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My friend Ana Maria often travels to South America to organize environmental groups in Colombian villages. When she asked me to accompany her on one of these trips recently, I felt compelled to go. Now we were sitting by a bonfire on the Colombian coast with members of the Torres family, who owned the hotel where we were staying. Mene Torres said he was a poet, like me, but that he would write his poems and throw them into the fire. His brother Jaime asked if we were nervous about crossing the frontier, about going downriver to the Indian villages. I hadn''t been nervous, but when locals began to ask questions that indicated concern, I began to wonder.

Some people around the fire were talking about a tiger that had come into the village a few weeks before. They all referred to it as el tigre, although it was probably a jaguar, which are very common in that area. Jaime knew Victor, a man who had been attacked. Victor had come out of his house, seen a large, dark

form, and thought it was a bull. He advanced and threw rocks at it. The tiger leapt toward him, but apparently missed him. His dogs started barking furiously, and the animal ran off. Adilma, Jaime Torres''s wife, joked about the encounter and the likelihood of liquor''s having transformed house cats into tigers, particularly for the sake of a good story.

Everyone laughed. But Mene said he believed the account. He said he had a tiger story too, from when he was a young man: "I had gone to this spot down the beach with my guitar and didn''t know that my father had dug a trap to catch a tiger that had been roaming the premises. I stumbled into the trap, and upon falling, realized I was not alone. The tiger had fallen in also and was not very pleased about it." Mene paused to take a drink. Everyone remained transfixed, waiting for the story to continue. "I looked the creature in the eyes, gleaming like fire in the night, and didn''t move for a full minute. The tiger growled. I realized I still had the guitar grasped in my hand. I plucked a string, and the tiger seemed to calm down. I plucked another and the tiger seemed even calmer. I tried a song. The tiger settled down on its front paws. When I finished the song, the tiger rose again, so I quickly began another. Whenever I finished a song and paused, the tiger growled again.

So I played on. I broke a string. I kept playing. I broke another string and kept playing. I played all night that way, breaking string after string. As the dawn broke, I was playing with one string the last and it finally broke. The tiger growled and growled again, and I began praying out loud, promising to change my strings more faithfully in the future, if there would be a future." Mene paused again, took another drink, looked around the silent group, and finished his story: "Just at that moment, I heard a shot, and the tiger fell down dead before me. It was morning, and mi padre had come to check the trap, just in time." I sat staring for a minute. "Verdad?" I asked. Everyone suddenly broke out laughing. Mene was a known trickster in town, and everyone enjoyed watching a new victim fall prey. I told him he could burn that story also, now that he was done with it. But after a moment, I had to admit it was masterful, and found myself laughing too. "My tiger was made up," Mene said, "but if you''re going into Choc far from any village you''re likely to see one."

"In fact," he continued, "you''re likely to see a tigre mojano." Everyone around the fire suddenly got quiet at his use of the words. "Don''t tell her that, Mene," Adilma chastised. Of course, then I had to know. "What is a tigre mojano?"

Mene looked around the circle, and then said, "Well, given my last story, you''re not going to believe a word I say, but it''s the tiger that is also human, the one that has the soul of the Indian witch." He said he had learned of the tiger from his grandmother. "The shaman is in the body of the tiger and will protect the forest at all cost. That is how you know it is a tigre mojano: it will attack humans without direct provocation. And if you look closely, it has the testicles of a man."

Adilma smacked him on the leg for that one, saying, "Who do you think we are, sailors in a bar?" Then she turned to me and added to the story. She said she had heard of an herb the Putumayo Indians take to turn into tigers: it is yag, also called tigre huasca. For protection, they wear a tiger''s tooth from one that came into the village and was captured and killed. They believe it connects them with the forest.

Mene smiled at Adilma''s sudden involvement in the story. "Anyway, my dear, all we are urging is that you be careful out there. They might not know you as a good spirit. You are a good spirit, aren''t you?"

I remained quiet, thinking for too long, perhaps, and the group broke out laughing. "Stop it, Mene, you''re scaring her," someone said. I let them change the subject, and we left off, as Wallace Stevens might say, "catching tigers in red weather."

Diane Thiel is the author of The White Horse: A Colombian Journey, from which this essay was excerpted. She is on the creative writing faculty at the University of New Mexico.





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