The tiger’s new home was everything the prince had said it would be. The jungle had been enclosed, a portion of it, anyway. The sun shone down from high overhead. Birds called from branches above. The undergrowth was just as green, the water in the newly made pool just as cool. If the tiger kept far enough from any of the walls, it appeared just like any other part of the jungle. But although the prince might think perhaps that it was a big home, it felt very small to the tiger, who was not at all used to walls.
The first day the tiger explored the enclosure and kept finding itself all too soon at another wall, from which it quickly retreated. The second day it had learned the layout better, and remained in the center, out of sight of any of the walls. The third day, it walked along the edge of the wall, wearing down a path from the many times it traversed the perimeter. The fourth day, when it found itself alone, the tiger lay at the edge of the pool and shed silent tears into the water.
But it wasn’t all bad. The prince came every day, and in the excitement of their renewed friendship, the tiger thought it could endure a lot more hardship than mere walls. The pain of their separation was wiped away almost completely by the joy of being together once more. The tiger decided it could be happy with this arrangement.
And for the most part, it was. The tiger looked forward to the prince’s visits every day, and without fail the prince came. They laughed and joked together. They climbed trees and raced. They enjoyed each other and knew, at the end of each day, that tomorrow was only a short time away.
The hours lengthened, though, when the prince wasn’t there. Normally the tiger would have hunted, but there was no prey to speak of in its new home. The tiger did enjoy its naps, but soon found it could only nap for so many hours before it grew weary of the activity and longed for exercise. It traced and retraced the paths through the enclosure until that too grew boring. It spent hours grooming itself beside the pool, looking into its silvery surface to ensure that not one hair was out of place. It counted birds, or tried to; the blasted creatures kept flying around so that it was never sure if it had already counted that one or not. It followed ants, searched for patterns in the bark of trees, played hide and seek with mindless butterflies, and paced and paced and paced and paced.
It asked the prince one day to be allowed to hunt.
“But you don’t need to hunt anymore,” the prince replied. “You are given food twice a day, and far better than you could ever catch yourself.”
“The meats are of the highest quality, I admit,” the tiger said. “But it’s not exactly a challenge to sneak up on a steak.”
“If you want a challenge, I could try to teach you how to read again.”
“Perhaps it’s not the challenge itself,” said the tiger, “but the thrill of creeping up slowly, the satisfaction of patience being rewarded at last, the anticipation of jumping out of hiding, the fear that I might not be quick enough, and the triumph when at last I eat.”
“Perhaps,” said the prince. “Perhaps I could talk father into letting a goat into the enclosure every once in a while.”
“A goat?” asked the tiger. “A goat would be scarcely better than a steak already sliced and delivered. Just let me out into the jungle for a few hours.”
“Let you out?” the prince said. “I couldn’t let you out. Why do you think we built this new home for you?”
“I would come back after each hunt,” the tiger said.
“You know that, and I know that. But this enclosure isn’t for either of us. It’s to appease my father and my mother. They don’t trust the dangers of the jungle.”
“You could tell them that I’d come back,” said the tiger.
“But what else would come back with you?” the prince said. “No. They’d worry that the gate might one day be left open, and who could say what might wander in? The only way this works is if the gate is closed, night and day.”
“Hunting, then, is a thing of the past,” the tiger said.
“And rightly so. We feed you well enough now. You don’t need to hunt anymore. You don’t need to hunt ever again.”
“Never again,” said the tiger. And the finality of those words sunk deep into its heart.
But with the prince visiting every day, the tiger felt it was a small price to pay. And after all, if it wasn’t ever hungry, maybe the prince was right. Maybe it didn’t need to hunt any more. And over time, with the prince for company, eventually the tiger passed a whole day without even thinking of the hunt. Dozens of new moons passed high overhead, and the tiger found that it only thought of hunting every once in a great while. Dozens more, and the desire to hunt came about only as often as the new moon. And when at last so many new moons had come and gone that the tiger had completely lost track, it one day realized that it had almost forgotten that it had ever wanted to hunt at all.
It wasn’t long after that when the prince announced, on one of his daily visits, that he was going away.
“And when I return, I will bring back a wife,” the prince proudly explained.
“You are selecting a mate?” said the tiger. And it looked at him with fresh eyes and realized that the prince was now the size of a man.
“She has been selected for me already. I just need to travel to her, make arrangements, and bring her back.”
“How long will you be gone?” asked the tiger.
“Probably not more than two years,” said the prince.
“While you are gone, will you let me out so that I too may select a mate?”
“Oh, I don’t think that would be a good idea. I don’t know what father would say about having two tigers in here. And one of them straight from the jungle.”
“I see,” the tiger said. “So, for our friendship, you expect me not to have a mate?”
“For our friendship,” repeated the prince. “That’s the spirit.”
“Very well,” said the tiger. “I’ve given up so much already. One more thing won’t hurt.”
The prince knelt down and embraced the tiger. “You are beautiful,” he said. “Just look at these wonderful stripes. Look at this fearsome face, and these long, bright whiskers. Feel these powerful muscles. You are the best friend I could ever hope for. I won’t be gone long. You’ll see.”
And with that, the prince left the tiger. And the tiger no longer had a companion that came to visit every day. The days were long. The hours were longer. The minutes longer still. And the seconds seemed to the tiger to be an eternity, each one of them. But it waited, trusting in the words of the prince, knowing that eventually those two years would pass, and they would once again be reunited.
To be continued…