I heard the tiger at the door at the age of five. It sounds early but that’s how it happened. I was small, smaller than I can ever understand, and my mother who now stands nearly a full head shorter looked down at me. I had a high fever and she gripped my hand hard as she watched the sweat drip off my face. Her eyes darted from my face to my bedroom and back again. I didn’t have to say a word. She knew that I saw them in my bedroom. I would not take a step forward. They were there.
When you’re young, you’re taught that seeing is believing and my eyes saw them. The first tiger padded its way around the end of my bed, turning around at the corner and walking out of view behind a wall. The second and third followed. Their eyes glowed red like the bits of coal that I saw in the barbecue when Dad grilled sausages or skewered meats on the weekends. Red to me meant the devil. I guess I had learned that at Sunday school but I wasn’t entirely sure if they meant any harm. They certainly were intimidating but I knew that they were majestic and beautiful creatures as well, especially in the way they moved, their shoulder blades flexing up and down, undulating with every step. About a year or so later, I would discover the full extent of my double-jointedness and re-enact the stalks of prey I saw on Discovery Channel documentaries. Cheetahs, lions, tigers, all with those pointy bones jutting out of their lean bodies built for the kill.
When I saw the tigers in my room, I was incredibly afraid that they would deviate from their path but they never did. They always went around the bed and away towards the wall. My fear made me want to bury my face into my mother’s thighs and grab her clothes for comfort, but I could never look away. My eyes stayed open and watched every movement. It was like when I watched a horror or action movie and my parents would tell me to cover my eyes near the climax of the story when death was imminent and I’d watch through a slit in my fingers not wanting to miss a thing. I was in awe of the possibility of what a human could do, or what an animal could do. I wanted to find out how unreal reality could be, how painful, how beautiful. That’s how I felt when I saw the stripes, the fur, the big paws, and the eyes. I didn’t want to miss a thing. I was captivated. Their hypnotic movements and their graceful power entranced me. It wasn’t until years later when I’d wonder, why were there three tigers? Why did they visit me? Did they mean me harm? And the most interesting question of all, where did they come from?
Now at the age of twenty five, I have come across a review of a recently published memoir in a magazine. The author uses the phrase, “hear the tiger at the door”, and she uses it to signify the moment when a child realizes that one day their childhood will end, that it’s already ending, that all’s not completely right with the world. After reading that phrase, my thoughts jolted back to the several occasions I saw the tigers. Suddenly I am my five-year-old self again clutching my mother’s hand and staring ahead at the red eyes. How strange it would be if ‘hearing the tiger at the door’ for me is literally when I saw tigers at my door. The connection is uncanny. I can’t help but think that when I saw them I realized there were mystery and grief in the world, pain and loss, and that this was only the beginning of my understanding.
Ever since, I have been weirdly fascinated by tigers and I can’t help but attribute this instinctive desire to stick posters of tigers on my walls, tiger magnets on the fridge and buy tiger themed calendars, to those several nights in which I saw the big cats walking on the carpet I played on, walked on and laid on as a child. Perhaps, the very fabric of my reality, the threads of understanding that weave their way in and out through the years started being sown then. The bud of consciousness that came with witnessing these grand events was planted then and the realization that my five-year-old self did not know everything. I guess that’s what we call wisdom.