A new short story by Ellis Shuman.
“There’s a tiger in the playground!”
“That’s nice, Shmuel.”
“No really, Imma. It was coming toward me, but I didn’t run. I wasn’t scared at all!”
“That sounds very exciting! You’re so brave! Now, go wash up and call your brothers. It’s almost time for Havdalah.”
The tiger was like an enormous cat wearing a mask. A colourful Purim mask. Amber eyes stared at him as the large animal swayed back and forth with feline grace, its tail whisking in its wake. Its ears stood at attention; its paws were huge. Shmuel couldn’t see, but he could imagine, the beast’s razor-sharp teeth, and the thin white whiskers under its triangular pink nose. Such a pretty face!
The tiger crept past the swings and skirted the slide, slowly approaching. Shmuel stood half hidden by the jungle gym. No one else was around to witness this magnificent creature’s passage across the silent playground. He was by himself, but he was not afraid. He was curious, nothing more than that!
“Shmuel has such an imagination,” Shmuel’s mother said to Shmuel’s father when he returned from shul.
“He should put his imagination aside and concentrate on his studies.”
“He’s just a boy.”
“Boys should be studying. Instead, he ran off to the park to play with his friends. Where are the children? We want to start.”
The tiger had vertical stripes, just like the stripes on his pyjamas. Just like the stripes on Yermi’s pyjamas, and on Moshe’s pyjamas. They all had matching striped pyjamas, but their stripes were blue and white. The tiger’s stripes were flaming orange and coal black. The stripes on its belly were white and black, but those were harder to see in the twilight.
What would it be like to stand next to the tiger, to touch its fur? Would it be soft? Rough? Would the animal run away from him like the wild cats outside his building that fled at his approach? What would the tiger do?
Shmuel’s father set the spice box on the Havdalah tray. He picked it up and lit the braided candle, and handed it to Shmuel’s older sister. He filled the wine goblet to the brim, lifted it, and cupped it in his right hand. And then he began to sing.
Shmuel closed his eyes when he was offered the aromatic spices. He sniffed, maybe louder than he should, then opened his eyes as he passed the spice box to Yermi. A thought crossed his mind. What did the tiger smell like? Did it have an unpleasant odour or did it smell like a dog? Maybe a wet dog. Or a cow? Shmuel had once petted a calf and a small lamb, and baby rabbits, too. Did the tiger smell like them, or did wild animals have their own scent?
“Shmuel, pay attention,” his mother whispered.
Her voice was not angry, and he couldn’t help but smile at her. What would she think if she saw the tiger? He was sure Yermi and Moshe would run away, frightened, but maybe his sister wouldn’t fear the large animal, just like him. Would he see the tiger tomorrow? Maybe it would be in the playground again when he went to school!
As his father poured the wine onto the tray and extinguished the flame, Shmuel remembered the tiger glancing at him one last time before slinking into the darkness. And then it was gone, leaving no trace of its having crossed the playground.
“Shavua tov!” his father said, before launching into a medley of Psalms to mark the end of the holy Shabbat and the start of the new week.
Later, after eating a light Melaveh Malkah meal, it was time for bed. Shmuel got into his pyjamas, the very same striped pyjamas he had thought about when he saw the tiger in the playground. He brushed his teeth, climbed into bed, and laughed at something Yermi said. Moshe lay down in his crib, and his mother tucked them all in. And then his father came into the room and hugged each of them in turn. The three boys recited the Shema together, and the light was switched off.
“Pleasant dreams,” Shmuel’s mother whispered. And to Shmuel, she added, “Don’t worry, no tigers will come.”
“I’m not worried, Imma!”
“That’s right. You’re so brave!”
When she came into the dining room, her husband had already returned to his Saturday night studies. She regarded him silently, loving him more every time he stroked his beard, every time he nodded, every time he adjusted his kippa. She moved a chair into its place, but he didn’t look up.
“I’m turning on the radio to see if anything happened over Shabbat.”
“What could possibly happen? There’s only politics and security issues in this country.”
“Shh!” she said. The news broadcast had already begun.
“Jerusalem District Police commander Moshe Barzani said this is the first time anything like this has happened at the Biblical Zoo,” the announcer said. And then Barzani’s voice could be heard. “Security forces and police are on the streets in nearby neighbourhoods, conducting an intensive search for the tiger that escaped from the zoo earlier this evening.” The announcer broke in to state that Barzani assured the public that they would soon catch the tiger. “And now, on to other news,” he continued in his calm, reassuring voice.
Shmuel’s mother looked up at her husband, but he hadn’t been paying attention to the radio. Instead, he was rocking back and forth, concentrating on the holy texts. She didn’t want to interrupt him. She would tell him later.
She went to her sons’ room and looked in. Like his younger brothers, Shmuel was fast asleep, lost in his dreams. She pulled up his blanket and kissed him on his forehead. He didn’t wake up.