The Art of Wrestling Tigers

by Vishaka Sriram. Shortlistee of the Best Novel Opening for Children or Young Adults competition 2021

Valli was close enough to jump on the tigress’s back.

As she ran, her pulse pounded and every moment slowed. She was close, so close. Elation roared in her stomach to see the beast turn tail and she pounded on, despite the burning in her lungs. The ferocious predator tore ahead, the lashing wind throwing back her rippling snarls. Valli tried to move her feet lightly like the gazelles did over the verdant carpet. Her mouth tasted the win.

The tigress’s back tensed, legs a flurry of movement, tail a whip of flame that nearly slashed Valli’s face; the evening forest lit up with the saffron and black stripes like war paint. A jolt in her spine was the only tell that the tigress had roared.

Cotton balls stuffed in Valli’s ears kept her eardrums and bones from shattering from the force of that sound, the kind her father would roll for her.

But Appa, for all his wisdom, hadn’t been a true tiger wrestler – those were little more than stories now. Still, thinking about Appa was a good way to remind herself why she still ventured into these woods, her hatred for them growing with every moment. By now, she’d earned as many scars as these enemies of men bore stripes.

She leapt to catch the muscled back – her feet slipped on green moss that gave way. Her big toe sunk right through. She gasped, the feeling of victory wrenching from her, and her gasp turned into a scream. Treetops and clouds flashed overhead.

She cried out: more like a newborn calf and less like a brutal tiger wrestler. Her knee exploded with pain and her cheek slammed into the grass. The tigress clawed through bushes, growls fading into the distance.