Sal swallows hard and squeezes her eyes shut. She pictures her sister’s cool hand on her shoulder, steadying her, helping her first to her knees, and then to her feet. She thinks of all the times she has yanked Mina up from a fallen position: Mina’s tiny feet flailing as Sal hoists her from out of the sandpit, or into the family sedan, or onto a high chair, ignoring mewls of protest. All force of authority, in which a preteen Sal had perversely indulged. She puts one hand on her chest, fingers digging into the fabric. Remorse threatens to topple her and she has to bite back, not for the first time, the impossible desire to re-do their childhood, this time with an adult’s understanding of emotional tenderness, of duty of care, of sacrifice.
The void fizzes out, as naturally and as unceremoniously as the sun vanishing under the gray line of the horizon. The girl’s face returns. Her pride, playfulness, and spirit are gone. In their place is the dun-yellow gaze of a cornered animal. Sal steadies herself on the back of the chair.
When next the girl-tiger speaks, her voice comes out in a whisper. “Do you remember game day, when we were kids?”
Sal freezes. Blood rings in a low, wet tone, in the cavern of her head. The two men immediately turn to look at them. The charade is now over, and they begin their approach with even, measured footsteps.
“I was in third grade, and you were in fifth. You felt like God to me.”
The two men are closer now. The backyard feels impossibly huge, its dimensions contorting around Sal, but they are traversing the distance with the ease of dark and quick-moving clouds.
The tiger looks at Sal with something like pity. Her tone changes, going as soft as rotten fruit: “I’m sorry.”
Sal closes her eyes. The inside of her torso has been replaced with lead, and the contents of her head with liquid glue. Her legs tremble and buckle. She is as defenseless as a newborn colt in a huge, barbed world.
“Come gently now,” the girl-tiger says, and the words are vice-like.
Sal lets herself be led by the two men towards the altar. This time, their grip feels almost kind, hospitable, deferential. They are escorting her, rather than kidnapping her. She climbs onto the cool marble surface, shaking all the while, like a dying patient crawling up a gurney.
Lying supine, she watches as one of the captors transforms. His sweatshirt hoodie resolves into a dark shadow, and his switchblade, into a scythe. The other man changes, too. His back hunches over, fingers lengthening into twigs capped by yellowed nails—an old woman. A collection of matter, arranged and rearranged. Poured out into human-shaped vessels and left to cool, and to harden. The figures of Mina’s dreamland.
She looks into their faces, expecting anonymous features and recognizes, with a hideous jolt, the eyes of her mother and father. She blinks repeatedly and by the time her gaze clears their bodies have morphed again, this time to match the eyes. Her father’s tweed jacket, her mother’s weathered blue jeans. His bald spot, her chipped red fingernails. The tiger has padded over and sits on its haunches now, watching a million emotions collide on the canvas of Sal’s face.
Mina is still missing, Sal thinks plaintively, her every feeling breaking in her throat. For the first time, she is truly afraid. The scythe has vanished—he doesn’t need one. He lifts his hand above her head, partially eclipsing her view of the afternoon sun; light bleeds through his fingers. She knows the flat of her father’s callused palm will come down on her like lightning.
At that moment, Mina is jogging up the cobblestone path that snakes around the house. The air is invitingly cool, its crispness on her skin like biting into a fresh and perfect apple. Nestled in the long grass like an infant in a cradle, she finds a silver snub-nosed gun. She picks it up and tests its weight in her hand, wondering how a bow can become a gun, and what else may have changed. Her pace quickens. When she turns the corner around the house, she finds the world of her dream.
Some of her dreams are entire works of fiction, their players cast and costumed by her imagination. Living them out in dream-time is like jumping through the thick glass of a television screen and becoming part of a movie. But the darker dreams take inspiration from the strange land of the past, and participating in them feels twisted and bittersweet. Often ten times more bitter than sweet. Tar coating the tongue.
Her mother and father in the green-tiled kitchen. Sal, twelve years old, sitting on the floor, eyes bloodshot. Mina had been too young to really understand then, though she had been old enough to feel the twinge of revulsion at the blotchy patchwork of snot and tears threaded over her sister’s cheeks. The ignorance that grants childhood its particular magic also makes it a period of callousness, of total self-absorption. Children can be a special kind of unfeeling. When Mina looks at the scene now, with an adult’s eyes, she registers the terror in her sister’s expression, and understands, too, how entirely it vanishes when Sal sees her, how quickly it is replaced by urgency as Sal jumps up to push her back outside.
The tiger appraises her coldly from its position by the refrigerator. She focuses on the animal, the product of obvious conjuring by her mind. The scene around it changes repeatedly, flickering in and out of states like a holographic picture book.
From the past to the dream. Her sister is her real, current age, and she lies, curled up and motionless, on an altar like a slumped-over bag of groceries on a kitchen countertop. Two fairy tale characters stand over her ominously; their dark clothing marks them as unambiguously bad, and irredeemable.
From the dream to the past. Now, the tiger is a tiny cartoon mutt from a children’s story, panting in fear, and the backyard is a quiet, shadowy glade with no visible figures. From overhead, she hears Sal’s voice, reading aloud. It is difficult to be brave, she reads, in a light but thoughtful tone, when the world is so big and you are small. And the world will always be big. But remember, you will not be small forever.
Back to the dream. The hooded man’s scythe is hovering above Sal’s head. The blow is moments away from falling. The blow will take another forty years to fall. Mina walks through the backyard, gun in hand, and crawls up to the altar to share the space with her sister. She presses her face to her back. Sal’s breathing is choppy and labored.
She waits for the rhythm of her breathing to soften and lengthen. When it doesn’t, she peels away from her sister. “Why is this one so complicated?” she whispers, meaning the dream. “It’s about…you and me, isn’t it?”
The tiger has sidled over, close enough to overhear their conversation. Mina sits up and presses the muzzle to the tiger’s temple.
When the tiger doesn’t react, she reconsiders and lowers the gun.
“Would you help me carry her?” she asks.
The tiger drops down so its back is level with the surface of the altar. Gingerly, Mina rolls her sister off the marble surface and onto the tiger’s back. With more delicacy than Mina would have ever thought the animal to possess, the tiger slowly carries Sal through the backyard, down the cobblestone path, and up the front porch steps. Its paws are nearly soundless on the grass. One hand on the animal’s shoulder, Mina sneaks a backwards glance and meets their parent’s eyes. They look pitiful, forlorn, adrift, encased in the setting of the backyard like insects in amber, clay figurines in a diorama. This is the end of their story, Mina senses, in a rush that is half-victory and half-loss. They are nothing now but proof that it’s possible to survive anything—she looks at Sal’s hair, shifting as the tiger moves, the strawberry blonde strands revealing her freckled face and then hiding it from view—as long as you are certain in the fact that at least one person loves you.
Sal, alert now, but still woozy, lowers herself down onto the front yard with Mina’s assistance. When Mina looks back at the tiger, she has transformed into a girl who stands, fists clenched, in a show of wary pride.
“The door won’t open,” she says, signalling the front door with a flick of her chin, “until you fire the gun.”
Mina sighs. “I used it on you, before I understood what you are. I am sorry about that.”
“And what am I?” the girl-tiger says, with an encouraging smile.
“Us,” she says, pointing at herself, and then at Sal, sitting on the unfinished concrete steps, resting her head in her hands. Sal looks up in surprise.
“Why a gun?” Mina wonders aloud. “Why not a chisel, or a paintbrush?”
“A conductor’s baton,” Sal offers. “It’s your dream, so can’t it be anything?”
“Wait,” the girl-tiger says. “I got it. A catcher’s mitt.”
The moment she says it, both she and the gun disappear. Mina’s hand is gloved now in old, chocolate-brown leather; Sal holds a baseball. She tosses it a few times experimentally from a seated position.
“Won’t they come to look for us?” Sal asks, casting a look toward the back of the house. Fear pokes through the spaces between words like thorns through flowers.
“No,” Mina says firmly. “That part is over. We’re all grown-up now.”
Sal toes the dust with the tip of her sneaker. “The dream ends after I throw this and you catch it, right?”
Mina nods. Sal stands up, her fingers tight around the ball’s even and patterned stitching.
“Let’s see how far I can throw this thing, then,” she says, swinging an arm out forward, her finger indicating past the the front yard, and the road, and the row of houses beyond, and Mina laughs, and takes off running.