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Excerpt: ‘The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger’ from Revenge

“I suddenly noticed an odor in the air. It was sweet and persistent but not at all unpleasant. I took a deep breath and let myself be guided by the smell.”

By Yoko Ogawa
Fiction | animals, death, nature, prose, tiger
March 22, 2013

The clock struck two. Though the day was still, the sound seemed to swirl around somewhere high above me before reaching my ears.

When the echo died away, I suddenly noticed an odor in the air. It was sweet and persistent but not at all unpleasant. I took a deep breath and let myself be guided by the smell.

“Fern,” I murmured.

I was standing in front of a large, stone house. The heavy iron gate was half open. A massive oak cast a cool shadow. Without a moment’s hesitation, I went in. I walked toward the house, looking up at the windows, then passed around to the back on the west side. The smell was coming from there.

I found a beautiful and meticulously tended garden. Shrubs trimmed with amazing precision lined little green paths. A few blooms still clung to the climbing roses, and clear water flowed from a fountain at the center. Next to the fountain, a tiger lay sprawled on the ground, and next to the tiger crouched an old man.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Come see,” said the man, who was apparently not at all surprised to find me standing there.

“Is it dead?”

“No, not yet,” he said, waving for me to come closer.

As I approached the fountain, I felt a pleasant breeze. Small birds chirped, and it seemed as though the heat that covered the town had suddenly abated.

The tiger was enormous, stretched out against the curve of the stone basin. Its legs were limp, its mouth half open. Its breathing was weak and labored.

“Is it sick?” I asked.

“Yes, it won’t last long.” The old man held the animal’s paw as he knelt beside it, and he seemed so comfortable and confident that I felt no fear. He gestured again for me to approach. He was dressed very formally for a hot summer day, but he did not seem to be sweating at all. He wore an elegant jacket, a bowtie, and pearl cufflinks. His white hair was neatly combed.

I knelt beside him and found I couldn’t resist the urge to rest my hand on the tiger’s back. The smell I had thought was fern seemed to be coming from the animal.

I was struck by the warmth of his body. This was no stuffed beast or a figment of my imagination but a living creature. Its hot mass pulsed under my palm.

“It’s magnificent,” I whispered.

“Magnificent indeed,” the man said as he continued to caress the beast. Its black and yellow fur shined in the light filtering down through the trees. The beautiful stripes, the enormous size — everything about the animal was perfect. Even lying prostrate, it seemed to be coiled and ready to attack; the paws looked heavy. The jaw was powerful, and sharp fangs peeked out from its mouth. Every bit of the tiger seemed to have a purpose, to be ideally suited to the hunt.

“It is yours?” I asked.

“It is.” The old man nodded. A shudder ran through the animal’s belly and it groaned.

“Poor thing,” I said. I tried to concentrate my energy in the hand stroking the tiger’s back. The fur was very thick and soft and pleasant to the touch. The more I stroked it the more the scent of ferns filled the air.

“There now,” the man murmured. Then he turned toward me for the first time and smiled.

The tiger’s ears drooped and its tongue rolled from its mouth. It began to drool. With its last remaining strength, it pushed closer to the old man.

“There now,” the man repeated, wrapping his arms around the tiger’s neck and rubbing his cheek against its face.

The roses swayed in the hot breeze. Tiny insects danced above the lawn. Spray from the fountain misted down on us.

“I’m afraid I’m disturbing you,” I said, realizing that I was intruding on their last moments together.

“Why would you say that?” the old man said, a hint of reproach in his tone. “You must stay with us. We need you here.” Then he looked back at the tiger, his eyes full of pity.

The tiger’s breath grew fitful. Its throat rattled; its fangs clattered together. The tongue looked rough and dry. I continued to rub its back; it was all I could do.

The old man held his cheek against the animal’s head. The tiger’s eyes opened and sought his face. When it was satisfied that he was still nearby, the eyes shut again in relief.

Their bodies had become one. Cheek and jaw, torso and neck, paw and leg, bowtie and stripes — everything melted together into a single being. The tiger let out a roar, and as the echo died away so did the beating under my hand. The clicking of fangs stopped, and a final breath seeped from its lungs. Silence descended on us.

The old man continued to hold the animal in his arms. I rose as quietly as I could and left the garden.


Excerpted from REVENGE: ELEVEN DARK TALES by Yoko Ogawa. Reprinted by arrangement with Picador. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.