The Red Tiger

Davis lay awake listening. He listened to the jungle night birds, and thought about how different they were from the rhythmic thuk-thuk-thuk-thuk-thuk of the copters the men called birds, too. He wondered if all the calls were really birds, or signals. They did that, he’d heard.

The men were sleeping, and in the two hours since they’d sacked out their breathing had synchronized. Only Harris’ snoring was off, and now and then he’d talk in his sleep. Clark was on guard duty. Davis did not have to be awake.

When he got home, he thought, it would be a long time before he’d want to walk in the rain or go camping again.

He opened his eyes and stared up towards the leaves. Without the moon he could see neither sky nor leaves. Canopy, he thought, remembering the layers of bright green that he could not see in the dark. He would have liked the luxury of looking at the patterns of leaves, or listening to the sounds without thinking about what they might be, without listening for a twig cracking or a burst of fire.

He did not want to desire anything. To have desire, he recalled, it was necessary to experience a sense of deprivation. He could not afford the luxury of desire.

Davis tried to tell himself that he could empty himself of all earthly desires. For weeks Harris had been talking about it, saying he was “empty of all earthly desires.” The men had laughed at him because Harris talked in his sleep. He had not rid himself of desires, they told him, quoting his sleep-talking at length. Harris had turned red, then shrugged. Davis told the men to knock it off.

Canopy, he whispered, thinking of a red and white striped awning in his in-laws back yard, of white flowers in vases and tall tropical trees imported for the day in pots that men carted away at the end of the party.

His little sister Carrie had read him a poem about a red tiger. It had nothing to do with the wedding, but she had read it to him anyway. It was a poem she said she’d written for school.

He’d said there were no red tigers, and if there were, what color would their stripes be?

“Red tigers don’t have stripes,” she’d answered.

“Then how do you know they’re tigers?” he asked.

“You just know,” she’d said as though it were something important, something he should remember. “They’re very dangerous, and they pounce just as you’re falling asleep.”

“How do you know?” he’d asked again. He was annoyed with himself for being so aggressive, but he kept pushing her anyway.

“You know. You look into their eyes just before you die,” she kicked a clump of grass. “Everyone they pounce on dies.”

“Then how do you know they exist if no one is left to describe them?”

“You just know,” she said again. She kicked at the lawn again. “You ask too many questions. Didn’t you ever hear about poetic license?”

“So red tigers are poetic license?” He was beginning to feel like a bully, but he kept on, “They’re not real after all?”

Julie walked over, carrying two mugs of coffee. She was still wearing shorts and a tee shirt. The ceremony wouldn’t be for hours. She handed him a mug of coffee.

“I thought it was bad luck to see you before the wedding?” he said.

“Silly,” Julie put her arm around his waist. “I want to see you all I can.”

“Julie,” Carrie said, “Make him believe me. He doesn’t believe me about the red tigers.”

Julie smiled. “I don’t like the red tigers, Carrie. They scare me.”

“You should be scared. They’re very dangerous.” Carrie turned towards the house. “I’m going to get more breakfast, she said, over her shoulder. “Their eyes glow in the dark. You can see their eyes coming towards you even when it’s too dark to see anything else. When they pounce, their eyes are the last thing you see.”

Davis lay still, awake, listening to the birds in the trees he could not see. It was too dark to see anything really. He lay awake watching.

About the author:

Miriam N. Kotzin teaches creative writing and literature at Drexel University where she directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing. She writes poetry and fiction; her poetry has received three nominations for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been published widely in print and online publications in such places as Boulevard, for which she is a contributing editor, The Pedestal Magazine, Carve Magazine, Thieves Jargon, Amarillo Bay, 3711 Atlantic, Fiction Warehouse and Offcourse. She also writes fiction in collaboration with Bill Turner. She is a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of a blognovel for which she is seeking print publication.