Maya was dying.
Roxy could see it in the Bengal tiger’s gait, in the outline of her muscles underneath her beautiful coat of fur, in the way her smoldering green eyes watched her three cubs rend at the flesh of the dead sambar deer.
The litter contained two males and one female. Sharad Singh, the Pench Tiger Reserve’s ranger, had named the cubs Brahma, Vishnu, and Lakshmi. Brahma had coal-colored stripes that ran thin like blots of lightning. Vishnu had white fur, with eyes the color of the Mediterranean Sea. Lakshmi, the female, had a twitchy tail and beautiful symmetrical black stripes between her eyes. They ate ravenously from the corpse, making loud smacking noises like a trio of rude children.
Sharad and Roxy observed the cubs from atop a pair of Indian elephants. Sharad had been tracking and recording the cubs’ progress for a year, just as Roxy had taught him. He knew them like they were his pets. He knew Brahma liked to play with frogs by the river’s edge. He knew Vishnu could sit and stare at kingfishers for hours. He knew Lakshmi rolled in dead leaves before settling in for naps.
“How often is the mother successful?” Roxy asked.
“Once every fifteen attempts,” he answered.
That wasn’t good enough to feed three growing tiger cubs. Two was the normal litter for a tiger.
Maya had chosen her den along the Bawanthadi River, where the gentle current babbled over smooth stones. The earth inclined sharply along the shore, and moss-covered boulders sat stacked atop one another at odd angles, offering ample shelter for the cubs. Brown leaves lay like a heavy blanket over the ground. Roxy inhaled through her nose, smelling the gingerbread musk of rotting wood. An old Saj tree had fallen over near the bank, and where the dead roots stuck out like dried spaghetti Sharad had placed a camera hidden inside reinforced plastic shaped and colored like a rock. Tiger Conservation International had purchased the camera at an auction. A documentary crew had used the hidden camera for a popular American “Gotcha” show about a different kind of predator.
Roxy and Sharad returned to the village of Sillari, located near the Puni Gate of the tiger reserve. TCI had arranged for a single pod-shaped home on a Nature Awareness property on the east end of town. Next door was a small vacation resort that catered to British retirees who seemed unaware that their empire had crumbled. The resort offered tours through the local nature preserves in the morning, shopping trips to local towns in the afternoon, and spa treatments at night.
Roxy put on a fresh pair of cotton shorts and a loose-fitting shirt, then pushed her suitcase under her bed. This place had no air conditioning, but the round leaves of teak trees kept it shaded and a pair of box fans in the screened windows offered some respite from the eighty-something degrees that hung heavy like a wet blanket. It would have to do. She’d called worse dwellings “home” on previous field studies. TCI never had enough of a budget to spring for good accommodations.
Michael Greenway, the zoologist from London, arrived an hour late, jet-lagged and grumpy. David Cook, the IT guy from the University of Chicago, arrived just before dinner in even worse shape. The team assembled for a meal of naan, pakora, and chicken tikka served by the chef who worked at the neighboring resort. They drank pale ales and did the usual getting-to-know-you bullshit that accompanies the beginning of every field study. Cook’s job was to develop the computer model to simulate tiger immigration corridors, testing a variety of variables; he called his program “Exodus.” Greenway’s work on big cat territories had recently been published in The Journal of Natural Sciences. He talked about his work in the way scientists humblebrag: giving you just enough information about an interesting subject to make it boring. Roxy listened to him talk and felt worry embalm her entire body—publications are like generals’ stripes, and Roxy’s work hadn’t yet earned her a major publication.
Still, this was her project. Before they finished their beers, Roxy gently steered the conversation back to their objective.
“Tigers migrate between the forest reserves,” Roxy explained. She showed them a map of India’s Seoni District. To the west was Melghat and Satpura. To the east was Dongargarh-Dhara and Achanakmar. They were each shaded green to signify forests. “The problem is these.” She pointed to all the little towns between the forests. Red dots indicating tiger sightings were spread out like a bad case of acne between the parks. “Sharad has collected tiger sightings outside the protected areas. As you can see, it’s pretty chaotic.”
“And dangerous,” Sharad said. “Both for villagers and tigers.”
“We’re going to focus on the three cubs,” Roxy said. “We’ll monitor their migration out of the forest and Cook can feed the data into Exodus.” She pointed to the blue spots on the map that signified a tiger attack on livestock. “If we minimize these types of attacks, we can get buy-in from the villagers.”
“They revere the tiger,” Sharad added.
“Only when it’s not eating them,” Greenway said with a bemused smile.
At night, the sound of jungle critters grew into a tremendous chorus that was almost musical. On strings were crickets, on brass were cicadas, and on woodwind was the Indian eagle owl. Earplugs drowned out the noise, but they weren’t strong enough to mute the curses of Cook in the next room over. He must have unzipped his mosquito netting to use the shared water closet only to learn the bugs didn’t patiently wait outside for him to return. You were supposed to use the bedpan at night.
The next day they met inside the Bagheera Research Building, tucked between the resort and the Nature Awareness property. It was an old, white structure with twin pillars outside the front door and a colorful map of Pench Tiger Reserve hanging next to the front door. Black stains from monsoon rains ran down the white concrete exterior in curving stripes. Sharad served coffee and laid out a map of the reserve on a display case of animal bones with placards written in broken English: “Tiger tooths found on trail,” and “flying squirrels ALWAYS LOOK UP!!”
“The cubs will migrate as soon as they’re self-reliant,” Roxy explained. Her voice echoed in the empty hall. “Lakshmi will emigrate first because she’ll get sick of her brothers trying to fuck her. Brahma and Vishnu will emigrate next to search for a mate and carve out their own territory. This is the first time we’ll have hard data on tiger migration routes out of Pench.”
“And you think somehow future generations of tigers will follow your corridors?” Greenway asked. “How? Little signs?”
Roxy shrank a little. She had to remind herself that Greenway was her peer, not her boss. Still, she could feel Imposter Syndrome settling in her bones like it always did. “There’s already plenty of research on developing wildlife corridors—”
“But you’re the first to apply it to tigers,” Greenway said doubtfully.
“We’ll set up water resources and shaded groves along the planned routes,” Sharad said.
Greenway gave a polite smile. “I don’t know how well that’s going to work.”
They took three elephants, leaving Cook behind to start inputting the confirmed tiger sightings in the region. Sharad led them north along the Bawanthadi River. Diamond-clear beams of sunlight slipped through the forest canopy, pure and bright. Where the canopy of teak and mahogany trees was thickest, dark shadows loomed over ferns and brush, threatening and dangerous. Roxy relished their journey through the forest. The jungle was a violent assault on the senses: the vibrant greens of water-soaked leaves, the soggy hot air on your skin, the smell of mulched leaves and moss, the warbling of kingfishers, the sweet taste of exotic flowers on the tip of your tongue.
There was a popular watering hole in the cleared village of Alikatta, whose denizens had been forcibly removed by the government when the reserve was formed. Tall, golden grass spread out across an old farm field. Weeds slid up rotting wooden posts. An abandoned rock pit had filled with water. Sambar deer arrived to drink in the mornings and late afternoons.
The team waited all day. The warm air felt thick in Roxy’s lungs. She kept her hair back with a bandana tied tight like the Karate Kid. Greenway wiped sweat from his forehead every few minutes. At the edge of the forest, afternoon shadows grew and crept like black oil, pooling in the tall grass. The musical chirping of birds grew more cautious.
But the tigers never showed up.
The temperature dropped a few degrees at nightfall. Roxy drank green tea on her bed inside the safety of her mosquito netting. She dreamt of a jungle and something following her in the shadows. Her heart racing, she searched for danger amongst the dark green fronds of sprawling ferns while monkeys howled from the branches above. She tripped on the root of a tree; the sound of her feet crunching on brittle teak leaves was deafening.
The next day, they spotted a tiger. It was a male, large, with a prominent white ruff along his cheeks and a coat the color of ripe pumpkins. He skulked in the grass between a pair of tall teak trees, guarding a fresh kill. The black stripes curved down his rear legs, moving hypnotically with each step. The guides kept the elephants a good distance away.
“Growler,” Sharad announced proudly. “Maya’s mate. He is the father of the cubs.”
“Good,” Roxy whispered. With such a healthy male in the area, the cubs had an even greater chance of survival. Infanticide was the biggest danger now that the cubs had a year under their belts. Growler offered protection.
“He won’t share his kills,” Greenway commented.
Sharad shook his head. “He will with the cubs. I have seen it.”
“Male tigers are solitary,” Greenway said. “It was probably a one-time occurrence.”
When they returned to the research center, Roxy checked in on Cook’s progress. He’d disregarded her instructions and focused his time on mapping out pugmarks instead of sightings.
“This is what you told me to do.”
“I told you to focus on sightings,” Roxy said. “Sightings.”
“No you didn’t.”
Roxy took a deep breath. Air from a fan sitting in the window cooled the sweat on her forehead. She wanted to shower off the slimy layer of film on the back of her neck with ice-cold water. “We need all the tiger sightings recorded so we can compare the cubs’ migration routes to a historical record.”
“The park rangers have oodles of pugmark data,” Cook said. One of his laptops had pulled up charts and tiger census data using pawprints. “It makes sense to start with these.”
“Pugmark data is highly unreliable,” Roxy told him. “Especially without phototrap surveys to corroborate the tracks.”
Cook mumbled something under his breath. Roxy couldn’t fight the urge to second-guess herself. Had she spoken too harshly? Had she accidentally told him to map pugmarks, or misspoken? No, don’t do that, she told herself. Don’t let him gaslight you.
It took another week to find the cubs again. It was at the north end of Alikatta, next to a stone Hindu temple overgrown with green vines like veins. The cubs were feeding on a sambar deer at the foot of the temple where the grass wasn’t too tall. Maya rested at the top of the steps to the temple as if ready to receive worshippers. She looked gaunt and tired, moving only when the shade of the temple no longer protected her. She watched the cubs eat, whiskers twitching away a fly. She wanted food, but something deep inside her genes overpowered that desire. Something raw and ancient, a need to see her offspring survive.
Roxy ate her lunch on the elephant with Sharad, watching the cubs tear at glistening muscles. Brahma picked at the face with gruesome abandon. Vishnu was the most voracious, making a bloody mess of the white fur around his mouth. Lakshmi tore away strips of fur to get at the deer’s hindquarters.
When they were done, she immediately engaged in mock fighting, knocking Vishnu over. Brahma joined in, slapping Lakshmi’s rump. Maya sauntered down to the corpse, picking at what was left.
“I’ve seen enough,” Greenway announced. “The sun’s baked me to a crisp.”
Roxy stayed with Sharad. She taught him the telltale signs of a cub’s budding maturity: more violent play, more growling, attempts by the males to use their sex in some way but not quite sure how. Vishnu attempted to mount Lakshmi. She growled and threw him off. The cubs were close. They needed to make a kill without their mother’s help.
Otherwise, Maya would either die or abandon them.
For the next week, Roxy and Sharad tracked the cubs. Maya led them on a predictable path around Growler’s territory; Roxy relayed the boundaries to Cook for his mapping program. Every day she found a shady observation spot, ideally underneath a tall Mowha tree to snack on the flowers and wait out the cubs’ naps. Sharad taught her to pick the reddish-yellow flowers, which were ripest. The flowers had an astringent bite, but the pulp inside tasted sugary.
Greenway and Cook grew close and ate together in the evening. Roxy ate alone in the resort restaurant, reviewing footage from the hidden camera.
The cubs began hunting with their mother. Anxious, hungry, Vishnu and Brahma ran after sambar deer with abandon; Roxy’s mind furiously estimated the caloric expenditure of every failure. Lakshmi showed more tact. Twice, she snuck up close to a young deer only to be caught by the langur monkeys’ howling in warning from the treetops.
“It’s hopeless,” Sharad said.
Roxy shook her head. “No. We learn by failing. They’ll make mistakes, and they’ll try different things. All they need is one success and then they’ll catch on.”
A week later, Maya took down a limping female deer and left it, still alive, for the cubs to kill. Brahma toyed with his paw at the quivering, injured animal. Lakshmi lay down beside it, waiting for it to die. It was Vinshu who finally engulfed the deer’s neck in his mouth and bit down. The animal went limp. Vishnu dragged the deer to the base of a ridge where jagged, mossy rock protruded from the ground, blood dripping down his oily white fur.
“See?” Roxy whispered, pointing to Vishnu. “Now they know how to deliver a killing blow. They’ll remember this lesson.”
Maya, again, waited for them to finish, then picked at the scraps. She’d begun sleeping more, reserving her strength for the next hunt.
Cook grew stir-crazy and paid someone in town to take him to the city of Wardha. When he finally returned two days later, it was evening. Roxy had made her way to the Commons building at the neighboring resort, sitting in the lounge where there was a single TV tuned to an English-language news station, comfortable colonial-style couches, and a bartender who toyed with his smartphone. Cook walked in and sat down right next to Roxy. He smelled like marijuana and stale beer.
“Why do you like tigers so much?” he asked.
“You were supposed to be working.”
“I’m going crazy here.” He put his hand on her leg. She was wearing shorts, and the feel of his smooth fingers on her bare leg caused her to jolt away. He hadn’t expected that, clearly; was that a look of hurt on his face? “Greenway says you have a feisty reputation.”
There it was. The thing that haunted her every field study.
Cook put a hand on her cheek. “I think you enjoy being independent, just like a tiger.”
He was wrong. Roxy wasn’t solitary. She desperately wanted to have conversations with colleagues that didn’t require subservience. Extreme politeness. Deferment to inferior ideas. She was independent out of necessity. She wanted the cubs to survive because this would be the best opportunity to study their migration routes. She wanted to save the fucking species.
“Are you really Hawaiian?”
Roxy didn’t answer. Her body had learned from past field studies, and it was preparing for fight or flight. This man is a danger, it warned her.
He rubbed his cheeks, brushing across rough whiskers that had begun to gray around the chin. “I think I’m attracted to you.”
Roxy stood up. “Fuck off.”
The next morning, Sharad woke Roxy early in a panic. They took elephants to the abandoned village of Chendia, where Growler liked to mark the old hut whose bricks were worn away by monsoon rain and aggressive weeds. A tiger’s body lay unnaturally in the tall grass, unmoving. Roxy stifled her emotions and climbed off the elephant while Greenway hissed for her not to be stupid. She approached Growler, pulling the painted mask down over the back of her head to confuse any predators hiding nearby. She examined the wound on his side, where dark red blood had clotted and done its best to protect the loose flap of skin from infection. A rival tiger’s claws had dug deep into the flesh. Growler had no doubt licked the wound regularly—Roxy could see him doing it in her mind’s eye, and the action was so peaceful, so desperate, so unlike the angry Growler that she choked back tears.
She climbed back onto the elephant. “A new male is taking over Growler’s territory. We need to find Maya and the cubs.”
“No,” Greenway said. “We should find this new tiger first. We can tag him and attach a collar to monitor his movements.”
“No,” Roxy said. “That’s not why we’re here.”
“Roxy. This is an unprecedented opportunity to track a male tiger as he builds territory. We’ll be able to publish our observations in any of the top journals in the country.”
“The new male will kill the cubs,” Roxy said, “in order to mate with Maya.”
“Stop being emotional,” he said. “TCI’s funding won’t last long enough to find another litter of cubs. We may as well make lemonade out of these lemons.”
Roxy turned her elephant away from him. She and Sharad went west, to the tiger den along the river. When they reached the den, they found the cubs napping innocently in the shade of the boulders. Vinshu perked up at the sound of the elephants and scanned the area, his blue eyes landing on a spiderweb that glistened like the North Star. You have no idea how much trouble you’re in, Roxy thought. That was the travesty of her research: the ability to see into the future. That was what made the field studies so excruciating.
“Maya must be hunting,” Sharad whispered.
Roxy shook her head. She felt a protective terror wash over her and knew, deep down, Maya no doubt felt the same thing. “She’s leading the new male away from her cubs so he doesn’t kill them. They’re on their own.”
Lakshmi’s paw clenched as she closed in on a deer in her sleep. Her claws extended.
“What if the new male finds them?” Sharad asked.
Roxy didn’t answer. She knew what she was supposed to say: don’t interfere, let the natural events unfold. She wasn’t sure if she could do that. These tigers needed to migrate. All her hard work had built up to this. Sharad’s, too. He’d spent the last year of his life monitoring the cubs.
They took watches during the daylight hours. Sharad took the afternoon as a courtesy; Roxy took the cooler mornings. Greenway went out every day on his own to search for the new male and now Cook, smelling an opportunity to get his name on a scientific paper, was spending most of his time mapping Greenway’s data. Roxy argued and pleaded, to no avail. She had no seniority. No authority. TCI had given her this immense responsibility and damn them for not giving Roxy permission to hire her own team.
At night, Roxy cried into her pillow so no one would hear.
On day three of their forced independence, the cubs grew restless and hungry enough to venture to the watering hole near the abandoned village of Alikatta. Roxy followed, silently praying for them to get their act together. Sambar deer gathered at the west end of the village; the grass was tall enough that the three tigers could stay perfectly hidden. They showed patience, skulking slowly, making their way around a teak tree that had partially destroyed an old dwelling made of mortared rocks. Roxy stayed at the southern end of the village, watching through binoculars.
A tall female deer stood apart from the others, walking slowly along the muddy shore of the pond, dipping her head down to inspect stray blades of grass. Suddenly, her head perked up. Eyes scanned the grass, passing over Vishnu’s white body. The black stripes diverging into soft, vertical rosettes displaced his body.
Wait, Roxy mentally commanded the cubs. Wait until she looks away.
Suddenly, Brahma emerged from the tall grass. His siblings followed, but instead of choking off the deer’s escape route, they fell in line together. The deer turned and ran along the pond, easily putting distance between itself and the frustrated tigers. They followed a while then, panting, took shelter from the sun at the base of the old Hindu temple.
“God damn you,” she whispered. Something had to be done.
That afternoon, she rented one of the mopeds from the neighboring resort and took the dirt road into town, avoiding a pair of cows grazing on grass beside a concrete building with a wood-thatched roof that extended out over a small wooden stable. Old farm fields had been left fallow for years on order by the provincial government; grass and teak trees and Mahwa trees had grown in. Forty-seven thousand dollars from the Indian government supported textile training programs and new farming techniques to prevent villagers from encroaching on the tiger preserve. Inside a simple hut with an aluminum roof, three women were expertly weaving colorful fabric together into shawls that could be sold to tourists.
Roxy parked next to the post office and went inside. The heat was already stifling; a man sat behind a desk with a single metal fan blowing on his face. He looked up at Roxy but said nothing. She went to the pay phone on the wall and inserted enough rupees for an international call. She dialed the number and navigated the TCI’s automated phone system.
No answer. She dialed through to the offices.
She went to bed that night with a sick stomach. She couldn’t help but think what failure would mean for her career. She imagined Greenway spinning his role into that of the savior, making lemonade out of lemons, while she—the Bitch—dug her feet in and damned the study.
She woke with tense muscles. She walked to the Commons building for tea and found Greenway sitting at a table with Cook. They watched her approach—could they sense her trepidation? She hid it with a fast walk, redirecting the tension to her leg muscles.
“It’s time to abandon this corridors project,” Greenway announced. “The mother has abandoned her cubs. We’re wasting TCI’s money.”
“The cubs will learn to hunt,” Roxy said. “We can teach them.”
“She has a mother’s instinct,” Cook said. “Women can’t help it.”
Roxy grabbed a coffee and walked out. It was the only way to keep from blowing up at them. Women couldn’t do that on studies. They couldn’t disagree. They couldn’t be assertive. That was how she’d earned her reputation.
Roxy and Sharad took two elephants to the edge of Alikatta and waited. Deer came and went, stopping to drink at the pond, making their way around the Mahwah trees to search for ripened flowers that had fallen. The cubs arrived together from the east. They followed the deer at the pond. But then Brahma and Vishnu charged with abandon, scaring away their prey.
“Is it hopeless?” Sharad asked.
“No,” Roxy said. “They only need to be successful once.” If her plan worked, the tiger cubs could save themselves.
But at night, doubt plagued Roxy. It swarmed outside the protective netting around her bed, clawing into the mesh. Every insect was an instance of “It won’t work,” which she’d heard in one of her field studies. You could swat one, you could swat two, but eventually you grew exhausted and your muscles became sore. That was when they became overwhelming, drinking your energy like hungry mosquitoes.
She lay in bed listening to a buzzing insect that followed her into her dreams. In her dreams, she hunted with the cubs. She wrestled Brahma to the ground and held him in place with ferocious strength. She whispered in his ear, “Don’t be so anxious. Take your time. Be patient.”
The next day, the cubs returned to the pond together again. They prowled like a pack, bunching too close together, displacing too much grass so that the crows flying overhead spotted them and began squawking wildly.
At dinner, Greenway told her to just give up and shoot a goddamn deer for them. The male was making his way west now, tempted by a game trail that led to Alikatta. The cubs’ time was up. Cook joked that Maya was “damaged goods” and Greenway laughed. Greenway bought Roxy a whiskey and told her about his plan for studying the male’s territory.
“The corridors won’t save them,” he said. “This area’s population will explode in the next two decades. Publish now, get tenure at a nice university, then try to save your beloved cat.”
“I secured this grant to build corridors,” Roxy said. “That’s what I’m going to do with it. And I’m going to make sure TCI knows what you’re doing, too.”
“Threats,” Greenway said condescendingly, “are how you earned the nickname Bitch.”
That night, Roxy dreamed Growler wasn’t actually dead. They’d made a mistake—his wound had healed and he’d made the kind of miraculous recovery that only happens in Hollywood movies. He came back and protected his brood and Maya returned to finish teaching her cubs.
The next afternoon, Roxy waited longer than usual at the watering hole. She was lost in thought, second-guessing all the decisions she’d made in her career, all the things she could have done differently to make herself appear more agreeable to the male researchers who dominated the biology field. Uncertainty felt warm on her neck and smelled like elephant skin.
Roxy almost missed Lakshmi approaching—the tiger had developed a low skulk that kept her entirely hidden in the tall grass. She approached the pond alone. Roxy kept Sharad on the west end and ordered her guide to move the elephant along the south perimeter, under the shade of tall mahoganies where the cubs had emerged from twice before. At first, she feared the worst: the male cubs had been driven out or killed. She didn’t see either of them until they were nearly at her elephant’s rear feet, moving slowly through the tall grass.
“Lakshmi is in position,” Sharad whispered excitedly, his voice coming through gently in Roxy’s walkie-talkie earpiece. They’d stolen the walkies from the tour guides who hung out at the resort. “There is a female deer walking in the mud.”
This was it: the situation they’d waited for. Lakshmi, the best hunter, separated from her brothers.
Roxy very slowly fished in her pocket for the laser pointer she’d procured from the park rangers. Her fingers shook uncontrollably. She took a deep breath and held it, peering over the bench.
Below, Brahma and Vishnu had slinked to the left side of the elephant, skulking, their shoulder blades protruding like twin spaldings, anxious to ruin their sister’s chances.
Roxy shined the laser dot on the grass in front of the siblings. Both tigers immediately froze.
“She is nearly on him,” Sharad whispered. Roxy could feel the tension in his voice, the nervous trepidation.
Dead silence. Even the kingfishers hadn’t noticed Lakshmi.
Vishnu stalked closer to the dot. Roxy moved it slowly, mentally urging the tiger not to make any sudden movements. Just watch. Watch the dot move. Her heart thumped so hard in her ribcage she worried the tigers could hear it. The little white spots on the black backs of their ears peered up at her.
She moved the laser dot again. It bounced across the blades of grass.
The tigers’ interest waned. They skulked closer to the pond.
“She’s following the deer along the shore,” Sharad whispered.
Roxy inhaled slow breaths, risking a glance at the watering hole. From atop the elephant, she could see Lakshmi in the grass at the edge of the field. She could see Lakshmi’s tail, low, quivering. She was about to strike.
They just need to be successful once.
Roxy turned off the laser pointer just as Lakshmi leapt from the grass with a roar.
Brahma and Vishnu darted past the elephant, crossing the field just in time to see Lakshmi leap onto the back of the deer, her fangs closing around the back of its neck. They crashed into the water, causing the rest of the deer to flee in a stampede. Kingfishers and monkeys cried out from the trees.
The deer’s head popped up from underneath the water, then submerged again. Roxy searched desperately for Lakshmi, pained by the knowledge that another hunt had failed—but no, wait, something else was in the water, causing white-crested waves rippling out in every direction. Lakshmi’s head bobbed up, her mouth clutching the deer’s limp neck. Her brothers met her at the shore of the pond and they began to eat together, but through teary eyes Roxy could see that Lakshmi had taken the best meat for herself.
Ken Brosky received his MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He currently teaches at UW-Whitewater and is represented by Fairbank Literary. He is writing many books.