The girl dropped onto the armchair, arms aching from the weight of the books she'd borne with her. She tucked one of the books beside her, and then carefully lowered the rest onto the floor. Red light from the fireplace flickered on their worn covers.
The girl the book had tucked beside her was laid on her lap. It was fat with pages filled with a rainbow of animals, all different shapes and sizes and colours. It was quite old; it belonged to her grandmother, and it was treasured by them both. It was a reminder of forgotten things that might've been able to stay in the world, had not they been slain in turn by the hand of Man.
Settled, the girl glanced at the title-The Usborne Encyclopaedia of Animals-and opened it. A fusty smell arose from it, a smell that she loved. She gently leafed through the pages until she reached her favourite page-the page she kept coming back to, to admire the illustrations adorning it.
"The tiger…" She whispered enthralled, as if hoping that her voice alone could bring this forgotten creature back to life.
Tigers leapt and crouched and slunk and gambolled with their cubs across the double page. There was little writing to accompany their images, but it was not needed. They were all different colours-one was as white as snow, two a reddish orange, and one a lighter orange-but they all had black stripes like claw marks raking down their fur. Their topaz eyes spoke of fear, of anger, of love. They robbed the girl of her breath, as she traced her fingers down the illustrations. If only her skin could brush against warm fur, and feel the muscles rippling beneath it. They were truly the most graceful, beautiful creatures she'd ever seen.
"Gawping over the tigers again, Melanie?" A cracked but kind voice pulled the girl out of her trance. She looked up to see her grandmother standing by the kitchen door, hands smothered in oven gloves.
"They call to me," Melanie announced. Smiling, the old woman came to stand by the armchair, looking at the book past her granddaughter's shoulder. Her smile soon fell to become a sombre grimace though.
"Melanie, you know staring at them won't bring them back. Nothing can." The girl sighed, the spell broken. She gazed down sadly at the tigers.
"They're so beautiful…it's just not fair! I never got to see them. Sometimes I wonder if they were even true, like that Okapi thing that never existed. Rita at school says tigers are made up."
"What nonsense! You can tell Rita she's wrong-her grandparents could too. They existed, sure as I know you exist now. I saw them plenty of times. On television sets most often-of course, no one uses those anymore. I even got close to them at the zoo. Well, until all those ones died."
Melanie sniffed: a sign of approaching tears. She couldn't help it. Life was so unfair.
"Tell me again, Gran, how did they all die? Why aren't they here now?"
Sadness settled like a blanket on the old woman's face, but she answered the girl's question.
"You see those coats they wear in the pictures? The real things are a hundred times more beautiful. And so, humans decided they had to steal the tiger's coats and wear them themselves. Just for the sake of vanity…it makes me angry, Melanie, so angry. And lots of people, stupid people, believed that their body parts could heal the sick.
"For years people kept shooting tigers, sometimes even just for the pleasure of killing them..." Melanie watched her grandmother's hand turn white as she clutched the top of the armchair. "Eventually we realised that the tigers were disappearing, that we couldn't keep wearing them and grinding their bones for medicine. Some of us even tried to stop the slaughter, tried to teach people the consequences of their actions…but most ignored the truth. They just kept killing tigers. The last wild tiger was shot, did you know? It was terrible."
Tears riddled the old woman's cheeks. Memories of pain and despair stirred in her mind.
"The last tiger ever died in a zoo, on a concrete floor, surrounded by people in white coats trying to stretch out its life further. But what point was there in that? One tiger can't revive an entire species.
"There were so many tears afterwards. They came from the people who had tried to save the tigers. None of the poachers who liked killing them cried. They didn't even feel remorse. No, they just moved on to another species. The Amur leopard was next to go, then all the rhinos…then the elephants, you remember the elephants?"
Melanie did remember pictures of elephants. Huge, grey animals with giant ears and long, pointing things called 'tusks'. They were amazing too, but excelled by the tiger.
"Now, the world is empty. There were so many other creatures alive in my time, Melanie. And they're…they're all gone," the old woman choked suddenly. The pain was so terrible…
"You know the worst thing, Melanie? It's still happening. Oh yes, they say that humans are superior, that we're the cleverest of them all, but have we ever learnt from our mistakes? No. Right at this very moment, people are out there cutting trees down, polluting the rivers and the oceans, shooting animals for pleasure…"
Melanie stared at her grandmother. She'd never seen her in a state like this. Her frail frame shook with anger, and her soft cheeks were sodden with tears.
"The human race lost all of its innocence a long time ago, Melanie. We've half killed the world."
Melanie tore her gaze away from the wreck her grandmother had suddenly become, her eyes haunted by the images that had been created in her mind by the words of a reminiscing human. She recalled two words she'd heard the old woman say before, and spoke them.