First it was just a rumour, a whispered murmuring amongst the adult townsfolk.
‘Keep your children in after dark,’ they said, ‘there’s a tiger been coming down from the mountains.’
Soon enough though, the rumours turned to sightings – and the hushed murmurs began to turn to something more like a frightened kind of determination.
‘We need to do something,’ they said. ‘After all, tigers are known to hunt humans.’
Sonam was not frightened – he was curious. He knew that tigers lived in the forested foothills at the base of the mountains (and some were thought to live even in the highest peaks, where no humans would ever go) but he had never seen one for himself. Once, when he’d been out collecting fire wood in the forest, he’d caught a flash of fur in the distance he was sure was a tiger – but later wondered if it was just his mind and imagination playing tricks on him.
So it wasn’t too long before Sonam decided to keep watch and see for himself. He waited until his parents and Jamyang were fast asleep, and snoring softly in their beds, and then he slowly crept outside and climbed carefully up to the roof of the house. Sonam did not see the tiger that first night, but dozed gently under the stars and dreamt of proud and fearsome mountain beasts prowling through the dark and silent streets in the dead of night. At first light, Sonam returned to his bed long before the rest of the family began to stir. Undeterred by lack of success on that first night, his resolve to glimpse the tiger was only strengthened – the prize of catching sight of him even more worth the waiting for in the end.
On the second night, Sonam heard a quiet growl and a slow padding of feet into the distance as he awoke at dawn, and he knew it would not be long now before the tiger revealed himself.
Sure enough, on the third night his patience was to be rewarded. Sonam felt the tiger before he saw him – a slight shiver ran through his body, the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood up to attention and he knew then that the tiger was near. He was right because, just as Sonam pulled himself up into a crouched position to get a better view, the magnificent tiger emerged – nose to the air and whiskers raised to the moonlight – as he slowly padded out from the alleyway across the street.
Sonam did not have time to even think of the consequences as he quickly and silently climbed down from the roof and began to follow the tiger. The tiger prowled on through the dark streets, all the while sniffing at the air and seeming to search for something in the shadows.
‘What can he be looking for?’ Sonam wondered. ‘It can’t be humans he’s searching for, or he would surely catch scent of me.’
On padded the tiger – past the school and the temple, past the playground and the newly built swimming pool – on and on he stalked until he had all but completed a full circuit of the town. Eventually he uttered a long, low growl – which sounded more like a sigh to Sonam than anything else – and slowly padded back towards the alleyway and the forest. The young boy cautiously followed behind him at a distance, and once again made his way back to bed before the rest of his family awoke.
The next day Sonam was even more curious than ever – now it was not enough that he had seen the tiger for himself, now he felt he must discover the tiger’s secret and what it was he was searching for. That night he once again crept to the roof of the house, but did not follow the tiger around the town this time. As soon as the tiger emerged from the alleyway and began his lonely route, Sonam climbed quickly down from the roof and ran quietly to the other end of the alleyway – where he hid himself in the undergrowth and waited for the tiger to return.
It seemed like an eternity had passed before he eventually heard the sound of the tiger’s feet padding slowly back down the alleyway, and again that strange sigh of a growl under the tiger’s breath. Heart in mouth, Sonam followed the tiger back towards the mountains – keeping his distance for now, but knowing he would have to get close if he were not to lose him once he got back within the thick trees and tightly packed vegetation of the forest.
Once inside the forest, Sonam kept close – hoping that the tiger’s own rustling as he moved fast and strong through the undergrowth would drown out any sounds that he, Sonam, might make. Suddenly the tiger stopped dead, bent his head to the ground – and, once again, uttered that strange sound that was more like a sigh than a growl. Behind the tiger, Sonam froze – he knew that any move now would surely alert the tiger to his presence, but he also knew that the tiger must be able to hear the thump, thump, thump of his rapidly beating heart by now if he stood still where he was.
Slowly the tiger lifted and turned his head but, when his yellow eyes flashed towards the frightened boy, it was sadness they were filled with – not anger. Sonam looked beyond the tiger now, and saw for the first time the dip in the forest floor, the dip that would once more be filled with water when the rains came – but, for now, was dry and empty. Finally then, Sonam understood.
Sonam ran all the way back to town, without stopping to catch his breath even once. He knew you should never run from a tiger, but he also knew the tiger would not chase him – for it was not humans this tiger was hunting. As Sonam came to the end of the alleyway, he realised abruptly that the entire town was not only awake but in chaos – and it did not take long to find out that he himself was the cause.
‘Sonam! Sonam!’ the townsfolk called. ‘Where are you Sonam?’
Sonam knew that he would now be in terrible trouble with his father, but he also knew what he had to do next. Quickly he climbed to the top of the old statue in the centre of the square, and called the townsfolk to attention.
Silently and disbelievingly the townsfolk listened to Sonam’s story – and to what he now asked of them to do. When he had finished, there was outcry.
‘Have you lost your mind?’ they cried. ‘You want us to do what?’
And then angrily: ‘We say you lead us to the tiger right now, and let us shoot him. That will solve the problem once and for all!’
Eventually, when the angry shouts finally gave way to more stifled mutterings, a lone voice quietly spoke out from the back of the crowd:
‘Maybe we should just give the boy’s idea a chance. After all, what have we got to lose? We can all stay safely locked in our houses tonight just as we have been doing, and then tomorrow we shall see if he is right.’
The lone voice was that of Sonam’s father. Sonam breathed a sigh of relief – he knew he would still have much explaining to do later, but he also knew that the townsfolk would listen to his father and might just agree to give his plan a try.
So it was that, on the fifth night, Sonam once more waited on the roof of the house for the tiger. This time though, he did not wait alone – his father was there waiting for the tiger also. Once more the tiger came, and the two of them carefully climbed down from the roof and crept after him as he padded through the town.
Just as before the tiger padded past the school and the temple and the playground but, this time, when the tiger came to the doorway of the swimming pool he stopped, raised his whiskers to the moonlight – and sniffed the air. This time something was different – this night, the gate to the swimming pool had been left unlocked and open.
The tiger padded cautiously through the open doorway towards the pool itself, and Sonam and his father crept closely behind. At the water’s edge, the tiger slowly lowered his head to the water and sniffed. Almost at once, with an earth shattering roar, the mighty tiger threw back his head, sprung up onto his hind legs, leapt into the air – and dived down into the pool with such strength and grace that Sonam and his father wondered if they would ever see anything so amazingly magnificent again.
Awestruck, they sat silently and watched as the tiger swam up and down in the light of the moon – gliding sleekly through the water, with no more than the occasional top level ripple, as he switched between cruising the surface and diving deep into the furthest reaches of the pool.
Eventually, in a moment that seemed to stand still forever, the tiger emerged from the pool. Water dripping from his sleek fur, he shook himself dry. He turned then towards the boy and his father hiding in the shadows, as if he knew they had been there all along, and it seemed to Sonam now that the tiger’s yellow eyes were no longer filled with sadness – but with gratitude.
That was not the only thing though – as the tiger slowly padded out through the doorway to make his way back to the forest once more, Sonam could have sworn that the low growl the tiger uttered under his breath this time was almost certainly not a growl at all but was, in fact, a purr.