The Tiger Leaps

Dawn. Surya the Sun spreads the sky with new gold. The stone face of the temple reveals its intricate carvings. On the grassy sward that stretches to the ditch, thousands of dewdrops come alight. The velvet bodies of the tigers, save one, lie sleeping.

Awake but unmoving, Karna accepts the growing dawn. Across the way, he sees the artificial trees on the monkeys’ island emerge like skeletons from the shadows. Faint, multicolored bird calls reach his ears. The breathing of his companions is steady.

Karna measures in his mind.

*****

“Don’t do it, Karna.”

Inwardly, I start. Behind me, Sadhu the Ancient One rests in the temple archway, brooding toward the East. I rise, stretch nonchalantly, shrug. Damn that Sadhu and his all-seeing eyes! How did he guess? I never spoke, I gave no clue.

I walk away, pretending not to have heard.

The others begin to stir: Ravna, quickly alert, sniffing for any scent of trespass into his territory. Pongo, dreaming with that blissful idiot smile he wears even in sleep. Devi’s three greedy cubs nudge under her belly until she yawns and rolls sideways, allowing them to nurse. On the road, a maintenance truck rattles by, its load of lawn mowers, rakes, and shovels clattering. The pigeons scavenging popcorn fly up in confusion.

Only Joya still lies as if dead. Joya—an ill-omened name. She was captured two months ago, and shock, grief, and too many tranquilizer darts have put a crazy glint in her eye. She cannot eat, she paces the black hours, then collapses in exhaustion near dawn. Van Kellen worries at her failure to adjust and makes daily visits in search of hopeful signs.

I stroll back and settle by Sadhu’s side.

“Today, Karna?”

No use denying it. Somehow, Sadhu knows. “Today.” I can feel it, an electricity networking under my skin to link each cell and sinew for the attempt.

“We need you here, Karna. You are young, virile. You should be siring cubs.”

“What for? You would have us all expire in well-protected patience.”

Sadhu’s temper flares. “I would not have even one life wasted when we are so few.”

I step the contour of the pen with my eyes. Too much outright practice would be dangerous. Ravna and Devi would suspect. Van Kellen would detect a pattern from his meticulous notes. But in my mind, the course is set, each footfall measured a thousand times…

Ti-ger! ti-ger! burn-ing bright
In the for-ests of the night…

I am eternally grateful to the precocious pigtailed brat who first leaned over the rail to taunt me with that rhyme. It gave me the rhythm, a beat I can accelerate from an innocent walk to steady warm-up to final snarling lunge. Too bad the little darling will not be in the crowd today.

“Given time, Karna, they will destroy themselves.”

“Will you live to see it, Sadhu? Will I?”

“No. Nor your children, perhaps. But soon. The weapons are at their command, and they are not an intelligent species.”

I narrow my eyes in agreement. To see them here, jostling at the rail, pointing fingers, yapping mouths, clicking cameras, puffing cigarettes, licking fingers, slapping young, sweating their unbelievable unwashed smell. Some of them cannot even read our simple sign.

BENGAL TIGER

Average Length: Male 9 ft., Female 8 ft. (including 3 ft. tail)

Average Weight: Male 420 lbs., Female 300 lbs.

Natural Habitat: India—forests, swamps, grassy plains

Diet: Deer, goats, cattle, pigs

Lifespan: 20 years

PLEASE DO NOT FEED OR TEASE THE ANIMALS!

They pelt popcorn toward us. It falls in a yellow ring at the bottom of the ditch. Van Kellen curses their ignorance and orders maintenance to come yet again and clean up the mess.

Joya moans. Devi pushes away the cubs and pads cautiously toward her. Ravna rises quickly. Devi is his, and though she alone seems able to soothe Joya’s troubled sleep, Ravna stands ready to intervene should the new female’s behavior become unpredictable. He is huge, powerful, but blind to his own chains. I have none. Joya was bought for me, but she is over the edge already, falling, falling, into a crazy abyss.

“When?”

“Midday.”

Sadhu nods. Surya’s glare will then be most intense, and the others will retreat to the temple’s shade, leaving the sward open. At the same time, the humans will be at their peak, leaning over the rail, throwing their garbage, trying to coax us out.

The course replays in my mind. Ti-ger! ti-ger! burn-ing bright…

Surya is well up now, and Garson, the security chief, strides by with a walkie-talkie to his mouth, dispatching his crew. It would be preferable to strike when no guards are nearby for that will give me precious extra seconds. But the time will be short in any case.

I close my eyes. For the moment, nothing more can be accomplished, and I must keep my mind clear.

After a while a click sounds inside the temple—maintenance has come to scrub out the cages. When they leave, our breakfast will be served. Alerted by the noise, Pongo prances over, drooling. Eat and sleep—he was made for this existence. He stops to tussle with Devi’s cubs, and they mob him in a tumult of clumsy paws. One clambers on his back, the second nips his legs, the third tugs his tail. Pongo loses his footing and flounders beneath them until Devi calls off the assault. He rises, looking sheepish.

“It must be your grandmother’s blood, Karna. How else could you, cage-born, have conceived this plan?” Sadhu casts back his memory. “She was magnificent, the most powerful female we had ever known. Three times the humans pursued us, and three times she took them down before the gun. Edaya the Man-Eater. All India feared her. You have her courage, and her strength.”

Something in Sadhu’s tone triggers a flash of hope. “Then you think I will make it?”

“We shall see.” Sadhu stares toward the ditch, but for once a glimmer of vision has escaped him. He knows! Sadhu knows I will succeed! Before I had only determination. Now my heart floods with joy.

“Tell me of India,” I say, closing my eyes.

Sadhu’s voice is low, a groundswell from the past. He has only an infant’s memories of his own, but he carries the stories of many generations and passes them on to us. Now Devi’s youngest cub seems chosen to succeed him. Sensing a tale, he trots over and flops beside us, ready to absorb Sadhu’s words.

“India. The forests swim with living green, the sky sears all eyes with blue. Surya plays through the broad-leaved teak trees, while parrots scold in the branches like bright jewels. The air vibrates with heartbeats, each rustle of friend and foe, and impudent monkeys dance on the elephants’ backs…”

I am in India now, beside the muddy river, beneath the cool shadows, breathing the steamy heat. I am the bronze killer, the death-striped hunter, the proud and savage prince. My ears catch the whispers of silken gazelle, the snuffling of wild hogs. My nerves are the nerves of all India.

Much later, voices awaken me: the humans, gathering in number at the rail. Through the temple door Van Kellen watches me—why? I notice Pongo slurping and licking his chops. The others, too, look sated. Of course, I haven’t eaten. Casually, I rise and stroll into the cage, settle myself, and attack the meat. It would not do to give Van Kellen any suspicions. When he lingers, I raise my head and snarl at him, jealously guarding the meat with one paw. Satisfied, he leaves. It would be kindness to take Van Kellen down with me, to spare him the eventual misery of seeing all his beloved animals become extinct. His books, his lectures, his impassioned pleas will never divert the humans from their selfish course. But Van Kellen will not be in the crowd; I blot him from my mind.

I finish the meat and leave the cage. Surya rides hot and high. Such a pleasure to see the humans in their sleeveless shirts, their skimpy shorts—all that bare flesh. I circle the sward a last time, clearing it of sticks and debris. I trot a bit, testing the ground beneath my paws. Two days ago it rained, but the water is gone now and the earth is firm. Ti-ger! ti-ger! burn-ing bright…

Suddenly, Joya awakens. She starts to her feet, blinks confusedly. Her glazed eyes roam the pen, and her head tips from side to side. Devi and Ravna are instantly afoot, Devi edging toward the cubs, Ravna gauging the distance to her, each prepared to block should Joya prove wild. Joya sways drunkenly, her mouth hanging open. I keep to my pace, limbering each secret muscle for the strike. The crowd is thick, the moment ripens. Nothing must interfere.

Now Surya beats like yellow fire, and the shade shrinks almost to the temple door. Pongo sprawls in a corner, Sadhu lies immobile under the arch. Oblivious of the heat, the cubs bounce and wrestle in the grass, luring ever more humans to the rail. Joya seems rooted in place, and Ravna and Devi have relaxed their guard. All around, my path is clear. The rhythm begins.

          Ti-ger! ti-ger! burn-ing bright…No one notices as I trot the north rim.

          In the for-ests of the night…The west side gathers speed.

          What im-mor-tal hand or eye…Lunging from the south I come.

Suddenly, Joya throws back her head and moans. Ravna springs to Devi, she jumps to the cubs. The humans surge forward, yapping and jabbing, and not one notices as I come flying, flying into the East–

          Could frame thy fear-ful sym-met-TRY!

My hind paws leave the grass, my rainbow body arcs, concrete passes like an ocean below. For one moment all is suspended as the ditch exerts its horrible pull. Then my claws latch onto the opposite bank and powerful forelegs propel me on. One roaring leap flattens the naked prey, their gaping mouths, their bulging eyes, their flailing arms. They crush beneath me, all squirms and screams. Their puny bodies rip like silk, ruby blood spurts and runs. India! I gut and strew them, each claw, each tooth killing like ten. As I savor their panic, glimpse their wild flight, as Joya’s moan hits an unearthly wail that quivers in Surya’s sky, as I swim in a mass of jerking bodies and viscous blood, I hear grim-faced Garson and his men come shouting with their guns. My only regret before the crack! is not knowing exactly how many humans I have taken down.

*****

Noon. Surya is strangely dim. Pongo shivers in the shadows. Joya lies dead on the grass. Two of the cubs are back at play, while Devi and Ravna flank them in unspoken agreement of their priorities. Save for Garson’s men, the wounded, and the ambulance crew, the humans have fled. Above the security chief’s barked orders rises an occasional moan. The body of Karna lies abandoned in the road.

At his lonely desk, Van Kellen weeps. The youngest cub sits with Sadhu beneath the temple arch, staring into the East.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1990)

Pulphouse, Issue Six, 1990

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