I looked around as my vision re-focused. My wrists felt relieved in the absence of the shackles that previously contained them. I looked down and remembered the knife. I picked it up slowly, examining the blade. It was sharp.
Suddenly I remembered where I was. I peered around the enclosure; it was a large, makeshift arena lined with large sharpened sticks. Upon closer inspection of my surroundings, I was certain that there was no way out. The dirt that lined the ground was loose, and as wind blew through the ring, dust ascended, stinging my eyes. The soft dirt squished between my toes like sand. As I shut my eyes, I began to dream of a beach with slow waves gently crashing on the smooth surface.
Savage natives surrounded the ring. They were fierce in their appearance. Many of the natives had eagle feathers in their long black hair; their bodies were slathered head to toe in war paint. They had dark beady eyes, and yelled in my direction. They screamed for battle, they cheered for death. As I stood there in my torn clothing with nothing but a knife, they stared at me, the main attraction. After I was captured, a tall man made me a deal; he said if I “passed his test” I could go free. I wasn’t scared I was going to fail; I was scared I was going to die.
My daydream ended with a harsh clank. The door to a rusty cage was opened, revealing a scrawny Bengal tiger. The tiger glared at me from across the cage. I was sure that it was hungry because its ribs were blatantly exposed. It looked as though it hadn’t had a good serving of deer in almost a month. “Such a cruel game,” I thought. “What man has any chance against a tiger?” More importantly, who would believe that someone does?
Suddenly some sort of gong rang throughout the arena and the hairs on my neck became erect. The irony sickened me as I remembered a boxing match I had seen as a kid. “This is just their entertainment,” I thought. “Well, so be it. If it’s a show they want, it’s a show they’re going to get.”
My grip tightened on the small metal hilt. The roar of the natives blurred with the beating of my own heart. As I stared at the beast, an unmatched feeling of terror swept my conscience. My own fear was as detectable as the dirt in my eyes. I tried to maintain focus as the urine ran down my right leg and into the dusty earth below. The tiger snarled as it started to walk towards me. It lifted its heavy paws with each step, presenting its claws for the first time. As frail as it was, I didn’t underestimate it for second. It was probably just as lethal as a healthy tiger, maybe just not as quick. Or so I hoped. As it circled, I mirrored. We began.
The beast gave me a look that I will never forget. Something about the stare disturbed me. Perhaps it was the fact that deep down there wasn’t a human conscience considering sparing me: a complete lack of humanity. Just nothing: nothing but proven instinct and hunger. I tried to formulate a plan as we orbited each other. It was very difficult to focus, I would look away for the slightest instant, and a vicious native’s glance would thrust me back into reality. “Just focus on the tiger” I thought, “just focus on the fucking tiger.” I decided that my best shot would be to wait until the beast strikes and attempt to counter. It slowed to a crawl. Its shoulders remained facing the outer edge of the ring, but its face was glued to me. Our eyes were locked. The look in the creature’s eye still struck me. I felt like I was looking into a statue, but instead of welcoming marble, I stared into eyes not so different from my own. An organ. Life. I thought about how many other animals had been looking at the same tiger before it killed them.
It placed all four paws on the dirt and stopped. I did the same. The crowd was silent. This was refreshing; I could finally hear myself think. My heartbeat was noticeable as I struggled to maintain control of my body. I shook involuntarily. The knife seemed as though it was possessed, randomly jabbing and shaking in my grasp.
Finally it was time. The tiger turned and positioned all of its mass in my direction. Without breaking eye contact, it lowered its back legs, preparing to pounce. I knew my time on earth was about to come to a conclusion. I begged in my head for more time. “An hour, a minute, seconds. Please!”
The tiger took a few bounding steps before leaping high into the air. The population surrounding the ring cheered for the attack. Finally, it was time to see the innocent sacrificial pawn meet his fate. The large arrangement of orange and black fur was above me for what felt like minutes. I stuck to the plan as adrenaline started to control my body. Its claws came down and I sidestepped. In a rush of desperation and rage, I swung my arm into the side of the monster. Its roar was something legendary. Again and again I struck. The natives recoiled with each successive blow. Blood sprayed as I continued, drenching my clothing, the tiger’s fur and the dirt below. The crowd’s enthusiasm quickly vanished, as a sense of disaster swept over them. The tiger continued to roar bloody murder. They howls rang through my eardrums like gunshots. I threw my arm into the stripes one last time and held my fist against the beast. The warm blood rushed over the hilt and down my fingers. The natives began quietly whispering to one another.
As I stepped back I was speechless. I let the weapon drop from my hand, as I drew my palms up to my face. They were covered in the thick blood of a full-grown Bengal tiger. The conquered beast swayed like a tree in a storm. With one last roar of fury, it crashed to the ground. The shockwave of the fall traveled through the ground and ran up my legs and through my body. I felt a chill; the most surreal of feelings overwhelmed me. I shook now of empowered pride instead of fear. I was changed. Adrenaline still intoxicating my senses, I let out a yell rivaling that of my foe. The natives flinched back in fear. I felt powerful. It was now evident that their stupid little show had gone terribly wrong. No one knew what to say, I should be dead. As I approached a side of the arena, the natives standing there retreated in terror. The tables were turned. I was no longer the hostage, the prey. I was the killer; I was the unpredictable danger that had just ruined a historical tradition of sacrifice. The fear surrounding the enclosure was palpable. I thrived off it. My memory was sparked, and I walked back over to where the defeated brute was slowly breathing on the ground. Biding its last moments. I grasped its head with both hands and starred into its eyes. My heart beat ravenously. The tiger’s eyes were different. I saw something that I had never seen in it before.
I saw fear. I saw sorrow. I saw humanity.