by Patricia Dreyfus
We were hanging on to the roll bar of the open Land Rover, as the driver careened down the dirt track, through the thick overhanging trees. Early that morning we crossed the Rapti River which is the boundary of Chitwan National Park in Nepal. We were holding a pass that allowed us to explore only until sundown. We could feel the atmosphere cooling from the heat of the day. The forest shadows were long and the sun dipping behind the jagged snow covered Himalaya peaks. The river lay four miles ahead and it was vital that we be across it by 6:00 pm sharp.
Chitwan is one of the last tiger sanctuaries in the world, and by order of the Nepalese Army, no one is allowed in the park after dark. We were told that if you are seen in the park after the curfew time, you are assumed to be a poacher and you will be shot. It was twilight, and from the expression on our guide’s face and the hard grip of our driver’s hands on the steering wheel, we believed this to be no idle threat.
Over the strain of the motor I heard my daughter’s voice, a whisper but clear to us all, a call that stopped the wheels of the machine in mid- rotation: “Tiger.”
The driver cut the motor, now the buzz and click of the jungle insects was the only sound. Even the birds were still. Carol stood on the back of the Rover, her finger pointing just beyond the side of the road.
We followed the direction of her hand and there, fifty feet from the path, in the long wheat colored grass, his back to us, stood the tiger. He was a giant, about half again as big as a male lion. Solitary, he turned, now facing us, and lay his great body down. Like an illusion he disappeared, his stripes a perfect camouflage in the shadows of the forest and the long yellow grass.
We moved from the Rover, and edged to the verge of the road, not daring to go closer. I stayed toward the rear wheels, a little separate from the others who were near the front. We all strained to see, and seemed to blink in unison to try to capture what now seemed like a mirage.
The tiger raised his massive head separating his power from the passive grasses, and turned his gaze toward me, his golden eyes skimming over me, an insignificant intrusion in his world.
Then, he turned again, and studied me, then stared directly at me, into me. I could see the black slits narrow in the amber of those eyes. His body tensed and moved slightly forward, the muscles of his haunches tightened, the skin of his pelt trembled with tension. He held me there by his beauty, and an authority I cannot yet name.
I felt the others move back closer to the Rover. I could not look away from the tiger. I was defenseless, frozen in awe. My legs felt heavy, the backs of them ached, and I knew I could not run.
Unable to breathe, I waited for his decision. It was his alone. Then, the yellow eyes left me, his body relaxed and he lowered his head. Shaking with relief and afraid to cry, I breathed deeply. We slipped back into the Rover, all silent, as we raced for the river.
I have a tiger’s tooth, one that our guide presented to me, now cracked and dull, resting on my table. The tooth is curved, long and ivoried, a scimitar, once sharp and fearsome, bloodied and bared, a symbol of terror to its’ prey. The majesty is gone, only suggested, now just a small part of a once powerful beast.
How like the tigers’ tooth I have become. Once I was strong, in control of my territory, but time has dulled and cracked me. I am a woman camouflaged by age. Younger people, strangers, unbidden, call me “Mom” or “Grandma”. They look but they do not see, they cannot distinguish the tiger of my soul, the power that is mine. They glimpse only the cracked tooth on the table.
I smile and forgive them, for I have seen the tiger and he has seen me.
Patricia Dreyfus is an award winning poet and freelance writer. She is too old to be eulogized as, “So young and so gifted.”
She was raised in Compton, California, and is “of “California. Don’t mention what has happened in the “Golden State” in the last 25 years because she goes on about it.
She is the best argument for gun control laws you will ever meet, because if she had her pearl handled derringer in her purse, some people would be in danger.
She spent many years in the laundry room and kitchen in the contemplation of socks and spaghetti. Patricia has raised 5 outstanding children, who in turn have given her 10 perfect grand children, who call her “Bubbles.”
She has traveled extensively and experienced the joys and sorrows of many cultures. She speaks very poor Spanish, and lives in Corona del Mar, Ca., with her first and favorite husband, Gary.