"Happy birthday, Fiona!" Uncle Norman practically yelled in my ear as he bear-hugged me. "How old are you now, 15?"
I sighed. "I'm 18, Uncle."
Uncle Norman peeled his eyes open and stared at me. "How did you get so big so fast? When I last saw you, you were 14."
I just laughed. My Uncle Norman was a fun guy, but I worry about his mental health. He's around the age where he's vulnerable for Alzheimer's disease. Sometimes he talks crazy things, mostly about superstitions that he himself created. He once told me never to kiss a butterfly because then it'll steal all your beauty and leave you looking ugly. I often laugh at the things he says, but deep down inside I feel anxious. I can’t help but remember the darkest part of my family’s history. I can’t help but remember what happened to my parents 8 years ago.
"Oh," Uncle Norman said, "by the way, I got you a present. It's very valuable so don't manhandle it." Uncle Norman went behind the sofa and pulled out a large tiger plush.
The plush was half the size of Uncle Norman. It was white with black ears, a pink nose, nylon whiskers, and narrow golden eyes. It was very furry, but it had a strange texture to it. It didn’t feel like other stuffed animals.
"Fiona," Uncle Norman said with a smile, "meet Maharajah. I call him Rajah, he doesn't seem to mind. I bought him during my trip to Cambodia last month. I didn't wrap him up because...he wouldn't like it."
Uncle Norman handed me the tiger. It was surprisingly heavy. "What's in this thing, Uncle? It's heavier than my backpack!"
"Don't pay attention to things that don't matter," Uncle Norman chided. "Now, Maharajah's story goes like this: He was once a wealthy king of India. He ruled well, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. No one ever starved and no one ever stole anything. Even the animals were treated with respect. But one day a malicious jinni entered the king’s castle. This jinni was in charge of decaying anyone’s senses: their eyes, their ears, their noses, their tongues, their skins, and can even go as far as decaying the human mind and heart. This is what she did when she enticed the king into wrath and corruption. She poisoned his mind and his heart. The king fell easily, and he began to rule with an iron fist. His subjects, seeing their king go mad with rage and his heart go dark, rose against him and voiced out their anger. With the people's love turning into hate, the king became weaker and weaker, and the jinni used her powers to turn the king into a white tiger. He was then exiled by the people. The king lived the rest of his life as a nomad, wandering across Burma, Thailand, Singapore, even China. In every landscape he went he tried to hunt for food, but his white coat made him easy to detect by the antelopes and the birds. No one ever heard of the Maharajah again after that. It was thought that he had been killed by poachers or hunters. Some said he eventually died of starvation. But I found him, Fiona. I found Rajah!"
"That's a good story, Uncle,” I said, “but why is he a stuffed animal if he was only turned into a real tiger by the jinni?"
"That's what I'd like to know," Uncle Norman said, his fingers on his chin. "Maybe he really was killed, and his spirit resides in this stuffed animal. Or maybe the fake fur is real fur. You can try asking him, Fiona. Just don't joke around with him. I heard he doesn't have much of a sense of humor."
"I'll try to remember that," I said, my head beginning to hurt.
"I could tell he was the real Maharajah because of his anklet on his back paw."
I looked at the tiger's back legs and saw a golden anklet gleaming with pieces of jade. "Uncle," I said, "this anklet looks very expensive. I hope you didn't just buy it to make the story look real."
"It was already there," Uncle Norman said with a serious face. "Rajah can never take that anklet off. Even if you try to pry it open, the anklet won't let go of its master."
"Nice story, Uncle," I said dully as I put the tiger on the sofa. "Thanks for the present. Now, I'm hungry. Let's go have some cake."
After a few slices of cake I decided to go to sleep. I was eager to sleep, because Uncle Norman couldn't stop talking about the tiger and the king. He had never been so adamant about any of his stories before. I figured this particular story captivated him the most, so, as tired as I was about the story, I let him chat away about it. Before I left for my room, Uncle Norman told me to keep Rajah close to me when I sleep because he is a good guardian, and would protect me with his life. All I did was say goodnight.
Once in my room, I put on my nightclothes, then I examined the tiger plush, which sat on my bed looking regal and stoic. I scrutinized the anklet. Wherever Uncle Norman got that anklet, I was going to have to take it back for a refund.
I gingerly took the anklet and pulled it away from the paw. The anklet wouldn't even budge. I pulled harder. Still nothing. I scratched my head, searching for a logical explanation.
Super glue. My mind came up with super glue. Uncle Norman knew I wasn't too crazy for expensive things, and he knew I was going to take it back for a refund. So he super-glued the anklet to the paw! It sounded silly, but I was willing to accept anything other than my uncle's explanation.
I turned off the lights and got into bed. I'll find a way to take that anklet off tomorrow, I thought. I hugged the tiger plush, snuggling into the tiger's neck and closed my eyes.
As I drifted off to sleep, I thought I heard a distant purr.
The next day I went to school, and during lunchtime, I sat down on a bench with my friend Nita. I decided to tell her about my uncle's story. Nita studies mythology in her spare time; she loves to hear my uncle's stories. She can tell me where my uncle's ideas might have come from. Aside form that she comes from a long line of Indians. Her large dark eyes and long dark hair gives her heritage away.
“Another story from Uncle Norman?” Nita asked, fixing her glasses, eyes wide and eager for the story. Nita is a very reserved girl, but her eyes fail to hide anything.
I sighed and nodded. “It’s from India this time. Have you ever heard of Maharajah?”
Nita tilted her head. “There have been several maharajahs throughout the centuries.”
“How about one who was turned into a tiger?”
Nita went quiet. Then she said slowly, “Can you tell me the story?”
I told her the whole story. When I was finished, Nita had gone very still. She seemed lost in thought.
“So,” I said, desperate to break the silence, “What’s your take on the story? Have you heard it before?”
Nita didn’t answer. Her eyebrows were furrowed, her gaze distant. Only the school bell yanked her out of her reverie.
“Are you okay, Nita?” I asked cautiously.
Nita nodded and fixed her glasses. “I was just thinking about the story. Um… Fiona, it would do you well to believe in your uncle a little.”
“You too, Nita?” I said. I was suddenly angry, not only at Nita, but at my uncle. This little fairy tale has gone too far. “What’s wrong with you? Now you’re going to tell me the story actually happened?”
Nita flinched at the aggressive tone of my voice, but she said, “Are you angry because you’re afraid it might be true?” That was Nita. She tells me what she thinks, no matter how brutal it may be.
I stared at Nita, wondering if what she said was true. Why would I be afraid to realize the story actually happened? Because my uncle is crazy, and that might mean I am as well? Because I remember how a trivial thing completely broke down my parents’ sanity? Because I don’t want to end up like any of them?
I got up. My head was starting to hurt. “Where are you going, Fiona?” Nita asked nervously.
“Away from you, away from my uncle, away from this ridiculous story!” With that I stomped to my next class. For the rest of the day, I tried to bury myself in work. I focused on the classes like never before. And I avoided bumping into Nita. When I got home I found my uncle cooking in the kitchen. He turned to me and grinned. “Hey! How’s my favorite niece?”
I glared at him and marched upstairs to my room. The first thing I saw when I opened the door was the cursed tiger, lying on my bed staring at me. I glared back at it and went to my closet to hang my backpack. That’s when I noticed something else too.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw something green floating around by the window. I glanced to see it. It was a moth, a pale green moth. Its wings were exquisite, the green blending in with a slight tint of peach. Its antennas were large and fuzzy. It hovered by the window for a while, then it began to fly towards me.
I heard a knock on my door. “Come in,” I said distantly, never taking my eyes off the moth.
Uncle Norman poked his head around the door and grinned. “What’s the matter? Why do you look so---"
Uncle Norman stopped mid-sentence. I looked at him. His face was one of complete horror. “Fiona! Don’t move!”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “What is it, Uncle?” “That moth!”
I looked back at the moth. “It was already there when I came in. Funny thing is, my window was closed. Where could it have entered through?”
“They don’t need open windows to get through,” Uncle Norman said condescendingly. “We have to get rid of it!”
I started to reach for my shoe. It was probably dangerous if uncle was reacting like that. “Don’t kill it!” Uncle hissed. “It’s one of the jinni’s spies!”
“Uncle, enough of this!” I yelled. “This story’s getting bothersome!”
“If we kill even one,” Uncle Norman continued as if I never spoke, “We’d be declaring war against the jinni, and she is much too powerful for us to fight.” Uncle Norman’s eyes flew to me. “Fiona, do me a favor. Go to Rajah, slowly. Ask him to give you the anklet on his paw. If you succeed, wear it on your wrist and get out of here quickly. Go to your friend’s house. I’ll see if I can get this moth out of here.” Uncle’s face was so serious; I decided to do what he said. But not before telling him what I thought of the story. “This whole thing is ridiculous, Uncle. I don’t even know why I’m going to do this.”
I went slowly to my bed. The moth was close to brushing my shoulder.
“Don’t let it touch you,” Uncle Norman warned. “If it touches any part of you, that part will turn into stone. If you allow it to stay on you, your whole body will petrify.”
I knelt by the bed, in front of the tiger. “Hi,” I said, my cheeks flushing somewhat. This was awkward. “Do you think I can borrow your anklet for a while? Please?” I grabbed hold of the anklet and pulled. It slipped off easily.
“Good girl!” Uncle Norman cheered. “Now go to your friend’s house. I’ll call when the moth is out.”
“Go out now?” I glanced at the window. “But it’s getting dark. There could be muggers out there.”
“Rajah will protect you if something happens. That’s why I told you to wear the anklet. Now go.”
I sauntered downstairs and out the front door. I slipped the anklet on my wrist. The anklet felt strangely warm.
Outside the air was fresh and cool in my face as I walked. The sun had set, and the horizon held its weakening glow. Higher in the deep blue sky, some stars were beginning to appear.
Nita’s house is only a few blocks away. What could possibly happen in those few blocks?
A moth came into my view. I jumped. When I realized it was just a moth, I relaxed and continued to walk. The moth followed me. A strange feeling of paranoia started kicking in. I suddenly felt surrounded by eyes, millions of eyes, eyes waiting for me to stop, eyes burning holes through my body, eyes that never missed every blink I made, every beat my heart thumped, every breathe I took, every bead of sweat that now poured down my face. I suddenly felt trapped, like someone shackled my limbs and I couldn’t even budge. Unknowingly, I began to walk faster.
I came upon an old building with gargoyles on every corner. My steps went faster as I came closer to the building.
What the hell are you doing? My mind went. Running away from a little fairy tale your uncle told you? Are you going mad too, believing in fairy tales? Are they going to have to save you a room in the asylum, right next to your parents?
I halted immediately. “This is ridiculous!” I said out loud. “I don’t believe in this! I’m marching right up to my uncle and telling him I’m not playing his games anymore!” I whipped around… and gasped.
More than a hundred moths have followed me, all of them the same type as the one in my room. Their wings combined created a faint buzzing sound. One of the moths flew so close to me, I flinched. The moth landed on my right thumb.
Panicked, I shook my hand violently until it went away. My hand felt heavier, and I couldn’t feel my thumb. Slowly, I looked at it. My thumb was gray and cold, with the same texture as cement. Resisting the urge to scream, I heard a tiny voice in me whisper, Either Uncle was right, or you really are going crazy.
The moth that petrified my thumb flew upward, towards one of the gargoyles in the building’s roof. The moth settled on the shoulder of the gargoyle. And I watched in terror as the gargoyle slowly came to life. The beast was a griffin-like animal, with spiny scales along its back. Its wings were leathery and bony, its beak curled into a small spiral, its tail like that of a scorpion’s. The beast screeched a sound more deafening than nails across a blackboard.
I saw the gargoyle leap out of its post, and lunging towards me. I wanted to run, but my legs were paralyzed with fear. All I could do was close my eyes. Rajah, my mind thought briefly.
I felt the anklet slip off my wrist. Then a flash of light blinded me. I felt myself falling and hitting the cobble stoned floor, but I barely felt any pain. I hurried to clear my vision, blinking a hundred times and rubbing my eyes.
When I finally could focus, I was lying on the floor, several parts of my body were just beginning to ache. Remembering the gargoyle, I was beginning to look up when my eyes stopped midway.
A huge white tiger was standing in front of me, crouched as if ready to pounce. Its fur was very thick, but I could see the tiger’s ribs clearly. The tiger was emitting a low growl, a growl that got into my heart and made it tremble with fear. The tiger was glaring at the gargoyle, which stood across from it.A tiger prince defending me against a gargoyle who was brought to life by a harmless- looking moth. I was at a complete loss for words. I didn't know what to do. All I could do was lie there and ask myself, what the hell was going on? Is this just a dream? Or is this the end of my sanity?