A tiger has lost his pride and seeks direction from a snake crushing apples in a tree. I’m not usually one for animal parables. But in this moral tale, the fifth in Emmons’ collection—A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales—the elegant prose, precise plotting, and ingenious dialogue transform a relatively straightforward—and often comic—exchange between two species into a remarkable meditation on futility and free will. —Michael Carson
The tiger stopped at a break in the rain and realized he was no longer on the path he’d been following. He scratched the side of his belly against a coleus bush, shook free of the water coating his back and legs, and studied the ferns and mosses growing all around him, a blurred patchwork of greens. He listened for the rasp of Cousin, which like a gnat’s buzzing at his tail had annoyed him all through the hunt, and for the whelps of Sister’s underweaned cubs, and for the irregular footsteps of 2nd Cousin, but heard nothing.
“I’m six furlongs west of the den,” he thought, catching the scent of the dead opossum. “At most nine.”
He was tempted to scoop up with his tongue an ant dragging a webbed mass of tsetse flies, but refrained. What could be seen of the sun seemed to shift and ripple in the sky like its reflection in disturbed water. Was he west of the den, or north? Perhaps he was northwest. Cousin, despite his uselessness in a kill, had a perfect sense of direction, and the tiger felt his absence. Not long ago, for example, Cousin had found the way home after a two-day journey through alien trees that had marooned them in an unfamiliar glade, where they were so famished that Aunt had proposed eating 2nd Cousin.
“Sister!” he called out. “Niece!”
The chittering whir of life in the forest slowed and then sped up again.
“Can I help you?” came a voice from above.
The tiger looked up and saw a snake wound around the gnarled branch of a tree that curved at its base into thick tumorous roots burrowing underground. “Yes, you can go up to a good vantage point and look east for a pride of six tigers. One has a limp, another is missing both ears, and a third has no tail.”
The snake’s mouth opened slightly.
“They can’t be more than a furlong away. Maybe two.”
After making a complete revolution around its branch, the snake glided toward the trunk and then up to another branch. “What happened to your left eye?”
“It was removed by a great rhinoceros. You’re not high enough there to see any real distance.” The tiger sat on his haunches and felt the sharp pain in his groin that had troubled him since the last famine. He covered the furless patch on his stomach with his right foreleg, and the long, sparsely plotted whiskers on his face hung like wilted plume grass. “The rain must have disoriented them. They’ll be desperate to find me. 2nd Cousin already suffers from nerves. Go to the topmost branch and scan the area and you are sure to spot them.”
The snake projected a third of its body into midair and peered up at the tumescent sky. “There is an eagle circling.”
“You are too large to be carried off by such a small bird.”
“Just as you are too powerful to be maimed by a rhinoceros?”
The tiger considered leaping up to seize the snake in his mouth but suspected, with his injury, that he couldn’t.
The snake remained motionless.
“If you don’t help me,” said the tiger, “I will find them on my own and then return to kill you.”
With its tail the snake plucked an apple from a leafy nest and squeezed until it liquefied and streamed to the ground. “Before you arrived, I saw six tigers to the southeast, standing in an attitude of respect around a young tiger half again your size. When he trotted away they followed him in single file, and there were a tail-less male and limping female among them.”
The tiger protracted his claws deep into the earth and objects around him grew less distinct. His heart beat erratically. “You saw a different pride that coincidentally and superficially resembled mine.”
“There is no possibility of one being the other.”
“I didn’t mean to suggest there was.”
After a minute in which he shivered as if still wet—a ringing in his inner ear, a cold hard trill, made him wish for the sun’s full return—the tiger squinted at the snake and said, “You are lying about what you saw. It is your nature to trick noble animals, as you did man.”
The snake dropped what remained of the apple to the ground, where it landed on a pile of rotting cores around which flies were buzzing ecstatically, and slid down to hang suspended with its tail coiled around a short spiky branch. From close up the tiger could see its skin reticulated into a network of fitted, glistening scales that were honeycombed with tiny red diamonds. A change occurred in the opossum scent; a new bloody aroma mingled with the old decay, as though its body had just been torn open; he could almost hear skin being ripped away and flesh stripped from bone.
“I will not tell—”
“How old are you?” asked the snake.
“I will not tell you again: either go up and look for my companions or prepare to die.”
“You shouldn’t blame them for following another tiger now that you can no longer procure food or protect them.”
The tiger rose from his seated position and paced back and forth unsteadily, trying to determine how high he could jump without further straining his groin muscle. If the snake descended another two branches and then lowered its head and relaxed, he’d have a chance. “I can procure enough food for twenty tigers; at this very moment I am hunting prey. As for guarding them against danger, in the last six months I have fought off two jackals, a wombat, a marbled cat, an olingo and a sambar deer. The few among my pride who have been injured during that period understand why I was unable to prevent it, such as, during our encounter with the rhinoceros, my own loss of an eye. They are loyal in a way that you, a solitary creature hated the world over, cannot understand.”
The snake seemed to consider this and then said, “I wonder how a sambar deer, or a marbled cat or an olingo, could threaten a tiger. An olingo! The smallest cub could swallow one whole without thinking. Though the real question here is why your pride has waited so long to abandon you.”
The tiger sprang up at the tree from a meter away, felt a sharp bolt of pain, and fell to the ground.
The snake said, “Despite your obvious helplessness, if your former pride comes this way its new leader will have to kill you. The old must ever make way for the young.”
The tiger turned away and tensed his muscles and clenched his jaw and didn’t make a sound. From between his legs agony radiated out in regular, insistent waves. It would soon subside. He watched a chameleon blend into a fern stem as hardy as a shoot of running bamboo; the wind moaned and the sky darkened two shades with the sun’s full retreat behind layered clouds. He felt a drop of rain, heavier and more deliberate than any in the shower that had fallen earlier. The opossum scent was faint. He said, “I look forward to meeting this other tiger. Before ending your life, I will beat him in front of you so that you can see your error.”
The snake plucked off another apple and reduced it, as he had the one before, to pulp. “Let us stop this absurd talk of you harming me, because the only animal you can hurt now is yourself. It would be best for you to accept this and everything to follow.”
The tiger said, “Do you want to know why you are everywhere despised?”
The snake said nothing.
“It isn’t just your willful insincerity, the way you manipulate the truth and consider honesty to be a sign of mental frailty, as though animals who treat each other fairly are too stupid to do otherwise, but rather that, unable to build anything yourself, you concentrate on destruction. I almost pity you.”
“Then we might start a mutual pity society.”
“Friendless, heartless, and deluded into thinking cleverness worthier than love and affection, you could vanish and no one would miss you.”
The snake’s head rested on its coiled body, ten feet off the ground. “And how are you any better off, since your life has come to the same solitary end?”
“I am not solitary or at an end.”
The snake looked meaningfully at the empty space around the tiger. “It’s especially unfortunate because your solitude is not the result, as mine is, of your possessing taste and refinement in a place that values neither, but because when young you used brute force to dominate all the creatures of the earth. Those you didn’t eat you frightened, displaced or ignored. How love and affection, which you claim to value, have operated on or through you beyond the limited confines of your immediate family, is a mystery.”
“Having limited sympathy is not the same as having none at all. Everyone privileges his own and his relatives’ survival above that of others.”
The snake’s forked tongue moved up and down in its open jaw at an invisible speed. “Whether or not that’s true, you’re exceptional insofar as power and compassion are directly correlated; the more one has of the former, the better able one is to bestow the latter. You, being all-powerful, have the potential to be all-merciful. You have chosen not to be, however, which is both convenient and beneficial to you, and which eliminates the moral advantage you might otherwise have had over me. In fact, it is safe to say that your obligation to help instead of hurt weaker animals equals or even exceeds your capacity to do so, making it the greatest mandate in the forest now that man is gone, something only a monster could ignore. And yet you think that having been born a tiger you can pursue your pleasure regardless of its cost to others.”
The tiger caught no more scent of the opossum. He did not need to keep listening to the sophistry of a snake when somewhere in the vicinity Cousin and Aunt and Sister and Great-Niece and Niece and 2nd Cousin were either huddled together, too hungry to move or cry out, praying to the hidden sun for his return, or under the influence of a young pretender stealing what belonged to him.
As he considered where to look for them, a rustling sound to the east preceded the appearance of fifteen zebras galloping across the clearing in a westward direction, followed immediately by a herd of long-necked giraffes. The rain was falling steadier now and vast puddles formed on the ground. Then from opposite corners of the clearing two new sets of animals emerged—from the southeast peacocks, and from the northeast rabbits—to unite on the path trampled first by the zebras and then by the giraffes.
“Where are they going?” shouted the tiger to the snake, who had ascended to the topmost branch and was staring into the distance.
The snake didn’t answer for several minutes, during which bunches of toads, rhinoceroses, goats, horses, gorillas, short-haired cats, mice, beetles and marmots filed past, until finally, with an unreadable expression, it returned to its perch on the fourth lowest branch and said, “They are headed west.”
Rain poured down so heavily now that the tiger felt a uniform pressure on his back. A flock of geese flew above while an assortment of chimpanzees and foxes and deer raced by. The puddles converged into an unbroken pool. Next came wolves and bears and badgers and lambs, and it was a marvel to see the peaceful—the non-murderous—lockstep of predators with their prey.
The tiger said to the snake, who still had not answered, “Is there higher ground to the west, or perhaps a fire to the east?”
“Then what did you see?”
“Earlier you said that I delight in destruction and trick noble animals such as man. I’ll tell you what I saw, but first you must hear something.”
The rain fell insistently and the tiger was too weary to protest.
“When Eve came here she was a child. Not biologically, but in temper and intellectual development she was little better than the clay from which she and Adam were formed. I lived on the ground then, and ate a sparse diet of mice and other small fry, with little interest in this tree. Eve used to stand where you are now and ask herself whether she should or shouldn’t eat its fruit. Her life was tiresome, she’d say, without variation or intrigue or intensity of feeling—everything she did produced the same dull note—and eating the fruit would change that. Unless it wouldn’t. What if, she’d say, an unpredictable life of alternating pain and joy and mystery was as unsatisfying as the one of regular contentment and predictability she currently led? What if the afterwards were different from the before in kind but not in substance? And while the prospect of death might invest life with greater meaning than it currently possessed, on the theory that something’s value rises in proportion to its scarcity, it might do the opposite and fill her with a sense of life’s futility.”
The water level had reached the halfway point on the tiger’s legs, and he decided to start walking west with the blind hope of finding his companions, who might intercede on his behalf with their new leader. There was no reason to stay here.
The snake said, “One day, after months of ignoring me, she asked what I thought she should do. Stay and suffer in a familiar manner, with an inevitable increase in boredom as time passed meaninglessly, or eat the fruit and be banished to a place and mode of being that might as easily be worse as be better, and that would come to an end? She couldn’t ask Adam because he wanted nothing more than to love and admire creation; he wouldn’t condone her eating the fruit of this tree because he was not dissatisfied. I told her that if that were the case she could do no wrong that would not also be right.”
The tiger’s stomach now grazed the water’s surface, along which a thousand raindrops ignited in tiny explosions that added to and overlapped and canceled one another out. A memory came to him of standing on an open plain during a heat wave when he was young, under a bleached white sky dirtied in the distance by specks of vultures circling over the elk he had just slain, at which time, stupefied but not yet made frantic by thirst, and for a moment on the other side of a small hill from the others, a single droplet of water had fallen on his nose. There had been no clouds or birds above him, and no rivers within sight to produce this moisture. He’d licked it away and in the fraction of relief it afforded him he’d felt his yearning for more spike to an unbearable degree, and he’d had a vision then of endless water, of a flood like the one now arising, and he’d understood that the leadership responsible for taking the pride so far from a fresh drinking supply, and which just moments before had failed to help him bring down the elk, needed to be replaced.
“Do you know what she did then?” asked the snake.
The tiger could clearly see his father’s body perched that evening at the mouth of the cave where the pride was sleeping, his muscles thin and shrunken, his ears perfectly still, lost in a memory of the world as someplace new, when the cycle of rise and fall was not yet known.
“She walked away and never returned.”
A strong current ran through the water. The tiger’s feet were firmly on the ground, though he couldn’t say for how much longer they could stay there. The rain stripped leaves and pine needles from the trees around him and left bare branches stabbing the blackened sky. A bolt of lightning lit up the clearing in a white flash as the tiger bent down to lap up a mouthful of water, which tasted of loamy soil and bones and aloe and bark and insects and iron and sap and stone and the dust of an ended drought, diluted by tears and thickened by blood. As he drank more the tiger became thirstier, with every drop coming from nowhere and the last of its kind.
“To the west,” said the snake, now on a lower branch, “not far from here, no more than two furlongs away, is a giant ship. A gangway connects the ground and its deck, and is being used to convey up pairs of animals. Even in your condition you could reach it in time.”
The tiger kept his eyes down and drank away his recent hunger and the whelps of Sister’s cubs and the illusion that there would never be a young tiger half again his size. He swallowed his father’s murder and the years he’d led his pride through a shrinking forest and the moment he’d known that his confidence was built on a decaying foundation. He consumed the love and hatred that had once given him vitality, and the times when his survival had been in question, and when it had been a foregone conclusion, and when it had been a matter of neither indifference nor consequence.
The snake came down to the lowest branch and extended its head to within a foot of the tiger’s and said, “We could go to the boat together. I could ride on your back and navigate.”
The tiger didn’t look up or stop drinking. There was so much more to take in. He’d only just begun.
Josh Emmons is the author of two novels — The Loss of Leon Meed (Scribner, 2005) and Prescription for Superior Existence (Scribner, 2008) — and the short story collection A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales (Dzanc, 2017). Read a review of A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales here by Numéro Cinq‘s Michael Carson