There is nothing quite like the
heat of the Sunderbans. It penetrates the soul in a way that cold
never can and permeates the lungs with its clammy, muffled claws so
that the effort of breathing is almost insupportable. The mangroves
crowd out the sky and the tiny crabs scuttling over the mud banks
assume the proportions of dangerous monsters – a surrogate for the
real hazards lurking just out of sight.
But the boy liked the idea of
danger. And he was accustomed to the heat. And the sense of isolation
– even though he was barely a hundred yards from his home – was
part of the thrill. If he listened carefully, he could hear the
regular thump-thump as his mother pounded the grain for their evening
meal but the sound was distorted and deadened by the heavy air and it
was easy to imagine himself a thousand miles away or, better, on a
distant planet inhabited by who knew what kind of strange and deadly
The biggest crab, all of three
inches across but with a bright red shell, stopped and waved its
claws in the air. It was not aware of the boy, sitting on the arched
root of the mangrove, but that didn’t matter. The claws might be
radioactive. They might be poisonous. They might be contaminated with
the poisonous blood of a deep ocean death-fish. They might be, well,
almost anything. The boy felt the frisson of excitement he always
felt when he came here to “his” tree and he lifted his bare feet
an inch or two higher.
Ten yards away the tigress
crouched silently, the only movement the slow undulations of her gold
and black flanks and, occasionally, the reflex flick of an ear in
response to the attention of some bothersome insect. The vertical
slits of her eyes rested patiently on the boy. She must wait. Killing
man-things always brought danger but her cubs needed meat and the
pain in her torn foot, the result of two days in a trap, prevented
her seeking fleeter prey. For the moment, the twisted roots of the
boy’s mangrove protected him and the tigress knew better than to
ignore the sharp, upward-pointing spikes of the air shoots. She could
wait. Eventually, the boy must move.
It was the heat that caused the
boy to move. That and the humidity. Even for the boy, the still air
of the mangrove swamp was oppressive and a small rivulet of sweat ran
down his forehead, stinging his eye. He blinked, the enormous Sirian
Dire Crab vanished and he realised he was hungry. He slid down from
his perch, stepped quickly away from the soft mud under his bare feet
and wondered briefly at the sudden, searing pain in his shoulder. It
was his last thought. Tigers spring very quietly and suddenly and
efficiently and little boys don’t have the tenacity of life of even
the youngest of young deer.
Within fifteen minutes, despite
her injury, the tigress was three miles away making excellent speed
over the drier ground away from the river. In half an hour she was
fully six miles away. And by the time the boy’s mother first began
to wonder where he was, the tigress had vanished almost as completely
as if she had never been.
The boy’s father and the other
men from the village began the search with lanterns but, it was not
until the first light of the new day that they discovered the
disturbed mud and the big pug marks heading away to the north. Of
course, they followed. They knew that it was too late for the boy,
but man-eaters were rare now in the Sunderbans, and it was vital to
know where the tigress had gone and to take a human revenge.
Tigresses must be taught the age-old lesson.
The lesson was taught and the
men returned to the village. As always, there was much work to be
done. There were crops to be grown. Fish to be caught and dried. Food
to be prepared. Floods to be endured. The monsoon to be awaited.
Children to be cared for. Markets to be visited. Life is hard in the
Sunderbans and soon most of them only half remembered Rajiv’s son.
He was always been a bit strange wasn’t he?. A bit of a loner with
funny ideas. Wasn’t he the one who was always talking about space
ships? Something like that.
only the boy’s mother and father could date with certainty the year
of the tiger.