Once upon a time, in the great jungles of the east, there was a tiger. He was a grand and fearsome beast, and he loved nothing in the whole world except his own self. Every morning he slept on a wide rock overlooking a pond, every evening he spent hours admiring his reflection in the water, and every night he went into the jungle and killed something for his dinner. When he snarled the animals of the jungle shivered in fear, but when he walked he was so silent that they never noticed him until it was too late, his hot breath was on their back and his sharp teeth at their neck.
One evening as the tiger was gazing at his reflection in the pond below his rock, lost in admiration of his own gold-green eyes, he felt something strike him on the rump. Most offended by this interruption of his evening’s contemplation, he looked all around himself until he found an unripe fig on the ground. Imagining it must have fallen from the fig tree which shaded his rock from the heat of the day, he lay back down and commenced to consider the symmetrical perfection of his many stripes. Shortly, though, he felt another fig hit him on the rump, followed by a second, and a third, and then a veritable rain of unripe fruits. “This has never happened before,” he thought to himself, “in all the years I’ve been sleeping under this tree.” And then he heard a sort of chittering laughter coming from high above him.
Looking up into the branches of the tree, he saw, almost at the very top, a small brown monkey. The monkey was eating figs. When he came across an unripe one, he would throw it at the tiger. His aim was distressingly accurate.
“What do you think you’re doing?” snarled the tiger. “If you throw one more fig at me, I’ll climb up there and eat you whole!”
“You can’t climb up here,” said the monkey, “You couldn’t get halfway up here without the limbs breaking under your fat ass.”
The tiger could see that the beastly little creature was right. While he did not consider himself to be in any manner of speaking “fat”, the branches at the top of the tree were barely strong enough to hold up the tiny monkey, much less a noble personage such as himself.
“You wouldn’t be worth it anyway,” he said, lying back down on his rock. “Too scrawny to make a meal of.”
“You didn’t think that about my mother,” said the monkey. “You ate my mother and you ate my father and you ate all my sisters and you ate all my brothers.”
“That is the way of the jungle,” said the tiger. “If you didn’t eat those figs they might grow into trees, but you’re eating them all and so the tree will never have offspring.”
“I know,” said the monkey, “I know. I don’t try to work against it. I just content myself with sitting here and throwing figs at your striped self and laughing at you every chance I get.”
The tiger decided that continuing this conversation would be beneath his dignity. He returned to the silent meditation of his whiskers, ignoring the occasional impact of an unripe fig on his sleek backside.
As the sun was finally setting, the monkey spoke again, and this time his voice was much closer. The tiger looked up to see him on the lowest branch of the tree, almost within reach of one of the tiger’s great and deadly paws.
“You think you got it all figured out,” said the monkey, “but you ain’t. You eat and you sleep and you stare at your precious nose in the pond, but you don’t have anything figured out.”
“What do you mean?” asked the tiger, most affronted.
“You got no love,” said the monkey. “You’ve got nobody but yourself. And you think that’s okay now, but love is gonna find you one day, and you’re not prepared for that. Love is gonna find you and kick your ass.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said the tiger coldly.
“I know you don’t,” said the monkey.
“I imagine I will have no trouble finding a mate when I desire one,” said the tiger.
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” said the monkey, and he ran off into the tree, then leapt to another and disappeared into the jungle.
The tiger was somewhat disturbed by this conversation. That night he was distracted while he stalked the forest and ended up catching no dinner for himself at all. He returned to his rock and threw himself down upon it. Instead of going to sleep on a full stomach, as was his usual habit, he gazed at his moonlit reflection in the pond. He lay there, staring deeply and disconsolately into his own eyes, later than he had ever been awake before. So late, in fact, that it became not late at all, but very, very early instead. As the sun rose, which the tiger had never seen before, he noticed for the first time that the pond reflected something besides himself.
The sky was the lightest of blues, pink at the eastern horizon, and streaks of clouds were blazing gold from north to south. The tiger had never seen anything so beautiful in his life. His own stripes seemed pale and dingy in comparison and his eyes muddy and dim. He rolled onto his back to see the sky itself, but the sight seemed to burn his eyes and heart. He was able to stare only at the reflection in the pond.
The tiger watched the sky’s reflection all that day. He watched all night. He watched the next dawn and thought it more beautiful than the one before. He watched as the sun journeyed across his pond and marveled at its brightness. He watched the progression of blues and then pinks and then more blues and blacks as the days and nights passed. The stars, so much brighter than his own eyes, entranced him.
He did not eat. He did not wash himself. He did not sleep.
On the third day, the monkey came to him again.
“I know what you mean now,” said the tiger, when he noticed the monkey in the tree.
“Yes, I expect you do,” said the monkey. He looked at the dusty, rumpled, red-eyed tiger. “You look like shit.”
“Is that satisfying?” asked the tiger.
“Pretty satisfying, yeah,” said the monkey.
“What do I do now?” asked the tiger.
“Well, have you told her?” asked the monkey. “That’s usually the first step.”
“No,” said the tiger.
“Who is she?” asked the monkey. “I haven’t seen any lady tigers around.”
“I’m not in love with a tiger,” said the tiger. “I think I’ve fallen in love with the sky.”
“The sky!” whooped the monkey. “This is better than I thought! You love the sky? You hit the bad-luck jackpot, man. You never gonna be happy again! You should just sit on that rock and let yourself starve to death now, ‘cause you’re never gonna get the sky to love you back.”
“Why not?” said the tiger. “Am I not handsome and strong and sleek?”
“Not after staying up for three days straight, no,” said the monkey, “but that’s not the point. It’s the sky. It don’t love nobody, just like you.”
“I changed,” said the tiger, “so can the sky. I’ve watched her change constantly for three days and nights, actually.”
“Sky can’t change like that,” said the monkey. “But I tell you what. There’s a monkey. A very wise old monkey. Lives in a cave. He might know how to get the sky to talk to you. He knows lots of things. So you go to him and see what he says.”
“Why are you helping me?” asked the tiger suspiciously. “I ate your whole family.”
“I’m not helping you,” said the monkey. “If you think helping you talk to the sky ‘cause you’re in love with it is helping you, you still got a lot to learn.”
“All right,” said the tiger. “How do I find the wise monkey?”
The monkey gave him directions to the cave where the wise old monkey lived. It was across a river and through a jungle, and through the territory of a herd of elephants, which even tigers fear, and across another river, and through a swamp, and then right at another river, and up a great mountain. “And bring some figs,” said the monkey. “He likes figs, and it never hurts to take figs when you’re going to visit a monkey.”
“I will,” said the tiger. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” said the monkey. “I’m hoping you get stepped on by the elephants.”
The tiger finally slept that day, and caught himself a dinner that night, and the next night he left for the mountain. He walked all night and slept in trees on his trip. The first river was small; he barely got his chin wet. He crossed the elephants’ ground in one night, slinking from shadow to shadow. He saw the huge animals sleeping, like hills with trees for legs, but he was so silent that none of them woke. The second river was wild and cold, coming down from the mountains. He was sick for two days after crossing it. The swamp left him filthy, covered in mud and bug bites. He swam in the third river to clean himself before turning upstream and starting to climb the mountain. Nearing dawn, he found a fig tree and carefully gathered the ripest figs he could reach. He wrapped them in a leaf and gently carried the bundle in his mouth up the mountain until he came to a cave. There was a broad open space out front of the cave, and here he set down the figs and called for the wise monkey.
“I’m not coming down there,” came a voice from the forest. “You say you came here looking for a wise monkey, how wise would I be to come when a tiger calls for me?”
“I’m not going to eat you,” said the tiger. “I’ve brought you figs. Besides, after coming all this way to see you, I must be a sorry sight myself. I can barely stand, much less chase down a monkey. I’ve been walking for weeks.” And this was true, as the wise monkey could see. The tiger was thin. His bright eyes were tired and his stripes faded under a layer of dust.
The monkey came down from his tree, out into the clearing. He sniffed the figs. “What is it you want, then?” he asked, examining a fig.
“I’m in love with the sky. I want to meet her. A monkey told me you could get her to talk to me,” said the tiger.
“Hmph. That monkey has an inflated idea of my abilities,” said the wise old monkey, now munching contentedly on a fig. “Good figs, though.”
“Oh,” said the tiger. “Is there nothing you can do to help me?”
“Well, I can try. I’m not promising anything, mind.”
“Whatever you can do, I will appreciate it.”
After considering for a time, and eating three more figs, the monkey told the tiger, “Go into my cave. Touch nothing you see there, it is monkey magic. Go all the way to the back. There are two passageways. Take the right one. At every fork you come to, go right. You will travel through tunnels, all the way through the mountain. They get smaller as you go, and I’m not sure you’ll be able to squeeze through, skinny though you are for a tiger. If you make it, you will come out onto a little ledge on the other side of the mountain.” Here the monkey fell silent for a long time.
“And then what do I do?” asked the tiger.
“Do? Nothing. You wait. If the sky will talk to you, that’s where it will happen,” said the monkey.
The tiger was not inspired to confidence by this plan. “What if I get trapped in the passageway?” he asked.
“Well,” said the monkey,” I expect one of two things will happen then. If you’re only trapped a little, you’ll sit there until you get thinner and thinner and then you’ll be able to wiggle free and move further along.”
“And if I can’t move further along?” asked the tiger.
The old monkey smiled. “Then I’ll have some tiger bones to add to my monkey magic in the cave,” he said.
There seemed to be no more to say. Nodding his thanks to the monkey, the tiger left the bright morning behind as he entered the cave. The walls of the cave were carved into shelves, and they were covered with bones and sticks and twists of jungle grasses right up to the top. The tiger passed these by carefully, avoiding touching them or even looking too closely. At the back of the cave, there were two openings, and he took the one on the right. For many hours he walked through the dark passage beneath the mountain, taking the right path at every fork. He sometimes thought he heard things, monkey laughter and singing. Sometimes sparks seemed to fly in front of his eyes in the dark. The tunnels grew smaller and smaller and twisted in strange ways. Once he thought he had made a wrong turn and come to a dead end, but then he saw that the passage twisted back on top of itself, and he hauled himself up, crawling now only a few feet above where he had been a moment ago. He was stuck for a time which seemed infinitely long, but probably was not. He imagined himself dying here in the darkness and the old monkey cackling as he carried him back to the cave, pieces of tiger-bone-monkey-magic. With some scrabbling he worked himself free.
At last he noticed it was getting brighter, and though the tunnel was smaller than ever, he squeezed himself towards the brightness. He emerged from the cave onto a tiny ledge. He now saw that the other side of the mountain was a sheer cliff. He was most of the way up, and the drop was terrifying. Instead of looking straight down at the rocks and the deadly fall, he looked out on the valley in front of him.
It was sunset, and the light was golden across the valley. The tiger could see the jungle stretching far away, covering hills and valleys and mountains. He heard faintly the calls of distant birds and saw treetops shaking as packs of monkeys moved through them. Finally the tiger looked up at his love, the sky. She seemed closer than ever, and she was in tiger stripes again, golden orange and blue. Far above everything, the tiger felt that he was with his love, living in the sky. Exhausted from his journey, he fell asleep.
In the night he dreamed. He dreamed of looking and watching over the jungle and the ocean and the world beyond. He dreamed of towns and cities. He dreamed of clouds and winds. He dreamed of the feelings of pink and red and deepest blue. Finally, he dreamed of watching himself, lying on a ledge. In the last dream he was both watching over himself and in his own body, feeling a presence near him.
He woke in the morning, alone. He was weak from his long weeks of walking, and to go back through the cave seemed too hard. “I will wait here until the sky comes to speak to me,” he decided. “She surely came to me in my dreams last night, for I’ve never had such dreams before. If I wait, she may come again.”
He waited all day, watching the valley and the sky above it. Now that he was frail, she did not seem to blind him as before, but to comfort him. He waited this way through three days, watching the light and the sky in the day and dreaming of them and the presence beside him each night. It was cold on the side of the mountain and wet with dew in the mornings. He grew weaker.
“I could not walk back through the mountain now if I wanted to,” he realized on the fourth morning. “I will die here on this ledge. The monkey will take my bones and use them for his purposes, and I will be forgotten in the jungle.” The thought did not disturb him as much as he thought it might. He was living in the sky, or as near as he could come to her. He dozed on and off all through the day, dreaming in bright blues. In the evening, he was awake and watched the sun set. He wanted to watch the stars again. As the sunset faded into darkness and the stars shone through the veil of the last light, he saw a form moving towards him through the sky. The figure came closer and he saw that it was a she-tiger, striped with deepest blue and brightest orange, glowing with the last of the day’s light. The she-tiger walked across the sky and came to the ledge where the tiger lay. She sat next to him, not on the ledge, but in the sky beside it.
“Are you the sky?” he asked.
The she-tiger shook her great head and smiled. “I am not the whole sky. I am that part of the sky which is a tiger. The whole sky cannot come down to love one tiger. But I have seen how you love me, with great constancy. I have watched over you the past three nights.”
“Will you be with me while I die?” asked the tiger.
The sky-tiger smiled again. “Only if you wish to die,” she said. “If you wish to live, you shall do that instead, and I will live with you.”
The tiger was surprised to find that, given a choice, he still wanted to live. He nodded to the sky-tiger, and she picked him up by the back of the neck like a cub and carried him through the mountain. Where the passage was tight she shrugged her shoulders and it widened for them. After a time, carried rocking through the darkness, the tiger fell asleep. When he awoke he was outside the cave and the sky-tiger was talking to the monkey. The monkey gave the sky-tiger a twist of grass. She lay down on the ground quietly and allowed the monkey to pluck from her face a single pale blue whisker. The monkey grinned over his prize and retreated to his cave. The sky-tiger brought the twist of grass to the tiger and put it in his jaws. It was dry and sharp. The tiger ate it carefully.
“Better?” asked the sky-tiger.
“Somewhat,” said the tiger, managing to stand.
The journey which had taken the tiger four weeks alone took them twice that together. It took them two weeks to reach the place where the tiger had first met the river and turned up the mountain. The sky-tiger hunted and brought prey back to the tiger to eat each night, and he gained strength as they went. The wind seemed always to favor the sky-tiger, and she was silent as the faintest breeze. She was a remarkably good hunter, though she shone a little under the starlight.
The two tigers hunted and lived together for many years. They had fine litters of cubs and watched them grow into great and fearsome tigers. The children were the orange-and-black of their father, but at night the faint glow of starshine rose from their hides. Parents and children were the terror of the jungle, though none of them ate monkeys again.
One autumn morning, after they had watched the sunrise from the rock overlooking the pond, the tiger said to his love, “You will return to the sky soon.”
The sky-tiger said, “I will be with you all your life.”
“I am not young,” said the tiger. “Winter is coming, and I do not think I will see the spring.”
“I have lived with you here for a long time,” said the sky-tiger. “ Perhaps it is time for you to come and live in my home.”
“I cannot walk in the sky as you can, my love,” said the tiger.
They slept that day, and in the evening they left the rock for the last time. Again they crossed rivers and the grounds of the elephants and the swamp. They walked together up the mountain, but the wise monkey was not at his cave, and the objects inside were dusty and jumbled.
“He was a very old monkey, even when I was young,” said the tiger, and he was a little sad, though he had not liked the monkey.
They crept together through the passageways. It was easier this time, for the tiger was shrunken a little with age, and the places where the sky-tiger had shrugged her shoulders were still enlarged.
The ledge was as it had been years before, perched between earth and sky.
“From here you must walk alone,” said the tiger. “Come to me at night, as you did when we first met, and I will be waiting.”
“I will,” said the sky-tiger, and she left the little ledge and walked into the sky.
She came back that night, and stayed with him until the sky was pink at the edges and the sun was about to rise. “My love,” she said. “Come with me to my home.”
“I cannot live in the sky,” said the tiger. “When I was young and arrogant I thought to love the whole sky, but now I love only you and that is enough, and more.”
“Once before I gave you a choice,” said the sky-tiger. “Now I give it to you again. When you were young you loved the sky so much that I came down to be with you. Now I love you. Will you not come to live with me?”
The tiger considered this. He rose, and followed her into the sky.