“Nine Lives” by Brittany Hause

You wonder, my dear
this time round—at my
confidence, my swagger,
my purring self-
assurance that this scheme
I’ve half-revealed, half-
concealed will play out
in just the way I plan.

You’ll have to trust me,
master: when it’s you
and me together, success
is guaranteed.
We’ve been through this
old song and dance
before. I’ve worn as many
catskins as you’ve worn
human faces.

Ah, there it is. The look
of complete bafflement
that I’ve been waiting
for. No help for it—we do
this every lifetime: you
don’t remember me, but I
remember you better
than anything, better
than my own name.

Know this, then, even if
you’ve clean forgotten:
when you were a lowly
farmer’s daughter toiling
at the foot of Calakmul, I
came to you an ocelot. By
machinations twisted
as the pattern of my coat, I
raised you up to ix-ahau.

And this: a lynx, I found you
working the hard earth
of a votchina. I contrived
your marriage to the sister
of the knyaz, made you
knyaz yourself. You were seen
as just, if perhaps a little
fey—the wildcat of the tundra
curling tame about your feet.

When you were next
a minor stonelayer of little
influence, I sought you out
in Wiñay Wayna, this time
in the guise of a most holy
puma. I saw to it
your station was increased
and settled you in Cuzco,
a bureaucrat of great estate.

After that, I was a tiger, you
the orphan of a dyer known
to few. I worked with subtle
wisdom, enacting signs
and wonders until you
were feted by even brahmin
and kshatriya, your body
robed in colors that once
stained your weary hands.

And as a cheetah, I
outstripped anyone
who’d hold you back, raced
past adversaries at the speed
of thought, taking you
from nothing to head wife
of the chieftain with the finest
herd for miles, your cattle
the most plentiful and fat.

So here we are again
at the beginning
of our tale. You recall only
a dull youth spent
in this tiny, rocky village,
hauling sacks of flour,
know me only
as a snub-nosed housecat,
barely larger than a hare.

These circumstances do not
strike you as the makings
of a great and wondrous
destiny, and, in truth,
they aren’t. It isn’t
destiny that guides us,
impartial fate, or karma.
It isn’t even luck
that brings me to your side.

You have your thoughts
on these matters, I
know. I’ve heard them all
before. But no higher
power, no universal force
drives me to assist
you. It’s only me
that chooses—and I’ll
choose this every time.

Wherever you go
next, I’ll come to you in
whatever shape’s required.
Bobcat, leopard, jaguar,
I’ll claw a path for you
back to the top. Oh, you’ll
repay me well. You always
do. But I could get the finer
things in life by other means.

That’s not what
it’s about. This is: at every
turn, these humans fail
you. They never see your
excellence, your true
worth. But dear master,
Costatino, do not fear. I
see with eyes much
sharper than their eyes.

I understand what good things
you deserve, even when
you’ve forgotten, are kind
to me only because it is
your way, and not because
you know me for a friend. Still I
know what I am, what you are.
Come, master. Let’s get you
to your rightful place again.

Brittany Hause lived in Bolivia, the USA, and South Korea before moving to the UK to pursue a degree in linguistics. Their original speculative poetry can be found in Asimov’s, NewMyths.com, and many other places, and their Spanish-to-English verse translations have appeared in Star*Line, Eye to the Telescope, and elsewhere.