The Tiger's Eyelash
Excerpt from “A Place-Based Guide to Wonder”
The Tiger's eyelash
Here is a story.
It is inspired from a traditional story, and it has transformed through many mouths and many cultures into a unique incarnation that is here now on this page.
It is a story for you.
Once, long ago in a village in southeast Asia, the people were living in a time of war. The forces of hatred had gripped the hearts of certain people and those people used their power to do violence.
This is the recipe for war.
So war was in the land and in the human hearts, and those with the power to do so had conscripted people from the villages and the fields. They put weapons in their hands, put sufficient hate and fear in their hearts to make them kill, and then sent them into the field to slaughter one another.
In one small village, a husband and wife had been living a very happy life. They loved and appreciated one another and they were daily thankful for what they had been given. The land provided enough and they supported and admired each other throughout the days.
Then the husband was called to war. And those in power forced him to leave his happy life and his loving partner.
He lived war for one full year.
Those in the village, including his wife, grieved the loss of their sons and husbands, and prayed for their protection and survival and that they would come back so they could live a life that was never again touched by such hatred and violence.
This grieving and praying happened on both sides. Which is one of the tragedies of war.
So, after a year of waiting, the village was notified that those who survived would be returning home. The wife lined up with all the other family members and gripped and rubbed her hands as she waited for the men to approach. They looked pale and skinny and the lights in their eyes had retreated so deep that to look at them was to stare into a hollow darkness. But, one by one, the families and the men found each other. In those moment of connection, one by one, they seemed to remember their light, and the tears came, and the hearts broke open.
But for the wife and others, no such moment came. Some loved ones did not return. And the hearts wailed and skin grew cold and the world seemed to tremble and fall apart. And for these families, the walk home was long and dark and empty.
The wife, alone, made her way to her house, and as she set her hand on the railing of the porch where she and her husband used to sit and laugh together, she could barely feel her own touch. She was a shell of something that used to feel.
She knew she needed to lie down, and, barely conscious of herself, she opened the door to the house. As she did, she heard a rustling in the bushes. It was a strange rustling. The world seemed to shift and it became momentarily crisp. She became alert and felt a strange heat in her heart. She heard the noise again. She turned and looked into the bamboo and waited.
From the darkness emerged two hands, parting the bamboo to reveal a gaunt face with hollow eyes staring at her. A wave of heat rushed through her chest, causing her whole body to jolt. She looked as deeply as she could at the face, and the features began to bend into a deep familiarity. It was her husband. She screamed, "husband!" and almost fell over for her lack of breath.
His eyes widened with fear.
She called, "Husband, it's you! Oh thank God!" and she ran toward him.
Terror washed over his face, and he turned and ran.
Her joy collided with a wall of rejection and, overwhelmed by confusion, she screamed "No! Come back!" She ran into the bamboo after him, but he fled with the power and speed of the sambar deer fleeing the tiger. He was gone. She stood there in shock. Tears came. She stood there until her legs almost collapsed. Then, almost without any of her own will, her body lead her back to the house and into her bed.
The next morning she woke and wondered if it was a spirit or a hallucination.
She scrambled up, opened the door, and looked toward the bamboo.
The figure of her husband, huddled by the edge of the bamboo, jumped up, wild terror in his eyes, and fled again into the bamboo. She ran after him, but soon realized that there was no way she could catch him.
And so it happened. Later that day, the same thing. That evening, the same. The next day, the same.
By the third day, she had become desperate to find some way to catch her husband. No matter how fast she was, no matter what she said, she had failed. The desperation made her soften, and in that softening, a deep and wise part of her emerged. She knew that she needed help.
So, she ate some food, put on fresh clothes, packed a lunch, and made her way to the wise woman who lived up in the foothills.
The forest seemed to grow around and through the wise woman's hut. The hut seemed as much a part of the land as a glacial boulder or an old fern-covered stump. She knocked on the door and waited.
As the door opened, it brought a spicy and musty array of smells. The wise woman had skin like sand dunes and in her eyes was the sparkle of Venus on a clear night.
"Yes, dear? How may I help you?" An old and almost forgotten way of kindness in her presence.
After the woman had explained, and the wise woman had done her wise listening, They stood in silence. Only the sounds of the birds and the wind in the forest. The wise woman nodded slowly. "Yes. Yes. I can help you. Come in and sit down."
The woman watched as the wise woman set about her craft. She brought a small pot to near simmer. From her shelves, she gathered six small glass bottles filled with curious plants and other objects. She hummed a loamy tune as she did her work. She put a pinch of the contents of each bottle in the simmering liquid until she came to the sixth. She opened up the bottle, turned it upside down, and gasped. "Oh no…" she droned. She shook her head. "Oh no…"
The woman jumped up. "What? What happened?"
"Oh dear, I am very sorry."
The woman walked up to the wise woman, her heart a rapidly beating drum. She needed to catch her husband, and she could not handle another rejection. "Sorry? Sorry for what? Can't you do it?"
The wise woman shook her head. "My dear, I am sorry but I am missing the most important ingredient in your husband's medicine. Without this, you will never heal your husband."
The woman felt a surge of energy course through her. She loved her husband, and in that moment, the love turned to something fierce and unconquerable. Her eyes fixed firmly on the wise woman. "What is the ingredient? I'll go get. Just tell me what you need." She took one solid breath. "I will get my husband back whatever it takes."
The wise woman's eyebrows raised, and the sparkle in her eye became something so big and so old that you must fear it. "My dear, what propose is no easy task. The ingredient I am missing is an eyelash from the great tiger of Makai."
The woman felt dread. But the love was stronger and it pushed the dread aside. "The great tiger that lives at the top of Makai mountain?" The wise woman nodded. The woman took a breath and felt the love give her strength. "I will have my husband back," is all she said.
The wise woman nodded. "Very well. If you choose this task, then listen closely. This is what you must do…"
The woman returned to her hut and again saw her husband flee at her sight. Though her heart wept and called her to run after him, she kept her focus. She called into the bamboo, "I will return to you, husband. And I will see you well again." She then went into her home and gathered everything she needed.
She went into the village and bought some supplies.
She set foot on the path that eventually lead to Makai mountain. The path was rarely trodden and the stormy season had left it full of rocks and mud.
The path ended at the base of the mountain. The tales of the great tiger of Makai mountain had long since scared away any curious explorers. To get to the top meant to enter the wilderness. To follow the meandering paths of the deer and the pig. To walk as the land and water carves you to walk. The woman entered. The forest received her as a lake receives a flower petal.
The way was not easy. In fact, the way was a terrible and confusing mission to find any way at all. The plants were mighty and the ditches deep. The rocks denying. The forest so thick it blinded her of the four directions. At times, she cried. She sat and pounded the faceless landscape with her fist. She prayed for courage. She felt as if she had been swallowed by a beast and there was no way out. She wondered at the cruelty of life. And each time, that deep love and that deep commitment pulled her up, and she walked on.
At last, the vegetation thinned, and the air took on the light and sweet taste of the high sky. She saw the knoll that held the ancient cave which the tiger had made his lair. She slowed her walk and opened up her senses, alert to the danger she was stepping toward.
The cave was at the base of where the rocky knoll jutted skyward. A long open slope spread out in front. The woman stared at the dark entrance. The entrance to the lair was a black mark on the land. A reminder to all of the presence of death. The woman imagined the great tiger sitting just inside the line of shadow, staring at her. Hungering for tang of blood.
She unrolled her pack and walked to the farthest edge of the open slope. There she set a chunk of delicious deer meat. She then returned to her pack, which was positioned far enough away from the meat for her to barely see it, unrolled her ground blanket, and sat. She waited.
The silent sun barraged her skin. The flies pecked holes in her flesh. She waited.
At dusk, she saw the tiger.
His body was a terrible greatness. Larger than any words. The choppy sea of his muscles made her body seize with fear. He walked toward the meat with the ease and arrogance of a king.
When he got to the meat, he paused and sniffed the air. He turned and looked directly at the woman. Held his gaze on her. She clenched. Her body screamed to run. But the love of her husband worked its secret force within her, and she found the strength to stay.
The tiger turned back to the meat, grabbed it, and walked back into the cave.
The next morning, the woman woke. She did not remember how or when she fell asleep. She took another piece of meat and walked the slope. This time she set the meat halfway closer to the lair. She then grabbed her pack and blanket and set herself halfway closer to the meat.
Again she waited. Again: the sun; the flies. Dusk. The tiger. Her fear. His stride. The pause before the meat. His massive head turning. His eye gaze playing a song of doom within her body. She remembered the love. She sat and waited. The tiger grabbed the meat and returned to the cave.
And so it went. The woman cutting distance in half each time the tiger took the meat. The meat closer to the lair. Her closer to the meat. Her body weakening. Her mind pleading for reprieve from this terrible task. The love fueling her.
Finally, the day came when the woman set the meat directly in front of the lair. She set herself directly in front of the meat. Her weak and weary body felt like a hollow thing. Her mind and spirit were strong, though, and she sat with the confidence of a boulder.
She waited. The blackness of the cave directly before her. The scattered bones. The smell of death. As she stilled, she became aware of a strange sound. Like waves of a distant ocean. From just inside the cave. It was the tiger's breath. On the edge of shadow, the edge of her vision, the edge of imagination, she thought she might just barely see the image of the tiger's great head.
She sat. The waves of fear came like squalls. The love steadied her. She remained.
Then a movement from within the darkness. The tiger's head emerged. The eyes of the greatest predator did not look at the meat. The woman sat. Some deep spark within her knew it was time.
The tiger stepped closer until his head was right before her face and right above the meat. The woman had her first thought in days. In her head, she asked the tiger directly: "please." No other words. The rest of the request was in a far older language than human tongues. She felt every atom of the air. She waited.
Then, a softness moving through her body. She pulled in her breath. The tiger bowed his head toward the meat and waited, not taking it. The woman could barely feel her arm as she extended it outward. She pinched an eyelash. Breathed out. Breathed in. And pulled.
The roar of the greatest beast of death consumed her entire being. Her vision went white. Her body consumed by the tunnel of sound and hot breath. The great teeth inches from her face and wider than her head. She became no thing in the face of her own annihilation.
Then a rush of warmth again. And she felt her familiar body. And she saw the tiger grab the meat. Turn and walk back into the cave.
Only shadow and rock and bones before her. The hot sun. The empty air.
The woman remembered. She looked down at her fingers and saw the eyelash. Her hand started to tremble, and she quickly reached in her pocket with her free hand, pulling out a small container. She placed the eyelash in it. Wrapped it. Tied the wrap to her body. Gathered her things. Walked away, willing herself not to run.
She had the eyelash. Her heart wanted nothing more than to be able to teleport directly back to the wise woman's hut.
But she could not. She had to now go down the mountain.
The way was not easy. The plants were mighty and the ditches deep. The rocks denying. The forest so thick it blinded her of the four directions. At times, she cried. She wondered at the cruelty of life. The deep love and the deep commitment pulled her up, and she walked on.
The path as the base of Makai mountain was full of mud and rocks from the stormy season.
The woman was dark with dust and sweat. Pocked with welts from flies. Thin with hunger. But her heart was as fierce as any great tiger.
She came, at last, to the wise woman's hut.
The wise woman answered and stood in the doorway staring at the woman, holding her in the Venuslight of her ancient gaze. "I see that you have done it."
When the wise woman spoke, the woman's resolve softened. She felt the pain. She remembered who she was. She remembered her husband and her longing. She felt the urge to cry, but would not pause to do so. She pulled out the container with the eyelash and shakily handed it to the wise woman. "Please," was all she said.
The wise woman grunted and nodded. "Follow me." The wise woman grabbed the same pot with the medicine she had begun and warmed it up over the fire. "You have succeeded. You have found the medicine that will heal your husband." A hint of a smile passed over the wise woman's face. She opened the container and held the eyelash over the concoction. She made as if to drop it in, then looked at the woman with a gaze as terrifying as the tiger's. She pursed her lips and blew the eyelash away.
The woman's heart dropped to the bottom of the Earth. Her body convulsed. She could not breathe. When her breath recovered, she screamed, "what have you done?"
The wise woman's gaze switched. Her eyes became endless pools of love. "My dear," her voice a lullaby and a blanket. The woman paused, held in a strange stasis. The wise woman smiled. "The eyelash is not the medicine you've returned with." She took a deep sweet breath. "The way you treated that tiger… go home and treat your husband the same way."
What if we treat ourselves the same way?
What if we treat our world the same way?