You tear away your human suit. To free the animal. So it will breathe, and breed. On all fours, you leave your mother. For the wilderness—a thick cloud of cedar. You claw out of her momma-bear-hug, but she squeezes your velvet paws. Combs the fiery fur upon your crown. Kisses your tickling whiskers. Looks with drowning eyes deep into yours—beautified to green-gold slits. Your mother begs you to stay. You hiss and bare your yellowing teeth. She doesn't cower. Your mother has always adored you. When you were a boy (Beau). When you were a girl (Beatrice). And even now, as a cat. She promises she'll take you to the park more often. That she'll buy you a scratching post and a bigger litter box. That she'll feed you tuna or chicken—whatever you want. But tigers don't live with their mothers. They run wild. Free. Alone.
You're full-grown, but not for this. The stripes along your skin soon bleed together—the tattoos get infected, flush red and scab a black gone bad. Your cat-eyed contacts dry out, wilt, curl like flower petals and fall from sockets. With broken press-on nails, you dig the dark earth for bugs. Because, after a few hours, you find that's all you can catch. Kill. Consume. Bare feet upon the forest floor—rocks and sticks, thorn and thistle—you creep. Wander the woods. Looking for a home here. Hope shelter shows itself. A bushel of stars spills out across the sky. They're too loud for sleep. The cold comes and is close to you—on your bones, between both lungs. Tigers should hunt in this weather. But now you know: the country hunts you back.
You prowl the edge of backyards. Jungles in their own right: trampolines with ripped nets, pools dirtied by leaf leavings, swings that're bent over in rain-rusted death. You pounce—not with prowess but tiger-cub clumsiness—when there's a garden. Tomatoes. Cucumbers. Radishes. Hunger proves to be a pet you cannot put on a leash. Same as a tiger, you'd swear to. But a porch light pours over, and men ambush you. They're all bathrobes and baseball bats, afraid of your sudden and striking presence. Your feline nakedness. They've come to protect their children. Their territory. Everything in you screams. Shakes. Sweats. You're about to run, for tigers should not prey on people, until you hear him. Taunting. "Here kitty kitty." At that, you growl. Lunge for a throat. The bat connects with your skull.
You're patched up. Sewn whole. Not in a veterinary clinic. A hospital—heavy with light and lemon disinfectant. The food they feed you is soft, small. In a thin, tickly gown, you leave your bed and all its wires to roam the wide halls. There, you spot the weak in walkers and wheelchairs. Crouched low, you crawl closer to the sickly; grandfathers cold with pneumonia, grandmothers stone-stiff out of surgery, others that're drowsy and droopy from medicine. There are no other tigers.
You should not prey on people, but they'll be easy. A mercy killing, really. The nurses—after they find you face down and ass up on the floor—shoo you back to your room. Soon strap down your restlessness to the bed. When you snarl, deep-belly, and show your filed fangs, a nurse crosses her pink-scratched arms and asks, "Do I need to get a muzzle?" But instead grabs a needle.
Once you've recovered, you're caged. Not in a zoo. A prison—pulsing with noise and stranded-on-an-island boredom. The food they feed you is off, flavorless. In a too-big uniform, as orange as you, you rest on a hard bunk and avoid—as best you can—the other inmates. Men that hover by the phones, hide in the showers. Men that bet commissary and cigarettes on card games, commit smaller crimes inside. Men that quietly rage, ready to riot. Ready to rule over one another. Happy off hooch, they stumble after you and shout, "Catch the tiger! By its toes!" They catcall, naming you Tigger, Shere Khan, Siegfried & Roy, and Tony—YOU'RE GR-R-REAT! Once you're cornered, two men hold you still while one strokes your face, touches your thigh. "C'mon pussycat," he says, and sounds like motor oil gurgling in a dirty engine. "Purr for me." Tigers are fearless, lionhearted. But you're so scared. So small. Eyes shut—because you don't want this, to be preyed upon—you cry out. For your mother. Other men, in blue and all the bells, storm the cell block and break up the scene. Beat the ones who fight back with batons. After, they take you to solitary, where you'll be safe. "You're not a tiger!" shouts the man that touched you. He spits blood, sprays it on the concrete. "You don't know what you are!" "We'll be waiting," another says. "When you get out." But tigers don't belong with humans. Tigers are exotic. Evocative. An experience to have had.
You're released. Forgiven for being your tiger-self. Outside, where sunlight hits you and the air feels new, you're poached by cameras. Citizens. They wave signs streaked in sharpie, the cardboard collapsing along its spine. They throw stuffed animals—white and Siberian tigers—at you. You've become a celebrity, a curiosity, an overnight sensation. The newspaper headlines will read "CAT FEVER" and feature your picture, blurry in black-and-white. It'll capture both your gratitude and grief. You let out a less-than-convincing roar, which the audience finds adorable. They cheer. Clap. Make you nervous. They're pleased, a little appalled—the look one gives at something strange. Different. How could they understand? None of their bodies are like yours. That is, until a tiger cub comes forward to see you. It wears a t-shirt, shorts. Just like you're forced to, now. You're not alone. You want to tear the fabric off. Delicately bite the cub by the scruff of its neck. Carry him out of the crowd. Away from civilization. You stoop down and lick his forehead. Letting the cub know he's loved and will be cared for. But the cub pulls back. Wipes your spit off with a back hand. Smears face paint into a harvest sunset. Says to you: "I'm a boy."