It’s high summer and the grass hisses where the tigress treads,
her pads soundless on the tinder track.
Her flanks sway, the cubs cool in their amniotic sacs.
She is a walking fire
her glance a flare
that singes my lashes.
I seem to be watching her through a veil of snow or ash –
the sky as I know it falling falling
and when her face comes into focus
it’s like the membrane between us tears.
She brushes against the jeep as she saunters past
on the long patrol of her realm,
her fur dripping after a soak in the stream.
Can you see me, Gran? I ask, I’m as close
to a tiger as you once were, but I won’t touch.
A baby wouldn’t alarm her, but I would.
You’re sitting opposite, saying, It was like staring at a frozen sun.
Your eyes grow coal-black
as you think of the day you were left alone in a tent.
I’m staring at the fire in your living room, anthracite
glowing with forests of our Coal Age,
flickers of fern horsetail clubmoss
embers spitting onto the mat
like sabre tooths springing from a cave –
that split second when we startle
and everyone is still alive
even my first cat
not yet given stripes by the combine harvester
as he lay curled in corn.
I’d walk over hot coals to get back to you, just to ask
one more question about your tiger.
But you were only a baby
and probably you only remembered remembering
not the thing itself.
Just as now, I’m only half-
remembering the ghost of your fire
where we sit like two Ice Age queens
worshipping the heat
while underneath us the compressed beds of trees
buckle under mountain-building.
The tigress has passed by now, and is ahead on the path,
rolling over the sand, belly-up, revelling in her power.
Already she’s spawned three sets of cubs
and they’ve forged their own empires.
When she leaps onto a stag
the whole world slows
to hear the grass speak from inside the deer.
to listen to what trees have to say
with the mouths of storms through their leaves.
When I’ve firewalked through the dawn of your death
my feet scorched
on the cinder path to your house,
when I’ve opened the gate of your garden –
like opening the gate to Tala Zone
where wildlife is almost safe –
I will land in your armchair in the deepest cave.
And then Gran we will talk again
about the forests that once reigned on earth
the mysteries of beasts who passed through them,
the flames of their spirits surging under fur,
not one spark escaping.
How even their roars
are relics of when the great woods blazed.
How it was we
who discovered fire and with our knowledge
lit the fuse.
PASCALE PETIT’s eighth collection, Tiger Girl (Bloodaxe Books, 2020), is shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best Collection, and a poem from the book won the 2020 Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize. Her previous collection, Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe Books, 2017), won the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2018.