Tiger Medicine: short-short fiction by yours truly
tomorrow we shall return you to your regular programming
from the anthology Milk and Ink (proceeds to charity)
“Look Mom,” says Jacob, my six year old, “look what I found.” And he shows me the toy stuffed tiger, not much larger than the size of his hand. It’s the perfect size for our Yorkshire terrier to grab up in his jaws and trot around with self-importantly, before abandoning beside the pool or under the lemon tree. Maybe the toy hunkered down to its own mysterious life, prowling the grasses of our backyard jungle, ears perked, tail twitching, until Jacob came across it.
“Look Mom,” he says, and he walks the tiger along the edge of the kitchen table. The sunlight slashes through the window blinds, lies stripes of shadow along Jacob’s tanned arm. “He’s wild,” Jacob says “a wild thing, and no one can tame him, and no one should try.” The tiger reaches the end of the table and Jacob makes him jump down onto a chair.
“They’re endangered, you know.” He’s so intent on prowling the tiger along the armrest that I pluck at his orange t-shirt to get his attention. “There aren’t many tigers left in the wild.”
“Where did they go?”
“Poachers, mostly,” I say. “People hunt them for their skins and body parts.” I think of poisoned waterholes, of steel wire snares. I won’t tell him that part.
“For medicine,” I say. “They think the tigers have magic in them, and they want that magic for themselves. They think it makes them strong.”
“I don’t need medicine for that,” Jacob says, and he snorts. “I’m strong.”
The tiger pounces on the back of my chair. It sticks its cold plastic nose against my neck. “Don’t worry Mom,” Jacob says, “he won’t hurt you,” and for some reason I think of Jacob’s father, the last time he looked at me with tenderness in his eyes. I haven’t seen him in years. Jacob hasn’t either.
“That’s good,” I say. “Because you can never tell with wild animals. That’s one of the reasons they’re wild.”
“He doesn’t belong here at home,” Jacob says, and he nods. He is full of knowing.
I brush the pale bangs from his forehead. His eyes are almond-shaped, a light brown flecked with gold. I used to think that he had his father’s eyes, although there was something of me in there too. But lately when I look at my son I see only him, as if he’s cast aside all resemblance to his parents and emerged fully formed as himself.
“Maybe he can stay here for a while,” I say. “But then he has to go off on his own. Tigers are solitary creatures.”
“And he has his own secret home,” Jacob says.
He sets the little toy in the center of the kitchen table. The tiger is matted and grungy from time spent outside, its ear torn, stuffing coming out of it.
“That’s right,” I say, as we both look at the tiger. I want to take it off the table and throw it in the wash, but I force myself to let it sit there. Jacob climbs onto my lap and I gather him against me, the warm lanky spill of him. I breathe in the coconut scent of sunscreen on his face and neck and shoulders. “He can go to his own secret home, far away from here, and live out his own secret life.”
“Where no one can hunt him,” Jacob says, “and no one will try.”
I think of how the tiger is the apex predator, except of course for humans. But the survival of the species depends on the entire structure beneath it, on the links of the food chain remaining strong and solid. If any part of that structure gives way, the tiger falls to extinction.
Jacob says, “Right, Mom?”
I think of how an alpha male grows too old or weak or tired to fight off the bold young challengers until finally he’s exiled, left to prowl a dwindling stretch of territory until he starves to death or is killed.
“No one can hunt him. No one can hurt him.” I tighten my arms around my son. I imagine my own life opening up like a cave to shelter him.
I kiss the top of his head, but Jacob is restless. I want to stay in this moment but already it’s over, the sunlight shifting across Jacob’s body and hammering the table. I can tell from the expression on my son’s face that his thoughts have turned to something else. “What’s for lunch?” he asks. “I’m hungry.”
I’m not ready to answer him yet. My throat is thick. It’s getting hot in the kitchen, so I lean to open a window. Jacob watches me, and waits. The suggestion of a breeze touches my face. I imagine the scents it must carry to a tiger, and the messages they bring: of wildness, of blood, his own or someone else’s.