Photo: FB / Ralph Sibande by Midvaal News

As South Africans grapple with the tragic ending to the hunt for the escaped tiger known as Sheba, this exquisitely written piece by Facebook Author RALPH SIBANDE has us all in tears. Grab a tissue and read to the end…

AN INTERVIEW WITH SHEBA AKA SASHA

By Ralph Sibande (republished on SAPeople with Ralph’s kind permission)

It really took a long while to set up the meeting. Let me confirm that trying to meet an escaped tigress is much more complicated and difficult than landing the rover on Mars. I literally begged, bribed, cheated and paid my way to meet one of the most glamorous escape artists in recent South African history – Sheba the intrepid tigress.
Without divulging much I can confirm that Indian mynahs were involved, humble domestic dogs and cats, furtive field squirrels, and shady bulbuls, gentle pigeons, and recalcitrant Highveld snakes were all involved in the Mission Impossible to find and locate Sheba. But in the end pride won the day – Sheba came of her own accord to see me. Yes a sense of personal pride on her part made the meeting possible. She had a story to share.
Tigers dont walk into an interview; they sashay into the scene, hold everything at ransom and everything stops and pays attention. Sheba has presence, beauty, the proven wiles of an escape artist, and a sharp wit to match. I felt proud of the honour she bestowed upon me.
First impressions last longer – and what really threw me off balance were her burning eyes. She has a way of looking at you, a piercing, relentless deprecatory look thst can see and fathom the inner recesses of your soul. I recalled William Blake’s ancient immortal words:
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
As if reading my thoughts Sheba gave a beautiful disarming smile, and I felt embarrassed by my unashamed ogling eyes. It was not a friendly smile but a cross between a self-assured lascivious smile and the unmistakable threatening grin of a wild feline femme fatale. I knew I was threading a very thin and tout line between being an honoured host or a savoury human dinner.
I wanted to proffer a handshake but she decided to dispense with all formal niceties. She certainly could cut through the chase.
” Call me Sasha!” she purred, “Sheba is my captive name and I dont like it. Tell me, Mkhulu, what would you do to regain your freedom?”
I coukd see my emissaries had done exc Introductions. We were on first name basis.
That floored me and left me dogfaced like Scoobydoo. I was certainly not prepared to debate with her on the finer points of philosophy and ethics, and if anything I didnt like to ruffle her now placid feline temper with the casuistry of Greek philosophy in the autumn of Joburg’s highveld windy grasslands.
“Tell me Mkhulu whose more noble the one who gives freedom or the one who takes it away?” she asked, her amber eyes burning as bright as ever.
I wanted to look at her closely for any signs of mistreatment or malnutrition or harmful captivity. There were none. Sasha was a paragon of health. Her coat was clean and well shampooed and groomed, it literally glowed in the Highveld late noonday sun. She had a healthy yawn and clean bright sharp teeth of one accustomed to being well fed and on time. Her tongue was bright pink, furried and had a beautiful pattern of taste buds. And it was her strong sinewy legs and paws that put me in my place – she didnt just show strength but the lithe athletic easy manner of a warrior-huntress.
“Freedom, is relative Sasha. Sometimes we exchange it for what can keep us safe.” I smiled.
“You exchange your freedom for what?” she snarled.
She gave a startled snarl, a grunt actually, a quick groan that had me immediately apprehensive of my personal safety. But I soon learnt that tigers do that all the time whether scoffing at a poor opinion given or simply expressing their displeasure at the weather or vexing highveld flies.
“I have never been so happy and carefree in my life as of the last three days.” she chimed and gave a soft sigh. She ran her tongue around her lips.
“How’s my whiskers?” she asked. “They are fine” – I replied.
“You know how droopy and sagging they could get if things are not right with me..” she said and went on to tell me, with childish excitement, how she had jumped across a little stream in the afternoon.
How the act of doing so brought her so much joy and restored her self-esteem.
She had played with the water and splashed some of it on her face. She told me how she has slept on the ground and felt Mother Earth’s pulsating energy coursing her body – revitalising her aura. How she saw the moon racing across the night sky and felt deliriously happy by just watching it.
She spoke of the water in the stream as being much better than urban tap water because it still retained the memory and good qualities of where it had passed and flowed while finding its way back to the source. I didnt stop her but allowed her to talk as much as she could, in the same way Oprah Winfrey allows people to talk discursively in her show.
She was very excited at discovering insects, and chasing them around for fun. She said I should have heard their language, here she giggled, as they cursed her back or sometimes simply outflew her and laughed at her. I saw a soul at play with life and nature than a fugitive from justice.
She said she had made friends with an eagle eared owl and a friendly red helmeted guinea fowl. That the eagle eared owl was an inveterate storyteller and seemed to have kept tabs on the goings on of everyone in the Highveld grasslands at night. She had lots and lots of funny stories to tell about everybody.
She seemed to find termite mounds very strange and was trying to breakdown one when a concerted spray of formic acid on her muzzle brought her back to reality. She thinks termites are automatons and stupid for working so hard until they died of exhaustion and for missing out so much on life by staying indoors in their mud castles.
She thought stars were jewels and had a secret language they used to communicate with all living creatures who watched them intuitively.
She had kind words for her human friends though, for looking after her so well but felt it was time she spread her wings and lived on her own wits and contivances. She didnt discount the idea of paying them a visit on an occasional weekend, just to find out how they were doing but really feels that now that she has tasted the beauty of life free from confinement it was not possible for her to go back.
“Are they looking for me?” she asked me with the innocence of a truant child enjoying ice cream at the mall.
I answered, “Yes” and she asked me to send them a message that she was ok and doing fine. I told her that many people were on her side and really wished her well and wanted her to be free. She had a glint of joy in her eyes when she heard this and this seemed to make her even more happy.
She curled up her beautiful tail and swatted some flies from her face. I think I saw a tear in her left eye but she did her best to hide it from me.
“Mkhulu,” she said….. and something just tied a knot in my stomach. I knew I was dreading the moment as much as she did.
“Mkhulu, I’m not going back to farm, because I can’t. I’m free now. And I wont be going back. Ever” she said it so calmly and truthfully.
Somehow I extended my hand and brushed the back of her head. In that moment I was confronted by a fellow creature in search of freedom and life. What is life? Life is a personal choice. Can we have personal truth exist without personal freedom?
I did not see a tiger or tigress in front of me. I saw a living soul. A majestic soul born free to roam the farthest confines of the earth and live its truth in freedom as best as it knows how.
“Are they going to take me back?” she asked me again
I said “No. They wont take you back although they make take back your body.” I said it and felt how metallic bitter and strange it tasted in my mouth and I felt warm tears welling in my eyes, and tumbling out.
She smiled and stood up turned her back on me.
“Where are you going? ” I asked her.
“I have a meeting with Eagle Eared Owl. He is going to show me my way back home.” she said.
“But you wont be flying in an aeroplane or sailing in a ship? How do you hope to get home?” I asked her.
“Yes I know, Mkhulu. My road home passes through the stars in the sky. And my heart shall guide me. Thanks for knowing you Mkhulu. ”
With that she disappeared behind some thick grass.
I wept.

Copyright story Ralph Sibande and photo Midvaal News


***

Ralph Sibande’s words were prophetic. In the early hours of this morning (Wednesday 18 January 2022), the tiger was euthanised… and is now “passing through the stars in the sky”, having lived its last few days with the freedom it should have enjoyed throughout its life.

FOLLOW RALPH SIBANDE for so many more beautiful, meaningful stories like this, steeped in empathy and insight.