In The Forests Of The Night, On Xmas Eve.
Tiger prowls the jungle every night, and Xmas Eve is no different: Tiger must eat, which means Tiger must hunt, which means something must die.
It is the way of the jungle.
This night, which was Xmas Eve - -although Tiger did not know that (yet) – something smelled different in the jungle. Tiger smelled cold, and distance, and something it could not place but which was enticing.
Tiger padded silently through the trees that stretched up and up and up so high that the stars were almost never visible. The light of the moon whipped through leaves and vines and branches, flung down upon the hills where Tiger lived, but by the time it got to the bottom of the jungle, here, it fluttered and gasped and Tiger slipped easily from shadow to shadow without being bothered by the glimmers of sky at all.
The air quivered with excitement and that made Tiger’s whiskers bristle.
Tiger curled around the last edge of a mound covered with ancient rotting logs, and its eyes saw in the night a dim glow of a fire inside a hut.
Tiger crouched and tensed.
The firelight shot tiny sparks up and out, faint glows, ghosts of light, really – spectres that danced in the edges of the night. Tiger was not distracted. While its eyes soaked in the scene, it felt the air with its whiskers and tasted the odors of prey in its keen nose.
Tiger wondered at that word: icy. As with cold, as with distant this was something new. It was what had lured Tiger here. Nothing in the jungle, packed with vegetation and insects and monkeys and snakes and rivers and everything that teemed here, was cold or distant or icy.
Tiger crept closer to the hut. The reddish glow of the embers of the fire made the windows feel awake, as though it were watching him. Tiger could hear breathing, though, deep and sibilant, and knew that the occupants were asleep.
Something shook and jiggled and …
Tiger tensed, ready to leap.
The thing stopped and looked at him.
“Well Well Well, if it isn’t Tiger,” it said to him. Tiger sat back in the shadows of the grass at the edge of the clearing, blended almost perfectly into the night. “Well, come out, come out, come out.”
The thing stepped another foot forward, leaving the hut. It held a large bag over its back, and its eyes, even with its back to the fire, twinkled with starlight. Or… snow.
Tiger licked its lips. Snow.
“What are you doing here, Tiger?”
Tiger finally spoke: Hunting, it replied in the voice of the jungle, the rushing of water, the whisper of leaves, the flap of bird wings, the snap of a twig.
“Hunting. Not these people, surely.”
When the thing spoke, Tiger could hear night skies, wind, moonlight, mountaintops, merriment. When the thing spoke, Tiger felt dizzy with the onslaught of emotion and sensation. But it did not waver in its stare.
“Not… me,” the thing said.
Tiger narrowed its eyes in answer, tensed its shoulders, curled back its lips.
“Don’t you know who I am?” the thing asked.
I don’t care who you are, Tiger told it. Tiger remained perfectly still – the way an arrow is perfectly still the moment before it takes flight. The way a heart is perfectly still, between beats.
“I am Santa Claus, Tiger! You can’t be hunting me.”
Again, that voice: this time it sounded like cinnamon, it tasted like wishes, it curled around Tiger’s ears like hot chocolate. Tiger shook its head, slightly, to clear it. These were things that did not concern it.
I do not know you, Tiger growled back.
“Everyone knows me! I circle the globe on Xmas Eve, bringing joy to children and happiness to families. People sing of me! People bring their babies to sit on my lap. People write to me and draw pictures of me in crayon and leave me cookies and milk.”
Tiger took a half step forward now, eyes locked on the stranger… the Santa Claus… Tiger’s fur bristled with the whipping of wind about the North Pole, Tiger shivered at the loneliness of a man who ventures out only one time per year, and even then must fly through the night, by himself, creeping into houses and partaking of the remnants of a holiday eve.
Tiger took another half-step, claws out now, white in the glow from the windows of the hut.
I do not know you, Tiger said again. And I hunger.
“I am the Spirit of Xmas!” Santa Claus said, smiling.
To me you are meat, Tiger said, and even as Tiger’s howling roar shrieked the word meat into the air so wildly it rebounded off the faraway mist-covered mountains that surrounded them, it leapt with a vicious speed that cannot be imagined: it was a blur of orange and black and teeth and claw, like a flame brought to life and given diamond-sharp edges.
It came down on nothing.
Tiger spun, bared its teeth, ripped its claws through the air, spun again, tail lashing like a whip.
From above came the voice again: “I know you didn’t mean that, Tiger!” When Tiger looked up, the man, this Santa Claus, stood atop the hut. There were other animals there now, deer of a sort, pawing at the straw of the roof. Somehow they all fit up there and yet they could not. Tiger’s eyes balked at the sight, even as Tiger’s back seemed to feel the soft wet of newly-fallen snow while the man talked. “I know you are just doing what tigers do, and so I won’t hold it against you. But surely even you, Tiger, have something of the spirit of Xmas in you. Surely even you can find it in your heart to stay in one night a year, to leave off with killing for one day, to pad your way through the jungle and merely nod at the animals you see, to allow humans to walk by unscathed, to give the one thing you can give to your fellow beings: to spare them.”
In those words, Tiger felt the weight of a billion billion gifts, built by tiny hands, carried through the air on the back of a sleigh, placed delicately underneath trees that glowed like they were filled with stars themselves. Tiger saw the gleam of shiny paper and the soft curl of ribbons. Tiger heard the giggles and shrieks of children, the soft gasps of parents. Tiger smelled love in those words.
“Surely you, Tiger, now know what Xmas is, and what it means,” Santa Claus said, and he was again standing before Tiger, red and black and white and round and smiling, his eyes reflecting Tiger’s own sharp face and green gaze.
Santa held out a mittened hand, palm up, before Tiger. Tiger looked down into it, this black mitten. Tiger saw there a tiny white shape, and as its eyes focused on it, Tiger saw that the shape had points, and whirls, and creases, and folded in and out upon itself, and gleamed white and… icy … in the palm of Santa’s hand. Tiger saw itself reflected back from many facets of the tiny snowflake. When Tiger looked back up, Santa was smiling.
“Merry Xmas, Tiger,” Santa said, and laid a finger alongside his nose.
The man, Santa, was gone.
Tiger stood there in bewilderment for a moment, and then felt a breeze stir up. Tiger’s nostrils flared, and his ears circled back and forth. The breeze whipped through his whiskers and danced around, growing colder and colder. Tiger shivered at first, and then stopped as snowflakes began falling all around him.
In the heart of the jungle, in the clearing by the tiny hut Santa had just left, snow began falling more and more heavily. It fell in great gleaming wet flakes that coated Tiger’s whiskers and lay heavy on his back. It formed drifts and hills in a short time. Tiger jumped through the hills and rolled in the valleys of snow. Tiger ran in circles into the wind and against it, feeling the snow sting his eyes and pelt his nose and ears. Tiger burrowed into the snow and came up covered in it, shaking it off in great clumps. Tiger licked and ate the snow until his tongue was numb and his belly sore with icy glee. Tiger sat and stared up into the sky, watching as the snowflakes drifted down from the stars above to gently flare past his vision and join their fellows on the ground.
Tiger kept at this until the sun started to rise and he heard the children in the hut begin to stir. Looking, Tiger saw in the doorway two small children, a boy and a girl. They had frozen at the sight of the large cat. Their eyes were wide with terror. Tiger’s stomach rumbled with hunger and his nostrils flared at the scent of the meat that stood before him.
But Tiger's mind remembered the man from the night, the single snowflake in his palm. Tiger's ears recalled the words he had heard; Tiger's heart still held the feel of the visit.
Merry Xmas, Tiger whispered to the children, and padded off into the jungle, the snow melting behind him.