© James J. Doyle, Jr
Scene 1: The Path
What’s with the singing? I’m trying to rest here. And, I feel bad. Must be something I ate. Or didn’t.
A girl walked down the jungle path. Bright sunshine filtered through the leaves. She hummed a tune and ducked beneath a large branch she didn’t remember hanging so low.
“G r o w l.” That sounded weak, he thought. Oh well, try again.
“G R o w L . . . c c co ough!.” Not much better.
Stopping, the little girl slowly turned around.
Along the low-hanging branch reclined a very long tiger.
He doesn’t look good, she thought. Hair’s dirty, pulled out in places like an old rug. You can hardly see the stripes. “Too scrawny,” like Grandmum Fancy would say when she wanted you to eat the rest of your supper.
“Can I help you?” She smiled and looked the tiger straight in the eye.
What? She talks. Where’s the running and screaming, dropping her bag and throwing her hands in the air in terror. She’s asking if she can help me. The cheek of it — I’m about to eat her.
“You need a balanced diet. That’s what Grandmum would say.”
Balanced diet? I’ll balance you on my nose, toss you in the air and swallow you whole.
The tiger jumped to the ground. More like fell. He rolled over, attempted to stand, slumped back and coughed weakly.
Setting her bag down, the young girl selected a fresh fruit. Slowly, she approached, knelt and rolled the melon toward the large feline. The gourd touched the dry nose of the collapsed cat.
The girl retrieved her bag, walked lightly around the tiger and continued on the path.
Scene 2: Class
India is a big place and a long way from Indiana. She had relatives in Indiana. One day she hoped to go there. “Indiana.” The word had a nice sound.
“Open your books, please.”
The choirmaster’s voice brought her back to the classroom.
In the teacher’s left hand, the hymnal was spread wide. With the index finger of his right hand, he touched a page and began to sing, listening as the children’s voices joined with his.
The melody drifted out the open windows of the small white church.
Carried on a soft breeze, the sounds settled through the vined canopy of the nearby jungle.
A pair of rounded ears twitched erect and listened to the singing.
Scene 3: Rest
The large cat lounged on a worn, scratched branch.
“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” Bilge water and balderdash. He’d lived near the coast for a time, near the boats and sailors. Never ate one, a sailor, but he liked the sound of their words and their songs.
Stretching a paw, the tiger examined his claws.
Less brittle. The color was good. He felt better.
Grabbing a fruit with his teeth, he tossed it into the air, caught it neatly and smashed the round globe in his jaws, savoring the juice that dribbled from the corner of his mouth and onto the glistening striped coat.
Scene 4: Tiger
“TIGER! TIGER!” the woodcutter yelled as he ran, dropping exhausted at the house of the village elder.
Major Flotsam opened the door and stared down at his nephew. “Blue Nose, have you been at the fermented vine berries again?”
The young man rolled over, berry juice staining the tip of his nose. He reached his arms and hands shakily into the air and wailed, “T I G E R!”
A crowd had formed, the villagers mumbling to each other.
“You there,” the Major directed, “pull this rascal up so we can get the rest of the story.”
Propped between two sturdy farmers, Blue Nose gulped and began. “Grandmum’s gourd patch. That’s where I saw it. The biggest, strongest, sleekest, scariest tiger cat in the whole world. I stopped and the beast turned its so-big head, yellow eyes glowing, a big Mamma gourd in its mouth, and then it snapped those jaws shut, crushing the melon like it was my head, chewing, smiling, and licking its lips with a big red gourdy tongue.” Blue Nose let out a long shrill “E E E e e e EEK” and fainted straight away.
As Major Flotsam shook his head, one of the farmers holding the slumped nephew said, “Sir, I did see a flash of orange and black near the far gardens on my way home last week.”
“And something between the trees near the river,” the baker added, as others nodded and added glimpses of their own.
“Okay, okay. I’ll call the rangers. Sounds like it’s time for ‘The Trap.’”
As the crowd took up the chant, “The Trap, The Trap, The Trap,” a little girl in the back lowered her head in thought.
Scene 5: A Plan
“You have to leave.”
What’s with the talk? Unpack the bag and roll me a melon. The tiger sniffed and pointed with his nose. I like those yellow and orange ones. Favorite colors, you know.
“You’ve got to listen to me. They know you’re here. In the village, they know you’re close.”
She does seem insistent. It’s always something with humans. Okay, what do you want me to do?
“You’ve got to move. Go to another place. Leave and leave soon. Please.”
Seems precipitous to me. I’ve just gotten used to this place. With the new diet and all, is a change really in order? He licked his lips. Roll another fruit over this way, will you?
In thought, the girl watched the tiger eat. He’s healthy, recovered. But, he had better get away and get away quickly. We need a plan.
“I’ve got it! You like the fruit. I’ll move the food.”
He looked up between chews. Uh-oh. Excitement. Not good. Whenever he made people excited, they either ran away or he ate them. What was she thinking?
“See you tomorrow. I’ll sing to you from down where the path turns along the river. We’ll move closer to the old jungle. The change will be good for you.”
That should work, she thought as she turned toward the village. We’ll get you into the old jungle. The villagers stay away from there. Yes, it should work. It had to.
Scene 6: Our Way
“Lorraine, where do you run off to so fast after practice and take so long on the way home?” The choirmaster smiled down at the little girl. “Your Grandmum stopped me at the market, shook her finger hard in my face and said I was to remind you to go straight home after practice.”
“Yes, Sir. I’ll hurry. I will.” Lorraine lifted the heavy bag over one small shoulder.
The tall man stooped and picked up something from the floor. “Here, you dropped this letter.” Handing the envelope to the girl, he noticed the address. “’Indiana.’ That’s a far place. Do you have a pen pal there?”
“Family, Sir. My uncle and aunt. I want to visit.”
“If you want it badly enough and work hard, it will happen, my little dreamer. But first, home and practice. Be careful, they say there is a great cat about.”
“Are all big cats ferocious, Sir?”
“Little Lorraine, they are wild animals. They do what is their nature to do.”
“But, they could be trained. Right, Sir? They could change.”
“What thoughts there are in that head of yours. This tiger is too close to the village. You know what must happen.”
“It is our way, Lorraine.”
“But what if?”
“No ‘what if’s.’ Off you go now, and quickly, or Grandmum will be bending my ear next time.”
The teacher watched his student disappear into the jungle, wondering why Grandmum had her lugging all those gourds in that bag.
Scene 7: Closer
It was working. They’d made progress.
Lorraine stopped near the river beneath a large tree overgrown with hanging vines.
“Not far,” she sang. “I’m just a little farther down the path.” She lowered the bag to the ground and began unpacking the melons. “Hurry now,” she called.
In the tree, a pair of dark, beady eyes watched. As the long muscular body lowered itself through the over-hanging vines, the triangular jaws opened and the pink forked tongue licked out.
Glancing back along the path, Lorraine saw the tiger standing motionless, the yellow eyes wide and fixed.
“I see you,” she waved.
In a lightning rush, the tiger launched at the girl, mouth open, teeth bared in a snarling growl.
“What are you? No. . . .”
Paws pounding the ground, the striped cat leaped into the air over the girl who dropped beneath his body. The open jaws clamped shut on the neck of the huge snake. Landing, tiger and python rolled, the coils of the snake looping and trying to strangle its adversary. Forcing himself by brute strength to a standing position, the great cat shook its powerful neck and slashing jaws back and forth, unwinding the nightmare clinging to its sides, cracking the snake’s vertebrae and breaking the python’s neck. In one quick movement, the broad shoulders dipped and the massive head snapped up as the tiger lofted the body of the snake into the air, the limp coils twisting to splash and sink beneath the dark waters of the stream.
Heaving its chest and taking a deep breath, the tiger moved to the small girl curled on the ground, her wide eyes focused on the ripples circling away in the water.
Head lowered, the cat softly rubbed the top of the girl’s head.
Lorraine reached her arms around the furry neck, clinging as the tiger lifted the young girl to her feet.
Scene 8: Preparations
“Trap, Trap, Trap the Cat. Trap, Trap, Trap the Cat.” Villagers chanted as they pulled and stretched netting over the upright poles.
“Catch the Tiger. Catch the Tiger. Catch the Tiger.” Others shouted, pounding in place stakes for the chute.
“Shake, Stab, Shoot. Shake, Stab, Shoot. Shake, Stab, Shoot.” Men repeated as they whittled and trimmed the ends of long bamboo poles.
Apart from the workers, two uniformed rangers sat in the shade of a banyan tree oiling their rifles.
On the newly finished platform, Major Flotsam observed the preparations. Leaning over the railing, Blue Nose waved his arms and shouted directions, no one listening.
Near the jungle edge, a little girl emerged and crossed the close-cut field. A heavy sack hung over one shoulder.
Scene 9: What?
Lorraine touched the shoulder of the tiger as the animal lifted another melon.
Since the attack. . . She shuddered with the memory. Since then, the big cat would not let her go closer to the river or the old jungle. When she placed the gourds in that direction, he’d leave them and not answer her songs.
Kneeling, she rested her head against the side of the cat. Down one cheek, a tear slid and dropped to the ground.
What was going to happen? What would they do?
Scene 10: The Day
“You must stay with me today, Lorraine.”
Outside, the shouts of running men could be heard between the regular beats of the hollow wood drums.
“Has it started, Grandmum?”
“It has, girl.”
The elder lady touched Lorraine’s hand. “They know. Major Flotsam and a ranger were here yesterday, while you were at practice. They know you’ve been feeding the tiger.”
“He needed help, Grandmum. He was sick.”
“And you helped him, and he stayed. I’m sorry, little one. Now, it’s begun and it can’t be stopped.”
“Yes, Grandmum, but it’s not right. He hasn’t hurt anyone.”
“He’s a wild animal. You know what must happen.”
“But, he’s my friend, and he saved my life.”
Grandmum Fancy lifted her head in surprise and thought for some seconds before replying. “I do not doubt you, Granddaughter. I believe this tiger is special, very special.” The grandmother sat down heavily in her rocker. “I just can’t see a way, child. If I could, I would help, but it’s too late.” She reached out with her arms. “Come here and give this old lady a hug.” Lorraine moved slowly over and hugged Grandmum, her young body relaxing in her grandmother’s arms. “There, that’s better. Now, be a good girl and go to your room for a little while.” As Lorraine stood, Grandmum Fancy added, “There’s a surprise there. I put it beside your bed. A letter.”
“Really, Grandmum.” Lorraine’s eyes lit up with excitement. “Is it from Indiana?”
“Go see for yourself. Later, we can talk, when you help with the cooking. Maybe, we’ll make your favorite dessert.”
“Oh, Grandmum.” The little girl ran and kissed her grandmother on the cheek.
* * *
Sitting on the bed, her back propped by pillows, Little Lorraine read the letter through. She set it down. Then, she picked up the page and read the hand-written words another time.
She saw it.
There may be a way.
She’d seen him do it many times.
Grandmum would understand.
She had to try.
* * *
“Lorraine, Lorraine, it’s time to start the baking.” That little girl loved to help with the baking, especially the sweet cakes. Maybe, she’d fallen asleep. “Lorraine, come help your Grandmum.”
Fancy walked to the closed door, knocked softly and waited. No sounds. Slowly, she opened the door and looked inside. Pillows were piled against the headboard. A folded page lay open on the bed, next to an envelope.
Grandmum watched the fabric of the brightly colored curtains lift and settle in the draft from the open window.
* * *
Back in the main room, Grandmum Fancy found her cat hiding under the table.
“Where is that girl?” she said aloud, reaching down to pull the kitty up and into her arms. “And, what is she up to?”
Outside, the sounds grew louder, closer, more insistent.
“They’ve got that tiger on the run,” Grandmum commented to the fidgeting feline. “The trap is closing. It won’t be long. No time for this old body to do anything, even if I knew anything to do.”
Sinking into the rocker, Fancy stroked the cat’s neck and scratched under its chin, rewarded by answering purrs.
“There, you’re better now.” Grandmum heaved a sigh and stared at the door to her granddaughter’s room. “I think, though, there is little to save your big cousin, and I worry for our girl. Now, we pray and hope.”
Scene 11: The Trap
“R O O OAAR R R!”
His mind was red blind. No words formed in the rage.
Noise and sharp points met each jump.
The tiger stopped leaping and paced the circle of The Trap. On each approach to the netting, long biting poles poked out and pushed him SNAA-RRR-LING back.
At one end, villagers dropped their poles and worked to close the neck of the chute. A small space remained. It was the only exit, the only way to escape.
On the raised platform, Major Flotsam carefully lifted a hand in the “Ready” signal.
Beside him, the rangers raised their rifles and sighted down the barrels.
A hush fell over the crowd. Everyone waited for the shots.
The song was soft at first and grew louder.
Every head turned to the narrow opening in the chute.
The young girl twisted between the poles and walked slowly into The Trap. The sweet sounds of her voice echoed in the open space.
The tiger stopped pacing. Along its flanks, the heavy wet fur expanded and contracted in short, quick breaths. Lifting its massive head, the striped cat took a step toward the girl.
The deep inhale of the watchers pierced the melody.
Ten feet from the wild animal, Little Lorraine knelt, reached out her hands and rolled a melon across the soft dirt.
Opening its jaws, the great cat caught the melon, flipped its head up and tossed the gourd high into the air. The melon seemed suspended in time as if held aloft by the fixed stares of a thousand eyes. Slowly descending, the round fruit entered the gaping mouth of the beast. Shattering the moment, the fearsome maw snapped shut. Melon pieces exploded in a penumbra of colored flesh and dark flashing seeds. Juice dribbled from the wide grin of the tiger.
With a flourish and curtsy, the smiling girl stood, waved around to the amazed crowd and ran to throw her arms around the neck of her tiger.
Sporadically at first and then in a mounting crescendo, cheers and clapping erupted from the spectators on every side.
On the platform, Major Flotsam pointed to the shooters to put down their weapons. Then, he hauled his groggy nephew up and propped him against the railing. Blue Nose, in his usual way, had fainted.
* * *
In her rocker, Grandmum Fancy heard the applause and smiled. There were no shots. The grandmother’s smile grew to soft laughter as Fancy wondered what her little girl was planning next.
Scene 12: The Ride
Out the window, Lorraine watched the passing corn fields.
It was so green. As green as the jungle, but different. So ordered and neat. She liked the look of this place.
The driver caught her attention and pointed.
She saw the billboard. Flattening her face against the glass of the side window, her eyes moved to follow every detail.
Oh, my. There they were. Who would have thought? She couldn’t wait. Grandmum will be so proud.
The driver chuckled at the young girl in the backseat. That was her alright, the one in the pictures. No mistaking the smile. Now, he’d have to take the kids. The grand opening was this weekend.
Waving again to the girl, he pointed to the other side of the road.
In the rearview mirror, the driver watched the pretty head turn and stretch to read the words on the billboard:
FERNANDO RASHTI’S INDIANA WILD ANIMAL PARK
LORRAINE AND HOBBES
INDIA’S FAVORITE SINGING GIRL AND MOST TERRIFYING TIGER
ASTONISHING MELON CRUSHING ACT
At that moment, a thought popped into the head of Little Lorraine Rashti.
In the Wild Animal Park, the same thought popped into the head of Tiger Hobbes.
As so often happened between the two, the girl and the tiger thought the same thing at the same time:
YOU CAN’T CHANGE A TIGER’S STRIPES,
BUT YOU CAN CHANGE THE TIGER.