I don’t know what I expected, but I did not expect Sam’s eyes.
I’d seen tigers before, in zoos, in countless nature documentaries. Only months before this moment–the day I met Sam–I had burned up picture after picture of the Bengal at Naples Zoo (see Speak to Me of God and the Almond Tree Bursts Into Bloom ), and then I was so befuddled with the rapid changes of my life that I did not know how to speak to you of it, so I wrote this poem:
Oh, wild things, come.
Put me inside of your heart, lay
me at the altar of your mind.
So obscured then was my path–I was still floundering with Michael, still forcing limitations on myself–that this little poem, such a tiny thing, was the greatest prayer of my heart.
The wild things began to come.
His name is Sam, Jim wrote to me in an email when I was getting directions to Jim’s sanctuary, Felids and Friends. Sam was sixteen years old. Siberian tiger/Bengal mix. Five hundred pounds. Sam had come to another rescue as a baby, and the woman running it could not take care of him. This is your tiger, she told Jim. He belongs with you. Jim knew nothing of tigers; until then he had only cougars. This woman had raised and been a guardian for tigers most of her adult life. “She knew something I didn’t know,” Jim said. “But she was very insistent that I had to take him. That he was my responsibility. I didn’t want to, but it was almost like I had no choice. It’s hard to explain.” It’s not hard to explain, but it is hard to understand–animals speak in a heart/mind language and people who spend enough time with animals remember how to do it. Then they speak the heart/mind language, too. The woman had read the situation, and Jim found himself with a three month old tiger cub who would change the course of his life. And, sixteen years down the road, mine, too.
When I met Sam, I didn’t know it, but I was at the end of a long road of rocky and incomprehensible relationships designed to teach me who I really was and how important it would be for me to release the destructive habits I had acquired to survive as an ultra-sensitive person in a heartbreaking world. I did not enjoy, particularly, God’s teaching methods, although I will not argue with their efficacy. Everything was taken from me so I could see what I was made of, and all this time I looked into the world to try to find my reflection, I saw nothing that looked familiar to me. I tried very hard to connect to the ideas people presented to me about family, about God, about relationships and marriage, about being a woman. I failed. Then, after Michael left and I had one more short burst of grand finale to perform before exhausting my energy and curiosity about men, I met Sam.
It is like this. I am standing in a road somewhere in the journey of my soul, and I am alone. The roads are dirt now, and the wilderness is overgrown on either side of the path, an old-growth forest rises up around me, and I am happy here, but no more nearer to understanding where I am going. But the path appeared, and I recognize I am on it, and that is an improvement over the years of running, screaming, through the alleys of night in a city I don’t remember waking up in. At this particular moment, I have been instructed to stand still and wait, that something is coming for me, and this I do. Daylight splashes the road and the broad-leaf trees, but the ferns tie up the breeze, though I see leaves fan amid the canopy. There is a heat in the understory, a moving thing, and I feel every pore of my skin prickle hairs for the thing that comes. There is no sound when he lights onto the road. Then he sits and looks at me without blinking, as if to say, well, what do you intend to do now?
I am in Jim’s front yard, getting out of my car. Sam’s enclosure is in the back, built so that he faces the back of the house, where Jim spends most of his time, so he and Sam can always feel close to each other. It is too dangerous for Sam to be un-enclosed; if he gets out, he will be shot. I walk around the side of the house when I see Sam for the first time; son of the largest species of tiger in the world, a warm Indian orange that melts into a snow-white, the black calligraphy of his stripes an ancient tattoo of Great Maker, and for some reason, what shocks me into the profundity of what I am witnessing is that I can hear his mountainous breathing. At that moment, for some reason, Sam explodes in a rock-shattering roar, the very notes of it electrifying my sinews. I felt my womb, and I saw it flash in my eyes, the very jungle of it. Goddamn, I thought. This is not what I expected. It was much, much more than I was prepared for.
And then he looked at me. His otherworldly tiger eyes, that luminous alien yellow-green. He locked me in and wouldn’t let go until he was done, and being held like that, in him, that’s when I learned what they mean by love at first sight.
I was no longer myself when he looked at me; I don’t know who or what I was but I was his, and even now, I can’t tell you exactly what I mean by that except that when I looked into Sam’s eyes, for that moment I lived. For that moment, I was aware only of him and that looking into his eyes made me feel connected to something older than I, more powerful than I, everlasting in such a way that I know I am only one particle on the continuum of light; that is all, and it is enough of the light to make me extraordinary beyond measure; I am only a small thing in a history of small things, and if I live my life in such a way that I have honored a tiger’s gaze, then I have lived an honorable life.
Yesterday, I took Cristina there so she could meet the “kids” and Jim and because I love her. When we left, we couldn’t speak, we didn’t know what to say, which is how it is when you really let a tiger look deep down into you and you don’t flinch, not at all.
“When he looked into my eyes I felt something I’ve never felt before. I don’t quite know what happened,” she said.
“He puts me into perspective,” I told her. And I hope she knew what I meant.
I hope you do, too, beloveds. Night, night.