Think #11: How Long is the Tail of a Zong?
This story was inspired by one of the “Thinks” proposed by Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Thinks You Can Think!”. If you are unfamiliar with the book, you can find an online version of it here. Every day from now through February 15th, I’ll be posting a short story or poem based on one of the “Thinks” in the book. Enjoy! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The Prince’s hair and skin were so pale he looked like a mythological creature. He made up for his pauper’s pallor by wearing black and purple velvet. He made no sense standing in front of the Cragsfolk. Their dark skin was inherited from the nobles of the old West, while their coarse clothes were woven from the last decades of economic isolation.
Zima strained to glimpse the Prince past the crowds of dark, puffy hair. The royal entourage had arrived late last night, but the Prince had remained in conference with their Chief until this morning. Prince Andrew Marcory would be Sultan in just a few years. He needed representatives in his court, one from each of the Thirteen Regions. His representatives were to be his closest advisors, his allies, his confidants—his wives. He would marry all thirteen of them. Thirteen wives.
Up on stage, the Prince waited patiently as the Chief announced what everyone wanted to know: how the Prince would choose his representative. Each region tailored a unique method to select one of their maidens. Zima’s parents stood on either side of her, hoping the challenge might spur their daughter on. A noble title for her meant a good life for them. It was a hard thing not to want.
“Tonight,” proclaimed the Chief, “We will feast on zong!”
Everyone cheered. Zong was common enough to find in the area, but the delicacy was worth more on the market than the table. For that reason, most zongers couldn’t afford to eat it.
“You might wonder how we could possibly gather enough zong for everyone here,” the Chief continued. “It will take the smartest, and the swiftest. To find and catch a zong you must be aggressive and decisive. Representing our region will be no different. You must fight to speak and fight to be heard. The Cragsfolk representative will hunt down blessings for her region with skill and determination. This is why the maiden who brings back the longest zong will return to Marcoria with the Prince!”
The crowd babbled with joy, conversing with the local zongers and planning their strategy. Many of them began to slip out of the crowd to get a head start.
“We measure by the tail,” the Chief called after them. “Extra points for pearls!”
A herald blew a horn to officiate the competition, but the women were already streaming away. Mothers snuck out to help their daughters, while fathers and brothers clapped and whistled. Zima stayed behind, along with a few other girls. Some of them already had loves, whose hands they clung tightly to, and some simply shrugged while their families cajoled them. Zima’s parents said nothing when she made no effort to join the hunt. It was a lot to expect from a daughter so young. Her father patted her on the back, and took her mother home.
“Gold!” Zima heard a father plead with his daughter. “And jewels all over your body, and onyx in your hair. They eat zong every day, and every night they sleep on sheets of spiderweb silk.”
Three older boys nudged a girl their age. She was probably as tall as the Prince. “Conferences at the court—we never get enough representation. Do you think they live in huts down South? Think what you could do as a grand lady. Think what you could change.”
But no one could force them. No one needed to. There were plenty of maidens willing to marry the handsome stranger, or his money, or his power.
Zima looked back to the platform, but the Prince was gone.
Zima made her way toward the Crags, a cliffside with three waterfalls slashed into its side. Zong liked to congregate around the lower pools. Most of the maidens would go there, along with their cheering families. Zima planned to watch from above, atop the cliff. That way she could enjoy the hubbub without being prodded to join.
She was just old enough to fall into the age bracket, but too young to have a love of her own. Spiderweb silk. Was that even real?
The trees were dry this time of year and pine needles crackled as she made her way up the hillside. There were pools up here too, scattered around from when the rivers had a greater reach. She might even spot a stray zong, but it wasn’t a popular place to hunt. The zong at the basin of the crags were fat from feasting on red and green algae, plump from the sea. Still, if she saw one, would she pick it up? The Prince had not looked like such a rotten fellow. Maybe the other girls knew something she did not, something about wanting. Her family was not rich by any means, but she had never seen the land beyond the Bleaus, so she did not know what she was missing. Spiderweb silk, probably.
Her legs burned and she looked up. The cloudless blue sky shone between the last line of trees before the hillside dropped off. As she got closer, she realized a figure stood at the edge. She took an intentionally noisy step, and the Prince turned around. She had never seen blue eyes before.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to mess up your hunt.”
“No, it’s alright. I wasn’t looking.”
“Oh.” The Prince resumed watching the party below. “I understand.”
Zima joined him at the edge. It was easy to view all three crags from this point. The waterfalls curved around the bay, while the shoreline continued on into a jetty. Hundreds of women lined the shore. They splashed in the pools and scoured the rocks. They swept up their skirts and knotted them above the knees, prowling with spears and nets in hand.
When the Prince did not say anything more, Zima realized she might have offended him. “It’s not that—you know—I just mean—”
“What’s a zong?”
“What’s a—” Zima looked back at the women and then to the Prince. “You don’t eat zong? It’s a lizard. They have big scaly heads and long claws. We like to eat the pearls best—I mean the eggs. Some of them come with eggs in their bellies, and they’re delicious.”
Zima shrugged. “Must be.”
The Prince smiled and nodded. He did not say anything about it. It must have been a funny feeling, realizing one thirteenth of his heart was being sold for an iguana. He sat down and Zima followed suit.
“What’s your name?”
“Gold doesn’t tempt you, Zima?”
“I’ve never seen it.”
“Sure you have. These buttons are gold.” The Prince pointed to the buttons on his jacket. They were a shiny yellowish color.
“Tempting,” said Zima.
The Prince laughed. “What about the power? You could be a grand lady dressed in silk.”
“I knew it,” Zima said, “I knew it wasn’t real.”
“Perhaps my good looks, then.” The Prince smiled. He was handsome. There was an intensity behind it, as if he was being handsome at her.
The Prince scoffed at her hesitation. “How about now?” he said, and he took hold of his pointy, angular nose, and pulled it several inches out in front of him.
Zima startled and fell backward.
“Oh.” The Prince pushed his nose back into place. “Don’t worry. It’s just a magic.”
“Our doctor does magics, but not like that.”
“I know better ones.” The Prince shrugged. “But a swordsman doesn’t cut his meat with a rapier, as they say. This is just a little trick my brother showed me. We used to do it when we were bored in Etherology.” He used two fingers to push down his eyebrows, which stayed that way as he peered out at her. He moved his chin down and grunted.
Zima hid her laugh behind her hands. “Can you do it to me?”
The Princes face snapped into its original position. “Sure.”
He seemed self aware when he touched her skin. “I wish I had your complexion. The nobles would take me a lot more seriously.”
“I hear they take you quite seriously, and the people too.”
“I overcompensate.” The Prince moved her cheeks with his long fingers. Zima could feel her mouth force itself into a silly, toothy grin. It stayed even after her cheeks bounced back into place.
“Does it always snap back or can you get it to stay?”
“There are magics to hold it easily enough, for longer at least.”
A joyous huzzah came from the bay. Among the fray of waterlogged women, a girl held an enormous zong above her head. It had a very long tail. The other girls compared their own catches. They had baskets full of them, but this one was a beast.
The Prince watched until the women settled down. “Is she nice?”
“Ama? She’s nice enough. To people she likes.” Zima continued when the Prince did not reply. “Are you worried about liking your wives?”
“Eh.” He shrugged. “My odds are better than theirs.”
He meant it as a joke, but his smile lingered a moment too long.
“You don’t like it,” said Zima. “Something’s wrong.”
“Something’s wrong,” the Prince scoffed. “That’s one way to put it.”
“Why do it, then?”
“All this.” She wanted to say more than that. She wanted to ask about the last war, the rumors of battle, the corruption, the network of nobles that every merchant on the continent was indebted to. She wanted to ask him why he played by the rules when they were meant to keep the impoverished set aside like unsightly blemishes on the economy. But those were things people did not speak of, even behind closed doors. People disappeared when they talked like that. For the first time, she wondered if even the Prince would disappear if he spoke of it. She wondered if he knew what she meant by “all this.”
“When I was a child my brother and I had to take sailing classes. For two days, every week, for years. Our teacher dressed the part of an educator, but he was crusty around the edges. Wiry hair and salty eyes. He’d take us out in the royal boats—the best carpentry, the finest sails, boats built for a king, and all the amenities you’d ever need. He had access to all of them. It was part of his pay. He could take those boats out any time he wanted. He went sailing, every day of the week, but do you know what kind of boat he’d take out on the water?”
“This nasty little sloop he’d hauled together when he was an apprentice. It was just awful—leaks and bubbly pitch, frayed rigging and bedsheet sails. It was clean though. He would shine its knotted wood and pet the stern like it was his own sugarcane.”
Zima snorted at the innuendo.
“He complained about it all the time. ‘Can’t get her to stop leaning. Water coming in the bilge. Rudders jammed, as always.’ He knew what was wrong with it. He knew better than anyone. So I asked him one day. I said, ‘if there’s so much wrong with your boat, why do you love it so much?’ And he leaned in close to me…”
The Prince leaned in close to Zima. Her awareness of his blue eyes and the pulsing of her heart came simultaneously.
“He said, ‘because it’s mine.’”
Zima knew then. The Prince didn’t like his kingdom. He loved it.
The Prince jumped and let out a little yelp.
“What, what happened?” Zima moved away as he seemed to struggle with something on the other side of him.
“It’s a—it’s a—” He scrambled to his feet, wiping his hands on his jacket. “It’s an iguana.”
Zima’s heart jumped. “You’re joking.”
The Prince merely pointed at the scaly zong hissing at his feet. It flared its blood-beard and trundled onto a boulder. Its tail curled around the rock like a spiraling sweet pea vine.
“That’s the longest tail I’ve ever seen,” said Zima. “It doesn’t even look proportionate.”
The Prince frowned at the lizard, checking its response before he dusted off his pants. “Well, you’d better let it go, or you’ll definitely have to marry me.”
Zima bit her lip. The Prince did not seem a terrible fellow at all. Twelve wives was a lot to share with, but how many of them would choose a nasty old sloop over a royal yacht? She knew what she needed to do, and it did not seem like a bad idea. She lunged at the zong. It sprang off the rock and bounded away. Zima ran after it, skirting through the pines. The Prince ran after her. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“You may love your derilict ship, Prince,” she called back, “but you’re going to need some help keeping it afloat.”
A pool appeared up ahead. The zong slid into the water before Zima could catch up. The Prince appeared at her side, panting. He shrugged off his jacket and stumbled out of his boots, wading into the water while trying not to scare the zong.
“I don’t think you’re allowed to help me,” said Zima.
“I won’t tell if you don’t.” He grabbed for the iguana and it slithered away.
“Careful not to hold the tail or he’ll just break it off.”
The Prince nodded, still breathing hard. “Can it bite?”
The Prince rolled his sleeves up to the elbow. “No wonder these things cost so much.” He came around the iguana, driving it back toward Zima. She unclipped her petticoat and slipped it out from beneath her skirt. The Prince stared.
“It’s for a net,” she said. He just nodded and kept his gaze to the lizard. He splashed after it, driving the zong onto the bank. Zima threw her petticoat over it, but it zipped out the sides before she could secure it. The Prince scrambled onshore, sloshing water, and snatched his dry jacket. He clamped it over the zong before it could get any farther. The lizard thrashed, and the Prince rolled onto it with his body weight, getting a few good whips from the renegade tail.
“Get my knife—in my boot,” the Prince grunted.
Zima retrieved it and knelt over the writhing pile. She wedged the knife into what she guessed was the zong’s gullet. It worked. She had caught it. And killed it. Did she really want to go through with this? The Prince got up and carefully lifted his jacket. His hair clung to his forehead. His clothes were soaked through. His jacket, the only dry article he had, was now filthy. He poked a finger through the bloody dagger-hole. “And to think,” he said, “This was my finest spiderweb silk.”
Zima cut off the zong’s tail.
Zima did not have the opportunity to speak to the Prince until that night, after the Chief declared her the winner, after the people raised her up on their shoulders and her parents cried, after the zongs had been cleaned and eaten and the pearls given to the Prince, after Zima was dressed in gold and saffron-dyed silk and told to pack. She did not have much, she realized, looking around her hut. Her mother gave her a real pearl, the oyster kind, and her father gave her a zong net. “So you don’t have to lose your petticoat to impress a boy,” he had joked. They had all heard the story—the version without the Prince, at least. The footmen packed her single trunk with ill-concealed surprise. They escorted her to an emerald green carriage that sat right behind a black one. The Cragsfolk came to see her off, her mother and father standing on either side of the Chief. The Prince walked at the front, carrying a long wooden box. He held it up to her, and bowed. Inside was the zong tail, so long it looped several times around the interior. The Prince closed it, handing it to her.
“Thank you,” she said, bowing low.
“What’s mine is yours,” he replied.
“Ours, your Majesty.”
That was as much as they said before the farewells began and the door to the carriage closed and the old world grew smaller in the dark night.
The box sat in Zima’s lap and she opened it again. How had she been so lucky? The dark and light bands were so lovely, the scales rough and strong. She touched them, and jumped when the tail snapped. It snaked from its coils and lay limply across the top of the box. It was thicker, stubbier than it had been, and much, much shorter. It was short enough to actually fit on the zong she had caught. It was almost as if someone had…stretched it out.
Zima felt warm. She put both hands on her cheeks, and laughed.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Christine Tyler currently lives in Yokosuka, Japan, with her submariner husband and organically grown offspring. She enjoys traveling and eating ice cream for breakfast. ZIMA AND THE ZONG is set in the same world as her current novel-in-progress, an adult fantasy entitled TIGER RED MONKEY BLUE. TIGER RED, however, focuses on another one of Prince Andrew’s wives many years later, and the Prince, now the Sultan, is the antagonist of her story. The novel is on schedule to be completed and queried this year. You can follow Christine’s family and travel vlog here: http://www.youtube.com/ctylervisionAnd her bookish vlog here: http://www.youtube.com/CTylerBooksAnd her 140-character thoughts here: https://twitter.com/mrsctyler