Colleen Houck

“I took hold of that scourge -filled ship and crushed it between my limbs, hurtling it into the second sun, the red one that gave me strength. But I was too late." Terraformer

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  • All Hallows Even

    January 15, 2014



    I thumped my head hard against the wooden side of the horse-drawn wagon as the right wheel dipped into a large pot hole.  Annoyed, I rolled onto my stomach and my nose was instantly assailed with the stench of rotting meat coming from the dish in the corner of the cage.  My keeper hadn’t bothered to clean the dish since we left New York and though my belly protested, I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to pick at yesterdays leavings.

    After a languorous stretch, I did amble over to my water dish and scraped my tongue around the dry insides.  They hadn’t bothered to give me water since yesterday either.  Licking my chops dryly in a vain attempt to wet my mouth, I wandered to the canvas that was flapping against the side of my cage and lifted my nose to the sky.  Rain.  From the taste of it on the tip of my tongue it had rained a few hours ago in this part of the country and the clouds were clearing.

    It wasn’t as cold here as it was in New York.  I’d been at the same zoo in the New England town for ten years until the kindly owner died and his middle-aged drunken son took over.  He’d gambled off the meager profits his father had saved up within the first week.  Two months later, all the animal trainers had been let go.  Within six months, the animals that hadn’t been sold off had starved to death.

    I was the last remaining attraction.  My cage had always been popular since I was considered exotic and I always tried to put on a good show for the old man.  I liked him and he treated me well.  The son kept me around as long as possible.  I literally couldn’t starve to death, though in some not too proud moments of my past I’d tried, and the income I earned for him kept his gaming collectors at bay.  But, eventually, an offer came along that he couldn’t refuse and I was sold to a small traveling circus.

    My new trainer wasn’t the best sort.  He was forgetful, I was often left without water or fresh food, and he was careless, which often resulted in the deaths of his animals.  He had a very well trained trick pony that worked with a woman rider.  He hadn’t bothered to make sure the arena was cleared of holes and rocks and the pony fell.  The rider broke her neck and the pony’s leg snapped.  They shot the pony.  I don’t know if the woman lived or not but I never saw her again.

    By my calculations, I’d been with this group for around nine months.  It was autumn.  I could smell it in the air and feel it in the wind rippling my fur.  I hadn’t seen Kadam since the rumors of war broke out.  Desperately, I grasped at the bits and pieces of information I heard as people passed by, but most of the people, upon seeing me, spoke of trivial things, pointed me out to their children, or spoke to me as if I were a pet.

    The only time I was able to hear news was when the trainer was speaking with other men outside my cage.  My eyes watered as they smoked and slowly got drunk after shows but it was worth it to hear of the outside world.  They complained of the lack of money, saying the country was in a depression, and even talked about butchering the show animals for some extra meat.

    I snarled softly when they spoke of eating me but my trainer just kicked the cage, hurled drunken obscenities at me, and told me to shut up or I’d get the whip.  If ever there was a man whose throat I wanted to rip out, it was his.  That was two weeks ago.  We’d been in a place called Tennessee and were now heading to the estate of a very wealthy man who was having a fall celebration.  Spirits were high when we neared the place called Asheville, as there was a hope for good food, warm beds, and coins to fill the coffers.

    Of course, extra money made very little difference for the animals.  We weren’t spoiled when the money came in. I was usually served a diet of dog and most of it too rancid to eat.  On a good day, the meat was upgraded to horse.

    My nose twitched again.  Deer.  My mouth watered.  The wind whipped the canvas so hard that the flap got stuck on the side of the cage.  I stepped forward to take in the clean smelling air and made a quiet noise in my chest.  It was early morning and a light fog was slowly dissipating from the tree-filled valley that stretched out before me.

    I’d never seen a forest such as this before.  The trees were on fire in reds, yellows, and oranges.  Black trunks rose hundreds of feet and were covered with the palest of yellow leaves.  Dark limbs shook in the breeze and the leaves quivered.  I smelled bear, deer, porcupine, squirrels, and a variety of nuts.

    Sinking to the floor of my cage and resting my head on my paws, I wrote a poem to the trees.  I wondered if I could survive in these mountains; if I could escape and live here.  I knew the forest was full of game and that it was big enough I could hide there for a long time, but I also knew the futility of trying to leave captivity.  Every time I made an attempt, something happened to stop me and I honestly didn’t have the heart to keep trying.

    Was I even human anymore?

    Kadam had spoken of a prophecy, of a girl.  He was looking for her but I didn’t think such a girl existed.  Even if she did, the likelihood of finding her was small, if not impossible.  And if I did find her, and the curse was broken, what would I be?  Who would I be?  An old man?  A forgotten prince?  A man without a family, without a country?  Would I even be a man at all?  Perhaps it would be better to remain a beast.  At least I understood the world from a beast’s perspective.

    I was drawn out of my ruminations when the caravan rolled to a stop on top of a hill.  The horses turned and walked on a few more steps and I heard a whoop from the driver.

    “There it is!  And ain’t she the prettiest sight you ever did see?”

    Several of the performers cheered as they looked at the long stretch of trimmed grass below that led up to a beautiful mansion.  The driver clicked his tongue and the horses began moving carefully down the dirt path toward the home.  I lifted my head and studied the structure.  I’d seen similar designs in France and Italy, having spent the better half of a century between the two.  It was a chateau with a steeply pitched roof, was about four stories tall, and was surrounded by trees and gardens.

    We made our way to a large building off to the side.  By the strong scent of horse, I knew we were to be set up in the stables.  Our caravan was parked just behind.  The showmen began scurrying around as the leader of our group met with a distinguished man dressed in a riding suit accompanied by a young woman, perhaps his wife, who wore a tight skirt ending just below the knee and a thick fur-lined cloak.  It was mink.  I could still smell the animals’ death.  She caught a glimpse of me in my cage outside the stables and pulled the man towards me.

    “Oh, Robert!  Look!  It’s a tiger.”

    He patted her hand absently. “Yes, dear.  We knew a tiger was coming.”

    “But it’s white!  How delightful!”

    He cleared his throat and turned to the circus owner to discuss details while the woman and I stared at each other.  I was pondering why people of such wealth couldn’t afford to buy an entire skirt when she suddenly announced, “I want to buy him.”

    “No, dear.  We are seeing him perform.  That will have to be enough.”

    “But Bobby.”  She pouted.

    “No.  Where would we keep him?  What does he eat?  Shall we have the stable boys exercise him with the horses?  It’s just not practical, Lilly.  Besides,” he touched her cheek affectionately, “you have a fabulous party to get ready for.”

    “You’re right.  I have so much to do!”

    “Be off with you then.”

    He gave her a playful nudge and she ducked out the stable door, blowing him a farewell kiss.  I snorted and rolled over.

    It was evening when I woke and the atmosphere inside the large stable was indeed party-like.  The sun was going down and the stable doors were thrown open to the evening air and were lit with carved gourds.  Bales of hay were stacked and dried corn stalks were placed all around.  Colorful bouncy orbs were attached to sticks and hung from every available space.

    Some guests arrived by horse and buggy but, being wealthy, most of them arrived in the new machines called motorcars. My trainer licked his lips as he jealously remarked on the vehicles he couldn’t yet afford to the others standing by.

    A little later, I heard a whine near my cage and the company dog sat on the ground, his tail stirring the dust as he panted.  Most dogs avoided me but this one seemed to know I meant him no harm and visited me often.  After checking to see no one was paying attention, I nudged the remains of my leftover lunch through the bars with my nose and he barked happily, snapped up the meat and ran off with it somewhere to enjoy it.

    I dipped my nose in my water dish to clean away the scent of the meat and took a long drink, then sat to watch the people mingle at the party.  They entered the decorated stable from the other doors and were dressed in a variety of strange garb.  I watched them compete in some interesting contests.  In one, the men had to lower their heads under water to secure an apple with their teeth, and in another, they had their hands tied behind their backs and had to eat a pastry from a string without letting it fall to the ground.

    The women engaged in contests as well.  They threw apple peelings into a bucket of water and watched it curl into letters that were supposed to indicate the name of the man they would marry.  Then they each took a small cake called a barmbrack and, instead of eating it, ripped it to pieces and the woman who found a ring in her cake was said to be the next woman to wed.

    A speech was given by the man I’d seen earlier while the lady stood next to his side.  He welcomed his guests to his home nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains and told them to have fun, eat, and go on a hayride, and that a special performance would be given at exactly 9:00 o’clock.

    Several partygoers strolled by my cage.  The men invariably bragged about hunting expeditions while the women swooned and clutched the arms of their men. They ate roasted pumpkin seeds from paper cones, apples on sticks that were covered in a sugar coating, and buttered, sweet-roasted corn.  I also saw cones with fluffy candy that looked like clouds.  These were torn apart in pieces and eaten.  My mouth watered.

    A pretty girl about six or seven years of age watched me shyly from behind a stack of dried corn stalks.  I sat quietly for a long time but she didn’t approach.  In her arm, she clutched a little doll that looked just like her.  When no one else was around, I huffed softly.  She took a step closer.  I ducked my head under my paws and covered my eyes, heard her giggle, and looked up.  I did it again and while my eyes were closed, heard a man call for Louisa.  When I opened my eyes, she was gone.

    Soon, it was time for my performance and I obligingly lowered my head so the trainer could clip the chain lead onto my heavy collar.  Docilely, I trotted down the wooden ramp and into the stable.  The women gasped and some even screamed.  I tried my best to run through my routine without stepping on anyone’s feet.  The crowd was gathered in very close and if I had extended my claws, I could have easily torn into someone’s skin.

    My trainer was disappointed with my timidness.  He wanted a show, so he purposefully jabbed my ribs with the butt of his whip and shouted at me.  He clapped me hard on the back of my neck.  I bared my teeth at him, but made no sound.  Then, frustrated, he cracked the whip against my nose and gave me the command to roar.  I obliged him.

    I roared so loudly that the crowd shifted and began to trample each other.  The trainer was oblivious to the throng and thought they were cheering him on so he whipped me again and gave me the command to stand on my hind legs.  I did and pawed the air and was rewarded with having food thrown at me.  Women screamed and people evacuated the building while the trainer raised his hands in the air to quiet the frightened mob.

    Meanwhile, I was pelted with sticky apples, candied treats, and even had a lit gourd lobbed at me.  I ducked but stepped into some spilled punch mixed with mud.  As I shook out my paw, the trainer came after me with the whip.  Quickly backing up, I hit the food table which crashed to the ground and was soon covered with punch, sticky candy clouds, and roasted pumpkin seeds.  Several of the floating colorful orbs popped.  I’d never heard such a noise in my life.  I jumped and the trainer began brutally whipping me.

    Finally, bruised, bloody, beaten, and covered in filth, I was allowed back in my cage.  The trainer spent another half hour threatening me before he finally left.  The owner of the beautiful home was livid.  He told our group we’d be getting no money and that he’d personally see to it that we never performed in North Carolina again.

    The guests left and the night became quiet.  I tried to sleep but the scent of the sweet punch and candy overwhelmed me and when I moved I left clumps of fur behind on the floorboards I’d adhered to.  Letting out a deep sigh, I closed my eyes and thought of India.  A few minutes later, I heard a noise.  When I opened my eyes, I saw the young girl, clothed in her night dress, robe, and slippers.  She was crouched at the top of the ramp and clutched her little doll.

    “Poor tiger,” she said.  “You’re all sticky.”

    She reached into the bars and stroked the top of my head.  I closed my eyes and felt them fill with tears.  No one had laid their hands on me with kindness since I’d been taken from my family.  I didn’t know until that moment how human I still was.

    When I opened my eyes, the little girl said, “Poor tiger.  Don’t cry.  You can have my dolly.”  She tucked her doll between my paws, smiled, and disappeared into the night.

    I knew that the next day would bring great pain.  That I’d be beaten and starved for weeks in punishment for the ruined party, but at that moment, I’d been given a priceless gift.  The gift of hope.

    I thought about that little girl for years and watched for another girl, one who might feel empathy.  One who might feel my humanity.  One who might save me.


    This entry was posted in Bonus Material, Tiger's Curse.

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    Author Bio
    Colleen Houck

    New York Times Bestselling author Colleen Houck is a lifelong reader whose literary interests include action, adventure, paranormal, science fiction, and romance. When she's not busy writing, she likes to spend time chatting on the phone with one of her six siblings, watching plays, and shopping online. Colleen has lived in Arizona, Idaho, Utah, California, and North Carolina and is now permanently settled in Salem, Oregon with her husband and a huge assortment of plush tigers.