When she sees the tiger she stops, frozen.
The beast is a shape of shadows curled
across the track, a camoflage of stipples
and two-tone stripes stacked to an eye
wide to refract the world around.
"Old Tom, he said he saw a cat
at play this morning, sheep in jaws.
I told him: 'Nonsense, man!' But here
she lies, as wide as bulls at must
and not a jot of fear in her.
Now I know cats, and if this one's
as full of mutton like he claimed
then it's no threat to you nor me.
You let me walk ahead, my girl;
I have no fear of death by claws."
As the woman bustles her way around her,
Snowdrop reaches to snatch at her shoulder,
suddenly ashamed of her stalling fear.
She misses her target: the Mistress is quick
on her feet, and eager to end her adventures
in this terse, ungracious, graceless future.
"You come now, kitty: hear my words.
My lady has to pass this way
for she has business to attend --
she has a world to fix, so shift
your paws and curb your meowl
and let us by. We have a hill to climb!"
... and the tiger stands! Slowly, she moves,
taking her time to test the stretch
of each of her shanks, and arches her back
and steps to the side, snuffling at ices
that snap beneath the set of her paws.
She doesn't wait for the woman to beckon
her forwards. She keeps the force of her gaze
on the canal waters that clatter and scatter
in their trammeled course; she trusts her ears
to anticipate fangs. A touch of fur
levers a scream from her lungs, choked
by her throat before it flees to the gale
that batters about her. She braves a glance.
The tiger's stare is steady, unblinking,
a test of acceptance: a truce, of sorts.
"Sweet Mary, womb to Jesus Christ!
I've never seen the likes before:
this beast has plans to walk with us
it seems, and you to guide it, child.
I see behind us others come;
they fight the winds to claim a place
with you -- the hoodeners, poor sods,
that gentleman who talks too posh
and up ahead I see a flame
astride the barks of Jenny Twig ...
lead on, my Lady: bring us home!"