The woman next to me in the waiting room is angry. She complains to herself, but loudly enough that I’m meant to hear her monologue ‘every tiger season, it’s the same’. We’re here to pay the tiger tax but she doesn’t want to pay it.
Her friend told her it’s nonsense. She’s read articles.
Eventually, I can’t take listening to her anymore and turn to her and say:
I’m always happy to pay the tiger tax.
She looks at me with disgust. ‘Oh yes, why’s that?’
So I tell her:
Deep in the jungle, there is a small town. It is an old town. For thousands of years it has stood in its little clearing. It has never got bigger; it has never got smaller. Because the town has a problem: tigers.
Every day, the tigers that prowl the edge of the jungle kill and eat some of the children. It is a terrible thing to hear a dead child’s mother screaming with sorrow. It is heart-wrenching to see the little graves being dug and the bloody bundles that the town place there.
But there have been tigers for as long as there has been a town. The people accept that the tigers will eat many of their children. They tell themselves that it is nature’s way. They have charms and magic spells that they hope will scare tigers away. While they hope, every day brings patterns of blood in the grass and tiger tracks clawed into the mud.
It is like this for thousands of years. Then one day, someone says ‘let’s travel beyond the jungle and see if we can find tiger hunters.’ The town agrees. The town chooses two men and they pack small bags with food, kiss their families goodbye and leave the town.
They are gone for a long time. Years.
One day the two men return, bursting through the thick, green jungle. They are alone.
‘Where are the tiger hunters?’ the town cries.
‘It is okay’, one of the men says. ‘We travelled to a huge town, full of people. In that town was a school that teaches tiger hunting.
The headmaster took us in. And then over the last five years we learned the secrets of tiger hunting.’
The town is sceptical. After all, they are only the two men who left. Everyone was expecting experts.
After much debate, the town agrees for the two men to go in to the jungle and act as tiger hunters. The two hunters step into the jungle…
The next day, no one notices anything different, children are still being eaten. Mothers still sob; graves are still dug. But the next day and the day after that and the day after that, more children are coming home in the evening.
The sound of weeping becomes a rarity. Soon, every child who leaves in the morning comes home.
The tiger hunters are heroes! The town erects a statue in their honour.
People ask the hunters questions like ‘how do you do it?’ and ‘where are the bodies of the tigers for us to see?’
These are fair questions, but the hunters’ success has made them proud. Their knowledge and skills has raised them above the normal crowd. They are also scared that telling people the secrets of tiger hunting will make them seem less special.
So, instead of explaining they say things like ‘you wouldn’t understand’ or ‘it’s too complicated’.
No one cares though. The town’s children are no longer being eaten by tigers. There is one thing though, the hunters say. We need to keep hunting for the tigers. If we stop, they will come back.
That’s great, the town says. So every day the hunters disappear into the jungle to work their mysterious ways and keep the tigers away.
Two hundred years passes. The original hunters are long dead. New generations of men have gone away to learn tiger hunting and returned to carry out their secret work.
The town pays these men handsomely. And since the original hunters returned, no more children have been eaten.
For two hundred years, no one has ever shivered at the sound of a throaty roar rumbling in the night. No one has dragged a small bundle of bloodied rags out of the trees.
The town’s playgrounds are full. Everywhere, people stop and listen. They can hear children laughing.
‘Tiger’ is now just a word and the town has forgotten how people would call their children close if they saw a flash of orange and black in the undergrowth.
Instead, people start to look at the tiger hunters and think to themselves ‘what do the hunters actually do?’
They are expensive. The hunters eat well and have nice houses. They disappear into the jungle each day, but for what? To protect us! We only have their word for it.
Look, how the mayor courts them. Listen to how pompously they speak. Such self-importance.
What do those greedy hunters actually do?
The hunters try to explain, but their answers are too technical. They give lectures full of the jargon of tiger-hunting. There are people who leave these lectures feeling less convinced by the hunters’ methods.
Some of these people find the old charms and spells their ancestors used before the time of hunters. They take them to show their friends and say ‘this is what we used to use to protect us from tigers’.
‘This town is thousands of years old. The spells and charms must have worked just as well as those useless hunters.’
A few weeks later, someone hears a rumour. One of the hunters has killed a child!
The rumour spreads. In the stories, the dead child – a little girl – is always the daughter of a friend of a friend. The grieving mother always lives several streets away. Yes, the family is local. But, no, you wouldn’t have met them.
This tale gathers momentum. At first, people react by crossing the street when they see a hunter coming the other way. As the story spreads it gathers details to it. The crime becomes more grisly and the number of victims multiply.
Angry citizens barge into hunters they pass in the street. Crowds gather outside hunters’ houses to chant and throw stones.
Who will protect us from the hunters? They are murderers! They are killing our children!
One day the hunters leave. The town decides that it will not send anyone else to the special school to learn how to keep the tigers away.
In the town, nothing happens.
Life continues much as it did before. The only thing of note is that the statue to the original hunters is pulled down. In its place, the town erects a new monument to the murdered girls.
Some of the townsfolk go to the edge of town to pin out the charms and spells.
Three months pass. One night, people on a quiet street stop what they are doing. They pause and look up from needle work, or with a dripping soup spoon almost at their mouth. A cry has echoed out from the last house on the left.
Where is he, where is he? A little boy has not come home tonight.
The townspeople form a search party. Torches are lit. Women gather round the weeping mother to tell her they are sure her son is only lost. There, there he’ll be back soon, grubby and hungry but no worse off for his ordeal.
In the jungle, the search party’s torches flicker. They cast orange and black shadows against the trees. They do not find the little boy, despite searching all night.
At dawn, members of the search begin stumbling back. They begin to gather in the town square.
After an hour, someone asks ‘has anyone seen the mayor?’
‘Where is the butcher?’
‘Weren’t they in a search group together?’
Everyone turns to look at the thick greenery that surrounds the town. Suddenly, from that deep green, comes the terrible rumbling of a tiger’s roar.
The house at that corner sags into its tangled garden of brambles. Ivy strangles one of the windows and gropes towards the chimney pot. From where they stand, Suzanna can see a triangle of yellow curtain falling across one of the windows. Behind that only black shadow. That was a child’s room, Suzanna thinks and the thought causes cold to skitter across her skin. She shivers. Beyond that little sliver of yellow a void squirms. A huge, sucking mouth of wet blackness.
Suzanna’s grandmother suddenly curls her thin fingers around the little girl’s upper arm and turns her to face the old, abandoned house. ‘See the house there?’ She says. ‘See it; it is haunted; possessed’. Suzanna feels the same fingers of dread scrambling over her skin.
The whole village knows that the house is cursed. Indeed, many years ago, when grandmother was a young woman, she and some friends crept into the house jut before dusk and scattered flour over the floor in the top bedroom. ‘That bedroom there,’ says grandmother, pointing to the window where the tatter of yellow peeps out from behind rotten frames.
‘When we went back the next day, the flour was full of footprints. Cloven hooves, like a goats, but only one set’. Whatever had walked there that night had done so on two feet. ‘See’, says Suzanna’s grandmother, ‘that’s proof that the Devil strolls through that house at night.’
Suzanna is older now; a tall, blonde, elegant woman, who I have met at least twice at dinner parties. She lives in Britain and the possessed house and her grandmother’s small Polish village are anecdotes – dark-edged fairy tales to recount across the white clothes of Middle England’s dinner tables. Britain has a large Polish population, and the stereotype is a nation of dispossessed plumbers and builders. But you do not have to dig beyond this easy banality to find how readily we English will accept Poland as a land of dank pine forests, where silent peasants stand watching suspiciously from their austere doorways. We dinner guests all sit and listen, transfixed.
It is a perfect story. Suzanna tells it well. She tells it in a way that is half belief it, half gentle mockery. It is that dose of the incredulity that makes it all the more believable. She is reaching back to be the little granddaughter again, suspicious that her grandmother is pulling her leg. Yet that crust of disbelief is a thin veneer over her darker childish faith that eldritch forces stalk this world.
While I believe the story of the story is true, I do not believe that the old house was imbued with the presence of evil; that the devil was callow enough to trot his foot prints through the flour. Instead, this sounds like a mischievous tale told by a grandparent to scare and beguile a child. That malicious act of love: abusing your position of trust to tell a tale that will live with that person through their life – so much so, they are telling it to a relative stranger twenty years later, on the other side of Europe. Although I doubt it is a conscious thing, it is an amazing thing to transmit that feeling of wonder and the excitement of real dread to someone for whom those emotions are real and vivid and alive. Probably in the way that Grandmother’s own grandmother gripped her arm and pointed to a ramshackle old place, falling in to ruin, and told the story of the foot prints in the flour.
Then again, this is me placing my own reasoning on the tale. I would tell it because it was scary, not because I believe it. I think it’s fun to be scared. Nothing more. Perhaps Suzanna’s grandmother told the story because she believed it was true. It is not so extraordinary that people believe in the supernatural is empirical and real – a measurable and discoverable force. I work with a young man who grew up in a deeply religious household. He believes in spirits, in the real worldly existence of demons. So when Suzanna’s grandmother grips her thin arm, her fingers squeezing hard through the material of the little girl’s coat, and whispers a story of the little group hurrying from the house, their hands white with precious flour, it is not a story to amaze and startle. Perhaps the whispered words are a warning: stay away from the devil’s house. For what is more precious and irreplaceable in this world than your granddaughter’s soul?
Again, I do not believe that it was the devil’s feet, part of me does not even believe in the scattered flour. I think that we grant agency to things, motive and intent beyond their solid objectivity. An argument erupts, a disease strikes, people die. And why? The fact that there is no reason, no agency behind people’s lives can be more terrifying than a foolish devil, slinking back to hell to scrape flour off his hooves.
What sort of story is it to say that was the house where Patryck and Marta lived. He became sick and died. Marta moved away. See, there is his grave, there in the church yard. Now no one wanted to live in the house where Patryck died. So the house sits empty. Wood warps, the house begin to slouch on its foundations; it looks cold, untended. Now it is an unlucky house. Tiles slip from the roof, birds live in the rafters, people can sometimes hear their noisy avian lives: the sudden scratching and shuffling; the house creaks as it settles into its dereliction.
One day a board breaks with a loud crash. All of the people in the village freeze, caught by the sudden violence of a sound from such an empty place. It is no longer Patryck and Marta’s house, it is no longer unlucky. Instead it is cursed. Grandmothers clutch their granddaughter’s arms as they walk past. Beware. Three brave children steal a small sack of flour and the next day find the empty house is alive with creatures (who now sit in their nests licking flour off their feet). Our minds create their own uneasiness about a place where the humanity has left, but the structures remain. As if the house itself should disappear along with its residents. But their own beliefs mean that they don’t see the birds, only the dark and sinister edge of emptiness: feel the shudder that says it is the devil stamping infernal patterns across the floor at night.
As a child, he’d always been told dolls were for girls. Which was why the collector made him uneasy, cradling the porcelain doll lovingly between his grey fingers.
Buster sensed the doll’s huge cash value and his greed had made him hunt out the collector.
He was beginning to regret having it valued in this squalid little shop. But it was called ‘life of dolls’.
Small, wet tuts of appreciation escaped the old man’s mouth..
“I love dolls. Especially when they bring me something so fun to play with,” the old man says. Slipping past Buster to lock the door.
Max’s eyes look so big and beautiful as he snuggles closer in bed and whispers ‘I love you, Juliette’.
But I prefer the other look that floods his face, when he realises I’m nor Juliette.