February 28, 2004

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

By Paris Wispy © 2004


My family is startled and look up from their dinner plates. I have my face scrunched up and hands on either side forming claws. I am trying to look fierce and by their reaction I am sure I have succeeded. My mother inquires of my health.

"I'm fine - I am a tiger." My sister rolls her eyes and sighs with the long-suffering breath she uses with me.

"Motherrrrr... it wasn't enough she thought she was a horse and pranced and whinnied all over the place... now she has to be a tiger? Grow up, brat!" I stick my tongue out then remember that a wild cat would not do that so I roar at her again.

"You are just jealous because I have a new nickname and you don't." She mutters something about possible nicknames, none of them befitting a Supreme Feline and I bare my teeth. Eventually, I tell them about swim practice that day. The day before, I had been to a swim meet and won a hotly-contested race. At practice, my teammates had made me beam by recounting it and one of the big teenaged boys had ruffled my hair and called me Tiger. For the rest of the practice, the nickname had stuck.

I glance more than once at my dad as I recount the incident and I don't fail to notice the smiles he gives me. Due to the nature of my dad's work, he is often gone from home for months at a time and I bask in his presence this night. I go to sleep growling softly and smiling, my stuffed bear held close for security. I am ten years old but I imagine even tigers sometimes worry in the night...

I come home from swim practice a few months later and it is snowing. I leap out of the car and cavort in the dark. In answer to my sister's eternal question, I reply that no, I am not a Polar Bear, I am an Ice Tiger and I nail her with a snowball. This is, of course, a declaration of war as anyone with siblings knows. We all roll around and at one point I look up and our parents are at the living room window watching us with their arms around each other and smiling. It is one of those snapshots of memory that will be as fresh when I am ninety as it was then.

After dinner, my parents relax with a drink and ask me to join them. They are usually snuggling and stuff and I have no wish to witness that so I curl up with my dad to put paid to that behaviour. They don't waste any time and come to the point of this little summit. My mother sits calmly and smiles but I am as attuned to her as I am to my own mind and I can sense some subtle stress as my dad speaks.

"I have accepted another assignment, baby." My arms tighten around him.

"It will take four months but I think you'll like this one." I say nothing but am naturally curious. He has had some fascinating assignments and I have spent hours pouring over the pictures.

"It is all about tigers." I perk.

"Your mother and I have decided to allow you to accompany me for a portion of it…to India to see some wild Bengal Tigers if we are lucky." My mother grips her glass slightly but I am too busy hugging my dad and whooping. Together, we pore over maps and itineraries. I do not notice when my mother slips from the room.

The next few weeks are a whirlwind of excitement. I tack up pictures of tigers on my wall, visit them at the zoo and hungrily read everything I can find about them. As is usual, my mother does not accompany us to the airport but says her farewells at home. She hugs me especially tight and whispers, "Godspeed". She holds my father for a very long time but says little. She has said all she has to say before this.

The unrelenting humidity and humanity of Delhi overwhelms me. People press in and jostle and yell and I grip my father's hand tightly as we emerge from the terminal. An old man, weathered by time and environment tosses away a cigarette and speaks my dad's name. He is introduced to me, Bhudev, and bows solemnly but I catch the twinkle in his eye. I can recognize someone who understands children and I take to him right away. He waves us into an ancient car which spews black smoke and we careen off into the madness that is that exotic city. I lean alertly against my father, watching as Bhudev keeps up a steady stream of conversation while gesturing wildly at the other drivers. The talk is all about politics and economics, subjects which only half-engage my ten year old mind. I want to hear about tigers. At one point, Bhudev pauses and catches my eye in the mirror. He chuckles.

"Heh, in Sanskrit, the name Pari which is close enough you will allow, means beautiful fairy." I smile.

"It is a most fitting name, I am thinking. India will make you more...". He searches his mind for a word then laughs from deep in his belly.

"I leave it at that. But listen, you know what my name means?" I shake my head and he continues.

"It means Lord of the Earth." Ah, you laugh and I laugh with you because it was a cocky name for a cocky boy." He grows serious and studies me quietly.

"You will meet the true lord of the earth soon. He comes in darkness and is there and then not there. He seeks neither friend nor ally. He hunts. It is his nature. We are hunters too, of a kind but he hunts for survival and we are going into his house. We must take pains to ensure we do not become the hunted." At a movement or perhaps a look from my father, Bhudev lapses into silence and I stare unseeingly out the window. The word hunted streaks across my mind and I unzip my backpack, drawing my bear near.

That night, the same car arrives and takes us to what seems to me to be a shabby home far from the hotel. Bhudev has been replaced by a chain-smoking youth who hunches over the wheel, frowning. I am wearing a sari and the vibrant colours and whispery silk enchants me. My father, too, looks different. He is wearing flowing cream linen pants and shirt and he sits beside me in watchful relaxation.

The yard is strung with patio lanterns and music blares from open windows and doors. We are enveloped by people and I am stroked and petted by beautifully-adorned women. Bhudev comes forward, beaming and clasps my father in a bear hug then lifts me to the air. I gaze down upon smiling faces and look at my father. He nods and I raise my hands in the air as if I was a plane. A burst of laughter then I am back down and plates of food and drink are thrust into my hands and I am a part of this celebration, the cause behind I neither know nor care. I eat and dance and laugh and am only brought back to earth when several mothers grin delightedly and lament that I am not Indian or I would surely be betrothed to their eager sons who hover nearby. I am asleep by the time we leave and murmur happily as my dad carries me to the car.

We depart the next day for Bandhavgarh. It is a long, grueling trip and my father is deep in conversation with Bhudev for much of it. I amuse myself as best I can but the terrain outside the window of the plane and later truck is uninspiring and I nap frequently. It is dark by the time we reach the camp and I barely notice the surroundings.

I am up early and I wander around. Outside the perimeter fences is a dense crush of rainforest and I stare into it wondering if I am being watched by a still form. I see nothing but already I am feeling less like a tiger and more like the little girl that I am.

It is late afternoon and we set out. There are five of us and three have guns. We walk along a faint path for two hours and although I grow tired of walking, I say nothing. I sense that I am along only because my father wishes it but the others disapprove. I want to do nothing to make him regret my presence. It is much darker in the jungle and the heat is oppressive. The men with us speak mostly in grunts and I find myself adopting their vocalizations. They move silently and I concentrate instead on copying them. I keep my head down because there are walking hazards but also, I do not want the men to see my eyes. I am slightly frightened. My father stays very close.

We reach a watering hole. It is very small and surrounded by more of the weirdly twisted trees and ferns that make up this forest. My father places me on the ground beside him and gets to work. It takes several hours to set up the cameras, test them, build our hide and erase as much of our efforts as we can. The sun sets as we finish and take our places in our chosen spot. We have eaten our cold vegetarian meal. The men check and recheck then recheck again their weapons in grim silence and we settle down to wait in absolute silence.

I begin to understand through those long, cramped, silent hours the leap of faith my father took when he decided to take me with him. If I was the kind of child who would not understand what was required or was unable to fulfill those expectations, this could be a serious mistake in judgment. I look around at the other men and realize that my father commands their respect and that he has proven it in the past. The men seemingly pay me no heed but I can tell they have reservations and have planned the worst-case scenario. I am determined to rise above their fatalism and I squeeze my dad’s hand for extra reassurance.

It is hotter now and I can feel the forest closing in on me. I laugh silently as I recall rush hour on the city’s subways and how it used to leave me breathless. As trees crack from natural contraction and expansion, I close my eyes and dream of the safe urban jungle. I hear my mother’s soothing voice and I am again taunting my sister and brother. When I open them again, I cannot tell the difference – I can see nothing. My heart rate accelerates and I hear a soft clucking sound from Bhudev. My dad brushes his lips against my hair and I relax. My eyes focus slightly and I have my night vision. I go into a trance.

There is no noise but every hair on my skin rises all the same. The men have not moved but all attention is focused forward. My father has raised his lens to his eye and is intent upon its view. Nothing…nothing…then he moves.

He is a wraith.

One shadow detaches itself from another and reaches for the water. He drinks briefly and I am struck how like a demure kitten he laps. I smile and want to move down to pat his soft fur and have him purr in my lap. He raises his head, water dripping from his muzzle and stares across the ages at me. There is unreasoning wildness in his eyes and the word hunted flashes.

He is gone before it even echoes.

Paris Wispy is a writer originally from Toronto, Canada. She's currently living in Miami, FL.

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