SHE IS: Family
Four of Four.
The jungle is humid, the very air a notable presence, heavy and damp and slightly stifling.
How quickly it's come to feel like home.
How easily I adapted to its confines, how fast I learned its rules. Be quiet, stealthy, secretive and swift. Respect it and be rewarded. Be with it, not against it. It provides all – all that could be wanted, or desired, or needed. For an animal, or a ninja, there is no better place on earth.
It has awoken something more keenly animal within me. My heartbeat moves in time with the beat of the land and I move as one with it, blending easily into the lush green of its foliage, appearing as no more than a tree limb lifted by the breeze. I understand how the branches will respond beneath my weight, how the vines will carry me, how the muddy earth yields to the movement of my feet. I do not use my blades to devastate the fecund growth of plants that blanket the jungle bed. Instead I stay high where the path is open and provided with ample stepping stones through the warm tropical air.
Above the sunlight only peeks through the thick canopy of green here where the jungle is at its most dense. It speckles the foliage, creating a whole rainbow of greens, spatters like gold on the earth below. Parrots eye me curiously, this strange, wingless green bird high up here in the tree tops, moving like an ape from branch to branch. But they are not alarmed because I move with the jungle and so they do not give away my position.
She thought that I'd left her alone, back there at the cave. Abandoned her in the night. She'd stood up, called for me only once, knowing I would not respond, or come back. There was a flicker of hurt, of betrayal in her eyes and it pained me to see it – but there was understanding there as well.
But didn't she know – I could not have left her there, alone like that.
She didn't know that I followed her now, watching over her as she tore her way through the resisting jungle, not bearing the skills I did that might enable her to slide through it with ease. I would not follow her the whole way – just until she was back at the village, back to safety.
The beasts of the jungle have long had their ways and have no interest in disrupting them, certainly not for a strange, hairless creature who blunders so clumsily through their home. It is not the beasts I am worried about.
In the beginning, I'd had serious reservations about allowing April into our lives. It seemed decidedly to lack prudence and care. With the necessity for secrecy in our lives, allowing even one human into it on a regular basis would seem to be asking for trouble. Although I sensed strongly that April was trustworthy in that she would never intentionally reveal us, there was always the possibility she would become sloppy with her habits or with the things she said to her human companions.
There was always the possibility that with habit, my brothers too could become sloppy. Perhaps even take her acceptance of us for granted and become careless in the way they interacted with other humans. Michelangelo, in particular, showed a tendency for this, with Raphael coming in a close second. And it was a risk we simply couldn't afford to take.
Not only that, but I was unsure if her influence on my brothers would be positive or negative. Would she serve to relieve our isolation – or merely underscore it further?
Her arm swings back and forth, slashing at the thick, sturdy tropical ferns and palms. She's slender and slight, but so much stronger than she looks. A fine sheen of sweet covers all exposed flesh, glistening in the one or two spots of sunlight breaking through the trees and she grunts quietly with each sweep but she doesn't pause, continuing on doggedly, seemingly tireless though if you look closely you can catch the beginnings of fatigue in the raise of her arm. Her unruly hair is tied up securely beneath a bandana, forced off her face. I see the muscles, small but dense, working in her bare arms and down her back through the thin white of her tank top. I feel a smile tug the corner of my mouth, then drag my eyes upwards to quickly survey the area surrounding us. There are wild animals mere feet from where she stands, invisible in the foliage, crouched low to the ground and silent, waiting for this strange and noisy creature to be on her way. I cannot see all of them. I feel them, feel their presence and their heartbeats, thudding rhythmically in time to the hum of the jungle. They wait, perturbed but patient, for her to move on. All here is safe. I crouch, gathering strength in my legs then spring forward and up, hurtling through the air to the great thick trunk she is passing, landing with a mere whisper of calloused feet against gnarled bark and she passed by below, unawares.
April was quick to make herself somewhat indispensable and it became increasingly difficult to harden my heart to her. She was so thoughtlessly generous, so unquestioningly kind and accepting, so tirelessly welcoming. She took it upon herself to do grocery shopping for us, dropping by with heavy paper bags laden with treats. She procured spare parts for Don, old weights for Raph, video games for Mikey. And books for me. Stacks of paperbacks with tiny black print opening up to reveal their stories..
Our resources doubled with her aid. The old black and white TV was replaced by a stack of broken colour ones that Don repaired. We got new pillows and blankets. She said they were second-hand, dropped off at the store. But I could see they weren't. Donatello's technology improved three-fold with the new equipment she brought him.
Through it all I felt sick and guilty.
I was enjoying the attention and the gifts as much as anyone else, but I knew it was wrong to accept them. Wrong that we allowed April to continuously strain her own resources for our sake. Wrong because I was still trying to decide whether a continuing relationship with April was in our best interest.
There's a rustle some metres below to my left and I freeze, listening intently. No animal made that sound. No animal was that graceless. The tree I'm on has one great limb that hangs over the path April has been making. I move carefully along it, listening with every fibre of my being. The jungle floor stretches below me, April at its centre, her lovely head and shoulders emerging like a flower from the depths of the scrub On either side of her, and some distance in front, three men, armed with machetes, are making their way towards her, concealed entirely by the surrounding forestry. They are still some way from her but they have evidently coordinated this impending attack, having been alerted to her presence by the noise she has been making.
They are renegades, rebels who haunt the forests and prey on the unwary. Their methods are brutal, savage and without mercy. They take whatever there is to take and leave little behind.
I know that April has nothing of value to them.
Except, perhaps one thing.
I feel my eyes narrow as I assess their positions.
April's on a deadline.
I don't think she needs to be interrupted.
As she became more and more involved with our lives it became clear to me that we were far more of a danger to her than she was to us. Thanks to us, her reasonably normal, pleasant life had been rudely and abruptly turned upside down, bringing her in fear of her life on more than one occasion. Yet she would not abandon us. If anything, it strengthened her resolve to stand by us – support us – help us out. She took on a fierce protectiveness that set her jaw and squared her shoulders and I could not help but watch her in fascination as she went about the task of – caring – for us. Master Splinter had been our sensei and our father for all of our lives and although stern and strict he was always gentle and compassionate, loving and indulgent. But April brought with her an entirely new energy, something none of us had ever known before. A strength and softness that was uniquely female, a tenderness that felt like a kiss and a firmness that felt like love.
I had yielded to her, although she never realised that we were in combat, all my defences crumbled in the wake of her shining smile. Yet my guilt did not abate for I knew more than ever that I should take on the responsibility of severing ties – of removing ourselves from her life – so that she could be assured of her safety and protection.
The first one went down without a whimper. I swung through the trees until I was directly above him, dropping then like the jungle itself had mustered its forces and exacted vengeance. His neck snapped like a twig in my hands and I laid him gently in the earth. Then it was back above, working my way through them.
The second managed a little 'whuf' of surprise as I pinned him to the jungle bed. He was finished as easily as his companion and there was only one left.
One was enough. No time to become complacent.
He was close to her now. As I drew up behind him I could make out the flickering white of her tanktop, the golden-orange colour of her hair through the shrub. His machete was raised, his odour was rank – sweat, tobacco and strong liquor – and blood lust. He was muttering something obscene about white women and I felt the hatred in him, white hot and crackling as I yanked him backwards, pulled him down and grasped his face on either side, wrenching his neck quick and hard.
Before me, April had frozen. He'd kicked out as we went down, rustling the nearby bushes. She'd heard it and become alarmed. She stood there now, crouched slightly at the knee in a fighting stance, machete raised. She stood perfectly still apart from her slowly swivelling head, surveying her surrounds carefully. I stayed low to the ground, absolutely motionless and as her head swung in my direction, mouth set in a grim line, eyes narrowed and brows furrowed hard together, I was struck by her beauty, the perfect ferociousness of her attitude. For a moment she seemed almost to become of the jungle.
Splinter must've shared my concerns. Or perhaps he was bored and wanted the challenge of training a new student. At any rate, he'd offered to start training her in ninjitsu and she'd accepted readily. I'd thought perhaps she would come by once a week for some basic self-defence lessons. But every morning, five days a week, at 8.00am sharp, she would be down in the lair for her training, which took place immediately after our own two hour morning session. Of course, with her responsibilities to the store and her beginner's status, that was enough for her, although our own training continued throughout the day. Splinter would not speak of how the training was progressing, though Mikey enquired keenly. But I think he was enjoying it.
April worked hard and her background in gymnastics gave her a head start. I couldn't help but notice the developing muscle tone in her arms and legs as the weeks went by, the increase in grace and posture.
After some months, Master Splinter decreed that we should all spar with her, saying that she would best learn by battling with those more experienced than she was, the better to identify her mistakes and understand true combat. Mikey was the first, of course, he could barely restrain himself.
He went easy on her, but even so I could see she held her own admirably. He sang her praised afterwards and she would flush, warm and pink. Every time they sparred she'd tell him not to go easy on her and every time he swore he wouldn't and then he did. Even still, after a few sessions her fighting style improved and Donatello stepped up next. His reluctance was born out of a fear of offending her horribly by defeating her. He shamelessly allowed her to win more than once, keeping it more or less even so as not to arouse suspicion. The apparent sheer transparency of his actions – the careless mistakes, the unblocked attacks, the weak defences – were staggering to me, but she seemed not to notice. But between Mikey, Don and her own training, she kept growing stronger and more skilled.
Raphael held out a long while. Raphael never held back in combat, not even a little and not even in playful matches, and I knew he was truly terrified she would come to harm with him. She had to ask him more than once and it was only grudgingly he finally accepted. It was a bust. He blocked all her attacks easily, almost lazily though he didn't mean it that way, and didn't make a single one of his own. Just stood there as she circled him, blocking each strike she made and with a strange, uncomfortable look of concentration on his face. She asked him why he wouldn't attack and he'd lost his temper silently, the way he does sometimes, been about to throw down his weapon and storm away when Donnie saved the day by suggesting team up matches. From then on, Raph and April were a team against Don and Mikey and things progressed nicely. She was strong, graceful, swift, focused and dedicated. She would eventually become an admirable fighter.
Meanwhile, I merely watched.
Evening was falling over the jungle, rapidly, like a blanket tossed all over, bathing all the green in a cool blue hue. April had set up her camp by a stream, unawares the village was less than a half-mile from where she sat. She began stripping off suddenly and I turned quickly away as she set about bathing herself in the cold water of the stream, shivering almost audibly. I could hear the splashes as she sloshed the water over her body, the crackle of the fire as she huddled near it, drying off and sighing quietly to the night. The fire should keep the more curious beasts away, but nevertheless, I would be there, above her in the trees, watching silently. Tomorrow I would see her to the village. Then I had a journey of my own to make. A journey that was long overdue. And who knows how long overdue it would've remained had April not appeared in my new life as suddenly as she had in my old one, as brilliantly and tenderly illuminating the dark mossy corner of my jungle as surely as she had the dark shadowy sewer den. I'd forgotten what it was like to be near her, the gentle humour in her voice and the camaraderie in her eyes, her easy cheerful conversation and affectionate touch. And the reawakening of that awareness made me realise I'd forgotten what it was like to be near all of them – my brothers, my father. My family.
I'd become consumed by the jungle, merging too completely into it and with it.
She never asked me to spar with her. I think she was waiting for me to offer. I did not. She would glance at me expectantly at sparring time and I would offer her a smile and challenge Raph. It was obvious, of course, but the others never asked me what it was all about. I could tell that she was surprised – I think she thought I would be quick and keen to take her on, to guide and teach her.
The simple fact of the matter is, I would not. I was simply too skilled for her. I would not hold back for her sake and if she was not hurt then her confidence would be shaken. It would be another year of rigorous training at least before I could even consider it and even then it would be close. Seeing how much the others held back convinced me it was the right course. I did not want to hurt her, either physically or spiritually and I would not take any action that might do so.
Finally, she asked me herself. I was polite and gentle, but refused firmly. She'd been training for about a year at that point and doing very well. She thought she was up to the challenge. I could tell she was put out by my refusal, puzzled and even a little hurt by it. But I knew I was doing the right thing.
She kept on asking. I kept on refusing. Finally, she demanded to know why.
I would not lie to her.
April never really got angry at any of us, which was nothing short of a miracle, but something like anger possessed her then. She was insulted and offended. She said it was the only way she could learn and that I was unfair to deny her. It very nearly became an argument.
She was so convinced she was ready that in the end I finally yielded, more to demonstrate that she was mistaken than anything else.
We were alone at that time, the others occupied in their own tasks. We took our places in the dojo, bowed and began.
In three strokes I had her disarmed and on her back, the tip of my ninjaken at her throat. She had defended fiercely, but it wasn't enough.
She was not about to go down that easily though. She wanted to go again and I agreed, spurred on by the desire to prove my point. Again and again she demanded a rematch and I noted that she observed me keenly, my style, my favoured offences and preferred defences and responded accordingly in her own methodology. That impressed me. She was steadily growing weary, little huffs bursting from her mouth with her efforts, her face red and teeth gritted, her chest soaking sweat that stained the front of her sports top. I noted her nipples pushing through the fabric, her newly defined abdominal muscles flexing as she rounded a kick I dodged, the way her biceps flexed and bulged beneath the effort of blocking my sword with hers. Her hair had come loose from its pigtails, plastering to her forehead in dark, sodden strands. I don't think that she had ever looked quite so beautiful.
I moved in for the "kill", sharply rapping her wrist so that she dropped her weapon, swept her feet from under her and pressed one knee against her sternum. It was finished. She could not go another round with me. Not now.
But still she didn't give up. She kicked up with her body, using her legs to propel her, startling me. I pressed down harder, knowing it would be difficult for her to breathe like this. She pushed up again, grasping my knee and tried to lift it, struggled, growled and heaved. I was not putting pressure enough on her to cause her genuine distress. She just didn't want to give up.
Finally, I lifted my leg and reached down a hand for her to take. She accepted, panting and sweating. I hauled her easily to her feet, she feeling as light as a china doll to me, and we back off from each other to bow.
She staggered forward then and wrapped her arms around me.
"Thank you." She gasped. "I learned a lot today. Thank you."
Her warm, perspiring body felt strong and good in my arms and I'd smiled against her cheek.
I'd learned a lot, too.
I watched her walk towards the village as the dawn peeked over the distant horizon, the pale red of the sun bleeding into the sky. She walked assuredly, rested from her long sleep, her arms once again swinging back and forth with strength and focus, the zing of her machete sharp in the morning stillness.
She's safe now.
Of course, as I'd learned that day we'd sparred so fiercely all those months ago, she doesn't really need protecting.
But that can't stop me from needing to do it.
After all, she is family.