Authors: Tea Obreht
The Tiger’s Wife
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Téa Obreht
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc., and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
Portions of this book appeared previously in
The New Yorker
in different form.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
The tiger’s wife: a novel / Téa Obreht.
1. Women physicians—Fiction. 2. Orphanages—Fiction.
3. Grandparent and child—Fiction. 4. Family secrets—Fiction.
5. Balkan Peninsula—Fiction. I. Title
Jacket design: Anna Bauer
Jacket illustration: Mary Evans Picture Library
For Štefan Obreht
In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he
takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old. The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park. Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket:
The Jungle Book
, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open on his knee all afternoon while he recites the passages to me. Even though my grandfather is not wearing his stethoscope or white coat, the lady at the ticket counter in the entrance shed calls him “Doctor.”
Then there is the popcorn cart, the umbrella stand, a small kiosk with postcards and pictures. Down the stairs and past the aviary where the sharp-eared owls sleep, through the garden that runs the length of the citadel wall, framed with cages. Once there was a king here, a sultan, his Janissaries. Now the cannon windows facing the street hold blocked-off troughs filled with tepid water. The cage bars curve out, rusted orange. In his free hand, my grandfather is carrying the blue bag my grandma has prepared for us. In it: six-day-old cabbage heads for the hippopotamus, carrots and celery for the sheep and deer and the bull moose, who is a kind of phenomenon. In his pocket, my grandfather has hidden some sugar cubes for the pony that pulls the park carriage. I will not remember this as sentimentality, but as greatness.
The tigers live in the outer moat of the fortress. We climb the castle stairs, past the waterbirds and the sweating windows of the monkey house, past the wolf growing his winter coat. We pass the bearded vultures and then the bears, asleep all day, smelling of damp earth and the death of something. My grandfather picks me up and props my feet against the handrail so I can look down and see the tigers in the moat.
My grandfather never refers to the tiger’s wife by name. His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, “I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.” Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself—and will, for years and years.
The cages face a courtyard, and we go down the stairs and walk slowly from cage to cage. There is a panther, too, ghost spots paling his oil-slick coat; a sleepy, bloated lion from Africa. But the tigers are awake and livid, bright with rancor. Stripe-lashed shoulders rolling, they flank one another up and down the narrow causeway of rock, and the smell of them is sour and warm and fills everything. It will stay with me the whole day, even after I have had my bath and gone to bed, and will return at random times: at school, at a friend’s birthday party, even years later, at the pathology lab, or on the drive home from Galina.
I remember this, too: an altercation. A small group of people stand clustered around the tigers’ cage. Among them: a boy with a parrot-shaped balloon, a woman in a purple coat, and a bearded man who is wearing the brown uniform of a zookeeper. The man has a broom and a dustpan on a long handle, and he is sweeping the area between the cage and the outer railing. He walks up and down, sweeping up juice boxes and candy wrappers, bits of popcorn people have tried to throw at the tigers. The tigers walk up and down with him. The woman in purple is saying something and smiling, and he smiles back at her. She has brown hair. The dustpan keeper stops and leans against the handle of his broom, and as he does so, the big tiger sweeps by, rubbing against the bars of the cage, rumbling, and the keeper puts a hand through the bars and touches its flank. For a moment, nothing. And then pandemonium.
The tiger rounds on him and the woman shrieks, and suddenly the dustpan keeper’s shoulder is between the bars, and he is twisting, twisting his head away and trying to reach for the outer railing so that he has something to hold on to. The tiger has the dustpan keeper’s arm the way a dog holds a large bone: upright between his paws, gnawing on the top. Two men who have been standing by with children jump over the railing and grab the dustpan keeper’s waist and flailing arm and try to pull him away. A third man jams his umbrella through the bars and pushes it over and over again into the tiger’s ribs. An outraged scream from the tiger, and then it stands up on its hind legs and hugs the dustpan keeper’s arm and shakes its head from side to side, like it’s pulling on rope. Its ears are flattened, and it is making a noise like a locomotive. The dustpan keeper’s face is white, and this entire time he hasn’t made a sound.
Then suddenly, it’s no longer worth it, and the tiger lets go. The three men fall away, and there is a splatter of blood. The tiger is lashing its tail, and the dustpan keeper is crawling under the outer railing and standing up. The woman in purple has vanished. My grandfather has not turned away. I am four years old, but he has not turned me away, either. I see it all, and, later, there is the fact that he wants me to have seen.
Then the dustpan keeper is hurrying our way, winding a piece of torn shirt across his arm. He is red-faced and angry, on his way to the infirmary. At the time, I believe this is fear, but later I will know it as embarrassment, as shame. The tigers, agitated, are lunging back and forth across the grate. The keeper is leaving a dark trail on the gravel behind him. As he passes us, my grandfather says: “My God, you’re a fool, aren’t you?” and the man says something in reply, something I know not to repeat.
Instead, shrill and self-righteous in my lacquered boots, brave because my grandfather is holding my hand, I say: “He’s a fool, isn’t he, Grandpa?”
But my grandfather is already walking after the dustpan keeper, pulling me along, calling for the man to stop so he can help him.
THE FORTY DAYS OF THE SOUL BEGIN ON THE MORNING
after death. That first night, before its forty days begin, the soul lies still against sweated-on pillows and watches the living fold the hands and close the eyes, choke the room with smoke and silence to keep the new soul from the doors and the windows and the cracks in the floor so that it does not run out of the house like a river. The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past—the schools and dormitories of its youth, army barracks and tenements, houses razed to the ground and rebuilt, places that recall love and guilt, difficulties and unbridled happiness, optimism and ecstasy, memories of grace meaningless to anyone else—and sometimes this journey will carry it so far for so long that it will forget to come back. For this reason, the living bring their own rituals to a standstill: to welcome the newly loosed spirit, the living will not clean, will not wash or tidy, will not remove the soul’s belongings for forty days, hoping that sentiment and longing will bring it home again, encourage it to return with a message, with a sign, or with forgiveness.
If it is properly enticed, the soul will return as the days go by, to rummage through drawers, peer inside cupboards, seek the tactile comfort of its living identity by reassessing the dish rack and the doorbell and the telephone, reminding itself of functionality, all the time touching things that produce sound and make its presence known to the inhabitants of the house.
Speaking quietly into the phone, my grandma reminded me of this after she told me of my grandfather’s death. For her, the forty days were fact and common sense, knowledge left over from burying two parents and an older sister, assorted cousins and strangers from her hometown, a formula she had recited to comfort my grandfather whenever he lost a patient in whom he was particularly invested—a superstition, according to him, but something in which he had indulged her with less and less protest as old age had hardened her beliefs.
My grandma was shocked, angry because we had been robbed of my grandfather’s forty days, reduced now to thirty-seven or thirty-eight by the circumstances of his death. He had died alone, on a trip away from home; she hadn’t known that he was already dead when she ironed his clothes the day before, or washed the dishes that morning, and she couldn’t account for the spiritual consequences of her ignorance. He had died in a clinic in an obscure town called Zdrevkov on the other side of the border; no one my grandma had spoken to knew where Zdrevkov was, and when she asked me, I told her the truth: I had no idea what he had been doing there.
“You’re lying,” she said.
“Bako, I’m not.”
“He told us he was on his way to meet you.”
“That can’t be right,” I said.
He had lied to her, I realized, and lied to me. He had taken advantage of my own cross-country trip to slip away—a week ago, she was saying, by bus, right after I had set out myself—and had gone off for some reason unknown to either of us. It had taken the Zdrevkov clinic staff three whole days to track my grandma down after he died, to tell her and my mother that he was dead, arrange to send his body. It had arrived at the City morgue that morning, but by then, I was already four hundred miles from home, standing in the public bathroom at the last service station before the border, the pay phone against my ear, my pant legs rolled up, sandals in hand, bare feet slipping on the green tiles under the broken sink.
Somebody had fastened a bent hose onto the faucet, and it hung, nozzle down, from the boiler pipes, coughing thin streams of water onto the floor. It must have been going for hours: water was everywhere, flooding the tile grooves and pooling around the rims of the squat toilets, dripping over the doorstep and into the dried-up garden behind the shack. None of this fazed the bathroom attendant, a middle-aged woman with an orange scarf tied around her hair, whom I had found dozing in a corner chair and dismissed from the room with a handful of bills, afraid of what those seven missed beeper pages from my grandma meant before I even picked up the receiver.
I was furious with her for not having told me that my grandfather had left home. He had told her and my mother that he was worried about my goodwill mission, about the inoculations at the Brejevina orphanage, and that he was coming down to help. But I couldn’t berate my grandma without giving myself away, because she would have told me if she had known about his illness, which my grandfather and I had hidden from her. So I let her talk, and said nothing about how I had been with him at the Military Academy of Medicine three months before when he had found out, or how the oncologist, a lifelong colleague of my grandfather’s, had shown him the scans and my grandfather had put his hat down on his knee and said, “Fuck. You go looking for a gnat and you find a donkey.”
I put two more coins into the slot, and the phone whirred. Sparrows were diving from the brick ledges of the bathroom walls, dropping into the puddles at my feet, shivering water over their backs. The sun outside had baked the early afternoon into stillness, and the hot, wet air stood in the room with me, shining in the doorway that led out to the road, where the cars at border control were packed in a tight line along the glazed tarmac. I could see our car, left side dented from a recent run-in with a tractor, and Zóra sitting in the driver’s seat, door propped open, one long leg dragging along the ground, glances darting back toward the bathroom more and more often as she drew closer to the customs booth.
“They called last night,” my grandma was saying, her voice louder. “And I thought,
they’ve made a mistake
. I didn’t want to call you until we were sure, to worry you in case it wasn’t him. But your mother went down to the morgue this morning.” She was quiet, and then: “I don’t understand, I don’t understand any of it.”
“I don’t either, Bako,” I said.
“He was going to meet you.”
“I didn’t know about it.”
Then the tone of her voice changed. She was suspicious, my grandma, of why I wasn’t crying, why I wasn’t hysterical. For the first ten minutes of our conversation, she had probably allowed herself to believe that my calm was the result of my being in a foreign hospital, on assignment, surrounded, perhaps, by colleagues. She would have challenged me a lot sooner if she had known that I was hiding in the border-stop bathroom so that Zóra wouldn’t overhear.
She said, “Haven’t you got anything to say?”
“I just don’t know, Bako. Why would he lie about coming to see me?”
“You haven’t asked if it was an accident,” she said. “Why haven’t you asked that? Why haven’t you asked how he died?”
“I didn’t even know he had left home,” I said. “I didn’t know any of this was going on.”
“You’re not crying,” she said.
“Neither are you.”
“Your mother is heartbroken,” she said to me. “He must have known. They said he was very ill—so he must have known, he must have told someone. Was it you?”
“If he had known, he wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” I said, with what I hoped was conviction. “He would have known better.” There were white towels stacked neatly on a metal shelf above the mirror, and I wiped my face and neck with one, and then another, and the skin of my face and neck left gray smears on towel after towel until I had used up five. There was no laundry basket to put them in, so I left them in the sink. “Where is this place where they found him?” I said. “How far did he go?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “They didn’t tell us. Somewhere on the other side.”
“Maybe it was a specialty clinic,” I said.
“He was on his way to see you.”
“Did he leave a letter?”
He hadn’t. My mother and grandma, I realized, had both probably seen his departure as part of his unwillingness to retire, like his relationship with a new housebound patient outside the City—a patient we had made up as a cover for his visits to the oncologist friend from the weekly doctors’ luncheon, a man who gave injections of some formulas that were supposed to help with the pain. Colorful formulas, my grandfather said when he came home, as if he knew the whole time that the formulas were just water laced with food coloring, as if it didn’t matter anymore. He had, at first, more or less retained his healthy cast, which made hiding his illness easier; but after seeing him come out of these sessions just once, I had threatened to tell my mother, and he said: “Don’t you dare.” And that was that.
My grandma was asking me: “Are you already in Brejevina?”
“We’re at the border,” I said. “We just came over on the ferry.”
Outside, the line of cars was beginning to move again. I saw Zóra put her cigarette out on the ground, pull her leg back in and slam the door. A flurry of people who had assembled on the gravel shoulder to stretch and smoke, to check their tires and fill water bottles at the fountain, to look impatiently down the line, or dispose of pastries and sandwiches they had been attempting to smuggle, or urinate against the side of the bathroom, scrambled to get back to their vehicles.
My grandma was silent for a few moments. I could hear the line clicking, and then she said: “Your mother wants to have the funeral in the next few days. Couldn’t Zóra go on to Brejevina by herself?”
If I had told Zóra about it, she would have made me go home immediately. She would have given me the car, taken the vaccine coolers, and hitchhiked across the border to make the University’s good-faith delivery to the orphanage at Brejevina up the coast. But I said: “We’re almost there, Bako, and a lot of kids are waiting on these shots.”
She didn’t ask me again. My grandma just gave me the date of the funeral, the time, the place, even though I already knew where it would be, up on Strmina, the hill overlooking the City, where Mother Vera, my great-great-grandmother, was buried. After she hung up, I ran the faucet with my elbow and filled the water bottles I had brought as my pretext for getting out of the car. On the gravel outside, I rinsed off my feet before putting my shoes back on; Zóra left the engine running and jumped out to take her turn while I climbed into the driver’s seat, pulled it forward to compensate for my height, and made sure our licenses and medication import documents were lined up in the correct order on the dashboard. Two cars in front of us, a customs official, green shirt clinging to his chest, was opening the hatchback of an elderly couple’s car, leaning carefully into it, unzipping suitcases with a gloved hand.
When Zóra got back, I didn’t tell her anything about my grandfather. It had already been a bleak year for us both. I had made the mistake of walking out with the nurses during the strike in January; rewarded for my efforts with an indefinite suspension from the Vojvodja clinic, I had been housebound for months—a blessing, in a way, because it meant I was around for my grandfather when the diagnosis came in. He was glad of it at first, but never passed up the opportunity to call me a gullible jackass for getting suspended. And then, as his illness wore on, he began spending less and less time at home, and suggested I do the same; he didn’t want me hanging around, looking morose, scaring the hell out of him when he woke up without his glasses on to find me hovering over his bed in the middle of the night. My behavior, he said, was tipping my grandma off about his illness, making her suspicious of our silences and exchanges, and of the fact that my grandfather and I were busier than ever now that we were respectively retired and suspended. He wanted me to think about my specialization, too, about what I would do with myself once the suspension was lifted—he was not surprised that Srdjan, a professor of biochemical engineering with whom I had, according to my grandfather, “been tangling,” had failed to put in a good word for me with the suspension committee. At my grandfather’s suggestion, I had gone back to volunteering with the University’s United Clinics program, something I hadn’t done since the end of the war.
Zóra was using this volunteering mission as an excuse to get away from a blowup at the Military Academy of Medicine. Four years after getting her medical degree, she was still at the trauma center, hoping that exposure to a variety of surgical procedures would help her decide on a specialization. Unfortunately, she had spent the bulk of that time under a trauma director known throughout the City as Ironglove—a name he had earned during his days as chief of obstetrics, when he had failed to remove the silver bracelets he kept stacked on his wrist during pelvic examinations. Zóra was a woman of principle, an open atheist. At the age of thirteen, a priest had told her that animals had no souls, and she had said, “Well then, fuck you, Pops,” and walked out of church; four years of butting heads with Ironglove had culminated in an incident that Zóra, under the direction of the state prosecutor, was prohibited from discussing. Zóra’s silence on the subject extended even to me, but the scraps I had heard around hospital hallways centered around a railway worker, an accident, and a digital amputation during which Ironglove, who may or may not have been inebriated, had said something like: “Don’t worry, sir—it’s a lot easier to watch the second finger come off if you’re biting down on the first.”