Tiger's Quest - By Colleen Houck
I clung to the leather seat and felt my heart fall as the private plane rose into the sky, streaking away from India. If I took off my seatbelt, I was sure I would sink right through the floor and drop thousands of feet, freefalling to the jungles below. Only then would I feel right again. I had left my heart in India; I could feel it missing. All that was left of me was a hollowed-out shell, numb and empty.
The worst part was . . . I did this to myself.
How was it possible that I had fallen in love? And with someone so . . . complicated? The past few months had flown by. Somehow, I had gone from working at a circus to traveling to India with a tiger—who turned out to be an Indian prince—to battling immortal creatures to trying to piece together a lost prophecy. Now, my adventure was all over, and I was alone.
It was hard to believe just a few minutes ago I had said good-bye to Mr. Kadam. He hadn’t said much. He had just gently patted my back as I’d hugged him hard, not letting go. Finally, Mr. Kadam pried my arms from the vise I’d locked him in, muttered some reassurances, and turned me over to his great-great-great granddaughter, Nilima.
Thankfully, Nilima left me alone on the plane. I didn’t want anyone’s company. She brought lunch, but I couldn’t even think about eating. I’m sure it was delicious, but I felt like I was skirting the edge of a pit of quicksand. Any second, I could be sucked down into an abyss of despair. The last thing I wanted was food. I felt spent and lifeless, like crumpled-up wrapping paper after Christmas.
Nilima removed the meal and tried to tempt me with my favorite drink—ice-cold lemon water, but I left it on the table. I stared at the glass for who knows how long, watching the moisture bead on the outside and slowly dribble down, pooling around the bottom.
I tried to sleep, to forget about everything for at least a few hours— but the dark, peaceful oblivion eluded me. Thoughts of my white tiger and the centuries-old curse that trapped him raced through my mind as I stared into space. I looked at Mr. Kadam’s empty seat across from me, glanced out the window, or watched a blinking light on the wall. I gazed at my hand now and then, tracing over the spot where Phet’s henna design lay unseen.
Nilima returned with an MP3 player full of thousands of songs. Several were by Indian musicians, but most of them were by Americans. I scrolled through to find the saddest breakup songs on it. Putting the plugs in my ears, I selected PLAY.
I unzipped my backpack to retrieve my grandmother’s quilt, only then remembering that I had wrapped Fanindra inside it. Pulling back the edges of the quilt, I spied the golden serpent, a gift from the goddess Durga herself, and set it next to me on the armrest. The enchanted piece of jewelry was in a coil, resting: or at least I assumed she was. Rubbing her smooth, golden head, I whispered, “You’re all I’ve got now.”
Spreading the quilt over my legs, I leaned back in the reclined chair, stared at the ceiling of the airplane, and listened to a song called “One Last Cry.” Keeping the volume soft and low, I placed Fanindra on my lap and stroked her gleaming coils. The green glow of the snake’s jeweled eyes softly illuminated the plane’s cabin and comforted me as the music filled the empty place in my soul.
The plane finally landed several mind-numbing hours later at the airport in Portland, Oregon. When my feet hit the tarmac, I shifted my gaze from the terminal to the gray, overcast sky. I closed my eyes and let the cool breeze blow over me. It carried the smell of the forest. A soft, dewy sprinkle settled on my bare arms from what must have been a recent rain. It felt good to be home.
Taking a deep breath, I felt Oregon center me. I was a part of this place, and it was a part of me. I belonged here. It was where I grew up and spent my whole life. My roots were here. My parents and grandma were buried here. Oregon welcomed me like a beloved child, enfolded me in her cool arms, shushed my turbulent thoughts, and promised peace through her whispering pines.