Once, when I was small, my father took me to the zoo to see the tigers. They were a new and temporary exhibit, just in from southern Asia. We only had a few days to go and look at them before they departed for a bigger zoo in the city.
Mother had not wanted to come with us. She said that she didn’t like cats, and that if she changed her mind she could always go see them sometime when she was in the city. I asked her if she would take me with her, if she went to see the tigers. She laughed and patted me on the head. “You’ll have seen them already,” she said.
Father and I left the house for breakfast. We went to a diner with a black and white checkered floor and a bar with bright red stools to sit on. “You can order anything you want,” Father said. I chose a stack of waffles with ice cream on top. Mother, had she been there, would never have allowed such a thing. But on this magic day— the day of the tigers— anything was possible.
We walked to the zoo. It was farther than I’d ever walked before, and I grew so tired that Father practically dragged me along behind him while I clung feebly to his hand. Twice he asked me if I wanted to go to the zoo another day. I shook my head stubbornly and willed myself to take one more step, and then another. I was determined to see the tigers. Waiting another day meant one less chance before they were packed up in their truck and shipped away.
It took an age to get to the zoo. When we finally passed through its iron gates, a crowd had already gathered before the tiger pen. We weaved our way to the front. Father carried his chin high, looking ahead, looking for openings to squeeze through. I looked at the people. I remember the faces of almost everyone we passed. An old man with white whiskers. A little girl with a red balloon on a string. A cotton candy vendor in a striped apron. Please do not feed the animals, his sign read. I held Father’s hand as he led me up to the enclosure.
The tigers were restless. They paced before us, snarling, orange and black behemoths. I wanted to know what they thought about as they stalked across their pen. Did they miss the jungle, the feel of cool, wet grass against their fur after a rainfall? Had they lain out in the sun and flicked their tails at the flies? Were they happy then? Were they happier now? What was it to be a tiger? Was it better to be a tiger in a zoo, well-fed and never worried, or a tiger in the jungle, with all its danger and uncertainty and wild, unfettered freedom? I locked eyes with one of them— its eyes were as shockingly green as a glass bottle, and they had that same dull shine. I could read nothing in them.
Father and I stood watching the tigers. We stayed longer than anyone else. We were still there watching when the old man scratched his whiskers and turned to his granddaughter, telling her it was time to leave. She cried and fussed so hard that she let go of her red balloon. It floated off into the sky as her grandfather pulled her away. We were still there watching when the cotton candy vendor sold out. All he had left was a tiny bit of pink fluff, too small to charge for. He let me have it. I stood watching the tigers and sucking on my sticky fingers, crunching the sugar crystals between my teeth, thinking that this was the most magnificent moment of my young life.
“I hope Mother changes her mind,” I said.
Father dropped my hand in surprise, staring down at me.
“About the tigers,” I explained.
My father sighed and rubbed his face with one hand. “You know your mother,” he said. “She never changes her mind about anything.”
He took my hand again and we watched the tigers more. The one I had befriended kept turning its head to look at me as it passed back and forth behind the bars.
The keeper came by and threw slabs of raw, thick steak into the tiger cage. They pounced on the meat, devouring it in a haze of blood and teeth, snarling at their meal and at one another.
“It’s almost dinnertime for us, too,” Father said quietly, squeezing my hand. I was surprised. I hadn’t realized how long we had stayed in front of their pen.
I tried to say goodbye to my favorite tiger, but he was too busy to look at me. In his hunger, it was as though he’d forgotten all about me. I promised that I’d see him in the city someday.
We started the walk back home, and I was even more exhausted than I had been on the way to the zoo. My father picked me up and put me over his shoulder, and I tried to nap. But only my body was tired. My mind was racing with a thousand tiny, wonderful things I had seen at the zoo, and I needed to remember each and every one of them so that Mother would know what she had missed.
I didn’t get the chance to tell her that evening. When Father and I arrived home, the house was empty. Mother wasn’t back by dinnertime, or by bathtime, or by bedtime.
I asked my father where she was.
He asked, “Did you like the tigers?”
I nodded. He tucked me into bed without answering my question, and I didn’t ask again.
That night, I dreamed that Mother and I were sitting in a cage while a parade of tigers strolled by and watched us.