What is your greatest fear?
To what extent should children be free to ‘follow their own curiosity’?

Tiger-ish

 

'Tell us the story,' the children say.

'Which one?' I ask.

'The tiger one.'

Alright.

 

My father is a human but my mother is a tiger.

Her colouring is remarkable. Dark brown, almost black-ish, with tiger stripes showing through her under-carriage, so she looks permanently like a tiger in the shade. It's no wonder my father fell in love with her. She's so special.

 

A moment of love they shared, but tigers are wild and my father knew he couldn't keep her, not without a fight he would probably lose. So she roams her jungle forests and my father roams near her, where he can spy her from time to time swishing shadowy through the long grasses.

I grew up, a girl with a black ponytail, white skin and eyes the colour of tiger's eye: normal human girl on the outside. Knowing inside I was tiger-ish.

Tiger-ish-ness comes out at moments. Then I know, like my mother, I must prowl alone, and keep from those I love so I don't eat them, in a moment of mistake.

I don't go near her, though I've met her, with her blackish-brown markings, and she has seen me too. We have looked into each other's tiger's eyes. But I'm not a baby she could bundle and own. She left me to the care of others, and roams alone.

 

I roamed too, apart.

 

I left the home and combed the loneliest beaches of the world. I wanted only those that were wild and free.

On a long stretch of sand in Norway, I crawled from promontory to promontory, pounding great stretches with my tiger-ish strides, velvet soft paws leaving feathery marks on the sand where I'd been. A cat, I was afraid of the sea, so grey and cold and wet. My fur yearned for the warmth of the tropics.

I flew to Thailand, each paw delicately balanced on an armrest above a cigarette ash holder, my back arching as waves of tiger-ish-ness protested the restraints. My tiger loved to look out the small windows at the clouds. They reminded me of softest grasses under my belly and dreamy white dunes. My tiger mind flew out with the birds while my powerful pads pushed where hands are supposed to rest.

Thailand was warm. I found a beach. I stretched my cat fur in delight on the sand, and my skin turned a tiger-ish brown under the black hairs. I played in the sea! I told my tiger to stay curled on the sand while my girl laughed and leapt under the water. I found my inner fish.

When my tiger was tired of being soggy wet, I borrowed a board to stand on the waves instead, and roam without getting damp. But my tiger claws found it hard to grip the slippery surface, so we gave up and moved on. Too crowded in Thailand anyway. I wanted somewhere hotter still.

 

I went to India, where I was afraid I would run into my mother.

I couldn't remember her place - I was so young when my father came to the home, took my paw and led me to her. I had no sense of time or space, and my father didn't talk much. He lived on the edge of society, did his work and looked out for shadows, swishing through the grass.

 

'What did Grandfather do?' my son asks. 'Will we see him one day?'

'Grandfather's a hunter,' I reply. 'But hunting is hard to do today. He tried to hunt but he got no money, no tiger either. So he hunts money instead. He sits in a cubicle tapping away, thinking of big tiger paws slipping over the keys. But the hunter is still in his eyes. Will we see him one day? I don't know, my son. If he roams this way.'

 

My son looks for a moment with his big brown eyes, shrugs and goes to hunt for a stick.

 

I didn't meet Mother in India. She must not have been there. I saw all sorts of other things instead - everything. Everything in one small space. That is why people dream of India - the colours, the smells, the people, the food.

But the heat!

I fell in love with an Indian saree, and my girl said, maybe I could do this too. Maybe I can make something with these paws of mine, retract these claws for a while, and keep clothes around my body. 

I thought of you, the two of you.

 

So many people in India, and so hot. My cat fur loves to stretch out in warmth, but I was getting sticky here. So I packed my saree in a bag and returned to where I had begun.

I got a room, with a bed, stretched out my saree and studied it. Women carrying baskets of rice, and a peacock with colourful plumes. Coral pink, red and gold, sequins sparkling here and there.

My tiger paws were soft as silk as I held the fabric.

I looked at it a long hard time.

'It is a start,' I said. 'A start.'

I folded it carefully back into my bag.

 

Every time I dreamed of crawling along Nordic sands or swishing between Indian grasses, I took it out, and looked at coral, red and gold, women with baskets, colourful peacock plumes; I put needle to canvas, and pulled the thread through. And pulled it through again. I built up a fabric, created a design.

I found a hunter in a cubicle and he knew me too.

 

My daughter looks at me with big round eyes. Brown flecked with yellow, and tiny black stripes.

'Are you still tiger-ish inside?' she asks.

I brush the sand from her forehead and lay my paw on her hair. I think of my answer before I reply.

'Am I still tiger-ish inside?' I say. 'My darling, I gave up tiger-ish-ness for you.'

'Will you be tiger-ish again one day?'

I consider my answer before I reply.

'Will I be tiger-ish again, my darling?' I kiss her.

'I'll be tiger-ish, yes. So might you.'

 

Elizabeth Ritchie

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