“Caged” is an excerpt from the novel in progress, The Tower Card, set in rural Indiana. Here, Eli is searching for a tiger that was set loose from the feline rescue center he runs with his wife PJ. Daniel is his best friend, who committed suicide some fifteen years earlier.
Eli didn’t hunt anymore, so it took him a while to clean Daniel’s Winchester, holding the flashlight in his mouth while he worked. He pushed out the drift pin and tugged at the bolt, working out the crud that had built up with a drop of oil and later alcohol. He then found the box of shells he had stashed in the shed with the mower. PJ didn’t like guns, or hunting, and Eli didn’t have anyone he liked to go with anyway, with Daniel gone, so he had given it up. Why he kept Daniel’s gun, hidden in the shed, he wasn’t sure. Maybe because it was the last thing Danny had held in his hands. Maybe he thought he’d need it someday, like today. Maybe he needed a reminder of that day. Maybe you’re just a sick fuck, he thought to himself. How Honey had found it he wasn’t sure, but it made him shiver.
He figured he’d have until about eight before the sheriffs left the fire roads that surrounded the county fair grounds and decided to head to the dense, deer-filled forests in the hills above Story. Tao was the biggest of their seven cats, a full grown tiger with a broad flat face and huge paws, her orange stripes contrasting so much with the variant green of the forest that Eli knew it wouldn’t take long to find her. Tao was also the gentlest and most passive of their rescues; she had spent most of her life in a small cage of a traveling tinker’s circus. While Eli thought Tao was too lazy to do any more damage than get into the trash, he felt the need for a gun. Reckless he knew; Hanna might have recognized the gun.
Eli knew that any mistake at this early stage in the feline rescue and they would be done, it would be over. At least he could save Tao. He knew a collective of PETA folks who ran a refuge outside of Dayton. He could take Tao there, if he could find them.
It was just after three, and the moon, full and low, threw shadows like bottomless crevasses where the forest particulars disappeared. Eli considered what he could use for bait–one of the miniature goats, maybe, or a couple of PJ’s chickens. He decided on the chickens, and drove the truck, sitting heavy with the steel cage in its bed, out past the back of their house, to the coop made of salvaged wood. Eli quickly unlatched the chicken wire door, grabbed in turn each of the chickens by their feet, and dropped them into a burlap bag. They flapped and squawked in complaint, and he held them out away from his body so they couldn’t peck at him. Eli wasn’t worried about waking PJ; the chickens went wild every time the wind shifted and they could smell the cats; sometimes they were so upset they wouldn’t lay for days. He didn’t know why PJ kept them–they didn’t eat meat, had to give away most of their eggs–but she just said she liked them; they made her feel like she was at home.
Chickens squawking would often get Tao roaring and pacing with hunger. Still, just in case, and considering the tiger’s general laziness, Eli tossed a case of newly thawed meat into the back alongside the birds. He then drove the half-mile down their road to the back entrance of the state park, which had the few hills in their part of the state, and where Eli assumed Tao would go; the winds blowing down from those hills had the persistent scent of the herd of deer that bedded down there at night.
Eli drove his truck to an isolated picnic area that was the nearest he knew to a deer trail, and parked his truck in the trees so it couldn’t be seen from the road. He then set out the chickens, tied with twine to a stake so they walked and squawked at such unfamiliar treatment, and using a winch operated jib he had welded to his truck, set the cage down a couple of yards from them, a pile of raw meat in the back, doctored with the liquid tranquilizers he had pocketed before leaving the house. Then he sat in the truck bed, leaning back against the tailgate, his rifle cradled across his good leg. With his free hand he massaged the place where his stump met the prosthetic, considered a cigarette, then decided against it; he wasn’t sure if the familiar human smell of tobacco would draw or scare Tao away. He could just make out the forest around him in the moonlight; nearby, an owl hooted, no doubt also drawn by the chickens, who became even more frantic. Eli listened hard for the movements of the thousand pound tiger slinking through the brush; sweat dripping off his brow and down his back from the exertion of setting the cage and the dense humidity of the summer night. An animal ran past, too small to possibly be Tao: a fox or coyote. A barely perceivable breeze blew across Eli’s face and lifted slightly the ends of his long graying hair, pasted to his forehead with sweat. In the distance, a chorus of peepers rose from a creek bed. Exhausted, Eli drifted into sleep.
He dreamt he was back in Baghdad, and it was a stifling hot night much like this one. Eli was leaning against a Hummer, waiting at a checkpoint with his crew as he did hundreds of nights overseas. It was dark from a blackout and there was still a curfew; stars poured out like milk across the desert sky. It was a dream he often had. A car, a beat up sedan, was charging towards him. Eli yelled at them to Stop! Stop! but they didn’t. He couldn’t breathe through his helmet. His bulletproof vest was heavy on him; it was as if he were in a dive suit, deep under water, and he could feel the pressure of the depths on his chest and weight on his body. Then, he and his crew, they were all shooting at the family in the car. Eli knew it was a mistake. The father called to Eli in a language he could not understand except in his dreams, explaining how he was taking his pregnant wife to the hospital. The whole street began to fill with women and children who kept coming out of the car as if it were some kind of clown circus trick. In the end they were all dead: the family, and the women and children in the street. Eli knew what was coming for him next: the blast that tore off his leg and blinded one eye.
Eli woke suddenly, feeling Tao’s breath on his face. The tiger’s paws were on the bumper of the truck, and she was inches from Eli, sniffing at his ear; he could feel the big cat’s whiskers. Eli gripped the gun more tightly, knowing he would rather put a bullet in himself than Tao, but otherwise didn’t move. The chickens were gone–reduced to a mass of feathers on the ground around them. Tao got down from the truck and took a turn around the cage, lifting her nose in the air, sniffing. In the distance, a band of red light bled through the trees and a crowing rooster could be heard over the early morning twitter of songbirds. Both Eli and Tao turned their heads to the west when the cats from the rescue center began to roar. Tao roared back in answer, and after one more turn around the cage, went inside and began to feed on the meat. Before she had consumed it all, she began to sway, her great head dipping. Once she lay down she fell asleep. Eli waited another ten minutes to make sure the tiger was fully out, then climbing on top of the cage, released the catch to close the door with a heavy clang. Backing up the truck, he raised the cage up and placed it into his truck, secured it with chains, and slowly made his way back to the rescue center. PJ, he thought, will not be happy when she finds out about the chickens.
genevieve manset lives in Honolulu, where she writes and rides her bike as much as possible. She has an MFA from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and her poetry has appeared in Not Enough Night, Night Bomb Review, and Quiddity. “Caged” is an excerpt from her recently completed novel.