His father had never gone back, even after his mother died. That had always surprised Conrad, but his own guilt made it impossible for him to broach the subject, and now it was too late. Scattering his father's ashes on the land he'd loved and lost would be pale atonement, but the old man wouldn't have wanted to spend eternity in a tawdry urn on a shelf-or, let's be honest-in a closet. Besides, Conrad needed a vacation. He would have preferred a week of mindless carousing on a Caribbean beach, but if he played his cards right, this trip would give both him and his father their best chance to rest in peace.
As Conrad boarded the plane for Hobart-after a six-hour layover in Melbourne, which was preceded by a fifteen-hour flight out of Los Angeles, itself preceded by a four-hour layover after his flight from Chicago-he began to understand how, more than forty years earlier, his mother had come to resent Tasmania before they even arrived. Conrad had only left home a day...or three?...ago, but he was completely exhausted and felt hopelessly distant from home, even in an age when email and mobile phones made the world almost oppressively small. In 1969, when Conrad and his parents moved from Chicago to Tasmania, they might as well have gone to Neptune. No one the Galways knew could afford overseas phone rates for small talk, and letters took weeks. While Conrad's father was living his dream, his mother was trapped in a nightmare.
He was only six and buzzing with excitement over his first airplane trip and the chance to see the land he'd been hearing about since infancy, but Conrad was aware that his mother was miserable. She tried to hide it with an abundance of smiles and expressions of enthusiasm for all the fun they would have in their new home, but on that final flight from Melbourne, she smoked more cigarettes than she had smoked in the previous year, and even though she was still moving in slow motion after several drinks in the airport, she ordered a Bloody Mary as soon as she could catch a flight attendant's attention. Conrad shrank back when his father leaned across the aisle and said, "Jo, haven't you had enough?" though his tone only prompted his mother to ask for a double.
Conrad ordered a double Bloody Mary in his mother's honor when the flight attendant finally made her initial sweep through the cabin and sipped it thoughtfully as the plane sped toward Hobart. He was now more than twenty years older than his mother had been in 1969. He was older than she had been when she died. Why had the wisdom of age and experience given him the capacity to understand and forgive her fragility while he continued to deny absolution to his six-year-old self?
Conrad sighed, annoyed with himself for yet again asking a question that would always have the same answer. His mother hadn't ruined his father's life. He had. It didn't matter how he phrased the question or whether he was six or pushing fifty. The answer would never change. And he knew that if he could go back to that cold September Sunday, he'd do exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons.
He was simply going to have to live with it.
All Conrad's father ever talked about-or, at least, all he ever talked about to Conrad-were tigers, though the tigers that dominated his father's bedtime stories weren't the sleek feline lords of eastern and southern Asia but the doglike marsupials that for thousands of years had been the reigning predators of the rolling hills and rainforests of Tasmania, the wild little island south of the Australian mainland. Striped like the cats from whom they got their familiar name, built like wolves frozen in a funhouse mirror and carried by their mothers in pouches like kangaroos, Tasmanian tigers captured Conrad's imagination, too.
Conrad longed to see one of these magically bizarre beasts, but he had been born a quarter-century too late. He cried himself to sleep the night his father told him that the last known tiger was captured in 1933 and spent three lonely years pacing in a bleak enclosure in a Tasmanian zoo only to die from exposure after his keepers neglected to let him inside on a frigid September night.
Conrad's father had never seen a tiger, either. But he had also been raised on stories about the glorious creature, told to him by his grandfather, Poppy, who had been born in Tasmania when tigers not only roamed free but were hunted down because they were blamed for killing the sheep that drove the island's economy. Poppy himself had shot one; the faded, ancient photo of the grinning teenager posing with his rifle and the tiger's carcass was Conrad's father's most prized heirloom because it was a memento of two things he loved dearly, even if it presented them in tragic juxtaposition.
"But maybe it's not too late," Conrad's father said one night. Although no one had photographed-or, thankfully, shot-a wild tiger since the 1930s, many people claimed to have glimpsed tigers before they wisely fled into the depths of the Tasmanian wilderness. Conrad's father believed the stories, and Conrad did, too. They had to be true. Why wouldn't they be? Much of Tasmania was still untamed, and that land, so unwelcoming to humans, would be a haven for any tigers whose ancestors had escaped the European settlers' guns and traps.
"Can we go look for them, Dad?" Conrad asked, too excited about the possibility of coming face-to-face with a living, breathing tiger to sleep. But his hopes were immediately dashed by his father's sad smile.
"Maybe someday, Connie," his father replied. "But Tasmania's a long way away, and my job is here."
"Don't they have jobs in Tasmania?" Conrad responded, causing his father's eyes to brighten with amusement.
"It's not that simple, buddy," Conrad's father said, still smiling, before he leaned in to kiss Conrad good night.
But as it turned out, it was that simple. A few months later, on a bright June day, Conrad's mother sent him to get the mail, and he returned with a snow-white envelope with stripes on the outside, like a blue and red candy cane, and a return address in Tasmania. Conrad was more eager than usual for his father to come home that afternoon, and even before his father was fully in the door, Conrad rushed to present him with the envelope.
"Dad! It's from Tasmania! Open it!!"
"Tasmania?" his father asked, taking the envelope from Conrad while glancing at his wife. Conrad turned to see his mother, stirring something at the stove, shrug. "Hmm!" his father said, setting his metal lunchbox down and heading toward the sofa with Conrad jumping excitedly a half-step behind.
"DAD!! Open it!" Conrad pleaded.
His father sat and patted the spot beside him. "Let's open it together."
Conrad scooted into position and leaned against his father's shoulder, which smelled of factory grease mingled with the sweat of a hard day's work. His father tapped at the return address.
"Can you tell me what that says, Connie?"
Conrad furrowed his brow in concentration. Both his parents had been working with him on his reading skills, so when Conrad found the envelope that afternoon, he immediately recognized the word "Tasmania," which was the first big word his father had taught him. But the rest of the address was daunting.
"Haaaas…kell. Haskell?" Conrad finally managed and was rewarded with an encouraging nod from his father. "Haskell and Son…suhhhh-lick-i-tors?"
"Close! 'Solicitors,'" his father said. "Do you know what that means?"
Conrad shook his head.
"Lawyers," his father said.
"What do Tasmanian lawyers want with you?" Conrad's mother asked from the kitchen.
"Dunno," his father replied, smiling at Conrad. "Should we find out?"
"YES!!!" Conrad yelped.
His father carefully opened the delicate envelope and removed and unfolded the letter inside. Conrad's mother turned off the stove, set the pot she was stirring on a back burner and positioned herself behind her husband and son, her Coppertone-and-cigarette smoke scent blending seamlessly with his father's, creating for Conrad the perfect elixir of happiness and security.
Conrad had barely gotten beyond "Dear Mr. Galway" when his father sputtered, "Holy shit!"
"Wayne!" Conrad's mother said, but instead of an apology, Conrad's father simply offered her the letter.
"What does it say?" Conrad asked.
His mother scoffed and handed the letter back before returning to the stove. "Tell them to sell it and send us the money," she said. "We can use it!"
"Jo!" his father replied, springing up and approaching her. "Didn't you read the letter? It's ours. Outright. That's more than we can say for this place."
Conrad was dying to know what they were talking about but sensed this wasn't a good time for questions. He rose to his knees and watched his parents take their unwitting first steps on what would become a lifelong journey into disappointment and bitterness.
His mother was about to turn the stove back on but instead turned to face her husband. "We can't just pack up and move to another country, Wayne. Are you nuts?"
"Why can't we? I'm serious, Jo. This is an opportunity most people only fantasize about, and it's dropped right into our laps! Imagine it! We can sell this place, sell the car-that would bring in enough money for us to live on for a few years even after we pay off the mortgage."
"And then what?"
"What do you mean, 'and then what'? We'd make a life there. I'd get a job. Or maybe we could make a living on the farm."
"That's your idea of a fantasy-moving halfway around the world to be a farmer?"
Conrad had never seen his parents argue and bit his lip to keep from crying. But when he saw tears of frustration well up in his father's eyes, Conrad couldn't stop his own from spilling over.
"Look around, Jo," his father said. "Is this your fantasy?"
Conrad's mother gently wiped her husband's eyes. "I need to think about this," she said finally.
"That's fine!" his father said. "That's all I'm asking. Thank you!" he pulled her close and kissed her, causing her to laugh with delight.
Conrad wiped his cheeks and bounced on the sofa. "Can we look for tigers, Dad?"
Conrad's father winked at him. "Maybe!" he responded brightly. "Hey," he continued, turning back to Conrad's mother. "I know you've started supper, but let's go out for burgers."
While Conrad cheered, his mother looked shocked. "You wanna go out?!"
"Yeah. Why not?"
And with that, his mother put a mismatched lid on the pot she had been stirring, wiped her hands and grinned. "Ready!"
Over a child's dream feast of cheeseburgers, fries and root beer, Conrad finally learned the details of the letter. A distant cousin of his father's had died, and so the Galway family farm, which Poppy had left at the turn of the century to seek his fortune in America, now belonged to Conrad's father.
Conrad and his father both felt like they knew every inch of that farm based on Poppy's stories, and between their excitement and the novelty of being taken out for dinner, Conrad's mother got so swept away she agreed they should take advantage of this unexpected opportunity. Before she could change her mind, his father ordered a whole apple pie, complete with ice cream, for a celebratory dessert.
That evening was the happiest in Conrad's life.
But there was plenty of happiness and excitement in the weeks leading up to their departure. His father hired a local lawyer who verified that Wayne Galway was indeed heir to Poppy's family farm, and he also arranged for passports and visas and organized the other essential paperwork. Conrad helped his mother clean the house and sort through everything, deciding what they would throw away, what they might donate, what would be left with Aunt Ellen and what they would take with them.
The house sold quickly and for a good price, which prompted another night out for cheeseburgers and apple pie, though this time his mother passed on dessert and sat, smoking pensively, as Conrad and his father demolished theirs.
"Come on, Jo, have a bite," Conrad's father said, nudging his plate toward her.
But his mother pushed the plate back. "I don't want any." Her tone sent a little shiver up Conrad's spine, but when he looked up, concerned, she smiled gently. "Go ahead, honey. You can have my share if you want."
"Ha! Not if I get to it first!" his father snarled playfully, causing Conrad to speed up his already impressive rate of consumption.
"Wayne, you're gonna make him sick," his mother said. "Slow down, Connie. You can have as much as you want, so there's no need to rush."
Conrad's father sighed. "She's right, buddy. Take it easy."
His parents barely spoke again in Conrad's presence that night, though after his mother tucked him in, he heard muffled voices beyond his closed bedroom door. The words were indistinct, but it was obviously an argument, the lower tones of his father's voice calm and pleading, his mother's voice louder and tinged with anxiety. Conrad could have opened the door to eavesdrop, but he didn't want to hear more clearly. He didn't want to hear at all. With his tummy churning from nerves and too much apple pie, he pulled the covers over his head and hummed softly, drowning out the voices from beyond his bedroom door, until he fell asleep.
Conrad awoke before sunrise, but his room was already alive with the scent of coffee and the soft sounds of his father going about his morning routine as quietly as possible so as not to wake his wife and son. Conrad padded into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes from the harsh glare of the light fixture, freshly cleaned by his mother when she was prepping the house for the market.
"Hey, buddy. Did I wake you up?" his father asked.
"Nuh uh," Conrad replied, then nodded as his father picked up the box of Cap'n Crunch and gestured an offer of breakfast. "Is Mommy mad?"
"Take a seat, champ," his father replied as he prepared a bowl of cereal for Conrad before pouring a final cup of coffee and making another sugary breakfast for himself. Conrad hadn't started eating.
"Eat before it turns into Cap'n Soggy," his father said, taking a noisy first mouthful himself. With an annoyed sigh, Conrad began eating.
"Mom's not mad," his father said, at last responding to Conrad's question. "But she's worried you'll miss your friends when we move to Tasmania, and she doesn't want to go if you'll be lonely."
"But that's where the tigers are!" Conrad replied.
"That's what I told her, buddy."
"Should I tell her, too?"
"I think that would be a good idea," his father said.
"Okay. Do you think we'll see any tigers?" Conrad asked.
"We'll find out, won't we?"
Conrad nodded, and his father roughed his hair before sweeping up his dishes and depositing them in the sink. He grabbed his thermos and lunchbox. "Last day at the factory!" he said happily. "Tell Mom we're going out for pizza tonight."
"You bet. See you tonight, buddy!" his father responded as he headed out.
Conrad, his legs kicking excitedly below the table, took another spoonful of cereal. His father was right; it had turned soggy. But he was too happy to care.
Conrad resisted the temptation to wake his mother so he could tell her how much he was looking forward to their move, but as soon as she got up he was at her side, bouncing with enthusiasm as he assured her that he wanted to move to Tasmania with all his heart and that she shouldn't worry.
"Won't you miss your friends?" she asked. "You may not see them again for a very long time. And what about Aunt Ellen, Uncle Roy and your cousins? I'll miss them. Won't you?"
Conrad considered this briefly, then nodded. His mother's eyes sparkled as she smiled, something he hadn't seen for a long time. "I will miss them, Mommy. But I wanna see a tiger, too. We can go, can't we? Please?"
His mother's smile froze, but her eyes sparkled even more. And then, finally, she nodded before turning away quickly and telling him he should go play outside.
After that conversation, Conrad was too busy counting the hours until their journey began to notice anything but the clock and the calendar-but a few days later, in yet another airport, he realized his mother was drinking more and smiling less. Then, on the final leg of their long journey, he found himself shrinking back as his father scolded her for ordering a Bloody Mary. He worried that she was sad because he had failed to convince her how excited he was about the move and decided he would do everything in his power to show her how happy he was.
Not that Conrad could have hidden his excitement had he tried. He could barely contain himself at the thought that he would, this very day, arrive in Tasmania. And as if that wasn't enough, it was winter in Tasmania in late July, and there might even be snow. Chicago had been hot and sunny when they left, and, like his mother, Conrad bore the scars of a Midwestern summer, sun-bleached hair and sun-darkened skin. Unlike his mother, however, who loved the relentless heat and the hum of insects in the evening air, Conrad, like his father, preferred the earthy scents of autumn and the crisp silence of winter. Their Tasmanian heritage is what made them prefer colder weather, Conrad's father had always said, and now they were moving to this wondrous place, which was cold in "summer" and never too hot, even in its warmest months. It was as if Conrad's dreams were all coming true before he had even thought to dream them.
But it was drizzling, not snowing, as their flight descended. Through the gentle prisms created by the rain-splattered windows, Conrad got his first, blurry glimpse of Tasmania, and it immediately made him think of his favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. The sky, the water and the widely spaced farmhouses were in muted black and white, while the forests and pastures that dominated the landscape were a rich, impossible, Technicolor green. Conrad looked at that magical view and believed with absolute certainty that tigers thrived there. He knew better than to think that lions and bears lurked in those forests, too, but the tigers were there. And he and his father would find them. And then his mother would be happy again.
Despite the tension on the plane, everything went smoothly once they landed. Although it was well into winter, it wasn't nearly as cold as Chicago would have been in the depth of the season, and Conrad's mother perked up considerably at that revelation, which led to a promising first night in Tasmania. The bed and breakfast Haskell & Son had recommended was exceptionally comfortable, and the in-house restaurant provided them with a rich and delicious meal. Their confrontation on the plane forgotten, Conrad's parents were delighted by the local wine the proprietors offered as a welcome gift while Conrad enjoyed a piece of chocolate cake and marveled at his hosts' accents.
The happy mood continued the next morning. While Conrad's father went to Haskell & Son's office to sign papers, Conrad and his mother explored Hobart. It was much smaller and quieter than Chicago, but the language and look of the place were familiar enough that Conrad's mother relaxed over the course of their excursion. By the time they met his father for lunch, he had keys not only to their new home but also to a new truck-new to them, anyway. By early afternoon, when they headed out of Hobart toward the countryside, the whole family was well fed and excited.
The farm did not disappoint. It so perfectly matched Conrad's expectations that he might have heard the stories yesterday directly from Poppy himself-everything had been so well maintained that it looked exactly as Poppy described it to Conrad's father when he was a small boy, though even by that time it had been decades since Poppy had left Tasmania behind. And, years later, long after Poppy was gone, Conrad's father passed those stories on to his son so faithfully that nothing about this utterly foreign place felt anything other than intimately familiar to Conrad and his father. Even Conrad's mother admitted the place was charming, and when Conrad's father grinned at her, Conrad grinned, too. Everything was going to be perfect after all.
And for a while, it was. Conrad didn't have to start school until January; he had finished kindergarten a month before they left Chicago, and Australia was in the middle of its academic year, so his parents decided he should wait and start first grade with his peers. Meanwhile, Conrad's father didn't have to leave at daybreak every morning to go to a dismal job, so for the first time in Conrad's life, the whole family was together for days on end.
And they were busy. The property was well maintained but had been empty for several months by the time the family arrived, so the house needed a thorough cleaning before they could even begin the daunting task of unpacking and organizing all but their most urgent possessions.
When the family wasn't working, they were exploring the house, the outbuildings and the yard and thrilling at its potential-Conrad asked for and was promised a tire swing, his mother looked forward to her first garden and harvesting fresh apples from the small orchard on the property, and Conrad's father dreamed of making a living as a farmer-and both he and Conrad cast numerous glances toward the thick woods behind the house, wondering when they would finally see their first tiger.
Conrad's mother blossomed in those first days. Whatever had been making her sad in the weeks leading up to and throughout their long journey seemed to evaporate. Although the house was always a little chilly no matter how much fuel his father piled into the wood-burning stove, Conrad had rarely felt warmer inside as he watched his parents smiling and laughing while they scrubbed and filled cupboards, arranged furniture and discussed whether they should invest in sheep or pigs.
Once the house was set up, however, the mood shifted. There wasn't much the family could do toward realizing its larger ambitions until springtime, and that was several months away. In fact, the weather, which had been cool but mild when the family arrived, abruptly turned cold; springtime seemed impossibly distant.
Conrad's mother's smiles faded as the gloomy days dragged on, and before long she was sleeping so much and so late Conrad rarely saw her before noon, often not until suppertime.
At the same time, Conrad's father, who was incapable of sleeping past dawn and who no longer had a job to occupy his days, began a routine of long, solitary excursions. Conrad learned of this when he got up early one morning just as his father was returning, his coat so drenched in cold Conrad's nostrils flared from the mild, inviting sting that emanated from it as his father draped it over a chair.
"Were you looking for tigers, Dad?" Conrad asked, wounded that his father had gone exploring without him.
"No, buddy. I just took a walk," his father replied quickly. "Mom's still in bed, huh?" It wasn't really a question. It was already an established pattern, and he was resigned to it.
He had tried to engage his wife at the first signs of her decline. A brisk walk would perk her up, he told her the first time she failed to rise before lunchtime, but she said she could barely tolerate the cold temperatures indoors and was not about to go outside. He then suggested the family go for a drive to see the countryside. "A tree's a tree," his mother replied, "and I can see a hundred of them from here." And with that, she returned to the bedroom, closing the door.
Conrad, an unhappy witness to this exchange as he played in the neighboring room, felt his stomach tighten the way it had so often during those final weeks in Chicago. There was only one thing he could think of that would fix everything.
"Dad? Can we go look for tigers?"
"They hibernate in the winter, buddy. Like bears," his father replied. "We won't find any until spring."
Conrad wondered vaguely why the last tiger, the one who died when he had been locked outside that long-ago September night, had not been hibernating, but his dad knew everything there was to know about tigers, maybe everything there was to know about everything, so he brushed aside the discrepancy long before it threatened to become a question.
But when, a few weeks later, Conrad got up just as his father was returning from outside and again said he'd just been out for a walk, Conrad wasn't as quick to believe him.
The next day, Conrad got up earlier, but his father was already gone, and he returned much later than he had the previous morning.
"Can I go with you tomorrow, Dad?"
"We'll see, buddy."
The day after that, Conrad rose so early the sun had not yet completely risen. But it still wasn't early enough. Conrad looked out his bedroom window just as a flashlight beam sparked in the softening darkness at the edge of the property. Then the light and his father disappeared, swallowed up by the forest.
But Conrad remained, watching and waiting. This time, even his mother got up before his father returned. She asked Conrad what he was doing, and when he told her, she clicked her tongue softly and coaxed him from his vigil with a grilled cheese sandwich. Conrad wasn't hungry, but to please his mother he accepted the meal and was determined to finish it, bite by miserable bite. But he had eaten less than half of it when his father finally came home, surprised to see not only his son but his wife waiting for him.
"Where were you?" Conrad's mother asked as her husband draped his coat over a chair.
His father smiled awkwardly and kissed her on the cheek. "Just out for a little walk, honey. I don't like being cooped up in winter; you know that."
"Connie doesn't, either," she replied, her voice sharper now. "I got up almost two hours ago. You were already gone, and Connie was waiting by the window, fully dressed, because you said you were gonna take him along."
Conrad's father hadn't yet looked him in the eye. "I didn't promise him that, Jo."
"Yes, you did. You promised him before we left Chicago."
"No, Wayne. I don't wanna hear it. I didn't agree to move here because you wanted to, and I sure as hell didn't agree because I wanted to. I came because Connie had his heart set on finding a tiger because of all your romantic nonsense. And now you won't even take him to look?"
"Jesus, Jo," his father said, nodding in Conrad's direction but keeping his eyes locked with his wife's.
Conrad's mother narrowed her eyes at her husband before turning to Conrad and running a gentle hand through his hair and along his cheek. Her expression, which had been so fiery toward her husband, was now a perfect example of maternal grace.
"Your father and I are going to go and talk, okay?"
Conrad nodded slightly, but he didn't want to be left alone with his father's winter-scented coat and the knowledge that his mother's lingering sadness was his fault after all. He was trying not to cry, but he could feel the tears welling.
"Go," his mother said to his father. She didn't have to tell him twice; he exited the room muttering under his breath. Conrad's mother shook her head slightly but then found a smile for her son.
"He's upset with me, not you," she said softly. "You didn't do anything wrong. Nothing. All right, sweetie?"
Conrad nodded with what little conviction he could muster. His mother rose, putting her cigarettes in the pocket of her robe before kissing the top of Conrad's head. "It's gonna be okay, honey. I promise. Try and finish your sandwich before I get back, okay?"
"Okay," he said. Then he watched as she headed into the master bedroom, closing the door.
He continued to stare at the closed door until the tears he'd been resisting defeated him, blurring his vision. His mother said it wasn't his fault, but of course it was. His father had been lying to him, why wouldn't his mother be lying to him, too? Though at least she was only trying to make him feel better.
He had believed all along that everything would be all right once he found a tiger, and after what he just heard, he was more convinced than ever he was right. But if his father wouldn't take him to look, he'd go by himself. Right this minute.
And with that he got up, put on his coat and headed outside, closing the door quietly so his parents wouldn't hear.
As soon as he was outdoors, under the dense grey sky, his scalp tingling as the icy air seeped through his hair, Conrad cheered up a little. He ran through the yard and into the woods, savoring the fresh, cold wind on his face and the promise of a tiger in his very near future.
A moment later, he stopped to catch his breath, relishing the smell of the forest, an intoxicating blend of damp wood, decaying leaves and fresh winter air. But as much as Conrad loved the invigorating rush of cold air and the rich smells of the forest, he wished he could see more. It was much darker here than it had been in the yard, and Conrad wished he had taken his father's flashlight. He considered going back for it, but his parents might already have returned to the kitchen, and he wasn't about to risk having his adventure cut short.
But he had also forgotten his hat and mittens. His coat had a hood, which, when tightened with his recently acquired skill in bow-tying, was effective enough in keeping his ears from feeling like they were being stung with a million needles. But after the effort it took to tie his hood, he badly missed his mittens. His mother had crocheted him a pair, thick and warm and blue, and she had tied them together with a crocheted chain that she threaded through the sleeves of his coat. The chain would prevent him from ever losing a mitten, she explained, because even if he took them off, they would never fall away. But he'd protested that he wasn't a baby and didn't need any clips or chains to keep track of his mittens, and she finally threw up her hands and snipped the chain off. He had proved he was capable of taking care of his mittens; he hadn't lost them. They had survived their last winter in Chicago and made it all the way to Tasmania. Right now, in fact, they were on the shelf beside the hook where he kept his coat. In his rush to get outside, he hadn't thought to grab them.
Conrad tried to pull the sleeves of his coat over his hands before burying them in the pockets of his coat, but they weren't long enough. The misty Tasmanian air seeped into the openings in his pockets and numbed his fingers. He really wanted to turn back now, if only to retrieve his mittens, but every direction looked the same-the world was nothing but endless, towering trees, the tops fading into blackness as the grey sky dimmed into dusk.
Conrad had always loved the cold and had never feared the dark, but never before had he been in a situation where warmth and light were beyond reach. Panic washed over him; an ominous chill crawled up his forearms and settled just beneath his shoulders, but with some effort, he shook it off. The house couldn't be far away, and he wasn't going home until he found a tiger anyway, so it didn't matter.
Conrad trudged onward, but soon his desire to find a tiger was lost in a deluge of other, more immediate wishes. He wished he had his mittens. And he wished he had put on his snow pants. His corduroy trousers were thin, and every step sent a new wave of iciness to his legs, which then swept through his whole body. He was freezing now, well beyond the point where the cold excited or refreshed him.
He also wished he'd finished the grilled cheese sandwich his mother had made for him. Although each bite had been a chore as he sat in the warm, bright kitchen, he was now ravenous. His stomach churned and growled, and each protest sent another shiver up his spine.
He wished it were summer. He wished he'd never left the house. He wished he'd never wanted to see a tiger. He wished he'd never heard of Tasmania.
It was very dark now, and there was only an occasional glimmer of moonlight when the clouds parted in their rush across the sky. Conrad did not know where he was or where he should go. He was so cold and hungry he could barely think.
He was exhausted now, too. He moved slowly, feeling his way through the thick carpet of wet leaves and twigs, shrinking back when unseen branches scratched at him. The forest, which for weeks had tempted him with its secrets, was now a maze of unexpected threats. It was an animal, a predator, and Conrad had absolutely no idea how to get away from it.
Maybe there was no point in trying to get away. Maybe he should find a place to hide. Someplace that offered a little shelter from the bitter wind.
That's when he heard the screams. Unlike the monsters of his nightmares, which bellowed with deep voices that could only come from powerful giants, these voices were high pitched and rough. They echoed through the darkness and could be coming from anywhere. Maybe from everywhere. There was only one creature Conrad could think of that could move so quickly and make such a terrible sound-the flying monkeys he had seen in The Wizard of Oz. His parents had always told him they weren't real, but what if they'd been lying about that, too? If Conrad had been frightened a moment earlier, he was beside himself with terror now.
The instincts that had told Conrad to move slowly and carefully through the obstacle-laden forest were pushed aside. He pulled his frozen hands from his pockets and broke into a desperate, blind run, his helpless screams joining the flying monkeys' horrific wailing. As fast as he seemed to be going, the flying monkeys were faster. Their shrieks only seemed to get louder. Closer. Just before Conrad's foot caught on something heavy and immobile on the forest floor, he cried out for his mother. And then the world went black and silent.
When Conrad awoke, minutes or hours later, he was being carried through the dark forest by a bearded giant who grunted and huffed with every thudding step, a feeble flashlight beam lighting the way. Conrad whimpered and tried to squirm free, but the giant tightened his grip.
"Shh, boy. I'm not gonna hurt you," the giant said quietly. "I don't know what you were doing out here in the bush, but you can tell me when I get you inside where it's warm."
He didn't sound mean or dangerous, and Conrad's brief struggle had already drained his minimal strength. He tried to study the giant's face in the weak and wavering light, but his eyes were heavy and his head was pounding, and he fell into unconsciousness again.
When Conrad next opened his eyes, he was lying on a sofa near a roaring fire, swaddled in a thick woolen blanket that smelled stale and smoky. He sat up slowly.
"I think you'll live," the giant said kindly, his wonderful accent more than countering the gravelly edges of his voice. He was sitting in an ancient wooden chair a few feet from Conrad, his face old and weathered but not at all unfriendly.
"I've got warm stew. Would you like some?" he asked.
Conrad nodded. He was starving. The giant left the room, returning a moment later with a steaming bowl. He handed it to Conrad, who dug in greedily. It was the best food he'd ever tasted. After a few bites, Conrad already felt much better.
"Are there flying monkeys in the forest?" Conrad asked.
The giant laughed, but then, seeing Conrad was serious, he became serious, too. "Why would you think that, son?"
"Something was screaming, and I couldn't get away, and-"
"Devils," the giant said. When Conrad's eyes widened in horror, the giant quickly added, "It's a kind of animal." He held his hands about twenty inches apart. "They're little buggers, but they scream like the devil. You don't have them in America."
"How did you know I'm from America?" Conrad asked.
The giant smiled. "You talk funny."
Conrad grinned. He liked this giant.
"What's your name, son?"
"You have a last name, Conrad?"
"Crikey! I knew a Conrad Galway. He left for America a thousand years ago. He was your grandfather, maybe your great-grandfather, I reckon?"
Conrad stopped eating. "You knew Poppy?!"
The giant smiled. "I was no bigger than you are when he left, but his younger brother was my best mate. I guess you're the son of the Americans who moved into their old farm?"
Conrad nodded and began to ask something when the giant excused himself to call Conrad's parents. He returned a moment later and hadn't even sat down before Conrad continued with their conversation.
"Were you with Poppy when he shot the tiger?"
Conrad's eyes widened. "There was more than one?"
The giant nodded. "There were a lot of tigers in these parts in those days. Your Poppy shot a few, and so did my father and grandfather."
Conrad forgot about his stew. "Did you ever shoot any?"
The giant shook his head. "My mother's great-grandmother was a full-blooded aborigine-you know what that is?"
Conrad shook his head; he had no idea.
"Like an Indian," the giant explained. "She was gone before I was born, but she told her daughter stories, and her daughter passed them down to my mother, and my mother told them to me."
"Like the way my dad told me about Poppy?" Conrad asked.
"Exactly that way," the giant replied. "Except my mother's people didn't shoot tigers. And they didn't call them tigers. Their name for them was loarinna."
"Loarinna?" Conrad repeated, thoroughly caught up in the story.
"That's right," the giant said. "They were already disappearing by the time I was a young man. White men blamed them for killing sheep and chickens, even when there were barely enough of them left to do any damage.
"My father shot a half-dozen of them, and my grandfather shot many more than that, but I couldn't kill them. This land had belonged to them long before it had belonged to my father or his father, and I wasn't going to help destroy them."
"I was looking for one," Conrad said. "Are there any left?"
The giant chuckled. "How are you feeling? Can you walk?"
"I think so."
"Well, then, follow me," the giant said.
Conrad set the remaining stew on a small table and stood. He felt slightly unsteady but quickly found his footing. The giant nodded approvingly and led him through the main room to a small kitchen. He stopped before a closed door and gestured for Conrad to be quiet. When Conrad nodded, the giant opened the door, revealing a small screened porch with a doorless opening that led outside.
In the light that filtered through the kitchen windows, Conrad saw a large doglike creature, its stripes faint but unmistakable even in the dim light, lying on an old blanket.
Conrad looked up at the giant, disbelieving.
"I call her Loarinna," the giant said, "and now you know why. She's not a pet, but she visits me now and then. When she showed up tonight, she was very upset and made it clear she had something to show me. So I grabbed the torch and followed her, and she led me to you."
Conrad was speechless. Could this-any of this-be real?
"I think she'll let you pet her. Would you like that?"
Conrad nodded. The giant began murmuring soothingly, and Loarinna sat up slowly, her liquid eyes glistening softly in the feeble light. The giant reached out and scratched her massive head. She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch, enjoying it.
"Let her smell your hand," the giant whispered, and Conrad held his hand an inch from Loarinna's nose, which twitched a few times before she snuffed and returned to enjoying the giant's petting. "You can pet her now," the giant continued. "Why don't you keep scratching her ear? She likes it."
Conrad held his breath and did as the giant suggested, scratching more confidently as it became apparent the magnificent beast enjoyed the attention. Her fur was dense but surprisingly soft; even so, there was no doubt this was a wild creature, friendly, but not tame. She yawned lazily, her jaws so wide it seemed she could have made a very quick meal out of a little boy if she were so inclined.
But instead, she had saved him.
"Are there more?" Conrad asked as he continued to scratch and study Loarinna.
"I hope so," the giant replied.
"Me, too," said Conrad as an approaching vehicle became audible.
"That's your mum and dad," the giant said.
Conrad nodded as the truck got close enough that he could hear the crunch of gravel beneath its tires. He gave Loarinna one final round of ear-scratching, then leaned in close. "Stay, girl," he whispered to her before kissing her on the temple. He exited the porch as his parents arrived.
Conrad's mother was out of the truck and rushing toward Conrad before his father had cut the engine.
"Oh, God, Connie, we were so worried," she said, half-crying. Conrad ran to her, and she scooped him up and squeezed him tight while his father shook hands with and thanked the giant, whom Conrad now learned had a name: Alf Trigg.
"Don't ever do that again, Conrad," his father said, though he sounded more worried and relieved than angry.
Conrad looked his father in the eye. "I won't," he promised.
Then Conrad turned to his mother. "I wanna go home, Mommy."
"We're going home right now, sweetie."
"No," Conrad said. "I wanna go home."
His mother gasped. "You mean-to Chicago?"
Conrad nodded, then buried his head in her shoulder. "Can we go home, Mommy? Please?"
"Yes, we can, baby," she replied. "Can't we, Wayne?"
Conrad's father didn't respond, but a few weeks later, the family was back in Chicago. Conrad never told his father about Loarinna, and his father never mentioned tigers-or Tasmania, or Poppy-to Conrad again.
But he had never sold the farm, which Conrad learned after his father's will revealed that it now belonged to him. This only made his father's failure to return to Tasmania after his mother's death more mysterious and devastating.
But as Conrad approached the old farm in his rental car, his father's remains secured on the floor of the passenger seat, his spirits rose.
The farm had gone completely to seed. The decaying buildings and gnarled apple trees were obscured by overgrown grass and weeds, and so many new trees had taken root and reached maturity that the forest was threatening to swallow up all signs of the Galway legacy.
Conrad changed his plans and pulled away from the farm without even getting out of the car. He headed over the hill beyond which the giant's property lay.
That, too, was crumbling to dust. Conrad wondered how long it had been since the kindly old man had joined his ancestors. He pulled up and parked in the same spot his parents had parked on that cold September night so many years before. Then he took a deep breath and retrieved the box from the floor of the passenger seat.
He exited the car and drank in his surroundings. It was late summer here; the sky was a rich, jewel blue, dusted with pure white clouds, and the breeze was warm and scented with wildflowers. He could hear nothing but the rustling of grass and the soothing cacophony of songbirds.
No one had been here in years. Maybe decades.
Conrad's eyes flitted to the dilapidated house. It was little more than a cottage, really, and it looked as if it might collapse if the wind picked up even a little. He headed toward the screened-in porch, his heartbeat quickening, a rush of emotions catching in his throat.
He carefully navigated the rotting stairs and entered the porch. The floor was thick with dust, and a large wasp nest buzzed menacingly in one corner.
The old blanket was still there, so covered in dirt it seemed likely that in another few years it would give rise to a small garden of weeds. There was no sign of Loarinna, of course.
But her descendents roamed here still. Conrad was sure of it. He emerged from the porch into the bright summer sunshine and studied the landscape. Here, too, the forest was expanding, taking over the farmland, slowly but surely wiping out all traces of civilization.
Conrad opened the box he had been carrying and removed the container inside. When the breeze picked up again, he released his father's remains.
When the last traces had been swept into the Tasmanian wilderness, Conrad headed for the car. He would never return to this land again.
But he would not sell the farm, either. And now he understood why his father had not sold it.
As long as that forest remained, there would always be a place for tigers.
Conrad drove away and didn't look back. But he knew that his father, Loarinna-and his six-year-old self-would all rest in peace.
About the Author
Denise Meyer is a Los Angeles-based writer who makes a mean salted caramel macaron.