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Emerging Writer Award Runner Up

Big Cats

by

Erik Hoel

 

 
     
   

 

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THERE WAS MOVEMENT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE HILL, DRAWING THE YOUNG BOY TO SLIDE DOWN, CRAB-LIKE, INTO SHADOWS MADE CLUTTERED BY BRIAR. He was half-caked in spring mud, his blue eyes stark as the tiger slipped out of the forest’s shadows and, framed by leaves, returned the boy’s wide-eyed stare with patient slits of amber. The air was thick with rot and growth, the fecund scent of wilting flowers. These memories are closed moments, small spaces that he can barely move in, made up only of light and awakening and the smell of damp fur. He has many of these; cramped rooms haunted by red hair entwined by small, pink fingers.
_____ He had beckoned the tiger to come up to the school’s playground and play tag but the only response he got was a deep and heavy breathing. The tiger had moved out from its bloom of foliage, its body like a passing caravan between the spruce trunks, encircling the boy. He had curled up beside it and stayed there, until the teachers found him with flashlights after dark, crowned by sprigs and fallen leaves, asleep. The tiger was gone, but the grass was bedded down in a wide circle, damp and warm. His mother told the teachers that she was sorry but Daniel had been having problems lately, and reminded them that there had been a family tragedy two months ago. She’d wrung her hands and pulled him away to the car.
_____You’ve had imaginary friends before, Daniel’s mother said during the drive back. You’re getting too old for that stuff. And it’s embarrassing to have to come up here like that. Yeah, but this one is real, he insisted. She was silent after that and he had laid his head against the glass to watch the trees blur into green and remembered how his sister had looked in her pillowed casket, like one of her dolls, the dolls she had outgrown but still kept in battalions lined on her mantle, a crowd of silent and pious witnesses to all acts. He remembered how her hair had fanned about her head like burnished fire against the white pillows, and he had been so sure she would burst into radiant flames if only they would take her into the light, outside, if only they would take her outside or open some windows, he had pleaded, begged them to open the windows, until his father had taken him from the room like a grey-eyed god of thunderous silence.
_____The tiger was waiting for him at home, pacing at the top of his driveway. Daniel had leapt out of the minivan after it, but it retreated beneath the Forsythia bush and it took him several hours to coax it out. Reluctantly it came inside the kitchen with him and ate the bowl of macaroni and cheese his mother put down at his insistence. The lolling tongue lapped the edges of the bowl and pushed it around the tiled kitchen floor. Afterwards the tiger had slunk off to explore the house. The trailing banks of orange brushed past sofas and cabinets and pawed open his drawers and nosed through his closet. At his sister’s room the tiger paused, sniffing and curving into a half-moon. The room was a stone-eyed museum, waiting for life to be breathed into it once more, waiting to be used to comb hair and put on make-up, waiting for those thin and delicate hands, like sparrow bones, to play the small piano and bloom into furious, defiant sound.
_____Afterwards he had taken the tiger to the kitchen to help his mother wash the dishes. When his father came home from work at the hospital and asked what a bowl of macaroni and cheese was doing forgotten on the floor, his mother had started to explain then stopped as he interrupted her. I’m a doctor, he said, and I won’t have my son raised on fantasies. He crouched down and put his hands on Daniel’s shoulders, hands so mountainous it was hard to believe they could hold a scalpel, and he pulled Daniel close and held him with utter stillness until Daniel thought he was underwater, deep-sea diving to explore a silent land that wasn’t land but flesh until his father let go and Daniel went rushing up to the surface. His father stood and went to the den, turned on the news real loud, took a beer out of the mini-fridge by the sofa and ate from the bowl of nuts left out on the table. The tiger hissed and retreated to the basement.
_____He missed his older sister Sarah. Her hair had been like licks of flame, and she had kept it long, and he pretended that she had kept it long for him so that he could play with it from the backseat of the car. She would build pillow forts with him and, with the air of a tragic, deposed queen, anchor blankets from one chair to another, then crouch down and cuddle with him, whispering that this was their place, that they were safe from Him here. They had tickle fights in the cramped dark. Her hair got in his mouth. He thought she was very brave, and she told him that when he was older she would take him away, that they would run away together. She read him Peter Pan and told him it was a story about people running away. In the dark her voice was made of promises.

In the old days at home the Neverland had always begun to look a little dark and threatening by bedtime. Then unexplored patches arose in it and spread, black shadows moved about in them, the roar of the beasts of prey was quite different now, and above all, you lost the certainty that you would win.

_____Of course his father made him say it, pinning him up against the wall, blue-eyed and aristocratic in his anger. Yes, the tiger doesn’t exist, I made it up, Daniel said.
_____He was afraid that saying the tiger wasn’t real would cause it to vanish, but he continued to wake to its length of warmth, sagging in his bed. The mattress springs were bent and blunted and his mother accused him of jumping on his bed. The neighborhood lost cats and dogs and it was rumored that a pack of coyotes had taken up residence in the woods. Deer were sighted less and less along the wooded roads.
_____Some months he would go weeks without seeing the long train of its body, but even then he knew it wasn’t gone, because he still had his tiger dreams. In fact they were strongest then, bits and pieces of night as bright as day, like fragments of glass.
_____At night he would balance on his bedpost, one foot hesitant, probing the air, waiting for it to become like liquid, like it had on nights before. And when it did, under the cool, detached gaze of the tiger he would push off from the bedpost and use the swimming strokes he had learned in school to circle the cornices of the ceiling.
_____In school Daniel was quiet and slow to answer questions. His teacher once made him read aloud the definition of stoic, and the whole class had laughed. He was silent and defiant because he knew he could fly, and none of them could. He did homework and read fantasy novels with walking trees and dragons on the covers. Snows came and the tiger left caving tunnels, sculpted like frozen surf, through ice-glazed banks. Huge paw prints spiraled around the house and into the woods and wound through the soft and mute and canopied giants.
_____He got a job at a local supermarket. The tiger never went with him there, and he thought that maybe it was the smell, because sometimes when he was working the smell of the fat and red-faced people would overwhelm him and he would excuse himself to gasp and splash water on his face in the bathroom. Sometimes he would sink to his knees there, wracked by silent screams on the tile floor, convulsing, unsure as to why. Then he would pull himself up, straighten his uniform, put his hands on the sink to steady himself, wash his hands and walk out.

_____He met a girl and she kissed him, lightly, like she was dipping to drink water. The world moved too fast to keep up with and his hands fluttered across her face and arms like bird wings and they both trembled uncontrollably.
_____On some days the tiger paced beside him, its rolling motion matching his steps. To drive to high school on those mornings he would open the back door to the car he got for his sixteenth birthday and the tiger would leap into the backseat, the car sinking under its weight. The car got horrible mileage, and the back right window was impossible to see out of because the tiger liked to lick it during drives, its long tongue pressed against the cool glass. It had followed him into school building only once; the press and screams and bells had spooked it and he had seen the tiger loping across the football field and into the salt marsh from the window of his math class. He imagined the tiger stalking long-limbed birds through the mud and high, dry grasses, prehistoric and artful.
_____As a birthday present Daniel received a membership to the local gym and he started working out. He took to driving to parks and running the paths that snaked through them, his feet pounding the dirt in new sneakers with the tiger loping along beside him, a fluid shadow among the trees. He would pretend he was a tiger then, as he ran, and that he could be as strong and fast as he wanted. Sometimes he would look down and see his legs bicycling in air, the ground far below him, and he would surge past treetops and frighten birds out of their nests, like colored ribbons tipped from hats.
_____His father worked long hours, slept at the hospital, and was rarely home. The house was silent and even the quietest words were naked and loud. Daniel bought his own meals, or heated up labeled rows of Tupperware-stored leftovers. His mother grew small and mousy and weeded the same garden over and over again until it was no more than brown dirt.
_____By senior year he weighed two hundred pounds and was benching two hundred fifty. He could feel the lean bulk shift and move as he walked. He liked the gym, the silence of it, the clank of the bars and then the weight on top of him, like holding up a mountain. He graduated fifth in his class, a member of The National Honors Society, thought of by his teachers as a quiet and studious boy. The tiger he identified as a Bengal tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, native to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, and Tibet, weighing about 500 pounds, measuring about ten feet from tip of the nose to end of the tail, and female.
_____A thick acceptance letter arrived from Amherst College. His father said he was proud, very proud of his son, and that he would take Daniel out someplace nice to celebrate. They did, and Daniel’s father told funny stories from medical school about practical jokes and chasing tail and charismatic cadavers and Daniel thought that he was meeting his father for the first time. The man’s hair had turned grey, but his eyes still flashed with that Icelandic blue. To Daniel his father seemed to be swelling, gorging himself on his wife as she was withering away, losing weight and becoming sunken in her features. She’d aged three decades in the eight years since her daughter died.
_____Daniel majored in Zoology. He sat and listened to professors talk about the actin filaments and myofibrils that make up muscles and pitied them, because they didn’t know what it was like to move as a quadruped. He dreamed in movement, of the fluid bunching of muscles, so fast he could feel parts of himself stretching out far behind him and then snapping away, lost. The tiger stayed on campus, but was wilder than at home. It didn’t like the cramped dorms, preferring to roam the woods and sleep languidly in the crook of an elm down the hill from his window. He groomed it and picked the burs out of its fur. It left his face raw with its gentle lapping, holding him down with one giant paw on his chest. He would giggle then, even though it hurt. He had a roommate, so he didn’t try to fly at night anymore.
_____While in college he went home just once, for the first Christmas. Most of the light bulbs were burned out and hadn’t been replaced. His mother hugged and babied him, making him noodle soup. His father worked all through Christmas Eve and into Christmas day. When he was home from the hospital he was a dark, hunched shadow in the den, illuminated by the blue light of the television. His mother said his father had moved out to that side of the house, sleeping on a fold-out futon. She was frail, moving slowly up and down staircases, the house far too big for her. For Christmas his father gave him a check for five thousand dollars and his mother gave him a brooch with penguins on it that had belonged to his sister.
_____At college he threw himself into his studies. From working out his body had become a thing of stone, sculpted and shifting. The muscle lent him a tension to his movements, graceful and economic, feline. During the summers he stayed at Amherst and worked under a professor tracking the mating habits of local birds. He sat in the woods with a wide-brimmed hat and wiped sweat from his face and watched the twisting ribbons of birds fall from branches and thought about flying.
_____He was accepted to a PhD program in zoology at Cornell. The tiger knew he was going to move and didn’t like it, but he managed to coax it into the car by leaving the door open and an uncooked turkey in the back seat, which left a grease stain on the seat as the tiger messily devoured it. It was impossible for him to take a plane anywhere; there was no way he could check an incredibly large and empty carrier on board. He drove everywhere, and never left the country.
_____At Cornell, his thesis work was in ethology, specifically the stalking behavior of North American megafauna predators. Sometimes he read to understand, and other times he slept, and dreamed great tiger dreams of pursuit and acceleration and the tumble of bodies, as close as lovers, of fur wet with the ambrosia scent of blood.
_____His mother died. A friend of hers told him that she just faded away. Driving to the funeral Daniel stopped the car on the side of the highway at least five times. Each time he would get out and pace around the car in circles, the tiger watching from the cramped back. He would then sit on the hood and watch cars that he had passed speed by. Once, a jeep pulled over and the owner, a forty year old professional looking woman, asked him if he needed help. He told her no, waved her away, and did not stop again.
_____His father made one last appearance at the funeral. Tall and proud in his suite, he feasted on the guests’ sympathy, forcing pieces past swollen lips. It was raining and the tiger stood under a tree in the cemetery, dripping wet and growling with discomfort. That was the last time Daniel saw his father, a rain-soaked figure picking its way through headstones. It was the first time his father looked small to him.
_____Daniel met a girl named Julia. She was pretty, but not really beautiful, or he didn’t think she was beautiful until he saw her when it was snowing out, and she was dancing in big heavy boots, a puff jacket with twig legs kicking in all directions. He decided right then he would ask her to marry him. His tiger prowled around her, leaving deep and rounded paw prints in the snow. Her read her Peter Pan, curled up in blankets.

 The redskins disappear as they have come, like shadows, and soon their place is taken by the beasts, a great and motley procession: lions, tigers, bears, and the innumerable smaller savage things that flee from them, for every kind of beast, and, more particularly, all the man-eaters, live cheek by jowl on the favoured island. Their tongues are hanging out, they are hungry to-night.
           
_____Julia was getting a doctorate in art history and she took him to museums, where he and the tiger would pass by the other, smaller paintings to gaze silently at giant canvases, two curved statues with their heads cocked as if listening, until Julia would come and drag him to the next exhibit, the tiger waiting, staring upwards, until they were out of sight around a corner and then it would turn and pad after them.
_____When they got engaged he told her about the tiger. She sat listening, laughing when appropriate, and at the end suggested he see a therapist. She suggested it the same way she might suggest they order takeout that night, or that he change a light bulb. He said no, and she didn’t press the point.
_____Is it here? she’d ask occasionally. Usually he’d nod and gesture toward what he was sure to her was an empty patch of ground, and she would smile and they would continue walking or watching a movie. When they had sex she told him to order the tiger out of the room, which he would do, pointing to the door and commanding it to exit, and they would both have a giggling fit as he described how the tiger would yawn, stretch, and saunter out the door like it was the tiger’s idea to leave all along. Julia asked him if they could buy a dog, and he said no. She asked him if they could have children, and he said yes.
_____They bought a small house with a big yard, where suburbia ground up against the wood. Cats and dogs began disappearing around the neighborhood shortly after they moved in, and rumors of coyotes circulated. Often the tiger slept in their bedroom, an orange arch curved and spilling over the edges of the futon, and on very silent nights he could hear the great cathedral of its heart beating in the darkness.
_____He was out celebrating the successful defense of his thesis at a bar when, from across the room, he watched the three men surround his wife, who were playing pool. They were large, and one of them had tattoos ringing his arms. Julia moved like a trapped sparrow in between them. Then the tiger was there, a blur from the other side of the room, raking and clawing as its weight bore one to the ground. He was carried along with its roar, to a place of quick and strong movements.
_____Afterwards he was holding Julia when the paramedics came, and he offered to ride with one of the men to the hospital. The tiger was licking the blood off its paws in a corner. Later his lawyer said it was probably that act of kindness that got him off the hook for second degree murder, along with the fact that the one who died had gotten out of prison a year ago, finishing a sentence for attempted rape. All the witnesses had sworn it was self-defense on his part, although the savage and brutal maiming of the men had given the jury pause. Like an animal mauled them, Daniel heard one of the cops say.
_____Julia and he got married. She was eight months pregnant, and when she was asleep at night he liked to pretend that he, Julia, the baby and the tiger were the only things left alive on the planet; that there had been a great flood, and their bedroom was rocking on ocean waves, endless and frothing outside the curtained windows, a raft on deep, unsettled seas. At these times he thought about his mother, as silent as if she had spent the night swallowing stones in the dark. He thought about how his sister had come to his room before dawn with a robe over her small shoulders and boots on her feet. She had been buttoned up in a thick winter coat, but her skinny legs were bare. It had been snowing. Thick drifts built over the eaves of the house and rolled the landscape into white dunes. She had kissed his head and he had clutched at her and she had cried into his hair, promising that she would be back, that she would be back someday, to get him. Then she was gone.
_____Crying and listening to her small steps flutter down the stairs, he had lain in his bed and gasped in quiet desperation. He had heard the creak of the back door as she left. And he had heard heavier footsteps descending from her room, moving in a deep whisper and with deadly gravity. He heard the closet door open in a search for boots. The back door had creaked again, and the heavy footsteps had followed her out into the snow.
_____Daniel imagined her bare legs moving down the driveway, into the road, struggling through banks of moon-white snow. He thought that perhaps her footprints had become rounded and larger, more like paws, and her gate became a blurred and elegant haste. He did not want to think of her cold stick-legs kicking through drifts slowly, moving into the distance, into a mute and hushed drama, into the icy ballrooms of a winter at night.
_____In his storm-tossed bedroom he would lie awake next to his sleeping wife, with one hand on the curve of her stomach, gasping in quiet desperation. The stirring child inside was still breathing only a wine-red fluid, not the heart-break of air. The tiger on the rug would lay its ears flat against its head, growling softly, almost rising and then settling once more, eyes searching in primitive comprehension. Daniel would throw his blankets off as if they were a great weight, and rise nude and quiet to balance his huge frame on his creaking bedpost. He would glance behind him to make sure his wife was still sleeping. One foot in the air. Then a trembling breath. Then the silence of suspension.

 

     

Erik Hoel at Our Stories

Erik Hoel

Erik Hoel studies neuroscience and evolutionary biology at Hampshire College. His current research focuses on how the brain compensates for time delays by predicting the future. Erik also works as an Emergency Medical Technician, from which he gets many short story ideas. Erik received an honorable mention from the Ron L. Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Award. This is his first published fiction. During his spare time Erik runs a lot, reads a lot, and spends too much time daydreaming up ideas for novels when he should be paying attention to his experiments.

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