The Liberation Monument
THE ZOO LIES TO THE NORTH east of the city, where the dense brown rise of buildings drops away and is replaced with green, open spaces. Expensive apartments border the wide, leafy roads and few cars drive past to break the quiet. Behind elegant gateways, large flags guard the tall, white facades of embassies. Városliget is only a few metro stops from the city centre, but feels like its own small town.
Near the open-air baths, the zoo hides away behind Heroes’ Square. Two stone elephants guard the entrance, a crazed archway with a Rousseau-like jungle peeping from between its concrete balustrades. Just after ten, as she has done most mornings that week, a woman walks through the loud clanking green grille and makes her way unnoticed to the tiger enclosure, where a group of children stand nervously watching.
He had his routine carefully worked out. He walked alongside the glass, rubbing his coat against it and looking out on the world with an expression of tamed, quiet absorption. This encouraged people to come right up to the glass and even press their faces against it, admiring the tiger’s sleek coat and white padding feet.
He walked in a figure of eight, sloshing through the muddy water of his narrow, fast-running river, then backtracking along the far side of the stream. Occasionally he turned and met the looks of his audience, staring at them with deep, intense pupils, the whiskers above his eyes flicking almost imperceptibly, a sardonic pair of eyebrows.
The observers would look benevolently down – isn’t he cute, isn’t he so beautiful, with his dark muzzle, and his high tight coat like a carpet; and the muscular, lithe legs, moving carefully one in front of the other, as if to a metronome.
Lines of children stood with their parents patiently behind them, hands by their sides, smiles on their faces. It was okay to stand right next to the glass because the tiger could only swish past impotently, leaving a streaky, muddy trail of water that soon slid to the ground.
From the tiger’s perspective, hypnotising them with his stare, he could predict the children’s movements to the split-second as he turned on the far side of the patch of grass, stepped elegantly through the water again, and paced slowly, evenly, back up to the glass, facing it this time instead of walking parallel to it. He chose a particular child, one with curly yellow hair and a blue bobbly hat – and studied it with large, doe eyes, blinking a couple of times, showing the child how friendly and tame he was. Without the child even noticing a tensing in his limbs – there was no apparent shift in energy, and his eyes were still unmoving from the girl’s – he leapt against the glass, forelimbs stretching a full four feet above the child’s head which fell into shadow, and his claws were extended, and the child cowered and screamed. His claws scratched noiselessly down the glass and he dropped down to the water, loping slowly away alongside the river as if nothing had happened.
The other children ran away screaming, and the one the tiger had loomed above sat on the step, her face red, shuddering, crying, while her mittens hung fretfully from their strings and her mother comforted her. Eventually the woman swept the girl up, and carried her back towards the tiger, more cautiously this time, and stood at a distance.
I should have anticipated that, the mother thought guiltily. But it was important now to hold the girl in front of the tiger, and hope that she would not dream of him eating her, and be affected for life.
Katya saw this from a distance. She wore a red woolly scarf and a thick, yellow coat with a hood, to enable to her stand still for long periods of time without getting cold. Despite being well into her twenties, in this outfit she looked small and cute; you might be tempted to go up to her and stroke her fluffy hair and her furry jacket. She watched a tall, stooping man wander up to the glass and peer down into the tiger’s den.
Katya walked forward a pace or two. The man had his nose pressed up against the glass, smiling slightly, looking at the tiger who was lurking behind bushes, eyeing the human warily. I shall enjoy watching this, Katya thought, her mouth lifting slightly as it formed the words. The tiger was slowly moving around again… swishing his tail through the water… Katya swallowed as water dripped beneath the tiger, splashing against his shins… his feet thudded through the mud… she did not take her eyes off him for a moment, but watched him beadily, her shoulders tense and alert.
The tiger leapt up against the glass. For a fraction of a second Claude saw him on his hind legs, baring his teeth, his jaws wide and flat and perfect, the incisors yellowish and chiselled, wet fur shaggy around his mouth. His head was an inch or two from the animal’s, his nose not much distance from the other side of the glass. He could see the tiny hairs around the black button of the tiger’s muzzle and thought he could smell the tiger’s breath. It was like being consumed by him, looking into the darkish red cavern of his mouth, the ridges on the roof of the palate, the tongue flicking like a snake’s.
Claude stood his ground. The dull thud of the tiger against the glass made his body tense for a moment, but he did not flinch. A child to his right squealed and ran away with short, stumbling steps. A parent – having stepped back rather rapidly – stood patting her chest, smiling broadly with relief as the tiger dropped away from the glass, its role-play of frightening the onlookers at an end once more. The mother started jabbering away to the child with a fixed toothy smile, in exactly the way that people who are terrified of flying start talking incessantly to the stranger sat next to them the moment the plane has safely landed, after travelling in total silence for the whole journey, hands over a green face.
With a brief teeth-baring growl at Claude, the tiger slouched away. Claude glanced at the long muddy claw marks on the glass, and watched admiringly as the tiger withdrew into greenery.