by Karen Hopkins © May 1, 2014
The woman stands leaning on her broom, staring out into the trees. She was sweeping the small porch when Alonso passed by, stopping to report, “Sarita, El Tigre was spotted again out there,” waving vaguely toward the trees. Sarita’s small house built of bits and pieces of wood and flattened tin cans sits on the edge of the jungle, the last house before the clearing surrenders to the trees, the vines, the dark, the wild. El Tigre—the jaguar, that cat who rules the night with bright golden eyes, that cat who swims the rivers, the cat who had carried away her husband Juan—is back.
Sarita looks around the small house, two rooms and a walled patio with its horno for baking. She shudders feeling suddenly cold in the tropical heat.
El Tigre sits high in the tree, stretched along a stout branch. He watches as the woman goes back to sweeping. His interest isn’t personal; she is simply the closest, most accessible prey and El Tigre is hungry. He’s picked Juan’s bones clean, cracking and sucking out the marrow. His stomach growls, but the big cat sits, silent, invisible in the splotches of light and shadow.
That night Sarita dreams of El Tigre, sees him following Juan through the jungle silent and unseen. She watches as El Tigre drops from a tree knocking her husband to the ground, trapping his machete under his body. She watchs ancient Jaguar Priests take on the form of El Tigre, flying through the jungle, ascending stone temples to cut out the hearts of innocent children.
She rises up early anxious to escape her troubled dreams. She builds up the fire in the horno and mixes masa for tortillas. When her children awake she feeds them warm tortillas with goat’s milk, wipes their faces and walks them to the little schoolhouse. There’s been wind during the night. Sarita takes her broom and begins to sweep, first the porch, then the hard packed path leading out to the dusty track. She stops, frozen on the path. There are paw prints in the damp soil beside her.
Sarita clutches her broom and follows the prints around and behind her house. She retraces her steps back to the edge of the jungle staring out to where the prints disappear into the darkness.
El Tigre resting on his branch hears a noise and opens one eye. The woman is staring at him. His tongue comes out, pink and shiny; his jaws seem to open in a grin. He leans down and licks the thick white scar made by a machete, running across his shoulder and chest. Tonight he will come again. Tonight he will feed.
Sarita stands still and quiet for several minutes then turns and fills her pockets with stones before running back into the village to find help. Alfonso sits drinking coffee with other men in front of the abarroteria, the tiny grocery store. “Excuse me, but I have found huellas, paw prints, around the side of my house.” The men look up with mild interest.
“Prints? What type? Perhaps a dog?”
Sarita holds her hands apart indicating a plate-sized print. Raul raises an eyebrow. “There is no animal with a print so large.”
“Only one,” Sarita whispers, “El Tigre.”
The men look from one to another. Alonso speaks up, “Let us go and see these tracks.”
The men stand, studying the prints. They look huge and they come from the jungle into the village. No cat, not even the jaguar can be allowed to enter man’s space with impunity. They carry their machetes and edge their way into the darkness. They soon lose the trail in the undergrowth, the vigor of the tropical forest. They look into the dark; they peer up into the trees. They will not capture El Tigre today.
Sarita fixes dinner, a chicken and fresh mangoes and of course warm corn tortillas. She and the children talk, the children recounting the events of their day. When the light fades Sarita tucks the children into her bed, the bed she and Juan once shared, the only bed in the small house. She goes out and sits in the patio, watching the stars as they appear one by one in the evening sky. She builds up a fire in the round clay horno. She would feel better if she had Juan’s sharp steel machete, but it was lost with him. She clutches her broom listening in the growing dark. She hears a soft sound, a thump outside the patio wall. She walks to the wall and stares out. El Tigre stares back his yellow eyes gleaming, hypnotic. He moves forward, his paws reaching up easily to the top of the wall. His jaw falls open in a smile. Sarita is paralyzed, but she thinks of her children asleep on the other side of the flimsy wall and moves forward, thrusting at El Tigre’s eye with the handle of her broom. The jaguar pulls back in surprise, a growl rising from deep in his throat. Sarita backs away, but the cat is not deterred. Like a spring he contracts, then pushes up clearing the wall. Sarita backs against the horno in terror. In desperation she thrusts the bristles of her broom into the fire. She swings it forward flaming, hitting the jaguar in the face. The powerful animal swats the broom away and licks his paw. Sarita reaches into the horno and pulls out a burning faggot. She runs at the cat heedless of the burning wood in her hand and hits El Tigre over the head. The jaguar is singed, confused. He wants to escape this enclosed space, this burning pain. Once more he leaps, clearing the wall, following the path of the broom, landing in the brightly burning brush. His anguished screams mix with those of Sarita who stumbles inside, wakes her children and runs toward safety away from the raging fire, the tortured jaguar.