The Lady and the Tiger
Leilanie Stewart © 2018
The glass tower block called The City, shone before me in the morning sun. I popped a mint in my mouth and took a deep breath, then climbed the front steps and walked through the revolving doors into a wide lobby. My interview letter said I had to go to the thirtieth floor, so I made my way to the lifts to the left of the reception desk.
I pushed the button and waited. The doors opened and I saw a smartly-dressed woman in her mid-thirties, wearing a tweed jacket and pinstripe trousers. Next to her, on a leash, was a Siberian tiger.
“Are you getting in?” she asked me.
“Really? Is it safe?” I replied.
She smiled. “Sure. A lady can’t be a lady without her tiger. And a tiger needs a lady for balance. Up or down?”
“But- aren’t we on the ground floor?”
She shook her head. “No, it gets much lower than this. Rock bottom.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I got in and stood with the tiger to my right. I raised my hand towards the panel on the left side, but noticed that the numbers only went as high as twenty-five. The doors closed, but the lift didn’t move.
“How do I get to the thirtieth floor?” I asked her.
“You take the lift,” she said.
I frowned. “It doesn’t go up there.”
“To the thirtieth floor.”
“What about it?”
I paused, not sure if she was playing a game with me. “I need to get to the thirtieth floor.”
“Do you?” she said, smiling.
I could feel my blood rising; in a new place, with no help, being toyed with by a lady and her tiger.
“Can you tell me how to get to the thirtieth floor?” I snapped.
“You take the lift,” she said.
I pushed the button to open the door and shook my head as I walked out. On the right side of the reception desk, I spotted a door that I had not seen from the entrance. A tall, handsome black man opened the door and came out.
“You must be Cara?” he said.
“Yes, I’m here for an interview. But it was supposed to be on the thirtieth floor.”
“Not yet,” he said smiling. “Ms. Leading will see you first.”
He pushed the door wide, letting me enter a small room lit by a phosphorescent tube above. There was no furniture in the small, silvery space. A large poster with the words ‘pre-contemplation’ hung on the wall opposite the door. A bowl of round, white sweets lay on the floor below it.
“What does that poster mean?” I asked.
“You’re on the right side now,” said the man. “What do you think?”
Right side? Of the reception desk? “Er- pre-contemplation means denial, doesn’t it?”
“Right,” he answered. “Ms. Leading is waiting for you. Help yourself to a sweet while you’re waiting.”
He closed the door and I saw a full length mirror on the back of it. Ms. Leading was nowhere to be seen. I took a sweet from the bowl and swallowed it; chalky, and surprisingly bland under the sugary coating. Instinct brought me towards the mirror. My reflection looked back at me.
“Hello,” said my face in the mirror. “You must be Cara.”
“What’s going on? Am I dreaming?”
“No, I thought you knew; Pre-contemplation. You’re working.”
“I am? On what?”
My reflection smiled back. “Through some stuff. I’m Ms. Leading.”
She extended her hands towards me; I watched her fingers pierce the membrane of the mirror, and jumped as they stretched into my world.
“Don’t be alarmed. I’m here to help you.”
“What do you mean I’m working? If this isn’t a dream, then what- am I knocked out?”
She smiled. “No. You came here for an interview. I’ll show you what to do next.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“Do you trust yourself?” she said.
I shrugged. She still hadn’t answered my question. Was I daydreaming?
Ms. Leading pulled herself out of the mirror and stood face to face with me. I stood rooted to the spot as she moved closer. My skin tingled cold as she stepped into me; I found myself unable to speak.
I staggered a few steps and looked down at my body. Ms. Leading had filled a gap in me, giving me a better perspective on myself, helping my self-exploration.
I walked out of the room back into the lobby. The handsome man who had shown me to Ms. Leading stood behind the reception desk, smiling.
“Ms. Understanding is waiting for you. Best take some more sweets with you,” he said, giving me a handful of the white, sugary balls. “You know where to go, I assume?”
Did I? My feet seemed to think so, as they led me towards the lift. “I’m not dreaming and I’m not dead,” I said. “But since I don’t know what’s going on, I’ll go with my feelings on this,” I said. The man nodded and gestured towards the lift.
It was empty. I swallowed another sweet and pushed the button for floor twenty-five.
Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Twenty-five. When the doors opened, I found myself in a short corridor. A conference room stood through a door to the left. Looking through the small window in the door, I saw a long table. Thirty people sat around it; men and women, black and white. At the far side of the room stood the lady who I had met in the lift, writing a poem on a flipchart. The Siberian tiger sat next to the flipchart, intently watching the viewers. The lady began reciting the poem.
… The best way to go through life, is like butter on a knife…
The words were muffled. I pushed the door open to hear more claerly.
… It coats the edge, although serrated and smoothes the path, despite what’s fated…
I stepped into the room.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” I said. “If the knife cuts the butter, how can the butter coat the knife?”
The viewers turned to me and the tiger let out a low growl, but the lady smiled. “The butter melts and flows into the grooves,” she said. “It is adaptable, unlike the hard steel knife.”
“I’d rather be hard to face life than something that has to adhere to the shape of other things.”
She shook her head. “You don’t understand. You keep going left, but what you need is to balance it with right. You aren’t ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“The thirtieth floor. You should go. Your lift is waiting.”
I looked at the faces around the table and my eyes stopped on details. One of the women near the door had a small, heart-shaped face and a heavy fringe. Through the parting in her fringe I could see another face, half-hidden on her forehead. If she tilted her head back, the features became clearer, dominating the face below. Two of the men sitting at the table were police officers. They stood up, seized me by my arms and dragged me from the room. I was powerless to resist.
“Hey, I don’t want to go,” I said, as they forced me down the corridor towards the lift. “You have no right to do this. I came here to see Ms. Understanding. Where’s Ms. Understanding?”
The officers shoved me into the lift. I banged the back of my head against the wall and winced as the shiny doors slid shut and the lift descended. I hadn’t pushed any buttons and neither had the officers, but I knew where I was going. Rock bottom.
The lift stopped and the doors opened. I could make out a dark, stone basement; the light from the lift didn’t reach the corners of the room. I shuffled into the gloom with my arms outstretched.
“Hello? Is anyone there? Ms. Understanding?” I said.
“Look to the left,” said my voice. My voice? I hadn’t spoken.
“No, right first,” I said again. The voice of my unconscious?
“Left, right, which one first?” I asked.
“What’s the difference?”
“Left brain, right brain. You’re operating under the logical centre at the moment, Lefty. But you need to enter the creative hemisphere. So take another sweet and come this way,” said the first speaker and it dawned on me at last; I was talking to myself!
“Wait a minute- these aren’t sweets. What are they?”
“Just a little something to help you on your trip. What are you hiding from us?”
“Us? Who else is here? There’s two of you, I thought-”
In the faint light from the open lift, six of myself appeared in different colours: black, brown, gold, red, yellow and white. They encircled me, closing in.
“See the bigger picture- step outside yourself,” said White and stepped into me.
“This is the way things are,” said Yellow as we merged.
“Keep it all in focus,” said Red and blended into me.
“Emotional states are no more mystical than physical states,” said Gold and shimmered around me.
“There is something to learn from all things, however menial,” said Brown as we connected.
“Take a trip through your mind,” said Black and engulfed me.
I was alone. At my feet, I found an effigy of myself; a doll. The porcelain looked as real as my skin and the hair was exactly like mine. As I stooped to pick it up, words escaped my mouth. The doll’s name materialised in my mind. “Ms. Understanding…”
I returned to the brightness of the lift with the doll in my hand. There was no number thirty on the panel and there never would be. Instead, I pushed the button for the ground floor. When the lift stopped, I walked across the lobby.
On the way out, I noticed the tall black man standing by the revolving doors. He smiled as I passed him into broad sunlight.
“Well done,” he said, “You’ve figured out how the compartments work.”
“I know I have to reach my destination another way. I accept that,” I said.
“Good. She’s waiting for you.”
I walked around the right side of the glass tower block. Scaffolding stretched to the top of the building. A rope ladder hung from the topmost trestle.
I looked at the round, white sweets in my left hand. Taking one would have given me the courage I needed for the climb. But on the other hand-
I let them scatter on the ground and stepped on them, crushing them into a fine powder. I didn’t need any help. I could do it by myself. I had my doll, Ms. Understanding, wedged under my right armpit.
I climbed onto the rope ladder and pushed upwards with my heels on each rope-step. The climb was slow; the wind blew and the sun glared. Along the way, I passed the outlines of dozens of people in their offices inside the tower block, busying about their lives oblivious to all that happened outside.
I reached the window of the topmost floor. Inside, I recognised seven of the thirty people from the conference room on the twenty-fifth floor. They were all seated, and the woman from the lift lectured them from a podium near the door. There was no sign of her tiger.
She spotted me and opened the window. I took her hand as I climbed inside and walked to towards her on the far side, holding Ms. Understanding in my right hand.
“You’ve made it. Welcome to the thirtieth floor.”
“Thank you,” I said. I sighed with relief. “Have I missed any of your teachings?”
“Not yet, you’re in time.”
“Wait a minute, where’s your tiger? You told me when we met that a lady needed her tiger for balance.”
Her gaze rested on a point behind me, beneath the small window I had crawled through. The hairs on the back of my neck rose under a wave of hot breath. I shuddered. I knew it had been lurking in a shadowy corner. I knew it had been waiting for me. I turned. The huge striped animal padded towards me. The shock of the dustbin-sized head coming towards me made me hold Ms. Understanding in front of me, for protection. Tucked in a pocket on the doll’s dress was a single sweet. I popped it in my mouth and turned away curling into a ball for protection, hoping the sweet would magic the tiger away.
From the corner of my eye, I saw its strong jaw’s open wide. I felt the sharp teeth pierce the back of my neck. As the tiger crushed my spine I crushed the sweet in my mouth and held Ms. Understanding in my left hand. Blackness swirled. And then I fell.