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The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger

By
October 1, 2012

I knelt beside him and found I couldn’t resist the urge to rest my hand on the tiger’s back. The smell I had thought was fern seemed to be coming from the animal.

http://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Guernica-Tomato_slices-10.11.jpg
Image from Agricultural Research Service via Wikimedia

I left the bypass and followed the road south along the river, then hesitated just as I was about to cross the bridge. If I turned and headed downtown, I could be at her apartment in just a few minutes.

It was a stifling afternoon. The breeze had died and the trees along the avenues seemed to wilt in the heat. The air shimmered above the burning asphalt; the sunlight reflected from the oncoming cars was blinding. Even on full, the air conditioning did little against the heat coming through the window. The steering wheel burned my hands.

I had been playing a game with myself from the moment I left the house. If the next stoplight was red, I would make a U-turn and go home. If the silver sports car passed me, I would keep going. If the terrier puppy I’d seen yesterday in the pet shop window had been sold, I’d turn back. If there were more than three buses parked at the terminal around the next corner, I would go on to her apartment.

I’m not sure why I found myself hoping that the sports car would turn off, that the cage would be empty. I seemed to believe it still possible to turn back, despite my apparently firm decision to confront her.

What was I going to do when I saw her? It was a question I had asked myself a thousand times. Slap her? Scream insults? Demand she give my husband back?

Just before I reached the bridge, the traffic suddenly slowed to a crawl. It was probably an accident, since they had closed one lane. I turned on the radio, but the reception was so bad I turned it off again. I rode the brake as we inched forward.

What was I going to do when I saw her? It was a question I had asked myself a thousand times. Slap her? Scream insults? Demand she give my husband back? How ridiculous. It would be better to lose him than look so utterly foolish.

Good afternoon. I would probably just wish her “good afternoon” like an idiot, as though she were a teacher at my daughter’s kindergarten.

My husband had left for the United States three days earlier to attend a medical conference. I would never have found the spine to do this if I thought I might actually catch him at her place, so I waited until he was gone before setting out. I wasn’t really looking for a confrontation with the two of them, and I don’t think I would have been especially upset even if I had found them naked in one another’s arms. That was, after all, what they had been doing in secret all along. That much was obvious. I simply didn’t want to make things more complicated than they already were, so it was better to see her when he wasn’t there, when the two of us could sit down and discuss matters calmly and equitably. Or so I had been telling myself.

What was the name of his conference? I’d forgotten. My husband’s specialty is respiratory medicine, specifically the treatment of a syndrome called pulmonary infiltrates with eosinophilia, though I don’t really know what that means. He hasn’t bothered to explain it to me, and I’m not particularly interested in finding out. But I suspect she knows. She’s a highly regarded secretary at the university hospital.

I know it’s ridiculous to be jealous about the name of a conference, but not by the idea of them naked together, but that’s just the way it is. Jealously seems to make me suffer in the most unexpected ways.

The traffic crept along. A family was having a cookout under the bridge, and the smell of roasting meat wafted down the road, making the heat seem even more oppressive. Some seagulls were preening themselves, perched on posts in the sandbar. The river was dotted with windsurfers and small fishing boats. At the sound of an impatient honk the gulls fluttered up into the air. As I squinted into the sunlight I could see the ocean shining in the distance.

I knew right away which one was his girlfriend, even though I had never seen any of them before. I knew because she fit so perfectly in the various scenes I had imagined on the nights he failed to come home—a room in some apartment, a table at his favorite restaurant, the deserted lot behind the hospital.

A truck had overturned on the bridge. It was probably going too fast and had hit the median. At any rate, the cab on the driver’s side was crushed, and a tire had come loose and jumped the guardrail. An ambulance and a wrecker and several police cars were pulled up at the scene with emergency lights flashing.

I was pretty sure the driver was dead. His bones and organs would have been crushed by the steering wheel. But somehow this seemed less shocking to me than the fact that the surface of the road was covered with tomatoes. Not that I realized what they were right away. At first I thought I must have driven into a field where an unfamiliar red flower was blooming. Or that the driver’s blood was covering the whole road.

But it was tomatoes—flawless, ripe ones—shining in the sunlight. A workman with a shovel was trying to gather them up, but he was making no visible progress. A number of people stood near the accident looking dazed, and some men were trying to cut open the cab of the truck with an electric saw.

Some tomatoes rolled in front of my car and must have been crushed under the tires, but I could barely feel them. They offered no resistance, as though they had wanted to be smashed all along, smeared across the road.

The other cars swerved to avoid the tomatoes, but I decided to try to hit as many as possible. If I got more than ten, I would go on, I would follow the road where it led. In the rearview mirror, I could see a strip of crimson stretching out behind the car. Did hitting tomatoes feel the same as hitting a person? I began to count: one, two, three, four, five. . .

I’ve only seen her once, from a distance. My husband had forgotten some research notes he needed for work, and when I went to take them to him, I stopped by the secretarial pool and peeked in. I knew right away which one was his girlfriend, even though I had never seen any of them before. I knew because she fit so perfectly in the various scenes I had imagined on the nights he failed to come home—a room in some apartment, a table at his favorite restaurant, the deserted lot behind the hospital.

Still, I have no memory of the face I saw that day. I can’t recall how she wore her hair or makeup. The only thing I remember is that she was busy with some sort of complicated task.

She was standing at her desk, sorting documents. Thumbing through them impatiently, she would write on some, tear others to pieces, and attach labels to still others. Her face was half-hidden by her limp, sweaty hair. When the phone on her desk rang, she called rudely for someone else to get it. Finally, it seemed she had finished putting all the papers in order, but then something must have happened because she made a disgusted noise, audible even from where I stood, and started the process again from the beginning.

Apartment 508. . . five-oh-eight. I muttered the number to myself as I climbed out of the car into the sweltering heat.

But no matter how many times she started over, it didn’t seem to work out. Something always went wrong. She was constantly erasing things she had just written, folding and refolding, stamping something here and there—as though trying anything that came into her head. But the longer she worked—and it seemed as though she might go on forever—the more chaotic the papers became. Nor, through all this, did anyone come to help her.

At last I gave up and left the hospital. I had wanted to see her discharging her duties in an elegant manner, efficiently typing one of my husband’s papers. But how could I feel jealous of someone so pathetic?

I pulled into the parking lot behind city hall, intending to walk the short distance to her apartment. I could have found a spot on the street closer to her building, but a parking ticket on a day like this would have been too depressing.

Apartment 508. . . five-oh-eight. I muttered the number to myself as I climbed out of the car into the sweltering heat. Almost instantly, I was dripping with sweat. The powder I had applied with such care began to melt under the blazing sun.

As I walked, I recalled, one by one, all the times I had ever been rejected. This process had become something of a ritual with me since my husband’s affair had started. I would unearth memories, beginning in childhood, of places and occasions when someone had hurt me. In that way, I believed, I would see that my pain was due not only to my husband but to the cruelty of countless others besides. I found it somehow comforting to think that his coldness was in no way special or unique.

At first I could recall only two or three instances. But as the connections between them became more apparent, the number grew and the details became more vivid. One by one, incidents I had completely forgotten came back to me as if from nowhere.

At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything.

In kindergarten, when we paired up to dance, I was always the only one without a partner. I would end up dancing with the teacher, which was terribly humiliating. With an odd number of students in the class, why would the teacher have insisted on dancing in pairs in the first place?

Then there was the time before the class trip when my name was left off the list of room assignments for the inn where we were to stay. I thought I must have missed it the first time, so I checked again. No mistake: my name wasn’t there. Of course, I told myself, it was unintentional, a simple oversight, but my rationalizing did no good. In the end, I didn’t go on the trip. Not because of the list, but because I woke up that morning with tonsillitis.

At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed I had attempted suicide.

Then yesterday, at the hairdresser’s, when I asked the stylist to trim in back a bit more, she gave me this nasty look and clacked her scissors as if to say I had no business telling her how to do her job. And she was a young girl, probably just a trainee.

When I looked up again, I realized I was lost. I had studied the map carefully, but it seemed now as though the city had warped in the heat. Each time I turned a corner, the scene that appeared was different from the one I remembered. The people passing by stared gloomily at the pavement; a stray cat crouched in the shadows of an alley.

Next to the fountain, a tiger lay sprawled on the ground, and next to the tiger crouched an old man

Rows of roofs stretched into the distance, and beyond them I could see just a glimpse of the back of the tower. The clock struck two. Though the day was still, the sound seemed to swirl around somewhere high above me before reaching my ears.

When the echo died away, I suddenly noticed an odor in the air. It was sweet and persistent but not at all unpleasant. I took a deep breath and let myself be guided by the smell.

“Fern,” I murmured.

I was standing in front of a large, stone house. The heavy iron gate was half open. A massive oak cast a cool shadow. Without a moment’s hesitation, I went in. I walked toward the house, looking up at the windows, then passed around to the back on the west side. The smell was coming from there.

I found a beautiful and meticulously tended garden. Shrubs trimmed with amazing precision lined little green paths. A few blooms still clung to the climbing roses, and clear water flowed from a fountain at the center. Next to the fountain, a tiger lay sprawled on the ground, and next to the tiger crouched an old man.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Come see,” said the man, who was apparently not at all surprised to find me standing there.

“Is it dead?”

“No, not yet,” he said, waving for me to come closer.

As I approached the fountain, I felt a pleasant breeze. Small birds chirped, and it seemed as though the heat that covered the town had suddenly abated.

I knelt beside him and found I couldn’t resist the urge to rest my hand on the tiger’s back. The smell I had thought was fern seemed to be coming from the animal.

The tiger was enormous, stretched out against the curve of the stone basin. Its legs were limp, its mouth half open. Its breathing was weak and labored.

“Is it sick?” I asked.

“Yes, it won’t last long.” The old man held the animal’s paw as he knelt beside it, and he seemed so comfortable and confident that I felt no fear. He gestured again for me to approach. He was dressed very formally for a hot summer day, but he did not seem to be sweating at all. He wore an elegant jacket, a bowtie, and pearl cufflinks. His white hair was neatly combed.

I knelt beside him and found I couldn’t resist the urge to rest my hand on the tiger’s back. The smell I had thought was fern seemed to be coming from the animal.

I was struck by the warmth of his body. This was no stuffed beast or a figment of my imagination but a living creature. Its hot mass pulsed under my palm.

“It’s magnificent,” I whispered.

The tiger’s ears drooped and its tongue rolled from its mouth. It began to drool. With its last remaining strength, it pushed closer to the old man.

“Magnificent indeed,” the man said as he continued to caress the beast. Its black and yellow fur shined in the light filtering down through the trees. The beautiful stripes, the enormous size—everything about the animal was perfect. Even lying prostrate, it seemed to be coiled and ready to attack; the paws looked heavy. The jaw was powerful, and sharp fangs peeked out from its mouth. Every bit of the tiger seemed to have a purpose, to be ideally suited to the hunt.

“It is yours?” I asked.

“It is.” The old man nodded. A shudder ran through the animal’s belly and it groaned.

“Poor thing,” I said. I tried to concentrate my energy in the hand stroking the tiger’s back. The fur was very thick and soft and pleasant to the touch. The more I stroked it the more the scent of ferns filled the air.

“There now,” the man murmured. Then he turned toward me for the first time and smiled.

The tiger’s ears drooped and its tongue rolled from its mouth. It began to drool. With its last remaining strength, it pushed closer to the old man.

“There now,” the man repeated, wrapping his arms around the tiger’s neck and rubbing his cheek against its face.

The roses swayed in the hot breeze. Tiny insects danced above the lawn. Spray from the fountain misted down on us.

“I’m afraid I’m disturbing you,” I said, realizing that I was intruding on their last moments together.

“Why would you say that?” the old man said, a hint of reproach in his tone. “You must stay with us. We need you here.” Then he looked back at the tiger, his eyes full of pity.

The tiger’s breath grew fitful. Its throat rattled; its fangs clattered together. The tongue looked rough and dry. I continued to rub its back; it was all I could do.

The old man held his cheek against the animal’s head. The tiger’s eyes opened and sought his face. When it was satisfied that he was still nearby, the eyes shut again in relief.

Their bodies had become one. Cheek and jaw, torso and neck, paw and leg, bowtie and stripes—everything melted together into a single being. The tiger let out a roar, and as the echo died away so did the beating under my hand. The clicking of fangs stopped, and a final breath seeped from its lungs. Silence descended on us.

The old man continued to hold the animal in his arms. I rose as quietly as I could and left the garden.

I put the key in the ignition and looked down for a moment at my palms. I wanted to remember what they had just done. Then I turned the key. On the way back, the tomatoes were nowhere to be seen.

G

Author Image

Yoko Ogawa’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Zoetrope, A Public Space, and Harper’s, among many other publications, since 1988. Her novel Hotel Iris was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Her new collection Revenge, is forthcoming from Picador in February 2013.

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