I had never hunted in this area before but I had been dying to get a tiger’s head for my collection for years now. One of my friends found this forest on an environmental website. It boasted of a uniquely high tiger per kilometer ratio as compared to the rest of the world, and with good reasons too. Tigers are revered here, so, local poachers don’t touch them. There’s no law against hunting the endangered species in this country though. I guess, the government assumed that the religious fear was enough a motivator.
Anyway, I got a quick tourist Visa, gathered my hunting gear and flew here. In a country where tigers are revered, I couldn’t directly ask people where I could find a tiger to kill. So, I went around the long route. After the first day of sight seeing with a local tourist guide, I tipped him heavily. Then, I said something like, “I just wish it was a little more exciting than that!” I talked about my hunting trips. He immediately promised to find someone to help me, which he did within the hour.
The ‘help’ was a small shrewd man who offered his services based on a hefty fee per day. We started small with hunting foxes, then, gazelle and wild boars. I tipped him generously after each day’s game, increasing the amount with the size of the game, nudging him to find something even more exciting. He gradually warmed up to me suggesting bigger cats–Serval, Cheetah, Leopard… I told him, “But I’ve done them all in. The only big cats I’d be interested in now would either be a Lion or a Tiger. Of course, I knew the area did not have any lions.
He hesitated. A long pregnant pause that had me wondering if I had gone a little too fast. Should I have waited a few more days? Should I have hunted the Leopard or Cheetah first? But that would have killed several days of my trip, reducing the days I had left for Tigers.
After what felt like an eternity, he admitted reluctantly, “There’s a place in the forest where tigers throng. That is the only place where you are sure to find then. Mind you, we never hunt them. There is a curse in that place. Anybody who goes hunting there ends up as either dead or raving mad.”
Old wives tales, of course! “I’m not afraid.”
He looked at me with the resignation of a parent who knew his child was beyond hope. “Okay! But this time, I won’t stay with you for the hunt. I have a family to provide for, so, I can’t afford to be cursed.”
It took immense effort to stop me from rolling my eyes. “Sure, but you can show me where it is, right?”
He nodded quietly, “Yes, but it will cost a lot more–I’m risking a curse and a possible death. I’ll take the money in advance today, so that I can hand it over to my family, just in case, I don’t return.”
I knew he was exaggerating to hike up the amount. He wasn’t even going to be on the hunt. But I hadn’t travelled across the world to save pennies. If the website was to be believed, the number of tigers in the area guaranteed a trophy.
The next morning, he came back with supplies for three days, a goat, two labourers and tools to create a hunting platform. When handed over one of my heavier guns, the labourer started backing out, muttering in native language. I looked at the ‘help’ to translate but he had horror written all over his face. “At no cost should you fire your gun until we’ve returned. Firing the gun draws the tigers in.”
I could not help rolling my eyes this time. Thankfully, they didn’t see me. “Come on, the boom of gunfire scares animals away…”
“It might in other places, but it’s different here. You’ll see soon enough.”
We travelled as far as we could in an old jeep. Then, we walked on a well-beaten trail. Apparently, a lot of people walked through that part of the forest without any weapons. So much for risking life!
We left the trail and entered deeper into the forest. After an hour, we stopped near a tall and sturdy tree with high and strong branches that gave me enough cover without obscuring my view. The ‘help’ ensured, it was impossible for a tiger to climb. I knew the last precaution was unnecessary but he insisted, “You will be thanking us three days from now.”
The labourers began building the hunting platform. The ‘help’ tied the goat in open view and arranged its fodder while I smoked a cigarette relishing in the tiger calls. The website was right. Too many tigers live in this area. Not sure how though. Tigers are rather territorial. Usually, there is no more than one in several kilometres. But in this place, it sounds as if there is a huge ‘pride’ living in close vicinity, only, Tigers don’t live in prides. The biggest group would be a mother with two cubs.
By noon, the platform was mounted and the ‘help’ said, “Are you sure you want to do it, Sir?”
Mentally, I laughed at the superstition. Overtly, I just nodded.
“Alright,” he pointed towards north where trees seem to thin. “There is the temple of Kyarr over there. The only survivors from a hunting trip in this area were found hiding there–completely mad, mind you, but alive. So, if the situation gets out of hand, try to make a dash for it. I’ll return in three days and collect whatever is left of you.”
With those parting words, they left.
I settled in the platform on the tree, hid behind the leaves with gun in position and waited. It wasn’t long when the goat started bleating. A tiger walked in. I guess, it wasn’t hungry because it wasn’t stealthy. It sniffed, the goat bleated and the tiger looked straight at the place I sat. Somehow, it knew I was there. I had a clear shot but the intensity of its stare made my hands shake. I fired but missed.
That’s when all hell broke lose.
All of a sudden, 17 tigers rushed out of the bushes around me, roaring and tearing at the tree. The tree was rather sturdy and impossible for an animal to climb but, in my bones, I knew it can’t last against so many tigers. I fired several rounds but, weirdly enough, hit none. Soon, I was out of bullets.
I wondered whether the guide had reached home safely. I wondered when he will return. I had travelled across the world to be here, but now I couldn’t wait to return to my family. I clung to a branch fiercely and prayed to see my wife and daughter one more time.
After an eternity of scratching away the tree bark, they began returning to the shadows of the forest but one of them remained stationed beneath the tree. I had a suspicion, he’s waiting for me to get drowsy and fall down. After a couple of hours, as the rush of adrenalin subsided, I started getting drowsy. Crazy as it sounds, another tiger had come in and relieved the first one from ‘duty’, which means they were working as a team. I could see that three days from now, one of them would still be here. Which means, my help would never arrive.
Dusk arrived and the last rays of light fell on a shining piece of metal–the pinnacle of the ancient temple. The wise words returned to me–“If the situation gets out of hand…” Well, the situation was certainly out of hand. I couldn’t stay the night here. May be, the temple could offer a better shelter. I could hide in the inner sanctum and close the doors. Other people have survived, haven’t they? There was no point waiting to die here. I would rather do something.
I couldn’t carry my baggage. It would slow me down. My guns were all useless without the bullets and my knife would never reach the tigers before they reach me. So, I used them to create a diversion. I dropped my bag down first, threw my gun as far as it would go in the opposite direction, and then my knife ahead of it. The tiger took the bait and ran towards them. I jumped down and dashed towards the temple. I ran like my life depended on it. I didn’t hear any tigers behind me but I didn’t stop to find out.
I reached the temple in one mad dash. It had no boundary so entering was rather easy. I ran inside the prayer hall and turned to close the doors. There were none.
“Don’t worry. They won’t hurt you here. You aren’t carrying weapons,” a pleasant female voice made me turn around. She was sitting on the empty stone throne on the pedestal. “Priestess,” I thought.
“I had shot several rounds at them a few hours back.”
“But you can’t anymore.” There was no question in her voice. She smiled dazzling me. “Please make yourself comfortable until your friends return for you. If you are hungry, you can have these fruits,” she pointed towards a basket at her feet. With those words, she left the room.
I hid there for three days until help arrived. The first night, I ate like crazy but slept fretfully. All the while, I heard them roar close by occasionally, just outside the periphery of the temple. Not sure what was keeping them out though–the temple had no doors to close. It wasn’t fear that kept me up. It was the woman–I kept thinking about her smile, her face, her grace, her voice…
The next day stretched before me with nothing to do. My smartphone battery was dead. I tried missing my wife and daughter, but I couldn’t. All I thought was ‘her’. I craved for her with the intensity of a man dying of thirst in the desert. But however I tried, I could not recall the colour of her clothes. I had been so taken in by her face.
At dusk, she returned with a fruit basket. I think, her clothes could have were made of tiger skin…I can’t be sure. All I could remember was her face and dazzling smile. She asked me if I was well. I wanted to say that I was dying to see her again. But all I could manage was a nod. She left the basket in the same place and left with the dazzling smile. I wanted to stop her and ask her name. I wanted to ask her how she knew my language and about my friends; where she lived and why she returned only at dusk and only to deliver the basket; why she never said a prayer in the temple; where was the deity anyway.
But the words stayed lodged firmly in my throat. All I could manage was to look like a dumb thunderstruck tree.
The night was spent pretty much the same way. The tiger roars kept waking me up. When I slept, I dreamt of her. I had difficulty remembering my wife’s name. Heck, I couldn’t have remembered my own name, had I not brought my ID with me. The morning was spent waiting for the dusk to arrive so that I could see her again. I gathered wildflowers that grew within the temple boundaries. A tiger was manning the place. It gave me hope that my ‘friends’ wouldn’t be able to come and I wouldn’t have to go away. I could stay here forever, seeing her everyday. I held the flowers lovingly in my arms until she came, afraid to put them down lest they get dirty.
When she came, I all but jumped up. She placed the basket in the same place and looked at me. I meekly held out the flowers. She accepted them quietly with a smile that almost made me swoon. She turned to leave. I couldn’t hold back anymore. I might have to leave tomorrow. How could I go without knowing her name? Or rather, how could I go at all?
“Please don’t go,” I begged her.
“Do you need anything else from me?” her voice was teasing.
“I…I don’t even know you name,” I blushed to the roots of my hair like a school boy.
“I thought you’ll never ask. People call me Kyarr,” she replied.
“Oh! I thought Kyarr was the deity here.” She kept smiling.
“I…My friends are due to return tomorrow. I was wondering… thinking that…I…Would you…” I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. What if she says no? What if she considers it an insult? I know nothing about her. She could be married. She looks young but people marry early in this part of the world. Heck, even I’m married! What was I even thinking?
She waited for a few seconds. Then, probably realised I wasn’t going to finish. So, she simply said, “I know your friends come tomorrow morning. I guess it is the last time we meet.” She was still smiling.
“Would you like to come with me?” I blurted out, then lost all the courage and looked at my feet.
“I can’t. I’m needed here. But thank you for asking.”
It hurt to see that there was no pain in her eyes. She was smiling as always while my own heart was ripping up in pieces. “Will you at least stay the night? I just want to look at you until I leave,” I knew I was transgressing some social boundary but I couldn’t remember it…
“I can but you might not like how I look after dark. That’s why I haven’t been staying here for the past two nights.”
I could hear the warning in her voice but I was past caring now. If it was the last time I was looking at her, I didn’t care if a few hair came out her bun. Come to think of it, I can’t remember how she wore her hair–Was it a bun? Pig tails? Or did she leave them loose over her shoulders?
She’d still be the only one I love. “I insist.”
Agreeing, she sat on the stone throne on the pedestal. Then she gave me that smile that melted my knees…
and turned to stone…a magnificent stone Tigress.
My helpers returned the next day and told me the goat was still very much alive. I told them about Kyarr but they didn’t believe me. They said Kyarr, the stone Tigress, has always been there on the pedestal. She was the temple deity.
They said the curse that was turning me mad.
I would like to believe them and forget all about her, but how can I? My dreams are full of tiger calls and my every waking moment is spent thinking about her. Somehow, her being a tigress makes no difference to me. She’s still the one I love. Often I see her walk away from me. I call her. I beg her to stop but she just gives me a smile that would make me follow her anywhere. And then, she keeps walking until I can walk no more. Once I fall, I crawl behind her until I faint. When I wake up, I find her gone. My bleeding feet and knees don’t hurt. My heart bleeds knowing I’ll never see her again. I tried booking a flight to return but my wife…I can’t recall her name now…she won’t let me go. I think she’s jealous. Can you please make her understand, Doctor? You do believe me, don’t you?
The Doctor looks up at me with eyes filled with pity. His voice belies his words. “Sure I do.” He stops the recorder and makes some notes in his pad. “Let’s discuss your dreams in more detail tomorrow.” He signals a male nurse to escort me to my padded cell from where I couldn’t escape and walk until my feet hurt and crawl until my knees bleed…
Original photo by Evgeny Nelmin on Unsplash
Digitalization by Ammpryt ART