‘Ouroboros, Ouroboros’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
When she saw the tiger, the world had been wet with colour, trembling on the edge of evening with everything either as thick as blood or as delicate as water. Her skin was soft and gleaming from her well bath. Walking along the pathway she felt protected — shrouded in a skin stitched with light. The jungle that she was walking past was turning black but for the fierce, last slashes of gold on the undergrowth. This was what she mistook, at first, for the tiger’s fiery pelt, but then she sensed movement. Out of the corner of her eye she saw it, then felt something brush its finger down her spine, from the knob of her neck to the small of her back.
When she turned around, she saw eyes glittering in the undergrowth. She saw the undulation of limbs, heard the breath of the beast and although every cell in her body was screaming for her to run, she turned around completely so that she was facing the tiger, its eyes on hers as she walked backwards. She remembered an old story she had heard as a child, of villagers in India who had worn masks with human faces painted on them and strapped to the back of their heads to deter the tigers that had once been plentiful in their edge of the earth.
The movement of her feet, the wind on her shoulders, none of it registered; she was nothing but a ball of heat in her throat and it seemed like a lifetime until she had canvassed the path and saw nothing through the leaves of the jungle. The tiger was out of sight. She was safe.
I saw a tiger in the jungle today, she said to her grandmother during dinner. They were eating in the outdoor kitchen, which faced a jungle of its own. Everywhere it coiled around them. The night sounds had risen: chittering insects and belly-croaking frogs, and whatever else lay in the deep. Moths were throwing themselves at the flickering strip of neon tacked to the tin roof. Their shadows flecked the food on the table: the rice and the vegetables and the fish and the spiced milk.
Saya nampak harimau dalam hutan. She winced as she said it; she always forgot to use the informal “I” and worried as she was speaking that she might have jumbled the sentence structure. The language was not even their own mother tongue.
Her grandmother snapped her eyes towards her. Apa? She asked — what?
Aku nampak harimau dalam hutan.
Impossible, her grandmother said in the same Malay — there have been no tigers here for a very long time. Perhaps you made a mistake.
Her grandmother raised her right hand — knotted like bark and veined with crisscrossing blue and green, like an aerial view of rivers – and held it over the food. Her fingers undulated with the grace of a woman much younger.
Mempermainkan, she said, using her left hand to point at the light. A trick being played on you.
But she had not mistaken the sight of the tiger. That night she saw its eyes in her dreams and she was burned by them. It was hard enough for her to fall asleep as it was, with the next house a long walk away and only the jungle for company. They were alone in the liquid dark which was so absolute that she could only make out the jungle because it was a little denser than the sky around it.
When she woke, her neck was burning. It was already dawn. She crossed to the mirror with her hand on her throat and saw her ruptured reflection — a slash across her body from a crack in the mirror, a skein of trapped light tearing her torso and her hips in half. There seemed to be nothing wrong with her neck; it was not inflamed or anything.
Looking into the mirror, she felt a sensation that she had not experienced for many years but which had been common to her in her childhood — the sense that she was not really looking at herself; that there was no self, no body. That she was someone else’s dream. The heat in her throat was fading.
Going down the stairs, the house was empty but she could hear singing coming from outside. Her grandmother was singing a song in their language but she could not understand it. She felt that she must have heard the tune before.
The house comprised the upper level — a single room in which she slept, which had a window but no windowpane; the bottom level — with an old sofa and a rolled-up mattress on which her grandmother slept; and the outside, with the bathroom and the kitchen extension. The roof was made of tin. When it rained while she was showering it was so loud that she felt the water on her skin must be rainwater.
When she walked out into the kitchen, her grandmother was sitting cross-legged on the floor, singing and de-stringing long beans.
Good morning, adu, she said. A handful of English words her grandmother knew: morning, good, sun, beetle, night, dark, snow — which she had only seen in a National Geographic along with the photographs of a well-to-do aunt, who had run from the village one day and never looked back …Good morning, sayang.
She wanted to ask her if she needed help but she did not know the word for “help”. Instead, she gestured towards the heap of long beans and mimicked the motions her grandmother was making.
Her grandmother shook her head and jutted her chin at the jungle which, in the soft dawn illumination, was shaking off its mystery, becoming green and hard and knowable. Birdsong warbled out of it.
Getah, she said. Rubber — she could help with collecting the sap. The rubber bucket lay beneath the sink.
She thought of the tiger, slinking through the undergrowth. She formed her mouth around the word but her grandmother shook her head sharply — once, twice. Jangan______. Jangan ________.
Do not — stop? Something.
Tada harimau. No tiger. Tidak. Ada.
Her grandmother reached out and curled her fingers around her wrist. She looked into the older woman’s eyes.
Dream, she said. That was another word she knew.
After she’d washed her face she picked up the bucket and walked into the jungle. There was a worn path that she could take which would lead her to the rubber tree. Free of dusk and night, she began to believe that she had only imagined the tiger. It was so quiet that she could hear everything.
In the city where she lived usually, there was never a quiet this complete. Even in the deepest night there were the distant sounds of other lives. There was a word for what public officials did to crows in the city but she couldn’t remember it right then — it was as if language was being sloughed off her — a particular word for shooting the crows because they were a nuisance. She saw a dead bird at least once a week there — always a pigeon; never a crow. Pigeons smashed up by cars. How could they not fly away in time? She was preoccupied with this line of thought until the air around her changed, like something coming to rest on her shoulders, and she knew there was something in the jungle with her.
She moved her eyes and there it was, straight in front of her, crouched in the undergrowth, its eyes on hers, ready to spring.
Walk back, she thought. Like yesterday.
Instead, she put her hand in her pocket and drew out her phone, opened the camera app. The tiger was perfectly still. Barely breathing, she zoomed in and pressed the shutter button, then lowered her camera, trembling, preparing to run. But it was no longer there.
Harimau, she shouted, bursting through the undergrowth. Her grandmother was at the kitchen table. The empty bucket rolled from her wrist to the floor, clanging as it spun.
I saw it, she panted, nampak. Nampak harimau — not a dream. She almost tripped over as she walked over to her grandmother, pulling out her phone to show her the picture. Look. Nampak ni. There, she pointed.
Her grandmother squinted at the screen. Slashes of green and yellow, an orange blur that could have been a mistake but for the fact that there were two points of light in its centre — twin points. Eyes. She could feel herself dissolve in sweat and tears. Her grandmother opened her mouth to speak, _______________________________________.
Apa– tak – saya tak faham lah.
She had understood nothing.
Her grandmother put a hand on the table and moved two fingers rapidly.
Yes, I ran.
Harimau tak _____________?
I – I don’t know. Saya tak tahu.
Her grandmother shook her head and gestured to the jungle. Her eyes were wide with terror. Saya tak tahu.
Her grandmother took the phone from her hand and used it to point at her.
Mak, she said. Telefon. Your mother, call her.
She stood at the edge of the kitchen, one foot on the floor and the other on the dirt outside, which rolled and rocked away to the edge of the jungle. A crackle of static, the beeping as the phone searched for connection, then her mother’s voice:
What is it?
I saw a tiger.
You saw a – hysterical laughter. She pictured her mother doubled over, her dark eyes flat and still as her mouth moved, the sound ebbing back and forth like the sea – you saw a tiger?
Yes. I saw a tiger and I was trying to explain it to adu but we couldn’t understand each other so she told me to call you.
A tiger. There haven’t been tigers for years.
I’ve been told.
And what did you do when you saw this tiger? She could hear the sneer in her mother’s voice.
I took a picture of it and ran. But it didn’t follow me.
Ah! It didn’t follow you.
Give the phone to adu.
She walked back to her grandmother with her hand outstretched. Her grandmother took the phone and spoke into it, shaking her head, repeating something over and over, banging the flat of her palm on the table. Finally she called her name and passed the phone back to her. She raised it to her ear.
I told her what you told me. There was no emotion in her mother’s voice.
She’ll talk to the other villagers; they’ll think of what to do.
I haven’t seen anyone else. Not for days now.
Just a tiger, am I right? Her mother said, and hung up the phone.
It was evening and she was alone. Her grandmother had gone to see some people. She had taken a piece of wax paper and drawn a crude pair of eyes onto it, a nob of a nose and a red mouth. This she had strapped to the back of her head with her late grandfather’s belt that her grandmother had whisked from some forgotten corner of the house.
She wanted to ask her grandmother if she was frightened but she didn’t know the word for fear.
You tak boleh tunggupagi? You cannot wait till the morning?
Her grandmother shook her head. No one home in the morning.
Her grandmother took a torchlight and a parang and drew her face towards her, placing her leathery, soft cheek against her young, taut skin. Evening brushed itself against the back of their necks.
Lampur, her grandmother said, flicking her hands against the light-switch.
You will be ___________ in the house.
She nodded and her grandmother left, walking down the pathway with a gait that was not yet old. The sun had begun its descent and she raised her eyes towards it. She had never seen the sun actually go down and she couldn’t help herself. She looked at it and looked away, looked at it and looked away. It was the same colour as the tiger and she saw it slip and melt into the trees, which turned from black to gold. And when it was nothing but a thin strip of blood on the horizon, she looked back towards the path.
She shut the door behind her and the world fell into black.
She bathed quickly and brought a packet of bread in from the kitchen for her dinner, bolting the door behind her. She turned on all the lights but then she began to wonder, would it not be better if the house was dark so that it didn’t attract attention? She went upstairs again and turned all the lights off, then went back downstairs and did the same.
She sat in the darkness with an oil lamp and a mosquito coil. The room grew thick with the perfumed smell of the burning coil. The sound of the night insects rose. She had a book on her lap but it was difficult to read by the scant light. Besides, she was getting a headache.
She drifted in and out of sleep.
A burning smell. She was on the edge of the clearing and in the middle of it was a ring of fire; in the middle of that, something that was both woman and tiger. She stood up and walked towards the ring. The woman stood with her, her face covered by her hair, the flames dancing over her skin. When she pushed back the hair, there was no face, but she knew that the woman was her mother. Wrapped around her shoulders was a tiger’s pelt. She turned her body and although her mother had no face, she was staring straight at her.
Perhaps the tiger was prowling around the house. Perhaps it was pressing its fur against the wood and circling. The window without a windowpane, could it get through that? She would have heard it if it had jumped in. But these animals knew how to be quiet. Perhaps she should check but her head was heavy.
It was deep into the night, and it had begun to rain. She could hear the rabid dance of the drops on the tin roof now. She was lying beneath a window. The slats weren’t fitted right so some of the water was getting on her face and misting the room. It was a hot rain and the heat bristled throughout the house. You will know if I’m here, she thought.
She remembered dark rooms in other histories. Knew the meaning of dark rooms that didn’t belong to you — her mother’s body in a dark room next to hers as the ceiling fan stirred the air listlessly and heat rubbed itself against their necks. She must have fallen back to sleep.
In the morning she rose slowly from where she had fallen asleep on the floor, clutching her head. She felt as if it were on fire. Even to blink was costing great effort. She did not know how long she was crouched there but eventually, using the windowsill for leverage, she pulled herself up, pushed the window open and put her head out into the dawn. The light was fresh and raw — a newborn thing. She breathed in and out, in and out.
When she finally managed to raise her head she was staring at it. The tiger’s eyes on her — the animal a mere suggestion through the fronds of fern that pinned back the jungle. This time she was not afraid. She felt no terror or need to run. She simply looked back at it until it inclined its head, turned around and walked back into the jungle.
When the last of the heat had leeched out of her, she washed herself, changed into a fresh set of clothes and put all of the laundry into a tub to soak. She made herself breakfast: a piping hot glass of Milo with condensed milk and some bread. There was nothing to eat the bread with, so she dunked the slices into the Milo. She ate ravenously, her hand flying to and from her mouth. She’d always been a fast eater. It was a leftover habit from her childhood — to eat as if the world was chasing her, as if someone would come and steal her food from her. Still it shocked her, the speed with which she’d emptied her bowl and her glass. Then she scrubbed the soaking laundry furiously and brought it to the clothesline.
The light was still gentle, the ghost of last night’s rain still trapped in the air. She felt cocooned in it.
There was something in her body that was moving with the earth beneath her.
She was sitting at the balcony when she saw her grandmother coming up the pathway, her gait lumbering this time, laden with several bags.
She ran down to help and as she relieved the old woman, she saw that the makeshift mask was no longer on her head.
I didn’t mean to be late, forgive me…
It was nothing, she said, hoisting the bags up. What did they say?
The old woman was breathing heavily. It was hard for them to believe that you saw a tiger but I think they might be convinced now. In any case we are having a large feast tonight – now the whole village knows and we want to think of what to do. There are those of us who agree that what is of the earth should be left in the earth but there are those who think it is too dangerous, that maybe we should call government people. Our children go into the forest, after all.
A feast, here?
Everyone is bringing something. We’ll all share; we will all feed each other. I can introduce you to everyone; they haven’t seen you since you were small.
They had crossed the front door and her grandmother looked up to smile at her, her dark eyes disappearing into the folds of her skin. Her teeth — at her age — were still strong and even.
We will have to start cooking now. I have crab and we can fry fish and make pinantung. We have to start now, just let me wash up. It was a long night last night and the walk back with everything took me some time. The air still has the rain of that terrible storm last night, it was like walking through water.
There was something moving through the bones of her body. The food had been cooked and the light was beginning to fade. She was sitting in her room looking through the bare window. She was not yet dressed and was in front of the mirror, her hair still damp. Shadows had begun to fall everywhere. She looked at herself in the mirror for a long while and then reached out so that her hand touched the hand of her reflection.
When she heard the first guests arrive, she straightened up like a rabbit in a field. It had been a while since she’d heard so many voices at once. She raised her head so that she was looking through the window. A band of light – the villagers with flashlights and lamps, bobbing against the falling darkness. She saw her grandmother’s silhouette walk out of the front door to greet them. Quickly she pulled on her clothes. She could feel something like fire in her feet – a sureness spreading throughout her entire body. Every nerve was burning – her blood, her marrow, her bones. Her head and heart.
I am not afraid, she told herself as she scampered down the steps, exited the house through the kitchen door, and all but tumbled through the crest of the jungle. The sounds of celebration were jubilant behind her but it was this quiet that she craved, this silence that was so pure that she could hear everything in it. The air had changed quality; she was breathing with the plants, with the air, with the light.
The tiger came like she knew it would, near enough this time so that she could see it clearly, but not close enough to touch. It looked at her with its animal eyes, without judgement, without reproach, without anything. She stood up and walked towards it. When she came to it, she put her hand on the back of its neck.
The world outside fell away. Together they turned and disappeared into the depths of the jungle.
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