Life of pi, p.19
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       Life of Pi, p.19

           Yann Martel

  Tears flowing down my cheeks, I egged myself on until I heard a cracking sound and I no longer felt any life fighting in my hands. I pulled back the folds of the blanket. The flying fish was dead. It was split open and bloody on one side of its head, at the level of the gills.

  I wept heartily over this poor little deceased soul. It was the first sentient being I had ever killed. I was now a killer. I was now as guilty as Cain. I was sixteen years old, a harmless boy, bookish and religious, and now I had blood on my hands. It's a terrible burden to carry. All sentient life is sacred. I never forget to include this fish in my prayers.

  After that it was easier. Now that it was dead, the flying fish looked like fish I had seen in the markets of Pondicherry. It was something else, something outside the essential scheme of creation. I chopped it up into pieces with the hatchet and put it in the bucket.

  In the dying hours of the day I tried fishing again. At first I had no better luck than I'd had in the morning. But success seemed less elusive. The fish nibbled at the hook with fervour. Their interest was evident. I realized that these were small fish, too small for the hook. So I cast my line further out and let it sink deeper, beyond the reach of the small fish that concentrated around the raft and lifeboat.

  It was when I used the flying fish's head as bait, and with only one sinker, casting my line out and pulling it in quickly, making the head skim over the surface of the water, that I finally had my first strike. A dorado surged forth and lunged for the fish head. I let out a little slack, to make sure it had properly swallowed the bait, before giving the line a good yank. The dorado exploded out of the water, tugging on the line so hard I thought it was going to pull me off the raft. I braced myself. The line became very taut. It was good line; it would not break. I started bringing the dorado in. It struggled with all its might, jumping and diving and splashing. The line cut into my hands. I wrapped my hands in the blanket. My heart was pounding. The fish was as strong as an ox. I was not sure I would be able to pull it in.

  I noticed all the other fish had vanished from around the raft and boat. No doubt they had sensed the dorado's distress. I hurried. Its struggling would attract sharks. But it fought like a devil. My arms were aching. Every time I got it close to the raft, it beat about with such frenzy that I was cowed into letting out some line.

  At last I managed to haul it aboard. It was over three feet long. The bucket was useless. It would fit the dorado like a hat. I held the fish down by kneeling on it and using my hands. It was a writhing mass of pure muscle, so big its tail stuck out from beneath me, pounding hard against the raft. It was giving me a ride like I imagine a bucking bronco would give a cowboy. I was in a wild and triumphant mood. A dorado is a magnificent-looking fish, large, fleshy and sleek, with a bulging forehead that speaks of a forceful personality, a very long dorsal fin as proud as a cock's comb, and a coat of scales that is smooth and bright. I felt I was dealing fate a serious blow by engaging such a handsome adversary. With this fish I was retaliating against the sea, against the wind, against the sinking of ships, against all circumstances that were working against me. "Thank you, Lord Vishnu, thank you!" I shouted. "Once you saved the world by taking the form of a fish. Now you have saved me by taking the form of a fish. Thank you, thank you!"

  Killing it was no problem. I would have spared myself the trouble--after all, it was for Richard Parker and he would have dispatched it with expert ease--but for the hook that was embedded in its mouth. I exulted at having a dorado at the end of my line--I would be less keen if it were a tiger. I went about the job in a direct way. I took the hatchet in both my hands and vigorously beat the fish on the head with the hammerhead (I still didn't have the stomach to use the sharp edge). The dorado did a most extraordinary thing as it died: it began to flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession. Blue, green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death. (I found out later that the dorado is famed for its death-knell iridescence.) At last it lay still and dull-coloured, and I could remove the hook. I even managed to retrieve a part of my bait.

  You may be astonished that in such a short period of time I could go from weeping over the muffled killing of a flying fish to gleefully bludgeoning to death a dorado. I could explain it by arguing that profiting from a pitiful flying fish's navigational mistake made me shy and sorrowful, while the excitement of actively capturing a great dorado made me sanguinary and self-assured. But in point of fact the explanation lies elsewhere. It is simple and brutal: a person can get used to anything, even to killing.

  It was with a hunter's pride that I pulled the raft up to the lifeboat. I brought it along the side, keeping very low. I swung my arm and dropped the dorado into the boat. It landed with a heavy thud and provoked a gruff expression of surprise from Richard Parker. After a sniff or two, I heard the wet mashing sound of a mouth at work. I pushed myself off, not forgetting to blow the whistle hard several times, to remind Richard Parker of who had so graciously provided him with fresh food. I stopped to pick up some biscuits and a can of water. The five remaining flying fish in the locker were dead. I pulled their wings off, throwing them away, and wrapped the fish in the now-consecrated fish blanket.

  By the time I had rinsed myself of blood, cleaned up my fishing gear, put things away and had my supper, night had come on. A thin layer of clouds masked the stars and the moon, and it was very dark. I was tired, but still excited by the events of the last hours. The feeling of busyness was profoundly satisfying; I hadn't thought at all about my plight or myself. Fishing was surely a better way of passing the time than yarn-spinning or playing I Spy. I determined to start again the next day as soon as there was light.

  I fell asleep, my mind lit up by the chameleon-like flickering of the dying dorado.


  I slept in fits that night. Shortly before sunrise I gave up trying to fall asleep again and lifted myself on an elbow. I spied with my little eye a tiger. Richard Parker was restless. He was moaning and growling and pacing about the lifeboat. It was impressive. I assessed the situation. He couldn't be hungry. Or at least not dangerously hungry. Was he thirsty? His tongue hung from his mouth, but only on occasion, and he was not panting. And his stomach and paws were still wet. But they were not dripping wet. There probably wasn't much water left in the boat. Soon he would be thirsty.

  I looked up at the sky. The cloud cover had vanished. But for a few wisps on the horizon, the sky was clear. It would be another hot, rainless day. The sea moved in a lethargic way, as if already exhausted by the oncoming heat.

  I sat against the mast and thought over our problem. The biscuits and the fishing gear assured us of the solid part of our diet. It was the liquid part that was the rub. It all came down to what was so abundant around us but marred by salt. I could perhaps mix some sea water with his fresh water, but I had to procure more fresh water to start with. The cans would not last long between the two of us--in fact, I was loath to share even one with Richard Parker--and it would be foolish to rely on rainwater.

  The solar stills were the only other possible source of drinkable water. I looked at them doubtfully. They had been out two days now. I noticed that one of them had lost a little air. I pulled on the rope to tend to it. I topped off its cone with air. Without any real expectation I reached underwater for the distillate pouch that was clipped to the round buoyancy chamber. My fingers took hold of a bag that was unexpectedly fat. A shiver of thrill went through me. I controlled myself. As likely as not, salt water had leaked in. I unhooked the pouch and, following the instructions, lowered it and tilted the still so that any more water from beneath the cone might flow into it. I closed the two small taps that led to the pouch, detached it and pulled it out of the water. It was rectangular in shape and made of thick, soft, yellow plastic, with calibration marks on one side. I tasted the water. I tasted it again. It was salt-free.

  "My sweet sea cow!" I exclaimed to the solar still. "You've p
roduced, and how! What a delicious milk. Mind you, a little rubbery, but I'm not complaining. Why, look at me drink!"

  I finished the bag. It had a capacity of one litre and was nearly full. After a moment of sigh-producing, shut-eyed satisfaction, I reattached the pouch. I checked the other stills. Each one had an udder similarly heavy. I collected the fresh milk, over eight litres of it, in the fish bucket. Instantly these technological contraptions became as precious to me as cattle are to a farmer. Indeed, as they floated placidly in an arc, they looked almost like cows grazing in a field. I ministered to their needs, making sure that there was enough sea water inside each and that the cones and chambers were inflated to just the right pressure.

  After adding a little sea water to the bucket's contents, I placed it on the side bench just beyond the tarpaulin. With the end of the morning coolness, Richard Parker seemed safely settled below. I tied the bucket in place using rope and the tarpaulin hooks on the side of the boat. I carefully peeked over the gunnel. He was lying on his side. His den was a foul sight. The dead mammals were heaped together, a grotesque pile of decayed animal parts. I recognized a leg or two, various patches of hide, parts of a head, a great number of bones. Flying-fish wings were scattered about.

  I cut up a flying fish and tossed a piece onto the side bench. After I had gathered what I needed for the day from the locker and was ready to go, I tossed another piece over the tarpaulin in front of Richard Parker. It had the intended effect. As I drifted away I saw him come out into the open to fetch the morsel of fish. His head turned and he noticed the other morsel and the new object next to it. He lifted himself. He hung his huge head over the bucket. I was afraid he would tip it over. He didn't. His face disappeared into it, barely fitting, and he started to lap up the water. In very little time the bucket started shaking and rattling emptily with each strike of his tongue. When he looked up, I stared him aggressively in the eyes and I blew on the whistle a few times. He disappeared under the tarpaulin.

  It occurred to me that with every passing day the lifeboat was resembling a zoo enclosure more and more: Richard Parker had his sheltered area for sleeping and resting, his food stash, his lookout and now his water hole.

  The temperature climbed. The heat became stifling. I spent the rest of the day in the shade of the canopy, fishing. It seems I had had beginner's luck with that first dorado. I caught nothing the whole day, not even in the late afternoon, when marine life appeared in abundance. A turtle turned up, a different kind this time, a green sea turtle, bulkier and smoother-shelled, but curious in the same fixed way as a hawksbill. I did nothing about it, but I started thinking that I should.

  The only good thing about the day being so hot was the sight the solar stills presented. Every cone was covered on the inside with drops and rivulets of condensation.

  The day ended. I calculated that the next morning would make it a week since the Tsimtsum had sunk.


  The Robertson family survived thirty-eight days at sea. Captain Bligh of the celebrated mutinous Bounty and his fellow castaways survived forty-seven days. Steven Callahan survived seventy-six. Owen Chase, whose account of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex by a whale inspired Herman Melville, survived eighty-three days at sea with two mates, interrupted by a one-week stay on an inhospitable island. The Bailey family survived 118 days. I have heard of a Korean merchant sailor named Poon, I believe, who survived the Pacific for 173 days in the 1950s.

  I survived 227 days. That's how long my trial lasted, over seven months.

  I kept myself busy. That was one key to my survival. On a lifeboat, even on a raft, there's always something that needs doing. An average day for me, if such a notion can be applied to a castaway, went like this:

  Sunrise to mid-morning:

  wake up


  breakfast for Richard Parker

  general inspection of raft and lifeboat, with particular attention paid to all knots and ropes

  tending of solar stills (wiping, inflating, topping off with water)

  breakfast and inspection of food stores

  fishing and preparing of fish if any caught (gutting, cleaning, hanging of strips of flesh on lines to cure in the sun)

  Mid-morning to late afternoon:


  light lunch

  rest and restful activities (writing in diary, examining of scabs and sores, upkeeping of equipment, puttering about locker, observation and study of Richard Parker, picking at of turtle bones, etc.)

  Late afternoon to early evening:


  fishing and preparing of fish

  tending of curing strips of flesh (turning over, cutting away of putrid parts) dinner preparations dinner for self and Richard Parker


  general inspection of raft and lifeboat (knots and ropes again) collecting and safekeeping of distillate from solar stills storing of all foods and equipment

  arrangements for night (making of bed, safe storage on raft of flare, in case of ship, and rain catcher, in case of rain)



  fitful sleeping


  Mornings were usually better than late afternoons, when the emptiness of time tended to make itself felt.

  Any number of events affected this routine. Rainfall, at any time of the day or night, stopped all other business; for as long as it fell, I held up the rain catchers and was feverishly occupied storing their catch. A turtle's visit was another major disruption. And Richard Parker, of course, was a regular disturbance. Accommodating him was a priority I could not neglect for an instant. He didn't have much of a routine beyond eating, drinking and sleeping, but there were times when he stirred from his lethargy and rambled about his territory, making noises and being cranky. Thankfully, every time, the sun and the sea quickly tired him and he returned to beneath the tarpaulin, to lying on his side again, or flat on his stomach, his head on top of his crossed front legs.

  But there was more to my dealings with him than strict necessity. I also spent hours observing him because it was a distraction. A tiger is a fascinating animal at any time, and all the more so when it is your sole companion.

  At first, looking out for a ship was something I did all the time, compulsively. But after a few weeks, five or six, I stopped doing it nearly entirely.

  And I survived because I made a point of forgetting. My story started on a calendar day--July 2nd, 1977--and ended on a calendar day--February 14th, 1978--but in between there was no calendar. I did not count the days or the weeks or the months. Time is an illusion that only makes us pant. I survived because I forgot even the very notion of time.

  What I remember are events and encounters and routines, markers that emerged here and there from the ocean of time and imprinted themselves on my memory. The smell of spent hand-flare shells, and prayers at dawn, and the killing of turtles, and the biology of algae, for example. And many more. But I don't know if I can put them in order for you. My memories come in a jumble.


  My clothes disintegrated, victims of the sun and the salt. First they became gauze-thin. Then they tore until only the seams were left. Lastly, the seams broke. For months I lived stark naked except for the whistle that dangled from my neck by a string.

  Salt-water boils--red, angry, disfiguring--were a leprosy of the high seas, transmitted by the water that soaked me. Where they burst, my skin was exceptionally sensitive; accidentally rubbing an open sore was so painful I would gasp and cry out. Naturally, these boils developed on the parts of my body that got the most wet and the most wear on the raft; that is, my backside. There were days when I could hardly find a position in which I could rest. Time and sunshine healed a sore, but the process was slow, and new boils appeared if I didn't stay dry.


  I spent hours trying to decipher the lines in the survival manual on navigation. Plain and simple explanations on living off the sea were given
in abundance, but a basic knowledge of seafaring was assumed by the author of the manual. The castaway was to his mind an experienced sailor who, compass, chart and sextant in hand, knew how he found his way into trouble, if not how he would get out of it. The result was advice such as "Remember, time is distance. Don't forget to wind your watch," or "Latitude can be measured with the fingers, if need be." I had a watch, but it was now at the bottom of the Pacific. I lost it when the Tsimtsum sank. As for latitude and longitude, my marine knowledge was strictly limited to what lived in the sea and did not extend to what cruised on top of it. Winds and currents were a mystery to me. The stars meant nothing to me. I couldn't name a single constellation. My family lived by one star alone: the sun. We were early to bed and early to rise. I had in my life looked at a number of beautiful starry nights, where with just two colours and the simplest of styles nature draws the grandest of pictures, and I felt the feelings of wonder and smallness that we all feel, and I got a clear sense of direction from the spectacle, most definitely, but I mean that in a spiritual sense, not in a geographic one. I hadn't the faintest idea how the night sky might serve as a road map. How could the stars, sparkle as they might, help me find my way if they kept moving?

  I gave up trying to find out. Any knowledge I might gain was useless. I had no means of controlling where I was going--no rudder, no sails, no motor, some oars but insufficient brawn. What was the point of plotting a course if I could not act on it? And even if I could, how should I know where to go? West, back to where we came from? East, to America? North, to Asia? South, to where the shipping lanes were? Each seemed a good and bad course in equal measure.

  So I drifted. Winds and currents decided where I went. Time became distance for me in the way it is for all mortals--I travelled down the road of life--and I did other things with my fingers than try to measure latitude. I found out later that I travelled a narrow road, the Pacific equatorial counter-current.

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