Life of pi, p.23
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       Life of Pi, p.23

           Yann Martel
 

  Still, we barely got by. The scarcity of fresh water was the single most constant source of anxiety and suffering throughout our journey.

  Of whatever food I caught, Richard Parker took the lion's share, so to speak. I had little choice in the matter. He was immediately aware when I landed a turtle or a dorado or a shark, and I had to give quickly and generously. I think I set world records for sawing open the belly shells of turtles. As for fish, they were hewn to pieces practically while they were still flopping about. If I got to be so indiscriminate about what I ate, it was not simply because of appalling hunger; it was also plain rush. Sometimes I just didn't have the time to consider what was before me. It either went into my mouth that instant or was lost to Richard Parker, who was pawing and stamping the ground and huffing impatiently on the edge of his territory. It came as an unmistakable indication to me of how low I had sunk the day I noticed, with a pinching of the heart, that I ate like an animal, that this noisy, frantic, unchewing wolfing-down of mine was exactly the way Richard Parker ate.

  CHAPTER 83

  The storm came on slowly one afternoon. The clouds looked as if they were stumbling along before the wind, frightened. The sea took its cue. It started rising and falling in a manner that made my heart sink. I took in the solar stills and the net. Oh, you should have seen that landscape! What I had seen up till now were mere hillocks of water. These swells were truly mountains. The valleys we found ourselves in were so deep they were gloomy. Their sides were so steep the lifeboat started sliding down them, nearly surfing. The raft was getting exceptionally rough treatment, being pulled out of the water and dragged along bouncing every which way. I deployed both sea anchors fully, at different lengths so that they would not interfere with each other.

  Climbing the giant swells, the boat clung to the sea anchors like a mountain climber to a rope. We would rush up until we reached a snow-white crest in a burst of light and foam and a tipping forward of the lifeboat. The view would be clear for miles around. But the mountain would shift, and the ground beneath us would start sinking in a most stomach-sickening way. In no time we would be sitting once again at the bottom of a dark valley, different from the last but the same, with thousands of tons of water hovering above us and with only our flimsy lightness to save us. The land would move once more, the sea-anchor ropes would snap to tautness, and the roller coaster would start again.

  The sea anchors did their job well--in fact, nearly too well. Every swell at its crest wanted to take us for a tumble, but the anchors, beyond the crest, heaved mightily and pulled us through, but at the expense of pulling the front of the boat down. The result was an explosion of foam and spray at the bow. I was soaked through and through each time.

  Then a swell came up that was particularly intent on taking us along. This time the bow vanished underwater. I was shocked and chilled and scared witless. I barely managed to hold on. The boat was swamped. I heard Richard Parker roar. I felt death was upon us. The only choice left to me was death by water or death by animal. I chose death by animal.

  While we sank down the back of the swell, I jumped onto the tarpaulin and unrolled it towards the stern, closing in Richard Parker. If he protested, I did not hear him. Faster than a sewing machine working a piece of cloth, I hooked down the tarpaulin on both sides of the boat. We were climbing again. The boat was lurching upwards steadily. It was hard to keep my balance. The lifeboat was now covered and the tarpaulin battened down, except at my end. I squeezed in between the side bench and the tarpaulin and pulled the remaining tarpaulin over my head. I did not have much space. Between bench and gunnel there was twelve inches, and the side benches were only one and a half feet wide. But I was not so foolhardy, even in the face of death, as to move onto the floor of the boat. There were four hooks left to catch. I slipped a hand through the opening and worked the rope. With each hook done, it was getting harder to get the next. I managed two. Two hooks left. The boat was rushing upwards in a smooth and unceasing motion. The incline was over thirty degrees. I could feel myself being pulled down towards the stern. Twisting my hand frantically I succeeded in catching one more hook with the rope. It was the best I could do. This was not a job meant to be done from the inside of the lifeboat but from the outside. I pulled hard on the rope, something made easier by the fact that holding on to it was preventing me from sliding down the length of the boat. The boat swiftly passed a forty-five-degree incline.

  We must have been at a sixty-degree incline when we reached the summit of the swell and broke through its crest onto the other side. The smallest portion of the swell's supply of water crashed down on us. I felt as if I were being pummelled by a great fist. The lifeboat abruptly tilted forward and everything was reversed: I was now at the lower end of the lifeboat, and the water that had swamped it, with a tiger soaking in it, came my way. I did not feel the tiger--I had no precise idea of where Richard Parker was; it was pitch-black beneath the tarpaulin--but before we reached the next valley I was half-drowned.

  For the rest of that day and into the night, we went up and down, up and down, up and down, until terror became monotonous and was replaced by numbness and a complete giving-up. I held on to the tarpaulin rope with one hand and the edge of the bow bench with the other, while my body lay flat against the side bench. In this position--water pouring in, water pouring out--the tarpaulin beat me to a pulp, I was soaked and chilled, and I was bruised and cut by bones and turtle shells. The noise of the storm was constant, as was Richard Parker's snarling.

  Sometime during the night my mind noted that the storm was over. We were bobbing on the sea in a normal way. Through a tear in the tarpaulin I glimpsed the night sky. Starry and cloudless. I undid the tarpaulin and lay on top of it.

  I noticed the loss of the raft at dawn. All that was left of it were two tied oars and the life jacket between them. They had the same effect on me as the last standing beam of a burnt-down house would have on a householder. I turned and scrutinized every quarter of the horizon. Nothing. My little marine town had vanished. That the sea anchors, miraculously, were not lost--they continued to tug at the lifeboat faithfully--was a consolation that had no effect. The loss of the raft was perhaps not fatal to my body, but it felt fatal to my spirits.

  The boat was in a sorry state. The tarpaulin was torn in several places, some tears evidently the work of Richard Parker's claws. Much of our food was gone, either lost overboard or destroyed by the water that had come in. I was sore all over and had a bad cut on my thigh; the wound was swollen and white. I was nearly too afraid to check the contents of the locker. Thank God none of the water bags had split. The net and the solar stills, which I had not entirely deflated, had filled the empty space and prevented the bags from moving too much.

  I felt exhausted and depressed. I unhooked the tarpaulin at the stern. Richard Parker was so silent I wondered whether he had drowned. He hadn't. As I rolled back the tarpaulin to the middle bench and daylight came to him, he stirred and growled. He climbed out of the water and set himself on the stern bench. I took out needle and thread and went about mending the tears in the tarpaulin.

  Later I tied one of the buckets to a rope and bailed the boat. Richard Parker watched me distractedly. He seemed to find nearly everything I did boring. The day was hot and I proceeded slowly. One haul brought me something I had lost. I considered it. Cradled in the palm of my hand was all that remained between me and death: the last of the orange whistles.

  CHAPTER 84

  I was on the tarpaulin, wrapped in a blanket, sleeping and dreaming and awakening and daydreaming and generally passing the time. There was a steady breeze. From time to time spray was blown off the crest of a wave and wet the boat. Richard Parker had disappeared under the tarpaulin. He liked neither getting wet nor the ups and downs of the boat. But the sky was blue, the air was warm, and the sea was regular in its motion. I awoke because there was a blast. I opened my eyes and saw water in the sky. It crashed down on me. I looked up again. Cloudless blue sky. There was anoth
er blast, to my left, not as powerful as the first. Richard Parker growled fiercely. More water crashed against me. It had an unpleasant smell.

  I looked over the edge of the boat. The first thing I saw was a large black object floating in the water. It took me a few seconds to understand what it was. An arching wrinkle around its edge was my clue. It was an eye. It was a whale. Its eye, the size of my head, was looking directly at me.

  Richard Parker came up from beneath the tarpaulin. He hissed. I sensed from a slight change in the glint of the whale's eye that it was now looking at Richard Parker. It gazed for thirty seconds or so before gently sinking under. I worried that it might strike us with its tail, but it went straight down and vanished in the dark blue. Its tail was a huge, fading, round bracket.

  I believe it was a whale looking for a mate. It must have decided that my size wouldn't do, and besides, I already seemed to have a mate.

  We saw a number of whales but none so close up as that first one. I would be alerted to their presence by their spouting. They would emerge a short distance away, sometimes three or four of them, a short-lived archipelago of volcanic islands. These gentle behemoths always lifted my spirits. I was convinced that they understood my condition, that at the sight of me one of them exclaimed, "Oh! It's that castaway with the pussy cat Bamphoo was telling me about. Poor boy. Hope he has enough plankton. I must tell Mumphoo and Tomphoo and Stimphoo about him. I wonder if there isn't a ship around I could alert. His mother would be very happy to see him again. Goodbye, my boy. I'll try to help. My name's Pimphoo." And so, through the grapevine, every whale of the Pacific knew of me, and I would have been saved long ago if Pimphoo hadn't sought help from a Japanese ship whose dastardly crew harpooned her, the same fate as befell Lamphoo at the hands of a Norwegian ship. The hunting of whales is a heinous crime.

  Dolphins were fairly regular visitors. One group stayed with us a whole day and night. They were very gay. Their plunging and turning and racing just beneath the hull seemed to have no purpose other than sporting fun. I tried to catch one. But none came close to the gaff. And even if one had, they were too fast and too big. I gave up and just watched them.

  I saw six birds in all. I took each one to be an angel announcing nearby land. But these were seafaring birds that could span the Pacific with hardly a flutter of the wings. I watched them with awe and envy and self-pity.

  Twice I saw an albatross. Each flew by high in the air without taking any notice of us. I stared with my mouth open. They were something supernatural and incomprehensible.

  Another time, a short distance from the boat, two Wilson's petrels skimmed by, feet skipping on the water. They, too, took no notice of us, and left me similarly amazed.

  We at last attracted the attention of a short-tailed shearwater. It circled above us, eventually dropping down. It kicked out its legs, turned its wings and alighted in the water, floating as lightly as a cork. It eyed me with curiosity. I quickly baited a hook with a bit of flying fish and threw the line its way. I put no weights on the line and had difficulty getting it close to the bird. On my third try the bird paddled up to the sinking bait and plunged its head underwater to get at it. My heart pounded with excitement. I did not pull on the line for some seconds. When I did, the bird merely squawked and regurgitated what it had just swallowed. Before I could try again, it unfolded its wings and pulled itself up into the air. Within two, three beatings of its wings it was on its way.

  I had better luck with a masked booby. It appeared out of nowhere, gliding towards us, wings spanning over three feet. It landed on the gunnel within hand's reach of me. Its round eyes took me in, the expression puzzled and serious. It was a large bird with a pure snowy white body and wings that were jet-black at their tips and rear edges. Its big, bulbous head had a very pointed orange-yellow beak and the red eyes behind the black mask made it look like a thief who had had a very long night. Only the oversized, brown webbed feet left something to be desired in their design. The bird was fearless. It spent several minutes tweaking its feathers with its beak, exposing soft down. When it was finished, it looked up and everything fell into place, and it showed itself for what it was: a smooth, beautiful, aerodynamic airship. When I offered it a bit of dorado, it pecked it out of my hand, jabbing the palm.

  I broke its neck by leveraging its head backwards, one hand pushing up the beak, the other holding the neck. The feathers were so well attached that when I started pulling them out, skin came off--I was not plucking the bird; I was tearing it apart. It was light enough as it was, a volume with no weight. I took the knife and skinned it instead. For its size there was a disappointing amount of flesh, only a little on its chest. It had a more chewy texture than dorado flesh, but I didn't find there was much of a difference in taste. In its stomach, besides the morsel of dorado I had just given it, I found three small fish. After rinsing them of digestive juices, I ate them. I ate the bird's heart, liver and lungs. I swallowed its eyes and tongue with a gulp of water. I crushed its head and picked out its small brain. I ate the webbings of its feet. The rest of the bird was skin, bone and feathers. I dropped it beyond the edge of the tarpaulin for Richard Parker, who hadn't seen the bird arrive. An orange paw reached out.

  Days later feathers and down were still floating up from his den and being blown out to sea. Those that landed in the water were swallowed by fish.

  None of the birds ever announced land.

  CHAPTER 85

  Once there was lightning. The sky was so black, day looked like night. The downpour was heavy. I heard thunder far away. I thought it would stay at that. But a wind came up, throwing the rain this way and that. Right after, a white splinter came crashing down from the sky, puncturing the water. It was some distance from the lifeboat, but the effect was perfectly visible. The water was shot through with what looked like white roots; briefly, a great celestial tree stood in the ocean. I had never imagined such a thing possible, lightning striking the sea. The clap of thunder was tremendous. The flash of light was incredibly vivid.

  I turned to Richard Parker and said, "Look, Richard Parker, a bolt of lightning." I saw how he felt about it. He was flat on the floor of the boat, limbs splayed and visibly trembling.

  The effect on me was completely the opposite. It was something to pull me out of my limited mortal ways and thrust me into a state of exalted wonder.

  Suddenly a bolt struck much closer. Perhaps it was meant for us: we had just fallen off the crest of a swell and were sinking down its back when its top was hit. There was an explosion of hot air and hot water. For two, perhaps three seconds, a gigantic, blinding white shard of glass from a broken cosmic window danced in the sky, insubstantial yet overwhelmingly powerful. Ten thousand trumpets and twenty thousand drums could not have made as much noise as that bolt of lightning; it was positively deafening. The sea turned white and all colour disappeared. Everything was either pure white light or pure black shadow. The light did not seem to illuminate so much as to penetrate. As quickly as it had appeared, the bolt vanished--the spray of hot water had not finished landing upon us and already it was gone. The punished swell returned to black and rolled on indifferently.

  I was dazed, thunderstruck--nearly in the true sense of the word. But not afraid.

  "Praise be to Allah, Lord of All Worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Ruler of Judgment Day!" I muttered. To Richard Parker I shouted, "Stop your trembling! This is miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity. This is ... this is ..." I could not find what it was, this thing so vast and fantastic. I was breathless and wordless. I lay back on the tarpaulin, arms and legs spread wide. The rain chilled me to the bone. But I was smiling. I remember that close encounter with electrocution and third-degree burns as one of the few times during my ordeal when I felt genuine happiness.

  At moments of wonder, it is easy to avoid small thinking, to entertain thoughts that span the universe, that capture both thunder and tinkle, thick and thin, the near and the far.

  CHAPTER 86

  "Richa
rd Parker, a ship!"

  I had the pleasure of shouting that once. I was overwhelmed with happiness. All hurt and frustration fell away and I positively blazed with joy.

  "We've made it! We're saved! Do you understand, Richard Parker? WE'RE SAVED! Ha, ha, ha, ha!"

  I tried to control my excitement. What if the ship passed too far away to see us? Should I launch a rocket flare? Nonsense!

  "It's coming right towards us, Richard Parker! Oh, I thank you, Lord Ganesha! Blessed be you in all your manifestations, Allah-Brahman!"

  It couldn't miss us. Can there be any happiness greater than the happiness of salvation? The answer--believe me--is No. I got to my feet, the first time in a long time I had made such an effort.

  "Can you believe it, Richard Parker? People, food, a bed. Life is ours once again. Oh, what bliss!"

  The ship came closer still. It looked like an oil tanker. The shape of its bow was becoming distinct. Salvation wore a robe of black metal with white trim.

  "And what if ...?"

  I did not dare say the words. But might there not be a chance that Father and Mother and Ravi were still alive? The Tsimtsum had had a number of lifeboats. Perhaps they had reached Canada weeks ago and were anxiously waiting for news from me. Perhaps I was the only person from the wreck unaccounted for.

  "My God, oil tankers are big!"

  It was a mountain creeping up on us.

  "Perhaps they're already in Winnipeg. I wonder what our house looks like. Do you suppose, Richard Parker, that Canadian houses have inner courtyards in the traditional Tamil style? Probably not. I suppose they would fill up with snow in winter. Pity. There's no peace like the peace of an inner courtyard on a sunny day. I wonder what spices grow in Manitoba?"

  The ship was very close. The crew better be stopping short or turning sharply soon.

  "Yes, what spices ...? Oh my God!"

 
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