Once, far from here but close enough to matter, a woman stood waiting. She stood near the entrance to her hut and waited for the fishing boat that would bring her husband home…
* * *
The woman and her husband lived where the earth meets the rising sea. They worked hard but they were poor, and the family was often hungry. The ground around them had become too salty to grow crops.
Across the river there was a thick mangrove forest. Every day the woman’s husband went into the forest to search for wood to keep them warm and food to ease the ache in their stomachs. Her husband collected honey from the honeycombs, he fished in the water channels and dragged home tree boughs to burn and use for shelter.
Husband was nervous of the dark forest. It was a tangled, mysterious, forbidden place, of moths and fire ants, spotted deer and monkeys. And in the forest there lived a great beast. A watchful, terrifying TIGER.
Sometimes men would go to the mangroves and never come back. Some only came back in pieces, their bodies broken. Others survived but with horrible scars.
* * *
One day, Husband went into the forest. Husband went into the forest to seek honey. He found himself walking between the honeycombs, relieved that he could take food back to his family. Suddenly he felt a shadow. He looked up and saw a tiger – a great, muscled tiger in his path, staring at him with its yellow eyes.
The tiger bared his teeth and snarled: ‘Why are you here? This place is not for you, and I am hungry.’
Husband was scared, but he tried to whistle a comforting tune. He put his hand into his bag and took out a honeycomb. He tossed it to Tiger. ‘Take my food,’ he said. ‘But then let me go.’
Tiger pawed at the honeycomb lying on the ground in front of him, and as he bent his head to stamp on it and break it open, Husband gently tiptoed, tiptoed towards a big stick that he could see at the side of the river bank.
But when Tiger had done with sucking the sweet honey, he drew closer. ‘Still here?’ he scowled.
‘Yes indeed!’ said Husband bravely, ‘Why should I leave?’
‘I am protector of this place. I guard these trees. This precious land is disappearing and I must keep it safe. Take those you love to the big city or I am going to eat you.’
So Husband gathered his wits and ran home to his wife.
* * *
The next day, Husband went back to the forest to try and fish. He found himself dragging nets in the sparkling, cold water of the river when suddenly he felt a shadow. He looked up and saw the tiger, the great striped tiger, standing on the riverbank, staring at him with its yellow eyes.
Tiger bared his teeth and glared: ‘Why are you here? This place is not for you and I am still hungry.’
Husband was afraid, but he tried to hum his comforting tune. He put his hand into his bag and took out a handful of prawns. He tossed them to Tiger. ‘Take my food,’ he said. ‘But then let me go.’
Tiger pawed at the prawns jumping in the mud, and as he bent to gulp them down, Husband waded, waded towards a fat stick he could see on the far bank.
When he had swallowed the shellfish down in a couple of gulps, Tiger stretched his body and eased himself down into the water. He swam towards Husband. ‘Still here?’ he snarled.
‘Why yes!’ said Husband, trembling. ‘Why should I leave?’
‘I am protector of this place. Without me to guard it, this forest cannot survive. Take those you love to the big city or I am going to eat you.’
So Husband gathered his wits and paddled quickly home to his wife.
* * *
The next day, Husband went into the forest again. Husband went into the forest in search of wood. He found himself up a tree, sawing its branches, when suddenly he felt a shadow. He looked down and saw Tiger – great, orange Tiger, staring up at him with its yellow eyes.
Tiger bared his teeth and growled: ‘Why are you here? This place is not for you and I am still very hungry.’
Husband was now terrified. He felt in his bag but all he had left was a single mangrove pod. He took it from his bag and threw it high for Tiger to catch in his jaws. ‘Take my food, but then let me go.’
Tiger snatched at the seed and crunched into the husk. Husband slid, slid, slid down fast but he could see no stick, so he stood stock-still beside the trunk.
Tiger swished his tail and leaped in front of cowering Husband. Tiger could see Husband’s fear and Husband could see Tiger’s fury.
And then Husband heard a noise: a beat, like drumming or the pulse of a great heart. The sound seemed to come from outside him, from the dark mantle of the far forest and the mud banks all around – and even from the throat of Tiger himself: ‘These were my warnings, but you humans will not stop.’ Tiger looked to the right, where sea had swallowed land, and to the left where once there had been trees, and he shook his head. ‘Just how… how do you think we’ll all survive when there is nothing left?’
* * *
Hour after hour the woman stood and waited. She thought about her husband in the forest and felt a storm gather in her heart, like a tiger set to pounce. ‘I am afraid,’ she whispered. ‘I fear some great misfortune.’
The 4,000 square miles of mangrove forest that make up the Sundarbans National Park act as a buffer when violent cyclones hit, protecting millions of people in nearby Kolkata and the rest of south Bengal from deadly storm surges.
Like other large forests, the salt-tolerant mangroves absorb carbon dioxide – playing a vital role in combating global warming.