Purbeck U3A - 2019 Writing Competition
Short Fiction - 1st Place
The Year of the Tiger by Roger Chambers
There is nothing quite like the heat of the Sundarbans. It penetrates the soul in a way that cold never can and permeates the lungs with its clammy, muffled claws so that the effort of breathing is almost insupportable. The mangroves crowd out the sky and the tiny crabs scuttling over the mud banks assume the proportions of dangerous monsters – a surrogate for the real hazards lurking just out of sight.
But the boy liked the idea of danger. And he was accustomed to the heat. And the sense of isolation – even though he was barely a hundred yards from his home – was part of the thrill. If he listened carefully, he could hear the regular thump-thump as his mother pounded the grain for their evening meal but the sound was distorted and deadened by the heavy air and it was easy to imagine himself a thousand miles away or, better, on a distant planet inhabited by who knew what kind of strange and deadly creatures. He had heard about exoplanets in school and he and his friends had speculated about what kinds of life they might harbour.
The biggest crab, all of three inches across but with a bright red shell, stopped and waved its claws in the air. It was not aware of the boy, sitting on the arched root of the mangrove, but that didn’t matter. The claws might be radioactive. They might be poisonous. They might be contaminated with the poisonous blood of a deep ocean deathfish. They might be, well, almost anything. The boy felt the frisson of excitement he always felt when he came here to “his” tree and he lifted his bare feet an inch or two higher.
Ten yards away the tigress crouched silently, the only movement the slow undulations of her gold and black flanks and, occasionally, the reflex flick of an ear in response to the attention of some bothersome insect. The soft eyes rested patiently on the boy. She must wait. Killing man-things always brought danger but her cubs needed meat and the pain in her torn foot, the result of two days in a trap, prevented her seeking fleeter prey. For the moment, the twisted roots of the boy’s mangrove protected him and the tigress knew better than to ignore the upward-pointing spikes of the air shoots. The slight crackle as she moved across them might alert the boy. She could wait. Eventually, the boy must move.
It was the heat that caused the boy to move. That and the humidity. Even for the boy, the still air of the mangrove swamp was oppressive and a small rivulet of sweat ran down his forehead, stinging his eye. He blinked, the enormous Sirian Dire Crab vanished and he realised he was hungry. He slid down from his perch, stepped quickly away from the soft mud under his bare feet and wondered briefly at the sudden, searing pain in his shoulder. It was his last thought. Tigers spring very quietly and suddenly and efficiently and little boys don’t have the tenacity of life of even the youngest of young deer.
Within fifteen minutes, despite her injury, the tigress was three miles away making excellent speed over the drier ground away from the river. In half an hour she was fully six miles away. And by the time the boy’s mother first began to wonder where he was, the tigress had vanished almost as completely as if she had never been.
The boy’s father and the other men from the village began the search with lanterns but, it was not until the first light of the new day that they discovered the disturbed mud and the big pug marks heading away to the north. Of course, they followed. They knew that it was too late for the boy, but man-eaters were rare now in the Sundarbans, and it was vital to know where the tigress had gone and to take a human revenge. Tigresses must be taught the age-old lesson.
It took all day and the next day but the lesson was taught and the men returned to the village. As always, there was much work to be done. There were crops to be grown. Fish to be caught and dried. Food to be prepared. Floods to be endured. The monsoon to be awaited. Children to be cared for. Markets to be visited. Life is hard in the Sundarbans and soon most of them only half remembered Rajiv’s son. He was always been a bit strange wasn’t he? A bit of a loner with funny ideas. Wasn’t he the one who was always talking about space ships? Something like that.
Soon only the boy’s mother and father could date with certainty the year of the tiger