Life of pi, p.28
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       Life of Pi, p.28

           Yann Martel

  It was here that I found the tree. It wasn't the largest in the forest, or in its dead centre, or remarkable in any other way. It had good level branches, that's all. It would have made an excellent spot from which to see the sky or take in the meerkats' nightlife.

  I can tell you exactly what day I came upon the tree: it was the day before I left the island.

  I noticed the tree because it seemed to have fruit. Whereas elsewhere the forest canopy was uniformly green, these fruit stood out black against green. The branches holding them were twisted in odd ways. I looked intently. An entire island covered in barren trees--but for one. And not even all of one. The fruit grew from only one small part of the tree. I thought that perhaps I had come upon the forest equivalent of a queen bee, and I wondered whether this algae would ever cease to amaze me with its botanical strangeness.

  I wanted to try the fruit, but the tree was too high. So I returned with a rope. If the algae was delicious, what would its fruit be like?

  I looped the rope around the lowest limb of the tree and, bough by bough, branch by branch, made my way to the small, precious orchard.

  Up close the fruit were dull green. They were about the size and shape of oranges. Each was at the centre of a number of twigs that were tightly curled around it--to protect it, I supposed. As I got closer, I could see another purpose to these curled twigs: support. The fruit had not one stem, but dozens. Their surfaces were studded with stems that connected them to the surrounding twigs. These fruit must surely be heavy and juicy, I thought. I got close.

  I reached with a hand and took hold of one. I was disappointed at how light it felt. It weighed hardly anything. I pulled at it, plucking it from all its stems.

  I made myself comfortable on a sturdy branch, my back to the trunk of the tree. Above me stood a shifting roof of green leaves that let in shafts of sunlight. All round, for as far as I could see, hanging in the air, were the twisting and turning roads of a great suspended city. A pleasant breeze ran through the trees. I was keenly curious. I examined the fruit.

  Ah, how I wish that moment had never been! But for it I might have lived for years--why, for the rest of my life--on that island. Nothing, I thought, could ever push me to return to the lifeboat and to the suffering and deprivation I had endured on it--nothing! What reason could I have to leave the island? Were my physical needs not met here? Was there not more fresh water than I could drink in all my lifetime? More algae than I could eat? And when I yearned for variety, more meerkats and fish than I could ever desire? If the island floated and moved, might it not move in the right direction? Might it not turn out to be a vegetable ship that brought me to land? In the meantime, did I not have these delightful meerkats to keep me company? And wasn't Richard Parker still in need of improving his fourth jump? The thought of leaving the island had not crossed my mind once since I had arrived. It had been many weeks now--I couldn't say how many exactly--and they would stretch on. I was certain about that.

  How wrong I was.

  If that fruit had a seed, it was the seed of my departure.

  The fruit was not a fruit. It was a dense accumulation of leaves glued together in a ball. The dozens of stems were dozens of leaf stems. Each stem that I pulled caused a leaf to peel off.

  After a few layers I came to leaves that had lost their stems and were flatly glued to the ball. I used my fingernails to catch their edges and pull them off. Sheath after sheath of leaf lifted, like the skins off an onion. I could simply have ripped the "fruit" apart--I still call it that for lack of a better word--but I chose to satisfy my curiosity in a measured way.

  It shrunk from the size of an orange to that of a mandarin. My lap and the branches below were covered with thin, soft leaf peelings.

  It was now the size of a rambutan.

  I still get shivers in my spine when I think of it.

  The size of a cherry.

  And then it came to light, an unspeakable pearl at the heart of a green oyster.

  A human tooth.

  A molar, to be exact. The surface stained green and finely pierced with holes.

  The feeling of horror came slowly. I had time to pick at the other fruit.

  Each contained a tooth.

  One a canine.

  Another a premolar.

  Here an incisor.

  There another molar.

  Thirty-two teeth. A complete human set. Not one tooth missing.

  Understanding dawned upon me.

  I did not scream. I think only in movies is horror vocal. I simply shuddered and left the tree.

  I spent the day in turmoil, weighing my options. They were all bad.

  That night, in bed in my usual tree, I tested my conclusion. I took hold of a meerkat and dropped it from the branch.

  It squeaked as it fell through the air. When it touched the ground, it instantly made for the tree.

  With typical innocence it returned to the spot right next to me. There it began to lick its paws vigorously. It seemed much discomforted. It panted heavily.

  I could have left it at that. But I wanted to know for myself. I climbed down and took hold of the rope. I had made knots in it to make my climbing easier. When I was at the bottom of the tree, I brought my feet to within an inch of the ground. I hesitated.

  I let go.

  At first I felt nothing. Suddenly a searing pain shot up through my feet. I shrieked. I thought I would fall over. I managed to take hold of the rope and pull myself off the ground. I frantically rubbed the soles of my feet against the tree trunk. It helped, but not enough. I climbed back to my branch. I soaked my feet in the bucket of water next to my bed. I wiped my feet with leaves. I took the knife and killed two meerkats and tried to soothe the pain with their blood and innards. Still my feet burned. They burned all night. I couldn't sleep for it, and from the anxiety.

  The island was carnivorous. This explained the disappearance of the fish in the pond. The island attracted saltwater fish into its subterranean tunnels--how, I don't know; perhaps fish ate the algae as gluttonously as I did. They became trapped. Did they lose their way? Did the openings onto the sea close off? Did the water change salinity so subtly that it was too late by the time the fish realized it? Whatever the case, they found themselves trapped in fresh water and died. Some floated up to the surface of the ponds, the scraps that fed the meerkats. At night, by some chemical process unknown to me but obviously inhibited by sunlight, the predatory algae turned highly acidic and the ponds became vats of acid that digested the fish. This was why Richard Parker returned to the boat every night. This was why the meerkats slept in the trees. This was why I had never seen anything but algae on the island.

  And this explained the teeth. Some poor lost soul had arrived on these terrible shores before me. How much time had he--or was it she?--spent here? Weeks? Months? Years? How many forlorn hours in the arboreal city with only meerkats for company? How many dreams of a happy life dashed? How much hope come to nothing? How much stored-up conversation that died unsaid? How much loneliness endured? How much hopelessness taken on? And after all that, what of it? What to show for it?

  Nothing but some enamel, like small change in a pocket. The person must have died in the tree. Was it illness? Injury? Depression? How long does it take for a broken spirit to kill a body that has food, water and shelter? The trees were carnivorous too, but at a much lower level of acidity, safe enough to stay in for the night while the rest of the island seethed. But once the person had died and stopped moving, the tree must have slowly wrapped itself around the body and digested it, the very bones leached of nutrients until they vanished. In time, even the teeth would have disappeared.

  I looked around at the algae. Bitterness welled up in me. The radiant promise it offered during the day was replaced in my heart by all the treachery it delivered at night.

  I muttered, "Nothing but teeth left! TEETH!"

  By the time morning came, my grim decision was taken. I preferred to set off and perish in search of my own kind than
to live a lonely half-life of physical comfort and spiritual death on this murderous island. I filled my stores with fresh water and I drank like a camel. I ate algae throughout the day until my stomach could take no more. I killed and skinned as many meerkats as would fit in the locker and on the floor of the lifeboat. I reaped dead fish from the ponds. With the hatchet I hacked off a large mass of algae and worked a rope through it, which I tied to the boat.

  I could not abandon Richard Parker. To leave him would mean to kill him. He would not survive the first night. Alone in my lifeboat at sunset I would know that he was burning alive. Or that he had thrown himself in the sea, where he would drown. I waited for his return. I knew he would not be late.

  When he was aboard, I pushed us off. For a few hours the currents kept us near the island. The noises of the sea bothered me. And I was no longer used to the rocking motions of the boat. The night went by slowly.

  In the morning the island was gone, as was the mass of algae we had been towing. As soon as night had fallen, the algae had dissolved the rope with its acid.

  The sea was heavy, the sky grey.


  I grew weary of my situation, as pointless as the weather. But life would not leave me. The rest of this story is nothing but grief, ache and endurance.

  High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.


  When we reached land, Mexico to be exact, I was so weak I barely had the strength to be happy about it. We had great difficulty landing. The lifeboat nearly capsized in the surf. I streamed the sea anchors--what was left of them--full open to keep us perpendicular to the waves, and I tripped them as soon as we began riding a crest. In this way, streaming and tripping the anchors, we surfed in to shore. It was dangerous. But we caught one wave at just the right point and it carried us a great distance, past the high, collapsing walls of water. I tripped the anchors a last time and we were pushed in the rest of the way. The boat hissed to a halt against the sand.

  I let myself down the side. I was afraid to let go, afraid that so close to deliverance, in two feet of water, I would drown. I looked ahead to see how far I had to go. The glance gave me one of my last images of Richard Parker, for at that precise moment he jumped over me. I saw his body, so immeasurably vital, stretched in the air above me, a fleeting, furred rainbow. He landed in the water, his back legs splayed, his tail high, and from there, in a few hops, he reached the beach. He went to the left, his paws gouging the wet sand, but changed his mind and spun around. He passed directly in front of me on his way to the right. He didn't look at me. He ran a hundred yards or so along the shore before turning in. His gait was clumsy and uncoordinated. He fell several times. At the edge of the jungle, he stopped. I was certain he would turn my way. He would look at me. He would flatten his ears. He would growl. In some such way, he would conclude our relationship. He did nothing of the sort. He only looked fixedly into the jungle.

  Then Richard Parker, companion of my torment, awful, fierce thing0that kept me alive, moved forward and disappeared forever from my0life.

  I struggled to shore and fell upon the sand. I looked about. I was truly alone, orphaned not only of my family, but now of Richard Parker, and nearly, I thought, of God. Of course, I wasn't. This beach, so soft, firm and vast, was like the cheek of God, and somewhere two eyes were glittering with pleasure and a mouth was smiling at having me there.

  After some hours a member of my own species found me. He left and returned with a group. They were six or seven. They came up to me with their hands covering their noses and mouths. I wondered what was wrong with them. They spoke to me in a strange tongue. They pulled the lifeboat onto the sand. They carried me away. The one piece of turtle meat I had brought from the boat they wrenched from my hand and threw away.

  I wept like a child. It was not because I was overcome at having survived my ordeal, though I was. Nor was it the presence of my brothers and sisters, though that too was very moving. I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. For example--I wonder--could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less? I'll tell you, that's one thing I hate about my nickname, the way that number runs on forever. It's important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse. That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day. I wish so much that I'd had one last look at him in the lifeboat, that I'd provoked him a little, so that I was on his mind. I wish I had said to him then--yes, I know, to a tiger, but still--I wish I had said, "Richard Parker, it's over. We have survived. Can you believe it? I owe you more gratitude than I can express. I couldn't have done it without you. I would like to say it formally: Richard Parker, thank you. Thank you for saving my life. And now go where you must. You have known the confined freedom of a zoo most of your life; now you will know the free confinement of a jungle. I wish you all the best with it. Watch out for Man. He is not your friend. But I hope you will remember me as a friend. I will never forget you, that is certain. You will always be with me, in my heart. What is that hiss? Ah, our boat has touched sand. So farewell, Richard Parker, farewell. God be with you."

  The people who found me took me to their village, and there some women gave me a bath and scrubbed me so hard that I wondered if they realized I was naturally brown-skinned and not a very dirty white boy. I tried to explain. They nodded and smiled and kept on scrubbing me as if I were the deck of a ship. I thought they were going to skin me alive. But they gave me food. Delicious food. Once I started eating, I couldn't stop. I thought I would never stop being hungry.

  The next day a police car came and brought me to a hospital, and there my story ends.

  I was overwhelmed by the generosity of those who rescued me. Poor people gave me clothes and food. Doctors and nurses cared for me as if I were a premature baby. Mexican and Canadian officials opened all doors for me so that from the beach in Mexico to the home of my foster mother to the classrooms of the University of Toronto, there was only one long, easy corridor I had to walk down. To all these people I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks.


  Benito Juarez Infirmary, Tomatlan, Mexico


  Mr. Tomohiro Okamoto, of the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport, now retired, told me that he and his junior colleague at the time, Mr. Atsuro Chiba, were in Long Beach, California--the American western seaboard's main container port, near L.A.--on unrelated business when they were advised that a lone survivor of the Japanese ship Tsimtsum, which had vanished without a trace in Pacific international waters several months before, was reported to have landed near the small town of Tomatlan, on the coast of Mexico. They were instructed by their department to go down to contact the survivor and see if any light could be shed on the fate of the ship. They bought a map of Mexico and looked to see where Tomatlan was. Unfortunately for them, a fold of the map crossed Baja California over a small coastal town named Tomatan, printed in small letters. Mr. Okamoto was convinced he read Tomatlan. Since it was less than halfway down Baja California, he decided the fastest way to get there would be to drive.

  They set off in their rented car. When they got to Tomatan, eight hundred kilometres south of Long Beach, and saw that it was not Tomatlan, Mr. Okamoto decided that they would continue to Santa Rosalia, two hundred kilometres further south, and catch the ferry across the Gulf of California to Guaymas. The ferry was late and slow. And from Guaymas it was another thirteen hundred kilometres to Tomatlan. The roads were bad. They had a flat tire. T
heir car broke down and the mechanic who fixed it surreptitiously cannibalized the motor of parts, putting in used parts instead, for the replacement of which they had to pay the rental company and which resulted in the car breaking down a second time, on their way back. The second mechanic overcharged them. Mr. Okamoto admitted to me that they were very tired when they arrived at the Benito Juarez Infirmary in Tomatlan, which is not at all in Baja California but a hundred kilometres south of Puerto Vallarta, in the state of Jalisco, nearly level with Mexico City. They had been travelling non-stop for forty-one hours. "We work hard," Mr. Okamoto wrote.

  He and Mr. Chiba spoke with Piscine Molitor Patel, in English, for close to three hours, taping the conversation. What follows are excerpts from the verbatim transcript. I am grateful to Mr. Okamoto for having made available to me a copy of the tape and of his final report. For the sake of clarity I have indicated who is speaking when it is not immediately apparent. Portions printed in a different font were spoken in Japanese, which I had translated.


  "Hello, Mr. Patel. My name is Tomohiro Okamoto. I am from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport. This is my assistant, Atsuro Chiba. We have come to see you about the sinking of the ship Tsimtsum, of which you were a passenger. Would it be possible to talk to you now?"

  "Yes, of course."

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