A Boy and his Tiger
Aleksei Maximilian had been born and raised in the Sikhote-Alin mountain range in Eastern Russia. He could remember when his mother would strap him onto her back and carry him all day while she worked and toiled in their small garden that they were able to grow in the temperate mountain environment. He could still hear his father’s voice as he taught him how to hunt and fish and what wild plants could be eaten and which ones could not. Aleksei had learned his lessons well when he was a child. Good thing too, his mother died when he was only 8 of an illness and his father was killed 4 years later in a hunting accident. Aleksei, who had no brothers or sisters, had been alone since then.
His family had been living off the land for generations now so he was no stranger to hardships, even still, being alone since he was 12 was a tough pill to swallow for the boy who had only known the company of his parents. He knew enough to live off the land, but he was terribly lonely most of the time and had taken to talking to himself routinely. The closet people were a couple of days walk in any direction and he interacted very little with his fellow human. Mostly he tried to avoid them. While he could speak quite well he found himself tongue tied when in the presence of others.
Most of the time the weather in the Sikhote-Alin was unpredictable, just like any other mountain range, and storms could spring up at any time. Aleksei knew this all too well. Over the years he had scouted out and remembered caves and small openings, he used these areas for temporary shelter whenever he was caught out in a storm during a hunting or foraging trip. Still, it was a nice sunny morning when he set out from the old log cabin, built by his grandfather originally, he called home. There was a bit of a brisk wind but not too bad and the sun was up making the unshaded areas comfortable. The shaded areas, at this time of day, were still a little cool.
Aleksei set off that morning with his bow his father had taught him how to use and some food and water in his backpack. He did have a rifle, an old Mosin Nagant rifle from 1891, it had been in the family since his Grandfather had traded for it over 30 years ago. Bullets were the problem, they were few and far between and the odd time Aleksei did encounter another human to trade with they would not always have the correct ammunition. Aleksei had already lost a couple of furs trading for the wrong ammunition so he was more careful now as well. Still, the bow was effective providing you knew how to use it, and he did.
He picked up the trail of the boar almost as soon as he got out of eyesight of his cabin home. The evening before had been moist and this made the ground soft and animals easier to track. Aleksei followed the trail carefully into the montane forest, he didn’t want to lose it. Wild boar was good eating for the young man, easy to catch and clean, but there was some serious competition for the boar in this forest. Snow Leopards, Amur Tigers and wolves also hunted here and all three of those creatures would settle for a young Aleksei just as fast as they would settle for nice fat boar. Aleksei kept an eye out for other tracks close to the boar’s which would tell him he wasn’t the only one stalking the animal.
Aleksei followed the trail for about an hour, the tracks were getting fresher and there were indications the boar stopped to rummage along the way. This gave the boy the opportunity to catch up to what he hoped would be his next meal.
At some point, Aleksei wasn’t sure exactly when, the temperature had gone down and the wind had picked up. The sky was darkening as well and the first indication of the pop-up storm was heavy raindrops falling on Aleksei as he moved through the forest.
He was angry with himself. Aleksei usually kept a better eye out for storms like this and he was angry that he allowed himself to be caught out in it. There was a cave just a couple of hundred meters from where he was and Aleksei moved towards it. He needed out of this downpour before he caught a cold. Sickness here in the mountains could mean serious problems for Aleksei. In the absence of proper health care a simple illness or injury can lead to infections, starvation and death. This was the first lesson taught to him by his parents and Aleksei always exercised caution. He needed to get to his cave and light a fire to dry himself off and provide some defense against the bitter chill that was accompanying the rain.
The cave was dark and damp when Aleksei arrived. He was wet and chilled and he immediately set about the task of lighting a fire. He gathered some dry wood and made himself a nice little fire pit near the entrance of the cave. Just as he was about to strike the flint to generate spark and light the fire he heard a soft low growl coming from the back of the cave, about 20 meters in.
Aleksei froze in place. It was pitch black in the cave and he couldn’t see the back of it but judging by the type of growl and the sound, he was dealing with something big, not a wolf, wrong type of growl for that, probably a snow leopard or an Amur Tiger. Either was a lethal encounter for a young human male alone in the Siberian wilderness. Aleksei looked down at his bow lying on the ground close to the fire pit. He knew he could not grab it and notch an arrow before the animal was on him. He thought about the knife he was carrying. It was a large hunting knife he had gotten from his father and while it was quite menacing, it was no match for the speed and power of an Amur Tiger or a Snow Leopard.
Aleksei was seriously angry at himself now. How could he run into the cave without checking around the entrance for tracks first? Was the rain bothering him that much today that he forgotten so much of the important stuff his parents had taught him? Whatever the reason, Aleksei was alone in a cave with nothing really to defend himself but a large hunting knife and he was facing, at the very least, a large, probably hungry, cat in the form of a Snow Leopard or an even larger cat in the form of a Amur Tiger.
He was thinking about how to get out of this scenario with his skin intact when he heard another low growl coming from the back of the cave, this growl sounded a little weak and almost painful. Curious, thought Aleksei, that the large cat had not tried to take him yet. That Aleksei had the time to think about it was also surprising. Cats would have normally struck at him almost as soon as he was in the cave but this one made no noise even when Aleksei was gathering wood for his fire.
Aleksei needed to see the animal for himself and he did not want to approach it when it was obviously hiding in the back of the cave. He dared not light a fire now for fear of panicking the animal. Aleksei knew that no animal reacted well to fire. Then he remembered the food he had brought with him. He always travelled with at least one meal with him just in case he was caught out overnight. Reaching into his bag, Aleksei pulled out a thick strip of preserved boar meat from a previous hunt and tossed it halfway between the back of the cave and where he was.
The strip landed on the ground with a light smack. It sat there for what seemed like an eternity to Aleksei. He could hear scuffling and slowly the big cat emerged from the shadows at the back of the cave and Aleksei’ heart skipped a beat as he could clearly make out what the animal was now.
Emerging from the shadows was a large Amur Tiger. He was old, Aleksei could see that in his appearance and manner, and there was matted blood covering his left fore paw. The Tiger limped noticeably and was obviously hungry. He moved cautiously and slowly towards the offered meat, never taking his eyes off of Aleksei for a moment. When he reached the meat he sniffed at it, took one last look at Aleksei and then took the offered meat in his mouth and returned to the shadows in the back of the cave. Aleksei could hear the animal eating the meat and he backed slowly out of the cave.
It was still raining but not so bad now as Aleksei made his way quickly back to his cabin. He was wet and cold and he had gotten nothing this day but he was excited by his encounter. His father had told him stories about when this area used to be full of tigers and how hunting in the woods could be just as dangerous for the hunters as it was for their prey. But that was many years ago and Aleksei had only ever seen an Amur Tiger from a distance and those sightings were rare indeed.
Yet, here in a cave he used to hide out from storms, Aleksei had come across a for real Amur tiger, an old tiger to be sure, slower and wounded to boot but an Amur Tiger none the less. Over the next several days Aleksei would return to the cave. The tiger was still there and still limping. Aleksei wanted to get close to inspect the Tiger’s wound but he knew this would be quite a foolish thing to do, the Tiger was likely to kill him.
In the days that followed, Aleksei would bring food to the large cat. Portions of his hunts as well as scraps of meat he did not eat would be delivered almost daily now to the animal. While the tiger never left the cave he did stop eating in shadows and seemed to lose his fear over Aleksei’s presence. After three or four days the tiger would even be waiting for him, not quite in the shadows but just at the edge of them, anticipating the boy’s arrival.
For his part, Aleksei started to like visiting his new friend. He would talk to the tiger and the tiger would stare at him almost as if it understood his words. He would tell the animal about this or that hunting experience, or what happened while he was out fishing that day. Aleksei never had anyone to talk to before, the fact that the tiger was totally unresponsive to him did not seem to be too big of a deal, he just liked to talk to someone and share his thoughts and his day with some other creature. Aleksei named the tiger Mikhail.
Then one day, roughly 2 weeks after that first rainy encounter in the cave, Aleksei arrived as usual to find his friend, Mikhail, already waiting for him in his usual spot in the center of the cave. Aleksei usually would enter the cave but stay relatively close to the entrance in case Mikhail decided it would be tastier to eat Aleksei instead of what he was offering. There was a large boulder just inside the cave that Aleksei would sit on and toss food to Mikhail. Aleksei sat on his rock today, as usual, said ‘hello’ to his friend and then looked down to search through his pack for the food he had brought for him. When he looked up to toss the food to Mikhail Aleksei had a shock. Mikhail had moved right up to Aleksei without making a sound and lied down at his feet. He was purring in comfort and seemed content to just sit with Aleksei. Instead of throwing the food, Aleksei simply offered it to the large Amur Tiger by holding it out for him. Mikhail gently took the offering from his hands and ate it then lied back down and rested itself at Aleksei’s feet. Aleksei watched the big cat for a couple of minutes then, plucking up the courage to do so from somewhere deep down – or perhaps he was just too lonely to not do it, he reached out his hand and stroked the big cat’s massive head.
Mikhail rubbed his head up against Aleksei’s hand during this, the bond between beast and man was complete. The two of them sat there, in that cave, for the next hour, Aleksei silently petting the large cat while the cat softly purred his contentedness. Aleksei took the time to inspect the tiger’s wounded paw. It was a rather deep cut, Aleksei cleaned it as best he could, Mikhail sitting patiently holding out his fore paw for inspection by the boy. The bleeding had stopped a long time ago by the looks of the cut after it was cleaned, it had scabbed over and the tiger was moving a little easier now than during their first meeting. Aleksei wondered why the tiger did not attack him, certainly was well within the large Amur tiger’s reputation to do so. His father had relayed enough stories about tiger attacks for Aleksei to get an understanding of the nature of this beast. Perhaps the Amur Tiger, old and abandoned by his own kind, was as much in need of companionship as Aleksei was, perhaps it was just the food that formed the basis of the relationship, but whatever it was, when Aleksei got up to leave the cave this time, Mikhail rose up and walked at his heel.
The two hunted together that day, Mikhail locating the prey and Aleksei bringing it down with his bow. The pair ate together and that night Aleksei’s cabin had a new occupant. The young man was no longer alone and his beast companion was just as happy to hunt with Aleksei as he was to be with the tiger.
How long Mikhail and Aleksei stayed together is anybody’s guess. To this day, in Sikhote-Alin region, there are still tales being told of a young man and his tiger. There are reports of sightings, occasionally someone will see a man with a tiger walking through the montane forests. Usually these sightings were at a distance and Aleksei very rarely spoke to other humans for quite a while.
© 2015 Robin Olsen