By SARAH WU
When the Tiger slinks around the house, she leaves behind chess sets and violins and dictionaries that swirl above our heads like birds. Her orange fur disappears from corners and her ink-stained footprints press against the floor, and it is through these moments that we know she is watching us.
Her presence is a pause; she appears the same way commas appear in sentences, bringing a brief moment of silence before the day continues.
Why? my brother asks with the naivete of a six-year-old, even though he is nearly ten. His little white teeth sink into the yellow-green fuzz of the tennis ball in his hands. He begins chewing.
She wants to fatten us up like rabbits, I tell him with the solemnity of a sister. I am older by three years, and it is enough to convince him that any word that passes from my mouth is truth.
Why? he asks again.
The Tiger wants us to grow big and strong.
I narrow my eyes, and he turns sheepish. I tell him: Once we are older, she will show off our sharp eyes and intelligent minds. She will lay us out on the table that is the world and stroke our hair with her paws, and dissect our bodies and brains into bite-sized pieces for the audience to enjoy.
The words curl bitterly inside my mouth. My brother wistfully says, I wouldn’t mind.
Don’t be silly, I tell him.
After a week, the tennis balls no longer fill our grumbling stomachs. We move on to things that are more nutritious, licking numbers from math textbooks and spitting out their skeletons like the bones of a fish. Our fingers twist the heads off chess pieces, and we slurp out their strategies like the insides of raw oysters.
But the textbooks learn how to be nimble. The chess pieces grow legs and run from us. The act of consumption evolves into a practice akin to hunting, and I memorize the places the pieces hide, tracking their dusty trails on the ground. But when I look behind me, my younger brother still catches nothing. He slides his hands in the air and only manages to wrap his fingers around the widening distance between him and his prey. Even as I grow taller, he grows smaller, arms and legs withering.
He’s not good at hunting, I whisper to the walls. Please give him something else to eat. But the walls stay silent, and the sound of the Tiger’s pacing fades on the other side. It is the last time I ask the Tiger for anything.
Instead, I focus even more on hunting. Let’s sing the alphabet song! the flying dictionaries chirp above us, and I crush their delicate pages between my hands and slide them to my brother. I teach him how to spin violin strings into traps, but he can only turn them into candy floss. We try placing the metal wires in our mouths, waiting for the music notes to melt against our tongues, but they never do. They stick between our teeth, and we pull the wires from our mouths before they noose our tongues bloody.
My younger brother learns how to eat chalk. Though the little sticks are easy to gather, they are too dry to swallow. When I slide open the bedroom door one day, a box of chalk sits next to him, half-empty. Dust pours from his mouth.
I kneel next to him and rub his back. Through his shirt, I feel the ridges of his bony back. You need to escape, I tell him.
He shakes his head. I want to stay, he coughs.
The Tiger won’t give you anything, I say. Even if you eat a thousand pages and ten thousand chess pieces, she won’t visit you.
My brother’s lip trembles, but he shakes his head again. The chalk isn’t that bad, he says. I stare at the creased line of his determined mouth, at the hollowed indentations of his once-round cheeks.
Only when the Tiger falls asleep and the violins play their lullabies and the dictionaries doze in dreams, only then do we crawl into the soft warmth of our beds and release our real conversations into the silent air. They curl like smoke and glitter against the ceiling, a constellation of stars that breathe with unsaid thoughts, and it is here that I offer a new proposal.
We should play a game with the Tiger.
My younger brother coughs, and chalk dust dribbles off his chin like milk. When he finally exhales, his breath comes out in a wheeze.
Let’s catch her.
Like tag? my brother mumbles sleepily. That does sound fun.
Underneath the warmth of the blanket, my fingers curl. But my brother doesn’t notice. He’s already closed his eyes, and I stare at the white ceiling and listen to his soft breathing as he drifts off to sleep.
The next morning, we begin preparing. The Tiger has the eyesight of a sharpshooter, I tell my brother. She can twist her head 360 degrees to spot you hundreds of miles away.
Like an owl, my younger brother says. He wraps a washcloth around his forehead to push back his hair, but the cloth is too big. It dangles over his eyes, and he carefully tucks it back into itself until the corners disappear.
To get close, we have to be silent. We have to learn how to disappear.
My brother crouches. He tucks his legs and arms under him like a washcloth, and his limbs disappear. He presses his face against his knees. Like this? he asks, and his voice is muffled.
We decide to trap the Tiger in our bathtub. We leave a trail of rice to our bathroom and close the curtains because cats don’t like water. But then we realize that tigers don’t like rice. My younger brother sweeps up the rice, and I drop uncooked pork dumplings on the ground and crush them underneath my feet so the raw meat seeps out like crushed snail innards. We fill up the bathtub with cold water and close the curtains once again.
The Tiger has the strength of thirty soldiers, I tell my brother. Once she catches you in her jaws, she will never let you go.
Like a rabbit, my brother says. He is fashioning a spitball gun from rubber bands and wet brown paper towels he has found above the sink. The spitballs have dried, and he pops them into his mouth like gum and sucks on them.
He spits out the balls. Rabbits jump high, he says.
Rabbits don’t eat meat.
But I’ve never seen the Tiger eat meat.
I consider this. True, I say, so we approach the kitchen and sweep the crushed pork dumplings from the floor and feed them to the family dog. He sniffs the pork dumplings and swallows them whole. He watches us stamp tofu dumplings onto the ground. After we finish, we watch the dog throw up outside.
Do we have to clean that? my brother asks.
The Tiger might see.
It’ll decompose, I say.
But when I am asleep, my brother slips outside. I wake and spot him through the window. He brushes the half-digested pork dumplings into a plastic bag. Under the moonlight, the pink meat glistens. A few black dots are peacefully sucking on the red juices. They buzz unhappily when they are swept aside. My brother tosses the bag into the large trash can and tiptoes back inside.
The Tiger gathers her strength in the kitchen, I tell him when he closes the door. She boils the insides of radishes. She bloodies her claws with the juices of oranges and apples and leaves their fleshy remains dripping from the dinner table.
He doesn’t respond.
I point to the corner of our bedroom. A set of half-hidden stairs peek out. Do you know what that’s for?
He shakes his head.
It’s the forbidden staircase, I say. The Tiger lives upstairs.
Because she doesn’t like sleeping with us.
Oh, my brother says. He hesitates. His little hands open, and a crumpled exam paper blooms. He pushes it at my face, and I squint and see a large, red A- through the darkness.
Will this scare her away more?
I shrug. Maybe, I say, and he deflates.
I slip out of bed. This is why we need to catch her, I say, and I show him how to twist metal traps and wire snares. I show him how to tighten violin bows into real bows, twisting the silver peg at the bottom of the wooden stick to form a graceful arch. But when we are finished, my brother is still quiet.
I tilt my head at him. What’s wrong?
He mumbles, Do we have to catch her?
I look at him, and in the dark, his small face glistens like the fat from the pork dumplings, smearing his expression with anxiety. I gently wipe his wet forehead with a sleeve. He doesn’t so much deflate as he softens, body sloughing off his stiff shoulders like melting butter, expression thawing to obedience.
You can be brave.
Okay. My brother’s voice is small. He adds, I wish she would visit us more.
When he leans his head against my arm, I think, this must be how much guilt weighs. His cheek is soft and cool, and my arm aches against the weight of his head, but I only pull him in closer, and we stay there like that for the rest of the night, listening to the occasional snores of the Tiger and the gentle breathing of a sleeping house.
We slip silently into the kitchen the next morning, our socked feet sliding against the chill of the wooden floor. We are armed with violin bows and spitball guns. The shadows on the walls peer down as we suck in our stomachs and hold our breaths, and it’s here that we see the Tiger.
She is larger than a held breath. She is larger than a comma. She stretches like an orange exclamation point, a towering nine feet tall. Her eyes are black dots. She punctuates the room with a hiss, leaving white scars on the marble counters. She is the emphasis after Watch out! or Run! She is beautiful in the way a house burns.
Beside me, my brother drops his spitball gun.
It clatters to the ground. The Tiger twists, and our sharpened pencils bounce uselessly off her fur. The Tiger leaps over the entire kitchen in one bound and lands on a tofu dumpling that explodes, gray matter splattering across walls.
I grab my brother, and we run.
The crushed dumplings slide beneath our feet. We skid into our bedroom and slam the door shut. But the door is only wood. We press our backs to the opposite wall, and the wood wheezes and crunches as the Tiger bursts through. Only the forbidden staircase remains, and I turn around to pull my brother to safety.
But he is no longer there. He is facing the Tiger, clutching a piece of paper.
He thrusts out his hand. Go away, he says, and the A- trembles in his fingers.
I reach him at the same time he meets the Tiger’s eyes, and it’s at this close distance that I see my brother’s eyes widen. The desperate gleam in his eyes disappears, replaced by confusion, then by the realization that he has done something awful. The exam falls to the ground, and the Tiger ignores the paper; she does not blink, does not care, because she has never cared about the test in the first place. She has only wanted him to learn how to live. She stares back at my brother, and even though her eyes are black and empty, there is enough hurt in her gaze to blister.
Too late, I try to pull my brother backward. The Tiger’s claws flash. She paints red rivers on my brother’s face, and he screams. He stumbles backward into my arms, and the Tiger recoils like she has been wounded.
The echo of her roar lingers. With her bloody claws, she swipes at the floor, and the house rebels. Tennis balls explode into rubber corks and hot air underneath her paws, and the textbook pages rise in unison and blind her vision. In the confusion, we are left with a few seconds to escape, and I push my brother toward the forbidden staircase hidden in the bedroom.
My brother’s face is wet with red and tears. Still, he resists. His small hands scrabble uselessly at the walls. I don’t want to go upstairs, he cries. The Tiger said not to.
The Tiger will kill you if you don’t.
No! he screams. No!
I drag him upstairs.
The second floor looks like an empty dream. The walls are as white as a pearl. A small bed lies against the corner of the floor where the Tiger sleeps. I lead my brother to a small window carved from the wall beside us. There is no glass in the window, and my brother grows quiet.
What’s that? he sniffles. He points to the scratch marks on the white floor.
I don’t know, I say, even though the scratches have traces of thick rosin dust, and the cracks on the walls hold the small green hairs of tennis balls. In the corner, an empty bookshelf looks back at us, large enough to store all of the flying textbooks that now hover against the ceiling of our bedroom. These are the things she has given us.
I am older than my brother by three years, but his eyes do not trust me. They hook my gaze and draw it close. He asks, Why did we hunt the Tiger?
When I stay silent, he continues. You knew we couldn’t catch her, he says, and his accusation nips at the edge of his words. You knew I wouldn’t feel safe. You wanted her to chase me away.
You needed to escape.
I am your older sister, I snap at him.
For the first time, my brother wriggles out of my arms. My arms collapse to my sides. Alone together, we listen to the Tiger’s paws thudding up the stairs. In the background, I hear him sniffle once, twice, but I pretend I don’t hear him.
I thought you wanted me to be brave, my brother finally whispers.
I wanted you to survive.
No, he says. You taught me how to be afraid.
When the Tiger emerges, he jumps out the window.
For the second that he is suspended outside, the loose ends of the washcloth on his forehead flutter behind him like a flag of surrender. The blood from his face has congealed into a small, crescent-like scar, flickering dimly in the sunlight. My hand jerks reflexively forward. His shirt catches on my fingers, but before I am tempted to catch him, I spread my fingers and let him slip past.
Two stories below, he lands on his feet like a cat.
When he runs away, he doesn’t look back. An invisible hand neatly tucks him into the fold of the horizon, and the white washcloth on his forehead vanishes. He disappears in the same way that memories so often do, gone in the moments when they are missed the most.
I pull back my arm.
In the distance, I hear the soft footsteps of the Tiger. I don’t move. My feet stick to the ground like gum pressed against the underside of a table, and when the Tiger lunges, I brace for impact. But instead of claws, soft fingers curl against my scalp.
I turn, and the Tiger shrinks. Her orange fur recedes to black hair. She doesn’t let go, and the warmth of her hug surrounds me. It is the only time her arms have wrapped around mine, and I feel like I am burning with her.
She continues to hold me. I grow to the size of a child, too young to understand but too large to be held comfortably. She embraces me so tightly that it hurts. The only question I can squeeze out is: Why?
Her breath is warm and dry on my cheek. 我是你妈妈, she whispers, the same way I used to press my whisper against my brother’s cheek, and still, I cannot understand her.
Sarah Wu (she/her) is an Editorial Assistant for The Common. Her short stories have been published in The Dark Dispatch, and the student literary magazine, The Indicator. She is a Prose Reader for The Adroit Journal.