Ravi was only five. He could tie his shoes (barely) and write his name. But he couldn't stop the tiger.
It came down the basement stairs, muscled flank gleaming in the fluorescence, each step a drumbeat accentuated by the little boy's maraca lungs. And its eyes, the size of wiffle balls. Its Gorgon gaze.
Blood iced within Ravi, slowing his limbs and curling him beneath the computer desk, his cheek flattened against the concrete floor. That's where the tiger found him, staring, piss-stink paralyzed. And that's where it ate him.
There was no blood, no stripping of meat off bones as an adult would expect of such an experience. This was a child's consumption, unshaped by understanding or preconception. Like climbing into a sleeping bag, a formless, all-encompassing black.
At first, he was aware only of his breath, shaking like a rattlesnake tail. Then movement. In warm oblivion, he lurched first to one side and then to the other as the tiger walked across the room. He rolled backward across wet folds of rugae as the tiger crept up the stairs. And he opened his eyes, first one and then the other, to see the inside of the tiger glowing a soft black-red, exactly the way Ravi's cheeks glowed when he put a flashlight in his mouth to scare his brother.
"Tiger, can you hear me?"
"Be silent, little one. You are eaten."
Ravi stayed quiet for a few moments, listening to the soft rush of the tiger's feet padding on grass.
"Tiger, where are you taking me?"
Wind murmured in response. Ravi's skin prickled as if the tiger's fur, rustling like wheat, was rooted in his own body. Adjusted to the dark, his eyes traced the contours of the inside of the tiger's face—eyes less fierce from within; clenched scimitar-teeth less threatening.
A flashing glimpse of moon revealed the eyes to be clear as windows. Ravi rose to his knees and pressed his face against the tiger's like it was a mask. Fresh air curled in from its nose. The slick backs of teeth pressed against his jaw. Through its eyes, he saw the world streak by.
They were running hard under the night sky. The tiger's lungs swelled and deflated beneath his knees; he pulsed like driftwood against a beach. The heart throbbed its rhythm through every bone and every pore.
At Ravi's sides, the root-ends of whiskers tickled against him. He grabbed a cluster and gently tugged and the tiger yelped and veered to one side. He grasped the other cluster and the tiger lurched to the other side. Soon, he could guide it as easily as if it were his own body.
"This is not how this is supposed to work," growled the tiger.
Ravi laughed and steered it into the forest.
Their muscles stretched powerfully and drove them forward between the pillars of trees and into the tall grass. There, Ravi's brain lit up with the musky scent of quivering prey. Deer. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but the tiger sensed it and shushed him.
"No sound." It sank to the ground and crept one muscle at a time across the field, hardened for the pounce. The deer stood erect, eyes wide but turned the wrong way.
They leapt. Claws flexed before them and grasped. The deer's eyes rolled.
"This is very unusual." The tiger was stretched out beneath a hedge, rubbing its jaw against the branches. "And you, child, are surprisingly fierce."
Within him, Ravi yawned and laid back. "Being a tiger is sort of boring."
The tiger grunted. "Men bore too easily. That's why you never stop moving." He rolled upside down and stretched into a curve. "Idleness, then ferocity. That's a real life. You could learn something from tigers."
Ravi shrugged. He knew nothing about it. His life was still games and the protection of parents and of home. Through the tiger's slitted eyes, the lights of the town glowed before him like captured stars. The shadows of leaves lay heavy on him. He shivered.
"It's very empty out here in the woods," he said.
The tiger laughed and rolled right-side-up, shaking Ravi around with him. "Empty? This all used to be wild." He spit. "Men. The jungle is smaller every day."
"But it's so lonely."
The tiger didn't respond.
They lay quiet, then, and Ravi sang a lullaby, the way his mother used to. Loud, then quieter as he grew tired. The last few lines were mere whispers.
"You are crying," observed the tiger.
"I miss my family."
"I did not know mine." The tiger lay his head down. "There are so few of us."
Through the tiger's eyes, they watched some night-creature scuffling in the underbrush. It raised eyes, iridescent in starlight, then vanished with a sudden flick into a hole where it was greeted by soft chirps and squeaks.
"Perhaps," said the tiger, "perhaps you can stay? We can be a tiger together."
"I can't. I miss my home."
The tiger looked at the sprawling arms of the town and back at the shrinking jungle. He closed his eyes. "Yes. I understand."
Ravi's fingers pried at the teeth. "Come on, tiger."
The tiger shook his head and grumbled. "This won't work."
"It worked before."
"That was different," he snarled. "You are built to be eaten."
"Come on." Ravi tugged affectionately at the whisker-ends. "Can't we just try?"
Morning had come, and with it the shouts of friends and family. "Ravi! Ravi, where are you!"
The tiger crept deeper into the trees.
"I have to go back, silly tiger."
The tiger grumbled. "Do you promise it will work?"
"Promise," said Ravi with the certainty of a five-year-old.
"And you promise we will switch sometimes to run in the fields while they remain?"
"And you will be fierce, always?"
The tiger sighed. "It would embarrass me if you were not fierce."
"Tiger, I will be fierce. Now come on."
The tiger opened his jaws and stretched out his tongue. His sides contracted as Ravi climbed out into the dewy grass.
"There, that wasn't too hard." Ravi danced and stretched in the sunshine as the tiger cleaned himself. "Now. Hmm. . . the next part."
The voices were coming closer.
"Hurry," said the tiger. "They'll chase me and kill me if they find me with you."
"Okay, okay." Ravi cocked his head. "It's just. . . I've never eaten a tiger before."
"Start with a paw?"
Ravi took the tiger's front paw in his hands and worked it into his mouth. Even retracted, the claws traced grooves into his tongue. The fur was dry against his palate. Slowly, inch by inch, he pulled the paw in, and the leg, then the next, and finally the head. There was no pain, but he felt a kind of warm fullness he had never felt before. Once the shoulders were in, the rest was easy and he felt the tiger curl within him.
"Tiger? Are you okay?"
Ravi could sense the tiger's eyes behind his, and feel its twitching tail.
"You are warm, little one. But very small."
His response was interrupted by a figure crashing through the brush. Father.
"Ravi! It's Ravi!"
His father rushed forward and scooped him up and kissed him over and over and over.
Inside him, the tiger purred. Ravi smiled, savoring the new breath within him.