One day, a woman came walking by the tiger’s cage. The woman looked humble and kind. She took pity on the poor tiger and stopped.
“I know why you are in pain,” she soothed. “I know how to free you.” She held out a key to the tiger. “I can sell you this key for $5,000.” The tiger had some money. He had just been a performer in a show jumping in and out of hoops and standing on platforms on his hind legs. He agreed and gave her the money.
The tiger took the key. He tried to force the key in the lock with his paws and then, with his mouth. He jiggled the key this way and that way. It was no use. The lock would not open. The tiger cried.
“Do not cry dear,” soothed the woman. “I am a poor woman, but I know there must be a way to open this lock. I know about key making and I will go home and work on a key to free you. I need to take the money you gave me because I have several mouths to feed. My family will be grateful to you and I will return to you with a key that works.”
What else could the tiger do? After all, he was behind bars. As the woman walked away, the tiger noticed a chain growing around his cage. It grew like a vine, weaving its metal links in and out the bars. The tiger howled and the black hole in his heart became larger.
The woman returned the next day smiling and full of hope. “A new chain appeared, I see. Well, there is no need to cry. Let us try the key I made for you last night.” They jingled it and jangled it. Still, it did not work.
“I know a master key maker far more talented than me. He charges $10,000 for his keys.” The tiger did not have $10,000.
“Do not give up hope. You must have faith. I’m sure you have other things besides money. What else do you have?”
The tiger could only think of his days hunting on the steppe. He had come across many treasures as he was hunting. He had saved some of those treasures, the gifts that only Mother Earth can deliver forth: skeletons of creatures returned to the earth and fresh spring water.
“Freedom does require sacrifice,” she whispered. “Are you strong enough to make that sacrifice?”
He had no other choice. He told her the location of his treasure. The woman went to find it and returned with keys from the master key maker. She jiggled them. The tiger jangled them. But, they did not open the lock.
“Do not give up,” said the woman. “We shall think of some way to open it tomorrow.”
As she walked away, the tiger saw not one, but several more chains grow and wrap themselves, twisting and writhing like snakes around his bars. The chains were so thick that moonlight could no longer enter his cage.
The next day, the woman returned. She was stunned to see the new chains, but she quickly composed herself.
“Do not lose faith now,” she soothed. “This seems hopeless, but it is not. I know one last place where I can find a magic key that will open all locks. It is only $20,000.” The tiger shook his head. He could not pay.
“Don’t give up now. Of course, you must have something. You must have a picture of yourself as a young tiger cub, don’t you?”
The tiger nodded. He had one photo of himself as a cub. In it, his eyes were half open and heavy with love. He was gazing with into his mother’s eyes. Her tongue brushed his ear.
“You know the value of that photo is great. It has the spirit of pure love. This spirit can be contained and used for many purposes. Indeed, many people will want it. It is quite valuable, I assure you.”
The tiger slid the picture through the bars.
“Careful now, don’t dirty the photo,” the woman said. She brushed the tiger’s dirt from the picture’s edges. She slid the picture in her pocket and went to fetch the key of keys.
When she returned, the tiger’s heart pounded. He knew that after giving up everything, he would be free at last. But after just one attempt at inserting the key, thousands of chains wrapped themselves around the prison. The chains became so thick that the tiger could no longer see or hear the woman. It didn’t much matter. The woman never went to visit the tiger again.
The tiger could no longer pace his cage, nor could he lie down. The chains had spread themselves in every direction in and around the cage.
Then the tiger made a sound. It came from the depths of the volcanoes and the ocean’s abysses. It came from the silent space between the lightning bolt and thunder. It came from the roots of the trees. It came from the core of the earth. It came from Tiger’s black hole heart too. Tears like a hailstorm ran down Tiger’s arms and legs. They ran down his belly and his whole body shook. When his body shook, Tiger’s clenched paw opened. And out fell a key! It had been in his paw lodged in crusty blood and knotted hair.
He picked up the key, recognizing his own blood. Tiger placed the key inside the lock. It opened. The chains began to rust. The rust turned to dust and the dust was blown away. He stepped out into the moonlight.
He wanted to know what his cage looked like from the outside. So, he turned back. The bars turned to grass. The cement floors fell and melted into a beautiful lake. The ceiling swirled into a canopy of trees. Tiger smiled. His smile turned into a roar. From the breath of his fiery roar, little flies caught the fire and became fireflies dancing.