by Sean Bernard
All this time, we’d been together, and then suddenly we were told to be apart.
We were we, an us, a gathering. All spring long we were a swarm of bees, bouncing through the plum blossoms; we caravanned as camels across the Sahara, we lounged on the front porch, a kindle of kittens. We were a pack of dogs some days, a skulk of foxes on cleverer ones. We were a bobbling smack of jellyfish, a labor of moles, an unkindness of ravens. We were a school of fish, a fever of stingrays, a murmuration of starlings soaring in semaphore across the sky. We were a parliament of owls: we sat at nights in the trees, watching the fields for wayward mice. But we were lovers of life—we didn’t eat the mice, we just swooped down (silently, silently), and with the tips of our wings we tapped their little mousy fuzzed heads, then returned to our branches, laughing.
A hoot is a laughter, though no one ever seems to know this.
After school let out in May, we’d go to the public pool all summer long and our skin would dry and crack in the chlorine and the sun, and we’d play Marco Polo but differently from the others; for us our Marco was a tiger, and the rest of us were Indian hunters trying not to get eaten but trying to get as close to our tiger as we could all the same. (We craved closeness, we feared being apart.) Marco would growl and roar and purr and meow as we’d say, Tiger? Tiger? in our softest voices, hoping to bring him closer, fearing his talons and teeth. We played at home, too—there, in the hallways, we’d capture the tiger in a blanket, pouncing on him before he could pounce on us, all of us tumbling into a laughing bundle of ambush.
Did we have parents? We must have had parents all that time, but we don’t remember them—not then, at least. Not when we were happy. We remember each other, instead, and we remember the daylight, the grass stains on our knees. We remember all that endless time we had—the days that went so long into nights that night didn’t ever seem to exist. We’d go to the park after dinner and it would be light out still at 8 p.m, 9 p.m, 10, and one of us would start a campfire, and someone else would produce a guitar and strum, and we’d sing along, together, closer, closer. And sometimes some of us would sneak away—a pair of eyes would meet, nod, and go off somewhere to be even closer. (You remember—we did this a few times.)
In school, we read the oddest things, we were our own teachers, our own principals. We gave ourselves detention for misbehaviors, but in detention we made elaborate sock puppet shows and played cards. We brought apples to each other and we smiled gratefully, accepting the kind gifts. We’d spin the classroom globe around and dream of other worlds. We’d read Chinese and African folktales, and for sharing day, we painted our skin with red dots and dashes and undressed to our underclothes and stood with spears (chalkboard pointers) and stared stoically off into the playground for lions, for wildebeests, for the coming sand storms across the great continent. We explored the Arctic and the Antarctic, we dove deep into the darkening seas, we orbited in outer space and from there, up in its quiet cold darkness, we looked down at our planet and though we felt certain sorrows, we were always happy to return. We read German and Italian folktales too; we mixed baking soda and vinegar, we gathered spiders in jars and poked holes in the lids and were surprised, each morning, to find the spiders still there, a new nest spun, a new home.
And then, one day, you fell ill. We didn’t know what to do. We, who’d been in charge all the while, weren’t in charge anymore. Instead the adults were—they’d been, it seemed, waiting in the wings, waiting, all this time, and we felt betrayed and powerless and afraid as they took you away, putting you in another room. They said words at us, but we weren’t listening; we were watching you through the glass, on the hospitable bed, the masked adults all gathered around you. They put a mask on your face too, and when we saw you tug at it we wanted to rush into the room, to be the tigers that would tear the mask away and growl at them, gnash at them, to put you on our backs and ride off into the long day, into the longer night. We pressed our ears to the door and tried to find your voice on the other side, but you were so faint, and we couldn’t hear you; they pulled the curtain, and we couldn’t see you.
We went outside; we tried to play a new game. It wasn’t the same.
The next day, the adults came again, and they took another one of us.
The next day, another. And then another. Another.
One morning, the adults gathered us in a circle and said that we couldn’t play anymore. That we couldn’t breathe the same air. And what were we then? We, who were a together? What is a together pulled apart? A piece of a greater thing if the greater thing has stopped being?
In the mornings that followed we felt so tired. We didn’t want to get up. We lay in the bedsheets and covered our eyes and tried to remember what it was like before. In the afternoons we stayed in our rooms. In the evenings. We tried to read, but we didn’t care. We tried to care, but we didn’t care. We sat in our rooms and shut our eyes and wished that things were the way they used to be. And we’d hold our breath: for as long as we could, we’d hold our breath, longer, longer—if we could hold it long enough, we thought, we could be together again.
Then, one night, we heard it, we heard the tap on our window. We pulled the curtains and peered into the dark and we saw you there. You’d come for us! Our tired hearts pulsed again. We followed you out into the park again, down again to the pool, and we were all together again, watching you, waiting. You stood at the edge of the water and stepped in; you curled into a ball and sank to the bottom. We watched you there, under the surface, tail wrapped around your ankle. Our feet shrank cold against the concrete as you stayed down in the waters, curled there at the bottom, fur rippling in the slow motion of the water.
Come back, we said. Even our voices were shivering. Come back, we said, come back.
From under the water, we heard you—you said, It’s easy.
You said, It’s easy if you don’t breathe anymore.
Come in, you said, come in, come in, and we can be together again.
Sean Bernard (anotherseanbernard.com) is the author of the collection Desert sonorous (UMass; 2014 Juniper Prize), the novel Studies in the Hereafter (2015; Red Hen), and is a grateful past recipient of an NEA fellowship in fiction. His most recent works appear in the Gettysburg Review, Lit Hub, Santa Monica Review, and Carolina Quarterly. “The Tigers” is part of an in progress collection about beasts, people, and other monsters.