They walk a safe distance apart, the woman who will become a tiger and the lover she will devour, a distance that to outward eyes appears wholly lacking in suspicion.
She often feels a strange unease when walking through a city park, those patches of manicured green set among the gallant, tiered facades of Georgian houses, white as wedding cakes, slices of wild country rendered palatable—and yet here she is, being led by him past couples whose heedless affection tolls out an implicit judgement on their forbidden one, to some secret bower, away from prying eyes, where words like cheater and adulteress will not clamour, where their hunger for each other can be sated in silence.
He guides her to a shaded corner, where a red brick wall separates them from the street. Beyond it, she hears cars going by, chatter, the melancholic progression of Greensleeves—an old love song composed by the murderous Henry for his Anne Boleyn—emanating from an ice cream van.
On the brickwork, the branches of a horse chestnut cast long shadows, and down its trunk, on this hidden side, runs a scar. Lightning-strike, he says, and then taking her hand, he slips through the scar slick as an eel, drawing her with him into another world.
She emerges into paradise: afternoon sunlight flickers through branches laden with fruit; at her feet, wildflowers form a tapestry on the forest floor; a doe drinks from a crystal stream; there are no people.
Soon, they are fucking like rabbits in Eden's arbours, committing their love unseen.
This must be the last time, she tells herself after—a conviction that lasts to the butt of her post-coital cigarette.
If only there weren't so many complications, she thinks, nuzzling her nose into his neck, if only there were no others to hurt.
She cannot even bring herself to think their names, as if unnaming them will negate her betrayal of them, as if it will make their as yet undiscovered wounds disappear.
As if sensing her unease, he untwines himself from her and says he will be right back, that he's going to get some ice cream from the van they heard outside the park, in a different universe entirely.
She lies in the soft grass for a time, alone, wishing that she could stay alone forever, for who could she hurt, who betray, if she were marooned in this garden, away from the web of all that entangled humanity. Of what concern are morality and empathy to a castaway, after all?
But before too long, she begins to miss him, wonders where he has got to, wonders with increasing urgency as twilight trickles into the garden and the moon rises like an ivory tower behind the trees. She searches for the scarred tree, but the memory of its location has vanished along with him, and the darkling forest is vast.
When the sun rises, she admits to herself that he is not coming back. She imagines him lying in a hospital bed, comatose, or cold on a slab, struck by summer lightning. Eventually she accepts that to cover their crime, he must have betrayed her, too—left her to rot in paradise, confined their adventure in evil to fantasy and dream.
She thinks of resuming her search for the tree, but perhaps exile is a fate she deserves. Perhaps this is justice.
In the garden, the sun rises and sets countless times. Soon, all thoughts fade, leaving only the sweetness of fruit plucked and eaten from trees; she traps small beasts with twine from her fraying clothes and cooks them over a fire lit with her dwindling Zippo.
She sinks into the simplicity of the place, into its moral vacuum.
As the years fall away, she hunkers down on all fours and hunts rabbits and lambs, devouring them raw and bloody. Hair sprouts on her shoulders and limbs, rust red and umbra black, casting the human in her into eclipse. She begins to forget that she was ever sapient, and all those apish concerns seem to her a strange dream, which grows less vivid the longer her claws and fangs grow. She begins to believe that he and everyone else were simply a reverie she had while sleeping off a satisfying meal.
When the man returns, the tiger is crouched in the long grass, sun dappling its fur. He is holding two cones topped with white, sweet-smelling cream and repeating the same set of syllables over and over again to the empty grove.
He looks like he expects to find someone waiting for him, someone he left only a few moments ago—strange, when the only other heart that beats in the grove belongs to the tiger, who lies there all but invisible, still and silent as death.
A feeling, like hunger but hotter, darker, worries the tiger's guts, but it pushes it down, deep, for the man is moving to and fro and it must focus on the movement.
He calls again, and the last moment before the tiger sinks its teeth into him, he sees it, eyes amber and flashing, leaping from the long grass.
Soon, alone once more, the tiger lovingly cleans the bones with its coarse tongue.