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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 43)

2006-08-22 21:08

  CHAPTER   43

  The last trace I saw of the ship was a patch of oil glimmering on the surface of the water.

  I was certain I wasn't alone. It was inconceivable that the Tsimtsum should sink without eliciting a peep of concern. Right now in Tokyo, in Panama City, in Madras, in Honolulu, why, even in Winnipeg, red lights were blinking on consoles, alarm bells were ringing, eyes were opening wide in horror, mouths were gasping, “My God! The Tsimtsum has sunk!” and hands were reaching for phones. More red lights were starting to blink and more alarm bells were starting to ring. Pilots were running to their planes with their shoelaces still untied, such was their hurry. Ship officers were spinning their wheels till they were feeling dizzy. Even submarines were swerving underwater to join in the rescue effort. We would be rescued soon. A ship would appear on the horizon. A gun would be found to kill the hyena and put the zebra out of its misery. Perhaps Orange Juice could be saved. I would climb aboard and be greeted by my family. They would have been picked up in another lifeboat. I only had to ensure my survival for the next few hours until this rescue ship came.

  I reached from my perch for the net. I rolled it up and tossed it midway on the tarpaulin to act as a barrier, however small. Orange Juice had seemed practically cataleptic. My guess was she was dying of shock. It was the hyena that worried me. I could hear it whining. I clung to the hope that a zebra, a familiar prey, and an orang-utan, an unfamiliar one, would distract it from thoughts of me.

  I kept one eye on the horizon, one eye on the other end of the lifeboat. Other than the hyena's whining, I heard very little from the animals, no more than claws scuffing against a hard surface and occasional groans and arrested cries. No major fight seemed to be taking place.

  Mid-morning the hyena appeared again. In the preceding minutes its whining had been rising in volume to a scream. It jumped over the zebra onto the stern, where the lifeboat's side benches came together to form a triangular bench. It was a fairly exposed position, the distance between bench and gunnel being about twelve inches. The animal nervously peered beyond the boat. Beholding a vast expanse of shifting water seemed to be the last thing it wanted to see, for it instantly brought its head down and dropped to the bottom of the boat behind the zebra. That was a cramped space; between the broad back of the zebra and the sides of the buoyancy tanks that went all round the boat beneath the benches, there wasn't much room left for a hyena. It thrashed about for a moment before climbing to the stern again and jumping back over the zebra to the middle of the boat, disappearing beneath the tarpaulin. This burst of activity lasted less than ten seconds. The hyena came to within fifteen feet of me. My only reaction was to freeze with fear. The zebra, by comparison, swiftly reared its head and barked.

  I was hoping the hyena would stay under the tarpaulin. I was disappointed. Nearly immediately it leapt over the zebra and onto the stern bench again. There it turned on itself a few times, whimpering and hesitating. I wondered what it was going to do next. The answer came quickly: it brought its head low and ran around the zebra in a circle, transforming the stern bench, the side benches and the cross bench just beyond the tarpaulin into a twenty-five-foot indoor track. It did one lap-two-three-four-five-and onwards, non-stop, till I lost count. And the whole time, lap after lap, it went yip yip yip yip yip in a high-pitched way. My reaction, once again, was very slow. I was seized by fear and could only watch. The beast was going at a good clip, and it was no small animal; it was an adult male that looked to be about 140 pounds. The beating of its legs against the benches made the whole boat shake, and its claws were loudly clicking on their surface. Each time it came from the stern I tensed. It was hair-raising enough to see the thing racing my way; worse still was the fear that it would keep going straight. Clearly, Orange Juice, wherever she was, would not be an obstacle. And the rolled-up tarpaulin and the bulge of the net were even more pitiful defences. With the slightest of efforts the hyena could be at the bow right at my feet. It didn't seem intent on that course of action; every time it came to the cross bench, it took it, and I saw the upper half of its body moving rapidly along the edge of the tarpaulin. But in this state, the hyena's behaviour was highly unpredictable and it could decide to attack me without warning.

  After a number of laps it stopped short at the stern bench and crouched, directing its gaze downwards, to the space below the tarpaulin. It lifted its eyes and rested them upon me. The look was nearly the typical look of a hyena-blank and frank, the curiosity apparent with nothing of the mental set revealed, jaw hanging open, big ears sticking up rigidly, eyes bright and black-were it not for the strain that exuded from every cell of its body, an anxiety that made the animal glow, as if with a fever. I prepared for my end. For nothing. It started running in circles again.

  When an animal decides to do something, it can do it for a very long time. All morning the hyena ran in circles going yip yip yip yip yip. Once in a while it briefly stopped at the stern bench, but otherwise every lap was identical to the previous one, with no variations in movement, in speed, in the pitch or the volume of the yipping, in the counter-clockwise direction of travel. Its yipping was shrill and annoying in the extreme. It became so tedious and draining to watch that I eventually turned my head to the side, trying to keep guard with the corner of my eyes. Even the zebra, which at first snorted each time the hyena raced by its head, fell into a stupor.

  Yet every time the hyena paused at the stern bench, my heart jumped. And as much as I wanted to direct my attention to the

  horizon, to where my salvation lay, it kept straying back to this maniacal beast.

  I am not one to hold a prejudice against any animal, but it is a plain fact that the spotted hyena is not well served by its appearance. It is ugly beyond redemption. Its thick neck and high shoulders that slope to the hindquarters look as if they've come from a discarded prototype for the giraffe, and its shaggy, coarse coat seems to have been patched together from the leftovers of creation. The colour is a bungled mix of tan, black, yellow, grey, with the spots having none of the classy ostentation of a leopard's rosettes; they look rather like the symptoms of a skin disease, a virulent form of mange. The head is broad and too massive, with a high forehead, like that of a bear, but suffering from a receding hairline, and with ears that look ridiculously mouse-like, large and round, when they haven't been torn off in battle. The mouth is forever open and panting. The nostrils are too big. The tail is scraggly and unwagging. The gait is shambling. All the parts put together look doglike, but like no dog anyone would want as a pet.

  But I had not forgotten Father's words. These were not cowardly carrion-eaters. If National Geographic portrayed them as such, it was because National Geographic filmed during the day. It is when the moon rises that the hyena's day starts, and it proves to be a devastating hunter. Hyenas attack in packs whatever animal can be run down, its flanks opened while still in full motion. They go for zebras, gnus and water buffaloes, and not only the old or the infirm in a herd-full-grown members too. They are hardy attackers, rising up from buttings and kickings immediately, never giving up for simple lack of will. And they are clever; anything that can be distracted from its mother is good. The ten-minute-old gnu is a favourite dish, but hyenas also eat young lions and young rhinoceros. They are diligent when their efforts are rewarded. In fifteen minutes flat, all that will be left of a zebra is the skull, which may yet be dragged away and gnawed down at leisure by young ones in the lair. Nothing goes to waste; even grass upon which blood has been spilt will be eaten. Hyenas' stomachs swell visibly as they swallow huge chunks of kill. If they are lucky, they become so full they have difficulty moving. Once they've digested their kill, they cough up dense hairballs, which they pick clean of edibles before rolling in them. Accidental cannibalism is a common occurrence during the excitement of a feeding; in reaching for a bite of zebra, a hyena will take in the ear or nostril of a clan member, no hard feelings intended. The hyena feels no disgust at this mistake. Its delights are too many to admit to disgust at anything.

  In fact, a hyena's catholicity of taste is so indiscriminate it nearly forces admiration. A hyena will drink from water even as it is urinating in it. The animal has another original use for its urine: in hot, dry weather it will cool itself by relieving its bladder on the ground and stirring up a refreshing mud bath with its paws. Hyenas snack on the excrement of herbivores with clucks of pleasure. It's an open question as to what hyenas won't eat. They eat their own kind (the rest of those whose ears and noses they gobbled down as appetizers) once they're dead, after a period of aversion that lasts about one day. They will even attack motor vehicles-the headlights, the exhaust pipe, the side mirrors. It is not their gastric juices that limit hyenas, but the power of their jaws, which is formidable.

  That was the animal I had racing around in circles before me. An animal to pain the eye and chill the heart.

  Things ended in typical hyena fashion. It stopped at the stern and started producing deep groans interrupted by fits of heavy panting. I pushed myself away on the oar till only the tips of my feet were holding on to the boat. The animal hacked and coughed. Abruptly it vomited. A gush landed behind the zebra. The hyena dropped into what it had just produced. It stayed there, shaking and whining and turning around on itself, exploring the furthest confines of animal anguish. It did not move from the restricted space for the rest of the day. At times the zebra made noises about the predator just behind it, but mostly it lay in hopeless and sullen silence.

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