Life of pi, p.26
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       Life of Pi, p.26

           Yann Martel
 

  "My God! My God!" I whimpered.

  I fell overboard.

  The combined shock of solid land and cool water gave me the strength to pull myself forward onto the island. I babbled incoherent thanks to God and collapsed.

  But I could not stay still. I was too excited. I attempted to get to my feet. Blood rushed away from my head. The ground shook violently. A dizzying blindness overcame me. I thought I would faint. I steadied myself. All I seemed able to do was pant. I managed to sit up.

  "Richard Parker! Land! Land! We are saved!" I shouted.

  The smell of vegetation was extraordinarily strong. As for the greenness, it was so fresh and soothing that strength and comfort seemed to be physically pouring into my system through my eyes.

  What was this strange, tubular seaweed, so intricately entangled? Was it edible? It seemed to be a variety of marine algae, but quite rigid, far more so than normal algae. The feel of it in the hand was wet and as of something crunchy. I pulled at it. Strands of it broke off without too much effort. In cross-section it consisted of two concentric walls: the wet, slightly rough outer wall, so vibrantly green, and an inner wall midway between the outer wall and the core of the algae. The division in the two tubes that resulted was very plain: the centre tube was white in colour, while the tube that surrounded it was decreasingly green as it approached the inner wall. I brought a piece of the algae to my nose. Beyond the agreeable fragrance of the vegetable, it had a neutral smell. I licked it. My pulse quickened. The algae was wet with fresh water.

  I bit into it. My chops were in for a shock. The inner tube was bitterly salty--but the outer was not only edible, it was delicious. My tongue began to tremble as if it were a finger flipping through a dictionary, trying to find a long-forgotten word. It found it, and my eyes closed with pleasure at hearing it: sweet. Not as in good, but as in sugary. Turtles and fish are many things, but they are never, ever sugary. The algae had a light sweetness that outdid in delight even the sap of our maple trees here in Canada. In consistency, the closest I can compare it to is water chestnuts.

  Saliva forcefully oozed through the dry pastiness of my mouth. Making loud noises of pleasure, I tore at the algae around me. The inner and outer tubes separated cleanly and easily. I began stuffing the sweet outer into my mouth. I went at it with both hands, force-feeding my mouth and setting it to work harder and faster than it had in a very long time. I ate till there was a regular moat around me.

  A solitary tree stood about two hundred feet away. It was the only tree downhill from the ridge, which seemed a very long way off. I say ridge; the word perhaps gives an incorrect impression of how steep the rise from the shore was. The island was lowlying, as I've said. The rise was gentle, to a height of perhaps fifty or sixty feet. But in the state I was in, that height loomed like a mountain. The tree was more inviting. I noticed its patch of shade. I tried to stand again. I managed to get to a squatting position but as soon as I made to rise, my head spun and I couldn't keep my balance. And even if I hadn't fallen over, my legs had no strength left in them. But my will was strong. I was determined to move forward. I crawled, dragged myself, weakly leapfrogged to the tree.

  I know I will never know a joy so vast as I experienced when I entered that tree's dappled, shimmering shade and heard the dry, crisp sound of the wind rustling its leaves. The tree was not as large or as tall as the ones inland, and for being on the wrong side of the ridge, more exposed to the elements, it was a little scraggly and not so uniformly developed as its mates. But it was a tree, and a tree is a blessedly good thing to behold when you've been lost at sea for a long, long time. I sang that tree's glory, its solid, unhurried purity, its slow beauty. Oh, that I could be like it, rooted to the ground but with my every hand raised up to God in praise! I wept.

  As my heart exalted Allah, my mind began to take in information about Allah's works. The tree did indeed grow right out of the algae, as I had seen from the lifeboat. There was not the least trace of soil. Either there was soil deeper down, or this species of tree was a remarkable instance of a commensal or a parasite. The trunk was about the width of a man's chest. The bark was greyish green in colour, thin and smooth, and soft enough that I could mark it with my fingernail. The cordate leaves were large and broad, and ended in a single point. The head of the tree had the lovely full roundness of a mango tree, but it was not a mango. I thought it smelled somewhat like a lote tree, but it wasn't a lote either. Nor a mangrove. Nor any other tree I had ever seen. All I know was that it was beautiful and green and lush with leaves.

  I heard a growl. I turned. Richard Parker was observing me from the lifeboat. He was looking at the island, too. He seemed to want to come ashore but was afraid. Finally, after much snarling and pacing, he leapt from the boat. I brought the orange whistle to my mouth. But he didn't have aggression on his mind. Simple balance was enough of a challenge; he was as wobbly on his feet as I was. When he advanced, he crawled close to the ground and with trembling limbs, like a newborn cub. Giving me a wide berth, he made for the ridge and disappeared into the interior of the island.

  I passed the day eating, resting, attempting to stand and, in a general way, bathing in bliss. I felt nauseous when I exerted myself too much. And I kept feeling that the ground was shifting beneath me and that I was going to fall over, even when I was sitting still.

  I started worrying about Richard Parker in the late afternoon. Now that the setting, the territory, had changed, I wasn't sure how he would take to me if he came upon me.

  Reluctantly, strictly for safety's sake, I crawled back to the lifeboat. However Richard Parker took possession of the island, the bow and the tarpaulin remained my territory. I searched for something to moor the lifeboat to. Evidently the algae covered the shore thickly, for it was all I could find. Finally, I resolved the problem by driving an oar, handle first, deep into the algae and tethering the boat to it.

  I crawled onto the tarpaulin. I was exhausted. My body was spent from taking in so much food, and there was the nervous tension arising from my sudden change of fortunes. As the day ended, I hazily remember hearing Richard Parker roaring in the distance, but sleep overcame me.

  I awoke in the night with a strange, uncomfortable feeling in my lower belly. I thought it was a cramp, that perhaps I had poisoned myself with the algae. I heard a noise. I looked. Richard Parker was aboard. He had returned while I was sleeping. He was meowing and licking the pads of his feet. I found his return puzzling but thought no further about it--the cramp was quickly getting worse. I was doubled over with pain, shaking with it, when a process, normal for most but long forgotten by me, set itself into motion: defecation. It was very painful, but afterwards I fell into the deepest, most refreshing sleep I had had since the night before the Tsimtsum sank.

  When I woke up in the morning I felt much stronger. I crawled to the solitary tree in a vigorous way. My eyes feasted once more upon it, as did my stomach on the algae. I had such a plentiful breakfast that I dug a big hole.

  Richard Parker once again hesitated for hours before jumping off the boat. When he did, mid-morning, as soon as he landed on the shore he jumped back and half fell in the water and seemed very tense. He hissed and clawed the air with a paw. It was curious. I had no idea what he was doing. His anxiety passed, and noticeably surer-footed than the previous day, he disappeared another time over the ridge.

  That day, leaning against the tree, I stood. I felt dizzy. The only way I could make the ground stop moving was to close my eyes and grip the tree. I pushed off and tried to walk. I fell instantly. The ground rushed up to me before I could move a foot. No harm done. The island, coated with such tightly woven, rubbery vegetation, was an ideal place to relearn how to walk. I could fall any which way, it was impossible to hurt myself.

  The next day, after another restful night on the boat--to which, once again, Richard Parker had returned--I was able to walk. Falling half a dozen times, I managed to reach the tree. I could feel my strength increasing by the hour. With the g
aff I reached up and pulled down a branch from the tree. I plucked off some leaves. They were soft and unwaxed, but they tasted bitter. Richard Parker was attached to his den on the lifeboat--that was my explanation for why he had returned another night.

  I saw him coming back that evening, as the sun was setting. I had retethered the lifeboat to the buried oar. I was at the bow, checking that the rope was properly secured to the stem. He appeared all of a sudden. At first I didn't recognize him. This magnificent animal bursting over the ridge at full gallop couldn't possibly be the same listless, bedraggled tiger who was my companion in misfortune? But it was. It was Richard Parker and he was coming my way at high speed. He looked purposeful. His powerful neck rose above his lowered head. His coat and his muscles shook at every step. I could hear the drumming of his heavy body against the ground.

  I have read that there are two fears that cannot be trained out of us: the startle reaction upon hearing an unexpected noise, and vertigo. I would like to add a third, to wit, the rapid and direct approach of a known killer.

  I fumbled for the whistle. When he was twenty-five feet from the lifeboat I blew into the whistle with all my might. A piercing cry split the air.

  It had the desired effect. Richard Parker braked. But he clearly wanted to move forward again. I blew a second time. He started turning and hopping on the spot in a most peculiar, deer-like way, snarling fiercely. I blew a third time. Every hair on him was raised. His claws were full out. He was in a state of extreme agitation. I feared that the defensive wall of my whistle blows was about to crumble and that he would attack me.

  Instead, Richard Parker did the most unexpected thing: he jumped into the sea. I was astounded. The very thing I thought he would never do, he did, and with might and resolve. He energetically paddled his way to the stern of the lifeboat. I thought of blowing again, but instead opened the locker lid and sat down, retreating to the inner sanctum of my territory.

  He surged onto the stern, quantities of water pouring off him, making my end of the boat pitch up. He balanced on the gunnel and the stern bench for a moment, assessing me. My heart grew faint. I did not think I would be able to blow into the whistle again. I looked at him blankly. He flowed down to the floor of the lifeboat and disappeared under the tarpaulin. I could see parts of him from the edges of the locker lid. I threw myself upon the tarpaulin, out of his sight--but directly above him. I felt an overwhelming urge to sprout wings and fly off.

  I calmed down. I reminded myself forcefully that this had been my situation for the last long while, to be living with a live tiger hot beneath me.

  As my breathing slowed down, sleep came to me.

  Sometime during the night I awoke and, my fear forgotten, looked over. He was dreaming: he was shaking and growling in his sleep. He was loud enough about it to have woken me up.

  In the morning, as usual, he went over the ridge.

  I decided that as soon as I was strong enough I would go exploring the island. It seemed quite large, if the shoreline was any indication; left and right it stretched on with only a slight curve, showing the island to have a fair girth. I spent the day walking--and falling--from the shore to the tree and back, in an attempt to restore my legs to health. At every fall I had a full meal of algae.

  When Richard Parker returned as the day was ending, a little earlier than the previous day, I was expecting him. I sat tight and did not blow the whistle. He came to the water's edge and in one mighty leap reached the side of the lifeboat. He entered his territory without intruding into mine, only causing the boat to lurch to one side. His return to form was quite terrifying.

  The next morning, after giving Richard Parker plenty of advance, I set off to explore the island. I walked up to the ridge. I reached it easily, proudly moving one foot ahead of the other in a gait that was spirited if still a little awkward. Had my legs been weaker, they would have given way beneath me when I saw what I saw beyond the ridge.

  To start with details, I saw that the whole island was covered with the algae, not just its edges. I saw a great green plateau with a green forest in its centre. I saw all around this forest hundreds of evenly scattered, identically sized ponds with trees sparsely distributed in a uniform way between them, the whole arrangement giving the unmistakable impression of following a design.

  But it was the meerkats that impressed themselves most indelibly on my mind. I saw in one look what I would conservatively estimate to be hundreds of thousands of meerkats. The landscape was covered in meerkats. And when I appeared, it seemed that all of them turned to me, astonished, like chickens in a farmyard, and stood up.

  We didn't have any meerkats in our zoo. But I had read about them. They were in the books and in the literature. A meerkat is a small South African mammal related to the mongoose; in other words, a carnivorous burrower, a foot long and weighing two pounds when mature, slender and weasel-like in build, with a pointed snout, eyes sitting squarely at the front of its face, short legs, paws with four toes and long, non-retractile claws, and an eight-inch tail. Its fur is light brown to grey in colour with black or brown bands on its back, while the tip of its tail, its ears and the characteristic circles around its eyes are black. It is an agile and keen-sighted creature, diurnal and social in habits, and feeding in its native range--the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa--on, among other things, scorpions, to whose venom it is completely immune. When it is on the lookout, the meerkat has the peculiarity of standing perfectly upright on the tips of its back legs, balancing itself tripod-like with its tail. Often a group of meerkats will take the stance collectively, standing in a huddle and gazing in the same direction, looking like commuters waiting for a bus. The earnest expression on their faces, and the way their front paws hang before them, make them look either like children selfconsciously posing for a photographer or patients in a doctor's office stripped naked and demurely trying to cover their genitals.

  That is what I beheld in one glance, hundreds of thousands of meerkats--more, a million--turning to me and standing at attention, as if saying, "Yes, sir?" Mind you, a standing meerkat reaches up eighteen inches at most, so it was not the height of these creatures that was so breathtaking as their unlimited multitude. I stood rooted to the spot, speechless. If I set a million meerkats fleeing in terror, the chaos would be indescribable. But their interest in me was short-lived. After a few seconds, they went back to doing what they had been doing before I appeared, which was either nibbling at the algae or staring into the ponds. To see so many beings bending down at the same time reminded me of prayer time in a mosque.

  The creatures seemed to feel no fear. As I moved down from the ridge, none shied away or showed the least tension at my presence. If I had wanted to, I could have touched one, even picked one up. I did nothing of the sort. I simply walked into what was surely the largest colony of meerkats in the world, one of the strangest, most wonderful experiences of my life. There was a ceaseless noise in the air. It was their squeaking, chirping, twittering and barking. Such were their numbers and the vagaries of their excitement that the noise came and went like a flock of birds, at times very loud, swirling around me, then rapidly dying off as the closest meerkats fell silent while others, further off, started up.

  Were they not afraid of me because I should be afraid of them? The question crossed my mind. But the answer--that they were harmless--was immediately apparent. To get close to a pond, around which they were densely packed, I had to nudge them away with my feet so as not to step on one. They took to my barging without any offence, making room for me like a good-natured crowd. I felt warm, furry bodies against my ankles as I looked into a pond.

  All the ponds had the same round shape and were about the same size--roughly forty feet in diameter. I expected shallowness. I saw nothing but deep, clear water. The ponds seemed bottomless, in fact. And as far down as I could see, their sides consisted of green algae. Evidently the layer atop the island was very substantial.

  I could see nothing that accounted for the meerka
ts' fixed curiosity, and I might have given up on solving the mystery had squeaking and barking not erupted at a pond nearby. Meerkats were jumping up and down in a state of great ferment. Suddenly, by the hundreds, they began diving into the pond. There was much pushing and shoving as the meerkats behind vied to reach the pond's edge. The frenzy was collective; even tiny meerkittens were making for the water, barely being held back by mothers and guardians. I stared in disbelief. These were not standard Kalahari Desert meerkats. Standard Kalahari Desert meerkats do not behave like frogs. These meerkats were most definitely a subspecies that had specialized in a fascinating and surprising way.

  I made for the pond, bringing my feet down gingerly, in time to see meerkats swimming--actually swimming--and bringing to shore fish by the dozens, and not small fish either. Some were dorados that would have been unqualified feasts on the lifeboat. They dwarfed the meerkats. It was incomprehensible to me how meerkats could catch such fish.

  It was as the meerkats were hauling the fish out of the pond, displaying real feats of teamwork, that I noticed something curious: every fish, without exception, was already dead. Freshly dead. The meerkats were bringing ashore dead fish they had not killed.

  I kneeled by the pond, pushing aside several excited, wet meerkats. I touched the water. It was cooler than I'd expected. There was a current that was bringing colder water from below. I cupped a little water in my hand and brought it to my mouth. I took a sip.

  It was fresh water. This explained how the fish had died--for, of course, place a saltwater fish in fresh water and it will quickly become bloated and die. But what were seafaring fish doing in a freshwater pond? How had they got there?

  I went to another pond, making my way through the meerkats. It too was fresh. Another pond; the same. And again with a fourth pond.

  They were all freshwater ponds. Where had such quantities of fresh water come from, I asked myself. The answer was obvious: from the algae. The algae naturally and continuously desalinated sea water, which was why its core was salty while its outer surface was wet with fresh water: it was oozing the fresh water out. I did not ask myself why the algae did this, or how, or where the salt went. My mind stopped asking such questions. I simply laughed and jumped into a pond. I found it hard to stay at the surface of the water; I was still very weak, and I had little fat on me to help me float. I held on to the edge of the pond. The effect of bathing in pure, clean, salt-free water was more than I can put into words. After such a long time at sea, my skin was like a hide and my hair was long, matted and as silky as a fly-catching strip. I felt even my soul had been corroded by salt. So, under the gaze of a thousand meerkats, I soaked, allowing fresh water to dissolve every salt crystal that had tainted me.

 
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