I’ve spent some time over the past month going back over the stories I had published back in the 1990s. I wrote a lot of short fiction then. I decided it would be a good idea to write a novel, which I worked on for about 6 years and wasn’t really happy with the results. My life took a lot of odd turns and writing got put on the back burner. In the last two years, I’ve gotten re-involved in stories through storytelling and I’m feeling rooted enough to start working on my short fiction and essays again.
I want to take my old stories off the shelf and get them back into circulation — at least the ones I feel stand the test of time. I don’t have digital copies of anything I published anymore, so typing these out allows me to edit a bit and refamiliarize myself with an earlier self. I have discovered that I am still a terrible typist, so my apologies for any typoos you find.
I wrote (and still write) about the problems of growing up in fractured families, so the themes can be pretty serious. How children react to their families and how they find hope, energy and the will to survive is endlessly fascinating to me. My characters tend to be quirky oddballs with obsessions and vivid imaginations.
I write stories for both children and adults. This one is definitely an adult or young adult story. It was originally published in the magazine Sassy, a magazine for young women fans of indie music. It was also a great social forum, as well as a standard teen magazine. In the issue this was published in, there were articles about schizophrenia, girl drummers, big sisters and 23 Celebrities not to dress like. I like that they took a chance and published this quirky but deep story about a young girl dealing with poverty, neglect and an escaped tiger.
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Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright
By Joy Corcoran
When the tiger escaped from the zoo, every mother kept her child indoors, except mine. My mother locked me out.
“No tiger is going to eat you. Things like that don’t happen.” My mother put her hand on my back and shoved me into the hallway.
“You just want to sit in front of the TV till you’re cross-eyed.” She shut the door in my face and turned the lock.
For a minute, I wondered if I should use my key to get back in. She knew I had one. I stole hers and had a copy made with her money when she was in one her deep afternoon sleeps. She didn’t know how to count money after a deep sleep. She shuffled her dollar bills, looked at me, then shuffled them again. She didn’t remember what she’d done so she didn’t say anything – and neither did I.
“They only come out at night,” she hollered through the door. I didn’t know if she was talking to me or not, but it didn’t matter.
What was she doing in there? Fixing a drink? Waiting for a man? She wasn’t meant for motherhood, she told me often, as if I’d made myself. She never wanted a brother or sister for me – pills and rubbers were always stocked in the bathroom cabinet.
I headed over to the park. Although the traffic zipped by at the same speed, there were no people out. Even Mrs. Freeman, who beat her kids with a belt, hadn’t let her five brats out. The basketball court behind the High Life Bar was empty.
I’m braver than the boys, I laughed. They talk tough but they’re scared of a tiger. I couldn’t wait to see them again. “Tigers don’t come out in the daytime!” I’d say.
At school, teachers buzzed around. “Why can’t they catch that tiger? Where could a big thing like that hide?” They said the same thing at every school. I saw it on the news – Day Three Tiger Report – all the old teachers and kids crowded around the cameras. “No tiger’s going to attack our children!” Teachers, secretaries, security guards, janitors, even the cooks stood guard every time a kid went out of the building. I couldn’t sneak a smoke in anywhere.
“Who’s picking you up, Briar?”
“Nobody, Miz Jones. I always walk.”
“Your mother’s not coming to get you?”
I laughed. “She’s at work,” I lied. “I haven’t needed her to pick me up since kindergarten.”
I started to walk away, but she grabbed my shoulder. “No, you just wait right here, young lady. No. Not another word! I’ll give you a ride home.”
It was better to say yes to adults.
Miz Jones’s car smelled new and clean. Miz Jones smelled old and powdered, like all the good Samaritans in their flower dresses who came to our house. “We brought this food to help you out during the holidays. And here’s a box of clothes.” Raggedy clothes and rusty cans. Smile, smile. I liked the corned beef, though, and the canned peaches. If they came while my mother was out, I ate all the good stuff before she even knew it was there.
“Doesn’t your mom know about the tiger?” asked Miz Jones.
“Yeah. She says they only eat at night.”
“Lordy, child, surely she’s worried about you. If she can’t get off work, I can give you a ride home until they catch that beast.”
No, ma’am. I like walking.
“Okay, Briar? Just meet me after school till they catch it. Tell you mom I don’t mind.”
She eased to a stop in front of my house. “So this is where you live?” Her voice dripped and drooped. She hated my life, I could tell.
“The whole house isn’t ours,” I said. “It’s divided into apartments.”
“This used to be such a lovely neighborhood.” She looked up and down the street and clucked at everything she saw.
“I have to go now, Miz Jones. Get in on account of the tiger.”
“Yes, yes, you go on in. I just don’t understand why they can’t catch that thing.”
There are lots of places to hide, Miz Jones.
The park was empty. If there was someone to talk to, I did, until the sun set. If not, my work was to swing 200 times and slide 200 times. Then it would be late enough that my mother would usually let me in. Or I could let myself in.
Used to be, if she didn’t open the door, I’d have to sit in the hall. Sometimes all night. Mr. Peterson, down the hall, if he saw me would let me in his place. He had great food – pot pies, macaroni and cheese, hamburgers. He’d cook and talk about the kind of girl he liked. Someone young and sweet who didn’t talk back to a man. When he served the food, he sat real close to me. “In the country, we know girls are more mature than boys. A girl of 12 can get married.”
I told him to buy me cigarettes. He smiled and said, “Sure thing.”
The first time I let myself into our apartment, I expected my mother to have one of her screaming fits but she didn’t . She didn’t even notice right away. She was in her room, laughing. I turned the TV on low to watch cartoons, even though I was too old for them.
My mother came into the kitchen in one of her shimmery short nightgowns. She tried to pull it up and down at the same time but she couldn’t cover anything.
“You,” she said, “just please keep quiet.”
She got some ice and vodka and went back to her room. So she wasn’t all bad.
“I’m not all bad,” she said every time she fixed a nice meal. She watched me. “How can you eat so much?”
“Your cooking is so good.”
“Oh, you’d eat anything,” she’d say but she’d grin. Those nights everything was all right.
I swung. One up, two up, three up. I only counted the upswing, not the down. Once I started, the rhythm seemed to take care of itself and as long as I counted, everything felt like it should.
Already the tiger was blamed for the disappearance of 15 cats and 11 dogs.
“I saw my little Fifi in his jaws,” a woman cried to the newsman. “I called 911 but when the police got here, he was gone.”
What does a tiger eat on vacation? Anything it wants!
They didn’t allow newscasters to joke. We did that at school. At study hall, we all read the encyclopedia. “Man eating tigers are not young, fierce beasts, but old tigers whose energy is dying and whose teeth are worn. They find it easier to kill men than even tame cattle. Some people may desert an entire district because a man-eating tiger is prowling about.”
I decided not to slide. I was going go home and let myself in. It was cold out.
If she threw me out, Mr. Peterson was always home.
I was hungry, thinking about the tiger. One day I would stroll through life eating anything I wanted – the thick red meat they sliced on commercials, the chocolate poured out in rippling puddles.
Even though I was cold, I walk home slowly, because my mother, she could get so angry. I wasn’t what she wanted. What did she want? One boyfriend, then another. She was forever throwing their rings at them.
“And stay out!” she yelled at them.
I was four blocks away from home when I saw the tiger. He had knocked over a dumpster and was nosing through it. At first, I thought someone threw away a striped couch. Then he raised his head. I froze.
Two hikers were walking the jungle when they came upon a tiger. They’d been told to stand dead still and not to look in its eyes, but one hiker opened his pack, took out his running shoes and began unlacing his hiking boots. “You’re not going to try to outrun that tiger, are you?” asked the other hiker. “I don’t have to outrun it,” answered the other. “I just have to outrun you.”
No matter which way I looked, there was no one to outrun.
He started to walk toward me. All I could think of to do was light a cigarette — maybe the smoke would confuse him.
His name was Tom and he was the zoo’s oldest tiger, but not too old to swim a moat and scale a fence. “It’s highly unlikely he could have escaped on his own in such a brief period. We’re questioning all personnel on duty that night.”
Tom weighed 427 pounds.
“He’s never hunted before. He’s been around humans all his life. He’ll scavenge for food. We doubt he’s sharp enough to attack even a domestic animal.”
His paws were the size of my head. He stopped maybe 10 feet in front of me and looked me in the eye. I blew smoke his way and he wrinkled his nose. In cartoons, they were mean and dumb, but Tom looked soft, almost friendly. I ticked my tongue. “Kitty, kitty.”
It was a stupid thing to do. He growled.
I closed my eyes and waited for him to chomp my head off, but nothing happened. I opened my eyes and he’d moved closer. His fur looked like a thick, warm bed. His stripes were uneven, with little tufts of white poking out here and there. I felt like stroking him, riding on his back, riding him around the world. Then he opened his mouth and his slobbery yellow teeth showed. Like a horror movie, they got bigger and bigger.
His ears pricked up.
Police cars quietly drove up behind him. Silently, men got out, their rifles aimed.
The tiger’s eyes stared into mine, as if asking a question, as if asking what I was going to do. I stepped back and looked at the men behind him.
The roar of the tiger was the loudest thing I’d ever heard. I screamed and his front paws hit my chest like two bricks. His face was right in mine, his teeth, his rank breath. I gasped and breathed him in. A great weight was lifted off me. A warm darkness seeped over my eyes and I thought, I’m dead.
“Are you okay, little girl?”
A man stood over me. He had a rifle in one hand and helped me up with the other.
I checked all over me, but there was no blood, only an ache in my chest. I struggled to breathe.
“Looks like he knocked the wind out of you. I reckon he heard us behind him and ran over you to get away. You’re damn lucky we came along when we did.”
“I’m the one who called!” A woman came running up, stumbling in her flip flops. “I saw it knock over my garbage. Dear God, is that little girl all right?”
I saw the tiger lying there in the road. “You killed him.” My voice was raspy. I felt as if my skin had been pulled too tight around my ribs.
“He ain’t dead. We can’t use real bullets in a case like this. He’s asleep.”
I looked again and saw quick shallow movement — he was breathing as fast as he could.
“Are you the girl who was almost eaten by the tiger?” A microphone was in my face. People were all around me. They weren’t giving me enough air. The tiger’s sour breath still filled my lungs. I stepped back and bumped in to someone. Too many people – I ran.
“Come back!” they yelled, but they didn’t run after me.
I made it home, got my key in the door and locked it behind me. “Mom!” She’d be surprised. “He came out during the day!”
She’d be sorry she made me go out there so there’d be plenty to eat.
No one was home.
She threw me out then left!
I checked her bed –the sheets were twisted. Someone must have asked her out. “Let’s go dancing. I love to dance.”
Several of her dresses were on the floor. “Not this one,” she’d toss it at the man and he’d laugh.
I wasn’t what she wanted.
I sat there on her bed until emptiness pulled at my stomach.
In the refrigerator there was a bottle of vodka and a dried out piece of chicken. I ate it. It was all there was.
The emptiness growled in my stomach so I decided to try some of the vodka. She loved it so, swirled the ice around in it, took one little sip after another.
It burned then it was cool. I turned on the TV. Special news reports show the tiger being loaded into the zoo van. They showed a girl running, getting smaller and smaller on the screen.
“Probably ran home to her mother,” the newscaster said. “A thing like that could really scare a kid.”
I wasn’t scared.
It burned then it was cool. That must be why she liked it.
“Police are still investigating the escape, but now the city can rest in peace, grateful there were no serious injuries.
They put the cartoons back on. Coyote chased Roadrunner. Stupid coyote.
The day before the tiger escaped, Old Mr. Peterson said he could teach me to drive. “In the country, everyone drives by the time they’re 12.”
He laughed and jangled the keys inside his pocket. It was better to say yes to adults. A no brought out the worst in them.
Once I knew how, I could drive out of there. I knew I could take that old man’s car. It only takes a second to reach into a pocket, to jump a moat, to scale a fence.
Once I drove out of there I could do anything I wanted. I knew it.
I had been touched by a tiger.
|I used my maiden name then, Tremewan. The illustration was done by Jennifer Goldberg.