grew. But I couldn’t let him know about my fears, that someone like my lion cousin would pick him off because of me. “No no, I insist. I’m your best friend, I’ll escort you there.”
The rat looked nervous, more than I’d ever seen him. Things weren’t adding up … or rather, they were adding up, just in the way I was most afraid of.
“Fine,” relented the rat. “You can come with me to the river bank. I’m just meeting an old friend of mine, the beaver. He has a phobia of big animals though, so would you mind waiting outside? I might be in there for a while, so maybe bring your toy?”
I let out a sigh of relief as discreetly as I could. I could work with that — if anything were to happen. I’d be able to protect the rat. As we left, something within me seemed to shift for the first time. When had I ever considered something like this? Strangely, it wasn’t an unwelcome feeling.
When we got to the beaver’s, I stopped. “I’ll wait for you out here.”
“Thanks a lot, mate.” The rat scurried off.
Didn’t he seem a bit too relieved? snarled the unwelcome voice in my head. What if he’s off to meet his death, without knowing it? What if he’s working on a plan to betray you?
I froze. I hadn’t ever considered that, worried as I was that someone else would harm the rat, I never thought about the rat being the one to cause the damage. No. I had to trust him. I could easily overpower him, trace him down, overhear his words. But I couldn’t do what the doubt in my head told me. I left my post, not to tail the rat, but to meet up with the fox. I’m just solving a problem, I told myself. Nothing more. I trust the rat, I just don’t believe in everyone else as much. The fox will figure it out. He always does.
The fox was surprisingly laid back for someone who had droves of animals singing praises about his wit. Fortunately, in retrospect, it seemed his advice wasn’t touched by his indifferent demeanour.
“So,” I began, hesitantly. “The rat.”
The fox grinned, baring all his teeth, though without cruelty. “I’ve heard. Things appear to be fine. What’s the issue?”
“Well, I worry. That something is wrong, that our friendship was destined to fail, fated by the balance of the ecosystem. That, even if not, other, larger predators would target him because of me. And that … a more recent thought, that I’m forcing this with someone who lives in fear of me, who would run away given the chance.”
As the words flowed out, I suppose I was more startled than the fox. These feelings had been bubbling under the surface for some time, and they only took a concrete shape as I spoke them out loud.
“I see,” said the fox. “The root of it seems that you think he’ll leave you. Think about it. When was the last time you spoke to the lion, or any big predators? The rat is not truly at risk. And no one is setting you up to fail, no one but your own worries. You seem so concerned about the times when he doesn’t stay that you’re not focusing on the time he is. It could be his so-called friends, instilling doubt in his mind. Don’t worry about them, whatever they think, just know that their panic means nothing. And even if he’s afraid, he’ll come around, realize that he’ll be taken care of. That, I don’t doubt.”
He was right. It seemed so simple. What was I thinking? Suddenly, I began to doubt myself, fumble for an excuse to leave. “Yes. Well, I need to get back soon. He’ll be expecting me.”
The fox nodded in understanding, about everything, said and unsaid. The animals speaking highly of him were right, I registered dimly. What I had mistaken for passive indifference was merely a calculating, calm exterior. It was merely hard to realize without paying attention. “Oh, no need to worry. I’m sure he’s taking his time. And you. You need to take your time. Build a good foundation, a good relationship. The fruit will ripen, but first, you need to build your plate. The platter will come.”
I suppose that enduring his smug, flowery language was the price to pay for the advice I got.
“I got it. I’ll take my time. Besides, once he’s taken care of, as you say, it’s no doubt his friends will panic.” I turned to leave. I thought I saw something scamper away, something the same size and colour as the rat, but I supposed it was just the fox’s lingering advice playing tricks on my mind.
For the next few days, nothing appeared to have changed, but it did for me. I stopped pushing distance between us and acted as a friend should. The rat seemed a lot more energetic following that meeting with the beaver, but I chose to trust that nothing had happened. The sickly doubt in my mind finally became a thing of the past.
Then, the Jade Emperor’s race. His announcement of the great race only lifted my spirits. I asked the only one I truly believed in now, the rat, to wake me up on that day. We would travel together, win the race together, be immortalized as the best of friends forever. That night, I fell asleep under the stars, hoping that with my friend, we’d join them.
It’s been hours, the race has been over for longer, and I don’t have a choice anymore. I need to face the conclusion I had forbidden myself from considering. That the rat betrayed me.
So I was right.
The voice, for the first time in a while, has returned, this time full force. I sink to the ground, drowning in its sneers.
He did abandon you. Stab you in the back. And you chose to ignore me when I warned you. STOP, the now-weaker part of me thinks.
So, who’s really at fault here?
Who gave him the opportunity to do this?
And who, who doesn’t stand a chance of immortalizing anything now?
I can’t get the voice to cease. And soon, I stop trying.
I’m the cat, I will never be immortalized in the Zodiac. And it was over a friend’s disloyalty.
There is nothing more disgraceful than betrayal. And I will make sure that the rat never forgets.