Mum always says there must not have been enough space for me inside her. I was bigger than most babies in the early months, pressing on her in the night and squirming like a tadpole trapped in a jar. She sighs to talk about it, tells me enjoy not having to piss every ten minutes.
I imagine myself in miniature sometimes, slippery and slick. Mum says it wasn’t like that though; I was only a cluster of cells, then an unfeeling, creepy little fish. Not me yet.
When her time got nearer, I was big enough to have my own arms and legs and would spin around like a washing machine, churning her up until all she could do was lie very still, or lean over the side of the bed with a bucket. I would scramble around when I smelled food, making her so queasy that for the last month we ate only hard toffee and bananas.
She thinks this is what made me ravenous, gnawing on her until a wet nurse was brought in to take over. Once weaned, I ate at the table like a little wild animal. Dinner was the best meal. I ripped into bread and butter before the food was even brought out, licked fat from my fingertips and hoovered the crumbs around my mouth. I slurped soup and gulped down garlicked potatoes. I was an ever-growing mouth, an empty pit.
Meat was my favourite, though.
When I saw Dad pick up the big knife, his special Sunday knife, I had to sit very still and ignore the fizzing excitement that started in my toes.
The sitting still rule was very important and had been since the day I leapt onto the table like a mad thing and tried to rip the leg from a chicken (still whole). From then on, I was called little gullet throughout the whole house. Even the chef called me petit gosier and laughed until I thought his lungs would fly out. He told me later, during the month I was banished to the kitchens with the staff, that he had been returned the chicken with distinct finger marks where my hands had pushed into the flesh. My father was less amused, having been the one to drag me out of the chicken and across the table (which came first is up for debate). He gave me one good wallop and sent me to bed without supper, the cruellest of punishments (as he well knew). The fact I heard him laughing with Mum did nothing to ease the growling inside me.
The special knife is still used to carve meat every Sunday, but I have since learnt to control my hunger. Or at least my hands. I stare at the meat, imagine its texture before the skin is even broken. It’s different each week. Once a ham, studded with cloves and surrounded by oranges hot from the oven – I could smell it all day. Another time it was steak, coated in a peppercorn crust and thick garlic sauce. At Christmas there was goose, covered in butter and so plump it hardly fit on the plate. I had to swallow for every drop I saw melting down its back. But for the last three weeks, and the next two, I am reducing. This is the polite term, as it isn’t proper to mention my body in company. The impolite term is fucking hungry. Mother is helping me, eating what I do. She calls it fun, talks about a dress from ten years ago she can now fit into. I watch my Dad eat the meat and control my instinct to jump onto the table.
On my plate at this moment is rice, something green and a sweet potato. I am starved enough to think it delicious. Chef seems to agree with my mother that the exotic spices are too stimulating for a soon-to-be-married woman. I think of saffron, little red tendrils strong enough to dye the fingers and a whole paellera of rice. Paprika, smoky and crimson red. the scent of it lingering in your nose for a day. I eat a lump of sweet potato, roll its stringy texture along the roof of my mouth.
-Have you talked to your fiancé today, dear?
-Yes, Mum. He’s very well.
The day he proposed he took a small card from his jacket and wrote a number down in case I needed anything. His handwriting is font-like in its neatness. So is his speech, if I am being honest. The card sits on the hallway table and each evening I call him on the number. He tells me what he had for dinner. I am going to marry him because he eats like a king. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, thin-armed and gentle faced, but it’s true. Today it was seafood, oysters tilted straight down the throat with a squirt of lemon. Grilled lobster basted in olive oil. I think of this as I eat the rice.
* * *
The car we leave the church in is glossy black, humped like a camel. He holds my hand as I lean down into the passenger seat and pushes the bumpf of my wedding dress in behind me until I am surrounded by ivory netting, peering out like a confused sea creature. I watch him say goodbye to my parents and wonder what our home will be like. I do not mind leaving, despite only ever knowing the walls of one house. My bedroom has been packed up, the linens put away and my possessions sent to join his. He is driving us; says he wouldn’t feel like a good husband to let someone else ferry me away. I don’t mind the privacy.
Once we have travelled sufficiently far away, out of sight of my parents and maybe the priest (what an altar boy he is!), he pulls the car into a bend and kisses me.
-You’re so beautiful.
He holds my hands and strokes over the pale white crescent of my thumbnail. He looks down at the hands in his.
-As if they were made for me, he says.
He drives and I stare. Fields of harvested wheat appear deep gold from this distance, scenting the air with an earthy musk dry as bread. The forest shrouds the road away from sunlight, leaving the car to tunnel like an industrious mole. It leads us to the house, miles away from anything, and as we drive back into the sunlight I wonder if I am entering a new world. The driveway winds like a maze until I feel I could take a thousand turns back and still not find my way onto the main road. I dig a nail down into the flesh of my palm; I do not get nervous.
The house is larger than I thought. His voice is so quiet, the palest of whispers on the phone, that I had imagined a sweet cottage. Or a pensioner’s bungalow. Instead, I am pulled out onto the lawn of a glass and brick monster, at least forty rooms across. My parents must have known, offering him lemon with his tea as they watched me for any sign of affection. She will say yes, I’m certain of it, Sir. Why had I not wondered?
I am hoisted up into a precarious bundle, hauled across the threshold in a meringue of puffed skirts and vanilla perfume.
-No point starting with bad luck, he says in response to my questioning look. His strength gives out around then, but he pretends he had planned on setting me down anyway. I do not look at his flushed face – no need to embarrass him.
My room is beautiful. It is a perfect twin of his, the two only separated by a large dressing room. He takes pleasure in my delight, shows me the potted lilies, a matching armoire and dressing table he had made specially. I cannot help looking at the bed, embarrassed to see the sheets from my trousseau already pulled tight across the mattress. Sewed onto the edges are little silken flowers and glass beads. I do not like the idea of my childish stitching decorating this new home, but I cannot say anything. In the corridor he shows me the drawing room, the place for writing letters.
-Here is the phone you called me on every night.
He is so sweet my teeth begin to ache. I see the chair put specially by the phone, his little doodles on the notepaper beside it. I take out the card he first wrote his number on and put it down by the notepad. I can tell this pleases him.
We walk together around the house, pausing to look at paintings he especially likes. He brought them on his travels around the world.
-India was my favourite. It’s where I found my chef.
I send a little prayer of thanks to India, thinking of aloo gobi and papadums. Koftas and kormas and vindaloos.
-Don’t worry, dearest. He does European food so well you’d almost believe he was French.
I can deal with this. I still remember the food he described down the telephone. I smile as though I haven’t been fantasising about Egyptian lamb stew.
* * *
He shoots during the day, with a man to hurl rocks into the trees and scare the birds. He likes me to sit on the lawn watch as he nabs them, one, two, with the double barrel! I do not look, but hear it when they hit the ground. He crows with delight each time, running like a child to hook them onto a string and dangle it in my face until I flinch. We eat them for dinner, and I chew the bones bare. I think this is the happiest I have ever been.
The isolation here is strange. There are none of the comings-and-goings I was used to at home, and even on their days off the servants never leave the estate. Without a car I could not leave because I do not know the way, but for now my new home takes all my attention. The gardens are so large I still haven’t yet seen them all, green lawns and ponds surrounding the house, gravelled paths meandering through the land. Hedges are carved into elephants and giraffes and camels, a memento from his travels, he says. I like this about our house, that he has brought pieces of the world back with him. I walk on Persian carpets and rock in a chair carried back from Turkey.
There is only one thing occluding satisfaction in my new life. Every night my door is locked and bolted from the outside.
-It’s to keep you safe, petal. I have men with guns patrolling at night.
I do not like it and wish he would trust me to stay in my room. But my Mother warned him of my adventurous nature, liable to be overcome. Trying to tell him I was a child the last time I lost control does nothing but frustrate me. I rip into meals and imagine sinking my hand into a chicken.
* * *
The plan does not come to me in increments, but fully formed, murmuring into my mind as I listen to him snore two rooms away. He visits me sometimes but never sleeps here, instead padding back across to his own room and leaving his sweat, a slight stick on the skin between my legs. I have moved across the divide before I can blink, breathing only in a slight swell of my ribcage. The door does not creak, and I am in his room, which is so similar to mine it is easy to navigate in the dark. The burr of his chest stays constant as I click open a handle and move into the corridor. Outside, it is the same house I have free reign over during the day. Even so it looks new, objects cast in a chiaroscuro of moonlight and shadow.
Downstairs, all the doors are open.
I gaze through an open patio door as the curtains drift back and forth, trying to understand why I would be locked up only for the house to be made so vulnerable. Where are the armed men? Perhaps this was so they could come and go as necessary. The movement of the curtain lulls me and I decide to go back to bed. Wait, there! A glint of movement. Wavering corner of apparition, gone as quickly as I see it. A grizzled jaw edging across the threshold. A yellowed eye and tufted ear. My very skin goes still. We stare at one another, this creature and I, a low grumbling sound between us. I do not know which one makes it.
My mother taught me how to train a dog and break a horse. Grab them by the muzzle, show it who’s boss. Refuse to bend, no matter how scared you become. If a horse throws you off once it will certainly do it again. I see the challenge in its eyes. This tiger has been held by the muzzle before. I do not think the culprit still holds both hands.
The next morning, I am fizzing in a way I haven’t felt since childhood. He senses my restlessness, remarks on it over breakfast. I tear into bacon and sausages, ignoring the way he looks at me and the silent question. He does not know. When I get back to my room, my wedding dress has been hung inside my wardrobe. I close the door, shoving in puffed skirts.
As celebration for two months of marriage, he goes into town and returns a car brimming with presents. New dresses and shoes, soft panettone in a tin box. We even replace the bedsheets, crisp white taking over from the softened sheets I worked on before coming here. For dinner there are soft lamb kebabs, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and pine nuts. I wonder if he is stupid enough to think this cuisine French, or Italian. Then I feel guilty for thinking him stupid. The food is delicious. I sneak lamb into a napkin for the night.
The phone has been disconnected, the wires which usually run into the wall disappeared. He tells me the connection was broken.
-I was the only one you called, and you have me right here.
He holds me tight, whispering into my ear. I think of the night.
* * *
I see the tiger in darkness, offering parts of my dinner. Only the meat though, for tigers eat nothing else. After three months I am rewarded with a great rasping lick. I stare as it does it, barbs on the tongue as numerous as strawberry seeds. The lick hurts; lets me know that if it wanted, it could siphon meat off my bones in gentle strokes. We walk in the gardens, until we are away from the house. Then we run, as fast as our legs can carry us. The tiger can run three laps for every one of mine, but always comes back to hear me hoot.
The night after the lick I cannot control myself, waking to a buzzing in my ears and the kind of restlessness that makes me want to throw things, smash the crockery against the walls. A layer has been removed. I jump on the mattress, bouncing into the wall behind me and laughing until my brain thunks around my skull —
He holds me down until I stop laughing. I don’t remember him finding me, but now I am pressed down into the bed, barely able to breathe.
Little pants escape me, catch in the space between us. He sucks up my air and blows it back onto my face in a hot stream. I feel sick. The scent of the cheroots he smokes clogs my lungs and though I cannot see them, his yellow-stained fingers dig into each arm and push me down down down until I think the bed will swallow me whole. His thighs crush mine, my feet flapping like the desperate caudal fin of a hooked fish.
He calls me sweetness and light and honey and treasure. Pet, darling, precious, you don’t want to do this.
I bite with incisors, try and scratch with my tongue, pull delicate skin from calcified bone, but he catches my teeth, kisses down, stifles a moan.
A hand grabs my chin. Another my neck. Breath becomes freedom, a benefit given.
We wait together until I am calm, the only motion his hand stroking an arm.
It doesn’t feel like mine.
* * *
Porridge. Thin and milky, with slivered almonds on top. I am being killed by beige. He has called my mother on a phone I can’t find. I am reducing again, but not to fit a dress. He sleeps in my room, arm around my waist while I lay awake and think of my tiger, the meat I can no longer feed it, the maze surrounding the house.
I wait two more months before I can leave again, going feral inside even as I shrink into new nylon stockings. My calm demeanour is much remarked upon, the benefits of vegetarianism extolled by servants, our gardener, my parents. I eat semolina and oats, not golden but dull brown, and my vegetables are boiled until their colour is only a pale ghost of what it once was. I could bear it, but I miss my courses four times and decide I am probably pregnant. I pray it will not be a daughter but begin to feel a squirming long before the doctor would recognise her. She is hungry already. Burning inside, I crawl out of his arms and into the quiet garden. Even after all this time, the tiger finds me. Like a silken housecat used to caring for a kitten, it brings me a dead hare and puts it down at my feet. It glares at me as if waiting, then notches a tooth in the hare’s stomach, drags down and opens the flesh. I can feel the heat rising from her, bristled skin still damp with sweat and fear. Blood has never scared me. The child in me wriggles with want, begging me for what I have missed for so long, watched my husband kill and consume. This blood is the brightest I have ever seen, iron and soul leaking onto the grass. I am there before thinking, a hand reaching into what still pulses with life. Avoiding intestines, I take a kidney, gnaw it out with my own teeth. The tiger waits, then takes the kill back. It will eat what I don’t, harsh tongue stripping away fur. The red on my hands could be my own, viscous and drying into a plasticky layer as I put the meat into my mouth. It oozes and has a texture chewier than I expected, used as I am to a chef taking this job, sautéing or boiling. We eat in companiable silence and I look at the black and amber creature sat beside me, place a hand on its back and feel great rolling muscles.
I do not mean to, but I fall asleep. He finds me in the morning, prostrate on the grass, and through my confusion I see the blood on my hands, know there is more on my face. The gory place in the grass where the hare once lay is empty, but it seems to say something to him anyway. I wish I knew what.
-Have a bath.
For the first time I know real fear, looking into his eyes. He knows what has happened, how I defy him. The ultimate boon for a man with an exotic collection brought from all over the world, a tiger. Not a mad wife.
I read a plan in his face at dinner while eating my mushroom soup. I steal a knife, a special Sunday knife to hide in my corset. I feel its sharp point against my stomach as relief. He sleeps in his own room tonight. All I have to do is wait.
He has locked his own door, and I cannot find the key. I do not sleep.
* * *
It is the first time I have found the tiger in the day, but just as it knew I needed the hare, it knows I had to find it now, today. I lure it into the woods, far away from the house, a place so dark I can pretend it is night again. I come as close as I dare whilst we sit together, reaching into my bodice and trying to ignore my own tears. I receive one big lick, right on the cheek, before the first swiping paw scratches my arm in panic. Neither of us were expecting this moment, a friend stabbing upwards through thick white belly skin and into the place where the liver sits. Another in the heart, dodging biting jaws that try to trap my neck, wrapping arms around my tiger’s great torso in a death grip. It cannot reach me.
We lie together under a great canopy of leaves, but only I can hear the way the wind blows through like rushing water. Once, one of us could smell every creature lurking on the mudded floor of this clearing, but I let them pass me by, ants crawling up my legs and small flies landing on tear-wetted cheeks. It is only when the tears have evaporated and left me salt-crusted that I begin to dig. Before I hide the body, I lie my upper torso across it. The hair is so coarse it feels waxen, rough fibres abrading my cheek as I rub my face back and forth across my tiger’s back. I have not let him destroy it. This is something. I would rather be killed by someone for love, I think. English winter and darkness would be too cold, the anger of my husband colder. A creature that walks for itself is not to his liking.
The body is buried. I cover the space in leaves, erase my tracks. I still smell of musk and tiger piss, have to wash dirt from under my nails. The knife is back in the kitchens, the only sign it was gone a nick in my stomach and a tear in my dress.
My husband is vibrating with joy at dinner. He cannot know what I have done. It must be because I am pregnant. I told him after he found me on the blooded lawn, scared he would think me crazed. He holds an oyster to my lips, lets it fall down into my mouth. There are truffles and smoked salmon. Fried octopus, figs, honey and cream cheese. Nothing is denied to me. The food follows no theme. We eat until I think we must be sick.
-But this is only the starter, we’re having your favourite tonight.
He holds my hand, his other arm hooked across my chair, and senses my flinch the moment the platter is brought in. It is piled with red meat, cooked only until the outer layer is seared and the rest is raw. I cannot say how I know. Perhaps the gleam of satisfaction in his eye as he serves us both. The way his tongue savours the speck of blood that falls outside his lips. My hunger disappears as he holds a fork to my mouth, pushes a bite inside. The pit inside me yawns wider. I tremble.
Yana is a student. Before COVID she was in Sweden studying the effects of climate change on bees and trying to work out how to bartend. Now back in the UK, she is completing the final year of a biomedical sciences degree and writing in her free time. This is her first published short story. If you want to talk about writing, she would love an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.