Herein lies the tale of a tiger who was raised and educated among men, and whose name was Juan Darien. For four years he attended school dressed in pants and a long sleeve shirt, and completed all his assignments correctly even though he was a tiger of the jungle. But these misperceptions can be attributed to his human appearance, as it is told in the following lines.
Once, at the beginning of fall, smallpox passed through a town of a faraway country and killed many people. Brothers lost little sisters, and children just beginning to walk were left without a mother or father. Mothers likewise lost their children, and a poor young widow carried out the task of burying her young child, her only child. Once home, she sat and thought about her little boy. She murmured,
“God should have had more compassion with me, yet he took my child. There will be angels in heaven, but my child will never know them. The only one he knows is me, my poor son!”
Seated in the recess of her house, she stared into the distance beyond a small fence where the jungle could be seen.
However, there were many ferocious animals that howl in the jungle as the sun sets and the sun rises. The poor woman, still seated, began to distinguish a small and shivering object in the darkness that came in through the door like a cat that hardly had the energy to walk. The woman bent down and lifted in her arms a tiger only a few days old whose eyes had yet to open. The wretched pup purred contently upon feeling the touch of her hands because he was no longer alone. The mother held that tiny enemy of man in the air for a while, she could have so easily exterminated that defenseless beast. But she remained lost in thought in front of the helpless pup who came from who knows where and whose mother had surely died. Without thinking well in what she was doing, she wrapped the child in her arms and brought him to her chest. The little tiger, feeling the heat of her chest, sought a comfortable position, purred calmly and slept with his neck rested upon the maternal breast.
The woman, always thoughtful, went into the house. And for the rest of the night, hearing the kitten’s cries for hunger and seeing how he searched for her breast with closed eyes, she felt a pain in her heart that in the eyes of the supreme law of the universe, that one life is forever equivalent to another…
She fed the tiger with her mother’s milk.
The kitten was saved, and the mother had found a great comfort to her pain. So real was her comfort that she foresaw the moment that the village would come and take her child, for they would surely kill the little beast if it ever came to be known that she nurtured a wild animal with her breast. What to do? The kitten, soft and loving, huddled to her chest and there was no doubt that he was now her child.
Mother and child lived like this until on a rainy night, a man running by the woman’s house heard a rough cry — the hoarse whimper of beasts that, even when newborn, send chills into the spine of men. The man froze and knocked on the door while searching for his revolver. The mother, hearing his steps, frantically hid the little tiger in the garden. But her good luck so had it that when she opened the door to the backyard, there before her was a tame, old, and wise snake that stood in her way. The unlucky woman was about to scream when the snake spoke to her.
“Do not be afraid, dear” he told her. “Your maternal love allowed you to save a life of the Universe, where all lives hold the same value. But men will never understand and will want to murder your child. Do not be afraid, go peacefully. From this moment on your son will have the human form; they will never recognize him for what he is. Shape his heart, teach him to be good like you, and he will never know that he is not a man. Unless…unless a mother amongst men sees his true nature; unless a mother does not demand that he return to his fellow kin everything that you have given him, your son will always be worthy of your love. Go calmly, mother, and go quickly, for the man is about to break down your door.”
The mother believed the snake, for in all of man’s religions the serpent knows the mysteries of life that inhabit the world. Opening the door, the man furiously pushed his way into the house with the revolver in his hand and searched every corner without finding a thing. After he left, she shakingly opened the lid where she had hid the little tiger that had rested on her chest. In his place she saw a small child sleeping peacefully. Overcome with happiness, she silently sobbed over the fate of the savage turned into man; tears of gratitude that twelve years later this same child would pay with blood.
Time passed. The child needed a name: she gave him the name of Juan Darien. He needed food, clothes, shoes: the mother worked day and night to give him everything. She was still very young and could have remarried, if she desired; but the endearing love of her child was enough, love that she returned with all of her heart.
Juan Darien was, truly, worthy of being loved: noble, good, generous like no one else. He had a particular deep veneration for his mother. He never lied. Could it be because his true nature lied in being a wild animal? It is possible; it is unknown the influence of a saintly woman’s mother’s milk over a pure newborn soul.
Yet so was Juan Darien. And he went to school with children his age, who often made fun of him for his shyness and rough, dry hair. Juan Darien was not very smart, but he made up for his lack of intellect with a great passion for study.
As life has it, Juan’s mother died when he was about to turn ten years old. Juan Darien suffered unspeakable pain, until time healed his wounds. Yet from then on he was a sad child whose only desire was to endlessly improve himself.
There is something that must be admitted: Juan Darien was not loved in the town. Inhabitants of cities closed off to the outside world from their forested walls did not like children who were generous and studied with all of their heart. He was, after all, the best student in his class. These combined factors foresaw the events prophesied by the serpent.
The town was preparing to celebrate it’s grand festival, and fireworks were arriving from distant cities. The school and the children were up for a review and an inspector was said to be on his way to observe the class. When the inspector arrived, the teacher decided to give her lesson to her best student: Juan Darien. Juan was the most advanced student; but with the pressure of the review, he began to stutter and his tongue froze uttering a strange sound. The inspector observed the student extensively, and immediately asked the teacher in a low voice,
“Who is that boy?” “Where is he from?”
“His name is Juan Darien” responded the teacher. “He was raised by a woman who died, no one knows where he came from.”
“He is strange. Very strange.” the inspector muttered observing his rough hair and the green twinkle in his eyes even when in shadow.
The inspector knew that there were things in the world more strange than things that could never be invented. At the same time, he knew that questions could never uncover whether or not the child had once been what he feared, a wild beast. Yet just as there are men who, in certain mental states, could remember things that had happened to their grandparents, it was possible that under a hypnotic suggestion, Juan Darien could remember his life as an animal. And to all the children who read this and do not know of what I speak, ask an adult.
The inspector got up on the podium and began,
“Well, child. I would now like for one of you to describe the jungle. You were all practically raised there and know it well. How is the jungle? What happens there? This is what I want to know. Let’s see, you” he said pointing to a random child. “Come up here and tell us what you have seen.”
The young boy got up and even though he was afraid, he spoke in detail. He said that the jungle has enormous trees, upwardly creeping plants, and all types of flowers. When he finished, another child came up, then another. Even though all knew the jungle well, they all gave the same answers because the boys and most men never tell what they have seen, only what they have read. Finally the inspector spoke up and said,
“Now it is Juan Darien’s turn.”
Juan Darien said more or less the same as everyone else. But the inspector, putting his hand on his shoulder said,
“No, no. I want you to think hard on what you have seen. Close your eyes.”
Juan Darien closed his eyes.
“Good.” The inspector went on, “tell me what you see.”
Juan Darien, with his eyes closed, delayed a minute to respond.
“I don’t see anything” he finally said.
“You will. Let’s say that it is three in the morning, right before dawn. We have just finished eating…you are in the jungle, in the darkness… In front of us is a stream… What do you see?”
Juan Darien stayed silent. The classroom and the jungle outside the window fell into a great silence. Suddenly, Juan Darien began to shake and with a soft voice, as if he were dreaming, said,
“I see the rocks underneath and the snapping twigs… and the ground… and the leaves that stick to the rocks…”
“Hold on” the inspector interrupted. “The rocks and the leaves that you see, where are they?”
The inspector asked this because Juan Darien was effectively “seeing” what he saw when he was still an animal who went to drink after having eaten. He saw that the rocks that a tiger or panther could see would be down close to the river, at the same level as their eyes as they lap at the water. He repeated,
“Where are the rocks?”
And Juan Darien, his eyes still closed, responded:
“Next to the ground… they are touching my ears… and the leaves move in the wind… I can feel the warmth of the mud on…”
Juan Darien paused.
“Where?” The inspector asked in a firm voice. “Where do you feel the warmth of the water?”
“On my whiskers” Juan said in a raspy voice, opening his eyes in fear.
Dusk was settling in, and through the window shadow was beginning to consume the nearby jungle.
The students did not comprehend the danger of this exchange; but they likewise did not laugh at Juan Darien’s absurd claim to have a moustache of long whiskers, he didn’t even have stubble. They did not laugh because Juan’s face was pale and anxious.
Class ended. The inspector was not a bad man; but, like all men who live close to the jungle, he hated tigers with a blinding anger. Which is why he said to the teacher,
“We need to kill Juan Darien. He is a wild beast from the jungle, possibly a tiger. If we do not kill him, he will sooner or later kill us all. He has not yet awoken the beast inside him, but one day he will and he will devour us all, even more so given that we allow him to live amongst us. We should, well, kill him. The problem is that we cannot kill him as long as he looks human, we would not be able to prove he was a tiger. He looks like a man, and we must always be careful when dealing with men. I know a beast tamer in the city. We can call him and he will find a way to return Juan Darien to his real form. And even though he will not be a tiger, people will believe us and we can toss him back into the jungle. We will call the tamer soon, before Juan Darien can escape.
But Juan Darien was thinking about everything but escaping, because he did not realize their was a plot against him. How could anyone think he was not a man when all he had ever done was love his fellow man and dangerous animals?
Yet the town began to talk and Juan Darien began to suffer the consequences. No one would speak to him, they would step widely to avoid him as he passed, and followed him at night from afar.
“What did I do? Why are they treating me this way?” Juan Darien asked himself.
Not only did people run from him, the children would yell at him,
“Get out of here! Go back to where you came from! Leave!”
Even adults, the most distinguished people in town, were infuriated by his presence. Who knows what may have happened if the tamer had not arrived the very same night as the town festival. Juan Darien was at home, preparing the awful soup he always ate when he heard the shouts of the people marching toward his door. He hardly had time to see what the commotion was all about when they grabbed him and dragged him to the tamer’s house.
“Here he is!” they yelled, tossing him to the ground. “This one is a tiger. We want nothing to do with tigers. Shed his disguise and let’s kill it.”
The children, his classmates, the people he cared about most, along with the elders, yelled:
“He is a tiger. Juan Darien will devour us all! Die Juan Darien!”
Juan Darien protested and cried as blows rained down upon him; a creature of twelve years old. But in that moment the crowd retreated and the tamer, with large leather boots, a red frock hat, and a whip in his hand, stood above Juan Darien. The tamer looked him over closely, and squeezed the handle of the whip.
“Ah!” He exclaimed. “I know you well! You can trick everyone else, but not me! I see you, tiger child! I can see your stripes under your shirt! Take off his shirt and bring me my hunting dogs! Now we will see if the dogs see you as man or as beast.”
The crowd quickly ripped off his clothes and threw Juan Darien into the cage meant to tame wild beasts.
“Bring out the dogs, quickly!” The tamer shouted. “And pray to your jungle gods, Juan Darien.”
Just then four fierce dogs were thrust into the cage.
The hunting dogs always recognized the smell of a tiger. And if they were to smell the naked body of Juan Darien, they would surely tear him to pieces, their eyes seeing the devilish stripes beneath his skin.
Yet the dogs saw nothing else than Juan Darien, the same child who had cared for dangerous animals. Sniffing him, the dogs began to wag their tails.
“Sick ‘em! It is a tiger! Get it! Get it!” The crowd yelled at the dogs. The dogs rabidly barked and jumped around the cage, unsure of what to attack.
The test had failed.
“Very well” Said the tamer. “Those dogs are stupid anyway, obedient to more dominant animals. They don’t recognize him. But I see you, Juan Darien and soon, they will all see too.”
The tamer entered the cage and pulled out his whip.
“Tiger” he shouted. “You are before a man, and you are a beast. I see your stripes, under your stolen skin. Show them to me!”
A ferocious crack whipped across Juan Darien’s body. The poor naked creature let out a cry of pain while the infuriated crowd cheered for more.
“Show us your stripes!” They shouted.
His pitiful cries went on into the night . And I hope that all children who read or listen to this story never martyr anyone like this.
“Please.” Juan Darien pleaded. “I’m dying.”
“Show us your stripes!” They responded.
Finally his cries stopped. In the back of the cage, cornered and tamed, was the small blood-striped body of a child who had once been Juan Darien. He was still alive, and was able to walk as they pulled him out of the cage; but full of suffering like no one had ever felt before.
Pulling him out of the cage and pushing him into the middle of the street, they banished him from the town. He kept falling, but behind him were men, women, and children, picking him up and pushing him out.
“Get out of here, Juan Darien. Go back to the jungle, child and spirit of a tiger! Leave!”
Those who were too far away to hit or shove him, threw rocks.
Juan Darien collapsed and looking for a support to stand, touched a young child. And his cruel destiny had it that a mother, standing outside her house with a young child in her arms, misinterpreted his reach for help as hunger.
“He tried to steal my child!” She screamed. “He has the claws to kill him. He is a tiger! Kill him now, before he kills all of our children.”
And so it was said. The prophecy of the serpent had been realized; Juan Darien would die when a humanly mother demanded the life and soul of a man raised by another woman.
The infuriated masses needed no other excuse. Twenty arms armed with rocks began to raise up ready to crush Juan Darien when the tamer yelled out his orders in a hoarse voice: “mark him with stripes from the fire! Burn him in the fireworks!
The sun had begun to set, and it was pure night by the time they arrived at the plaza. In the center of the plaza they had built a bonfire equipped with all of the great fireworks. They tied Juan Darien to the highest point in the center of the pile, and lit the wick from a good distance back. The string of the wick began to dance and hiss like a snake before igniting the pile. Behind the fireworks of flashing stars and colorful dancing wheels, Juan Darien was being sacrificed.
“It is your last day as a man, Juan Darien” they all shouted. “Show us your stripes.”
“Forgive me” the creature shouted, twisting among the sparks and clouds of smoke. The yellow, green, and red wheels spun dizzily, some to the right and others to the left. The streams of sparks jetted out in a halo and in the middle, burned by the sparks all over his body, Juan Darien flailed wildly.
“Show us your stripes” they roared from below.
“Forgive me! I am only a man!” the poor creature had time to yell. Through the wall of smoke and fire, his body could be seen convulsively wringing itself out. His shouts began to turn into growls and his body began to change form. The crowd, with a cheer of victory, finally saw the black fatal stripes of a tiger begin to emerge from under his human skin.
The horrible act of cruelty had come to an end; they got what they had wanted. Yet instead of an innocent creature blamed for all of mankind’s problems, there on the platform was the whimpering body of an agonized tiger.
The last of the fireworks were dying down. As the sparks on one last wheel came to a stop, the rope tied to his wrists (no, the paws of a tiger; Juan Darien was no more) and body, fell forcefully to the ground. The crowd dragged him to the edge of the jungle, abandoning him so that the jackals could devour his carcass.
Yet the tiger was not dead. The cool night returned his senses to him, and dragging himself through the grip of horrible torments, he was able to find solace in the jungle. An entire month was spent recuperating in his den in the thick of the jungle, waiting with a somber patience that only a beast can exhibit, the recuperation of his injuries. Finally his injuries healed and scarred, besides one, a deep burn on his side that would not close that he bandaged with enormous leaves.
Juan had conserved three human aspects of his former self: a living memory of the past, the use of his hands, and his ability to speak. Yet in everything else, absolutely everything, he was a beast that could not be distinguished from any other tiger.
When his energy finally returned to him, he called out to his fellow tigers to meet that night in front of the bushes that bordered between the crops and the jungle. The tigers silently walked into the town as night fell. They climbed into the trees surrounding the town and waited motionlessly. He watched as disheveled women and exhausted workers passed underneath him, unsuspecting of his presence, until he finally saw a man with red leather boots walking along the path.
The tiger did not disturb a single branch as he prepared to jump. He lept onto the tamer knocking him unconscious. Picking him up by the belt with his teeth, he carried the tamer to the jungle without without hurting him.
There, at the foot of immense reeds that hid their presence, the tigers of the jungle moved in the darkness, their eyes shining like lights darting from one side to the other. The tamer laid there in the middle, unconscious still. The tiger took the time to address his brothers.
“Brothers: I lived for twelve years among men, for I was a man. And I am a tiger. Perhaps what I plan to do will erase the stain of my humanity. Brothers: tonight I break the last bond that ties me to my past.”
Taking the man in his teeth, unconscious still, Juan climbed into the tallest tree above the bamboo and tied the man between two reeds. He then lit the dried leaves aflame,and soon the sky was alight with crisp crackling flames. The tigers reeled before the fire. But the tiger told them: “be not afraid, brothers”, and they were appeased. They lay on their bellies with their paws crossed in front of them to watch.
The bed of leaves burned like an incredible tower of flames. The reeds burst like bombs and its gases danced in thin arrows of color. The flames rose in sharp and deafening blasts. On the border of the bed of reeds, where the fire had not yet reached, the reeds began to weaken and bend from the intense heat.
The man, now touched by flame, had awoken. He saw below him the red eyes of the tigers staring at him, and he understood.
“Please forgive me”. He howled writhing in pain. “I am sorry for everything”.
No one answered. The man felt abandoned by God, and shouted with what remained of his soul, “I am sorry, Juan Darien”.
Hearing his name, Juan Darien lept up and said coldly, “there is no one here by the name Juan Darien. I know no Juan Darien. That is a man’s name, and here are only beasts”.
The tiger returning to his kin and the man, seemingly confused, asked, “who among you is Juan Darien?”
No one responded.
The flames were beginning to hug the night sky. Between the thin stripes of lights that twisted against a burning wall of reeds, the burnt black body could be seen among a cloud of smoke.
“I will be quick, brothers” said the tiger. “I still have one thing left to do”.
And so he walked into the town anew, unaware that his brothers were behind him. He came to a sad and dying garden, he jumped over the fence, and passing many crosses and headstones, and stood before a plot of land without any decoration where the woman he called mother for eight years was buried. He fell to his knees like a man and remained there silently.
“Mother” he finally murmured in a tender voice. “Of all mankind, only you knew that all life is sacred in the universe. Only you understood that man and beast are only different in spirit. You taught me to love, to understand, and to forgive. Mother, I know that you can hear me. I will always be your son no matter what happens. Goodbye, mother”.
And seeing the ardent eyes of his brothers who watched him from behind gated fence, he reunited with his family.
The warm night wind brought with it, from the shadows of the night, the crackling of a shot.
“It came from the jungle” said the tiger. “It is men. They are hunting, killing, decapitating.”
Turning toward the town, illuminated by the burning jungle, he shouted, “people without redemption, now it is my turn!”
Returning one last time to the grave where he just finished praying, he tore the bandage off his wound and below his mother’s name and with his own blood, he wrote on the cross in giant letters, JUAN DARIEN.
“Now we may rest in peace”. Alongside his brothers, he let out a challenging roar to the terrified town.
“To the jungle. And forever as a tiger!”