The Tiger Talk
Royals Primary has the second grade corralled into the gym.
“What you want to do,” I tell the kids, “is draw a mask that looks a lot like your face. As close as you can get it, except we’re going to make the eyes extra big. Big white eyes. Surprised, like.”
I’m on a short stage in front of a microphone, marking a face onto a paper plate, while Sid and the school principal whisper and elbow each other behind me. We’re in our old zoo uniforms. Khaki on khaki with a tiger head stitched onto the pocket.
We haven’t worked at the zoo in years, but the principal insisted. “We want you to look like experts,” he said.
We are not experts.
A hand goes up. A child in a paisley dress. “What color should we do the eyes, Mr. Fish?”
“Any color you want, sweet girl,” Sid says behind me. He pushes his mouth to the mic. “And get all that curly hair on the plate too.”
Another hand. A boy this time. “Will the tiger eat us?”
“No,” I say. “Not so long as you wear your tiger masks, stay with adults, and stay inside after dark.”
“What about Smoky’s potty break?”
I imagine this might be one of those times we all have a laugh at the endless invention and questioning of children. Have a good group chuckle. But none of the teachers are laughing. They’re all watching me, leaning in for an answer. Yes, what about Smoky’s potty break, Mr. Fish? They want to know what the tiger expert thinks, because of the tiger, because of the man it killed in the Kroger parking lot this week.
“Is Smoky a dog?” I ask.
“Yes, of course.”
“Is he a big dog?”
The boy holds up his hands, about a foot apart.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Thomas, the best thing for you and Smoky to do is to stay inside at night. Even big dogs should be kept in a kennel or inside until we can find the tiger.”
“And kill it,” Thomas says.
“If it comes to that,” I say. “But I hope it won’t. The tiger could be moved to another, safer zoo, or to a special place where it can be alone and won’t bother anyone.”
The children look up at me, confused.
“What I mean is, there are always options. Non-lethal options. And it may be that Shania’s injured, and that’s why she’s lashing out. We can’t just kill all our problems.”
“What about the dead guy?” Thomas asks.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to make Smoky safe again!” Sid calls out. No microphone needed. Wild applause. “Now come on up here, Thomas. Tell everybody what you learned today. Show us how it’s done.”
Thomas stands like a toy soldier and picks a place in front of the stage to pull his paper plate mask on his head, the blank plate covering him, crown to collar, and the red yarn string running across his forehead.
“How do you wear that tiger mask?” Sid asks.
“I wear my tiger mask on the back of my head, so the face can see behind me.”
“That’s right, Thomas. Now, why do you do that?”
“Tiger’s don’t like to be looked at. And they like to get you from behind.”
“That’s right again! And what do you do if you see a tiger?”
“Shoot it!” He fans an invisible tommy gun over the crowd. Several boys in the front row fall over and play dead. “Shoot it dead.”
“Let’s give Thomas a big round of applause!” Sid roars and slams his hands together.
Next comes the drawing period, all of the kids crafting their masks and all the adults walking from group to group, slinging praise and washable markers.
I pause over a little boy who’s drawn an alien on the back of his mask. Green skin and enormous yellow eyes with serpent pupils. He’s even torn antennae from another plate and woven them through slits in the paper, so they can turn this way and that. It might work better, I think. Good contrast between the skin and eyes, so they’ll pop. It might throw the tiger off guard, if she were to come upon this boy walking his dog at night. If she were to stalk him from the edge of his yard’s floodlights. Maybe she wouldn’t strike if she thought alien eyes were watching, lidless and unblinking.
I’d read about this strategy in a National Geographic from 1953. Something the public librarian dug up. A village somewhere in India. Dealing with confirmed man-eaters. Losing near fifty people a year.
First, they posted guards, but of course these fell asleep or missed things when they, from time to time, scratched an insect bite or stared into the jungle until their eyes ran and they saw, not tigers, but their lover’s face in the foliage.
Next, the villagers tied buffalo to stakes in the forest. Their logic being if the tigers were satiated, if they learned of a new and reliable source of food, they would have no reason to attack humans. But the tigers ignored the buffalo, who were dangerous and large, possibly a thousand pounds, and attacked instead the villagers who fished the rivers or else strayed into the woods to collect the night’s necessary firewood.
If humans were to be the target, always, it was decided that human dummies should be used, made with barbed wire and strong electrical currents under their skin instead of blood and meat. I guess they hooked them to car batteries buried nearby. But the tigers wouldn’t go for it. Even when the dummies were dressed in clothes. Even when the clothes were dirty and carried the sweat and fear and lust and daily meals of the villagers in their threads. They were too smart, these tigers.
“Is this going to work?” one of the teachers asks me. We’re standing behind a group of girls who’ve passed their masks around and are coloring barrettes and beads into each other’s mask hair. “I mean, really?”
I imagine a whole town of us trying to live alongside the tiger’s wrath, wearing our masks to walk our dogs, walking backwards sometimes, even in our most private times, to drive home the illusion that we have become more than human. We have become a race that sees both forward and back.
We will stitch eyeballs into the backs of our clothes. We will paint them on the backs of our cars. We will tattoo enormous, astonished eyes on the backs of our infants’ scalps to make them safe from the monster in the fennels. Why not? It’s been done before. But it didn’t work. Eventually, slowly, the tiger will learn the lengths of our duplicity, and find them surprisingly shallow.
So it went for the Indian villagers, who, after losses unbearable, cheered in the streets and carried the dead tigers between them, throwing them into the air, ripping out tufts of fur to burn in private celebrations and memorials at home. In the end, they hired men to kill the tigers. Safer than guards. Cleaner than sacrifice. Cheaper than electrified dummies. More permanent than a tattoo.
Who are you? the whole village asks me from the black and white photograph above the article in my truck. They are frozen in the photo, smiling huge behind the dead cat. You know better?
“Help me tie this?” a child asks me. His mask has bright green eyes, orange tiger stripes, bloody fangs.
I knot the yarn over the boy’s eyes.
“How many tigers have you caught?” he asks.
“Plenty,” I say.
“Tell the truth.”