The Brass Tiger

The brass tiger is wrapped in tissue paper, nestled in the box between crumpled balls of newspaper. I scrunch the paper back and rip most of the tissue away. The tiger has a dull shine over most of its body, except for the stripes, which are carved indents in its body. The stripes are filled with a sort of dark grime that seems to naturally collect on things over years of sitting and doing nothing. I tear the rest of the tissue away and lift it out. It’s one of those objects where it’s exactly as heavy as it looks. I don’t know how we learn to assess how heavy something is, some instant transfer of knowledge from our hand to eyes and just several years of steadily picking things up and putting them back down again. The tiger, I think, is something that a child would see and know precisely how heavy it will be. There is something in the tiger that is the solidness of metal, but with something deeper to its solidity. I don’t know if you know what I mean, but I think you might. It’s this cold weight—maybe a gravity—that you can perceive in an object from afar. Something that could anchor you.

The tiger is just the right kind of heavy in my hand. It’s larger than my palm by a good deal, but I can still balance it perfectly with one hand. I can wrap my fingers around the tiger’s midsection. It would be a good weapon.

I turn the tiger over and I run my finger over the letters cast in the belly.


I remember him opening the box, hefting the tiger in his hand, appraising it. I can see the moment when the delight and wonder in his eyes dies as he runs his thumb over the letters and he murmers “Hm. Taiwan,” then he roughly sets the tiger back in the box, too quickly, as if he’s forgotten the weight of it. There is a little flash of something on his face, but I don’t know what it is. I think later that it is disappointment, but now I think it could also be relief. I didn’t know what the letters meant, then. I still don’t.

When I am a little older, I sometimes sneak into my father’s office to check on the tiger. It is up on a shelf, a little too high for me to see properly. I have to back up to the other side of the office, my back pushed uncomfortably against the edge of the desk, leaning far back to see the glint of the brass.

Other things begin to fill the shelf, slowly. The tiger is displayed on the shelf with a few sports trophies from my brother with plastic figures on top. There is a certificate I’ve earned in school, some photographs of family vacations, slowly curling at the edges. I still cannot reach the tiger and hold it. I’ve want to hold it everyday since the day in the second hand store with my mother. I picked it out from behind a ceramic vase with tulips painted on the side. I held it until it was time to wrap it and put it in the box. The shelf is an alter to our family and the tiger is the god of our family. I come to pray regularly.

Soon, I can reach the shelf, but by this time I do not want to disturb it. More offerings have been added, some clay sculptures, a silver dollar from 1961 that I found in the yard, more photographs, covering the old ones, a framed photograph of my mother, a funeral program tucked behind it. I can see the tiger more clearly now at eye level. I still don’t pick it up, but I can see now that it is poorly made. The finer details of the face and curling tail are unfinished. Rough pieces that should have been filed away stick out from the tail, like tiny spokes around a wheel. I want to get a file from the garage and fix it, make it better, but I don’t want to move anything on the shelf. I won’t remember how to put it back. Instead I lightly tap the little spokes and feel the bits of metal poke my finger in a useless attempt to smooth them.

I leave the house one day. I mean I leave the way that someone leaves something for the first time, which is to say also the last time. When you really leave something, it is like that—first and last—you can only leave it once. You only know you have left it when you realize you cannot return. The cruelty of the trick is that you do not know it until you have done it. After I leave, I dream about the office and the shelf. I return several times to worship in my mind. I wake suddenly in the middle of the night and try to draw the shelf. I try to diagram the order of things, the placements, the details of them all. I’m too far away from it and I can’t remember if the silver dollar was to the left or the right of the soccer trophy. I can’t remember the exact wording of the certificate. I spend many nights debating the color of the flowers printed on the funeral program. I feel my faith falter.

I want to call my father and ask him what color the flowers are, but I am embarrassed. I don’t know why. It’s like other things. During the day, they are inconsequential, like flies that are waved away from picnic food. There is something about the sun and daylight that makes worries shrink and feel small, flit away quickly. It’s only at night these things creep out and suddenly they are all that matters. At night, I feel like my lungs are being squeezed and I won’t be able to breathe until I know if the flowers were pink or purple. I can’t call my father, then.

One day, I am talking on the phone with my brother. I ask him if he remembers the shelf.

“Oh,” he says, “I guess so, but it’s not there, you know. The office, I mean. They knocked through that wall to expand the living room”. I have known this for a long time. I was the one that suggested they rennovate.

“I know,” I say, “I was just wondering if you remembered it.” I don’t ask him about the flowers.

Sometimes, when I visit my father and step-mother for holidays I go looking for the brass tiger. My father’s dementia is starting to sink in. I ask him where he put the things on the shelf. He doesn’t know. Sometimes he tells me he threw them out. Sometimes he tells me they are in the office and have always been in the office. I tell him the office is gone, part of the living room now, and he is surprised for a minute, then tells me he must have thrown them out. My step-mother shrugs and shakes her head. I check the basement and the garage when I have a moment, but there is always something distracting. My niece comes and pulls me away from my search. I try to recruit her to help me look for a magic tiger, but she is more interested in what she can see and dig up now, here in the yard. I think she is right, but knowing that does something funny to a part of my chest.

I am very sure, when I hold my father’s funeral program in my hand, that the flowers on my mother’s funeral program were blue, not pink or purple. I am sure that the silver dollar was to the right of the trophy. I recite the words of the certificate over and over, my mantra,

Certificate of Outstanding Achievement
is hereby granted for the subject(s) of:
Reading & Writing
on your performance!

Everytime I hug someone or shake their hand as they shuffle down the line from my brother to me, I say to them in my mind “Congratulations on your performance,” I murmur it over and over in my mind blessing them. It is so stuck in my mind that I nearly say it out loud to the actual priest when I go to thank him. He looks at me with sad eyes.

A week later, I am leaving the house just as the mail carrier arrives. She walks up to me holding a small box and some envelopes. I can make out my name in scrawled marker on the side of the box, partially covered with tape. As she gets closer, she motions, lifting the box in her hands the way we do to show the other person we are ready to offer them something.

“Careful,” she says, “It’s a little heavier than it looks.”