As luck would have it, the tiger didn’t end up having to wear the muzzle very often. The prince’s mate did come, and did demand that the muzzle be in place before she would enter, but she came less and less frequently as time went on. While the prince often came alone, matters of state began to occupy his attention more and more, unfortunately, and the time that would pass between each of the prince’s visits became longer and longer.
The tiger accepted the new demands that were being placed increasingly upon the shoulders of his friend, and was content with the few moments spent in his company. Normally the prince would enter in the late afternoon, greet the tiger, and stroll briskly around the perimeter of the enclosure before leaving again. One day, however, the prince came early in the morning, walked slowly and wordlessly to the small pool, and sat down at its edge.
The tiger sat wordlessly beside the prince for several minutes, watching as the prince distractedly plucked blades of grass one by one and tossed them into the pool. Finally the tiger spoke.
“Is something bothering you, my friend?”
The prince turned then and wrapped his arms around the tiger. He pulled the tiger close to him and pressed his cheek into the tiger’s fur. “Do you remember,” the prince quietly asked, “when we were both young and would spend hours roaming the jungle outside these walls?”
“Of course,” said the tiger. “Some of my fondest memories.”
“I used to love sneaking outside the palace walls. I had no worries, then.”
“I loved it when you came,” the tiger said.
“I was so foolish. I thought nothing could hurt me. I didn’t fear for my safety or what would happen if I were hurt.”
“I watched out for you.”
“Yes. The panther! Oh, my friend, I’m so sorry for the danger I put you in.”
“Bah!” said the tiger. “That panther was no match for me.”
“Oh!” the prince said. “I wish, somehow, I could go back to those days.”
“What would you do differently?” asked the tiger.
“Not to do it differently. Just to do it again. To appreciate it more. To live it longer, more fully, to be more aware of its transience.”
“Isn’t that why you brought me here? So you could keep spending time with me whenever you wanted?”
“It was never the same after we put you in this … this cage.”
The tiger pulled away from the prince and looked at him. “You told me it was a home. You You said it wasn’t a cage.”
The prince pulled up another blade of grass and examined it. “Oh, you know what I mean. This is a beautiful home for you. But it’s not like it was. Half of the fun of spending time with you was that seeing you was against the rules.”
“Ah,” said the tiger, still unsure.
“Now, though, everything is … I don’t know. Premeditated. Scheduled. Known. Where is the excitement?” He took the blade of grass in his hands and split it slowly down the center. “Will we ever have it again?”
“I still enjoy our time together.”
“Yes,” the prince said. “But I can see in your eyes that you aren’t as happy as you once were.”
“I understand the realities of your position,” the tiger said.
“My new position,” the prince said, throwing the divided grass blade into the pool.
“New position? What do you mean?”
“My father died last night,” the prince said. “I am no longer a prince. I am now the king.”
“Oh,” said the tiger, suddenly unsure what to say. “Oh.”
“My thoughts exactly,” said the prince. The king.
“My condolences for the loss of your father,” the tiger said after a moment. “And congratulations for your new … kingship. Is that the word?”
“Save your congratulations. I don’t want to be king. I want to go back. Let me be a little boy again, sneaking outside to play with a tiger.”
But that wasn’t the way the world worked. And the tiger knew it. And the king knew it. They both sat and stared into the pool until the king knew he could no longer hide. He stood wordlessly, nodded to the tiger, and left to assume his new duties.
* * * * *
After that, the tiger saw the king only rarely. Most of the time, it was only when a visiting dignitary was being shown around. The king and the visitor would enter the tiger’s enclosure, the visitor would ooh and ah over the magnificence of the construction and contents, the king would summon the tiger, the visitor would try to act brave and seek for a reason to leave as quickly as possible, and the two would leave, with the king giving a farewell wink and a nod to the tiger.
But every once in a while, the king would appear alone. He would call to the tiger, say, “Walk with me,” and pace the perimeter, just as the tiger had done when it was first brought there. Sometimes the king would speak aloud of problems he was wrangling, or decisions he was debating. But it wasn’t unusual for the king and the tiger to walk wordlessly around and around until at last the king retired. The tiger never minded hearing about the king’s dilemmas, and tried to offer sage advice whenever possible. Surprisingly, though, the tiger found itself enjoying those walks even more when the king didn’t speak. It was a companionable silence. A silence and a void shared by two friends, friends who didn’t need the masquerade of language to enter into the quiet place in each other’s heart and simply exist there, together.
Those times were rare, however. And in between those times stretched the interminable echoes of loneliness and abandonment, of hopes and dreams crushed and washed away like dirt in the tiger’s pool. The tiger’s life was becoming a blur of sorrow, with sharp accents of happiness strewn here and there, bright spots of sunlight falling through the leaves of the trees.
Then one day the king appeared again, his smile almost too large for the tiger to believe that it was really the king’s face behind it.
“I can never be a little boy again,” said the king with excitement. “But you, my friend, you can go back. Oh, how I envy you!”
The tiger didn’t know how to respond to this, but just cocked its head and twitched its ears.
“A baby! My wife is going to have a baby!” the king said. “And the two of you will be such good friends. It will be just like it was before. For you, at least. Oh, I’m so happy, I could dance!”
The king ran to the tiger, knelt, and threw his arms around it. “Didn’t you hear? A baby! Ha ha!”
The tiger sat stunned. “I don’t know what to say. I’m happy for you, of course. That’s fabulous news. When is the arrival expected?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the king said. “That’s for women to know. The important thing is, you’ll have a playmate again.”
“A playmate,” the tiger said, thoughtfully. “I’m pleased that you’re having a baby. I am. But how do you know that we’ll be friends?”
“It will be my child,” the king said. “Of course you’ll be friends!”
“It will also be the child of your mate,” said the tiger.
“Oh, fiddlesticks. Just wait and see! You’ll get along swimmingly.” The king got up and walked away, saying as he went, “A baby! Ha ha! A baby!”
“Swimmingly,” said the tiger to itself after the king left. “Swimmingly.”