In the night’s heat a sudden breeze stirs the jungle’s fabric. Fronds sway uneasily and leaves dance; a shaft of moonlight creates deeper shadows amongst the shadows and is gone, leaving darkness in its wake. A dark that has nothing to do with velvet, but crushes and cloys, a steamy weight on your chest. Thunder growls in the distance: a summer storm – or is it the breathy grumble of some wild beast, stalking through the dense under-canopy of vines and shrubs? There are eyes amongst the fronds now, and the dark stripe of stem on stem could almost be… a tiger, on the prowl.
The breeze stirs again and you can almost hear the rustle as it moves, pacing gently, placing its soft paws amongst the brush to make the least possible sound. You can almost hear the hiss of its breath, too, or is that the wind rasping on the saw-toothed grass?
Other creatures appear and vanish in the leaves, their camouflage almost perfect on a night like this. Wide-eyed possums and marmosets leap from twig to twig; a tree-frog clings stickily to a branch before plopping off into a hidden forest pool; a long snake slithers down the trunk of a tree. They seem unaware of the tiger’s presence. Only you can sense the menace as it slowly, slowly stalks its prey.
You’re alone, and your hiding place is not secure enough, and you’re afraid. Sweat prickles on your brow, under your arms, and you have an urgent need to urinate. You hold your breath, wanting but not daring to call for help. If you move or cry out now the tiger will see and pounce, and tear you limb from limb. You hide your head, hardly daring to breathe, and hope the danger will pass.
Thunder rumbles again, nearer this time, and a thin patter of rain brings the sweet smell of newly wet earth in a summer storm. The breeze strengthens, a sudden gust whipping and twisting branches across the night. A louder crash as the storm moves closer still; you cower from the twin terrors: the thunder and the beast. Are they separate, or has the storm woken the tiger and brought him from his lair? Or are they, impossibly, the same?
The creatures of the night are agitated now, leaping and scurrying in a wild and fearful waltz. You fear that one of them will see you and startle, and let the tiger know you’re there. You can’t see him now but you can sense the waiting, watchful menace as he hunts. A branch moves again in the wind – or was it a stripe on orange fur, moving between the trees? Your heart hammers wildly but still you dare not move or go for help.
A stark white flash illuminates the sky, imprinting itself on your eyelids even when you close your eyes. Just for a second its brilliance lights up the room. You can see the wardrobe and the foot of the bed, and your own huddled shape under the covers. No jungle foliage, no tigers, no trees – just the curtains with their pattern of swags and swirls, standing out stiffly in the open window’s breeze. Rain slashes against the pane and thunder crashes, and then the storm moves away, muttering to itself like an angry old man.
In the morning the sun shines through the curtains, casting dancing shadow leaves on the lemon painted wall. The creatures of the night have gone, slinking away to their burrows or vanished without trace, until the next time you lie awake, alone in the dark.
Your mother comes in smiling, and sees the devastation of twisted sheets and tangled blankets in your cot. “There, there, were the tigers chasing you again last night?” she says, and picks you up.