The Jaguar and the Poison Frog

Listen, o Precious Treasure of mine, to the tale of Her Royal Highness Esperança Alzira Preta, Queen of the Jungle at the Center of the World, Empress of the great Rio Amazonas do Brasil, and of Medo Jóia Branco, her Chief Vizier. Listen and hear, o Apple of my Eye, how the Poison Frog came to be known as Friend-to-the-Queen when the world was new.

***

The earth was rich and dark with damp below the capirona trees. Sun poured down like gold between the leaves onto a glossy velvet coat. Black was the pelt, like the night sky with no moon. Blacker still was its pattern of roses, seen indistinctly, like stones in a pool.  (For, o Precious Treasure of mine, Alzira Preta was the first black jaguar to rule the jungle, when the world was new.)

“Your Royal Highness,” came a voice at her ear like raindrops in a glass, “I beg an audience.”

Alzira Preta flexed her paws – one, two, three, four. Her claws flashed very sharp and white. Alizra Preta lashed her tail – one, two, three. Her sinews were very swift and sure. Alzira Preta yawned wide – one, two. Her teeth, except the right fang, just larger than the left, came to even points, and her mouth was very red. Alzira Preta paused – one. She half opened her yellow eyes but did not turn her head to look at the plantain leaf level with her shoulder.

“Speak, Jóia Branco,” murmured Alzira Preta in a voice like the sound of a far-off falling tree. “An audience you are granted.”

The broad plantain leaf hardly quivered as an alabaster stone hopped once, twice, towards the proffered royal ear. (For, o Apple of My Eye, Jóia Branco was the first albino poison frog to serve as Chief Vizier to the regent of the jungle. Listen and hear: Although he was smaller than your thumb, o Precious Treasure of mine, his venom would have surely killed Alzira Preta before her teeth met, were she to bite even one pad upon his sticky toes.)

“My liege,” began Jóia Branco, “the Sun beats down most hot and cruel today. See how greedily he thirsts for our water, from the earth, from the vines, from the great Rio Amazonas. I dare say precautions should be taken.”

Alzira Preta shifted and stretched from nose-tip to tail-tip. She stood to her full height and looked down at her adviser. (For, o Delight of My Heart, Her Royal Highness was a true Queen, most loyal, most true. Listen and hear:  Were Alzira Preta to believe the Throne of the Jungle at the Center of the World to be threatened in earnest, she would not think twice to lay down her life to preserve it. Hear and understand, o Apple of My Eye, even Jóia Branco’s terrible poison would not save him should Alzira Preta determine that he must die, even at the cost of her own life. Such is the law of the jungle.)

“Jóia Branco,” she laughed, “you are small, but your worries could fill my jungle faster than vines in the rainy season. I do not fear the Sun.”

Alzira Preta moved like a shadow beneath the capirona trees to the banks of the great Rio Amazonas. Jóia Branco pursued, leaping from branch to vine like dappled light upon the leaves. Jóia Branco saw hardly a ripple on the water’s surface as he watched the black jaguar slip into a shaded pool at a bend in the river.

Alzira Preta drank deeply as she swam. “I will slake my thirst before you, Sun,” she purred. A little ways ahead, a glint in the water caught her eye. Alzira Preta heard a small splash. A square, brown head emerged above the river’s surface. Capybara, the dog-rabbit of the Rio Amazonas, had come to bathe.

Alzira Preta purred again. “Thank you, Capybara, for the sacrifice of your life for mine.” She finished reciting the law of the jungle as her right fang, just longer than the left, sank between the Capybara’s two ears. The water flashed as Jóia Branco looked on. Alzira Preta disappeared carrying her prey under the jungle’s cover. The Sun and his devouring thirst were forgotten as easily as a raindrop slips down a plantain leaf. Jóia Branco shook his albescent head.

***

The vines were heavy, thick and green among the capirona trees. Alzira Preta was sharpening her claws upon a mighty trunk.

“Your Royal Highness,” came a voice from a cleft in the great root, “I beg an audience.”

Alzira Preta scored the tree’s flesh with a swipe from each forepaw – one, two. She arched her back in a luxurious stretch – one.  She half opened her yellow eyes but she did not look down.

“Speak, Jóia Branco,” sighed Alzira Preta. “An audience you are granted.”

“My liege,” began Jóia Branco, “The leaves do rustle most heavily today. See how the vines, too, have become thick and close. The whole jungle whispers that Morte Lenta, the Anaconda, is at our very throats. Precautions should be taken.”

Alzira Preta looked down at her Chief Vizier. “Jóia Branco,” she laughed, “you are small, but your worries could ferry a plantain leaf to the Great Water that Touches the Sky. I do not fear Morte Lenta.”

Alzira Preta’s pupils opened wide until her yellow irises became slim crescent moons. She crouched and balanced her shoulders to strike. Her war snarl tore the sky. She began the jaguar’s capoeira hunting dance. Alzira Preta jumped to lash out one, two, three, four paws at a time, slashing vines with her outstretched claws. She crouched for a pause, then whirled to strike again, circling ever wider. Jóia Branco sat as still as stone in the cleft in the root, and waited.

Alzira Preta’s white claws buried deep into a very green, very thick, very heavy vine. The floor of the jungle was spattered red. Morte Lenta, the Anaconda, slid heavily from his branch in the capirona tree upon Alzira Preta’s black back. One coil followed another – 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet, more, circling ever faster.

Morte Lenta’s head steadied level with Alzira Preta’s own. His coils entwined her inch by inch, shifting scale by scale. As he recited the law of the jungle, his voice was like eagle feathers brushing tall grass.

“Thank you, Jaguar, for the sacrifice of your life for mine.” His eyes did not blink as his embrace tightened. There was a muffled sound of breaking branches as the jaguar’s ribs cracked.

Alzira Preta, Queen of the Jungle at the Center of the World purred, exhaling suddenly, loosening his death grasp by not quite an inch. But it was enough. For a moment her mouth was very red, before her right fang, just longer than the left, sank between Morte Lenta’s eyes.

She growled between clenched teeth. “Thank you, Anaconda, for the sacrifice of your life, for mine.” His coils unraveled like rope.

The Empress of the great Rio Amazonas do Brasil collapsed upon the tangle of defeated snake, her chest heaving shallowly. Alzira Preta’s eyes were closed. A tear like a jewel shone in the eye of Jóia Branco. He shook his albescent head.

***

The night was moonless, black and hot beneath the capirona trees by the banks of the great Rio Amazonas. Clouds loomed low, unseen, their presence made known by the absence of stars. Alzira Preta’s chin rested upon her forepaws. This was not a night to hunt. Her thoughts pursued their own paths unhindered.

“Your Royal Highness,” came a voice at her ear like raindrops in a glass, “I beg an audience.”

Alzira Preta returned to herself as if from a dream.

“Speak, Jóia Branco,” breathed Alzira Preta. “An audience you are granted.”

“My liege,” began Jóia Branco, “There is a menace all about us. I do not trust the ground tonight. Precautions must be taken.”

Alzira Preta did not raise her head. The blackness of the night was utter, complete. She flexed a paw beneath her head as if to grasp the darkness.

“Jóia Branco,” she murmured, “you are small, but your worries could drown the Moon in the sky. I do not fear the Dark.”

In the distance, thunder rolled. By the glare of a far-off lightning flash Jóia Branco could just make out the form of Alzira Preta on the jungle floor below. The Chief Vizier dared speak again.

“My Queen,” continued Jóia Branco, “This is not a storm like those seen by our fathers, nor by our grandfather’s grandfathers. Your safety is not assured. I entreat thee: Join me in the capirona tree.”

“Jóia Branco,” she growled, “you presume above your station. I do not fear the Storm.”

Jóia Branco’s skin quivered, his whole body from nose to toe an ear tuned to the earth. He knew not what, but a great wall of death was surely approaching. He breathed once, twice. Time was short. He dared speak again.

“Alzira, o Delight of my Eyes,” whispered the poison frog, “Do you trust me not?”

Alzira Preta’s hair stood on end. Her mouth, open wide in a snarl, was blacker than the night. She did not know if the feeling welling up inside her chest was fear or rage. The jaguar ascended the capirona tree blindly, intent on finding the unforgivable Jóia Branco, so casually familiar. He should not have dared affront the royal throne.

Alzira Preta snarled again as her claws scrambled for purchase in the branches of the tree. But the fury of her war cry was swallowed by a terrible roar straight from the belly of the earth. The sky opened as if rent from end to end. Rain sheeted down in torrents. Now Alzira Preta climbed for her life.

The eyes of Alzira Preta played tricks on her as rainwater poured into them. A spot of white appeared to her, now to the left, now to the right, never too far ahead. Again and again she slipped. Again and again the patch of white would enter her field of vision, drawing her farther up. After a struggle that seemed to last surely a year and day, the white apparition halted. Alzira Preta extended a weary paw. It was a sturdy branch. She collapsed upon it and held on for dear life. The noise of the storm was deafening. It was a night that seemed to have no end.

When the Sun at long last began his march across the eastern sky, far above the clouds that still covered the Jungle at the Center of the World, Alzira Preta could not believe her eyes. Scarcely an inch below her tail was the surface of the great Rio Amazonas, burst its banks, black with mud, and raging towards the Great Water that Touches the Sky. Alzira Preta looked up and saw, clinging to the same branch on which she clasped, the small white back of Jóia Branco, her adviser.

“Thank you, Poison Frog, for sacrificing your life for mine.”

He turned to her and shook his albescent head. “But I am yet here, Your Majesty,” replied Jóia Branco. “Unless,” he continued, looking at her right fang, just longer than her left, “Her Highness intends to now pass down her sentence against her Chief Vizier.”

“Jóia,” laughed Alzira Preta, “you may be small, but your worries could sink the Jungle at the Center of the World. Twice for my sake you risked your life. That you are yet alive that I may spare it is a joy beyond measure.”

“My liege,” began Jóia Branco, “I –“

“My friend,” said Alzira Preta, looking down at her adviser. “Call me ‘my friend’.”

***

And that, o Precious Treasure of mine, is the tale of how Her Royal Highness Esperança Alzira Preta, the black jaguar, Queen of the Jungle at the Center of the World, Empress of the great Rio Amazonas do Brasil, and Medo Jóia Branco, the albino poison frog, her Chief Vizier, survived the terrible flood when the river burst its banks. That, o Apple of my Eye, is how the Poison Frog came to be known as Friend-to-the-Queen when the world was new.

© Bethany Joy Carlson  |  May, 2011

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