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In This Tale of a Suburban Tiger, the Part of the Mother is Played by a Bird – Gillian O’Shaughnessy

Your mother flies away today. She rugs up in her warmest feathers, her favourite yellow cardigan, worn soft in the wash, and her best plaid slacks. With a round carry-case over her shoulder, she shakes her hollow bones, flexes her wings and sails into the sky. You wonder if she plans to ever return. You wonder if the tiger knows she’s leaving.

You chase her as far as the river, where the water shines like a scatter of silver coin and white gulls scream under a high sun. The birds fly to meet her; they wheel and swoop and tangle in the long stream of her once-auburn hair.

You look for clues to explain her departure. You check among the paperbarks that straggle the edge of the river bank, glance under the pilings at the bridge, you wade through tall rushes. Her nest is not too hard to find.

It looks old, and carefully crafted from sticks and spider-web; it’s steeped in her lemon scent. In it, there are broken feathers and three white teeth, streaked with blood. Big-cat curved. You pick them up, they lie bone-cool in the palm of your hand. Your mother circles low, cries a cut-glass cry, then soars with the wind, away. That’s when you’re sure she knew about the tiger. That’s when you’re sure she lied.

You’d tried to tell her you were afraid. Showed her where the tiger hunted after dark, where he paced in the shelter of the trees that line your street, licked his heavy paws with a rough tongue under your broken porch light, or prowled the hallway while she slept and you didn’t. You’d picked at strands of his blaze-orange coat, snagged on broken nails and jagged fencing, pointed out deep prints in the grass. You begged her to protect you. There’s no such thing as tigers in the suburbs, your mother said. But she wouldn’t meet your eyes.

The last you see of her, she’s heading for the offing, far from the river banks, out to sea. You stand on the edge of the shoreline, try to call her back but she’s beyond blood ties. Behind you, you sense the prickle of a watchful gaze. You feel the damp, smoky fingers of approaching jungle mist, curling through the mud flats and around the water reeds. It reminds you of a hot, thick breath crawling over your skin late at night when your mother is asleep.