Poetry the Sumatran Tiger:
Born Rotterdam Zoo 1978.
Arrived Melbourne Zoo 1979.
Back in the 90’s, before internet became part of my life, I was penpals with a woman who lived in Sunbury, Victoria. We had letter writing and tarot in common. She had teenage children, I had small children. We wrote back and forth to each other. We both worked with the Robin Wood tarot deck. The big illustrated book that now accompanies reprints of the deck hadn’t been released. There was only the Little White Book that came with the deck.
I’m hazy on how we came to meet. Judging by the era, perhaps we met at a belly dance event. I can no longer remember anything but the tarot contents of our letters, where we wrangled meaning from the images, and sent each other challenging card combinations with the adage ‘what do you make of this one, then, in relation to a house move?’
We corresponded for perhaps two years when she finally said: ‘”Let’s meet up at Melbourne Zoo. Bring your cards.”
I was living in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Melbourne Zoo wasn’t halfway between us, but we both liked the zoo, so the date was set.
We arrived, and set eyes on each other. We were just outside the front entrance gift shop. We stared at each other. In all this time, we’d never sent each other photos. Pics of our kids, yes. But not ourselves. She was tall, with a loose-boned quality I hankered after. Surprise, she too had red hair, but whereas mine was the colour of Schweppes dry ginger ale, hers was a frizzy, faded orange. She was older than I first thought, ending into her late 40’s, and here I was in my early 30’s. She had watery blue eyes, and the first signs of crow’s feet around her eyes. Her chin was pointy, and she was everything I suddenly wanted to be. Oh, to be tall! Oh, to wear peasant skirts with a stylish swirl, instead of them puddling around my feet!
We had until 2.40pm, then I’d have to be off, speeding home in my car to catch at least one kid after school. It was 10am. Let’s go.
“I think we should do some readings for the animals,” she said.
“Well, we can’t set up shop here. The zoo’d have us out on our ears in a hot minute,” she said. “I thought we could read for the animals, then have some lunch, then read for each other.”
Well….all righty. Why not? I was a Reiki Master, and in my time, I’d not only done distance healings on people, but also animals, and once or twice, places. I’d talked to the higher self of a house, and to the deva of a field. So why not do tarot readings for animals?
Poetry was the resident female tiger at Melbourne Zoo. It was March, and Poetry was elderly, nearly 21 years old. She was the sort of tiger who was so accustomed to her human keepers that they could place their hands up against the wire of her enclosure and she’d rub her face against them, just like a housecat buffs itself against fingers, a computer edge, or the handle of your tea cup.
I was fond of Poetry. She’d been in Melbourne Zoo a long time, and was the tiger I’d seen there ever since I could remember.
“I want to do Poetry,” I said to my friend.
She wanted to read for a gorilla. Gorillas before tigers, as the zoo was laid out then, in 1997. I sat and watched my friend tune in to the female gorilla nearest the front of the enclosure, and then shuffle her cards. It’s too many years ago to remember the exact cards, but I do remember my friend’s interpretation was along the lines of: “change of diet needed; body discomfort; yearning for freedom”.
I remember thinking that, as my friend read the cards out loud: “Yeah, I can see that, I can see that, where is she getting that interpretation from, yeah kinda see that.”
Then it was my turn. We walked to the tiger enclosure, and there was Poetry, sound asleep in the shade. I think, by her great age, she spent most of her life asleep. I sat down. People came and went around me, kids shouting, voices saying: “Why doesn’t it get up?”
I dropped my consciousness into Poetry, and felt like I was stretched out, hot, too limpid to move much, old, tired. My hips ached. Fleeting dream images of meat, of green leaves, of the brown water of the pond flickered behind my eyes.
“This is a tarot reading for the tiger Poetry. It’s a three card spread, using the Robin Wood deck.”
I shuffled and laid out the cards, mostly back in my own body, but a small part of me still connected to the big cat.
Death. Knight of Swords. Knight of Wands.
I wasn’t conscious of my friend as opened my mouth and spoke, and I don’t remember my exact words, but they were along the lines of: “Change is coming, and she knows it. Soon, she will become a thing of air and fire, not of earth and water. She will rise as smoke, she will rise like flame, and become spread upon the air. She will rise, she will rise. Death is coming for her and she knows it.”
And then I snapped out of my trance. People moved around me, but not near me. My words bothered them. A few were murmuring to each other, like I was a sideshow all on my own. My friend’s mouth hung open.
“Oh my god, she’s going to die?”
I hesitated. “Is that what I said? I never use the Death card as actual death. Neither of us do.”
We stared at each other. It suddenly wasn’t so much fun any more. The silence between us was unbearable. Poetry started suddenly from her sleep, and stretched. She got heavily to her feet, and stood, her face half-turned towards the small crowd. Then she walked slowly away towards the back of her enclosure, where she couldn’t be seen.
The mixed sandwiches and tea I had for my lunch were like ashes in my mouth. We made desultory talk.
“Let’s go see the butterfly house,” my friend said.
Butterflies lived such short lives that doing readings for any of them seemed silly, so we sat on the pathway, mercifully empty of baby strollers, and school children, and read for each other, in the warmth of the house, in filtered sunshine.
We shook off the morning’s gloom, and went on to do quick one-card pulls for various animals – lions, parrots, a large male kangaroo, a giraffe. It seemed one giraffe would be going on a trip shortly. (Sure enough, the Friends of the Zoos newsletter reported that, three months later, he’d been shipped elsewhere.)
At 2.40pm, we bid each other goodbye, and I raced for my car. I was in time, just to pick my daughter up from school.
Poetry died six months later.
It’s the only time I’ve ever predicted a death in tarot. Births, marriages, divorces, adultery, addictions. But only that one death. That was more than enough.
It was fun to read for the animals, until suddenly it wasn’t. I’ve never repeated the experience.