Tiger Day

Klaus Papula
 
Tiger Day
When Mother goes away on Fridays, she dresses up as a tiger. She puts on a small cap with pointed ears, long black gloves and a tight white costume with black stripes. She also has a tail, but she usually leaves it at home. Her lips are painted white. Over her legs she pulls black net stockings, and she wears black shoes with very high, pointed heels.
“Sleep well, my darling,” she says and hints a kiss on my cheeks; then she leaves. Tomorrow morning she will be back to make me a butter bread.
When mother goes away in the evening, Uncle Theo looks after me. He brushes my teeth, puts me to bed and reads me a story before turning off the light. He is a clever man and I can ask him many questions about words which I have picked up but do not understand, words like bankruptcy or bailiffs or turning a trick. A bailiff, for example, is a man who in court always eats up everything on his plate, “...just as you should do”, says Uncle Theo. Uncle Theo lives in the apartment below us. My mother used to leave the apartment only when I was asleep. Now I go to sleep after she leaves the apartment. That is what we agreed.
“I don't want you to go. I'll be unhappy if you leave.”
“We've lost everything and we need the money,” mother had said. “Tomorrow we'll have the whole day to ourselves.”
Since then, Friday night is Tiger Night. Every week. Friday she is a tiger, and I go to bed late. We negotiate these things.
“Everything is a business,” Mother says. “Even happiness.”

Once, in the morning after Tiger Night, mother sat next to me in the kitchen and drank black coffee. Her lips were still white. The tiger's ears were cast off, the gloves were lying on the floor in the anteroom.
“Mum, it's carnival this afternoon,” I said.
The priest will give a speech, I thought. The teachers will serve drinks. The mayor will distribute doughnut-like Krapfen, a carnival treat.
“Do you want to go as an Indian again?” Mother asked and smeared my butter bread, “or as Superman?”
“Today I go as a tiger,” I said.
“No, not as a tiger,” my mother said determinedly and threw the knife into the sink. “Eat your butter bread!”
I never even touched the butter bread.
“That was your tiger night. Now comes my Tiger Day. Everything's a business,” I said.
Mother lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. The tip of the cigarette glowed red. She rolled the tip of her cigarette on the ashtray, forming a black cone.
“It's a dangerous world, the tiger world. Crocodiles. Pythons. Men with guns. The jungle is like a ghost train.”
“Never mind,” I said and thought that I must not forget to ask Uncle Theo what a python is.
Mother put the cigarette out in the ashtray and said, “I'm going to lie down, Tiger. We'll buy you whatever you need later.”

Mother slept until one. Then we went to the store for the costume. The salesman put a fuzzy brown and white striped sack with a tiger's snout over my head.
“A tiger is not a cuddly toy,” I said and took the costume off.
“Haven't you anything else?” Mother asked the salesman. He went into one of the back rooms, came back with a bear costume, then with a costume for a pink panther.
“This is no way to do business," said Mother, and took me by the hand.
At home she took a pair of white pyjamas out of my dresser. She got up on an armchair, got her box of threads and needles from the wardrobe.
“Bring me the scissors from the kitchen,” she said.
Then she cut a black shirt and sewed the black stripes onto the pyjamas.
“Aren't tigers yellow with black stripes?” I asked.
“It is winter. You are a Siberian snow tiger,” she said and put the pyjamas on me.
“Siberian snow tigers are white with black stripes. They are the most dangerous tigers of all. They are man-eaters.”
Then she painted my face, lips white, eyes black. Mother smelled very nice as she bent over me. I stuck vampire fangs I had worn for Halloween into my mouth and hissed. Mother happily lit a cigarette.
I disappeared into the bedroom and came back with my mother's tiger costume.
“Should I wear it?” Mother laughed.
“Please, Mama, we're snow tigers. We're man-eaters.”
She hissed and white cigarette smoke came out of her mouth like hot tiger breath on a moonlit Siberian winter night.


When we entered the parish hall, it was already getting lively. Garlands and lanterns hung from the ceiling. The music band was playing a flourish, and the priest, dressed as a convict with a ball and chain on his leg, gave a speech on the grandstand. Next to him stood the mayor as a chicken. From his nose hung a mustard yellow beak. In his chicken claws he held the box with the Krapfen doughnuts. The teachers went as Smurfs this year. The white caps hung limp and sad from their heads.
I reached for my mother's hand. In the middle of the hall there was a passage between the chairs, and here we went forward. Mother was wearing her tiger costume with the fishnet stockings, the black, very long gloves, the cap with the pointed ears, the shoes with the heels. From her bottom her tiger's tail hung down, snaking up to her gloves; the end of the tail circled loosely around her wrist like a lasso. I looked up at her. She was a magnificent tiger. She was a real man-eater. I led Mother to the front row, where there were two seats in the middle.
“Mama, this jungle's better than ghost train,” I said enthusiastically.
The priest jerked at his chain and the ball rolled around at his feet. The Smurfs put their hats together and whispered. The chicken wagged its beak, then grabbed the microphone and said, “All right, let's hand out the krapfen.”
“Get your krapfen, Tiger!” said mother and gave me a push forward. I jumped in front of the mayor-chicken and reached into the box.
“Only one each!” hissed the chicken.
I bit the chicken's claws with my vampire teeth, grabbed two doughnuts and hissed, “For Mother too!”
When mum put me to sleep that night, I was allowed to keep my tiger costume on. She stroked my cheeks with her fingers and told me a fairy tale that I cannot remember. What I remember is the tenderness of her hands and the serious sound of her voice when she asked me: “Are you happy today?”
“Very happy,” I said and pressed myself firmly against her, and she said, “Then everything is all right.”

Translation by Shan Wardell
 
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