Fear the Tiger

Okay, my writing’s gone all surreal and unsettling. I guess that’s what happens when you live on a zoo and spend all your time talking to animals.

Fear the Tiger

The seas may flood and fire fall
And hear unearthly dragons call
While vampires smile and spiders crawl
And clouds of deadly ash stand tall
But even through that tower’ng pall
Fear the tiger most of all.

Roxy’s grandmother sang it every night by the fire that warmed the gloom. The caravan creaked in the wind and the cheap plastic chairs cast straight lines of black on the bright soil. Flies landed on the ground between the thin shadows; Roxy imagined them imprisoned.

“What does it mean?” she asked her grandmother, the first time she heard the song.

“A Shaking,” said her grandmother. “Be ready, small one.”

There was no Shaking while her grandmother was still alive. One day, when Roxy was still just a teenager, the old woman got out of bed early and sighed.

“What’s wrong?” Roxy asked from the warmth of their shared quilt.

“That’s the end of that,” her grandmother said. “Never mind, I’ll feed the pigs. They’re looking scrawny.”

Later that day Roxy walked the short path to the family zoo. Her grandmother lay in the pig pen, already chewed to pieces.

Roxy inherited the animals. She loved the ostrich and the way it pecked bread off the top of her head. She sat for hours with the gibbons, who hollered and hooted throughout the long fuzzy dusks. The zebra answered to her voice, and brayed as it rummaged in her bag for custard tarts. The meerkats chattered excitedly whenever she came near.

Roxy was happy with all the zoo’s fine creatures, but she kept her distance from the tiger. She fed it the animals that died, even her pet dog when it keeled over one sunny blue day. Though she counted the other beasts as her friends, she was under no illusion that the tiger would eat her if it escaped. Yet how could such a thing come to pass? The cage had been used to transport elephants and slaves; it was made of the strongest metal imaginable. Roxy’s grandfather had needed ten men just to carry it up the hill. There was nothing that could cause it to break.

Until the longest dusk.

Roxy woke when it should have been black. The clock on the caravan wall spoke of deepest night, but outside the sky still pulsed grey. Her grandmother’s ghost hung in the air.

What do you fear? it asked. Roxy knew what the answer must be.

Standing outside in a charcoal aura, the girl waited. It began as a distant conversation, indistinct in the wind. The voices murmured quietly at first, then with swelling confidence. Louder and louder till the air filled up with the screams of crumbling earth.

It’s a Shaking, said her grandmother’s ghost. Do you fear it?

No, said Roxy.

Then what do you fear?

Roxy stood in silence as the ground ripped apart. Water and fire gushed out of the cracks, while screaming animals joined the crescendo of noise. Bats hurled themselves upon her and were gone. She knelt to stop herself falling, and watched spiders scrabble from the bubbling mud, out of their homes and across her hands. This she did not fear.

The Shaking tore her caravan to shreds and crumpled her possessions to dust. Plates smashed against trees and trees against rocks. She knew that at any moment she could be swallowed up by the toothless grinning abyss. Still she felt no fear.

The clock stopped ticking at the Shaking’s end. Roxy looked across the calmed earth and saw nothing but columns of smoke. They wove palaces that reached the sky.

Now look, said the ghost by her side. Stand your ground and look.

Ask me again, said Roxy defiantly.

What do you fear?

Through the misty pillars came a tiger freed. Adorned in ash, its teeth polished by moonlight. It padded in perfect stillness towards her.

Eat me then, said Roxy.

But the earth ate her first. Another smash of noise and more lightning through the mud. Suddenly she was standing on nothing at all, and she fell. She would have fallen all the way to the centre of the world, but for the paw that reached out and clasped her tight. The tiger roared at the gaping darkness and fought the darkness back. It pulled her free and left her crying with relief on the soft wet floor.

She stared with amazement at the enormous cat before her, and watched as it licked its whiskers with a large red tongue.

You’re welcome, it said, and it leapt into the night.

The next day, even the sun was grey. Villagers came up the hill to rebuild the zoo. They found all the animals they could, though many were dead, and tended to their wounds. The tiger was nowhere to be seen.

In the evening, Roxy sheltered in a makeshift hut of sticks. Her grandmother’s ghost looked disapprovingly at the unwoven walls.

What do you fear? it asked.

I fear the tiger, Roxy replied.

Tell me why.

Roxy thought. Then she said:

If I should stumble on a lion in the jungle shade,
Or face an ogre wolf in a woodland glade,
Or spy the glint of a man hunter’s sharpened blade,
I’d run and run till safety’s made.

Yes, said the ghost. Yes, now you see. For what will you do if you meet a tiger?

The hut seemed very small indeed, a bubble in rapids that cascade forever down.

I don’t know.

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