The Tiger Hunt12 min read

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Do you remember when we were young, and we played at hunting Tigers in your backyard? There was a long rectangular pool, wrapped around it, summer-colored tiles, terra cotta, and a green gazebo with a swing hanging over one edge of the water by the pool shed. It was a large enough backyard so that at night your parents could have parties with fairy lights and Tiki torches and a great barbecue grill, roasting huge quantities of spice-rubbed meats. There would be coolers of adult drinks and bowls of punch and lemonade for you and me, and for the other children. They could not see us as we ran and splashed and hunted the Tigers in the thickness of the rose bushes down the stone path and away from the pool, hunted them with the pool net and with the longest sticks we could find, the ends sharpened with my father’s Swiss army knife that he gave me once on a camping trip.

We did not know, then, why we hunted the Tiger, and we would have thought that a question like What is this tiger that you are hunting? would have been the silliest thing in the world. A Tiger is a Tiger, as a fairy is a fairy and a leprechaun is a leprechaun and a Tyrannosaurus rex is a Tyrannosaurus rex.  We did not doubt, in the days of our hunting, the names or natures of mythical beasts. We did not think of them as metaphors, or that they meant anything other than themselves.  The big bad wolf was just a wolf. Aslan was just a lion.

“Just” is a miracle, I’ll have you know. To be “just” is to be fair, and to “just do” something is to invoke the miracle, which is the slim likelihood of the thing one must “just do” happening.  We did not know that then. We thought “merely” meant very little. We thought “only” was to be alone.

You and I thought the same things, of course, or at least we believed that we did. But we saw so very differently, for you had blue-black eyes and mine were hazel-green.

Do you remember the day we caught the Tiger, you and I? Just after dusk, as we merrily ignored your mother’s cries to come in from the yard or else supper would be horrible and cold, but we did not care for we had more important things to worry about.  The Tiger was in the bushes—yes, just behind the roses, of course, and we were very close, very close indeed, to catching him. I went first, and you were behind, and I heard your breath rustling the leaves of the bushes, and no other sound in the whole world. We were so careful; not a thorn pricked either of us, and you held the pool net low so it wouldn’t be caught and I held my makeshift spear high, so as to be ready for the Tiger, when it came.

Because your eyes were blue and black, and because you kept behind me, you saw the Tiger before it saw you. Your whole body went stiff and still, and you crouched just as much like a feline as the Tiger itself, and you waited for the right moment, your breath choking off your voice.

Because my eyes were hazel and green, and because I strode in front, the Tiger saw me before I saw him. Before I knew what had happened, I was caught by a growl that seemed to come from nowhere in the whole world, and then I was flat on my back on the white, flat stones in the heart of the rose garden, so close to the back fence as to nearly be in China, as compared to the house, in a situation like this. I was out of breath and staring up into the wide orange face of the Tiger himself, caught completely beneath his heavy, bemused paws. Certainly, he was curious as to what two silly girls with a net and a now-broken but still-pointy stick were doing in his rose-jungle. Surely he had seen you crouched behind a clump of azaleas, with the bright electric blue of the pool net quivering in your hands—so I believed, and I was a little afraid that after he had eaten me up, he would eat you, too, in a snap-crunch-slurp, and, before we could even cry out, that would be the end of us.  And as I thought that, I realized I had not cried out, and that I could not, for there was no wind in me to do so, and perhaps also because I was trembling from head to foot. I had a cry in me though, and I could hear it very faintly, below the beating of my heart and the bored, steady growl of the Tiger as it sniffed me over, as if to see how much of a meal I would make. Then it raised a paw, almost lazily, but before it could strike you let out the most wild and courageous yell I have heard in my life. In truth, you bellowed, a right and proper bellow, and you brought that pool net down right atop that Tiger’s shocked and comical head.

Of course, I did what was done in the movies—I rolled out from under the beast, seized the broken point of my spear and drove it straight into the Tiger’s rough-furred orange chest. The Tiger looked very surprised, and fell heavily on me—plop—and his growling faded away. You fell heavily on him, panting, and I could hear your drum-beat heart through his body, as loud and as solid as my own, though perhaps a quarter-beat off, on the rhythm. We lay like that in the bushes for some time, you and me and the Tiger’s corpse, until we could finally hear your mother’s voice through all that we’d done, bellowing a less-courageous bellow (but one that would still carry all the way to China) that we had better come in, or else!

We were compelled to obey, of course, and being proud of ourselves and our kill, we hauled the heavy orange body behind us through the flower bushes, trailing blood over the terra cotta by the pool and under the gazebo until we reached the sliding glass doors that led into the breakfast nook. I felt so heavy and exhausted, but I remember your mother, the way her eyes widened when she saw what we had dragged behind us, our proud catch. She pressed her hands to her mouth and it looked for a moment as if she were trembling—for the briefest moment, as if she were going to cry.

Instead, she helped us pull him into the kitchen and skin him, and cut up the meat for steaks, and then she asked us what we wished to do with the fur. It was so kind of you to let me take it, not knowing what I wanted to do with it—and I didn’t know either, to tell the truth. My mother shrieked and scrunched up her nose at it when I dragged it into the house, and she told me to throw it away, you know? Of course, I didn’t; I hid it in the back, behind the boxwoods, until I could sneak out after I was supposed to be asleep and smuggle it into my room. It took me almost till morning to brush all the dirt and ants out of it, and I brushed it till the orange stripes shone in the moonlight coming through my window. Then I folded it, hid it under my bed, and closed my eyes until the morning and my mother made me get up to go to school.

Do you remember when you came over, so many times, and you asked me to put on the skin for you? We took turns; first I would be the Tiger, then you would, and we would growl and snarl and giggle in the forest of my bedroom furniture till my mother thumped the stairs and told us to cut it out and quiet down. When she started upstairs, we would shuck out of the skin as fast as possible and shove it under the bed, still giggling, and pretend we were playing tea, or dinosaurs, or something like that. I do not think she believed us, but she never said so one way or the other, and she never bothered to look under the bed. She just told us in her most stern voice to keep the noise down, and went back down again. And then we’d pull the skin out again, and prowl about the upstairs as silently as we could, pretending to hunt mice and gazelles and all other manner of things that, unlike Tigers, will never appear in the banisters of one’s stairway, or in your backyard garden.

I never asked you why you stopped wanting to wear the Tiger’s skin as often as we got older. You just let my turn get longer and longer, and you laughed and clapped as I roared for you, and when we sewed it to fit, you said we should sew it to fit me. It was mine anyway, after all, and you said that it would be too small for you. I thought you were calling yourself fat—how funny is that? But we were of an age where that sort of thing mattered. That was the only reason I argued with you, you know? But you insisted, and you said that I looked very handsome as a Tiger, very handsome indeed, with my yellow eyes and my Tiger skin. You said that black eyed girls shouldn’t be Tigers anyway.

I asked you what a black-eyed girl should be. But you didn’t answer.

After that, I wore the Tiger’s skin when I was by myself, too, I suppose you’ve guessed. I slipped out at night from my bedroom window and put the skin on, and I prowled throughout the neighborhood, further. The moon shone fat and gold on my orange-gold shoulders and when I laughed it came out like a roar, and the moon laughed back. I swished my tail and loped through the woods behind the houses, along the bike trails, scaring the late-night riders. I padded softly and chased crows along the loading bays behind the drug and grocery stores. Sometimes, I caught them, too. But never mind that.

And, oh, how I relished it: the pounding of paws on concrete and crabgrass, and the way wind in fur felt better, even, than wind in hair on those times when we got to ride in the back of my father’s pickup truck. And I didn’t mind, even, that this part was only mine, and I never told you about it. I don’t know if you would have wanted to know. But if it makes you feel better, I never told anyone else either.

That is why you didn’t know about the night I took down the gazelle. We never thought they really existed, out in the wild, but they do. I caught this one standing in a patch of milkweed and thistle in the vacant lot behind the drugstore, down the street from our high school. She was brown and tan and dappled, and when she raised her head in the moonlight, she hadn’t yet seen how close I was, crouching behind a blue Escalade someone had abandoned next to the dumpsters. And by the time she did, oh, by the time she did…

It was a terrible battle, really, terrible and glorious. Gazelles are terribly fierce, you know? But I won, in the end, and I carried my prize back to my home, slipped back in through my bedroom window, and I ate it all up but the bones. I was so pleased with myself that I did not bother to take off the skin, but curled up in a contented orange lump on my yellow coverlet and put my head on my paws and went to sleep, just like that, as happy and full-bellied as Tiger or girl had ever been.

When I woke, my mother was standing over me, staring down at my matted fur and my toothy mouth all covered in blood, and the bones littering my coverlet and pillow. She had a hand pressed to her mouth, and it looked to me as though she were trembling—almost, for a moment, as though she were going to cry.

She did not cry, though. Instead, she lashed out with the broom she had in her other hand, bellowing and shrieking at me to get out! Get out! And how she was going to call animal control, and had I eaten her daughter, had I? I wanted to tell her that, no, it was me, and it was okay, it was just a gazelle. But when I opened my mouth to tell her so, all that she saw were my fangs, and all that she heard was my roar, which was terrible and ferocious and startled me as badly as it startled her. So I bolted. I tore out through the bedroom window and slid down the tree with my claws, and left her there, meaning, I swear, to go back, having shucked off the Tiger’s skin. I swore I’d maybe even throw it away, never put it on again, and be a girl for always.

But when I found a place secluded enough to try to take it off, my claws could no longer find the zipper, or the seams, rake as I might through my fur. I sat hard on my haunches and looked dumbly at my shocked and comical expression in a pool of sewer-pipe runoff, and my hazel-green, yellow-brown eyes blinked brightly out from white, black, and orange fur, as if they belonged there. As if I had never been putting on a tiger skin at all, but peeling off a girl skin. As if there had always been a Tiger underneath, if I only had known it.

It took a while before I was really comfortable in my skin again. Which is funny, I suppose, when you think about how much I loved being in it, when I could take it off every morning. It isn’t easy, you know, to be a Tiger and to be alone in the world. The daylight hurts more, noondays eat up the shadows and you can’t hide anywhere, but you can’t let yourself be seen either. And your very basic skills in the way of hunting and trapping and killing and eating aren’t really enough to sustain you, and there are no other Tigers to teach you any better. It will occur to you that maybe these are skills you should develop, if you’re going to be a Tiger, and also alone. And that sounds like a very, very difficult thing to do.

So that is why, ultimately, I wound up in your backyard rose garden, and that is why I am here, lying in wait for you under the bushes, crushed gravel and mulch under my growling belly, wondering if you are home now, and if you will come out to the garden, and take a walk in the roses. And I wonder if, when you see me like this, you will bellow courageously and come at me with an electric-blue pool net and bring it down on my head, if you will run me through with a spear made from a sharpened stick, or one of your father’s golf clubs. Or if maybe you will see that my eyes are yellow and green, still yellow and green, and you will throw your arms around my striped neck and bury your face in my fur, and bring me dripping, bloody steaks when your parents have barbecues, and keep me in the rose-jungle as your very own, personal pet Tiger. I could be happy like that, I think. And if you had a daughter, and she went hunting Tigers in your garden one day, I would be very, very careful not to eat her, nor any of her friends. I would be such a very good Tiger. I would like to show you.

And I wonder if I can wait that long, much longer. I think I can. I think that I am very patient, now that I am a tiger. My tail ticks out the passing of time on the terra cotta of the garden path and it is a comforting sound. But also I am hungry, so very hungry. I wonder if you will be alone, when you come. I wonder if, when you see me as I am, if you will press your hands to your mouth. I wonder if you will tremble a little, if your dark, dark eyes will fill up to the brim–if you will look like you are about to cry. I do not know what you are going to do, really. I cannot predict the ways of black-eyed girls, after all, and you never did tell me what they’re supposed to be.

I wonder if you are home. If you are not, I wonder if you will be home soon. I wonder if you will be alone.

I so hope that you are home.

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