Ari and the Tiger by H.R. Wasserstein

Ari can’t remember her life before the tiger stalked her. She steps out into the sun, feels the warmth of it on her skin, and knows that he is there. She tries to ignore him, closing her eyes.

Then he speaks.

“Skip the second step.”

She looks down at the porch steps and swallows. “Why?”

“If you don’t, everything you love will burn.”

***

Ari remembers when she was five years old, watching storm clouds swirl outside her bedroom window. Tiger sat in the corner of her room, licking his paw.

You are safer in here. The wind out there will blow you away.”

“Ari!” She heard Mama call, “It’s time to go!”

Tiger stopped and watched her, waiting to see what she would do.

“We’ll get ice cream on the way!” Mama said.

Ari’s eyes filled with tears. She could almost see the brightly lit ice cream shop, the pinks and oranges that sang of happiness. Thunder rolled outside her window.

“It’s going to storm, Mama! I’m afraid.”

Mama entered her room and shook her head. “Come on, Ari, it’s going to be fine.”

Ari sobbed as Mama led her outside. She cried in the car, and she cried into her ice cream. When she finally arrived home unharmed, not blown away by the wind, she wanted to stomp on Tiger’s paw.

She looked for him, but he wasn’t there.

***

Ari believes he must have lain beneath her cradle the night her mother gave birth to her, his great paws larger than her head, his jaws big enough to swallow her whole. She must have wailed in fear.

He should have eaten me then, she thinks, as he paces back and forth several yards away. His eyes watch her even now, like he’s trying to decide if she will be his dinner. Ari scrubs at the laundry, soap suds creeping up her arms.

“Aren’t the clouds pretty today?” she says, glancing at the puffs of whiteness splattered across the sky.

She hears Tiger growl in response, and a strange impulse compels her to laugh. She bites her tongue and goes back to her chores.

She focuses on the shiny tin tub and begins singing a song her mother taught her. Sometimes when she sings she forgets about Tiger.

Stop that,” he says. She doesn’t look up.

She tries to fight him.

“No. I don’t want to.” But she suddenly can’t remember the next line of the song.

Stop, or I will swallow your mother.”

Ari stops, though she is almost certain he is bluffing.

***

She was twelve when Tiger threatened her cousin.

She was walking back from the market. Mama had asked her to bring eggs home. A cool breeze tugged at Ari’s hair, and the sun cast a pleasant glow on the green of the grass and trees. She was enjoying it all, until…

“Drop those eggs.” Tiger said, “Or your cousin will be my next dinner.”

Ari thought he was lying, so she ran home with the eggs intact. That night, Tiger’s roars kept her awake until the sun crept over the horizon again.

Her cousin wasn’t eaten but did trip and break her leg that same week. Ari was sure that Tiger could have had nothing to do with it, as he was with her the whole time.

Well, she was halfway sure.

***

Now, Ari looks up from her washing and immediately regrets it.

Scrub that one again,” Tiger says.

That’s when Mama comes out and calls her inside to eat.

Ari waits for her mother to go back into the house, then gives the garment a final scrub, trying to avoid more complaints from Tiger. She hangs the clothing up to dry and races inside before he can call to her.

At the dinner table, Ari thanks Mama for her bowl of beans and rice and sits down to eat. All the while, she is aware of Tiger pacing outside but tries to ignore him.

Once, when Ari was a little girl, she tried to tell Mama about Tiger. She responded gently but didn’t immediately understand.

“The cat can’t hurt you, Ari.”

“Sometimes he stands guard in front of the door and promises to eat the whole world if I step outside.”

From then on, if Ari did not leave her room, Mama would come in. She’d walk right through Tiger’s orange fur like it was nothing at all, then hold Ari and sing her songs. Ari would weep long and hard, and when she’d finally open her eyes, Tiger would have disappeared.

***

Sometimes Tiger is lazy. He becomes quieter. His threats and warnings become less frequent, and he spends most of the day napping in the sun, only waking to quietly follow Ari if she leaves the house. More shadow than beast.

Those days do not come often enough.

Now, Mama can see something is wrong, and she frowns. “Is the cat here?”

Ari stares at her food. “He won’t leave. He’s hungry and he’s watching.”

Mama’s eyes cloud with sadness. The same cloud that lives with Ari every day. “I wish you could send him off.”

Ari wants that too, but the thought also makes fear twinge in her chest. “Then what will happen? He will tear the world apart and I won’t be there to stop him.”

Mama puts a hand on Ari’s cheek. It is soft and good, but it cannot dissolve the fear in Ari’s chest. “You aren’t stopping him now. He will chew you to bits if you let him, but you won’t. You are tough,” Mama smiles. “He will choke on you before he can end you.”

Later, Ari steps outside and feels the sun on her skin. She closes her eyes.

Skip the second step.

“Why?”

If you don’t, everything you love will burn.”

Anger flares in Ari’s chest, and before she can second guess herself, she jumps with both feet onto the second step. Looking Tiger in the eye, she stomps again. Bringing her foot down hard, she imagines the step is his tail. He roars, and suddenly, Ari laughs. The laughter tumbles out of her until her eyes are wet. When she finally stops, Tiger hisses loudly, but she can see fear behind those angry eyes. It only makes her giggle again.

“I’m going for a walk,” she declares and skips past him. This time, he does not follow.

Behind her, he whines softly.

She knows he will be there waiting for her when she gets home. She will be ready.


H.R. Wasserstein works as an American Sign Language Interpreter. She enjoys church, NaNoWriMo, and hiding under a blanket on Saturdays. She claims both Washington D.C., and Kansas as home.