Katy Yocom’s fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in Salon.com, The Louisville Review, New Southerner, Open 24 Hours, StyleSubstanceSoul, Louisville Magazine, LEO Weekly, 2nd & Church, and Food & Dining, among other publications. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. She has received grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Kentucky Foundation for Women and was writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts (Nebraska) and Hill House (Michigan). She is associate administrative director of the Spalding University low-residency MFA in Writing program.
There are many ways to die in the Sundarbans: drowning, crocodile, shark, festering infection, but the fate most feared is to be taken by a tiger. Last week, on one of the delta’s thousand islands, it happened to a honey hunter from Sami’s village. The victim should have been protected by the government-issue mask he wore on the back of his head; a tiger won’t attack when you are looking at him. The stratagem works, mostly. But some tigers puzzle out that the plastic faces aren’t real, and others stalk for hours till, just for a moment, the man removes his mask. Sami has never understood why anyone would do this, but Kumar explained, “Little brother, when you’re hot and sweaty and the strap is chafing your forehead and bugs are crawling in your hair, sometimes you have to.”
The victim, or most of him, came back to the village in a country boat. Sami thought the body was wrapped in a red cloth until he saw one ragged white corner and understood.
And now the honey hunters need a replacement and the replacement is Sami. He has begged to stay in school, his mother has begged, but his father says no.
At the dock his mother stands sobbing, dressed in widow’s weeds. She won’t change out of these garments till her men return safe. All morning she has prayed for their protection. Sami climbs into the long, narrow boat between his father and Kumar, and they cast off, sliding into the channel with barely a ripple. Ahead of them are three identical craft, the rest of their contingent. The men sit on the gunwales, their backs curved like monkeys’. Water stretches flat from their low island to the next the next the next forever. The delta smells of mud, rot, fish, the faint tang of salt.
Sundarbans tigers will swim up to a country boat and pluck a man from it with one swipe of the claws. Even on the wide water, men wear their masks if they’re smart. Sami dons his own, and his heart quiets a bit, reassured by sightless eyes staring fiercely at the water behind him.
His father steers the boat onto a muddy shore, where they leap out and sink to the ankles in muck. Next to Sami’s foot he sees a deep track, bigger than his hand, a sharp point for each fatal claw, then more tracks leading into the trees. “Kumar,” he says and points. Kumar looks but says nothing to the other men.
So this is how it is. The tiger hides in the forest. The trees send pencil roots up through the mud to puncture your foot.
As the newest honey hunter he is relegated to the back of the line. Kumar pats Sami’s shoulder and says, “I’ve been doing this for a year now and I’ve never seen one,” but his voice is hollow. Tigers know the trick of invisibility, and that muddy paw print was fresh fresh fresh.
Low tide, and the shore trees are salted to their waists. The loose knot of men unravels and they disappear into the forest one by one. Kumar steps into the trees, calling, “Come on, little brother.” Quaking, clutching his wooden bucket, Sami follows.
In the forest the mangrove trees breathe on him, their exhalations strangely cool. He registers a mushroomy smell, something bitter like bark, prickly like mold. He prays Save me. The men ahead mutter; maybe they are praying too. The island vibrates with a sound like singing breaths, hoo hoo hoo: frogs, thousands of them.
To his left, something moves, just below the register of sound. The hair on Sami’s arms stands alert.
In the dripping green light he clutches the vine strap of his bucket and runs to keep up. Then FLASH there’s lightning behind his eyes and he’s on one knee, a pencil root spiking through his foot, and Kumar yells “GET UP GET UP” and he yanks his foot free. In the filmy light the blood looks black, smells iron like the ring where you tie your boat. Behind him the air feels charged with something unearthly. He limps fast, breathing loud hoo hoo but not peaceful like the frogs.
At the base of a massive ficus, the men are gathered, looking up. Something drips onto his forearm, the color of drainage from a wound. He tastes it.
Sundarbans bees make the sweetest honey on earth, deep amber and thin. The villagers eat it at every meal, along with fish and paddy, but Sami never knew it came from such a dark and threatening place. They should do this work and leave before the tiger gets them, before the tide tries to steal their boats.
They perform the rituals, and when he looks up, Midhath is already halfway up the tree. Surely the bees will attack, but Kumar murmurs, “Don’t worry, little brother.”
A yell from above and BAM—Midhath hits the ground, then BAM—the hive. Bees pock the air like black raindrops. Men scatter; Midhath writhes. Sami feels hot, hot on the back of his neck, he’s running screaming flailing, they’re in his hair. He rips the mask off and bats at himself, “OUT OUT” he shouts, and Kumar yells, “NO SAMI, PUT IT ON” but he fumbles the slip of plastic and it falls face-up between two tree roots, black eyes glaring into the green canopy. He falls to his knees to snatch it up and now he is a boy on all fours like a prey animal, blind at the back of his head.
The tiger’s nearness pressures the air and then WHUMP, a hard blow knocks Sami flat, rolls him over. He screams but the face above him is his father’s, bloodshot eyes glaring. They stare at each other. His father hauls him to his feet, growls at him to put his mask on, get back to work.
The bees lift. But the tiger: Sami feels it. Watching. Waiting.