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THE INFAMOUS BENGAL MING
The one clear thing I can say about Wednesday, the worst and most amazing day of my life, is this: it started out beautifully. I woke up with the summer dawn, when the sky goes indigo-gray, and the air's empty coolness begins to fill with a tacky, enveloping warmth. I could hear Saskia and Maharaj purring to each other at the far end of my compound. I'd had to listen to their cooing and screeching sex noises all night, but it didn't bother me. I didn't know why yet, but I realized: I was over it. Saskia could sleep with every tiger in the world but me, and I wouldn't mind.
I stretched and smacked my mouth and licked my lips, tasting the familiar odors of the day. Already, I somehow sensed that this morning would be different from all the other mornings of my life. On the far side of the wall, hippos mucked and splashed, and off in the distance the monkeys and birds who had been up since predawn darkness started their morning chorus in earnest, their caws and kee-kees and caroo- caroo-caroos echoing out over the breadth of our little kingdom. These were the same sounds I heard morning after morning, but this morning, it was all more beautiful than ever; yes, this morning was different. It took me a little while to puzzle out the reason, but once I did, it was unmistakable:
I was in love.
It wasn't with one of the tigers in my compound-no, I had exhausted the possibilities of our small society long ago, and other than Saskia, there hadn't been any new arrivals in years. In fact, the object of my love wasn't another tiger at all. I was in love with my keeper, Kitch.
I know it sounds strange. It kind of caught me by surprise, too, but there really wasn't any avoiding the conclusion.
And it was all the stranger because I had known Kitch for years. When I was a cub, he had been something like an assistant to my first keepers. He wore wire-frame glasses then, and he was skinny and nervous. It was amusing to see him struggle to keep a clear path between himself and the compound door, in case he needed to make a quick escape. It's true what they say about us: we can smell fear, and that's why I noticed him. I was nervous around people then, too, and his manner piqued my particular interest.
Over the years, other keepers came and went, tigers disappeared and new ones arrived, but Kitch was always there. He grew a moustache. His cheeks got round and his belly filled out. His hair went thinner and thinner every time he took off his cap. He shaved his moustache. He lost the wariness that I had once found so intriguing.
His manner changed, his appearance changed, but he was always the same sweet Kitch. And that Wednesday I had woken up and realized: Kitch. Kitch! I love Kitch. Realizing I loved Kitch was like realizing that a bone you have enjoyed chewing for months is actually the bone of your worst enemy. The bone hasn't changed, nor your enjoyment of it, but suddenly things are seen with a whole new perspective. Actually, that's a very negative example, but the point is this: I had just discovered a deep and endless love for the best friend I had ever had in my life.
I should probably clarify. This wasn't the sort of love like when you see a hot new cat and can't keep your claws off her. I didn't love Kitch like I had loved Saskia, not with the same, shall we say, roaring passion. This love wasn't as agitating.
This was a different love. Every morning, when the big metal doors opened in the fiberglass rock, and pound after pound of cow meat and fresh organs came slithering down the passageway, whose face was there in the dark distance, shovel in hand? Kitch's. When Maharaj growled and got restless and came looking for a fight, who was the first to hear his shrieky howls, to fire a water hose and scare him off me? Kitch. I was inexhaustibly interesting to him, and he was an inexhaustible curiosity and a comfort and joy to me.
I think I'd call that love.
And once I realized I loved Kitch, everything else in the world seemed to make so much perfect indescribable nonsensical sense. Saskia rejecting me; fiberglass walls; lonely, zoo-wandering old ladies; little children eating caramel corn; cockatoos and monkeys; and everything under the sun, so funny and strange, and I just loved it all. I had food and water and friends and Kitch. I really didn't need much more than this, did I?
It's a little embarrassing even to think back on it. That was Wednesday morning.
It didn't take long for things to take a turn for the worse. The first sign was when I walked to the fiberglass rock down which my food usually came slithering, leaving a trail of red, wet glisten. This morning I walked to the rock, looked up, and waited. Nothing came. I sniffed and I waited. I closed my eyes and opened them.
I waited some more. And I waited and I waited. I started to play a game: I would shut my eyes for a few moments at a time, and while my eyes were closed I would convince myself that as soon as I opened them, the food would be there. I kept them closed for longer periods each time, but the food never arrived.
Now I was very hungry, and when I'm hungry my head hurts. In fact, it pounds. I shut my eyes firmly and tried to sleep it away, but the sun was quickly becoming unbearably hot-this was the middle of August-and I didn't want to go in search of shade lest I miss the food when it finally came, and Maharaj, finished with his own meal but greedy still, would come and pilfer it.
So I lay down right there, under the sun, and tried to quiet the pounding in my head. By this time the people had started to arrive-not just a few early morning walkers, but thick hordes of people, huge summer-vacation swarms, three or four deep, five or six herds of summer campers alone, plus tourists and regulars.
Normally, I don't mind the people who visit the zoo. They have their business, I have mine. They come, watch for a few minutes, point and stare, talk about me, eat their ice creams, whatever, I don't care. But today there were so many of them, and they were so loud, and I was so hungry. My head was pounding and I was just trying to relax, to stay calm and wait for my food, but they kept talking; and some little kid started to scream, "Wake up! Wake up, tiger! Wake up!" And then a whole chorus of kids joined him. "Wake up, tiger! Wake up!"
I might have been able eventually to block them out and fall asleep, but right then I smelled Saskia, and that smell made me perk up. She was walking directly toward me, with that little sashay, that little walk of hers. I loved to contemplate the fluffy patch of white fur right beneath her tail, and the way her tail brushed over it lightly as she swayed from side to side to side. As I said, I was over her. I was totally fine with the idea of her together with Maharaj, fucking Maharaj. But that didn't mean I had to stop appreciating her walk, that didn't mean I was prohibited from inhaling a deep whiff of her gorgeous aroma as she ambled toward me.
I purred to her, very casually. Just a "Hello there, Saskia" kind of purr. I waited for her to return the greeting, but she didn't even look at me. She walked past me like I wasn't even there.
Now, this annoyed me. It's one thing for her to sleep with Maharaj. That's her business and her prerogative. But to ignore me like that, as if we were no one to each other-that was too much. I felt a little stupid for having let myself get carried away with admiring her walk and everything, and just to show her that she had put me out of sorts, I snarled. It was a small snarl, accompanied by a little swat of my paw: a warning swat. There was no way I could have made contact. But when she saw me lift my paw, she jumped around and roared so loudly that I swear to God I almost pissed right where I stood. All right, I actually did piss. Then she walked away as cool as could be.
I could hear the schoolkids laughing at me now, but I ignored them and curled around and lay down again. Then I heard a familiar noise in the bushes, and I started to get nervous because it was the sound of Maharaj. Maharaj is a massive beast of a cat. He has almost three times my bulk, so he makes a lot of noise when he moves. He must have heard Saskia's growl and was coming to check out the situation.
Maharaj took his time, moving real slow, hefting his huge body through the brush, and I could smell him now-it was definitely Maharaj, so the fear and the pressure were kind of building up inside me. I was debating: should I try to get away, and risk attracting his attention; or should I sit still and stay as quiet as possible and hope he'd ignore me?
I decided to make a move for it, but this turned out to be the wrong decision. As soon as I got up and started to walk, I heard Maharaj break into a run, and in three quick bounds-boom, boom, boom-his heavy body was on top of mine and his claws were in my back and his teeth were sunk deep into my ass.
I screamed and writhed, but he kept me pinned down for thirty seconds or a minute, during which time I heard him fart, casual, loud and stinky, as if to demonstrate how relaxed he was, how little effort it took him to keep me locked down and in pain. Finally, he released me, as calmly as you please. He got up and started to walk away. (He didn't even look at me-just like Saskia.) He paused in front of the metal door in the fiberglass rock where I usually got my food. He crouched down and sent out a fat stream of piss. That smell would stick to that rock for days, and he knew it.
At this point I was thinking: Kitch. I just want Kitch. I just want him to show up and salvage this day and restore it to its original promise. I want Kitch to bring me my food and wash my rock. I want Kitch to hang around for a few minutes and keep Maharaj away from me. I want to hear Kitch's voice flattering me and telling me what a good cat I was, and telling me what to do. Actually, it would have been fine if Kitch didn't do any of these things. He could have forgotten the food and said not a word to me, for all I cared. I just wanted him to be there. I just wanted to see his face for a few seconds, just to look at him. In fact, even thinking about Kitch's pink face made me feel better, gave me a feeling of hope and calm, and made the throbbing in my ass and my head fade a little. He would be here soon, I knew it.
I settled down again and closed my eyes. The noise of the crowd also settled, finally, into a distant hum and chatter like it usually did, like a sonic blanket over the world, and in a little while I managed to fall asleep.
When I woke up it was gray and cool, a bank of clouds having moved in over the sun. My headache was better, but now my whole torso ached from hunger. I sniffed around the metal door, but there was still nothing there but the odor of Maharaj's catpiss.
Kitch still hadn't arrived. I couldn't believe it.
At that moment, I heard a familiar noise wafting over the moat that separated me from the visitors:
The river is chilly and the river is cold, Hallelujah Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah.
Oh, God, I thought. Not the "row-your-boat" lady, not today of all days. She sat down on the bench, sweatered and stinking, hair astray, grinning with her broken teeth. I could smell her from where I sat!
I roared at her instinctively, but she didn't shut up. In fact, she let out a whoop and a holler and sang all the louder.
The river is deep and the river is wide, Hallelujah Milk and honey on the other side, Hallelujah.
I got up and paced back and forth, pausing every now and again to glare, but she wasn't intimidated in the least. She sang and she sang and she sang. After maybe half an hour, the singing faded into soft, incoherent chatter, until finally she slumped low on the bench and started to snore.
Still, the day dragged on, and the sun had barely even crested in the sky. I felt a painful knock! knock! knock! in my head, and looked up to see the teenage zoo attendant banging his litter stick against the bench, trying to rouse the row-your-boat lady. Finally, she woke up and walked quietly away.
Kitch, I kept thinking. Kitch Kitch Kitch Kitch Kitch.
And just then, I saw Maharaj rising over the hill again, moving steady and fast, fairly bristling for another confrontation. What had I done this time? I kept repeating Kitch's name like a mantra. My head was about to explode into a million pieces. It hurt so bad I could barely move it from one side to the other, and Maharaj was moving in for the kill, ready to carve up my rump and shit on my lair for good measure. And just at that moment, just as the pressure in my head was reaching the point where my brains felt like they would liquefy and boil and shoot from my ears in jets of steam, just as Maharaj crouched down for the pounce, just as all these things were about to happen, the people door creaked open and who was there but Kitch!
It was really him, his red face aglow in the sunlight, and I almost jumped into the air with delight. Maharaj turned and galloped away to hide. The pain in my head melted into some pink, loving bliss. Where was my hunger? Where was all the gloom and trouble of the day? It was all gone. Kitch was here!
I paced back and forth and meowed, like a lovesick lynx. I ran around in a circle and bit my tail. I peed in a long, hot stream, with a big grin on my face. I paced up and down and up and down again, then I rolled on my back and let my tongue loll out. And then I popped upright and roared. It was Kitch! Yes, Kitch was here! And I loved him! And he was here!
Little did I know, the most horrible thing was yet to happen.
Kitch was still standing near the door. In fact, he seemed, for some reason, unnaturally cautious. He hadn't advanced toward me at all, nor had he called out to return my greetings, and that's when I realized there was someone with him-an older man with thick glasses, and wearing white rubber gloves on his hands. Kitch began, finally, to walk to one side of me, slowly, with caution, while trying to shield this other, nervous, man from my view.