The prince did not visit the tiger the next morning. The tiger went back and lay down beside the pool and slept fitfully. With every sound, it raised its head expectantly, its ears twitching and searching to see if the door was at last opening. And with every sound, the expectation increased. This time, for sure, it had to be him! But with every expectation came a subsequent disappointment. And every disappointment was an even greater disappointment than the one before.
The tiger thought of every reason to excuse the prince’s delay. Certainly the prince was on his way to visit when an old acquaintance caught him, rushed him into his house with offers of food and refreshment and demanded to be informed of all the details of the prince’s long journey. Certainly the prince tried to extricate himself as quickly as he could, only to be accosted by another old acquaintance. Or maybe matters of state kept the prince. With an absence of so many years, certainly the prince had much to attend to in his duties. Certainly the prince would have come to visit if he could have. Or maybe the prince’s parents had decided that the tiger was too dangerous to visit after all, and had forbidden him from coming at all. Certainly if that were the case, it would be a long time before the prince would finally be able to slip away unnoticed to visit. But certainly he would. Certainly he would.
And thus the time passed away agonizingly slowly for the tiger. Each new sound brought its head up. And each time it determined that the sound was not that of the prince returning, its head sunk more and more heavily down beside its paws as it lay by the pool and tried to find another excuse as to why the prince had not yet arrived. Eventually night fell, and the tiger knew it must wait again until morning.
The long night passed and the tiger knew that today would be the day. It could feel it in the bright rays of sunlight that seemed to glitter around it. It could hear it in the song of the birds flitting from tree to tree. It could taste it in the cool water from the pool, so clear and pure and full of life. Its every sense was attuned to the energy and vitality of the day. Certainly this would be the day.
And so when night again fell without any sign of the prince, the tiger’s heart sunk once more, deeper and darker and more lifelessly than it had ever sunk before. In vain the tiger tried to find an excuse for the prince’s continued absence. Its mind wasn’t working, though, and it sat and stared into the water as dusk’s light fled. “The prince isn’t coming today because …” it began. “Because … because …” But it couldn’t think of anything. And so it fell asleep, the word “because” echoing in its mind and haunting its sleep.
When morning dawned, however, the because had been completed. “Why, the tiles in the palace must all be dirty, and the servants aren’t cleaning them as they should, and the prince must watch over them night and day to ensure that the job is done properly.” Certainly that would explain the prince’s absence. Certainly that must be why the prince had not yet come. But that job would only take a few days, at most, and certainly the prince would be finishing up the task today, and so certainly, certainly, the prince would come today.
Thus it continued. Two days. Three days. Four days. Five days. Seven days. Eleven days. Twelvety-seven days. And what came after twelvety-seven? The tiger couldn’t remember. And it soon lost track. All it knew was that the prince wasn’t there. And where the prince should have been, a hole was growing larger and larger and was about to swallow the tiger up. All of the light was being swallowed up by this hole. All of the light and all of the life. All of the tiger’s energy, and all of its hopes were slowly being swallowed up and replaced by this hole, this nothingness, this absence. And what excuses could remain for the prince? Had the prince forgotten his toothbrush and been forced to travel back to retrieve it? Had the prince been locked in a room and forced to memorize all of the laws of the kingdom before he was allowed to leave? Was the prince sick?
Oh no! The prince was certainly sick. Certainly that was it. The prince was sick, and here was the tiger, feeling bad for itself, when its best friend certainly lingered near death. Oh, what a terrible friend the tiger was, to be so selfish when its friend was struggling each hour just to continue to live. Oh, how the tiger wished that the prince would remember what to do when sick! Just eat a little grass. That would help. Had the prince forgotten? He hadn’t picked up on all of the lessons that the tiger tried to teach him so long ago. The tiger hoped and hoped that the prince would remember. A little grass would make everything all better. And then, after the prince got better, he could come see the tiger and they could play together again.
And the longer and longer the prince didn’t show up, the sillier and sillier became the tiger’s excuses, until at last the tiger was forced to admit that there was no excuse. The prince simply didn’t want to see the tiger any longer. The friendship was over, and the tiger was forgotten.
Then one day it happened. The door creaked open, and the tiger, who had stopped even listening for the sound, raised its head in puzzled wonder. Why was the door opening? Confused, it got up to see what had caused that curious sound. It padded over toward the door, and was surprised when two figures walked in and closed the door behind them. One was tall and had a full beard and moved with confidence and poise. The other was quite shorter and was of a smaller frame and moved with timidity and carefulness. Who were these people? Why had they come instead of the prince? The tiger was so surprised that it forgot to be cautious. It forgot to hide. It forgot to watch from behind a tree. It just stood on the path, its mouth open in wonder.
And when the smaller person saw the tiger, she let out a scream.
“Oh! There it is! I’m so afraid,” she said.
“Hush now. Don’t be scared,” the man said, and he laughed. And in that instant, the tiger laughed as well. It laughed with its mouth, and it also laughed with its heart. For it knew the voice of the man. It was the prince, returned at last.
The tiger bounded toward the prince, and the girl screamed again and pressed herself against the door, and the prince laughed again and rushed forward to embrace the tiger.
“Oh, it’s been such a long time,” said the prince, as he hugged the tiger and grabbed bunches of its fur in both hands.
“It has indeed,” said the tiger, nuzzling into the prince. “What kept you so long?”
“It’s so good to see you, my old friend,” said the prince. “I’ve brought someone I’d like you to meet.”
The prince motioned to the girl, who came haltingly up to stand just behind the prince. She peered around the prince at the tiger.
“This is my new wife,” said the prince to the tiger. “This is the friend I told you about,” he said to his wife.
“I’m so very pleased to make your acquaintance,” said the tiger, stepping around the prince.
“Oh! I think it’s trying to bite me!” said the girl, circling around behind the prince once more.
“Nonsense,” said the prince. “It would never hurt you. This is my friend, remember?”
“I will not harm you,” said the tiger.
“Oh! It’s looking at me! Make it stop! Get it away!” said the girl.
The prince laughed. “Come now. Settle down. There is no danger.”
“Oh! How can you be so close to it?” the girl said. “Just look at its menacing stripes! Look at its fearsome face with its sharp teeth! Look at those powerful muscles and its sharp claws!”
The tiger beamed with pride. “Yes, well, my claws are retractable, you see. They weren’t even extended.” And it held up a paw to more properly show off its claws.
“Oh! Get it away! It’s trying to kill me!” the girl shouted.
“Calm down, will you?” said the prince. “It won’t hurt you.”
“I’ll calm down when you show me out of here!” the girl responded. “Oh! It’s looking at me again! Make it stop!”
“Forgive me, old friend,” said the prince. “But I don’t think this is going all that well. Do you?”
“It appears not,” said the tiger.
“I shall have to return at a later time,” said the prince. “Come, dear. I will save you from this fearsome beast.”
“Stop talking and let’s just go!” said the girl.
With that, the prince opened the door and let the girl out. He gave one last sad look at the tiger, and then followed his wife through the door, closing it softly behind him.
The tiger strode to the door, and rubbed up against it. The prince had returned. He was still its friend. He had a mate, and he was happy. And maybe his mate didn’t like the tiger, but the prince was still its friend. He was still its friend. Could life be any better?
Then the tiger heard through the door as the prince and his mate walked slowly away.
“What were you thinking bringing me in there with that beast?” asked the prince’s mate.
“I just wanted you to meet my friend,” said the prince.
“Friend?” said the girl. “I could have been killed! I could have been eaten alive!”
“No, it’s not like that,” said the prince. “The tiger and I are friends. It would never hurt you.”
“It shall never have the chance!” said the girl. “I shall never go back! I won’t be tiger bait!”
“Oh, come now,” said the prince. “You have to give the tiger a chance. Once you get to know it, you’ll see.”
“Give it a chance?” said the girl. “Are you out of your mind? A chance to what? Eat me? Just take one bite, to see if it likes me? I don’t think so.”
“No, see, it isn’t a mean tiger,” said the prince.
And then the words became too muffled and distant to hear. The tiger thought it made out the word “friend” once more, but the rest of the prince’s words were lost. The tiger lay down beside the door, all of the excitement and anticipation of this day flowing through its body, and then draining out of it, leaving the tiger weak and exhausted. What could it have done better? Was the prince disappointed in the way it behaved around his new mate? Would it ever be able to be friends with his mate? Would this hurt its friendship with the prince?
So many unanswered questions. And no way to talk to the prince. Until the prince made his next visit. And the tiger had no idea when that would be. It thought it had been hard to wait until now. How would it wait until the prince’s next visit? What could it do to salvage the girl’s friendship?
But one thing was sure. The prince had called it his friend. With the prince’s friendship, the tiger knew it could survive anything. And so it lay beside the door and waited once more.