The most famous photograph by Christian Tycer is a shot from the ground, nearly inside the jaws of a Javanese tigress at the instant of a kill. No telephoto lens, no hidden cameras: the man was there. I still keep a large print of it above my desk in Sydney.
Or could you be so young that you aren’t familiar with that histrionic image?
At the top right you see the startled cub’s face—shock haired, little teeth agape over her mother’s striped flank. The rest is fangs, a furious golden eye, the taut pink slide of an angry tongue. It’s got a clarity and composition that professional photographers achieve only once or twice in a lifetime. Unwelcome wits titled it “Pray.” You can see what most believe to be Mr. Tycer’s own splayed fingers in the lower left corner. There was a time when everyone knew that picture.
No, don’t apologize. Research is tedious. I understand this. Come in. I apologize for confiscating your camera and recording device. Jeremy will return them to you before you leave. I met your editor once, in a libel suit; he isn’t the sort who will mind the lack of evidence. Pardon the implication, truly. I have every intention of showing you what you came here to see and more. I know you’re eager to make a name for yourself. Big splash! Good, good. He says you’re his rising star. Got the hunger. We’ll make you famous yet, one way or another. For my part, I belong to a dying breed: empirical science, honest evidence. Today, enough—I resign the pursuit. Today, approaching my eighty-fourth birthday, I would like to start a rumor.
Will you take a cigarette? No one smokes anymore. I go through exactly five cigarettes a day. As the Muslim prays, I smoke. Sixty-three years of five cigarettes a day. I’m very disciplined. They’ve nearly smoked the female register out of my voice, and you can’t call that a disadvantage in my position. A drink, then.
No, she didn’t eat him. Per se. No tiger likes the taste of man unless she’s brought up on him. Or is too old to catch anything better. She did kill him, though. My unwitting husband stepped between a female and her photogenic kitten. Technically, the young one tried him, I suppose. His entire crew witnessed it: one nip to the belly. She took her first and last taste of man and then leapt up and away, directly into the bite of five large-caliber bullets. The adolescent died an instant after her mother. Mr. Tycer’s guide had a gun. His bodyguards had guns. His pants-wetting photo crew had guns. Mr. Tycer carried a gun, too, though he obviously used his dying effort to fire the camera instead. I think that says much of him.
I see you’ve already employed a triple exclamation point. May I see the note? A fair question: Why would such a controversial person as myself, an outspoken American scientist, former CEO in “big pharm,” retire alone in the outback desert of the Australian Kimberley, tucked inside like this with all the curtains drawn? And you’ve made three conclusions. How precocious of you. “Treason! Insanity!! Human Experimentation!!!” Wonderful! That’s a splendid start. Off the record, I only keep the drapes shut against the heat and the glare, but you may write whatever you’d like. I’ve given up on the correction of error—don’t worry. It’s too exhausting. So again, let there be a truce between our kinds, truth and scandal; today you have carte blanche. Let’s think of you as a translator of a language I never learned: the one people want to hear. I will offer up my life’s work, and you will translate it. I was talking about Mr. Tycer’s final act.
It was an amateur blunder. Even I was amazed that a seasoned wildlife photographer would commit so large an oversight. A juvenile by itself! Any Girl Scout would see the red flags flying, no? One way or another, I’ve always believed it’s a matter of time before an artist allows his subject to consume him. Generally, I’ve understood that as a metaphor; Christian was always so fucking literal. I used to find that charming. With the single exception of Christian Tycer, I have never been a patron of the arts.
Animal rights activists would have you believe these particular tigers were the last two females of the Javan species. Panthera tigris sondaicus. Extinct at the hands of the Tycer party. If you care for the truth, they’re probably right. At Christian’s time, there had been only five sightings in as many years. No one has seen one since. The unsensational fact was that he loved those tigers. Loved them far more than he loved people. He worked to save thousands of animals during his life, not nearly so many as my company kills weekly but more important animals in some sense, endangered creatures, beloved creatures. You call these Charismatic Mega-Fauna—things like baby seals, pandas, humpback whales. Tigers. In short, the cute, rare, and lovely ones we assign to native religions, and motivational calendars. Because I supported his work, PETA had a field day. The headlines convicting Tycer’s deadly role in natural history went worldwide, the human outcry so loud it began to affect business. My business.
As if his silly photography had anything to do with anything!
No matter that the tigers had been hunted down to two before a photography crew delivered the coup d’ grace. The court of public opinion craves the simple and cruel, the bucolic innocence of the many, the consolidated evil of the one. Consumers of news want blame in the singular, untrained for ambiguity or the complexity of truth. In a tragedy, justice must be done and swiftly! A villain named and beheaded. Christian was no one except that he was married to me. Tycer was Tycer, and the mighty shall fall.
Tycer Pharmaceuticals was the target of the largest animal cruelty investigation of all time. Everyone bloodied their teeth in that one. It’s a pity pharmaceutical research requires so many animals. Christian’s scandal, as it were, actually affected stocks. CBS aired an animated television movie called The Last Tiger that made a generation of weeping school children recall and hate the name Tycer. Ah, yes. You remember that. That was me. Cheers.
Of all the inappropriate things he could have done, would he shack up with some under-aged movie star? Would he cultivate an addiction or get himself arrested? No. Christian fancied himself an artist and had to embroil himself in things that people actually care about. Perhaps he was a genius after all, hmm?
In the end, despite it all, Tycer Pharmaceuticals did not fall. It flourished. The long-term market wants analgesics more than tigers. When the migraine is their own, the stone-throwers don’t ask where the pill has come from.
But the photograph! Christian’s most enduring work, of himself getting killed by an endangered species, yes, this image bannered the papers—especially your fine publications, all upright at the check-out counter. It was the cover story for dozens of magazines. And for a time it became the symbol of every militant animal rights group in existence.
If I could go back and kill the aide who sold the negative to your paper, I would. Certainly, you may quote me on that. Make up any words you’d like. I am brokering a truce.
Would you like to see them? The last two tigers, I mean? I had them mounted in the den. I’ll continue in there. Forgive the length of my story. Patience has never been a virtue of mine, but it seems to help the people who work with me. A suggestion.
Yes, I’ll take it, Jeremy. Thank you.
If you’ll excuse me, I need to take this call. It’s India, the Calcutta zoo. Would you mind stepping out the door for a moment? Jeremy, here, will find you something with ice.
Disappointing news from Calcutta, thank you for asking. But that’s the way it is in science. We try, fail, struggle onward. Please, come into the den here. Oh, for God’s sake—they’re dead. They’re half convincing, though, aren’t they? You’re hardly the first to startle. It’s easy to mistake them for living tigers in the dim light. Just breathe. Others before you have remarked that the scent of books and heavy carpeting in here is reassuring. A reminder of simpler times? Have a seat. We’ll step out as soon as we’ve finished our drinks.
Yes, these are they. Observe the adult female at attention, watchful, fierce, guarding her sleeping offspring. A little grass for context. You see how lithe she is? A hot climate breeds small tigers, dark fur, and close stripes. No hairy tufts or hulking Siberian muscle, just delicate lines, a narrow head, and the capacity to take down prey greater than her own weight.
I do hope Christian had the presence of mind to savor the irony: to have given so much to the animal causes and then (inadvertently) to have wiped out the rarest and some say the most beautiful species of tiger. Leaving me with the smoking gun. He was killed for his efforts, in any case. Many found justice there; some find poetry. It depends on one’s opinion of the man and his work. Most people hated him because he was married to me. Even he hated himself for that.
The husband of a self-made multimillionaire is eternally suspect. Even more suspect than the all-American, boot-strapping millionaire herself. Of course, it wasn’t that many millions at the time of the incident, before the ’90s stock market and melatonin. That wasn’t what he married. I wasn’t rich when I was eighteen. I was in school. I was good at biochemistry and had a head for business. Christian wanted to be a photographer. I wanted to be a scientist. These seemed like innocent, reasonable goals. In school we joked that I would synthesize for him some wonderful new emulsion for developing his film. It was all very romantic. We married as virgins, in love. All of it simple. Like children, we said we were going to be famous. And hell claim us, we were! I created a three-billion-dollar pharmaceutical monstrosity with his name on it; he killed the last tiger and died in its jaws. We certainly made a name for ourselves.
Decades before Tycer Pharmaceuticals was knee high to Merck, Christian stopped being an artist and became a kept man. His photography stopped being a career and became a hobby. He stopped being a real man. No colleague, no reporter, not even his parents would think otherwise. After all, I am Tycer now; he was left to become Mr. Tycer. He was good but he wasn’t that good, not the genius his wife was. His wife had what was once alled a masculine mind and a man’s job. He had a portfolio of middling photographs and a passion for charismatic mega-fauna. The society reporter of your editor’s paper once politely “mistook” him for my errant son.
That was a long time ago but not that long. The sexism I have experienced in my career as a woman in science and business was far, far outstripped by the libel and sexism my husband endured at the hands of people like us. I gave up my maiden name out of love, you understand. I put his name on my greatest achievements, and instead of honoring him it destroyed him. He fought against the use of laboratory animals, and I used them anyway, successfully. Tycer came out with the best hemophilia and MS drugs on the market, and he cried murder. I made him rich and that deprived him of the savor and righteousness of the struggling artist. I made his art illegitimate, emasculated him. And with his greatest artistic achievement, he nearly shut down my company. We undid one other every step of the way. But I was better at it.
Because Christian was thin skinned, as artists are wont. Rumors wielded a too-powerful influence over him. Like a fifteen-year-old child, he could not look in the mirror with his own eyes; he only saw himself through the snickering gaze of others. Sticks and stones, he shouldn’t have read the papers. That we had no children is the greatest mercy I will ever expect of this world. When I am done, Tycer, too, will be extinct.
So Christian became a rather miserable person. Not that I’ve ever been much of a treat. He was defensive, depressive, verbally abusive to his aides. And what could I do when just the fact of me poisoned him? Oh, he loved who he’d married—he loved her forever. But he hated me. I’d ruined our simple plan. I wasn’t just a scientist, a wife, and he couldn’t find it in himself just to be a photographer.
Of course I offered to divorce him. Offered to send him along with any sum he named. He refused. I don’t know why. He was offended that I would offer him money with his freedom. Maybe divorce was the one failure he would not concede, the one thing he could lord over me, or maybe just the opposite. Maybe he thought leaving me wouldn’t make any difference at all.
To be honest, I liked Christian quite a bit. I always did. Once, I loved him very much. Maybe still. I don’t suppose you can imagine what it’s like to learn that your first love, however stale, has been eaten by a tiger? Unlikely. Only the very rich and the very poor get saddled with stories like that one. That was more than forty years ago. But with nothing left to lose in the next life, I have done very well in this one.
He would laugh at me now, out here, yet again trying to undo him.
Let me photograph you. He’d come into my office when things were busiest, my “natural habitat,” as he’d say. Keep your clothes on if you must, he’d tease. Let me shoot you.
Just once I let him. Stupidly. I was flattered. I thought it meant he’d come around, that he found me as rare again or as lovely as one of his animals. It was an offering, in any case, and I took it, and he was merciless—in my face, flashing. His camera was a weapon, and I permitted it. But then, after days of this, we had a moment, just a fleeting glimpse really, of who we’d once been. I don’t know how it happened. The office was already busy, and he’d made it chaotic, up on some ladder in the far corner, people tripping over his gratuitous equipment. He was fiddling with a camera, and I looked up from the desk to say something sharp, and all of a sudden there he was again, there I was, and none of this had happened yet. It was like catching sight of a long lost love from across a crowded train station. Neither of us spoke. It was too important. That was the only time he put the camera down.
That very week, hoping to mend things, I did what I’d promised when we were young: I composed an emulsion for developing his film. When it was done, he used it, too. All in a rush, he developed his film in my concoction.
And they were hideous—there’s no other way to say it—monstrous distortions, harsh colors. That was my influence on his work. What can I say? I wasn’t an artist; I didn’t actually know anything about that kind of chemistry. For Christ’s sake, it ate through the paper sometimes. He printed them anyway. We should have laughed over it. We should have thrown them away, tried again, or thought better of it at least, but we were past laughing. What we had left was utterly corrupt and utterly indefatigable.
By now he would think his tigers a good joke. I almost undid you that time! He would say, I have a gift for you, Althea.
He gave those hideous portraits, relentlessly, as gifts, mostly to me, my picture in big boxes with enormous bows. He put them on our walls, hung them in shows, sold them to certain familiar papers, whose editors gleefully printed them as evidence of a diseased mind. When he died, I burned them—all together in a pile—and they gave up a poisonous, blue-green flame as tall as a man. I’ve often wondered if Mr. Tycer didn’t know precisely where he was setting up his camera that day; though in the final count I think I got to him before the tiger did.
You have a gift for me, Christian? Now I have a gift for you.
Christ, Jeremy, it’s about time. Please set our guest’s camera on the table here. It’s high time you have your own shot at fame, no? Have a last drink with me before we venture out. I insist. You are here to celebrate with me—and then with whomever will take your work seriously—the imminent birth of a live Javanese tiger. Open that door there, would you please? And that big straw hat? Thank you. The sun is oppressive this time of year. That phone call earlier was India, reporting the stillbirth of two full-term kittens in Calcutta. Their other females miscarried weeks ago, so India loses this race. Lithuania, then? Indonesia? It’s a tense moment; they each want the fame of it, these labs, these zoos. We’ll know soon enough. But let’s be off, shall we? Just across the garden here to that gate.
See, I think we’ll all forget Tycer’s AIDS drugs, the migraine cures, the breast implants that do not leak. Oh, I was dizzyingly philanthropic once. But I’ve had enough of people. Consider what’s behind us in the den: two extinct Indonesian tigers preserved in the hands of the bioresearch giant that allegedly killed them. It’s a cunning little opportunity, isn’t it? What shall we tell your consumers of the tiger’s final fate in her dealings with mankind—with Tycer—the fate of the liminal genome for Panthera tigris sondaicus?
I thought to myself then, Can I undo it? And later: Can I undo what he’s done to undo me? I suppose you could frame the whole thing as a lover’s quarrel. If I hadn’t ordered them preserved during the same phone call in which I learned of Christian’s death, the whole thing might have been impossible. Ah, you’ve left your pencil; take mine. Because you’re right on task in asking, my dear. Forget the zoos. Which one of them did I bring back?
Jeremy has unlocked the gate ahead of us here, if you wouldn’t mind getting it? It will latch behind us automatically. You see that one tree there in the distance? It’s a bit of a hike, but you look fit enough for it if I am. Follow me, then! People say this is wasteland up here, these barren hills, this stifling breeze, but under the right hat I find it quite peaceful. Watch your step.
Your public believes it’s much easier to clone than it actually is. We aren’t capable of reviving the Tyrannosaurus, for example, as Spielberg has led the gullible to believe. Those genes have simply been rotting away too long. But in our folly, yours and mine, the scientist gets lucky; she discovers intact Javanese tiger genes. Next all she needs is a womb.
This could be a problem, as every living tiger womb on earth is endangered, but our scientist knows that suitable wombs of any species are always available to the highest bidder. With her company contacts and a discrete friendship with a leading researcher at The Institute of Genomic Research (whose conspiring acronym, you’ll note, spells TIGR!), the scientist could have at her disposal whatever technology she requi—
What—excuse me—my womb? Holy Mary, child, are you actually that credulous? Do you have even the slightest grasp of biolo—? No, sorry, of course you haven’t. Pardon me. Forgive my tone there. I forget the resolution: we’re starting a rumor. Today we’re making your name as your editor’s—my tumbrel driver’s—rising star. One way or another. Call it a fine hypothesis, then. Someone has to ask the hard questions, heh? So let it be written: my womb! For a tiger. You know, I think I like it? My womb! You’d better write that one down.
Let’s keep walking, then. This is the way. No shade until we reach that tree.
To raise a species from the dead our scientist would need lots of time. For every viable fetus, she’d wait a quick hundred-day pregnancy cycle, then check the newborn’s genes against the sondaicus code, tinker some more and try again. Naturally, this speeds up as the technology evolves. She might have speculated that producing a viable fetus with all the right parts implanted and to term would take approximately twelve years and five thousand miscarriages. It has been thrice that time and many times that blood; it’s hard to trick nature. But eventually our scientist could have for herself, or for the public or for the highest bidder to do with as he pleases, a species that is no longer extinct.
Pity we only have the genes for a female. But that is a dilemma I am used to overcoming.
Okay, now you’re walking too fast for me. I am nearly eighty-four, after all. What is it? Are you excited by the suggestion that I would resurrect a tiger only to sell it? But that’s just what you will do with her, isn’t it? In truth, I’ve a fair selection of interested parties already. Who wants her most? Some would pay to eat her at their wedding banquets. Some would grind her bones for a broth to ease the ache of their terrible rheumatism. A certain party in England would pay handsomely for the opportunity to hunt her back to extinction. Hang his name on her gravestone. Many would want her in a sanctuary, obviously. One just wants her to stay dead because he believes we will only kill her again, having made a world unworthy of her life. But that is the silliest reason of all, I think, for her birth confirmed her immortality. She can always be killed, but she cannot be killed off. If she’s lost to a gun or a broth or a wicked zoo, I can revive the damned girl again. She can never be undone.
We come to the tree at last. It’s not much shade at this hour but enough to matter. Sit. Have some water. I must catch my breath. This is one of the last frontiers of the civilized world. Ah, but I see you’re disappointed with the view, that over this hill you see no hidden laboratory, no herds of tigers penned into clever fences or school houses raising a crop of little Christian Tycers reborn into a world I’ll soon depart, his tigers beside him. That sounds like justice, though. And who’s to say it’s not true? After all, if I can resurrect a tiger, think of what else might be out here, too. It’s a lot of land; I’m a wealthy woman. You’ll recall—right there in your own notebook—there are documented concerns for my patriotism, sanity, and ethical limits. You are absolutely right to suspect we’re not alone out here. They’re probably just a little further out, just one more hill. Keep looking. This is the only shade for quite a distance, so I’m certain you’ll eventually find signs of life. This might be a good time to turn on your camera.
Nothing yet? Well, I myself am going to sit down, avail myself of the shade. Cigarette? By all means, take a picture. It’s a good shot: ‘The last tiger’s witch-midwife smokes beneath a barren tree, contemplating the arts of extinction.’ I’ll give you this: none of the science will be published from the source—I am the source—and that little notebook of yours there? That is the only report that will ever see the light of day. There will simply, suddenly be tigers again. Lots of tigers. Only your notebook, maybe your camera yet, will tell why. Then again, you don’t really need more evidence than you’ve got for your kind of reporting. You could write a blog entry or sell her to Fox! You could wander back right now, try to find the gate and try to get it unlocked without my help. Even if we are alone, it’s pretty hot and a long ways back. You’ve drunk our water. Heading back might be wise.
Or are you more ambitious? Yes, you always are, your sort. Because you know that part of what I’ve told you is factual, all of it possible. And if any of it’s true, well then, it’s real news. Pulitzer/Nobel Prize news. It’s the opportunity for you to rise above rumor and the gutter of ruined lives, lured by a legitimate story and the chance to break it with empirical proof. So what will it be for you, truth or scandal? She’s probably only one more hill away, three at the most. Take your camera and roam as you wish, just as Christian used to do. Either way is fine with me.
You and I are finished, so I’ll turn you loose. The rumor is she’s tame. Tigers, as I said, don’t like the taste of man and wouldn’t hunt or eat him—unless, of course, they’re starving. Or were brought up on him.
For my part, maybe I’ve decided that I’ve done enough, that at last I’ve undone Christian’s crime and he has finally undone me. Maybe I’ll wait another half hour or so, just until it’s time to hunt. Then I’ll sit myself down beside the sleeping kitten, stroke her white belly, and wait until his tiger comes home.