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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 47)

2006-08-22 21:08

  CHAPTER   47

  The day broke, humid and overcast, with the wind warm and the sky a dense blanket of grey clouds that looked like bunched-up, dirty cotton sheets. The sea had not changed. It heaved the lifeboat up and down in a regular motion.

  The zebra was still alive. I couldn't believe it. It had a two-foot-wide hole in its body, a fistula like a freshly erupted volcano, spewed half-eaten organs glistening in the light or giving off a dull, dry shine, yet, in its strictly essential parts, it continued to pump with life, if weakly. Movement was confined to a tremor in the rear leg and an occasional blinking of the eyes. I was horrified. I had no idea a living being could sustain so much injury and go on living.

  The hyena was tense. It was not settling down to its night of rest despite the daylight. Perhaps it was a result of taking in so much food; its stomach was grossly dilated. Orange Juice was in a dangerous mood too. She was fidgeting and showing her teeth.

  I stayed where I was, curled up near the prow. I was weak in body and in soul. I was afraid I would fall into the water if I tried to balance on the oar.

  The zebra was dead by noon. It was glassy-eyed and had become perfectly indifferent to the hyena's occasional assaults.

  Violence broke out in the afternoon. Tension had risen to an unbearable level. The hyena was yipping. Orange Juice was grunting and making loud lip-smacking noises. All of a sudden their complaining fused and shot up to top volume. The hyena jumped over the remains of the zebra and made for Orange Juice.

  I believe I have made clear the menace of a hyena. It was certainly so clear in my mind that I gave up on Orange Juice's life before she even had a chance to defend it. I underestimated her. I underestimated her grit.

  She thumped the beast on the head. It was something shocking. It made my heart melt with love and admiration and fear. Did I mention she was a former pet, callously discarded by her Indonesian owners? Her story was like that of every inappropriate pet. It goes something like this: The pet is bought when it is small and cute. It gives much amusement to its owners. Then it grows in size and in appetite. It reveals itself incapable of being house-trained. Its increasing strength makes it harder to handle. One day the maid pulls the sheet from its nest because she has decided to wash it, or the son jokingly pinches a morsel of food from its hands-over some such seemingly small matter, the pet flashes its teeth in anger and the family is frightened. The very next day the pet finds itself bouncing at the back of the family Jeep in the company of its human brothers and sisters. A jungle is entered. Everyone in the vehicle finds it a strange and formidable place. A clearing is come to. It is briefly explored. All of a sudden the Jeep roars to life and its wheels kick up dirt and the pet sees all the ones it has known and loved looking at it from the back window as the Jeep speeds away. It has been left behind. The pet does not understand. It is as unprepared for this jungle as its human siblings are. It waits around for their return, trying to quell the panic rising in it. They do not return. The sun sets. Quickly it becomes depressed and gives up on life. It dies of hunger and exposure in the next few days. Or is attacked by dogs.

  Orange Juice could have been one of these forlorn pets. Instead she ended up at the Pondicherry Zoo. She remained gentle and unaggressive her whole life. I have memories from when I was a child of her never-ending arms surrounding me, her fingers, each as long as my whole hand, picking at my hair. She was a young female practising her maternal skills. As she matured into her full wild self, I observed her at a distance. I thought I knew her so well that I could predict her every move. I thought I knew not only her habits but also her limits. This display of ferocity, of savage courage, made me realize that I was wrong. All my life I had known only a part of her.

  She thumped the beast on the head. And what a thump it was. The beast's head hit the bench it had just reached, making such a sharp noise, besides splaying its front legs flat out, that I thought surely either the bench or its jaw or both must break. The hyena was up again in an instant, every hair on its body as erect as the hairs on my head, but its hostility wasn't quite so kinetic now. It withdrew. I exulted. Orange Juice's stirring defence brought a glow to my heart.

  It didn't last long.

  An adult female orang-utan cannot defeat an adult male spotted hyena. That is the plain empirical truth. Let it become known among zoologists. Had Orange Juice been a male, had she loomed as large on the scales as she did in my heart, it might have been another matter. But portly and overfed though she was from living in the comfort of a zoo, even so she tipped the scales at barely 110 pounds. Female orang-utans are half the size of males. But it is not simply a question of weight and brute strength. Orange Juice was far from defenceless. What it comes down to is attitude and knowledge. What does a fruit eater know about killing? Where would it learn where to bite, how hard, for how long? An orang-utan may be taller, may have very strong and agile arms and long canines, but if it does not know how to use these as weapons, they are of little use. The hyena, with only its jaws, will overcome the ape because it knows what it wants and how to get it.

  The hyena came back. It jumped on the bench and caught Orange Juice at the wrist before she could strike. Orange Juice hit the hyena on the head with her other arm, but the blow only made the beast snarl viciously. She made to bite, but the hyena moved faster. Alas, Orange Juice's defence lacked precision and coherence. Her fear was something useless that only hampered her. The hyena let go of her wrist and expertly got to her throat.

  Dumb with pain and horror, I watched as Orange Juice thumped the hyena ineffectually and pulled at its hair while her throat was being squeezed by its jaws. To the end she reminded me of us: her eyes expressed fear in such a humanlike way, as did her strained whimpers. She made an attempt to climb onto the tarpaulin. The hyena violently shook her. She fell off the bench to the bottom of the lifeboat, the hyena with her. I heard noises but no longer saw anything.

  I was next. That much was clear to me. With some difficulty I stood up. I could hardly see through the tears in my eyes. I was no longer crying because of my family or because of my impending death. I was far too numb to consider either. I was crying because I was exceedingly tired and it was time to get rest.

  I advanced over the tarpaulin. Though tautly stretched at the end of the boat, it sagged a little in the middle; it made for three or four toilsome, bouncy steps. And I had to reach over the net and the rolled-up tarpaulin. And these efforts in a lifeboat that was constantly rolling. In the condition I was in, it felt like a great trek. When I laid my foot on the middle cross bench, its hardness had an invigorating effect on me, as if I had just stepped on solid ground. I planted both my feet on the bench and enjoyed my firm stand. I was feeling dizzy, but since the capital moment of my life was coming up this dizziness only added to my sense of frightened sublimity. I raised my hands to the level of my chest-the weapons I had against the hyena. It looked up at me. Its mouth was red. Orange Juice lay next to it, against the dead zebra. Her arms were spread wide open and her short legs were folded together and slightly turned to one side. She looked like a simian Christ on the Cross. Except for her head. She was beheaded. The neck wound was still bleeding. It was a sight horrible to the eyes and killing to the spirit. Just before throwing myself upon the hyena, to collect myself before the final struggle, I looked down.

  Between my feet, under the bench, I beheld Richard Parker's head. It was gigantic. It looked the size of the planet Jupiter to my dazed senses. His paws were like volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

  I made my way back to the bow and collapsed.

  I spent the night in a state of delirium. I kept thinking I had slept and was awaking after dreaming of a tiger.

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