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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 79)

2006-08-22 21:28

  CHAPTER   79

  There were sharks every day, mainly makos and blue sharks, but also oceanic whitetips, and once a tiger shark straight from the blackest of nightmares. Dawn and dusk were their favourite times. They never seriously troubled us. On occasion one knocked the hull of the lifeboat with its tail. I don't think it was accidental (other marine life did it too, turtles and even dorados)。 I believe it was part of a shark's way of determining the nature of the lifeboat. A good whack on the offender's nose with a hatchet sent it vanishing post-haste into the deep. The main nuisance of sharks was that they made being in the water risky, like trespassing on a property where there's a sign saying Beware of Dog. Otherwise, I grew quite fond of sharks. They were like curmudgeonly old friends who would never admit that they liked me yet came round to see me all the time. The blue sharks were smaller, usually no more than four or five feet long, and the most attractive, sleek and slender, with small mouths and discreet gill slits. Their backs were a rich ultramarine and their stomachs snow white, colours that vanished to grey or black when they were at any depth, but which close to the surface sparkled with surprising brilliance. The makos were larger and had mouths bursting with frightening teeth, but they too were nicely coloured, an indigo blue that shimmered beautifully in the sun. The oceanic whitetips were often shorter than the makos-some of which stretched to twelve feet-but they were much stockier and had enormous dorsal fins that they sailed high above the surface of the water, like a war banner, a rapidly moving sight that was always nerve-racking to behold. Besides, they were a dull colour, a sort of greyish brown, and the mottled white tips of their fins held no special attraction.

  I caught a number of small sharks, blue sharks for the most part, but some makos too. Each time it was just after sunset, in the dying light of the day, and I caught them with my bare hands as they came close to the lifeboat.

  The first one was my largest, a mako over four feet long. It had come and gone near the bow several times. As it was passing by yet again, I impulsively dropped my hand into the water and grabbed it just ahead of the tail, where its body was thinnest. Its harsh skin afforded such a marvellously good grip that without thinking about what I was doing, I pulled. As I pulled, it jumped, giving my arm a terrific shake. To my horror and delight the thing vaulted in the air in an explosion of water and spray. For the merest fraction of a second I didn't know what to do next. The thing was smaller than I-but wasn't I being a foolhardy Goliath here? Shouldn't I let go? I turned and swung, and falling on the tarpaulin, I threw the mako towards the stern. The fish fell from the sky into Richard Parker's territory. It landed with a crash and started thwacking about with such thunder that I was afraid it would demolish the boat. Richard Parker was startled. He attacked immediately.

  An epic battle began. Of interest to zoologists I can report the following: a tiger will not at first attack a shark out of water with its jaws but will rather strike at it with its forepaws. Richard Parker started clubbing the shark. I shuddered at every blow. They were simply terrible. Just one delivered to a human would break every bone, would turn any piece of furniture into splinters, would reduce an entire house into a pile of rubble. That the mako was not enjoying the treatment was evident from the way it was twisting and turning and beating its tail and reaching with its mouth.

  Perhaps it was because Richard Parker was not familiar with sharks, had never encountered a predatory fish-whatever the case, it happened: an accident, one of those few times when I was reminded that Richard Parker was not perfect, that despite his honed instincts he too could bumble. He put his left paw into the mako's mouth. The mako closed its jaws. Immediately Richard Parker reared onto his back legs. The shark was jerked up, but it wouldn't let go. Richard Parker fell back down, opened his mouth wide and full-out roared. I felt a blast of hot air against my body. The air visibly shook, like the heat coming off a road on a hot day. I can well imagine that somewhere far off, 150 miles away, a ship's watch looked up, startled, and later reported the oddest thing, that he thought he heard a cat's meow coming from three o'clock. Days later that roar was still ringing in my guts. But a shark is deaf, conventionally speaking. So while I, who wouldn't think of pinching a tiger's paw, let alone of trying to swallow one, received a volcanic roar full in the face and quaked and trembled and turned liquid with fear and collapsed, the shark perceived only a dull vibration.

  Richard Parker turned and started clawing the shark's head with his free front paw and biting it with his jaws, while his rear legs began tearing at its stomach and back. The shark held on to his paw, its only line of defence and attack, and thrashed its tail. Tiger and shark twisted and tumbled about. With great effort I managed to gain enough control of my body to get onto the raft and release it. The lifeboat drifted away. I saw flashes of orange and deep blue, of fur and skin, as the lifeboat rocked from side to side. Richard Parker's snarling was simply terrifying.

  At last the boat stopped moving. After several minutes Richard Parker sat up, licking his left paw.

  In the following days he spent much time tending his four paws. A shark's skin is covered with minute tubercles that make it as rough as sandpaper. He had no doubt cut himself while repeatedly raking the shark. His left paw was injured, but the damage did not seem permanent; no toes or claws were missing. As for the mako, except for the tips of the tail and the mouth area, incongruously untouched, it was a half-eaten, butchered mess. Chunks of reddish grey flesh and clumps of internal organs were strewn about.

  I managed to gaff some of the shark's remains, but to my disappointment the vertebrae of sharks do not hold fluid. At least the flesh was tasty and unfishy, and the crunchiness of cartilage was a welcome respite from so much soft food.

  Subsequently I went for smaller sharks, pups really, and I killed them myself. I found that stabbing them through the eyes with the knife was a faster, less tiresome way of killing them than hacking at the tops of their heads with the hatchet.

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