Emily Dickinson in her own words
I was crossing the desert with my sister-in-law and life companion Susan and it was getting along into the afternoon so we decided to pitch camp. Actually Susan said she had to take a siesta, the crossing was too hard for her, the sun had pounded her frumpy body like an anvil, she felt faint and had to rest and drink water and lie down or she was going to die, she claimed.
So I told her fine, take your God-damned siesta, or die for all I give a sweet damn, I am going to scout on up ahead in my pith hat and baggy explorer’s trousers and boots and see what lies ahead and see what it is we have exactly gotten ourselves into, rather than whine about it.
I said, ‘See you, pussyfoot Sue,’ sticking out my tongue, and I walked out of that tent and scrambled over the boulders into the horizon, carrying nothing but two loaded pistols and my trusty buck knife and good flint and the only compass we had in a world full of wrong turns and double takes and deserts, and salten seas.
‘Good luck to Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson if her old pal Emily gets lost or breaks a leg in a fall or is maimed by wild beasts and doesn’t come back,’ I muttered. ‘God save her little sunstroked soul.’
Just then I saw the tiger. It was dying of thirst, lying in the middle of a disreputable wash under a scrape of sage. It was moaning for drink.
Oh you poor thing, I cried aloud, rushing to its side.
‘You poor dying tiger,’ I sobbed, kneeling at its side and stroking its sad, bewildered brow.
I threw my arms around the tiger and kissed it on the nose, above the sharp and meowing mouth. Its yellow eyes beseeched me to help it, was it a he or she I never knew — it never mattered, so I ever after knew it as an it.
‘Was he an orange tiger?’ Susan would later interrogate me from her lisping lips — from her bed of fond and ritzy pillows, under a tent fit for a sultan, from behind a sweet iced tea, from a listless arm cast across a sunbit brow. ‘Did he suffer much, my love?’
Don’t condescend to me, sugar pie, or pretend to cut in on my story, I told her.
‘It,’ I grunted sharply, digging my spoon deep into a can of beans, lifting a leg to fart for a day — for a calendar week. ‘The tiger was not a he. It was an it.’
‘Did it suffer much?’ croaked Susan from underneath a goose feather quilt and all she had to call breasts, and that adorable little haircut that framed her face like parsley on a buffet table. ‘Did its Mighty Balls reflect a Vision on the Retina of Water and of you?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
I said, ‘Yes, Susan, you know they did.’
I screamed in all anger and frowned in all despair, for those were the exact words I had been planning to use to describe my encounter with the tiger. Susan had beaten me to the punch again.
‘I hunted all the Sand,’ I told Susan, biting my own hand, ‘because it wanted a drink.’
‘Demon rum?’ cried my loving pard from a place in the comforter where I knew her naked body nestled. ‘Devil gin?’
Nay, I replied, scoffing at the perversity of her child’s mind, this tiger was a teetotaler.
I said, ‘Neither demon rum nor devil gin would pass his black and bearded lips. The Drink he craved and that I did discover, upon traipsing o’er the Sand, was the Dripping of a Rock.’
‘A magical fairy elixir to cure his broken body, and enlighten his bestial soul,’ Susan guessed, closing her eyes and arching her back in a movement that made me pause in my dinner and lick bean juice from my lips — from her lips, from her nose, from ears of corn.
‘Wrong again, sister,’ I coughed. ‘Sister-in-law, lover, wife. The Dripping of the Rock was cool spring water, as pure as as pure as as pure as…’
‘As pure as honey,’ Susan crooned, clapping her pudgy hands despite the butterfly net.
‘As a sugar-free spritzer.’
‘As driven snow in a serendipitous cone.’
‘As a rain in the mouth.’
Crossing the wash and scouting around a little, I discovered a little run of water dripping in a hidden crevice, and cupped a cupful in my gnarly hands.
‘You took it to the dying tiger, and resuscitated him!’ squealed Susan, interrupting me again.
No, you fool, I told her, the tiger was an it.
‘It, not him,’ I shouted, standing so that I could prance and parade. I told her that by the time I got to it, the tiger was already dead.
‘It was dead,’ I triumphed, watching the light behind Susan’s eyes go out, and her mouth pucker and tremble, I smiled.
I loved to see that girl cry.
I said, ‘I bore the water in my Hand. His Fearsome Eyeballs — in death were chubby — Yet when I looked really close, got down and peered into the motionless retina, I could see he had been watching me, and begging, almost willing me to make it back to him with the water.’
Susan sniffed and looked up. My eyes glinted like knives in a back alleyway. She was hoping beyond hope that I had made it back in time, after all, I saw — I chuckled. That is the kind of story she always loved.
‘I did not make it back in time,’ I said. ‘I sped too slow, and arrived too late to be of any good to that tiger. He died alone and in horrible thirst, his eyes locked on the life-giving, life-saving gift.’
‘It,’ wept Susan. ‘You said he was an it.’
‘Whose God-d***ed story is this, yours or mine?’ I screamed.
Then I saw I had gone too far, and regretted my callous words. I straightened my heaving duck trousers.
I said, ‘Fine, f*** it. It. He was a f***ing it, are you happy?’
Susan was not happy — she was wailing, hands over her eyes, sobbing into one of her mangy teddy cougars.
‘You killed him,’ she cried. ‘You killed the poor tiger!’
No no no, little sister, I replied, turning where I paced and fixing her with the used end of my spoon, and a glare from eyes that had seen jackals eat a baby in the pale moonlight. That is where you are dead wrong, I told her.
‘You are dead wrong there, Susie old pal,’ I burped — beans and nubs of corn coming to the surface of both mouth and nose. ‘It’s not my fault the tiger was out there dying. I just stumbled onto the scene. I could have remained a spectator and ignored the whole thing, but I decided to help out.’
I said, ‘It was the tiger’s fault he died,’ I scribbled.
‘It wasn’t the tiger’s fault,’ protested Susan — she cried.
Fine, I said, because sooner or later we all got to die.
‘‘Twas not his blame — who died,’ I granted. ‘But it was definitely a fact that he was dead.’
I went out into the night where the coyotes yipped and howled, and chucked my empty bean can at them. It clattered between some rocks. Behind me in the tent Susan’s sobbing slowed and was quiet.
All quiet — a bedtime story.
A Dying Tiger — moaned for Drink — (566)
A Dying Tiger — moaned for Drink —
I hunted all the Sand —
I caught the Dripping of a Rock
And bore it in my Hand —
His Mighty Balls — in death were thick —
But searching — I could see
A Vision on the Retina
Of Water — and of me —
‘Twas not my blame — who sped too slow —
‘Twas not his blame — who died
While I was reaching him —
But ’twas — the fact that He was dead —