Through eternity after eternity the tiger waited for the prince to return. The tiger was not sad. How could it be sad when the prince was engaged in something so wonderful? Just imagine! When he returned, he would bring a mate with him! And then what fun the three of them would have!
The tiger spent an eternity beside the pool, thinking with joy of the prince. Then it spent an eternity pacing the well-worn paths, imagining what the prince’s mate would be like. Afterward, it spent an eternity sharpening its claws on the bark of the tree, wondering if today was the day the prince would return. Its next eternities were spent trying to spot the prince’s face in the formations of the clouds overhead, running imaginary races with the prince, curling up beneath its favorite bush and falling asleep to the image of the prince, waking and wondering what the prince was currently doing, pacing along the walls and remembering days spent with the prince, searching for bugs in the remains of a fallen tree and thinking to itself how much the prince would love to be there. But after all those eternities, the sun hadn’t moved very far in the sky, and there were so many more eternities to face before nightfall and happy, senseless slumber, that the tiger didn’t know quite how it would survive until then.
Each eternity that passed brought with it a dagger to slice a small part off the heart of the tiger. But the tiger wasn’t sad. It refused to be lonely. That would be selfish. Instead, it was happy for the prince, and when each eternity passed, and when each dagger came, the tiger looked the other way and didn’t notice that its heart was slowly being sliced away, tiny piece by tiny piece.
Sleep. That was the one place the tiger could find comfort. If it could have figured out a way to do it, it would have slept right through those two years. Sleep, unfortunately, could only be pursued for so long. But when it was asleep, the pain in its heart wasn’t so noticeable. The heaviness and slowness of its movements weren’t seen. And sometimes, if it was lucky, the tiger would dream of the prince, and it would wake smiling, only to confront the reality and see another portion of its heart sliced away.
And when it wasn’t sleeping, it still felt like it was half asleep. It felt like its mind worked more slowly, its body moved more slowly, its smile came far less often, and it had no ambition to do anything other than find another place to sleep away the years til the prince returned.
Somehow the days passed. Somehow the seasons changed. Somehow the years ended. The tiger’s heart had been cut down so small, though, at the end, that it barely raised its head when the shout was heard that the prince was returning. It barely knew why it dragged itself away from its comfortable spot beside the pool, or why it moved slowly to the door between it and the palace. As if still in a dream, the tiger waited at the gate, listlessly peering between the small cracks in the heavy wooden door.
Slowly the happiness of the people it could see beyond the door penetrated into its heart. Slowly it began to realize what this meant. Slowly the cobwebs that had settled on its mind were brushed away by the thought that the day that the tiger had feared would never come was indeed here at last.
Suddenly the tiger felt a rush of energy, an excitement it had not known since the prince had bid goodbye all those eternities ago. It began to pace outside the door, circling around and around, and each time it passed the door, stopping for the briefest moment to peer once more through the cracks to see if it could determine when at last the door would fly open and the prince would enter and they would at last embrace again.
The excitement and noise of the crowd beyond the door grew louder and louder, and the tiger’s pacing grew quicker and quicker. Finally, the tiger was certain that the throng was right outside the door, and suddenly the tiger didn’t know what to do. Should it wait right beside the door and allow the prince to see its excitement? Should it quickly back off a few paces and lie down and pretend to be asleep? Should it feign nonchalance and be examining nearby rocks when the door flew open? What would the prince want to see his friend doing when at last they were reunited?
Despite any ideas of doing anything else, there was no time, the crowd was pressing around the door, and the tiger couldn’t do anything but freeze where it was beside the door, intently watching and impatiently waiting, its tail twitching in anticipation, its muscles straining against the pressure of having to keep still. And then, suddenly, the crowd moved on, and the noise outside got quieter, and the tiger couldn’t understand why the door remained closed.
Maybe the prince wasn’t really back yet. Maybe that was the first group that had gone on ahead to the palace, carrying the prince’s supplies. Maybe the prince was coming along behind, alone, waiting for a chance to enter the tiger’s home unmolested by the hordes of people. The tiger strained its ears, listening for all its might, trying its best to peer through the cracks, hoping to catch sight of the prince.
The noise outside was all but gone now. In the distance the tiger could hear muffled laughter, soft shouts of joy, quiet exclamations of greeting and good cheer. But right outside the door, nothing, nobody. The tiger sat silently, staring at the door, unable to believe what just happened.
Long seconds passed, and the tiger’s mind was completely blank. Seconds turned into minutes, and its mind was numb. Minutes began to lengthen, too, and the tiger’s numbness shifted toward pain, and from pain to anger. “Why, that ungrateful little brat,” the tiger began to say. And then it caught itself. No. No! How could it think such a thing? Its friend was the best friend a tiger could have. Surely it was just being selfish. It wasn’t considering the great stress of travel. Of course the prince would be exhausted. Nor was it giving just due to the many duties an absent prince must attend to. Why, of course he couldn’t come visit the tiger the first thing when he got back. He had many things that he had to do first. Certainly he would come tomorrow.
And so the tiger waited once more. And all the eternities it had waited before seemed to combine again into a single monumental eternity that it must endure once more before it would be allowed to see its friend. But it would all be worth it when the sun rose the next morning and the prince opened the door. It would certainly all be worth it.
If only, somehow, the tiger could make it through the night. If only, somehow, the sun really would rise. If only, somehow, there could be anything left of the tiger’s heart by morning, after all of eternity sliced away at it during the long dark night.