by Judith StClaire
I felt a puff of warm, cinnamon breath on my face and opened my eyes. As I expected, a pair of dark amber eyes, slightly almond shaped, stared deep into my mind. Although no words were spoken, I heard her message. Like a meditation chant, a single word repeated.
“Remember . . . remember . . .”
“Ah, my Tiger,” I said, my lips moving in an inaudible whisper. “I do remember.” And, so I did.
The old saying, “If you want tiger soup, you must first catch the tiger,” has been bandied about since my younger days. I have no idea where it came from, exactly, but I do know in theory it is true.
To be completely honest, the idea of catching a tiger was mostly a mental exercise. That said, I began to think about it for real at Ted Hansen’s wedding reception. The best man, Joey Martin, personally downed about two liters of champagne, after which he went cavorting about the park in pursuit of butterflies, imaginary ones, as far as I could tell. But the net was real. Conical in shape with a long handle, it looked something like a miniature shad net or maybe even an overlarge butterfly net. Where he found such a thing was anybody’s guess.
Just as Joey tired from all the leaping, he captured part of old Mrs. Hansen’s new hat. She whipped out her cell phone and punched a one on her speed dial. When he answered, the Chief of Police tried to talk her out of the complaint, but after she screeched, “three hundred witnesses,” an officer arrived on the scene in no time at all. Quicker than it takes to tell it, the officer grabbed Joey by the arm and propped the offending net against a redwood stump.
The Hansens took the old lady back to the wedding party. No one but Joey saw me borrow the net. He smiled and winked in my direction as the handcuffs clicked shut on his wrists.
About three weeks after the wedding, while on my walk, I saw my neighbor’s garage standing open and stepped inside to wish him a good evening. He was nowhere in sight. As I turned to leave, I nearly tripped on a ten foot length of nylon rope. I picked it up. With both net and rope in my possession, one of those “aha moments” hit me right between the eyes. A clear picture of a tiger capture came into my mind. Something like you can see if you watch “Animal Planet.” I was ready.
Not having money enough to travel to the jungles of India or Africa, I decided to get my tiger at Wild Animal World in the desert wilderness of eastern Nevada. I made a cardboard sign with a picture of a tiger and the words “Wild Animal World” on one side. I hitchhiked eastward carrying the sign, my two piece tiger catching kit, a full canteen and a backpack stuffed with a change of clothes, an impressive cache of chocolate and some granola bars.
The second day on the road, I caught a ride with a large family headed in my direction. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak their language, but when my vast amount of chocolate succeeded in keeping the children quiet, they didn’t mind at all making room for me and my strange luggage in their already full van. Several hours later, they let me off at a freeway exit a short hike from the main gate of Wild Animal World.
The stressed out guard asked me about my odd equipment. Either too busy or not really interested in listening, he let his paperwork distract him and glanced down. I began to tell him about my vision. Abruptly, his attention shifted. His head snapped up and he glared at me through bulging blue eyes. He grabbed up his telephone and furiously punched in a four digit code. I heard a siren begin to wail inside the park and intuitively decided the guard wouldn’t be much help. Quickly, I faded into the crowd beside the gate, and then casually walked to the far end of the parking lot.
Later in the afternoon, I found my way around the fenced perimeter of the park to the service road. The driver of a truck delivering wild animal food gave me a ride into the park and I helped him unload his heavy cargo. He thanked me kindly and gave me a ten dollar bill.
I walked deep into park, and late that night I found the tiger compound. Just before dawn, she suddenly appeared out of nowhere. My Tiger. Without looking in my direction she knew I lurked nearby. I could see her tense muscles as she engaged in a slow, stalking walk. I shivered. I began to think maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I should just go home. For a long time, I hid behind a large scrub oak tree, trying to think of my reason for coming, to weigh its worth, to rebuild my courage.
Finally, unable to stand the escalating tension, I took up the net with both hands and held it high above my head. I thought she wore a slight smile as she slowly sauntered by. My gut churned. I brought the net down with such force both my feet left the ground. I had captured her head. My net covered her ears. The ring edge of the net blocked her vision. I quickly grabbed her tail with my free hand and kept the gnashing teeth away from me by holding hard onto her tail and the very end of the net handle. She was strong. If I let go, I would never get her back. ‘Round and ‘round we went, smashing into trees and crashing through the brush.
My left eye swelled nearly shut. My arms were about to give out when we fell. I squirmed around on my back so I could hold on to the net handle and my tiger’s tail, and also place my feet in the middle of her back. As we lay there gasping for breath, I felt my body sting and hurt from scratches and bruises.
My tiger panted. I lifted my head to look at her. She had some scratches, too, and looked silly with the net over her ears. She lay very still. It seemed she had given up. Carefully, I let go of her tail to see what would happen. She didn’t move. I slowly reached into my back pocket, retrieved the rope, and maneuvered myself to my knees. The slick nylon rope slipped easily around her soft smooth neck. I secured the knot, then gently removed the net. The yellow eyes of this great furry beast regarded me with resignation. She was mine and we both knew it.
Keeping out of sight in the brush, we walked toward the freeway, my tiger and I, and came to the place where I left my backpack. I ate a chocolate bar and offered one to my tiger. Being a sensible creature, she preferred granola. I put on the pack and picked up my cardboard sign showing the side with the redwood tree and the words “Redwood Country” to oncoming traffic.
Needless to say, we walked a long way before getting a lift. Eventually, though, we hitched a ride on a large flatbed truck, smelling strongly of wild animal food and driven by a man we both knew. We stood behind the cab in the warm sun, the refreshing wind blowing our hair, and we watched the ocean come closer and closer.
By the time we reached home, a fluffy gray blanket of fog stretched out over the redwoods. I knelt at the fireplace and lit the fire I had laid before my journey. Soon a magnificent blaze warmed the room. My tiger curled up on the new brown chenille rug I placed next to the hearth. She napped while I showered and combed my tangled hair. When I emerged from the steamy bathroom, I quietly stoked the fire. Seemingly exhausted, my tiger continued to sleep, that faint hint of a smile upon her lips.
Also travel weary, I sat in my favorite rocker with a comforter across my legs, my feet resting on a footstool near her head. I picked up a favorite book from the little table next to my chair and opened it to a page marked with a new bookmark. As I gently rocked, the chair made soothing sounds, and before I knew it, my eyes closed, and I, too, dozed.
After a considerable while, I woke with a start in a nearly cold room. I looked down expecting to see my lovely tiger at my feet. She was not there. Worried, I craned my neck to peruse the room, but saw no signs of her. My gaze went back to the place where she had slept, and my brain, anxious for answers, began to register shocking differences about the room. My new rug, now badly frayed in places along its edge, showed extreme wear and tear near the center. Worried my tiger might be unhappy, I twisted to my left and again looked around the room. The front door seemed to have changed walls, and somewhere beyond it was a window I hadn’t noticed before.
“Relax,” I thought. “She can’t have gone far. If she had, there’d be a note.”
Waiting a bit for my head to clear before I searched further, I tucked my comforter closer about my legs, picked up my book and leaned back. As I opened the book again to the yellowed bookmark, I glanced over its top toward the fireplace. Way back, under the end of a medium size log, a small blue flame resembled the faint glow of a pilot light. Though not at all what I expected to see, it appeared at the same time, somehow, normal.
More confused than ever, I turned again to the familiar comfort of my book. The text at the top of the bookmarked page began, “If you want tiger soup, you must first catch the tiger.” I picked up the old bookmark and looked at it. It seemed to be an ancient recipe for “Tiger Soup,” and was written in her hand, accented with a minute paw print. I smiled to myself, remembering clearly now. As I wondered when she would come in to turn on the gas log, I thought I smelled soup.
First Posted 14th November 2011 by Judith St. Claire
Location: Eureka, CA, USA