Through a tall stand of grass, the tigress slips like flame. A flicker of presence in the periphery, the absence that makes you tense the back of your neck and look again. As she emerges, she turns her head to the left and looks with alien eyes into a camera. I’ve got her here with me now, bordered in paper, a stilled menace with flattened ears and black lips lifted to expose the horrors beneath. In the inky shadows, the faintest suggestion of bars.
I’m taken. It’s been seven years now. My rooms are in the basement, brightly painted behind the locks, a piece of life scooped from deep inside the earth. He had it waiting long before he took me. My family believe that I’m underneath the ground, that I’ve been there for years and years… and so I am. Ironic – that’s one of the words that he’s taught me.
I get up from my bed, take down the thesaurus and trace the path of his intentions, hunting through twists of meaning for a truth that weaves between the words, coils around the branches and offers itself. It was for my own protection, he tells me. Taken. Protected, kept and preserved, an insect in amber, a treasure, a secretion.
He’s educated me well – I know that. I would never have learnt so much in school. One-to-one teaching, he says, is far better than a classroom full of other girls to lead me astray, and boys to welcome me when I got there. Dressed me, too – before I even came, he had boxes and boxes of clothes, enough to last me all the way from the size I was then until I grow up. I don’t know where he got them. I’m in the next-to-last size now.
And he brings me beautiful things, educational things, to decorate my rooms. I ask most of all for animal pictures, captured souls to open up my walls and ceilings to the wild. The coyote that rears back her head and closes her eyes against the sun, the wolf that slips between trees and passes into shadow. The tigress with alien eyes. I gaze into her eyes – all night sometimes, by torchlight, trying to draw her spirit into mine.
Even the tigress is in a reserve, he tells me. If she ventures beyond the margins, the hunters will shoot her.
The bolts are sliding, the keys are turning, and the clock says five a.m. He emerges, head lowered, from the passage into my rooms, and tells me that I can go out this morning. I’m already dressed, like I am every morning, just in case. I follow him along in the darkness, up the wooden steps and through the trapdoor. Through the blinded kitchen I keep my head down as I should, then I wait while he begins opening the back door locks.
I live for these mornings, the times when I can breathe deep and sense them there. My fellow hidden things, clinging to the undersides of leaves, tangling around in the roots. Gone, in the trembling instant before you look. We are the primal, the forbidden, the lost and gone forever. We left our shadows behind in songs and the stories people tell to frighten children.
On the mornings when I go out, he stands at the door and watches the road. When I first came I begged all the time to get out, but the years went by, and the childhood faded out of my voice, and now I don’t beg any more. Instead, I talk of Vitamin D, remind him of rickets, and sometimes he lets me out as a reward for learning so well.
He’s still fumbling with the last set of keys. I bite my lip and try to breathe slowly. Best not to let him see how much I want it.
A helicopter came once, while I was outside, and I hid without even being told. It wasn’t the police: only a company taking an aerial photograph of the house. They called a few days later, wanting to sell it to him, but he sent them away. So I’ll never know whether I appear in the picture as a blur in the foliage, or the suggestion of skin. A trick of the light. I’m not even sure that I show up on film any more.
We don’t have many callers, and I never hear traffic in the distance, so I think we’re a long way out. When people do come, offering their photographs or their salvation, he keeps the basement locked and tells them he has everything he needs.
It was after the helicopter that he brought me the picture of the tigress. My best picture, for the best thing that I ever did for him. He worries less now, and says they gave up hunting for me years ago.
The locks are open now. His hand presses the small of my back, coaxing me forward. I swallow – it’s like learning to walk, every time. I reach round and clasp his fingers briefly to reassure us both, then let go and step out.
The air stands poised for a second, then rushes into the back of my head and up into my brain. It nearly overwhelms me, and I close my eyes. I tell myself that one day, outside will be normal: because one day, I will leave.
It will be on a morning like this. Midsummer, a wet dawn, with drops of water hanging fat on the ends of things. The branches will be strung with cobwebs, angled through with clear light. The first piping cry will be in the trees.
I will step forward, like I do now. I will draw in living light and stand in those first moments of day that the sun only touches on a few mornings of the year. Stolen daylight, with a charge that quickens the muscles and sets the senses on an edge.
Back in the present, my feet are silent on the grass as I walk. I wonder if the tigress ever hears the softness of the morning, or the sounds of the land at peace. Wherever she goes, her ears must be filled with alarm calls and sudden burstings from the trees, as hunters and hunted alert one another. The menace that she carries is a reflected one, speeding back towards her in the light from a thousand pairs of eyes.
I ask him sometimes about the day when he took me. It’s a story he likes to tell. I was on a back road, he says, walking towards the forest with a long stick over my shoulder. I just disappeared between one quiet bend and another. Old enough to remember, but the mind plays tricks with things like that. I remember the smell of manure and rubber on the floor of his car, a rope in my mouth, hammering sick fear in my chest. But not the event of my taking.
I grasp a cool handful of leaves and shiver as the raindrops run through my hand and down the inside of my arm. I can feel him watching me now, although I didn’t feel him then. He knew about my family, and the things they did to me, and that I needed to be protected. I wouldn’t go back to them.
When he drives into town, he checks my locks before he goes. Once, I had a dream that he left all the doors unlocked and unbolted. His car skidded away and I looked at the doors, pressed my hands all over them in wonder, but I didn’t leave. Couldn’t even climb up into the house, because all I could see in my mind was his face when he came back to find me gone. When I woke up, I understood that we both must be ready for the day that I leave. Otherwise, it would hurt too much.
I press my forehead against the trunk of his apple tree. I want it to leave a mark, something real that I can feel with my fingers later, back in my rooms. He’s standing behind me now, taking hold of my waist. He doesn’t usually do this, not outside. His hands are gentle – a true love’s hands, he tells me, not like the boys out there in the world. I knew something about those dirty boys, dirty men, even before he took me.
He presses against me harder, and I taste wet leaves. Without him my blossom would have withered, my body fattened, and I would have fallen before my time. Instead I’ve grown strong. Fit and well, healthy, rosy. Educated, beyond others of my age. I have food, fresh air sometimes, even exercise, with equipment that he brought down for me. But a day will come: the day that I leave.
It’s time to go inside. As he’s leading me back, he tells me that I’m nearly a woman now. This is a new thing. He says he doesn’t know what he’ll do when I finally become one. And then he cries. The keys turn, the bolts slide, and he leaves me alone.
As the clock hands creep, I run on the treadmill, pushing it behind me with my feet, and think about what he said. It’s true: I’m nearly a woman. My body has softened and lengthened under his hands. I want to ask him for makeup and use it to shadow my eyes. I consider these things, and worry for his tears, and wonder again about where all the clothes might have come from. Then I need to put those thoughts away from me, so I look up at the tigress.
When the day comes, the day that I leave, I will walk to the end of the garden. I won’t be frightened, because I’ve already been taken. Spoken for, reserved. I will crouch to find the hiding place, between the fence panel and the wild ground, and pull out my bag of supplies. Something will fly out of the wet hedge, breaking the cobwebs and scattering heavy drops. It will not wake him, because I will have put him to sleep.
I will take the bag, sling it over my shoulder, and stand. The ground will begin to roll beneath my feet and the leaves will beckon me forward. I will guess a direction and follow it. Before I was taken, I used to do that – set off for the end of the rainbow, away to seek my fortune with a handkerchief tied to the end of a garden cane. Perhaps I always knew that one day I wouldn’t come back.
There is no bag of supplies yet, no way through the bolts, no sleeping potion, but I will find them. I can’t let myself doubt that. I will hoard up tiny possessions: a knife, a map, a lock of his hair. Water, my torch, matches in a waterproof bag. A cache, like in the survival books he showed me. I will live in the woods, eating berries and drinking nectar out of nutshells. I will conjure a prince from the stump of a tree and live happily ever after.
But on that day, when I first walk into the wild, I will be the tigress. I will look out through her eyes, feel my shoulders rolling, the muscles driving, something rising in my chest. My claws will scrape the road.
As I turn back for the last time, to bid him goodbye, a forest of briars will begin scrambling over the eyes and nostrils of his house. I will turn away again. Behind me, a flock of magpies will lift themselves off his roof and flap away into the east, silhouettes against the rising sun. Seven, for the story that can never be told.
About the author:
Mandy Taggart lives on the North Coast of Ireland. She takes inspiration from the unseen, the unspoken, and the fears of childhood.