They haven’t moved in what seems like hours. In the freezing morning they can see their breath. But the jeep just sits at the crossroads while Sonu listens. His eyes dart, but he says nothing. And neither does anyone else. Sonu keeps looking at the jungle, back and forth, right and left. His eyes skim the horizon as he stands on the top of the jeep. Then he looks back at Vikram. They speak in their language that Caroline can’t understand, but she’s sure they’ve heard something.
The others are restless, but Caroline doesn’t mind. She likes these moments when they’re standing still. She prefers it to when they’re driving around, being jostled over the ruts and dips of the dusty road. She enjoys the jungle sounds. The soothing quiet that surrounds them. The cries of monkeys, the chirping of birds, and the hints of more dangerous things. But they have yet to hear a tiger roar. Or see a pugmark for that matter. And the trip is almost over. People had warned her not to come in the winter; to wait until June. But who in their right mind comes to India in June?
She glances at Robert who sits beside her, smiling like a talk show host. And the twins who look as if they are being hauled to the dentist instead of in search of tigers. “What’s that?” she asks, raising her finger into the air.
Sonu says something to Vikram who answers, “Juvenile spotted deer, calling its mother.”
Caroline shakes her head. How do they know that? How can anyone know such a thing? She gazes at her sullen children, with blankets wrapped around their shoulders and their heads. It’s cold in the early morning air, but not that cold. “Isn’t that amazing?”
The twins groan. “Amazing, Mom.” Emma says in her snide way.
“Jellybean, don’t talk to your mother like that.” Robert comes to his wife’s defense.
“What? My attitude is keeping the tigers away?” She rolls her eyes as if she’s having a seizure. “And please don’t call me Jellybean.” Robert gives a shrug. He gets it that she’s fifteen, that she thinks she’s almost grown up, but he still calls her Jellybean. He can’t help it. Since they were tiny, he labeled them T-Bone and Jellybean, for no reason that anyone can remember anymore, and he seems unable to stop even as they fold their arms in unison across their chests.
Caroline was happy when she learned she was having twins. “Instant family,” like those packets of instant sea horses. Just add water and stir. But over the years the twins had formed a line of defense as if they were being coached from the sidelines. They don’t really look alike. Emma is taller, darker, and takes after her father. Timmy is fairer with russet hair like her. But they act alike. Their gestures, their laughter. Sometimes even scarily so.
Perhaps it was wrong to make them come on this trip. After all it is the Christmas holidays and they wanted to be home with their friends. But Caroline and Robert thought that it would do them all good. Give them a chance to get to know one another again. To really bond. But thus far no tiger. And they hadn’t expected it to be cold.
Behind her Emma releases an exaggerated sigh and Timmy coughs. He’s been coughing since they left. Perhaps he is sick. Maybe Robert should examine him, Caroline thinks as she stares at the road ahead where there is nothing. No movement in the trees. Not a breeze. Not even monkeys as there were the day before to amuse them with their antics. For a few moments nothing stirs; then Sonu raises his finger into the air. He heard something, but he and Vikram appear to be in disagreement over which direction it’s coming from. In fact, they are having an argument. Vikram is reminding Sonu of what all the guides understand. “No tiger, no tips.”
Caroline is fascinated by their chatter. Their discussions, she assumes, of where the tiger might be. Before this trip she’d had no idea that tigers were so elusive. They don’t just present themselves. She assumed that it would be like seeing lions which had been easy enough when they went on safari in Africa, a trip that the children had loved, though they were younger, just past the age of believing in Santa Claus, but still willing to spend ten days with their parents which Caroline senses is no longer the case.
“You don’t look for a tiger,” Sonu told her yesterday in his broken English and shy way. He’s a lean bespeckled man in his late twenties, and Caroline has caught him giving Emma the eye. “You look for signs of the tiger.” Sonu has just won some wildlife award and supposedly is one of the best guides in India. Still they have seen no tigers. And, except for the alarm calls, no signs either. The twins are bored. Caroline doesn’t need to be told. She doesn’t need to look at them. She feels it the way a mother can. They are her prisoners, held against their will.
“It’s so interesting,” Caroline says, “the way these men hear things.”
Emma smiles, nodding, and Timmy does as well, though he can’t hear a word she’s saying. Under his sweatshirt hood he’s plugged into his Walkman, grooving to Aerosmith. He thinks his mother doesn’t know, but she’s biting her tongue, trying not to say a word. Timmy is well-aware that this trip is just one of his mother’s tricks. One more way to pretend they’re a family. Timmy sneezes.
“God bless you,” his father says.
“Shush.” Sonu puts his fingers to his lips, then points toward a ravine and Vikram guns it around a curve where suddenly four or five other jeeps come to a screeching halt. They’ve all heard the call. As the drivers and guides talk among themselves, their heads bobbing back and forth, their disconsolate passengers are trying to stay warm. But, after several minutes, it becomes clear that the tiger isn’t here.
Back at the lodge lunch is served. The sun is bright and warm and they opt to eat on the terrace. “Oh, doesn’t that feel good,” Caroline says, raising her face to the sky. Emma imitates her mother, trying to work on her tan. The chef, Mahmut, in the ridiculous tall white chef’s hat he wears, comes over to their table to inform them of their options. They can’t understand a thing Mahmut is saying, so they just nod and soon food arrives on silver trays, each serving in an individual small silver bowl. This must be left over from the Raj, Caroline muses. “Don’t you think they could be a little less formal around here,” she says.
Robert shrugs. “When in Rome,” he replies. Did he always talk in clichés? Caroline tries to recall. And that smile. Surely he didn’t wear that smile when they met, when they were dating. She doubts he smiles like this at his patients as he’s putting them under. It’s an acquired grin. The kind she imagines celebrities and psychopaths wear when pretending to be what they are not.
Timmy gives Emma an elbow in the ribs, and she yells at him to “cut it out.” Robert flashes them a “Time Out” signal. “I read about this tribe in Thailand,” Caroline says, apropos of nothing. “The elders know how to read the sea and they always know when a tidal wave is coming.” Robert gazes at his wife, unsure of where this is going. “Recently the young members, who work mostly in the hotels and tourist trade, have been asking the elders to teach them how to . . .” They stare at her. “Don’t you find these things interesting?”
Timmy wishes his mother would quit saying, “Isn’t that interesting?” or “Isn’t that amazing?” He knows she’s insecure, but she’s not a fool because she can see that to them it’s actually not amazing. In fact, they don’t really care. He would like something to matter to him besides what his friends are up to and what he’s listening to on his Walkman, but not much does. All he wants is to be home in his garage, pounding out chords with his newly formed band—The Peach Pits. It’s a name he came up with after he learned that peach pits if ingested contain a deadly poison. The band already has a small local following. In his head he’s writing songs. He doesn’t hear the peacocks or the monkeys. He’s not listening for the tiger’s roar. The music is all he hears.
After a brief basket-weaving demonstration by a local villager, there is free time. The afternoon safari leaves at four and will be back by dark. This is their sixth safari and it is obvious to Caroline that the twins are growing weary of chasing tigers. They may as well be snipe hunting or ghostbusting. But it was the carrot that got them here. It is how she lured her pets on this journey. “Just think of it! You can tell your friends.”
“You’ll have pictures to show them too,” Robert had chimed in.
During free time Emma lounges at the pool in her bikini, indifferent to the kitchen staff ogling her. Back in the room Timmy sips vodka from the plastic water bottle he keeps near his bed. No one wants to drink from it because he’s been faking a cold. He replenishes his supply at various mini-bars, hoping his father won’t study the bill. Though on their trip last year to St. Kitts, Robert did notice the porn charges which Timmy furiously denied. As the buzz goes to his head, he plugs in to his Walkman and settles into a session of air guitar.
In their room Robert and Caroline lie down for a nap. It is a recent habit they’ve acquired on weekends and holidays. They lie down in bed together in the middle of the day and Caroline sleeps on Robert’s chest. This is easier than speaking or making love and it makes them feel as if they’ve accomplished something. Revived some marital intimacies when in fact they’ve only taken a nap.
At four they assemble back at the jeep. This time Caroline and Robert hop in the back while the twins take the middle seats. They know the drill. Vikram drives twenty minutes to the game reserve where they wait half an hour while various bribes are being paid and guides assigned (They pay extra to have Sonu every day). Then when it’s all settled, Sonu swings into the jeep.
Caroline notes that he has showered. His hair is damp and he’s dressed in clean khakis and an olive green shirt. And he’s not wearing that pink scarf.
They drive through the gate, then stop, and the two men discuss something. “We’ll go another way,” Vikram says. The road forks a few hundred yards ahead and they veer to the right. This road takes them deeper into the reserve. Here the jungle seems thicker. The light more dappled. It is, Sonu explains, a less traveled way. “Maybe tiger is here,” he says, slightly raising their hopes. A troop of langur monkeys dash across the road, bouncing on their hind legs and tails. Others fly through the branches above. A mother scuttles by with a baby clinging to her back. Caroline laughs. “I want to come back as a monkey.”
“What do you mean, ‘come back’?” Robert asks and the children groan, muttering, “Oh, Dad . . .” They come to an opening—a stretch of savannah beside a small lake where stork and spotted deer graze and here they stop as Sonu surveys the herds. An emerald green bird buzzes overhead. “What was that?” Robert asks.
Without looking up Sonu says, “Green bee-eater.”
“How do you know?” Robert asks in disbelief. “You didn’t see it.”
“The sound of wings,” Sonu, always deadpan, replies. He identifies others as well. The swatches of turquoise that dart above—king fishers, roller birds—all flicker like jewels. On a dead branch he spots a serpent-eater eagle, spying the ground for snakes and tucked into a knothole the tiniest of owls. They drive on for fifteen minutes or so, and then halt before a pure white tree which Vikram identifies as “the ghost tree.”
“It is also known as the Lady of the Forest.” He points, and they see that the tree has bulges that resemble breasts, sticking out. Even Sonu, who supposedly doesn’t understand much English, chuckles. Vikram starts to drive on when Sonu raises his hand. As the jeep comes to a halt, Emma is thrust forward so that her arm rests on the back of Sonu’s seat. As he listens for the alarm call, Sonu is aware of her body, pressed against him. He doesn’t hear a call, but he feels the girl. He likes her. She seems older than her brother who can’t be more than thirteen or fourteen. She is taller and has an older face. She must be at least seventeen. Sonu listens to the rutting calls of peacocks, the assembling calls of monkeys, the cries of a lost fawn.
But the alarm calls have stopped. If there was a tiger nearby, it has gone back into the jungle or lain down for a rest.
Behind them branches rustle, then seem to break, and everyone turns. More langur monkeys fly through the forest, before settling on a limb. Two females and two “teenagers.” One male. “Oh, look,” Caroline points, “aren’t they cute!”
“They are cute,” Emma says. The monkeys seem to be looking at them as well. One hangs upside down by its tail. Everyone is pointing, saying “awww,” when suddenly the male grabs one of the females and, with a fierce look on his face, starts humping her from behind. The female opens her mouth, screeching while the male has his way. It’s a grotesque smile on her face, the kind you might see in a horror film. Though everyone is slightly embarrassed by this, they still stare, transfixed, until the male, his engorged penis red and pulsing, pulls back with a sharp cry. “Oh,” Timmy says, disgusted, looking away. Robert and Caroline try to be nonchalant, but Emma can’t take her eyes off the throbbing organ until Caroline bangs on the back of Vikram’s seat, “Okay, let’s go.”
But Sonu has heard something. Above the chatter of the monkeys, the songs of birds, he raises himself up onto his seat. “Do you hear that?” he asks, but no one does. The call comes again. “That.” Sonu points into the air. Caroline has no idea what he hears. She can make out a tiny beep that seems miles away, but that’s about it. The pitch is too high. Or her ear isn’t attuned. But Sonu recognizes a call the way a Chinese speaker discerns its four tones. “Sambar deer warning spotted deer,” he says.
Vikram nods. “Sambar deer only calls when he sees tiger,” he explains.
So the tiger is near. And they are off, the jeep twisting, taking every turn, bouncing on the road. The twins grab hold of the frame while Robert clutches Caroline who thinks that at any second the jeep will flip and they’re going to be thrown on to the road. At high speed Vikram takes the curves, zipping around potholes. A jackal races up the road ahead of them, then veers into the trees.
They come to a large meadow where Vikram stops abruptly. Around the edge of the meadow is the rim of the forest. Everything is still. Wind rustles the tall grass. The only sound is the breeze. For a long moment no one moves. Nobody says a word. “She’s out there.” Sonu scans to the horizon. “She’s lying down, but she’s there.”
Caroline had hoped this journey would patch her family back together again (or Krazy Glue it, might be more accurate). The part that needed patching. She wasn’t even sure what that part was. Except she knew that something wasn’t right and hadn’t been right for a while. But she’s never been able to actually see it. She has no evidence. Nothing to prove what she felt and, every time she confronted Robert with it, he denied anything. “I’d rather know,” she shouted.
“There’s nothing to know,” he’d reply in their bedroom back in Westchester. But for a while now everything has felt off kilter. As if the world had tipped a little to the right or the left. He recoiled from her touch. Or responded with a kind of rehearsed pleasure, making all the proper oohs and ahhs. It was as if someone had sucked the man she married out of him. And put Styrofoam packaging inside.
As an objects conservator much of her time involves packing and unpacking the most delicate of things. Once she flew to Moscow with a four-inch clay hunter from 2500 B.C. in her lap. She knows all about cushioning blows. She wants the truth. She can take anything except these subtle lies. Recently at the end of a meal with friends, Robert passed her the cream and sugar and she’d stared at it. “I don’t take cream and sugar in my coffee,” she said to her husband of nineteen years. “And I never have.”
She asked their friends. “If you know something, please tell me.” But nobody knew a thing. Or so they claimed. But now on this trip things feel better, different. It is as if they have become friends, companions. Still lately she’s been feeling that if she had the chance to do it over, she probably would not marry him again—which isn’t a good sign. But they have these children and they have made this life. And perhaps that is the most one can hope for in this world . . . Caroline is contemplating this as the jeep brings them back to the hotel, dropping them off. “Maybe tomorrow,” Vikram says, “we see tiger.”
That evening there’s a film about the extinction of tigers in the wild. The statistics are grim. Between loss of habitat and poachers, tigers in the wild stand little chance. Another family at the showing has a daughter whom Robert guesses must be about the twins’ age. The girl is a little tubby, but otherwise she has a sweet, pretty face, and she keeps looking their way. After the video there are some questions and answers. An elderly woman asks if a tiger would make a good pet. The man who made the video grimaces, “No,” he replies, “they are not good pets. They are wild animals.”
When the presentation is finished, Caroline and Emma, both of whom claim to need their beauty rest, head back to their rooms. But the family with the girl hangs out, playing cards. Robert suggests to Timmy that he should go over and introduce himself and he looks at his father as if he is insane. “You must be kidding,” Timmy hisses. Instead they play a game of ping pong which consists of Robert slamming balls so Timmy loses because his father always plays to win. Before the game Timmy was contemplating saying hi to the girl, if only to give him someone else to hang out with besides his family, but now that he has been publicly humiliated, he can’t bring himself to do so.
It is close to ten as they walk back along the path. The moon with a Cheshire cat’s grin shines down. “So, T-Bone,” Robert says, “don’t you like girls?”
“Yes, Dad, I like girls. What do you think? I’m a queer?”
Robert shakes his head. “No. Though I’d love you no matter what you are.”
“Well, that’s a relief.” Timmy wonders when his dad started sounding like a Hallmark card. Where do parents get their lines? Do they rehearse these scenes in front of a mirror, or what? They’re quiet for a while. There’s just the crunch of gravel beneath their feet. A cloud passes over the moon. As they approach their bungalow, Timmy says, “So, what’s up with you and Mom?”
Robert halts, searching for his key. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, come on, Dad.” Timmy keeps walking. “It’s not exactly a secret, you know.”
“We’ve had our difficulties, it’s true.” Robert takes a deep breath, wondering if he is about to lie to his son. He decides that he is. “But nothing we can’t resolve.” He thinks Caroline has the key, and hopes she’s still awake. “You know, marriage, like everything else, takes work.”
Timmy shakes his head. “No, I didn’t know that.” Timmy’s not sure he wants to know it either though he has often wondered about his parents’ odd coupling. He thinks of them as “his zombie parents. “His mother raises the dead while his father puts the living to sleep.” They’d make a good horror film, Timmy believes.
They reach the door to their shared living room and Robert is still digging for his key. “You wanta play some cards? Penny poker?”
“Naw, thanks, Dad. I’m tired.” Timmy sneezes.
“You still got that cold?”
“Aw, it’s nothing,” and he wipes his nose on his sleeve.
His father pats him on the arm. “Sure, I understand.” Robert looks at his son. He’s still a boy really—small, his voice unchanged. Some dark fuzz on his lip and a touch of acne on his chin. Robert will prescribe something for that when they get home.
“Night, Dad . . .”
“Good night, son.” Timmy gives his father a little salute, then walks into the room he shares with his sister. She’s reclining in a lounge chair in her T-shirt and panties, watching a Bollywood movie. It’s in Hindi, but she appears engrossed.
“What are you doing?” Timmy asks.
“Shush,” Emma replies. “I’m trying to understand the story.”
“But you don’t speak the language.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s easy to figure out. “ On the screen a handsome man bangs his head against a tree while a woman weeps. “Anyway, they’re all the same. He loves her and she loves him, but something stands in their way.”
Timmy shrugs. “Who cares?” Emma switches off the sound, then she hops from the bed. As she removes her T-shirt. Timmy looks away. He’s annoyed that he still has to share a room with his sister. He doesn’t want to see her burgeoning breasts or pubic hair (which he has already seen). And he doesn’t want her to see his lack of it. He feels he is old enough that he should have his own room. But for now they share.
He sits at the edge of his bed, taking off his jeans, his back to her. “So what do you think of our guide?” she asks, and Timmy turns. Now she’s dressed in her pink babydoll pj’s with little balloons all over them.
“Our guide? I dunno.” He could care less about the guide. He’s wishing he could take a sip of vodka but he’s afraid she’ll notice and tell.
“Well, I think he’s cute,” Emma says.
The elephant is waiting when they arrive. They reserved him the night before as a surprise for the kids. And they do seem genuinely surprised as they drive up to the huge gray creature. Who wouldn’t be surprised by an elephant? “I read that a tiger blinded an elephant once in this park,” Timmy says as they come upon it in the early morning at the edge of the forest, “and the elephant died an excruciating death.” Robert and Caroline smile at one another. Well, at least he’s engaged, Caroline muses.
The elephant is making a huffing sound, rocking on his feet, but as they approach the mahout whacks it with his stick. The elephant doesn’t flinch, but he does stop moving. Emma, squealing, climbs the ladder first into the big saddle on the elephant’s back. Next Timmy boards, then yanks his mother on while Robert pushes her from behind. There is hilarity all around. Even on the ground Vikram and Sonu are laughing.
Once settled, their elephant lumbers into the forest as the mahout kicks him around the ears with his feet. He’s an old elephant and clearly bored because he’s been doing this same stupid walk for years. He walks to a spot and there he stops. With his stick the mahout points to a bush and they all peer down where a young tigress appears to be, more or less, sleeping. She stares ahead with glazed eyes, glancing up only once because she is used to this elephant business. “I think she’s drugged,” Robert says on their way back. “I looked at her eyes. Her pupils seemed dilated to me.”
Caroline, who rarely defers to her husband, does so now. As an anesthesiologist he should know. “I think she’s working for the Department of Tourism,” Caroline replies and again everyone laughs. It is a minor victory, Caroline decides as she crawls down the ladder, off the elephant’s back.
“So you’ve seen your tiger,” Vikram says.
“That wasn’t really seeing a tiger,” Timmy replies.
“It’s more like a petting zoo,” Emma weighs in.
“No, no,” Vikram tries to argue, “that isn’t so.” In the jeep he explains that every tiger is very dangerous, especially for the mahouts and their assistants. “They have to go in the early morning and find their elephants.” The previous year one mahout killed in the early hours before dawn as he searched for his elephant in the brush. “You see, the mahout made a mistake. He saw the tiger coming towards him in the road and he ran. You must never run from a tiger. If you run, you become prey. For the tiger you must face her and back up slowly and she will not disturb you. You must surrender.”
At the ranger station Vikram drops Sonu off. This was their last safari. Despite the fact that they did not see a tiger, hunting, prowling, in the wild, but rather one dozing in the bushes, Sonu has been a good guide and everyone thanks him. Robert reaches across and shakes his hand, slipping four hundred rupees into it, which he pockets. Then Emma reaches across to shake his hand as well.
Caroline is pleased to see her daughter being so gracious. She must have learned something on this trip, Caroline thinks, if only manners. She does not notice the note that Emma slips into Sonu’s hand as she is shaking it. Or see Sonu tucking the note into the pocket where he guards his tips.
Because no safari is scheduled for that afternoon, they have their options of things they might do. Timmy wants to take the ride in the bullock cart and Emma, who wants to hang out at the pool, is willing to go along with her brother if this is her only choice. But Caroline opts for the visit to the local tribal village. “It will be more interesting,” she says, “you can always get a ride in a bullock cart,” and the children glare, unamused.
They shake their heads in unison in their evil twin way. “No, we can’t,” Timmy whines. Then turning to his father, “Dad, we want to go in the cart.”
Robert, who has been trying to regain his wife’s confidence, and this has not been easy to do, acquiesces to her. “You’ll get more out of the village,” he says and Caroline nods complacently, having won this argument. And then, as if reading from a brochure, their father says, “You should learn how other people live.” Which the twins understand is code for we are privileged and entitled and maybe you’d be more appreciative if you had to carry water home in a bucket on your head.
One of the waiters in the hotel with the odd name of Surender (which Caroline reads the first time as Surrender) lives in a tribal village, and offers to take them to visit his home. “What an opportunity!” Caroline cries out in the dining room. “To visit a real villager’s home.”
“What about the basket weaver?” Emma asks.
“He’s just for the tourists,” Caroline says of the dark man who squats, never looking up, no matter how long she hovers over him with her camera.
As a compromise they agree to go to the village at four which will give the kids time to lounge around the pool, plugged in, and soaking up some rays because they cannot return from India as pale as they left. As they head back to their room, Robert pauses at the front desk, “Any message for me?”
“No, sir,” the clerk says.
“Who’d be calling you here?” Caroline asks.
“Just the office,” Robert replies. “Somebody might need a consult.” In truth, no one really ever needs to consult with Robert. He always has enough coverage. Caroline would know this if she thought about it for half a second, but she doesn’t. And she has no idea that he’s been hoping for a message. He’s been waiting for one since they left New York. Well, hoping and not hoping. It was his idea for it to end, after all, just as it had been hers for it to begin.
He’d found Angela by the side of the road. That is, he passed the scene of the accident she’d just been in. He’d intended to drive on and let the EMT’s handle it, but he saw her skirt, raised up, exposing her thighs. And he saw the pale blue color of her skin.
A policeman tried to wave him on. “I’m a doctor,” he said.
“Then get over here,” the cop replied.
He examined her quickly. Her mouth and nasal passages were clear, but she had a faint pulse. Lifting her blouse he found, as he expected he would, a purple bruise where a rib had pierced her lung. She was in respiratory arrest and would die if he didn’t act quickly. For the time being he ignored the other bruises on her arm, on the side of her face. These he would ask about later. But for now he breathed air into her, then left when the EMTs arrived.
But she tracked him down. She showed up one day at his office and told the receptionist she’d wait. She brought him flowers and cried as she thanked him. As she was leaving, Angela clutched him with a force that was startling. She smelled of almonds and lavender cologne. Cheap cologne, he’d thought at the time, and he was right.
Angela came into his life at a time when he’d believed himself tame. Now he met her in cheap motels. He called her between patients and told her what he’d do when he got his hands on her. Once they made love on the carpet of his office floor. Finally, he rented a room above a laundry in Bedford Hills. Then they met whenever they could. On lunch breaks, between surgeries. The bruises were from her husband. She didn’t have to tell him that. But he had kissed each one. He never wanted to stop.
He became a man in a way he hadn’t been in years. He made love to her as if he was young. He could never get enough. “You’ve got to leave him,” he told her one day when she showed up with a black and blue mark on her arm where her husband had grabbed her. And when she wouldn’t leave her husband, when she couldn’t, Robert had left her. He’d known it was all madness anyway. “But you saved me,” she said. “Can’t you save me again?” That afternoon he had made love to her in his office against the wall. It was crazy, mad love, and they both knew it was the last time.
Still when he left to go on this trip, he’d sent her the number of all the hotels—“just in case.” “Say you are calling about a patient.” He’d been waiting for her call.
“You wanta take a nap,” Caroline touches his arm.
Robert jumps, his hand over his heart. “Oh, my god, you startled me.” And then, “yes. Of course. Let’s rest.”
At four they set out for the village. Along the way they pass signs to the Mowglie Lodge. The Jungle Book Inn. And then the Tiger Woods Resort. “Oh, my god. I wish I’d known there’s a golf course nearby,” Robert says, “I would have brought my clubs.”
Vikram looks at Robert somewhat astonished. “A golf course?”
“Yes, Tiger Woods . . .”
Vikram shakes his head, not knowing what Robert means. But Caroline understands and she begins to laugh—a big belly laugh. “Tiger woods . . . You know, like jungle camp. It’s not about golf. It’s about animals.”
Once Robert gets it, he laughs too though he’s disappointed about the golf.
They reach the village of forest people; they worship trees, and the sky, and the tiger. As they pull up the dirt road, a girl squats in a field, gathering cow dung with her hands. Along the side of the road another girl wets the dung and pounds it into patties; these will dry in the sun for fuel. As this is explained, Emma makes a face. “Yuck,” she says.
Surender, whose name means “god of rain,” takes them inside his home. They make their way into the cold, dark rooms, through the kitchen with its small wood-burning stove. The family, who is surprised to see visitors, scrambles to find plastic chairs. Surender introduces his mother, whom at first Caroline thinks must be his grandmother with her toothless grin and white hair; then Caroline realizes that this woman can’t be much older than she. A daughter-in-law keeps wiping the snot from the noses of her children. Tea is offered, but politely declined; there are concerns about the water.
They all sit in a circle, but they can’t really speak to one another so they just stare, smiling. Clearly Surender’s family is honored by this visit. And Caroline can’t help but notice how happy they are. They have nothing. A mud house, no light. They sleep on the ground. But they seem very happy. Suddenly there are some rumblings, some conversation that Caroline and her family can’t understand. But then Surender tells them, “My mother wants you to meet the girl who disappeared in the river, then returned from the dead.” The twins’ eyes widen.
“How so?” Timmy asks, showing real interest for the first time.
“A year ago she disappeared in the river and the next day they found her, underwater, but she was alive. You will see. She is famous here.”
They are led outside as Surender runs off and returns with a girl. She stands before them, wrapped in a yellow sari. She has a bright smile, though there are spaces between her teeth. But her skin is shiny and clear, her black hair glistens. Even though the day is hot, she does not sweat. There is something otherworldly about her. She looks as if everything amazes her. Stepping forward, she puts her hands together as she bows. “Namaste,” she says, first to Caroline, then Robert, then Emma.
But it is Timmy she focuses on. As they greet one another, she looks at him with a searing gaze. She seems to see right through him or into him. As if she finds a birthmark he’s never seen. Then it occurs to Timmy, and to his mother, that she is looking at him as if she knows him, as if she recognizes him from a distant place. Timmy wants to think that she likes him. That this is the spark he’d been waiting for, something that ignites in the middle of his body. But this is different. He can’t help feeling that she is trying to tell him something and he will only know it at the end of his life.
As they leave the village, Emma says, “Well, that was creepy.”
“How so?” Caroline asks though she feels so as well.
“That girl, the one who drowned but came back . . .”
“What about it,” her father says. “It’s probably just a legend. And it’s medically impossible. I’m sure there’s some explanation . . .”
“I don’t know,” Emma says. “I think she’s really dead.” Then she makes that Twilight Zone sound, waving her fingers in a ghostly way.
Caroline looks quickly from Emma to Timmy, expecting him to make that crazy sign with his finger at his head, but Timmy doesn’t do a thing. As he gets into the jeep, Timmy looks out at the fields of rice and sorghum. Two mice hunters come out of the fields with the buckets of rodents that they will roast over a fire, then delicately nibble on the bones. As they are driving away, Timmy mutters, “I feel as if I know her from somewhere.”
His parents laugh and so does his twin because, obviously, he’s never seen her before in his life. “I doubt it,” Robert says.
“Seriously,” Timmy replies, his voice far away, “she felt the same thing.”
Before dinner they do take a short bullock cart ride, but still that night over dinner everyone is morose. They are going home empty-handed. Robert had hoped with this trip that he’d win back his family’s hearts and minds, but instead they are all dejected because they haven’t seen a tiger. They’ve come all this way for nothing. But as Vikram dropped them off, he implied that the best time to see tigers really is at night. They hunt at night. Except no one is allowed in the game reserves after hours.
“So,” Robert asked him. “How much would it be . . . to go into the game park after dark.” Vikram looked stunned by the question. Then he quoted Robert a price.
That night after dinner Robert announces, “I have another surprise for you. Dress warm! And be outside in half an hour. T-Bone, Jellybean, I am serious now.”
“Where’re we going?” Emma asks. And then, “What time will we be back?”
“Why?” Robert asks. “You’ve got plans?”
Emma shrugs. “I just wanta be back is all.”
“You’ll be home by nine, okay?” Half an hour later they stand in the light of that same smiling moon, shivering in the cold, their breath shaping into little clouds. “What are we doing?” Caroline asks, but Robert puts his fingers to his lips.
“Shush,” he says, “you’ll see.”
Suddenly the jeep pulls up. Though Caroline and the twins don’t know this, Robert has bribed Vikram who bribed the night gatekeeper at the preserve to open the gate for them for an hour. Only one hour. So they need to find a tiger fast. The kids don’t want to go, but Robert is determined. So they set out into the night. They huddle under horse blankets with hot water bottles that Vikram has provided in their laps. Except for the moon and stars, the darkness is complete. It is as if they are driving into nothing at all. There are no lights on the road, no fires that dot the fields as they do in the early mornings. An occasional light, strung up to a generator, shines from a thatched house or hovel. Otherwise there is nothing but an inky blackness. They cannot see farther than their headlights. At last they arrive at the gate which rises mysteriously without waiting, no papers to sign. “See,” Robert whispers, “we’re getting the real VIP treatment.”
Inside the park Vikram turns off his headlights. “Tiger will run away if he sees our lights.” Then he drives into the cold, dark night. The jungle that had been a cacophony of songs and chatters is dark and silent. Eerily so. And, except for the moon, which keeps ducking behind a layer of clouds, no light filters through. They cannot see the road or anything around them. It is as if they are traveling in a capsule through space. Hurtling on a mission into some vast unknown.
They don’t speak as Vikram drives up and down the potholed roads. A pair of eyes peers out. There’s a shriek wail, but then it grows still again. When they stop and Vikram listens for calls, they are stunned by the silence. There isn’t a sound. Not even the wind in the trees. For half an hour or more, though it could be eight hours for all they know, they dip around the roads of the park, but then it is late and Vikram says with a sigh, “I’m sorry. We must leave. I have failed you again . . .”
“Just a little longer?” Robert says, reaching for his wallet, but Vikram shakes his head. If they are discovered, there will be trouble for him. He could lose his license. Vikram turns the jeep and drives back toward the gate quickly. He thinks about putting his headlights on now, but what if they spot something? He wants his tip, but they can’t be late so he drives faster than he should in the darkness. They are speeding along, clutching the frame of the jeep, when something jumps into their unlit path.
There is a shriek, almost a human cry. And then a sickening thud as they slam into whatever it is. As the jeep comes to a halt, Vikram buries in face into his hands. “Oh, no. Oh, my god, no . . .” They hear a scrambling sound, the rustle of the bushes on the roadside, then nothing at all. Vikram fumbles for his flashlight and shines it into the darkness.
“What is it?” Robert asks.
“What was that?” Timmy who, half drunk, has been jarred awake says.
“I don’t know . . .” Vikram replies. He does know, however, that only the tiger moves in the night. But he sees no signs of anything. Or perhaps it was a phantom, the lady of the forest, passing through these and now swallowed back into the night. “We have to go,” Vikram says, his voice trembling.
No one says a word as they ride back. Even leaving the jeep, they do not say good-bye, but just climb down and nod at one another as if they are all implicated in some crime. Walking back to their bungalow, Emma whispers, “This place is weird.”
As they reach the door and Robert fumbles for his keys, Timmy speaks up. “I need to say something,” he says and they all assume it is about the incident that just occurred, whatever that was. Instead he says, “I don’t want to be ‘Timmy’ anymore.” His family gapes at him. “I want to be Tim.”
“Okay, sure . . . Tim,” his father says. And then, “Goodnight, Emma. Goodnight, Tim,” they say, heading into their room where Robert flops onto the bed, closes his eyes, and, like one of his patients, goes right to sleep. The sleep of an untroubled man. But Caroline will not rest much tonight. She cannot help but wondering what they struck, if anything. If a wounded creature wanders somewhere in the world.
She goes onto the porch and sits, staring into the jungle. She thinks about listening. How those men know how to do this? How they can tell a peacock from a stork? A spotted deer crying for its mother or because a tiger is near? How do they know a rutting call from an angry call? A call to assemble or the call when one of the herd is lost?
But it is the girl who drowned that will stick in her mind. In three years when she mourns her son and his own watery grave, this will be the moment of the tiger safari to which she’ll return. Not the alarm calls she never heard. Nor the poor creature they may or may not have struck on the road. Only the girl returned from the dead. Everything else will be a blur.
But for now she just closes her eyes and tries to listen. For the sounds of her children. Their comings and goings. Their breath. For Robert and the secrets he does not share. She doesn’t hear Timmy, puking into the sink. Or Emma as she slips out the side door, tiptoeing down the gravel path to where Sonu is waiting for her. There, by the edge of the pool, he will kiss and fondle her until Emma, sensing herself in a danger she hasn’t known before, will tell him that she’s only fifteen and she’s never been with a man. And he will pull back, frightened in his own way, as Emma buttons her shirt and, shivering, darts back to her room.
If Caroline were a good guide, she’d hear this. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t hear the doors creaking or conversations whispered. She misses the warnings and the telltale signs. Later, she’ll wish that she’d learned how to listen. But for now she can barely make out a sound.
“Alarm Calls” is part of a novel-in-stories, called The Children’s Table, about four cousins and their two families. The stories follow the cousins over many years. Others stories have appeared or will soon appear in such places as The Atlantic, Ploughshares, and Narrative.