Editor’s note: This story contains scenes of violence/gore.
Norman’s breath became snared in his throat like a small animal.
“You’re dead meat, Norman,” the cousins chanted as they looked inside dark rooms and behind secret alcoves. Their footsteps thundered against the hardwood floors, distinct over the classical music playing downstairs.
Norman’s father, a diplomat, regularly hosted lavish parties in the ballroom of his large estate. While the adults talked politics and foreign affairs, drank champagne from flute glasses proffered by faceless waiters, and puffed on noxious cigars, the children gathered on the second floor. From afar, it looked like they were playing a harmless game of hide-and-seek. Joshua and Magnus, the oldest of the cousins, called the game Hunt. Invariably, they were the hunters, while younger, smaller Norman was the prey they had to trap and beat to submission.
Joshua and Magnus’ footsteps receded down the hallway. Their father, Uncle Nicholas, had bought them each a pair of heavy military boots like the ones their favorite commando action figures wore. Norman considered this a blessing in disguise, since it allowed him to detect their approach from afar.
Norman was small for a twelve-year-old, but he was agile and skilled in reading most situations. Now, he crawled out from the life-size Roman statue he’d found refuge behind, and crept towards his father’s office. The room was off-limits; his father, with his beady eyes and bushy mustache, was a formidable man, despite being mild-mannered around his wife and son. The cousins wouldn’t dare look for Norman there.
The thick Persian rug, with its knotted swirls of eggshell white and carmine red, sunk under Norman’s patent leather shoes. Jade green, gold-finished lamps cast the room in a warm glow. His father spent most of his time in his office, alone or with associates, sitting behind his oak desk until the wispy hours of morning. Norman crept past shelves bent under the weight of heavy tomes, past the stiff-backed couch and matching armchairs, to the glass display at the far end of the wainscoted room.
Inside the display case stood a tiger, poised mid-step in all her lithe, feline glory. The taxidermied tiger was a gift to his father from the former Indian ambassador. The tiger had been inside its glass cage since Norman could toddle, yet he’d never had reason to be alone with her before. Now, he found himself not daring to blink as he watched her, holding his breath to keep it from clouding the glass. Her striped pelt was a deep, burned yellow, like the leaves at the turn of autumn, while she sported a paler, softer-looking underbelly. She might as well have been in the jungle. The artificial fern fronds hugged her lurking body, making her look ready to pounce on her unsuspecting prey. Her eyes, large and amber and made of glass, peered deep into Norman’s soul.
“You’re running from something,” the tiger observed.
Norman’s coiled muscles released a violent shiver. “Someone,” he said, and his voice was also aquiver.
As if on cue, Magnus and Joshua stomped past the closed door. “We’re gonna catch you, Norman. We’re gonna get you.”
“I know all about bullies,” the tiger said in a silken purr that, even filtered through the thick-paned glass, settled like a mantle over Norman’s bones. “I know about people calling themselves hunters when they’re nothing but gun-wielding cowards.”
Norman’s hands curled into fists. He could still feel fear cursing through his veins, but if he tapped deeper into it, he felt something else, something raw and sharp like an uncut diamond. The anger he always suppressed around his cousins rose inside him. “They’ve been that way as long as I can remember. They’re bigger and stronger than me, so they think they can get away with anything. The adults don’t care either. They say my cousins are just playing—boys being boys.”
The tiger nodded sagely, her whiskers needle-thin and flashing like quicksilver. Her fur stirred as if disturbed by a humid jungle breeze. “They’re bigger, yes. But not stronger.”
Entranced, Norman stepped closer; the breath he was no longer holding misted over the glass. “What do you mean?”
“You know very well, Norman. You and I are the same.” The tiger’s mystical smile almost split her wide snout in two. Her teeth were big and gleaming under the white display lights. “You know what you must do.”
Norman took a few startled steps back. Something about her words, her tone, broke his entrancement. “I’m nothing like you,” he spat at the tiger, and his echoing heartbeat hammered the point home.
Where is all this anger coming from? Norman wondered idly.
He thought of his cousins, who got to be the hunters while Norman forever remained the small, helpless animal. How every time they caught him, a part of him wished they would skin him and mount him like a trophy on the wall the way they always threatened to, just to get it over with.
“We are more alike than you think. One day you’ll come to realize this,” the tiger said in an ever-patient drawl.
Norman strode to the study door. With his clammy hand gripping the doorknob, he turned toward the glass cage one last time. However, the tiger stood motionless again in her synthetic habitat, her body frozen in place and time.
Joshua and Magnus seemed to have forgotten about Norman and their cruel game. They sat on the landing while they sipped pilfered champagne and snickered, watching the party crowd, all wrapped up in formal attire, through the gaps in the banister.
The hypnotic question came to Norman as if in a dream. Should he do this?
The cousins didn’t hear Norman’s slow, calculated prowl. When Norman planted his hands on Joshua’s shoulders from behind, Magnus’ head snapped up. “What are you—?”
It was too late. Norman’s push sent Joshua tumbling down the winding staircase. Magnus yelled and bounded after his brother. The orchestra downstairs stopped playing as the party-goers gathered around the boy lying like a crumpled marionette at the base of the stairs. Through Joshua’s faint groans, Magnus’ screams, and the collective murmurs of the crowd, Norman remained at the landing. His heart—that pathetic muscle in his chest that used to always beat fast and frantic like a hummingbird’s wings—was now mercifully quiet.
From the distance, Norman thought he heard the tiger roar in delight.
For years after Joshua’s accident, as everyone was quick to call it, Norman kept away from his father’s study. Soon, he forgot all about the silver-tongued, golden-eyed tiger, or what happened after his talk with her. Instead of seeking rabid revenge, Joshua, who now walked with a cane, and his brother Magnus gave Norman a wide berth at family functions and embassy parties. Still, Norman sometimes thought he saw a sort of reluctant respect in his cousins’ eyes. That respect was always melded with fear, which suited Norman well, if it meant being left alone.
At eighteen, Norman stood in the cemetery beside his weeping mother and the rest of their friends and family as his father was lowered into the ground. Black umbrellas studded the field like grim, wide-petaled flowers. The rain beat vicious fists against the churned soil. Norman knew he should cry, but his eyes remained dry throughout the service. Not for the first time, he wondered if there was something inside him that had grown frayed and faulty without him realizing. Norman stepped from under the umbrella’s cover and let the raindrops paint tear streaks across his cheeks instead.
Uncle Nicholas came to see him after the burial.
“Your father had the heart of a tiger. He was fiercer than that stuffed animal in his study,” his uncle said, patting Norman’s shoulders.
Joshua and Magnus hadn’t come. War was in full bloom across the world. Magnus was one of the first young men to voluntarily enlist, while Joshua stayed home. With his bad leg, it would have been impossible for him to join his brother on the battlefield, Uncle Nicholas explained. Norman could only nod as his uncle went on about Joshua’s housebound melancholy. Something stirred inside Norman, tightroping between dream and memory. The traces of guilt Norman felt were second-hand at best, something distant and easily forgotten, like raindrops shaken off his black umbrella after the storm clouds overhead had dispersed.
Not a month after the funeral, Norman came down for breakfast to find his mother in tears once more. The receiver of the sitting room’s rotary telephone was clutched to her ear so hard, the shell appeared crushed and bloodless. “This would never have happened if his father was alive, Moira,” she lamented to Norman’s aunt. “My darling Patrick would have found a way to keep our son home safe.”
Norman felt a bottomless pit form in his stomach, gravity sucking him into it fast. He entered the room and stood in front of his mother, who let the receiver drop from her ear and clasped a hand over her mouth.
“Hello? Hello!” crackled Aunt Moira’s voice.
Norman’s mother stared up at him, the brown eyes they shared swimming with tears. Her black-clad lap held a letter, the blue ink smudged with her misery.
She only said three tremulous words, but they were enough. “You’ve been drafted.”
That night, Norman withdrew to his room right after supper, claiming he needed to rest. Instead of lying down, he paced the length of his bedroom, digging restless trenches into the hardwood floor. Vietnam. He couldn’t wrap his head around it. Norman wasn’t made for war. He didn’t lust after glory like his cousins did. His father had taught him to fight with words, not arms. Yet Norman was given no choice.
He thought of Uncle Nicholas’ words at his father’s funeral. The heart of a tiger. When he blinked, Norman saw embossed behind his lids a pair of piercing glass eyes.
In the deep of night, the brass key glinted in the lock. Norman twisted it and entered the study for the first time since his father’s death. Everything was as he remembered it, albeit adorned by a fine filigree of dust and cobwebs. His father’s gold fountain pen remained uncapped, his moleskin journal open on the desk as if he might return any second to complete an unfinished entry.
Norman didn’t touch anything in the mausoleum of his father’s memory. He headed straight toward the taxidermy display case at the back. Someone, probably his mother, had draped a white bedsheet over the glass structure. Now that he remembered the tiger’s amber eyes, more cottony images trickled into his head. He distantly recalled confiding in his mother that the tiger had told him to push Joshua down the stairs. His mother had slapped the words out of his mouth, shrieking, “No! It was an accident. Say it, say it was an accident!”
Now, six and a half years after his last encounter with the stuffed tiger, Norman pulled down the cover to reveal the sleek predator.
The tiger yawned, displaying every stout tooth and curved canine set in her mandibles. She then arched her orange back, lowering her belly—striped ivory and ebony—to the ground. “I knew you’d come back one day, Norman.”
“You were wrong about me last time,” he said through gritted teeth. His mouth still smarted from the memory of that long-ago slap. “Joshua… I didn’t mean to—it was an accident.”
“Is that so?” the tiger asked and straightened back into her usual lively pose among the bracken. “Then what brings you back here?”
“I don’t want to die,” said Norman before he could stop himself. In that moment, he sounded like his younger self, the small, scared animal hiding from the ones who were hunting him down. “Lend me your strength.”
“Is this truly what you want, Norman?” the tiger asked. Her amber eyes pinned him to the plush carpet.
The hidden meaning in the tiger’s words wasn’t lost to him. Norman could feel, even through the hazy film of his memories, that his last encounter with the tiger had cost him something. It had plucked something vital from inside him, something he couldn’t name in its absence. Yet, Norman wanted nothing more than to survive, missing piece or not.
He swallowed the acidic fear rising in his throat. “It is. I want this.”
“Then release me from my glass cage.”
“W-what?” he managed.
The tiger smiled with all her teeth. “You heard me. This is a partnership, and all partnerships require a show of good faith. We both learned that from your father’s job.”
“I… I don’t have a key.” Norman looked around his father’s study. His gaze fell on an ornate chair made of heavy, carved wood. He picked it up, his spindly arms trembling under its weight, and threw it at the display case.
The shattering of glass rang like a high-pitched clap of thunder in his ears. On instinct, he closed his eyes to protect them from the raining shards. The next thing he knew, he was lying on the floor, immobilized by the tiger’s front paws digging into his shoulders. The tiger’s teeth and blackened gums smelled of formaldehyde, sharp and meaty, but there was something else underneath. A pungent odor. A rot.
“Wait,” Norman cried, struggling underneath the beast’s weight. “I—”
The tiger drew back one of her great paws. She struck Norman’s left eye. He cried out, pressing his palm against his bleeding eye socket. All he could see was redness, emptiness.
“What did you do to me?”
The tiger remained eternally calm. “You paid the price. Now, are you ready for your reward?”
The tiger’s gory paw moved to her own eye next. In one quick, darting movement, she stuck her claw deep inside her eye socket and removed her glass eye with a squelching grind. She offered the eyeball to Norman, who looked at it with awe and fear as his own blood stained his parted lips scarlet.
At last, Norman reached out. His trembling fingers closed around the tiger’s amber eye.
“This is mine now,” the tiger said, nodding toward Norman’s blood-soaked eyeball.
She returned to her spot inside her former cage. The display case gaped open, glass shards hanging off its metal frame like broken teeth. The tiger rolled Norman’s brown eye back and forth across the artificial soil like a marble. Then, without preamble, she popped the eyeball into her mouth, slurping up the optic nerve. After she had swallowed, she smacked her lips together.
“You and I are connected,” the tiger said. “A small token to pay for survival.”
Norman wiped his slippery blood on the hem of his nightshirt, torn in the scuffle with the tiger. Then, muffling his groans so his mother wouldn’t come to check on him, he crawled toward his father’s desk and grasped his silver-etched hand mirror. Norman stared at himself; his face looked like a crime scene.
Slowly, Norman fitted the strange golden eyeball into his empty socket.
Later, Norman would only remember the jungle in garbled flashes and bangs.
The jungle was hot and wet. With each step he took under the blazing sun or burning rain, his skin felt like it was melting off his bones. All the men in Norman’s platoon steered clear of him. It was his eyes: one brown and one amber, and it was the look in them. More than that, it was the stories told about him. The one-eyed ghoul, they called him after his first combat.
He remembered the billowing dust, the soil saturated with blood. The animals’ howls, the shrill chattering of birds and insects. Through his right eye, the brown one, Norman saw blinding sun and verdant green light, dangling vines and poison-bright flowers. He saw the glint of his machine gun and the bodies he was meant to be shooting at. When he covered his brown eye and looked through the amber one, Norman only saw a wash of red. He became a menace on the battlefield, able to channel the senses of an apex predator. Sometimes, he would look down at himself through the amber haze and see paws instead of legs and hands, claws instead of bitten-short fingernails. His voice turned into a raw growl, and his bared teeth put fear into the hearts of enemies and allies alike.
Sometimes, when he ran through the jungle with the tiger’s amber eye open wide and voracious, he thought he heard voices. You’re dead, Norman, they said, over and over again. We’re gonna catch you we’re gonna get you we’re gonna trap you and stuff your body full of cotton and chemicals and lock you in a glass cage.
These voice sounded like his cousins, most times. Other times like himself. Their urgency kept him going. He ran through dense vegetation and brushwood thickets that ripped his fatigues and wore thin his rubber-soled boots. He took cover from the oncoming bullets, and avoided booby traps with uncanny ease.
“The one-eyed ghoul,” everyone whispered, and scrambled out of his way.
After he came back from Vietnam, Norman started wearing an eye-patch. The padded gauze square covered the left side of his face, scarred from the tiger’s claws and gleaming with her amber glass eye.
His many medals were stashed in his bedside drawer, the bedroom curtains drawn tight against the intruding sunlight. Norman locked himself in his bedroom for weeks on end, no matter how much his mother pleaded with him to come out.
His dreams were drenched in bleeding red, swirling amber, and verdant green, so he stopped sleeping altogether.
Only at night could he wander out of his room, when the slumbering house couldn’t watch and judge him.
He whirled around to look at his mother. With her white lacy nightgown and moonlit pale face, she looked as much of a ghost as he felt on the inside.
“Norman, please, talk to me,” his mother said, drawing near him. She placed a gentle hand on his cheek, and this simple act, the human contact he hadn’t had in months, raised his hackles and made his lips catch against his bared teeth.
He had to suppress the growl that strove to rip out of his throat. “I have nothing to say to you.”
“How about finally telling me what happened to your eye? Or on the battlefield? What those people did to you…”
How about the things I did to them? Norman wanted to snap. How about the taunting voices I couldn’t outrun? How about the bullets flying out of my gun? How about the predator’s sense?
This time when his mother latched onto his arm, he shrugged her off. She stumbled back, rubbing her elbow. Again, he’d used more force than he had intended. Just like in the jungle.
“I’m sorry,” he called out once he was in the safety of his own room, leaning against the locked door. “Don’t come here again. I’m sorry.”
His eye-patch had come undone, but he did not go back into the hallway to retrieve it. He caught a flash of himself in the mirror. The four claw marks across his left eyelid resembled a tiger’s stripes.
That’s enough, Norman thought.
He rummaged through his drawers, pushing aside all the shiny medals of honor his animal haze had earned him. His hand tightened around the brass key to his father’s study until the jagged teeth dug into his palm and drew blood.
Once again, Norman stood before the stuffed tiger. Eight months had passed, yet it felt like mere seconds. The tiger had been with him on the battlefield all along. Every time he had channeled her strength through their amber eye, it had brought them even closer together.
“What did you do to me?” he demanded. The void inside him throbbed in time to his pulse. He’d become aware of its existence after his first encounter with the stuffed tiger. Now the void was larger, rougher, even more unfathomable. Nothing, where something should have been.
The tiger perched on a fake tree bough, her tail swishing languidly, as hypnotic as a pendulum. “You asked to survive. I helped you.”
His heartbeat should have been a wail, but it was only a whimper. He thought of the rest of his troop, dead or injured from the explosion on their last day on the battlefield, while Norman escaped without so much as a scrape or burn.
“Not like that,” Norman whispered. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Didn’t you?” the tiger asked, hopping down to prowl the length of her former cage. When she halted before Norman, her chemical breath blew rancid through the shattered glass panes.
Norman screwed his eyes shut and covered his ears, but he couldn’t escape the phantom flashes and bangs. The full scope of guilt evaded him, despite all his senses being plagued by the jungle’s muddy, green expanses. It felt like when he’d pushed his cousin down the stairs, the guilt only secondhand, as though it belonged to someone else.
This, Norman realized, was his missing piece. Had the tiger stolen it from him the way she took his eye, or had it never been inside him in the first place?
“I don’t need you!” His hand slammed against the jagged glass clinging to the display case’s metal skeleton. It left a bloody imprint behind. “I revoke our partnership.”
“I’m afraid I can’t give you your eye back. It’s mine now. A token is a token.”
“You can keep the eye,” Norman said, disgust burning like sulphur in his stomach.
Though he wanted nothing more than to storm out of his late father’s study, he found himself lingering at the door. “Why did you help me?”
The tiger stepped closer to the bare metal skeleton, but she never left its confines, although her glass cage had long shattered open. “I told you. You and I are the same.”
“You need to try harder than that.”
“Fine,” the tiger growled. Low, almost plaintive. “I wanted to see the jungle. I can never return to my home, not with a chemical-infused body like mine. I wanted to experience the hunt again through our amber eye.”
Shaking his head, Norman closed the door behind him. The key turned in the lock for the last time. In the bathroom, leaning against the porcelain sink, Norman bit into a rolled up towel as he used his pocketknife to pluck the tiger’s eye from his left socket. The gaping hole began bleeding again as if it had never stopped. He pressed the towel to the wound and smashed the glass eye beneath his heel.
The roar of wild animals subsided, as did the toxic-bright colors assaulting his nerves and synapses. Norman could recognize his own voice in his head again now that the ravening voices had gone quiet. He heard the shouts and clangs of battle, entirely human; the rapid-fire bullets slicing through the sticky air; the bodies hitting the mulch-soft, rotting ground.
His knees gave out. Good, Norman thought from the freezing bathroom floor. He would have to deal with what he did. And everything he did or didn’t do in the future, he would have no one to blame but himself.
© Copyright 2020 Avra Margariti
I want to preface this note by saying that I have been fascinated with taxidermy ever since I visited my city’s Natural History Museum during an elementary school field trip. This fascination at first seemed to clash with my stance on animal rights. Since then I have read a lot about ethical taxidermy with naturally sourced specimens, though for me it remains a purely aesthetic appreciation. There’s nothing ethical about the amber-eyed tiger’s captivity in this story. She didn’t die of natural causes, but was hunted for sport and used as a trophy. My tiger remains sentient, trapped behind glass and inside her own restless mind, yearning to break free.
This is where Norman, the story’s main character, comes in. Both he and the tiger need something from each other, so they make a pact inspired by several “deal with the devil”-esque narratives in pop culture, but with a twist. My tiger isn’t an evil trickster nor is she driven by a purely or inherently malicious nature. However, she is willing to employ all means necessary to regain some modicum of control and experience the sensation of running through a jungle again. The thing about Faustian bargains is that in order to gain something, one has to lose something else (in our case empathy, or an eye, which is sometimes referred to as the window to the soul). Except, the thing gained becomes another undoing, because what is surrendered turns out to be more important than what is obtained.
The choice of historical period seemed obvious to me from the beginning. I have a short story collection in the works, where talking animals act as a guiding force or a catalyst for their human counterparts. Since I had already settled on a tiger for my next animal, it made sense to have one of my settings be a jungle; hence, the story unfolds during the Vietnam War. The irony of Norman fighting in a jungle while the taxidermied tiger–stolen from her own natural habitat–is trapped in a rich, elegant cage highlights the absurdity of the situation, and the wrongness of violence in all its forms.
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, The Forge Literary, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Argot Magazine, The Arcanist, and other venues. Avra won the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review prize for fiction. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.