The Devoured Man (part one)

Don't feed the tigers – A short story by Josh Stenberg


My editor signed off on the tiger story right away. “Yes, yes and yes again. Finally, you’re getting the hang of it. Endangered species, big scary-slash-noble cat, conservation, Chinese corruption—all of these are humdingers. Go for it. Way better than the poor-factory-conditions stuff you’re always trying to pull. Be sure to get a picture of a tiger roaring or something. Smiling tourists, taunting a cub or whatever. You know what works; you know what the public likes, ergo you know what I like. Things red in tooth and claw.”

I had proposed the topic after reading about the tiger park in a Chinese newspaper fluff piece, and now I searched the Internet to see what was current on the subject in the Anglo press. The Times had recently run an ambivalent piece on WWF efforts near Vladivostok. Another article a year earlier in the Post about a dubious sighting of the South Chinese tiger, previously thought extinct; it turned out later a Chinese farmer had cut-and-pasted from a New Year’s calendar. There was a Canadian article about the possibility of large cats surviving in Korea’s demilitarized zone. And so on; it seemed editors around the world were hot for tigers. They informed the reader that things looked up, and that things looked disastrous. There can only be two stories about an endangered species: animal-saved and animal-doomed. In quantitative analysis, these approaches tend to come out just about even. 

I had just finished another job, on the touristic pilfering of bricks from the Great Wall, and so it was with a sense of long-suffering diligence that I hopped the overnight train to Harbin. I arrived bleary with sleep and experienced the special fatigue of arriving at a station that looks exactly like the one you set out from twelve hours before, as though trains were simply some elaborate form of stage-set legerdemain. 

Exiting the station, due to the law of sudden ubiquity of the research subject, some faked tiger claws were being sold curbside by Tibetans. I started chatting with them, picking up and revolving their wares, and finally one of them asked me if I wanted a tiger head, and I said yes, please, and could I have it with spinach? Then the police materialised and they all had to bundle their things and vamoose before I could see the effect of my pleasantry. Fake tiger claws at the station. Tibetans—it was a nice touch. Tibet sells papers also. Police harassment. Everything was so promising, so oppressively promising, that day.

I checked in at the hotel, then hired a cab out to the Harbin Tiger Park. Within ninety seconds of my arrival, I saw that my story was going to be a contribution to the animal-doomed subgenre. The whole establishment had a rusted, underfunded look, like an institute of traditional theatre or an unfavoured Children’s Palace. There were only a few forlorn people wandering the attached museum exhibit, clustered mostly about the mural of buxom prehistorics fleeing sabre-toothed attack. 

In the centre of the room was the second-most exciting display: a big tank of rice wine with a tiger skeleton in it, a careful plaque explaining beneath that this particular tiger had expired of natural causes. It was a strange space: a ghoulish aquatic feline, a drunken mass of catbone. Of course, the “tiger wine” thus produced was available at the gift store, for extortionist prices.  

A scruffy white man spotted me, my foreignness, as I hovered around the tank, snapping pictures.

“Good camera,” he said, approaching me. “Canon! Like this!” he said and put up his thumb.

“Thank you.” 

“You are Japan? Japan, yes? China—like this!” He said, and put his thumb down.  “Tiger park! Like that!” and down came the thumb again. 

“Not Japan. Amerika. You don’t like the Tiger Park? Why not?” 

“I am professor at Tikhookeansky Institut Geografii. I am tigr expert. This— not tigr.” 

“The skeleton isn’t?” 

“Yes, skeleton yes is tigr. Vot—Alkogol in—” He tapped on the tank. “Alkogol, no tigr. Here I buy butelka tigr alkogol, I bring in Vladivostok, analiza, laboratoriya. Everything top. Top laboratoriya. Resultat of labatoriya: alkogol not with tigr, alkogol with dog. With dog they alkogol! Chineses! Hello—I am Vitaly.”

A little disconcerted by the blustering vital man, I absented myself at the first opportunity and waited outside for the bus which would take us through the tiger enclosure, wondering what accounted for this place. Someone had either needed an excuse for misallocating funds, or else had calamitously overestimated the enthusiasm of the populace for a zoo comprised exclusively of tigers. Bread and circuses, yes, but surely even then you have to vary your felines. 

I wondered how it felt to live in the facing apartment complex. Did it do something to your psychology, to have to live in view of tigers, as they prowled and dozed and connived and slavered for better meat? Of course, these were mostly bred-in-captivity specimens. Perhaps they were less threatening—but could the subconscious make such a distinction? Did the children of Harbin not shriek nightly from dreams of macerating jowls? Is it true that one gets used to everything? Or do the tigers just get absorbed into your tortured subconscious?  

Vitaly forced me to sit next to him on the visitors’ bus, which now began to roll through the gate and among the tigers, and he said, “Tigr park tigr like so:” and then he mooed like a cow.

“Like cows? The tigers are like cows?”

 “Yes tigr park tigr like mooo. Eat eat eat. No run. No snow. No concurrensiya. Forest tigr, tigr. Park tigr, no tigr.”

“Oh?” I said, tuning him out, taking pictures of the languishing beasts. It was true that they made no impression of great rapacity. 

“President China universitet go in our Tikhookeansky Institut Geografii.  He say to me: china now—no tigr. Very bad. Ten year: china many many tigr. OK. Good. But how tigr eat? Russia tigr, he eat” (here he made antlers above his head, and I said, “deer?” Then Vitaly grunted and I said, pig?) “Yes! Russia tigr, he eat [antlers] and kaban—you understand—svinya! China tigr, no [antlers], no svinya!  What China tigr eat? China tigr he eat Chineses?” He laughed hysterically, and several of the other visitors and even a passing tiger looked at us in disconcertment. But Vitaly was impervious to their stares, and went on merrily, “China tigr he eat Chineses? OK. Everyone same everyone. Chinese, he as well eat tigr. Tigr farmakalogia! Tigr energiya! Tigr [here a gesture meaning, unmistakably, genitalia]! Many many moo-tigr Chinese he eat. And tigr eat Chineses too. OK. Moooooo!” he called out to the tigers through the window, who looked at him in what might have been dismay, and might have been just unambitious hunger.  Vitaly’s speech recalled to me that I had seen it suggested online that, despite the earnest explanations of the guide, this was not so much a tiger rehabilitation centre as a tiger-parts farm. Eight hundred tigers were advertised, but the broadest possible accounting could not have reckoned more than a few hundred of them as we trundled through various tiger enclosures, watching them lick and yawn at each other. Perhaps the remaining amount of moo-tigers had indeed gone to enrich the pharmacopeia. 

When our vehicle approached, some of the tigers livened up briefly, and a few of them trotted, like dogs, behind us. I supposed this was because we might be moo(o?)ted to bear good things, that we represented food, even when we weren’t incarnating it, though I am not at all certain this distinction is clear in the tigrine mind. But we sped on past those unfortunates, and they turned away and forgot us, whining and bickering, and presently our bus entered the biggest of the enclosures. 

“This is where our largest tigers live,” said the guide, with a hushed voice implying sanctity. “Also the most vicious.”

We stopped square in the middle, and I shot several reasonable photos of tigers prowling. The tigers were obviously Pavlovically stimulated by our halt, and the enclosure was filled with a distinct air of feline expectation. One tiger rubbed herself against the bus, the way a housecat does against her owner’s legs at feeding time. The guide began, perhaps a little nervously, to descant tiger trivia; like most tourist employees in China she spoke with the rapid and dutiful misery of a schoolchild compelled to memorise a poem. Presently she went on to evoke the woes of the tiger park finances, informed us with technical piteousness that the park budget was too low to feed the tigers all the meat to which they were entitled by their physiology, and that the welfare of the valiant fur-bearing inhabitants could be supplemented by our generous selves. With the debased grin of a puzzle-board presenter, she pointed to a list printed on a sign hanging at the front of the bus, which began modestly enough with hazelhens (20 yuan), chickens (35 yuan) and gradually whipped itself up to goats (600 yuan), and cows (no price was given; perhaps it was seasonal). 

The girl in the seat over the aisle from us, young and dressed in a style not suggestive of the hymeneal state, started negotiating in low tones with the older man at her side. He spoke skulkingly, as if in fear of someone’s discovery, as if the tiger park guide might be secretly in the employ of his wife.   

After a few moments, a young man sitting in the back of the bus, whose spiked hair jarred with his formal clothing and suggested a hoodlum spruced up for a court appearance, called the guide over with a rough shout and handed her without further comment the fee for the death of a hazelhen. She radioed the information to the hazelhen control centre, and presently a car drove up which drew the fickle attention of the tigers away from our bus. A worker opened the car door with lightning speed and produced, with a flutter, the miserable fowl. I expect few hazelhens in the history of hazelhenkind have known the concentrated terror of the Tiger Park hazelhens. As the car drove away, several tigers pounced on the feathering fluttering mass, but the alphamost of the alpha males shouldered the others off and batted away the bird to somewhere more private before cracking its head open not unlike a sunflower seed. 

My bus fellows applauded, but Vitaly tapped his head. “Tigr normalno no eat ryabchik-bird. Tigr who eat bird, no happy tigr. Tigr, sick tigr.”

Meanwhile, the guide remarked to us how the tiger was so clever as to peel the bird inside out and spit out the feathers. Another chorus of admiration. Unfortunately, the killing had happened too quickly and at too disadvantageous an angle for my photos to have been very good. I cursed my reflexes and bad fortune.  

Buy something, Piggy” the flashy girl across the aisle, now said, more loudly, wheedling her demurring companion with pouts and smiles. “Don’t be so stingy—since we came all the way here, we might as well. Right, Piggy?” She was answered in an inaudible grumble, but she persevered: “Eight hours on the train! Eight hours to come be with you in stinky Harbin! To this dogshit tiger park, Piggy. You could at least—” 

The rest of us looked out the window, over this shrill berating, at the ominous confederacy of tigers, pretending the girl’s designs were no concern of ours, as if we had no hopes or intentions of free-riding on the petulant-erotic command this girl exercised over her autumnal paramour. I took comfort in the fact that I could not be indicted by any imaginary and impartial judge. I excused myself. I was here professionally. I was merely documenting. I was not a participant. Besides, I didn’t have the budget to spring for a mammal to be devoured for our viewing pleasure. Vitaly at my side lit a cigarette which the guide swooped down and unceremoniously chucked through the window, where it bounced off an insouciant tiger. Vitaly growled Russian imprecations at the guide, and she pointed imperiously to a no-smoking sign. It wouldn’t have happened if an American or a Frenchman had lit up. I resolved to write an article sometime about how for Chinese people Russians aren’t white like white people are white. 

Again it was the boy with the spiky hair who motioned the guide over, and again he purchased the devouring of a hazelhen. The second time it was rather dull to the rest of us, our awe and horror muted by repetition, but the boy was rapt, sat glued to the window, palms flat on the pane at either side of his head, like a young child, watching with fascination the clever dismemberment. 

Vitaly tapped his head and said, “Tock, tock.” 

Then the flashy girl again began to importunate her lover, whispering urgently, now falling back into inaudible teases and murmurs. I had to look away—I didn’t really want to see her press his inner thigh so urgently, though all the occupants of the bus—except probably Vitaly, who could not be more disgusted than he already was—silently continued to hope that he would cede in some major way. 

Suddenly she became audible again, “No, no, Piggy! A rabbit? What would be the point of seeing them eat a rabbit? I want the goat, the goat, Piggy, the—”

“Alright, alright,” said the paunchy businessman, almost angrily, beset by all the difficulties of his exalted station. But just as he was calling the guide over the question became moot, for the young man in the formal clothes with the spiky hair and the grudge against hazelhens had opened and swung himself out the window, and it was clear the tigers would not be hungry for goats any longer.

Read part two here. This story first appeared in Party Like It's 1984, a publication of HALiterature

Josh Stenberg is an Asia-based writer whose work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. He has translated two volumes of Su Tong’s fiction and edited Irina’s Hat: New Short Stories from China

Photos by Alec Ash from Harbin's Siberian Tiger Park