“The animals will teach us something new today.”
Sarah awoke before dawn to a chilly apartment. She dressed in her warmest clothes and carefully made her way down frost-slicked stairs to the courtyard, where Sanjay and William and their driver waited in an open jeep. The night was black, the air cold as iron, but her reintroduction to Ranthambore National Park—her first visit since her family’s trip here when she was seven—would proceed according to plan.
With dramatic urgency, a powerful sense of place, and a beautifully rendered cast of characters revealing a deep understanding of human nature in all its flawed glory, Katy Yocom has created an unforgettable novel about saving all that is precious, from endangered species to the indelible bonds among family.
On the wind-whipped drive to the park, Sanjay pronounced the cold weather highly auspicious. “The animals will teach us something new today,” he shouted to William and Sarah, who sat in the back seat, wrapped tight in buffalo plaid blankets, eyes watering from the assault of frigid air. The driver—a kind-faced, barrel-chested man named Hari—slowed the jeep only when they turned off the macadam of Ranthambore Road onto the dusty track into the park. The jeep shuddered and snorted white exhaust into the freezing predawn blackness. Around them, hills rose blacker than the sky.
The Aravalli Hills are the oldest in the world. So began a passage in a book Sarah had slipped into her pocket as she left her flat. Now she flipped to a dog-eared page and read as best she could by penlight on the bumpy road. They, along with the Vindhya Mountains, form two spines that define Ranthambore. It is a place of dramatic terrain: cliffs where leopards prowl at dusk, vine-draped ravines where tigers raise their cubs, mirror lakes reflecting summer palaces and temples built a thousand years ago. The ground is dust and stone.
She glanced up. They had entered thick woods, and on either side of the track, every leaf and twig to a height of three feet glowed ghostly in the headlights, as if the foliage had been doused in bleach. It was dust, she realized, that created the eerie effect: ordinary dust kicked up by every jeep that had passed that way since the last rain.
On the tawny hillsides, gnarled acacias claw against the landscape, failing to reach the sky. Dhok trees hunker sere and lifeless until the monsoon comes, and then their spindly branches unfurl leaves of transparent green, the first tree in the forest to wither in the heat, the first to revive in the rains. Near the stony nullahs, wild date palms scent the air, and flocks of rose-ringed parakeets pour, crying, across the sky.
She lowered the book. The wind had died, and the headlights caught a herd of spotted chital deer nibbling sparse grass beneath a fig tree. “My father taught me the concept of camouflage beneath that very tree,” Sanjay said. “The chital were grazing just as they are now. The white spots on their backs looked like sunlight through leaves.” He turned in his seat. “Please remember, Sarah. Even if you don’t see a tiger today, you can be sure the tiger sees you.” Half aphorism, half consolation, his breath puffing out in white clouds, preparing her for disappointment. But everything seemed a wonder to Sarah. The way the world smelled of ice, of living things pulled in tight. The way the forest creatures came awake when the sky began to gray in the east. Animals rustled and hooted and krr-krrrred.
The jeep rumbled out of the wood and crested a hill. Rajbagh Lake lay spread out below, its shining black surface exhaling streamers of white mist. In the dark, the water gave up nothing but the liquid reflection of headlights, though Sarah remembered it from her childhood visit as a gem of a lake, ringed by reeds and ornamented on its far shore with a summer palace built a thousand years ago.
Crowning it all is the clifftop fortress, its millennial ramparts golden at sunrise and late in the day. In its thousand-year history, its seven gates have withstood innumerable sieges, their strategic placement at switchbacks in the steep path rendering them all but impervious to elephants and battering rams. In 1301, when the fortress was under the control of the Rajput king Hammir Singh, it came under siege by the sultan of Delhi, who managed to turn one of Singh’s generals against him. Enticed by the promise of his own kingdom, the traitorous general accomplished from inside the stronghold what armies and elephants could not manage from below. In secret, he raised the orange flag, which the king had decreed was to be flown only in defeat. Seeing the coded sign that all was lost, the 5,000 women and children of Ranthambore flung themselves into fire.
In the face of this catastrophe, the Rajput king lost all heart and surrendered to the sultan, though not before finding and killing the traitorous general. The execution was utterly insufficient as an act of revenge, but it was the only thing Hammir Singh had left to him.
Now the fortress belongs to the tiger.
“Even if you don’t see a tiger today, you can be sure the tiger sees you.”
Sarah closed the book. Sanjay murmured something to Hari, and they drove on, past a uniformed forest guard who sat on a rock near the lakeshore, peeling an apple with a pocketknife. The headlights caught him, and he pressed his palms together in a long-distance namaskar. Nothing about him suggested that he was afraid of being on foot in the tigers’ domain, but even from a distance, Sarah could see that his face bore signs of an old injury: the nose misshapen, the cheekbone caved in.
“It happened last dry season,” Sanjay said. “Herders. He and his partner caught them grazing their cattle illegally in the park’s core area.” He glanced back at Sarah. “He was the lucky one. His partner died from the beating.”
She had heard stories like this before. Too many people, too few resources, everything out of balance. The reason NGOs like theirs existed. The reason Sarah had walked away from her career as a journalist and returned to India as a conservation worker: to be part of a story instead of merely reporting on it. To help fix what was broken. To make things change.
All around, bird chatter rose up amid the bustle of bodies moving in the trees, the blunt sound of feathers against air. Whoever thought the countryside was quiet had never been around birds in the morning. Sanjay identified their calls: white-bellied drongo, Asian paradise flycatcher, rufous-tailed shrike. Sarah sat back and listened, both to learn a few things and to enjoy the cadences of Sanjay’s voice, the British cast of his vowels, the v’s instead of w’s: jungle varbler. “When I was a small boy,” he said, “I thought the birds sang the stars to sleep. I don’t know where I got that idea. My father, probably. He taught political science, but he was a naturalist at heart. He spoiled me for any other kind of work.”
A peahen mewed. Night thinned to gray, and Sanjay gestured for Hari to wheel the jeep onto a track leading into the forest. A few dozen yards in, where blackness still held, Sanjay murmured, “Bas,” and Hari stopped in the middle of the road, killing the engine but leaving the headlights on to illuminate the track.
“Claw marks.” Sanjay pointed to scratches in a tree trunk at the edge of the headlights’ reach. “But he hasn’t been here in three or four days. Maybe today he makes his rounds again.”
Sarah and William exchanged a hopeful glance. She was curious about him. In his nature documentaries, William had always been the narrator. In person, he seemed contained and respectful of Sanjay’s authority in the park. Humble, really, a trait she found surprising and rather endearing.
For 40 minutes they waited in the biting air. Sanjay and Hari exchanged a few quiet words about Hari’s children, then fell silent so as not to scare off the animals. The engine ticked intermittently as it cooled. Sarah thought the membranes inside her nose might freeze and shatter. For a time, she listened to the pressured pulsing in her ears to take her mind off her fingertips, burning with chill despite her gloves.
A hoopoe stalked across the road, its headdress of black-tipped feathers swaying. Sanjay handed Sarah his copy of Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. As she read the field guide by the red beam of her penlight, something shifted in the atmosphere to her right. Without moving, she slid her eyes in that direction. And there he was: a tiger, standing alongside the jeep. She could have reached out and touched him.
In the gray half light, his body blended into the forest like a ghost. He turned his head and looked right into her eyes. Then he stepped past her into the headlights, and Sanjay whispered, “Tigertigertiger!” and the four of them rose to their feet. In the light, he was no ghost but a big, glossy male, long and lean, close enough that Sarah could see the individual hairs in his fiery orange coat. His breath turned to smoke as it hit the air. Without taking her eyes off the animal, Sarah raised her camera.
Something about the angle of the tiger’s shoulder seemed eloquent, as if all his power and grace originated there. The backs of his black ears sported white spots that stared back like eyes, then disappeared as he flicked his ears backward to judge the jeep’s proximity. He had registered their presence, that much was clear, but he had already measured them up and decided they weren’t worth bothering about.
He sauntered down the middle of the track, unhurried but purposeful, stopping every few feet to spray his scent on a tree or bush. Twenty feet past the jeep, he reared up and placed his forepaws on a tree trunk, stretching easily six feet up. In profile, his eye glowed amber, as if lit from within. His tail swished the dust as he pulled his claws through the bark, which squealed and groaned under his mauling.
Hari started the engine, and the tiger turned his head, his eyes transforming into an unearthly electric green. He pulled his black lips into a demonic snarl, wrinkling the skin of his nose and cheeks. His long canines gleamed. Then he dropped silently to all fours and disappeared into the trees.
Sanjay turned to Sarah and grasped her hand in victory. “God is smiling on you,” he said, and, in fact, so was Sanjay himself. “That was Akbar, the resident male. To see him in your first hour in the park—it’s unheard of.”
She beamed, crinkling the corners of her eyes. “I’m lucky.” But she quickly closed her lips. It was too cold to keep one’s teeth exposed for long.
Later that morning, back in her apartment, she thought about that moment. God is smiling on you. People didn’t usually talk to her that way, but she liked that Sanjay did. Throughout the morning, he had seen everything and known what it meant. Not only did he spot pugmarks—paw prints—from a moving jeep, he could tell how old they were. If dewdrops had fallen into a pugmark from the trees, the track had been made before dawn. Three times, he heard noises that Sarah didn’t even register. Once it was a tiger’s far-off roar, barely more than a vibration in their chests. Sarah took a photo of him at that moment: one hand in the air for quiet, lips slightly parted, a searching look on his face.
Note: The italicized text that Sarah reads in this scene, credited in the novel to an unnamed natural history book, was written by the author.
Header photo by tom177, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Katy Yocom by Terry Price.