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Written by Dan Wolff - Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin
Every morning at five a.m. his wife went to borrow a spark from the neighbor and the Astrologer lay on his mattress listening to her starting the house fire in the kitchen. Then he heard her fill an aluminum pot full of water and put it on the stove. He heard rummaging around and knew she was throwing salt and two handfuls of millet in the pot and when the Astrologer judged it was ready he rose and joined her in eating the porridge. They ate it with some raw onion and the Astrologer did not like to talk until it was finished and she had started brewing their coffee. They were not a rich couple but recently the Astrologer had started a new business which brought a little extra money and coffee was his treat to them.
This morning, however, the porridge was not halfway gone when a voice hailed them from the front door.
"I am not open for business yet," said the Astrologer, extremely annoyed by the intrusion. The wooden sign over the door stated that horoscopes were read from ten o'clock on, and even the illiterates in the town all knew this by now. "Go home and come back later."
"I apologize, sir," came the voice again. The voice spoke Tamil in an accent from a different part of India altogether. "I have come to you so early because I will not be in town much longer. We shall be gone by the time you open."
"Today is a good day for travel," called the Astrologer. "I am sure your journey will be propitious. Now leave me in peace."
"But sir, I am not looking for a horoscope," said the voice. "I was told I could find a doctor here."
The Astrologer sighed, dabbed his mouth and went to the door. Outside, in the early morning light, stood a short man in trousers and white shirt. His hands were rough and hairy and his hair oiled. "Are you sick?"
"No, it is not I who is sick."
"Your family, then?"
"No, I have a most unusual patient. It is my tiger that is sick."
"Did I hear you correctly? A tiger?"
"Yes, sir. I have a tiger and the tiger is sick and we must leave in a couple of hours. It is a long way to Kitram."
"I'll come and see your patient," said the Astrologer. "I have never seen a tiger." He returned to the house and collected the tool of his new trade, a battered green book with gold lettering on the cover, and walked with the man across the town to the park. As they walked the man offered the Astrologer a cigarette, which he accepted with pleasure, and as he was smoking it they reached the park and he understood. Underneath the spreading banyan trees several dust-grey tents were being dismantled as the circus prepared to move on.
"Ah," he said. "One of the circus animals is sick. I see."
"He is not one of the circus animals, sir, he is the only circus animal. We are not a very big circus and the tiger is our star attraction. If he dies then I don't know what we will do."
"You must stay in town for a few more days, and give the tiger a chance to rest and get well. Traveling is not good for sick animals or people."
"Regrettably, that is impossible. We must eat too and everyone here has seen the circus and we can earn no more money in such a poor town. We must head down the road to Kitram. It is a hard life, owning a circus."
No so hard as being in a circus, thought the Astrologer, but said: "Then take me to see the tiger."
The circus owner lead the Astrologer to the back of one of the tents, where a young girl watched over a small cage. Inside the cage was a male Bengal tiger, not fully grown, which was lying on its side as though asleep. The tail twitched slightly and the tiger made grunting noises as it slept.
"There, you see? He has been like that all night. What is wrong with him?"
"His belly is swollen. It looks as though he's been poisoned," said the Astrologer confidently.
"It is obvious. What was the last thing he ate?"
"He ate what we ate. Curry and a dhal made of lentils."
"A tiger cannot be expected to eat lentils!" said the Astrologer, amazed at the circus owner's ignorance. "No wonder he is sick."
"He has always eaten lentils. We cannot afford to feed him meat alone. What shall I do?"
"You must feed him some meat. Go and find some. Also, milk."
"I don't have any milk."
"There is a woman over there who owns a flock of goats. Perhaps she will sell you some milk. A bucketful should suffice."
"A whole bucketful!"
"If you don't he will die and then where will you be? Now do it and leave me to examine my patient." While the Astrologer settled down on a wooden box next to the cage, the circus owner spoke rapidly to the little girl and sent her running down the road with a handful of annas. He then withdrew a few paces and watched the Astrologer open his green book.
The book was written in English and had come to the Astrologer through a client who had come to him when his daughter had become possessed. The Astrologer had asked the client many probing questions and had eventually gleaned that the client, who was a storekeeper, had recently assumed management of the estate of a friend who had died without leaving provision for his mother in his will. Amongst the possessions the friend had left behind was a large store of copper pans, which the storekeeper had taken to selling without telling the mother. All of this confession took an hour of close questioning and finally the storekeeper, in an agony of guilt, promised to repay the mother if it meant that the spirit would leave his daughter. The Astrologer explained that his karma had taken the form of this punishment and that if he set things to right, the fit would pass from his daughter on the seventh day of that month. As payment, the Astrologer had collected eight annas, one of the copper pans, and this book, which had caught his eye. "Do you read English?" he had asked the storekeeper. "No, but someday someone will come in the store who reads English and they will buy it." Already he was regaining his composure. "In business, you need to have the right article already waiting for the right buyer, so that you will never miss an opportunity."
"I will take it," said the Astrologer. "I read English." And indeed once, as a young man, he had been an under-secretary to a colonial administrator, until it became clear that the once invincible Empire was withdrawing its interests from the subcontinent.
"It is a very expensive book," the storekeeper said dubiously.
"How can you say that when you cannot even read it?"
"Look at the gold lettering on the cover. Clearly it is worth a lot of money."
"It is a schoolbook, nothing more. Miserable man! Today I have delivered your daughter from the consequences of your own wickedness and you begrudge me the use of a book you cannot even read. With such behavior I can forsee similar troubles coming your way soon." And so he had gained the book.
The book, which the Astrologer now leafed through as he sat on the wooden box by the tiger, had brought the Astrologer the extra money he could now afford to spend on coffee, so it had been valuable after all. The lettering on the cover said: TABER'S CYCLOPEDIC MEDICAL DICTIONARY, THIRD EDITION. Inside it were descriptions of every disease, illness and injury known to man, and their remedies. Almost all of it was unintelligible to him, and most of the remedies he did understand were beyond his reach in that he did not know where to get antibiotics, or how to give liquids intravenously, but it contained enough impressive-sounding information to considerably thicken the Astrologer's reputation around town. From it he had learned to cure wasp stings with Epsom salts and bicarbonate of soda. He had also learned his most famous treatment, the alleviation of cholera by the giving of constant salt water to drink. Sometimes the book could be downright frustrating in its obscurity and technical language (the entry for whooping cough said, simply, Pertussis,") but it was nevertheless a treasury of information and some quite indecent and enjoyable line drawings which he liked to examine when his wife was asleep. Now he turned to the entry for poisons, and saw unhappily that it was several pages long. Was the tiger suffering from arsenic or corrosives or heavy metals or ink or iron or lead? The Astrologer was startled to learn that green potato sprouts could be poisonous, as well as the ingestion of mushrooms and fish.
"Were there any potatoes, mushrooms or fish in the curry?"
"There were potatoes. But we ate the same thing, and we are not sick."
"What is good for a man is not necessarily good for a tiger."
"But who could have poisoned him?"
"You will have to tell me that."
"It might have been the strong man. He is jealous of the attention the tiger gets. Also it once bit him and did not let go of his hand for twenty minutes."
"I will think about it. Now let me read."
As usual, the specific remedies were not anything the Astrologer had or knew about. He had no morphine or antilewisite or edetate calcium disodium. He was beginning to despair when, just as the little girl was returning with a pail of cloudy goat's milk, he got to the last paragraph and read:
There are, however, certain agents that act in a general manner and may be efficacious. One of these is referred to as the universal antidote. It consists of a mixture of two parts activated charcoal, one part magnesium oxide, and one part tannic acid. It may be given as a slurry made from several heaping teaspoonsful in a glass of water.
"I have found the cure," said the Astrologer. "I will need charcoal and tannic acid."
"We have charcoal for the braziers," said the circus owner.
"That will do. There is a tannery on the other side of the town. You must immediately send someone to fetch some tannic acid." The Astrologer did not know what magnesium oxide was, but it didn't sound very healthy, so he was happy to leave it out of the potion. While the circus owner gave orders, the Astrologer took the pail of milk over to the cage, stopping out of reach of those paws.
Even unconscious, the tiger was a frightening animal. In some ways it resembled a giant housecat, and the Astrologer imagined the tiger playing with him as a cat plays with a near-dead mouse. He also saw that the cage was so small the tiger could not turn around in it, and that it had red sore on its buttocks and shoulders from rubbing against the bars.
"It is cruel to keep such a large beast in such a small cage," said the Astrologer.
"It is sad, I agree," said the circus owner. "But what can I or anyone else do? It is his karma. If he were better in his last life he would not have been born to this fate. Maybe in his next life he will be more lucky."
"Even still, he will be healthier in a bigger cage."
"I have other worries. The little girl who fetched the milk, for instance. She earns me nothing and costs me in food. Why do I keep her? Because although she is worse than useless I am too kindhearted a man to abandon her. If the tiger dies I will be ruined and then I will have no choice but to abandon her in some town along the way. Tell me, you are also an astrologer as well as a doctor?"
"Then please ask the spirits who poisoned the tiger."
"That will cost extra, and we still do not know for certain the tiger has been poisoned. Besides, one does not lightly ask the spirits a question. All sorts of unwanted information about the asker may come out."
"Then don't bother," said the circus owner, clearly deterred.
By now the sun was high and the Astrologer and the circus owner retreated to the shade of the last tent that had not been taken down. Together they stared glumly at the cage with the sleeping tiger inside where it sat in the sun.
"The milk will spoil," said the circus owner.
The pail of milk had been placed just next to the cage where the tiger could reach it with his tongue if he tried, but after a half-hearted lap or two he had not stirred.
"Where's the meat I asked for?"
"I don't have any meat. I have already spent money on the milk and now it will go to waste."
"Then drink it yourself. I am preparing an antidote and the tiger will not eat it unless it is in meat." The Astrologer left the circus owner and went back to the cage, where the little girl was sitting with her chin in her hands.
"What is the tiger's name?" he asked.
"How long have you been with the circus, Muni?"
"A year. It is my job to look after the tiger. If he dies then I will not have to be with the circus any more and I can go back to my family. Will he die, doctor?"
"I know an antidote that can cure any poison," said the Astrologer, pleased at having been called doctor' for the second time. He imagined changing the sign board over his doorway to read the same, but worried that the real doctors at the hospital would find out and cause trouble for him. "But it may be he has not been poisoned at all. We will have to give him the antidote and see." The Astrologer leaned down and picked up the bucket.
"What are you doing?"
"Having a drink. The milk is just going to waste out here in the sun."
"You can't take it. That's for Rajah."
"He isn't interested in milk and I can't force him to drink it, now can I?"
"No! You can't take it!" The little girl was on her feet, furious.
"I see," said the Astrologer. "Well then."
"No one is to drink that milk but him."
The tannin arrived from the tannery, and, while an admiring audience watched, the Astrologer powdered some charcoal, mixed it with a spoon of the tannin, and forced it into a cavity he cut in a side of lamb the circus owner grudgingly provided. The tiger took the meat without hesitation and ate it all, including the bones. Then he lay on the floor of his cramped cage again while the Astrologer watched anxiously. At midday he stirred, rose, and let forth a great stream of vomit which seemed to rid his body of much of the sickness in his stomach. He stood and stared at them outside the cage with great yellow eyes with tiny black centers, rumbling low in his throat.
"Will he recover?" asked Muni flatly.
"He looks better already."
The circus owner was relieved, and immediately started yelling orders to the crowd, urging them to get the boxes loaded. The cage was lifted and mounted in the back of a small truck.
"As to the matter of my payment..." said the Astrologer.
"You have already cost me for the milk, the meat, the tannin, and the time," said the owner. "But you have given me back my tiger. Here..." And he passed a rupee to the Astrologer.
"And you have cost me for all my clients for the morning, and you pay me with one rupee? This is preposterous."
"I have no more money," said the owner. "I have all of these charity cases eating me out of my shirt already. Take it and be satisfied." With that he left the Astrologer standing there clutching his green book and went to supervise the loading of the trucks.
Muni sat in the back of the truck with the tiger cage, out of reach of the paws. The Astrologer leaned in close to her and said, "Muni, next time you feel like poisoning someone, don't waste your energy on the tiger." She glared at him. The truck came to life with a coughing of black smoke and pulled out onto the wide boulevard lined with dusty lime trees.