The Tyger

“The Path Through Time” is Jules’s favorite part of the museum, a marvelous exhibit that brings the past to life, from the present all the way back to the prehistoric. Tonight at his aunt’s wedding reception as Jules walks along the path, it comes alive like never before.

 

 

The museum was Jules’s favorite place in the world, and the Path Through Time was the best part of the museum. It gave him the major creeps, though at twelve he was too old for it to be actually scary. But the Path’s dark corners held the promise of feeling something besides the anger that had been silting up inside him for months. He wanted to feel little-kiddish again, that safe kind of scared that didn’t seem to exist anymore.

Stepping onto the Path’s nighttime street was like being picked up out of normal life and set down in olden days, and then, as you walked, older and older days, and all the way back to when animals were huge and everything was tusked, with the short-faced bear at the very end of it all, Arctodus: slavering, shaggy and clawed, his roar filling the room, teeth and tongue slimy and eyes like holes in ice, monster-king of the Path.

Arctodus was in every kid’s nightmares; once you walked the Path he was with you forever, like a god. The Path led you to him, whether you hurried or didn’t. Half the pleasure was knowing the horror you were headed toward.

Sounds drifted along the Path from Aunt Lydia’s wedding reception: clinking glasses, little cousins shouting, laughter, and the clipping of heels on cobblestones. That should have made the Path less uncanny but it didn’t. There was a sense of awful possibility draped over everything, chill and clammy. Tonight Arctodus would exist in its truest, purest form. Seeing the bear without distractions, without having to share it—anything might happen. Jules wasn’t sure if he was brave enough to do it.

Even though the reception was in his favorite part of his favorite place, and even though Aunt Lydia was Jules’s godmother and his favorite adult in the world, he felt awkward. A year ago, he and his mom would have been in the wedding. He didn’t know what had happened between his mom and her sister but it had cost him, Jules, a lot. Aunt Lydia hadn’t even written his name on the invitation, just “Emily Kominski and family,” as if his mom had anyone left besides Jules. As if Jules shouldn’t be invited in his own right.

Jules wasn’t sure he was supposed to be in the museum lobby alone. It had a sour-bitten smell, like an attic, like things in jars: the alchemy of preservation.

The Path was rented for the party, but everything else was off-limits. The other hallway in the lobby, to ancient Egypt and the gem room, was roped off and the lights were out. That was creepy, too, knowing all the mummies were still there in the dark.

He’d get someone to come with him to Arctodus. Maybe Aunt Lydia would go.

Jules stepped onto the Path Through Time.

He passed a factory with dirt-fogged windows, the faint clanking of machinery inside. He’d never noticed that before. That was the sort of thing that made the Path so satisfying. There was always a sense of something going on just out of sight: doors left ajar, lights going on and off behind curtained windows, legs ascending a staircase into the dark.

Jules passed an old-fashioned car parked outside the Barker Street Station, where a train whistle blew, then rounded a corner. The lobby was no longer visible. He was on an empty, lamplit cobblestone street lined with shops and homes, glass glowing softly with reflected light.

Jules went to the window with the little girl in it. She was the first of the Path’s citizens. Mannequins, but it was hard not to imagine them as participants in some hoax, playactors who, when the last field tripper wandered off in search of the ancient Romans or the Amazon Rainforest, would let out a breath and slump into a chair. If Jules moved fast enough, or maybe slow enough, he could catch them at it.

Much of the Path was real: antique furniture in the houses, clothes on the frozen people. You could smell the molder and furniture polish. Even the animals were real: taxidermied dogs and horses in town and wild animals on the prairies and in the woods. Must and formaldehyde. They’d been alive, once, and now they were dead but pretending they weren’t. The little girl in the window had that same dead-not-dead look.

The girl was waiting for her mom and dad. She was ringleted and innocent; she looked cold. She clutched a doll, a porcelain-faced shepherdess with a long crook in one hand. Not the kind of toy for hugging. The girl didn’t look like she’d ever been hugged, either.

Jules didn’t like that window much, but it didn’t matter. He had to look. It was a ritual, doing obeisance to the Path and the whole museum. The little girl was always the beginning, just like Arctodus was always the end.

Something convinced Jules, suddenly, that the girl was glaring, that she hated him for keeping her there like a pin-pierced butterfly. If he turned his head she would come unstuck and . . . what?

Jules stared into the girl’s eyes. Don’t look away. Reflected light glossed her black pupils. Her eyes were cold and focused like a hunting cat’s. Don’t look away. Maybe her parents wouldn’t ever come home. People died all the time back then; they sank on the Titanic or died of the flu. Maybe Arctodus got them.

Jules’s toes curled. Nerves bubbled inside him. Something else, too: a hot feeling left over from his earlier argument with his mom. She hadn’t wanted to come to the wedding, and Jules had to yell to get her to listen. Aunt Lydia was his godmother. She was his mom’s best friend. Or she had been.

“Your parents are dead,” he whispered to the girl in the window.

Something flickered across her eyes and it looked—for a second it really looked—like she’d glanced behind Jules. His heart stuttered. But of course when he turned it was just Aunt Karen passing along the cobblestone street toward the lobby. He turned back to the window.

The girl’s tiny pearl teeth were bared, nose ridged with wrinkles like a snarling animal. At first he believed he actually saw that, and he even stepped back as though the girl might smash through the window, tiny doll-fists reaching for his dress shirt. But he didn’t. She was just the same boring, frilly little girl.

Jules staggered off the curb. He wanted to run, which was ridiculous. He had a good imagination and that made it easy to scare himself. He turned away from the window and started walking toward the party, though he still felt the girl’s stare.

A squeal interrupted the quiet, and some little dressed-up cousins ran down the cobbled street. Sofia chased them. She was Jules’s age, in a flowery dress with a babyish yoke of lace around the neck. Sofia’s fingers were bent like claws and she was growling, and when she caught one cousin around the waist the little girl dissolved into hysterical giggles. “I’m gonna eat you,” Sofia said, and shook her cousin back and forth.

Jules thought about going back the way he’d come, but it was too late. “Hey!” Sofia called to him. “Come play with us.”

The 1800s hotel was at the end of the street, right before the next twist in the Path. It was busy with voices and movement. Jules pretended he hadn’t heard Sofia and slipped onto the hotel’s porch. Inside was a fancy bar where you could buy sarsaparilla, which tonight was a real bar for grown-ups. There were dusty plush chairs you could sit in, and old-fashioned music playing from hidden speakers. Adults were everywhere.

Immediately, Jules heard his mother’s voice. She was crying, leaky and whiny, on the far side of the room twisted into an overstuffed chair with an empty wineglass in one hand. She had her brother Tomas’s shoulder clutched in her other. “He’s an animal,” she said. “When I married him I never would’ve thought he was such a goddamn animal!”

Jules felt himself winding up tight, vaguely aware that Sofia had followed him into the hotel. He turned away, hooked his arms over the bar’s edge, and stepped up on the brass kick rail. He asked the man behind the bar for a Coke.

“Coming right up,” the bartender said.

Sofia climbed up next to him. “I’ll have a Sprite. I’m not supposed to have caffeine.” She rolled her eyes and then leaned back, testing her balance on the rail. Jules ignored her.

The bartender gave them both their sodas. Sofia sucked her straw into her mouth while still balancing on the rail. Conversationally, she said, “Sorry about your parents.”

From the corner of his eye he saw his mother lean in to Tomas’s arms. He couldn’t hear the crying anymore; maybe she was done. “Thanks,” he said, looking at the glass of Coke in front of him. What were you supposed to say when someone said they were sorry your parents got divorced? Sofia couldn’t understand. Jules didn’t care if she was sorry. It didn’t help. Better if his dad said sorry, since the affair was his fault, but at least his dad didn’t shout at Jules and cry in public all the time. His dad didn’t talk about the divorce at all, or his pregnant girlfriend, or what it would be like when Jules had a half-sibling, which Jules’s mom only ever called the little bastard. His dad just showed up every other weekend to take Jules to movies and things, and acted normal.

Normal wasn’t right, either—something was broken, seriously broken—but at least his dad didn’t act crazy. Jules’s mom was crazy. She had some feral, furious, grieving thing inside her which she refused to tame. So if anyone should be sorry, it should really be Jules’s mom.

But then he saw her coming toward him, Tomas in tow, face composed despite red-rimmed eyes, and whatever was cut loose in Jules swung toward her. The magnetism that had pushed him away reversed, and he wanted to be close to his mother, feral or not.

Tomas leaned against the bar. Jules’s mom smiled and stroked Jules’s back. “Hey, Sofia. Being good, Julian?”

“Yeah.”

“I was telling your uncle about you going to State for poetry,” Jules’s mom said. She pushed her empty wineglass toward the bartender. “You should do your poem! You want to hear him, Tom? He’s so good.”

“Mom,” Jules said. Behind him, Sofia sucked the last of the soda out of her cup, liquid slurping past ice.

“Come on,” his mom said. Then, as if he’d forgotten how it went, she said, “Tiger, tiger . . .”

Jules sighed, exasperated. Now if he didn’t do it she’d just do it herself, or try to, and ruin it. He stepped away from the bar. Uncle Tomas and the bartender both turned expectantly.

“‘The Tyger,’ by William Blake,” he said.

He did the poem. He did the gestures—what dread hand? And what dread feet?—explaining the story with the way he told it, and by the time he got to Did he who made the Lamb make thee? his expression had grown puzzled, a little fearful, a little amazed. All those things at once. He was acting, and because he had won District for sixth graders and was going to the state competition, he guessed he was pretty good at it.

There was an essay he’d written and memorized, too, explaining the poem, how in Blake’s time people didn’t know about dinosaurs, so a tiger was the scariest thing they could imagine. How back then everyone believed that God made everything, and God was supposed to be like a loving parent, so it was confusing that He’d make something like man-eating tigers. It meant you had to accept the bad, scary parts of life if you wanted to really appreciate the good ones. But Jules’s mom never cared if he did that part.

When he said the second fearful symmetry that ended the poem his mom clapped, and Uncle Tomas and the bartender had to clap too. Sofia hopped down off the rail clapping too hard.

“Wow,” Sofia said. “Tiger, tiger!”

“Isn’t he good? He got the acting from me,” his mom said to Tomas. “Remember my senior play? I never got a chance to do any of that after high school. After I married Rob.” She looked at Jules appraisingly. “Don’t get married young.”

“Yeah, Mom,” he said. “No problem.”

“Oh, there’s your Papa Jan,” his mom said. “I’ll go get him and you can do it again.”

“Mom!” Jules said, sliding out of her reach. “I just did it.” He grabbed his Coke and hurried toward front door of the hotel, relieved that she didn’t call him back.

Sofia followed. On the porch, she did a dramatic jitter. “I drank my soda too fast. Sugar rush!”

The street was empty again, the little cousins gone. Jules turned the corner around the front of the hotel. Puddles glistened in the gutter. The Path here was further back in time, no longer cobblestones and gingerbread trim but dirt roads and rough boards, like a Western movie. Jules sat on a bench across the street from the saloon—distant, jangly piano music came through its dusty window—and set his Coke next to him. He didn’t want it anymore. He waited for the magical, held-breath feeling to come back, but it wouldn’t.

Maybe Sofia kept the feeling at bay, her heels banging on the plank sidewalk. He didn’t want her coming with him to Arctodus; she’d ruin that too. But he didn’t think he could look at the bear alone.

A group of people were gathered at the end of the street, doing something wedding-official on the general store’s porch. Jules saw the blaze of his Aunt Lydia’s white dress. She hadn’t even said hi to him yet. Jules wanted to go up to her and slide inside her arms for one of her extra-squeezy hugs, hear her say Julian in her bubbly voice, like she was so surprised and delighted that he existed.

He looked away.

Sofia plopped next to him on the bench. Jules felt his body go tight, teeth crushing together. He waited a few seconds, then gasped. “Sof,” he whispered, frozen. “Don’t move! Someone’s watching.”

Sofia scrunched up her face. “What?”

Jules knew the secrets of the Path Through Time, or most of them. Behind them, in a second-story window, a witchy old woman with a crooked nose was posed peering out at the street. He didn’t have to check to know they were on the right bench, in the right spot, and he bet Sofia didn’t know about her.

“Don’t . . . move.”

The skeptical look on Sofia’s face was melting toward uncertainty, but she didn’t look scared yet, either. Jules whipped around and pointed at the window where the woman watched.

“There!”

He’d been ready to jump up and run, hoping to spook Sofia back to the party, but he dropped his hand. Nobody was in the window. The curtain was drawn.

“Nice try,” Sofia said.

“There’s supposed to be . . .” he muttered. Why wasn’t Sofia catching on? He might have to just tell her to go away. He got up and stalked toward the general store.

The Path had always been the same, all Jules’s life. Why would they change something? Especially something cool, like a creepy witch spying on you?

A flash snapped from the general store, an epileptic crack-crack of light. Aunt Lydia and her new husband posed for photos. Aunts and uncles had gathered, along with Papa Jan and Busia Gloria. Uncle Tomas and Jules’s mom came out of the hotel. His mom tripped on the step but managed not to spill anything from the tumbler she carried. Jules heard his uncle say something, and his mom laughed. They joined the picture group.

Jules looked back at the curtained window. If he looked hard, he thought he could see a silhouette against the fabric. The old lady was there, but with the curtain drawn. Maybe the fabric had come loose. He thought maybe the curtains were moving. In, out, like something was breathing against them. Jules felt his breathing sync with the sway. In, out. In, out.

A laugh from the photo group broke his reverie. His mom hugged Lydia and said something, patting the groom on the arm like he was a little dog. Then she turned to everyone and shouted, “Let’s hope he’s not a cheating sonofabitch like mine! Ha!”

She might start crying again. When his mom cried people always expected Jules to do something about it. He glanced at the window one last time before putting his head down to slip past his gathered family.

There was a sharp twist to the Path beyond the store. Here the road turned muddy and rough, or at least was made to look that way while still being wide and flat enough for strollers. There was a rustic schoolhouse and a prairie diorama with a covered wagon train leading off into a painted background of high grasses. It was supposed to be early morning but the lights here were dim. Maybe this area wasn’t part of the rental, or maybe it was just different at night. Jules leaned against a split-rail fence that bordered a marsh and looked at a frozen naturalist sketching a hawk.

Sofia caught up with him. “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere. Just following the Path.”

“You aren’t going all the way to the end, are you?”

“I don’t know. Why not?”

“My mom said we’re supposed to stay by the hotel.”

Sofia’s mom made up a lot of rules. “My mom didn’t tell me that. But you should go back, or you might get in trouble.”

“Are you gonna go look at the bear?”

He imagined her pretending fear in front of Arctodus. A grunt of irritation crawled out of him. “Sofia. Why don’t you go play or something?”

Her face crumpled with anger. “I can stay if I want!”

Jules sighed and pushed away from the fence.

Next on the Path was a settler house nestled in the woods. Jules could smell woodsmoke, though probably that was something from the wedding. There was the sound of someone chopping wood and a taxidermied cat curled up on the porch. Jules wondered where they’d gotten the dead cat. Two pioneer kids, a girl holding a little boy’s hand, were frozen among the trees that besieged the house, a thick forest of summer green and nighttime blue made darker, denser, in the low light.

“Where are you going?” Sofia said again, doggedly following.

Jules stopped and stared into the woods. “Those wolves are gonna get them.”

“There aren’t any wolves.”

He pointed. “Right there.”

It was hard to tell where the fake trees stopped and the painted trees began. Sofia took a step closer. “There’s no wolves, Jules Drools. I’m not scared.”

“You’ve seriously never seen them?”

The farmstead soundtrack played: chickens bawking about their business, the thwock of an axe in wood. A dog barked; birdsong. Cheery, even in twilight. Sofia took another step. “You’re a liar and I don’t believe you.”

She sort of believed him. “Look. Right there.” Sofia edged up to the rail to look. Right before Jules was about to grab her, the soundtrack played a wolf howl.

Sofia squeaked and darted back toward the camera flash and burble of party sounds. When she was at the corner, she turned to shout, “Jerk!”

Jules watched her go, and then squinted into the woods.

There weren’t any wolves. Or there had never been before. Had that changed too? In the dark he thought there might be the outline of a big shaggy dog back there. Maybe more than one.

A liquid feeling seeped into his belly. He didn’t want to stay there. A younger Jules would have run away, too, followed Sofia back to the safety of family, but this Jules hesitated. He watched the maybe-dog shape in the woods. Was it painted? Or real, amid the trees? He felt like it was there, and shouldn’t be.

If he stayed where he was Sofia might return Or, worse, the shape might move. He stepped away from the fence. His heart banged his rib cage—not fast, just hard. The Path felt strange, unfamiliar, even though he knew it backward and forward. Dangerous, even though it wasn’t and couldn’t be.

Beyond the homestead was the Pre-Columbian section,  before white people took over America. Here the Path became a trail through the wilderness, though one with handrails. There was more forest, with skunks and a cougar hunting elk. In a clearing there was a cluster of Osage houses, tidy structures slabbed with bark shingles that Jules had repeatedly failed to replicate in the band of trees behind his house. Bare-chested kids chased each other; a woman buried her hands in the vines of her garden. All exactly as it had always been, because the Path wasn’t supposed to change.

At the edge of the clearing a deer hung upside down from a tree while a man peeled its skin off. Its muscle gleamed licorice-red, the architecture of its ribs and the little cords of fiber between them fascinating, delicately gory. When you walked past you could see the darker red that showed in the flap cut in its belly. Clouded eyes, little pink tongue between its teeth.

Once, standing here with his dad, his father had explained how to skin a deer. His dad said he would take Jules hunting when he was older. If you weren’t old enough to drive a car you weren’t old enough to shoot a gun, he said, even though he’d done it when he was a kid, but as soon as Jules had his learner’s permit they would borrow guns from his mom’s brothers. That was three years away, almost forever, but the promise stood.

Who would they borrow guns from after the divorce? Especially with his mom crying to everyone. None of his uncles would loan his dad anything, after that.

He felt suddenly seasick, wobbly. He gripped the railing, pressed his forehead against it, and squeezed his eyes closed. There was a smell in his nostrils, a sick smell, like a hospital but dirtier. A roadkill smell; a dead-meat smell. He heard a zippy hum—the buzzing of flies lifting and settling again. His eyes snapped open, focused on the deer carcass. Beyond the Osage man’s back the flayed muscles glistened in the low light.

His mother’s voice carried around the corner, along with the clipping heels of approaching footsteps. Jules stood up.

A giant tree split the path just beyond the Osage houses. Jules stepped behind it and crouched down. He regretted it immediately. Only little kids hid from their parents. He still felt nauseated. He leaned against the cool, smooth trunk to keep his balance.

There were two sets of footsteps. “I just want to tell you,” his mom was saying. Her voice was liquid and unhinged. “I just need to talk to you about—I want to say—”

“Em, you’re spilling.” Aunt Lydia’s voice. His mom and his aunt came closer. Jules tried not to move. His pulse rose in his ears.

Right in front of him was one of his favorite parts of the whole Path: a tiny, white-spotted fawn tucked into a puff of grass. It lay flat against the ground and was hardly noticeable unless you knew to look. Jules was at eye level with it. The fawn had been real once, like the pioneer cat. Some baby deer had died and this was what was left, the shell of some perfect little dead thing.

Maybe the fawn was the skinned deer’s baby. Jules remembered telling the girl in the window that her parents were never coming back. Her little pearl teeth and furrowed nose. But that was his imagination.

“Oops,” Jules’s mom said. “Oh, it’ll wash out. Can we sit? I love you, Lyd, we need to sit and—”

“Now probably isn’t the right time.”

“I just—I’m so sad. We need to talk, Lyd, you’re my sister.”

Jules could feel the flicking of blood in the veins of his face and neck, in time with his heartbeat. That nasty meat smell coated his tongue. The molten quality of his mother’s speech, fragments dissolving into each other, they warned him the way a sour-burnt miasma warns that someone’s lit a cigarette nearby. Easy to know what was around the corner.

“Let’s just enjoy the party, okay? I don’t want to talk when you’re drinking.”

“I’m not! Lydia! I’m not drunk, I’m—I just wish you’d talk to me.” His mother’s voice was getting higher and faster. “I’m so sad. You’re not listening. You’re my sister—”

Jules stared at the fawn. His shoulder hurt where he leaned against the tree and his ankles burned from crouching. One of the baby deer’s oversized ears flicked. It lifted its head so one tiny hoof could scratch behind its ear. Jules could hear the flutter of the hoof against fur.

His eyes stung and his mouth was dry. The fawn looked him in the eye, the small bony skull turning on an elegant neck. Then it lay its head down again.

Something heavy smacked to the ground. “Emily,” Aunt Lydia said. “Emily, calm down. Breathe. Hey. Look at me. Breathe.”

Jules toppled backward, away from the fawn, catching himself on the heel of one palm and tipping sideways. His knee banged against the hard ground. It was real; he’d seen it. It was dead, but it had moved.

“Julian!” Aunt Lydia called. She had one arm around Jules’s mom, who was bent and red-faced, eyes bugging, tears smearing her cheeks. She looked like someone in a movie who had been been punched in the stomach. A glass lay broken at her feet.

Aunt Lydia was pale, her hair piled up and shimmery, her dress as elaborate as the cake they’d cut earlier. She looked like a picture of someone else’s aunt getting married, and her expression was almost as desperate as Jules’s mom’s. “Help me with your mom.”

Jules wanted to run, to flip and scuttle away on all fours. He struggled to his feet. As soon as he was upright his mother reached for him from Lydia’s arms, grabbed on to him while she heaved and shook. Lydia stepped back to let him take his mom’s weight. Jules felt stiff and unreal. He didn’t want to look at his aunt or his mother so he stared at the fawn, which didn’t move. His mom’s breath was hot. Snotty tears soaked his shoulder.

“Breathe,” Aunt Lydia kept saying, and they stood there until his mother calmed down. It took a while. His mom grew heavier and heavier.

“My good boy,” his mom said. She sniffled, recovering. “Isn’t he a good one, Lyd?”

“Yes,” Aunt Lydia said. “Emily, I have to get back. The photographer—”

“Oh,” his mom said. “Have you seen him do his poem?”

“Mom. I don’t want to,” Julian said, but quietly.

Aunt Lydia did not look like she wanted to see Jules do anything. “Maybe later.”

“Come on,” Jules’s mom said. She could have been talking to either of them. “Real quick.”

From the warm and damp cave of her embrace Jules heard the wet, wringing sound of his mother swallowing. Her arms were hot and bony. Jules tugged himself free. He felt sick and his cheeks and neck burned. “I already did it tonight.”

“Don’t make him, Em,” Aunt Lydia said.

His mom’s face seemed gray and papery, like a mask. With both of them against her, she dug in. “It’s only a minute of your time,” she snipped. “One minute.” Again, it wasn’t clear who she was talking to—her sister or her son.

Jules mumbled, still looking at the grass that hid the fawn. “I’m sick of it.” He was sick of a lot of things. His voice got louder, getting desperate: “You’re always bugging me.”

She was still teary, barely recovered, but her eyes hardened. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she sneered. “I never ask you for anything!”

He rolled his eyes. That broke her.

You,” she spat. “You are just”—she sucked in a breath—“like your father.”

“Emily,” Lydia said, taking Jules’s mother by her shoulder. “We’re going back. Come on. We have photos.”

Jules’s mother glared at him. One hand at her side twitched, like she might hit him with it. He couldn’t help it; he flinched. She’d spanked him when he was little, but with spare-the-rod detachment. Never with the anger that hardened her cheekbones and jawline now. He felt his own body twitch, too.

In the distance, someone called Lydia’s name. “Coming,” his aunt replied, and turned. Jules’s mom followed, arm caught in her sister’s grip, her mouth tight. One ankle wobbled in its high heel.

Jules’s face stung like he’d been slapped. That voice. It turned every word into a curse. What had he done to make her so angry?

He felt like a fist, clenched up, desperate to hurt something. He put a hand against the smooth bark of the tree. Then he drew it back and hit the tree, open-palmed. It made a loud, wet smack that rang the bones in his hand. He sucked air through his teeth and shook his wrist. He didn’t feel any better. Jules turned his back on the future and moved in the other direction.

The Path grew darker; nighttime again, and plains instead of forest. Ahead, a herd of taxidermied bison were posed trundling around the turn from the Pre-Colombian to the Prehistoric, running in the night like massive bad dreams. Their coats were ragged and black. As they turned the corner the bison were replaced by bigger, hump-backed ones, some extinct kind, and then those by even huger mammoths, and at the end was a mastodon, biggest of all, great scythes of tusks curved and white as the moon, and then you were at the end of history.

Rocks lined the Path and kept its creatures at bay. It smelled cool, like the air after a thunderstorm. Jules felt crazy. It was anger, he realized; he was so mad. You’re just like your father. When all she talked about was how much she hated his dad.

There was plenty of light along the Path, but it wasn’t normal. The overhead lights were off completely, illumination coming from somewhere else, diffuse, as if lit by the moon screened by painted background clouds. The light pooled like ice, like you were walking someplace snowbound, but bright enough to see: there was the giant sloth pawing branches toward its shaggy Muppet face; a saber-toothed cat watching its cubs roll in the ice-light; a moose the size of a house brandishing its antlers at an ugly pig-thing. They were motionless, but the room felt like it was full of hidden motion, things moving behind his back. Jules might have been too afraid to go on. But the anger dammed up inside him was all he could feel.

Glass eyes followed him. He couldn’t see the giant pelts rippling with breath, rib cages expanding, wet nostrils flickering, but that didn’t mean they didn’t. In the silent, silvery light everything was perfectly still, except for the wave-steady, slow-motion inhale, exhale. If he were watching, he would have seen it; if the fury hadn’t clouded his vision, he could have seen.

The farther he walked, the angrier he got. It churned, solidified. Or maybe he was afraid. Maybe that’s what it really was.

Arctodus was shielded behind an outcropping of rocks at the end of the hall, saved for last. Jules could feel its gravity. The air seethed where the sound of its voice would appear.

He kept going. Anger pushed him, but also fear: an awe-filled, childish fear, the kind where you covered your eyes but peeked out between your fingers; your first roller coaster ride, strapped in next to your dad, his arm over your shoulder. Except it was the roller coaster, too, slam-fast movement and the rage of speed. Reckless, almost out of control. You couldn’t have the one without the other.

He couldn’t find the edge to separate the fear from the anger. Maybe they were one piece, the same thing.

Jules’s mom hated his father more than anything. That fucking animal. She’d only started cursing after she found out about the affair.

The sound of Arctodus slithered over the Path, a low quivering. Jules froze with one foot in front of the other, his breath shallow as the growl rose to a slavering snarl, and another, and then a roar. Then silence sank back over everything like fog.

Arctodus shouldn’t scare him anymore, not really. But of course it did. It would always scare him.

Jules took another step. He touched the rocky outcrop that hid the great bear. The rocks were limned with frost. His fingertips burned with cold that was entirely real. Real ice on fake rocks. Real moonlight on imitation wilderness. He stepped around the boulders.

Arctodus should have been posed on a rubbly mound, reared up with one giant paw raised, but the plinth was empty. Just the painted background of a sparse scrubland. There was no place for the bear to have gone.

Jules approached, looking to either side as if Arctodus’s enormous, furious mass might be tucked behind a tree. There was no guardrail between the Path and the raised dais of mounded stone that usually kept Arctodus out of arm’s reach. The placard that told you about the bear was still in place.

Jules touched the sign. He looked up at the empty pile of rocks. And then he was climbing, dress shoes slipping, hands on cold, real stone, waiting for alarms to sound, waiting to be dragged away and scolded and punished, but nothing happened. Jules climbed up to where Arctodus should have stood. He was afraid, and he was sorry he had come, except he had to come here and he couldn’t ever go back. He had stepped off the Path and into the place where the bear should have been.

Lips quivering, he crouched on the rocks. Jules looked over the Path Through Time. He showed the Path his teeth.

There was a great sigh behind him, or above or around him, and Arctodus was exactly where it had always been. It was Jules that was changed, because he wasn’t on the Path; he stood instead directly beneath Arctodus, with his back to it. The bear had returned, or had been there all along.

Jules craned his neck up and saw the great shape looming above him. Its coat was all the shades of shadow and stone and its mottled, slobbering mouth was frozen open in a roar. He felt its presence, its largeness, the terror of it, like a sudden fall.

The room’s soundtrack started up again, that low, building growl.

The bear’s hind feet were planted on either side of Jules, legs like pine trunks, fur faintly blue in the frozen light. He smelled the musk of its tangled, burr-snarled coat, the wet-meat stink of its breath.

Arctodus wasn’t real, hollow inside its fake fur, just drama and awe. Its teeth were something else’s teeth. The leather of its paws was some other animal’s skin. But Jules could smell its foul, thick, animal reek.

It bellowed. Jules felt its massive chest vibrate as it rose to its full height. He looked straight up at jagged nonsense shapes tattered with dark fur. His eyes couldn’t make sense of what he saw, and anyway they swam with adrenaline. The roar coughed to an end. The bear’s huge jaws clapped shut. A strand of drool slunk out of the corner of its mouth and slimed to the floor next to Jules’s foot.

It turned its face down toward him, eyes blank, like a crocodile’s.

Arctodus stood over him, looking down as Jules looked up, its head over Jules’s head. The weight of it surrounded him, wrapping him, enormous but also just big enough, like an adult’s coat or a closet that you’d hide inside, shivering with delight at your own terror. Jules shuddered. He could feel the bear’s claws extended from the ends of his own fingers, feel the bear’s teeth hot inside his own mouth, canines pressing into his lips. He breathed Arctodus’s stinking breath. It wasn’t real but it was real enough.

This was the end of the Path Through Time. There was nowhere for him to go but forward.

 

“The Tyger” copyright © 2021 by Tegan Moore
Art copyright © 2021 by Dion MBD

citation

Back to the top of the page

3 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.