This is how I die. The thought wouldn't stop echoing through my head. With the force of will gained through fifteen years of martial arts practice, I tried to clear my mind. It didn't work.
Flow like water, my sensei's calm voice whispered. Maybe I thought of this because fear had parched my throat. Or maybe it was because I was drenched from jumping in the moat. But most likely it was because the only thing separating me from death was an all too thin strip of water. I'd heard that tigers love water.
"What were you thinking when you jumped in the tiger pit?" The beautiful young reporter asked. She leaned towards me and held the microphone up to my mouth. Her wavy chestnut hair slipped off her shoulder and fell forward, blowing gently in the breeze.
I blinked at her. "I wasn't thinking. If I had been thinking, I probably wouldn't have jumped in." I shivered slightly under the thin trauma blanket that the medics had draped over my shoulders. Absentmindedly, I used a corner of the blanket to towel my dishwater blond hair from dripping to damp. "It was instinct."
He's safe, he's safe, I repeated to myself. The thought took my mind off of the disturbingly difficult problem of how to save myself. The tiger paced two or three times at the water's edge and then slipped in quietly and gracefully. He headed straight for me, paddling silently yet fiercely through the murky water.
Flow like water, my sensei insisted. But what does water do when it meets the chilling force of fear? Water freezes, I told myself.
I didn't say "be water," my sensei reprimanded. I said "flow like water."
"Was it maternal instinct?" The reporter asked.
The question startled a laugh out of me, a laugh tainted with the memory of cold metal at a doctor's office. "Trust me, I'm not a maternal kind of woman."
"But when you saw the child fall, you jumped in to save him." She gave me a teasing look, making sure to angle her face toward the camera. "Instinctively."
The tiger approached the narrow ledge of poured cement lining the moat where I stood with my back to the 12-foot wall. The ledge was barely a foot wide and I had to lean against the wall to keep my balance. As the tiger neared the area where I was standing, I sidestepped farther away. He reached the ledge and tried pulling himself up out of the water. He managed to get both of his front paws on the cement but the ledge was too narrow to allow his bulky body the space he needed to stand. He splashed ungracefully back into the water and turned in a small circle. Then his yellow eyes caught mine and he resumed the hunt.
He'll attack from the water, I decided. Pull me in with his claws and probably bite me or drown me. Maybe I'll survive until he swims back to his island, dragging me in his mouth. Probably not. Hopefully not.
So what's the plan, then? You know how he'll attack. Now make a plan of defense. I was used to unequal fights. I was one of three women in my dojo. A normal class had more than twenty students. I'd learned to use my small size to my advantage. I'd learned to flow with my opponent's attacks and wait for an opening.
"How did you get the child out?" The reporter's face was carefully molded into an expression of interest. She must have seen a video. There had to be several videos judging by the number of onlookers who had done nothing more than pull out their cellphones and start filming. She just wanted to hear it in my own words.
"I jumped into the water and grabbed the boy. We swam to the ledge and I lifted him up. His father almost fell in when he leaned over the rail to pull the kid out. But he didn't and they made it." She waited for me to continue, but I could wait too.
Something hit me lightly on my head. I risked a quick glance up. At the rate he was swimming, the tiger was still a few seconds away. A small group of three or four people had made a makeshift rope out of shirts and sweaters tied together. They lowered it to me, clearly hoping to be able to pull me out.
It was stupid and not likely to work. I knew it was stupid and not likely to work and yet I grabbed on anyway, turning my back to the tiger to try and climb out of the pit. I barely put any weight on the rope before one of the knots slipped loose and I was left holding three sweaters and facing the wall. That was when the attack came.
"I'm sorry. I just froze," I explained to my sensei after a humiliating defeat in the sparring ring. I was holding a bag of ice to my swollen left eye, while tears leaked out of the right one.
"You are allowed to freeze. It can happen to anyone." He stopped unstrapping my shin pads and caught my eye. "But when you freeze, don't turn into an ice cube. Turn into a glacier."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked hoarsely.
Sensei just smiled at me and rubbed Tiger Balm on my bruised legs.
One second I was terrified but hopeful of escape, and between one rapid heartbeat and the next, that hope disappeared and fear overwhelmed me. It was like jumping from a cliff into a lake with your eyes closed. During the fall you are scared of what is coming. Then you hit the water and you are immersed. That was what it felt like. I was immersed in fear.
It wasn't until after the terror engulfed me that I even realized I was under attack. My right leg was pulled out from under me, but I managed to stay upright on my left leg with my hands balancing myself against the wall.
In a split second, an internal debate between my blithe refusal to accept reality and my rational survival instinct was fought and decided. Instinct won. I wanted to pretend that everything was going to be alright, but unless I understood what I was up against I had no chance of fighting back. I looked under my elbow to assess the situation.
The tiger had his left paw on the ledge right underneath me. His right paw was curled around my right ankle, pulling my leg towards his mouth. He sank his teeth in just below my knee but almost immediately opened his mouth again to try for a more fatal bite.
I took advantage of the moment and yanked my leg up, away from the tiger's mouth. It worked because the tiger didn't have a good grasp on my thin ankle. He only had one paw on solid ground. His hind legs were still treading water, looking for purchase on the slick mossy wall of the moat. His right front was wrapped around my lower leg, which was too slender for him to hold easily with his large claws. Even so, I felt the skin on my shin and the inside of my calf shred against those claws as I pulled my knee up to my chest.
With my leg chambered, the martial artist in me reacted without thinking. I fought back. I put everything I had into my kiai, my battle cry, and accompanied it with one hard, fierce back kick to the tiger's nose.
In the dojo, my kiai was by no means one of the most powerful. It was just a quick sharp burst of air from my diaphragm that sounded vaguely like "uh." I preferred to focus on my technique and consequently never paid much attention to my kiai. This time I did. The cry didn't come out of my mouth. Instead, I swear that I felt it come out of my heel. It was the sound of my strike connecting. It was the force of my will that this strike would be enough to finish the fight.
The tiger howled and released his hold on the ledge. He fumbled in the moat, wiping at his face while trying to stay above the water. Almost immediately, he turned and swam back to the shore of his island. The swim back seemed to take him much longer than the first time he crossed the moat. He pulled himself up on shore and ran a paw over his nose, sneezing several times. It only took him a few seconds to realize that he wasn't actually hurt.
He shook the water out of his coat. His nose was bleeding slightly but it didn't look broken. He turned his amber gaze on me and paced agitatedly at the shoreline, obviously debating a second attack. I caught his gaze and held it. He roared a challenge. A challenge that I met.
This kiai was different. I didn't use it to add force to a strike. It wasn't a sound of triumph at a well placed focus shot to let my opponent know that I could have done more damage but pulled my strike. It was a warrior's cry. A battle call. A challenge. Come and kill me if you think you can. It was the projection of my soul asserting dominance over another being.
My kiai cut through the tiger's roar. He paused breathless as the force of my cry struck him. We stared at each other. After several long seconds he lowered his ears and slinked to the far corner of his island without turning his back on me. He got as far away from me as he could and paced restlessly without ever dropping his eyes.
"And after you fought the tiger off, you remained in the pit for nearly ten more minutes until the fire department arrived and lowered you a ladder?" The reporter asked. It shouldn't have been a question. She seemed to know the details of the encounter better than I did, but the inflection in her tone left me obligated to reply.
I thought about those ten minutes that I spent staring ferocity in the eye, praying that he wouldn't see that my own ferocity was really just a façade. That façade was the only survival tool that I had left. It was my glacier.
When the ladder finally appeared next to my left shoulder, I waited a few seconds before turning my back to the tiger and climbing out.
The reporter sighed at my silence and changed tactics. "How does it feel to be a hero?" She asked with a smile that had long ago lost its warmth, probably from excessive practice in a mirror.
"Is that what I am?"
"Well, you saved the life of a young child. What would you call yourself?"
She raised her eyebrows in true surprise, but recovered quickly for the camera. "There were lots of humans around when that child fell in the tiger pit, but only a hero would jump in to save someone that they didn't even know."
I paused to collect my thoughts before answering. "Is it human to stand by and watch while a child gets mauled and eaten? Is it human to pull out your cell phone and video a tiger attack? Were they hoping I would make it, or were they thinking about how many more hits their video would get if I had been eaten?" I ran a hand over my face, suddenly exhausted.
"Maybe I'm not being fair. I don't know what anyone was thinking. I'm not even sure I know what I was thinking. So who am I to judge?" I sat up straighter, signaling with my body language that I was about to stand up and draw the conversation to a close.
"I'll tell you one thing, though. If everyone had jumped into the pit, we could have all scared the tiger away together. He never would have attacked a group of people. If you want to call me a hero, fine. Call me whatever you like. But I think that the world needs less heroes and more humans." Without waiting for a response, I got up and walked away.