Chapter One

Around the year 1550

I was the second of three sisters. There was a fourth kitten, a little male, but he died right after birth. From time to time, Mother talked about him with regret. He had been her favorite, even though he was only alive for a few minutes.

It was a beautiful hot day when Mother gave birth to us. The first thing I saw was rays of sunlight through the treetops. My vision was blurry at first, but I remember the sun welcoming me into this world. The treetops made a tight roof above our heads. Some animals can’t climb in there, and only see the sunlight through its leaves, but we jaguars can live in the trees.

Our den was between two large rocks that made a good shelter. After years of wandering around the jungle, trying to find it, I still can’t remember where it was. There was the sound of running water nearby. Not the loud, menacing roar of a river, but the quiet flow of a creek. Our two rocks might still be there and serve as home to other families, you never know.

I made my way into the world in that den. Mother licked me and my sisters clean and nursed us. My memories from those days are blurry and confused, but still happy. I remember nursing from my mother, the warm, cozy feeling of her body and the bodies of my sisters as we lay down to sleep, and the sound of the creek nearby. I remember Mother bringing us our first piece of meat, and taking my sisters and me on our first walk.

My sisters and I were small, shaky little things who could barely roar. We played all day, biting each other’s ears and rolling on the ground. The soil was soft and wet. Mother took us to the river and we drank from the clear water as she told us everything she knew about the jungle.

Big Sister was the most beautiful of us. Her coat was bright orange and her spots black as the night sky with no stars. She learned faster than the rest of us; she was already walking around by herself while we were still learning the basics. Early on, Big Sister started hunting for small insects which she gave me as presents. Mother always told her not to go too far away from the den, for in the jungle there were mean creatures who would love to take a good bite out of her. I don’t think Big Sister heeded that warning—at least, not until it was too late.

Little Sister was small and afraid of everything. Her spots were light brown and her tail was half the length of mine. I always stayed by her side when Mother went out for food. Big Sister made fun of her, saying she would never be a real predator, that even an ant could beat her. I sometimes got into fights with Big Sister because of that. She was right, though. Little Sister had to look out for herself, or she would never make it.

I was braver than Little Sister and more careful than Big Sister. Every night, Mother gathered us together to tell us about the jungle and its dangers. Little Sister was too scared to pay attention, while Big Sister didn’t have the patience to listen. But I listened to everything. She told stories about the trees we couldn’t climb, the poisonous animals we should leave alone, the rivers that could overflow in a matter of seconds, and—of course—the males that we were going to meet at some point in our lives.

Big Sister hated that kind of talk. She told us she didn’t have to fear a little frog or snake. She was big and bold, and no small creature could do her harm. On the subject of mating, Big Sister said she didn’t need a male to give her kittens. Mother tried to explain that wasn’t true… Instead of listening, Big Sister would go out in the jungle to learn everything by herself.

“She’s trying to teach us what works and what doesn’t,” Big Sister told me one day. “But what doesn’t work for her may work for us. I’m not afraid of anything. I’m going to be queen of this jungle and do everything my way.”

She didn’t speak that way in front of Mother. Not that she feared her. Big Sister didn’t fear anything; in fact, she knew Mother loved her more than she cared to show. We all did, even though Mother’s heart was far away. She kept mentioning a big, handsome male that had planted our seeds in her. We had no idea who he was or how mating worked. We knew it was natural and vital, but it had to do with pleasure too, and that part she wasn’t able to explain. She didn’t understand herself.

“One day you’ll know,” she said as we lay down in our den. “You’ll start to feel something strange in your body. A heat that comes from the inside. Before you know it, the males will find you and will fight each other for your love. That’s the most powerful you’ll ever be.”

“And why do they do that?” I asked.

“They want to have babies with you,” she explained. “One of them is going to win the fight, and he’ll be the one you choose.”

“Doesn’t sound like a choice,” said Big Sister.

“You’re a child,” said Mother. “You don’t understand how powerful that feeling is.”

“And what happens then?” I asked Mother.

“You get together and do a secret thing,” she said. “And after you part, strange things start to happen inside you. Life starts to bloom in your belly. You’ll give birth to little kittens. You’ll take care of them and teach them how to hunt and survive.”

“Will that happen to all of us?” asked Little Sister.

“Yes,” answered Mother. “You are my fourth litter. I’ve had as many children as the toes on your paws. But you must remember, never let the male be with your children. They get jealous, and then...” She didn’t finish the sentence.

Little Sister trembled at those words. “I don’t want to do that,” she said.

“Don’t be a fool!” said Mother. “That’s how life works. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Mother knew she had to be harsh on Little Sister—or the jungle would destroy her. Every so often, Little Sister fell out of a tree or hit her nose on a rock, and cried for Mother’s help. Mother stood still and forbade me to help. She wanted Little Sister to look after herself.

“Can’t life be like this forever?” Little Sister used to ask me. “You, me, Big Sister, and Mother, all living in the den? I don’t want to be on my own. I don’t want to leave you behind.”

I had no answer to that. The den was great, with Mother bringing us food every day. But I wanted more from life. Mother had told us about the jungle and its wonders, and I wanted to go out there to see it with my own eyes.

We were growing up, and I was spending much more time with Big Sister. We’d leave Little Sister alone in the den and go out to explore the jungle. Big Sister was eager to claim her territory, like Mother had told us. It was all about leaving signs of your presence so other jaguars would know you owned that land. Big Sister tried to mark the trees with her claws, leaving only a small scratch on the surface.

“Soon I’ll be able to cut this tree in half with one strike,” she said.

“Not even Mother can do that,” I replied.

“I don’t care about what Mother can do,” said Big Sister. “I’ll be better than her. She can’t think for herself. I’ll be independent.”

I wasn’t sure if I understood the meaning of that word. Big Sister had her own way of seeing the world, and I admired her for that. There was something I needed to ask her.

“Are you serious when you say you don’t want to mate?”

“Yes, I am!” said Big Sister. “I’m going to live my life my own way, and I don’t want to take care of babies.”

“And what about that feeling Mother says we’ll have?” I asked. “The heat that comes from the inside. What will you do when that strikes you?”

“I’ll be prepared,” replied Big Sister. “You see all these plants around us? Each of them is special in their own way. Mother told us about the ones that can kill us, but I think that chewing some of them makes you feel different. All I have to do is find the one that kills that heat. Then I’ll be fine.”

We spent time together most days, unless Big Sister wanted to be on her own. A jaguar’s life is lonely, as Mother taught us. Unlike Little Sister, who wanted to enjoy our company as much as possible before saying goodbye, Big Sister was trying to get used to that loneliness.

One day, my sisters and I were sleeping when Mother woke me up and asked me to go for a walk with her. “Are they going to be alright?” I asked. She had never done that before, and I was afraid of what might happen.

“Never mind your sisters,” said Mother. “I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

We went up a hill, further than she had ever taken me before. As we walked, I could see the paw marks on the trees and sense her smell all around. That reassured me that we were still on Mother’s territory. I didn’t know it was so vast. “Are we going far?” I asked.

“Keep quiet,” she said.

At the top of the hill, Mother showed me a big rock and told me to climb with her. It was wet and slippery but I’ve always been a decent climber, and we were soon up there. I could see all the treetops from where we sat. They looked dark green under the moonlight.

“It’s beautiful up here, Mother.”

“I know it is,” she said. “I needed you to see this. You are the only one who deserves it. In a few days, I’m going to take the three of you out there and teach you how to hunt. Little Sister is weak and won’t live long. I’ve tried my best to make her tougher, but it’s useless. I don’t think she’s going to make it. Big Sister is brave, but she’s arrogant. She doesn’t listen, and she doesn’t respect the jungle. It pains me to say this, but she won’t make it either. You are the only one I trust.”

Those words made me shiver. “But you’ll be there to help us, won’t you?” I asked.

Mother stared at the horizon. “We are going to be together for a while, my girl,” she said. “And then you are going to go your own way. We’ll never meet again. You’ll follow your own path, secure your own territory. You’ll hunt for your own food and, when the time comes, you’ll find a male and have your own kittens. That’s how it was for me, and that’s how it’ll be for you.”

“Why did you take me here, Mother?” I asked. “Why couldn’t you tell me that back at the den?”

“It was here that I met your father,” she said. “He was so beautiful. He fought three other males to get to me, and lost an eye during the last fight. Even with the pain, he was amazing. I miss him more than I’ve ever missed any other male.”

“What do you want me to do, Mother?” I asked.

“I want you to be who you are meant to be,” she replied. “Not more, like Big Sister wants to be, nor less, like Little Sister. I want you to breed, to be with many males, and nurse many children. That’s all that life has to be.”

An insolent question formed in my mind. “Was it like that with your other children?” I asked.

To my surprise, Mother wasn’t annoyed. “Most of them died when they were little,” she said. “Only two or three finished their education. I don’t think either of them survived. All I want is a normal, healthy kitten who knows her place and lives the way she has to. Are you going to do that?”

I reflected for a moment. She wasn’t asking much of me. Big Sister and Little Sister were so different, and I asked myself which of them I wanted to follow. Big Sister was determined to go through life by herself, without needing anyone and doing only what she wanted. Meanwhile, Little Sister fantasized about never growing up, never looking after herself. The lifestyle that Mother offered me was different from both of them, and made more sense too. And I was curious about the whole mating thing. Having little baby jaguars growing inside of my belly sounded strange, but the idea of having big handsome males fighting for me wasn’t bad. From the three paths that lay ahead of me, that sounded like the most logical one.

“I’ll do my best to honor you, Mother,” I said at last. “I’ll grow strong and will breed many times.”

“Thank you, my child. Now, I want you to see something.”

With that, she pointed to the horizon with her nose. I kept staring at it, waiting for whatever was coming. It took a while, but I didn’t dare to complain. At last, the sun started to rise far beyond all that green.

“Does this happen every day?” I asked.

“Every single day,” said Mother. “And you are going to live and thrive to see that as many times as you wish.”

Neither of us said anything on our way back to the den. I kept thinking about what Mother had shown me. Little Sister was still sleeping when we arrived, while Big Sister was out there in the jungle, where she loved to be.

“I’m going to get you some food,” said Mother, leaving me at the den. “Don’t forget the pledge you made. Ever.”

And off she went before I could think of anything to say. I knew my life was not my own, but it still didn’t feel like anything had been taken away from me.

“Are you alright?” asked Little Sister when she woke up.

“I guess I am,” I said, remembering Mother’s words. She didn’t think Little Sister was going to live long. My heart grew heavy, for I knew she was right.

“Let’s go out for a walk,” I said to Little Sister. “You and me. It’s a beautiful day.”

“Where’s Mother?”

“She’s out,” I said. “Don’t worry. It won’t be dangerous.”

“Where are we going?” asked Little Sister.

What about somewhere we’ve never been to before? I thought, but didn’t say it out loud. “Let’s go to the creek. I’ll teach you how to catch frogs, like Big Sister taught me!”

She said she wasn’t sure, so I ended up going by myself. That was the last time I saw Little Sister alive. When I came back to the den, all that was left of her was a bloodstain on the rock. Big Sister arrived right after me. Mother was there when it happened, but she never told me who did it. I remembered her lesson well. Never let the father of your kittens near them. Males can be jealous.

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