Mother packed the box with food for Father’s lunch. The box was very old. There were birds painted on its cover but over the years the paint had been rubbed away, so the birds were almost transparent. I thought that was what ghosts of birds must be like–smudges of red and blue and green in the sky. She tied a string around the box and pinched my shoulder.
I said “Ouch.” It didn’t hurt, that pinch, but I always said it and then she would always say “Get along, your father is hungry,” and I would run out the door with the box and down the path through the woods to the river. My father was there, waist deep in the brown water along with my uncles and the other men, their nets spread out like veins.
The river brought us fish and wood and sometimes other things as well. One time the men pulled a dead soldier from the water. He had floated down from the fighting in the North and was black and round as the blimp I once saw in the clouds. Another time a dead crocodile was tangled in the nets and when my father slit open its belly there was a small riverbank pig inside, still alive! It was a miracle or a sign, everyone thought, and there was dancing and drinking that night and we roasted the pig and ate it beneath the full moon.
When I got to the river I shouted: “Father, come have your lunch.” He came ashore and rubbed my head and we sat in the shade of a tree. He opened the box and ate. Sometimes I would eat a bit of his food, though I was always very careful not to take too much, since he needed it to be able to work in the river for the rest of the day.
“Go home now son,” he said when done with the meal, “go and study so that you do not end in the river like me, with a bent back and a burned head.” He stood and I hugged him and made my way down the path with the empty box tied to my belt.
In the near distance I saw the bus bouncing along on the rutted road. On its roof were tied many boxes and cardboard suitcases and cages crammed with chickens. There was an old man up there as well, tossed into the air with each bump in the road, but he held on with strong brown fingers.
As I walked I noticed movement in the woods and stopped to look. The flickering light played tricks on my eyes, the leaves first green, then yellow, then black, but as I continued to stare, I saw that a great tiger was watching me. It was big as a house and I was afraid. I began to run toward the bus, shouting for it to stop. The old man on top waved at me and grinned, then yelled and pointed at something behind me. I stopped and turned and there was the spotted beast slowly trotting down the path on his big padded feet. He was looking right at me.
I froze and tried to make myself invisible by closing my eyes, but my heart, I’m sure, could be heard by the people on the bus which was now out of reach, way down the road. I breathed as quietly as possible, but my nose made a little whistle that sounded like a tiny bird in a tree and I was sure the tiger would eat my face. I imagined myself flying away from my body, away from the tiger, away from the earth and I was safe, I thought, until I felt the big cat’s muzzle press against my belly. I shut my eyes tighter. His whiskers felt like the broom Mother used to sweep our hut and I could feel my shirt wet where his nose met the fabric.
It must have been a strange sight–a thin young boy with a tiger leaning into his body. I don’t know how long we stood this way, but my head became hot from the sun and I allowed my eyes to open a tiny bit, enough to see that the tiger’s eyes were also closed. He was asleep, his breath softly rippling my shirt. I opened my eyes wide and placed my hands beneath his chin and slowly guided the big yellow head to the ground. I ran home, stopping only once to look back. The tiger was still there, asleep on the path.
When I returned to our house Mother was out in the fields with my sisters. I put the lunchbox on the table and rummaged in the big chest that stood in the corner until I found the little jars of paint. I sat at the table and repainted the birds on the cover of Father’s lunchbox until they were bright and clear and looked able to fly into the sky.