Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London. Fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi, she lurks in libraries and her local independent bookshop, Bookseller Crow. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology and more recently in Litro, New Flash Fiction Review and Longleaf Review. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer
The black-clad landlord of the White Lion Inn passes Bhavi on the narrow staircase to Lady Dalrymple’s room. She’s concentrating on a tumbler of amber liquid, doesn’t see him until beery breath burns her face.
“Aren’t you a colourful bit of stuff?” he says, eyes raking over her braided black hair, scrawny mahogany neck, forest-green linen dress. “Eyes like a cat. You’d fit right in our menagerie. “
Warm liquid drips down her arm. She fears he’s licked her until the glass thumps against her hip. Lady Dalrymple’s piercing voice reaches down the stairs.
“Betty, where’s my tonic?”
The landlord pads away, with his straggly hair and leathery skin.
“My lady, I’m just fetching it.”
Her dress is stained and pungent but her other is in the trunk in the room where Mary-the-lady’s-maid is snoring.
Bhavi rubs thin hands over tired cheeks. Her duty is to provide her mistress’s tonic and return to the dank, musty kitchen.
In the gloom the landlord and his dimpled wife are talking about someone called Hannah. They bend into each other’s faces, gesturing and grimacing.
“What if she doesn’t awake?”
“No-one told her to yell at it, barmaids are ten a penny,” he says.
“What about the tiger then? It’s our best attraction and now it’s tasted human flesh. Shoot it!”
“A man-eater will draw more coin, you’ll see.
Bhavi’s throat is parched with longing for hot sweet tea. Tigers bounded her home in Munnar, a prayer and a curse. The cooling wind brushing through canopied trees was a tiger’s breath, a missing chicken was a tiger’s prey. The bitter gourd of longing for her brothers and sisters makes her retch. She must find out if this splinter of home is true.
The sun is lowering, the sky is streaked with fingers of gold. Dusk is the time when predators stretch their limbs, the time that lifts the hairs on your neck, the time when good children should be in bed. The cobble-stoned courtyard is dusty, full of tree-chips and horse dung. The breeze burns her face, smells of sweat and dead things, real things. She’s so much indoors now. Fetching and carrying, smiling at visitors come to view her. One of Lord Dalrymple’s curios from his time abroad with the East India company, along with his monkey god statues and lionskins.
In the vanishing light, howls and whimpers draw her to a shadowed stretch of bars along one side. Head-tossing antelopes, hissing monkeys, a spines-on-alert porcupine. They sense the orange-skinned, black-slashed tiger, pacing in a cage of its own. Unfocused pale deep-set eyes glow in reflected rays. The dusk is when it comes into its own.
The week before the white-suited, pale-skinned Lord Dalrymple and Mr Cavanagh came to their corner of the tea plantation, a girl had disappeared. On the way to bring tiffin to her tea-picking mother, half-way up a precarious slope. Bhavi’s father, newly-appointed foreman, felt the loss in his bones. The fear of the wild strong creatures they had disturbed lingered in the shadows. The managers were concerned a tiger had not learnt its place in the freshly stripped land. As Lord Dalrymple exclaimed over Bhavi’s amber starburst eyes, his offer of passage to England was the breath of her parent’s hope to keep her safe and a sacrifice to appease the displaced.
Bhavi fumbles at the catch, scrapes her palms with the effort. A wild strong being should not be in a cage. Her trembling indoor legs can’t move swiftly enough on her success, and she’s flattened by the released hunter. Powerful paws to fragile chest. Her head rings on stone, chimes like axes cutting down forests. A rough tongue licks her bleeding hands, warm savory breath like pungent pickle brushes her cheek. Footsteps and shouts surround her, people working in their fields. Her heavy eyelids glow with the last rays of the streaks of the setting sun, yellow and black. A monkey screeches as she walks the narrow path to her home, her brothers and sisters play cricket unfettered in waving grass. A resounding blast, like a stray ball hitting iron fences. A heavy thump, a missed catch. A warm weight settles on her as she walks into her kitchen, where her dimpled mother and wide-browed father sit, waiting. Bhavi touches every chair, luxuriating in endless time and boundless choices. She finds her place and slowly slides into the waiting dark.
Note: Hannah Twynnoy was a servant at the White Lion Inn, Malmesbury in 1703. She was the first person in Britain to be killed by a tiger. A travelling circus arrived at the inn and Hannah taunted the captive tiger which managed to catch her and maul her.
© 2018 Anita Goveas