The Tigers That Came For Tea

Submitted into Contest #232 in response to: Write a story about someone looking for a sign in a dark sky.... view prompt

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Horror American Contemporary

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

[Contains mystery meat, groping, and violence.]


I often think of the beasts that came to our window.

The day I saw the first beast, I had had been standing at the sink washing dishes. My mind wandered, as was often the case. My main illumination was the bulb over our kitchen window. It flickered with each gust of wind that rattled the glass.

I’d lost count of the days since I last saw the sun—flecked with spots, like roasted chestnuts, sinking behind the mountains. The darkness had settled heavy as damp wool across the valley.

Back then, we still had rolling blackouts. We could charge our phones to play music. We could even listen to news programs from the East Coast. Such a luxury!

The water ran hot over my cold-reddened hands. An astronaut was on NPR describing the veil covering the earth. Half listening, I thought absently of Mai, recalling the scent of her lemon shampoo and the dimple that formed in her cheek when she laughed.

Mai ran off, chasing some foolhardy dream of owning a yogurt shop in Anchorage. She never once looked back, but still lingers like a ghost.

Drying my hands, I glanced at the sky through the window, an expanse of bruised plum merging with the jagged tree line. A flash in the corner of my eye pulled my gaze left—a fleeting movement, there and gone, playing at the edges of visibility like a ghost glimpsed from the corner of my vision. I pressed my palm to the glass and stared hard into the inky darkness. Was it just a trick of the light? Could it be a commotion in the forest by my farm, or the return of astronauts to Earth?

The grandfather clock in the hall struck midnight, or noon, I wasn’t sure. Its heavy bongs echoed through the hollow chambers of the old farmhouse. Since I couldn’t sleep, I put on my boots and jacket and went out into the night.

I took the short path towards the woods, twirling my axe to keep my hands active. The air was so frigid it gripped my lungs, each breath merging with the frigid air in bursts of fog. The snow-crusted road wound behind the house. I followed its bend toward the hill’s crest. There were plenty of felled trees at the top.

The wind bit through gaps in my jacket, needling my skin with frozen pins. I trudged on, the beam of my flashlight cutting a thin swath through the murk—a lone firefly against the void. I had to stop to catch my breath, leaning on a gnarled birch tree. The tree’s bone-white limbs gleamed, coated with ice that glimmered like diamond crust. I slid low into its chilled trunk, curling my arms around legs, inhaling the crisp scent of snow and spruce resin.

In the stillness from the forest’s depths, I heard beasts. Their yipping laughter unfurled, wending through the naked birches like wisps of smoke. A chill moved up my arms to the short hairs on my neck and sent a shiver through my bones that had nothing to do with the cold.

The sound came again, closer, and carried on it, something else, a word, a voice, my name, more laughing. I stood, axe ready.

Long ago, Mai had told me of the boudas—hyenas posing as men. They hunt and talk to each other, laughing in the forests near her parents’ village.

It was a cold and endless night in Charm, as it was in Mai’s home in Ras Dashen, as it was in London, as it was in Osaka.

I crunched through the tall drifts toward the trees, guided by the strange cackles. The ash drifted like moths casting shifting shadows in my light. Pushing into the branches, heavy with dark snow, I heard the crunch of paws on the hard pack. I stood still, back against a yew, its needles brown and dead.

A dark shape emerged, lean and glistening. We stared at each other for a long while, its lantern eyes reflecting my dull yellow light, and mine no doubt mirrored the inky void. A breath plumed from its muscular feline jaws, dissipating between us. Then, with a snuffling huff, it turned and loped soundlessly back into the forest depths.

I crouched, frozen in place for several minutes.

Deep in the marrow of my bones, I felt a perceptible shift taking place, a seed of change planted in the ever-winter.

In the sky, as bright as my memories of stars, something new caught my eye—a stretched light on the horizon, peeking above the mountains. A cracked-smile moon had risen to light my way after so long in darkness. I let out a long breath and watched it frost and dissolve.

My hands ached. I let them relax around the handle and spun the blade again as I stood.

The blanket of ash soon put the moon’s rich light back to bed. I took the first steps down the hill with a renewed sense of urgency. No wood today. Let the creature hunt in silence.

*

I stand at the window, peering into the gloom that has gripped the world for half a year. The sun is now a welcome, reddish glow on most days.

The roof’s groaning woke me; dust has built up again. If it were to rain, or, more likely, the snow melts, it would add another layer of rock. We lost the barn roof to the same hidden danger. It had been damaged, so it served as a useful warning.

…So many tasks to attend.

My thoughts drift as easily as the swirling motes dancing in the lamplight.

I think of Mai’s eyes, black, but hazel-flecked, and how in kinder times they shone in sunlight.

How we miss the sun.

Mai sits by the stove, her skin stretched tight as canvas over her weary bones. I step forward to kiss her cheek three times and say “dinanesh.”

A pot of oatmeal bubbles thick and gray.

“Dinner’s ready,” Mai calls, but her voice sounds far away—through the muffling ash and snow, far beyond the closed door.

I blink and she is gone, yet still the oats steam on.

Elise shuffles in, her form passing through where her mother had been. “You dream again, eh?” she scolds, with painted lips curled into an innocent smile. Her cheekbones cut sharper each morning as our meals become lean.

“Don’t smoke in the house,” I say.

Elise turns for the door.

“Don’t go outside, the boudas.”

“Eh? Inside, outside?”

“I said, don’t go outside.”

She shrugs and walks to the door, puts on her jacket, then stops.

“Just put your head out the window.”

“Eh? It’s too cold.” She slips on my boots. “Yours are warm.”

The tapping returns, claws scratching fine splinters from our thinning door.

She looks through the keyhole. “They’re hungry and stubborn, huh?”

I clutch my rifle numbly and see her smile. She pulls the boot straps tight around her legs. Loose amber curls twist with her energetic movements; the fire lighting her dark features. So much like Mai. Energetic, I can’t hold her tight. Even before her teens, it was impossible to slow her down; she does as she wants.

Elise looks again into the depths. She whispers poetry in a language long forgotten, the words a gift from her mother. Then she cracks open the door, stretching the chain, and puffs out a long breath.

The cigarette filters the dust from Crazy Peak, Granite Peak, Hollowtop, and what was once Bozeman.

“You’re too young to smoke.”

*

I’d lost count of the buckets of ash I’d hauled. Time was adrift in the repetition of work.

My mind rolls through sunny days and luscious warmth. Someday, long ago, I was warm, likely when I was talking a vacation. Warmth has become a foreign thing, like reading about saunas in Scandinavia.

Only books could tether my mind from wandering too far adrift. Though they provided no answers to the questions mulled in the lacunae between sentences—so I read the same paragraphs in tightening circles, grasping for phantoms in the periphery of thought. 

I look at the glow of dawn, just beyond the mountains, and wonder about when the mountains were lifted into the air. What a wonderful sight that must have been.

Boulders the size of Volkswagens landed as far away as Lincoln. The news from west of us stopped soon after. I felt a slight tremor about six minutes after the eruption. Sometime later, a gale rattled the windows and toppled a tree onto the barn.

The tree had grown, spread its seed, then frailty took over. Then, all it took was a super volcano near Yellowstone and poof—dead tree.

Hunters materialize from the orange-tinged murk, their voices muted. They sound eager, two new guys and the old fella who ran the gas station some years back. He was pulling a sled.

He only shows up when he has excess game to trade. Three snowstorms had passed since the last visit.

The older man coughs from the cement in his lungs.

We’ll all be the same soon, I think.

“Got enough left to fill your bellies,” croaks the leader, baring his broken teeth. He barely stifles another coughing fit. The two new guys drop a fresh kill, something large as a wolf, lean, white bellied. The leader flourishes his arms like a magician at the child’s sled he’s pulling, covered in satchels.

We exchange a few initial words, voices muted under the weight of the soupy ether hanging over us.

Inside, they crowd greedily around the meager fire, hands extend to the flames as if attempting to grasp some hidden warmth from the logs.

They pull mysterious bundles from their satchels, each swaddled in cloth. All stained the rusty hue of dried blood, reeking of iron tang and secrets best kept unknown. Cuts of flesh, some furred, others disturbingly hairless and pink.

The leader’s eyes glint, mouth a tight grin. Small, ashen puddles have formed around their boots. “Meat’s still scarce,” the old leader says. “We could trade these cuts for fresher stock if you have any animals left in your barn.”

Something in his hoarse timbre hints at hungers beyond butcher’s needs as the bartering starts.

“No livestock,” I say. “We have oats, some corn feed for my long-gone guineafowl.” I point to a bag of feed by the door. “The last can of peaches had gone a week ago now; our supplies went quick.”

Elise packs two shopping bags with the pink meat. Her hands tremble enough to make the plastic crinkle.

I notice the leader scratch his head and look towards our kitchen. It hits me—I didn’t mention the peaches on his earlier visits.

“Two packs and three cigs,” the hollow-eyed one says. He was new to the hunt. Also, he’s been leering at Elise the whole time. She took a step back from the hunters.

“Three packs, and any tinned fruit ya’ got,” says the leader.

Elise’s voice shook almost as much as her hands. “That’s too much, huh? I have a spare phone cable and a charged power bank?” She puts the meat on the floor, ready to get the cable and charger.

The lead hunter grunts.

She just confirmed we still had canned fruit, probably didn’t realize.

If stripped down to basic survival, what really matters—loved ones, acts of kindness, living each day to the fullest? And in this case, cigarettes as currency. What mattered before no longer does.

I look past the hunters to the ruddy sky, hoping the leader would stick to a simple barter. Sweat runs down my jaw.

As we carry on, and age like that fallen tree, the mind wanders down long avenues. It gets harder to sort reality from dreams. All that remains is praying the morning light might lift this veil and lead one home.

The ash had been dark as tar. It took a week to spin its dark band around the northern hemisphere. I remember waiting for it. I had sat drowsing over a children’s book, scarcely able to focus. Outside, tendrils curled against the glass, fogging the landscape beyond. The sky went pink, then red, then the new dark rolled in. The only dark for months.

We knew to expect it. Shops were emptied, people trampled. The government leaders disappeared into some mountain bolt hole with their families.

That was long ago. Time had no grip here. Days bled seamlessly, each hour melting into the next.

The older man scratches his crotch, then sniffs his finger. “Cigarettes or somefin’ better than bird-feed.”

My skin tingles under spectral fingertips, tracing memories of doors left unlocked in kindness. A naïve trust. Dread trickles down my breastbone in beads of oily sweat.

I could no longer meet their eyes, seeing in their glare things best unsaid.

Mai told me, long ago, a hyena tried to get the other animals to kill Adam and Eve. But a dog warned the humans of the plot, so they escaped from the garden.

Later, hyenas took to tricks. They became not just a threat, but a lowly, vile one. Families turned on each other as the hyena-men told lies. Old friends now believed the other hid a den of boudas in their home.

I imagine the hunters laughing on the forest edge, calling my name, eyes flickering in the night, hunting Elise.

The hollow-eyed one grabs her. “There are other ways to pay, ma’am” His grubby, blood-flecked hands leave a smear on Elsie’s chest as she pulls away.

She freezes, then glances at my rifle.

Eyes darting, the hunters circle with a lupine hunger that waters my mouth with dread.

The hollow-eyed man spins and kicks my rifle towards the third hunter. An ugly runt of a man.

Elise chirps in fright.

I freeze, then raise my hands.

Funny what one thinks about while people are ransacking your tinned food and groping your daughter.

I thought Mai would know what to do. She was the practical one.

I was out of place—a semi-intellectual on a ruined farm in the endless winter. My only job before this was as a museum tour guide—where I first met Mai. One thing led to another, and we had a child on a bird farm in Ohio.

Those days, I’d follow her anywhere. Most of our choices were simply an odd mix of culture shock, misunderstandings, and alchemical passion—on a budget.

But what would she do?

All I could think about was how in the early days, she would ask, “How does such-and-such invention work?” The attention was addictive. I bled information, commentary, and half-remembered stories. When I ran dry, she told me about her parents’ small village where the houses melt into the countryside.

The leader found our store of canned meat and let out a whistle. “I’d ‘ave traded them bags for half these.”

My skin went cold.

I couldn’t watch what hollow-eyes was doing. Elise’s muffled screams scare me more than the gun. My head was still spinning, looking for something to say, some action to do, but instead my mind flitted. The short one lowers the rifle to watch hollow-eyes.

I take a step.

The blow crunches against my skull like thunder, sparks scattering across my vision, pain a crimson bloom.

I fell.

Weightless…

I’d often looked up to the starless sky, wondering if the Astronauts had bothered to return to this newly dark planet. Are they, now, looking up, expecting stars?

My nose hits the ground with a crunch.

I think the astronauts would return to the poisoned water and black sky of home. Why suffer death from starvation when you could simply hop in the return vehicle, and with a flash—you’re on the way to land?

My head rolls to face the fire.

The atmosphere would have scorched the ablative shields. Sacrificial shields, made to burn—like us. We live in impermanence, even in the most stable conditions.

It’s amazing how worlds can end, or transform rapidly, with the safeguards of the past erased. Life is about adjusting perspective on what endures through change. How long had we been marooned here, slowly sweeping, disposing, and breathing Bozeman, Montana?

Maybe we are the astronauts, spinning at incredible speeds, unable to study the stars, seeing only the flickers from the shield below us flame away through small panels of thick glass.

And what phantoms—faceless, formless—drift also, surfing the burning tide that swallowed states whole? Only the ash knows.

Would looking at the stars still offer escape, hope, or answer to basic questions about life’s mysteries?

I want to live long enough to see the stars return.

The scratching at the window peeled me away from my dream, an intrusion cracking through the murk.

Elise’s phone screamed to life with the backlog of emergency messages. The old hunter drops it on the table.

The scratching continued, urgent.

Groggily, I step to the window, half expecting more hooded figures. But something uncanny and cat-like was peering through the mire-streaked windowpane. Two figures outside the window, their outlines blurred and molting at the edges like unstable dreams.

The tigers have come for tea.

I opened the window and let them in.

The hyenas no longer laugh in the dark.


January 11, 2024 12:01

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4 comments

Angela M
06:35 Jan 18, 2024

I’m blown away by the world-building in this story. There’s something so grim and haunting about the way you describe sounds and feelings. It all comes together beautifully. “Life is about adjusting perspective on what endures through change” is going to keep me up at night thinking.

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J. I. MumfoRD
07:05 Jan 18, 2024

Thanks, I was paraphrasing a therapy session for that line. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

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Mary Bendickson
05:15 Jan 12, 2024

Graphic scenes.

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J. I. MumfoRD
09:12 Jan 12, 2024

I did my best to exercise restraint in what is explicitly shown vs. what is implied or left to the reader's imagination. Fun fact - originally the tigers were Yeti and this story was set in the aftermath of the moon shattering when hit by a potentially earth-killing meteor…hence the “cracked-smile moon”.

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