A fire-ball for a sun. The countryside simmers in the heat; little wavy lines undulate in the air. The man had almost certainly run a considerable way to arrive at the place where he would soon die. He was collapsed in the middle of a small Savannah somewhere near the India and Pakistan border.
Blood splatter covered his face, arms and naked chest. It was his blood and we can assume it came from his desperate, but futile flight through thick, ponderous brush to escape the inevitable.
He was propped up on one arm beside a decaying tree of indistinguishable species, his sweaty, bloody chest was spotted with elephant grass. He looked longingly to his left where the sky is white-hot bright, swirling with energy from an unrelenting sun--where there might be safety. We aren’t sure the man can see or understand what lies beyond his immediate vicinity. We do know from the look on his face that he can see the tigers.
Peering from our safe vantage point we can see that his face has metamorphosed from faint hope into hopelessness and despair, finally into absolute terror. Let us call our hapless fellow Charles, for want of a real name. It's not as though we can stride across the Savannah, introduce ourselves, and return to our safe haven, now can we? So Charles will be the unfortunate gentleman's name.
"Help!" Charles appears to cry out; feebly. How can a scream be so tepid? If it were us out there amongst the tigers wouldn’t our screams be . . . more assertive? With more authority?
Of course his speech is necessarily influenced by the tigers. He would be afraid of disturbing them. Yes. He is in enough trouble, and to call out loudly, to startle the five huge cats, was not something he would want to do. No.
The tigers are beautiful; at least from our perspective. After all, they’re not about to eat us. From their nose to the tip of their tails they look to be well over six feet. They appear well-fed. Their bodies, full of muscle, their massive, striped fur radiates with a healthy sheen. These are not your average tigers. These tigers are good at what they have to do to survive. These tigers have perfected the act of killing for food to high art.
As they mill around the trapped, doomed man he would most certainly like to have enough time to confess his sins. Before his life is over he would most assuredly want to tell his wife -- Elizabeth, we’ll call her -- about the cheating. Oh, sure, it was just that one time, but still, he did fall prey to the sugared lips of an alluring and enchanting woman. He had strayed, and although he had tried to live it down, and be the best darn husband to Elizabeth he possibly could, the images of that sinful night stayed with him.
The shame of it. The sweaty, sordid hours he’d spent with the Jezebel of the night in the lustful motel room never entirely left him. Over the years he probably found himself fantasizing about the soft flesh of the Jezebel who had made him come so alive that erotic night years before even as he made matrimonial, ritual love to Elizabeth. Of course, we can only surmise.
Of all Charles’ sins against God and man why would we think the puny sin of adultery would be among his last thoughts? Surely there were other, shoddier, more important sins worthy of confession. Of course there were, but we also know that sin of the flesh is the most enjoyable and therefore the memory of it doesn’t leave us when we zip up our trousers and walk through the cheating door.
From our vantage point we can almost smell the terror of the moment. Terror smells a lot like a jar of sealed farts, opened all at once in the confines of a closet. It suffocates us with its heavy, rank stench.
We nod our heads sympathetically as we observe the macabre spectacle. The way Charles seems to shudder when he realizes there is no escape from his soon-to-be-death. Charles's face is distorted into a grotesque mask and we do believe he is about to cry out. Scream, if you will. This time with the rage of anguish pushing the scream forward. Not the simpering, whispering cry we thought we had heard earlier. This time the scream will not care that the tigers are startled. Good, he probably thinks by now, let the feast begin! Just please, God, let it be over quick. Let them kill me before they begin to devour.
What? Did we hear something? Charles spoke? Of sorrow? Are we sure we heard that? What is he sorry about and why should he be sorry about it now? Because he is about to die? Much too late Charlie Boy, you’re at Heaven’s Gate, not to be mistaken for Hell’s Hole. Maybe Charles is sorry because his hitherto frantic desire to escape his dreadful fate has abandoned him. Maybe he is sorry that his need to elude his killers are now overwhelmed by a profound sense of indifference about his impending demise. We just do not know the workings of the doomed fellow's mind.
As we observe the tigers we are perplexed at what we see, or rather do not see. The tigers are there, milling, then they are not. Charles is still propped up on one arm, the same look of fear and resignation etched on his face. His skin leaking sweat like someone has drenched him with a bucket of water. But the tigers have vanished.
Wait. They have returned. Now we understand. It’s the light. When the sun streams through the window of the world and we change our position it causes the tigers to appear to fade away. We suppose it’s the tigers coloring which lend to the camouflage. The alabaster skin of the man remains visible and frightening.
And that alabaster skin of Charles’ face is profound in its misery. Surely he recalls his children. Amy? Yes, sweet, sweet Amy. And Billy, his tow-headed, snaggle-toothed future pro linebacker, Billy. The children’s first experimental steps. Followed by their first fall. Only to giggle and get up and do it all over again. The absolute, pure, unselfish love he showered upon them.
Especially Amy. He hadn’t meant to love one more than the other. But Amy was the first, and she was a girl. It was inevitable that he become more protective of her than rowdy Billy born eighteen months later.
The house in the suburbs where they all lived the good, quiet, happy life surely is in his thoughts. He always meant to put up that white picket fence but never seemed to get around to doing it. He regretted now that he hadn’t. Charles was probably regretting many things in these last few minutes he had to live. Why is that? Why do we live our lives so that at its end there are regrets? That is tragedy in itself, don’t you think?
Daddy, Charles could surely hear Amy pleading, please don't die, Daddy. Please come back to us. Why did you have to go away and leave us so alone? Don't die, Daddy, because I'll be sad if you do.
The creature called Charles without doubt wails with inner pain. Of course; who wouldn’t? He wants to tell Amy that he will be home in the morrow, never to leave them again. Of course that would be a lie. He would not be coming home.
How could he answer Amy when she asked why he had left them? Duty? He could say that. Duty for God and country. A mission, secret and important. A small cog seeking ways to keep Pakistan and India from unleashing their new toys; nuclear warheads, on each other. We can understand that. We shudder that there are those whose hatred for the other is so intense that they seek to totally and completely annihilate their enemies and their families.
Do we hear snarls coming from the beasts circling our unfortunate diplomat? Or CIA? Never mind, the tigers are becoming agitated we believe. We let out a huge whoosh of air we hadn’t been aware we were holding as we contemplate Charles’s end. It will not be long now. The tigers would be tiring of the game. They would be wanting flesh. And blood. They are undoubtedly ready for the kill.
Oh, look. There another kind of terror in Charles’ face, isn't there? An idea wanting to give voice to words, an expanding throat to force it out, mouth open as if he were about to speak. Wait, he seems to say . . . would say. This mortal has things you need to hear. He knows things. Things he has never told anyone. Secrets to share.
His voice, however, would be lost to his terror. Horrified eyes and a scream forever sealed inside of this terror. At the end maybe his thoughts are not of his wife and children as we supposed they would be. Maybe they’re of his mother. Most of us do think of our mother's near the end, we’ve been told.
Oh, do stop this. Enough of the charade. Come on, now. We’ve given Charles a name that isn’t his. We’ve made up a wife and family for him, a little town to live in, but what do we really know about this doomed man except that he is poised to meet a horrendous death? Who is this Charles? How has he come to be here? Is he with the Peace Corps? A smuggler? Will we ever know for sure?
Its all just conjecture anyway. As our eyes fall upon the lower right-hand corner of the oil-on-canvass and gaze at the scrawled, indecipherable artist’s signature, we’ll never know for sure what he thought of Charles’s inner feelings when he painted the man trapped by the pride of paper tigers.