Life of pi, p.11
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       Life of Pi, p.11

           Yann Martel

  A shiver of cold went through me. I decided it was a storm after all. Time to return to safety. I let go, hotfooted it to the wall, moved over and pulled open the door.

  Inside the ship, there were noises. Deep structural groans. I stumbled and fell. No harm done. I got up. With the help of the handrails I went down the stairwell four steps at a time. I had gone down just one level when I saw water. Lots of water. It was blocking my way. It was surging from below like a riotous crowd, raging, frothing and boiling. Stairs vanished into watery darkness. I couldn't believe my eyes. What was this water doing here? Where had it come from? I stood nailed to the spot, frightened and incredulous and ignorant of what I should do next. Down there was where my family was.

  I ran up the stairs. I got to the main deck. The weather wasn't entertaining any more. I was very afraid. Now it was plain and obvious: the ship was listing badly. And it wasn't level the other way either. There was a noticeable incline going from bow to stern. I looked overboard. The water didn't look to be eighty feet away. The ship was sinking. My mind could hardly conceive it. It was as unbelievable as the moon catching fire.

  Where were the officers and the crew? What were they doing? Towards the bow I saw some men running in the gloom. I thought I saw some animals too, but I dismissed the sight as illusion crafted by rain and shadow. We had the hatch covers over their bay pulled open when the weather was good, but at all times the animals were kept confined to their cages. These were dangerous wild animals we were transporting, not farm livestock. Above me, on the bridge, I thought I heard some men shouting.

  The ship shook and there was that sound, the monstrous metallic burp. What was it? Was it the collective scream of humans and animals protesting their oncoming death? Was it the ship itself giving up the ghost? I fell over. I got to my feet. I looked overboard again. The sea was rising. The waves were getting closer. We were sinking fast.

  I clearly heard monkeys shrieking. Something was shaking the deck. A gaur--an Indian wild ox--exploded out of the rain and thundered by me, terrified, out of control, berserk. I looked at it, dumbstruck and amazed. Who in God's name had let it out?

  I ran for the stairs to the bridge. Up there was where the officers were, the only people on the ship who spoke English, the masters of our destiny here, the ones who would right this wrong. They would explain everything. They would take care of my family and me. I climbed to the middle bridge. There was no one on the starboard side. I ran to the port side. I saw three men, crew members. I fell. I got up. They were looking overboard. I shouted. They turned. They looked at me and at each other. They spoke a few words. They came towards me quickly. I felt gratitude and relief welling up in me. I said, "Thank God I've found you. What is happening? I am very scared. There is water at the bottom of the ship. I am worried about my family. I can't get to the level where our cabins are. Is this normal? Do you think--"

  One of the men interrupted me by thrusting a life jacket into my arms and shouting something in Chinese. I noticed an orange whistle dangling from the life jacket. The men were nodding vigorously at me. When they took hold of me and lifted me in their strong arms, I thought nothing of it. I thought they were helping me. I was so full of trust in them that I felt grateful as they carried me in the air. Only when they threw me overboard did I begin to have doubts.


  I landed with a trampoline-like bounce on the half-unrolled tarpaulin covering a lifeboat forty feet below. It was a miracle I didn't hurt myself. I lost the life jacket, except for the whistle, which stayed in my hand. The lifeboat had been lowered partway and left to hang. It was leaning out from its davits, swinging in the storm, some twenty feet above the water. I looked up. Two of the men were looking down at me, pointing wildly at the lifeboat and shouting. I didn't understand what they wanted me to do. I thought they were going to jump in after me. Instead they turned their heads, looked horrified, and this creature appeared in the air, leaping with the grace of a racehorse. The zebra missed the tarpaulin. It was a male Grant, weighing over five hundred pounds. It landed with a loud crash on the last bench, smashing it and shaking the whole lifeboat. The animal called out. I might have expected the braying of an ass or the neighing of a horse. It was nothing of the sort. It could only be called a burst of barking, a kwa—ha-ha, kwa—ha-ha, kwa—ha-ha put out at the highest pitch of distress. The creature's lips were widely parted, standing upright and quivering, revealing yellow teeth and dark pink gums. The lifeboat fell through the air and we hit the seething water.


  Richard Parker did not jump into the water after me. The oar I intended to use as a club floated. I held on to it as I reached for the lifebuoy, now vacant of its previous occupant. It was terrifying to be in the water. It was black and cold and in a rage. I felt as if I were at the bottom of a crumbling well. Water kept crashing down on me. It stung my eyes. It pulled me down. I could hardly breathe. If there hadn't been the lifebuoy I wouldn't have lasted a minute.

  I saw a triangle slicing the water fifteen feet away. It was a shark's fin. An awful tingle, cold and liquid, went up and down my spine. I swam as fast as I could to one end of the lifeboat, the end still covered by the tarpaulin. I pushed myself up on the lifebuoy with my arms. I couldn't see Richard Parker. He wasn't on the tarpaulin or on a bench. He was at the bottom of the lifeboat. I pushed myself up again. All I could see, briefly, at the other end, was the zebra's head thrashing about. As I fell back into the water another shark's fin glided right before me.

  The bright orange tarpaulin was held down by a strong nylon rope that wove its way between metal grommets in the tarpaulin and blunt hooks on the side of the boat. I happened to be treading water at the bow. The tarpaulin was not as securely fixed going over the stem--which had a very short prow, what in a face would be called a snub nose--as it was elsewhere around the boat. There was a little looseness in the tarpaulin as the rope went from one hook on one side of the stem to the next hook on the other side. I lifted the oar in the air and I shoved its handle into this looseness, into this lifesaving detail. I pushed the oar in as far as it would go. The lifeboat now had a prow projecting over the waves, if crookedly. I pulled myself up and wrapped my legs around the oar. The oar handle pushed up against the tarpaulin, but tarpaulin, rope and oar held. I was out of the water, if only by a fluctuating two, three feet. The crest of the larger waves kept striking me.

  I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me. Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten. But I don't recall that I had a single thought during those first minutes of relative safety. I didn't even notice daybreak. I held on to the oar, I just held on, God only knows why.

  After a while I made good use of the lifebuoy. I lifted it out of the water and put the oar through its hole. I worked it down until the ring was hugging me. Now it was only with my legs that I had to hold on. If Richard Parker appeared, it would be more awkward to drop from the oar, but one terror at a time, Pacific before tiger.


  The elements allowed me to go on living. The lifeboat did not sink. Richard Parker kept out of sight. The sharks prowled but did not lunge. The waves splashed me but did not pull me off.

  I watched the ship as it disappeared with much burbling and belching. Lights flickered and went out. I looked about for my family, for survivors, for another lifeboat, for anything that might bring me hope. There was nothing. Only rain, marauding waves of black ocean and the flotsam of tragedy.

  The darkness melted away from the sky. The rain stopped.

  I could not stay in the position I was in forever. I was cold. My neck was sore from holding up my head and from all the craning I had been doing. My back hurt from leaning against the lifebuoy. And I needed to be higher up if I were to see other lifeboats.

  I inched my way along the o
ar till my feet were against the bow of the boat. I had to proceed with extreme caution. My guess was that Richard Parker was on the floor of the lifeboat beneath the tarpaulin, his back to me, facing the zebra, which he had no doubt killed by now. Of the five senses, tigers rely the most on their sight. Their eyesight is very keen, especially in detecting motion. Their hearing is good. Their smell is average. I mean compared to other animals, of course. Next to Richard Parker, I was deaf, blind and nose-dead. But at the moment he could not see me, and in my wet condition could probably not smell me, and what with the whistling of the wind and the hissing of the sea as waves broke, if I were careful, he would not hear me. I had a chance so long as he did not sense me. If he did, he would kill me right away. Could he burst through the tarpaulin, I wondered.

  Fear and reason fought over the answer. Fear said Yes. He was a fierce, 450-pound carnivore. Each of his claws was as sharp as a knife. Reason said No. The tarpaulin was sturdy canvas, not a Japanese paper wall. I had landed upon it from a height. Richard Parker could shred it with his claws with a little time and effort, but he couldn't pop through it like a jack-in-the-box. And he had not seen me. Since he had not seen me, he had no reason to claw his way through it.

  I slid along the oar. I brought both my legs to one side of the oar and placed my feet on the gunnel. The gunnel is the top edge of a boat, the rim if you want. I moved a little more till my legs were on the boat. I kept my eyes fixed on the horizon of the tarpaulin. Any second I expected to see Richard Parker rising up and coming for me. Several times I had fits of fearful trembling. Precisely where I wanted to be most still--my legs--was where I trembled most. My legs drummed upon the tarpaulin. A more obvious rapping on Richard Parker's door couldn't be imagined. The trembling spread to my arms and it was all I could do to hold on. Each fit passed.

  When enough of my body was on the boat I pulled myself up. I looked beyond the end of the tarpaulin. I was surprised to see that the zebra was still alive. It lay near the stern, where it had fallen, listless, but its stomach was still panting and its eyes were still moving, expressing terror. It was on its side, facing me, its head and neck awkwardly propped against the boat's side bench. It had badly broken a rear leg. The angle of it was completely unnatural. Bone protruded through skin and there was bleeding. Only its slim front legs had a semblance of normal position. They were bent and neatly tucked against its twisted torso. From time to time the zebra shook its head and barked and snorted. Otherwise it lay quietly.

  It was a lovely animal. Its wet markings glowed brightly white and intensely black. I was so eaten up by anxiety that I couldn't dwell on it; still, in passing, as a faint afterthought, the queer, clean, artistic boldness of its design and the fineness of its head struck me. Of greater significance to me was the strange fact that Richard Parker had not killed it. In the normal course of things he should have killed the zebra. That's what predators do: they kill prey. In the present circumstances, where Richard Parker would be under tremendous mental strain, fear should have brought out an exceptional level of aggression. The zebra should have been properly butchered.

  The reason behind its spared life was revealed shortly. It froze my blood--and then brought a slight measure of relief. A head appeared beyond the end of the tarpaulin. It looked at me in a direct, frightened way, ducked under, appeared again, ducked under again, appeared once more, disappeared a last time. It was the bear-like, balding-looking head of a spotted hyena. Our zoo had a clan of six, two dominant females and four subordinate males. They were supposed to be going to Minnesota. The one here was a male. I recognized it by its right ear, which was badly torn, its healed jagged edge testimony to old violence. Now I understood why Richard Parker had not killed the zebra: he was no longer aboard. There couldn't be both a hyena and a tiger in such a small space. He must have fallen off the tarpaulin and drowned.

  I had to explain to myself how a hyena had come to be on the lifeboat. I doubted hyenas were capable of swimming in open seas. I concluded that it must have been on board all along, hiding under the tarpaulin, and that I hadn't noticed it when I landed with a bounce. I realized something else: the hyena was the reason those sailors had thrown me into the lifeboat. They weren't trying to save my life. That was the last of their concerns. They were using me as fodder. They were hoping that the hyena would attack me and that somehow I would get rid of it and make the boat safe for them, no matter if it cost me my life. Now I knew what they were pointing at so furiously just before the zebra appeared.

  I never thought that finding myself confined in a small space with a spotted hyena would be good news, but there you go. In fact, the good news was double: if it weren't for this hyena, the sailors wouldn't have thrown me into the lifeboat and I would have stayed on the ship and I surely would have drowned; and if I had to share quarters with a wild animal, better the upfront ferocity of a dog than the power and stealth of a cat. I breathed the smallest sigh of relief. As a precautionary measure I moved onto the oar. I sat astride it, on the rounded edge of the speared lifebuoy, my left foot against the tip of the prow, my right foot on the gunnel. It was comfortable enough and I was facing the boat.

  I looked about. Nothing but sea and sky. The same when we were at the top of a swell. The sea briefly imitated every land feature--every hill, every valley, every plain. Accelerated geotectonics. Around the world in eighty swells. But nowhere on it could I find my family. Things floated in the water but none that brought me hope. I could see no other lifeboats.

  The weather was changing rapidly. The sea, so immense, so breathtakingly immense, was settling into a smooth and steady motion, with the waves at heel; the wind was softening to a tuneful breeze; fluffy, radiantly white clouds were beginning to light up in a vast fathomless dome of delicate pale blue. It was the dawn of a beautiful day in the Pacific Ocean. My shirt was already beginning to dry. The night had vanished as quickly as the ship.

  I began to wait. My thoughts swung wildly. I was either fixed on practical details of immediate survival or transfixed by pain, weeping silently, my mouth open and my hands at my head.


  She came floating on an island of bananas in a halo of light, as lovely as the Virgin Mary. The rising sun was behind her. Her flaming hair looked stunning.

  I cried, "Oh blessed Great Mother, Pondicherry fertility goddess, provider of milk and love, wondrous arm spread of comfort, terror of ticks, picker-up of crying ones, are you to witness this tragedy too? It's not right that gentleness meet horror. Better that you had died right away. How bitterly glad I am to see you. You bring joy and pain in equal measure. Joy because you are with me, but pain because it won't be for long. What do you know about the sea? Nothing. What do I know about the sea? Nothing. Without a driver this bus is lost. Our lives are over. Come aboard if your destination is oblivion--it should be our next stop. We can sit together. You can have the window seat, if you want. But it's a sad view. Oh, enough of this dissembling. Let me say it plainly: I love you, I love you, I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you. Not the spiders, please."

  It was Orange Juice--so called because she tended to drool--our prize Borneo orang-utan matriarch, zoo star and mother of two fine boys, surrounded by a mass of black spiders that crawled around her like malevolent worshippers. The bananas on which she floated were held together by the nylon net with which they had been lowered into the ship. When she stepped off the bananas into the boat, they bobbed up and rolled over. The net became loose. Without thinking about it, only because it was at hand's reach and about to sink, I took hold of the net and pulled it aboard, a casual gesture that would turn out to be a lifesaver in many ways; this net would become one of my most precious possessions.

  The bananas came apart. The black spiders crawled as fast as they could, but their situation was hopeless. The island crumbled beneath them. They all drowned. The lifeboat briefly floated in a sea of fruit.

  I had picked up what I thought was a useless net, but did I think of reaping from this bana
na manna? No. Not a single one. It was banana split in the wrong sense of the term: the sea dispersed them. This colossal waste would later weigh on me heavily. I would nearly go into convulsions of dismay at my stupidity.

  Orange Juice was in a fog. Her gestures were slow and tentative and her eyes reflected deep mental confusion. She was in a state of profound shock. She lay flat on the tarpaulin for several minutes, quiet and still, before reaching over and falling into the lifeboat proper. I heard a hyena's scream.


  The last trace I saw of the ship was a patch of oil glimmering on the surface of the water.

  I was certain I wasn't alone. It was inconceivable that the Tsimtsum should sink without eliciting a peep of concern. Right now in Tokyo, in Panama City, in Madras, in Honolulu, why, even in Winnipeg, red lights were blinking on consoles, alarm bells were ringing, eyes were opening wide in horror, mouths were gasping, "My God! The Tsimtsum has sunk!" and hands were reaching for phones. More red lights were starting to blink and more alarm bells were starting to ring. Pilots were running to their planes with their shoelaces still untied, such was their hurry. Ship officers were spinning their wheels till they were feeling dizzy. Even submarines were swerving underwater to join in the rescue effort. We would be rescued soon. A ship would appear on the horizon. A gun would be found to kill the hyena and put the zebra out of its misery. Perhaps Orange Juice could be saved. I would climb aboard and be greeted by my family. They would have been picked up in another lifeboat. I only had to ensure my survival for the next few hours until this rescue ship came.

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