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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 53)

2006-08-22 21:08

  CHAPTER   53

  I slept all morning. I was roused by anxiety. That tide of food, water and rest that flowed through my weakened system, bringing me a new lease on life, also brought me the strength to see how desperate my situation was. I awoke to the reality of Richard Parker. There was a tiger in the lifeboat. I could hardly believe it, yet I knew I had to. And I had to save myself.

  I considered jumping overboard and swimming away, but my body refused to move. I was hundreds of miles from landfall, if not over a thousand miles. I couldn't swim such a distance, even with a lifebuoy. What would I eat? What would I drink? How would I keep the sharks away? How would I keep warm? How would I know which way to go? There was not a shadow of doubt about the matter: to leave the lifeboat meant certain death. But what was staying aboard? He would come at me like a typical cat, without a sound. Before I knew it he would seize the back of my neck or my throat and I would be pierced by fang-holes. I wouldn't be able to speak. The lifeblood would flow out of me unmarked by a final utterance. Or he would kill me by clubbing me with one of his great paws, breaking my neck.

  “I'm going to die,” I blubbered through quivering lips.

  Oncoming death is terrible enough, but worse still is oncoming death with time to spare, time in which all the happiness that was yours and all the happiness that might have been yours becomes clear to you. You see with utter lucidity all that you are losing. The sight brings on an oppressive sadness that no car about to hit you or water about to drown you can match. The feeling is truly unbearable. The words Father, Mother, Ravi, India, Winnipeg struck me with searing poignancy.

  I was giving up. I would have given up-if a voice hadn't made itself heard in my heart. The voice said, “I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen.”

  My face set to a grim and determined expression. I speak in all modesty as I say this, but I discovered at that moment that I have a fierce will to live. It's not something evident, in my experience. Some of us give up on life with only a resigned sigh. Others fight a little, then lose hope. Still others-and I am one of those-never give up. We fight and fight and fight. We fight no matter the cost of battle, the losses we take, the improbability of success. We fight to the very end. It's not a question of courage. It's something constitutional, an inability to let go. It may be nothing more than life-hungry stupidity.

  Richard Parker started growling that very instant, as if he had been waiting for me to become a worthy opponent. My chest became tight with fear.

  “Quick, man, quick,” I wheezed. I had to organize my survival. Not a second to waste. I needed shelter and right away. I thought of the prow I had made with an oar. But now the tarpaulin was unrolled at the bow; there was nothing to hold the oar in place. And I had no proof that hanging at the end of an oar provided real safety from Richard Parker. He might easily reach and nab me. I had to find something else. My mind worked fast.

  I built a raft. The oars, if you remember, floated. And I had life jackets and a sturdy lifebuoy.

  With bated breath I closed the locker and reached beneath the tarpaulin for the extra oars on the side benches. Richard Parker noticed. I could see him through the life jackets. As I dragged each oar out-you can imagine how carefully-he stirred in reaction. But he did not turn. I pulled out three oars. A fourth was already resting crosswise on the tarpaulin. I raised the locker lid to close the opening onto Richard Parker's den.

  I had four buoyant oars. I set them on the tarpaulin around the lifebuoy. The lifebuoy was now squared by the oars. My raft looked like a game of tic-tac-toe with an O in the centre as the first move.

  Now came the dangerous part. I needed the life jackets. Richard Parker's growling was now a deep rumble that shook the air. The hyena responded with a whine, a wavering, high-pitched whine, a sure sign that trouble was on the way.

  I had no choice. I had to act. I lowered the lid again. The life jackets were at hand's reach. Some were right against Richard Parker. The hyena broke into a scream.

  I reached for the closest life jacket. I had difficulty grasping it, my hand was trembling so much. I pulled the jacket out. Richard Parker did not seem to notice. I pulled another one out. And another. I was feeling faint with fear. I was having great difficulty breathing. If need be, I told myself, I could throw myself overboard with these life jackets. I pulled a last one out. I had four life jackets.

  Pulling the oars in one after the next, I worked them through the armholes of the life jackets-in one armhole, out the other-so that the life jackets became secured to the four corners of the raft. I tied each one shut.

  I found one of the buoyant ropes in the locker. With the knife, I cut four segments. I tightly lashed the four oars where they met. Ah, to have had a practical education in knots! At each corner I made ten knots and still I worried that the oars would come apart. I worked feverishly, all the while cursing my stupidity. A tiger aboard and I had waited three days and three nights to save my life!

  I cut four more segments of the buoyant rope and tied the lifebuoy to each side of the square. I wove the lifebuoy's rope through the life jackets, around the oars, in and out of the lifebuoy-all round the raft-as yet another precaution against the raft breaking into pieces.

  The hyena was now screaming at top pitch.

  One last thing to do. “God, give me the time,” I implored. I took the rest of the buoyant line. There was a hole that went through the stem of the boat, near the top. I brought the buoyant rope through it and hitched it. I only had to hitch the other end of the rope to the raft and I might be saved.

  The hyena fell silent. My heart stopped and then beat triple speed. I turned.

  “Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu!”

  I saw a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my days. Richard Parker had risen and emerged. He was not fifteen feet from me. Oh, the size of him! The hyena's end had come, and mine. I stood rooted to the spot, paralyzed, in thrall to the action before my eyes. My brief experience with the relations of unconfined wild animals in lifeboats had made me expect great noise and protest when the time came for bloodshed. But it happened practically in silence. The hyena died neither whining nor whimpering, and Richard Parker killed without a sound. The flame-coloured carnivore emerged from beneath the tarpaulin and made for the hyena. The hyena was leaning against the stern bench, behind the zebra's carcass, transfixed. It did not put up a fight. Instead it shrank to the floor, lifting a forepaw in a futile gesture of defence. The look on its face was of terror. A massive paw landed on its shoulders. Richard Parker's jaws closed on the side of the hyena's neck. Its glazed eyes widened. There was a noise of organic crunching as windpipe and spinal cord were crushed. The hyena shook. Its eyes went dull. It was over.

  Richard Parker let go and growled. But a quiet growl, private and half-hearted, it seemed. He was panting, his tongue hanging from his mouth. He licked his chops. He shook his head. He sniffed the dead hyena. He raised his head high and smelled the air. He placed his forepaws on the stern bench and lifted himself. His feet were wide apart. The rolling of the boat, though gentle, was visibly not to his liking. He looked beyond the gunnel at the open seas. He put out a low, mean snarl. He smelled the air again. He slowly turned his head. It turned-turned-turned full round-till he was looking straight at me.

  I wish I could describe what happened next, not as I saw it, which I might manage, but as I felt it. I beheld Richard Parker from the angle that showed him off to greatest effect: from the back, half-raised, with his head turned. The stance had something of a pose to it, as if it were an intentional, even affected, display of mighty art. And what art, what might. His presence was overwhelming, yet equally evident was the lithesome grace of it. He was incredibly muscular, yet his haunches were thin and his glossy coat hung loosely on his frame. His body, bright brownish orange streaked with black vertical stripes, was incomparably beautiful, matched with a tailor's eye for harmony by his pure white chest and underside and the black rings of his long tail. His head was large and round, displaying formidable sideburns, a stylish goatee and some of the finest whiskers of the cat world, thick, long and white. Atop the head were small, expressive ears shaped like perfect arches. His carrot orange face had a broad bridge and a pink nose, and it was made up with brazen flair. Wavy dabs of black circled the face in a pattern that was striking yet subtle, for it brought less attention to itself than it did to the one part of the face left untouched by it, the bridge, whose rufous lustre shone nearly with a radiance. The patches of white above the eyes, on the cheeks and around the mouth came off as finishing touches worthy of a Kathakali dancer. The result was a face that looked like the wings of a butterfly and bore an expression vaguely old and Chinese. But when Richard Parker's amber eyes met mine, the stare was intense, cold and unflinching, not flighty or friendly, and spoke of self-possession on the point of exploding with rage. His ears twitched and then swivelled right around. One of his lips began to rise and fall. The yellow canine thus coyly revealed was as long as my longest finger.

  Every hair on me was standing up, shrieking with fear.

  That's when the rat appeared. Out of nowhere, a scrawny brown rat materialized on the side bench, nervous and breathless. Richard Parker looked as astonished as I was. The rat leapt onto the tarpaulin and raced my way. At the sight, in shock and surprise, my legs gave way beneath me and I practically fell into the locker. Before my incredulous eyes the rodent hopped over the various parts of the raft, jumped onto me and climbed to the top of my head, where I felt its little claws clamping down on my scalp, holding on for dear life.

  Richard Parker's eyes had followed the rat. They were now fixed on my head.

  He completed the turn of his head with a slow turn of his body, moving his forepaws sideways along the side bench. He dropped to the floor of the boat with ponderous ease. I could see the top of his head, his back and his long, curled tail. His ears lay flat against his skull. In three paces he was at the middle of the boat. Without effort the front half of his body rose in the air and his forepaws came to rest on the rolled-up edge of the tarpaulin.

  He was less than ten feet away. His head, his chest, his paws-so big! so big! His teeth-an entire army battalion in a mouth. He was making to jump onto the tarpaulin. I was about to die.

  But the tarpaulin's strange softness bothered him. He pressed at it tentatively. He looked up anxiously-the exposure to so much light and open space did not please him either. And the rolling motion of the boat continued to unsettle him. For a brief moment, Richard Parker was hesitating.

  I grabbed the rat and threw it his way. I can still see it in my mind as it sailed through the air-its outstretched claws and erect tail, its tiny elongated scrotum and pinpoint anus. Richard Parker opened his maw and the squealing rat disappeared into it like a baseball into a catcher's mitt. Its hairless tail vanished like a spaghetti noodle sucked into a mouth.

  He seemed satisfied with the offering. He backed down and returned beneath the tarpaulin. My legs instantly became functional again. I leapt up and raised the locker lid again to block the open space between bow bench and tarpaulin.

  I heard loud sniffing and the noise of a body being dragged. His shifting weight made the boat rock a little. I began hearing the sound of a mouth eating. I peeked beneath the tarpaulin. He was in the middle of the boat. He was eating the hyena by great chunks, voraciously. This chance would not come again. I reached and retrieved the remaining life jackets-six in all-and the last oar. They would go to improving the raft. I noticed in passing a smell. It was not the sharp smell of cat piss. It was vomit. There was a patch of it on the floor of the boat. It must have come from Richard Parker. So he was indeed seasick.

  I hitched the long rope to the raft. Lifeboat and raft were now tethered. Next I attached a life jacket to each side of the raft, on its underside. Another life jacket I strapped across the hole of the lifebuoy to act as a seat. I turned the last oar into a footrest, lashing it on one side of the raft, about two feet from the lifebuoy, and tying the remaining life jacket to it. My fingers trembled as I worked, and my breath was short and strained. I checked and rechecked all my knots.

  I looked about the sea. Only great, gentle swells. No whitecaps. The wind was low and constant. I looked down. There were fish-big fish with protruding foreheads and very long dorsal fins, dorados they are called, and smaller fish, lean and long, unknown to me, and smaller ones still-and there were sharks.

  I eased the raft off the lifeboat. If for some reason it did not float, I was as good as dead. It took to the water beautifully. In fact, the buoyancy of the life jackets was such that they pushed the oars and the lifebuoy right out of the water. But my heart sank. As soon as the raft touched the water, the fish scattered-except for the sharks. They remained. Three or four of them. One swam directly beneath the raft. Richard Parker growled.

  I felt like a prisoner being pushed off a plank by pirates.

  I brought the raft as close to the lifeboat as the protruding tips of the oars would allow. I leaned out and lay my hands on the lifebuoy. Through the “cracks” in the floor of the raft-yawning crevasses would be more accurate-I looked directly into the bottomless depths of the sea. I heard Richard Parker again. I flopped onto the raft on my stomach. I lay flat and spread-eagled and did not move a finger. I expected the raft to overturn at any moment. Or a shark to lunge and bite right through the life jackets and oars. Neither happened. The raft sank lower and pitched and rolled, the tips of the oars dipping underwater, but it floated robustly. Sharks came close, but did not touch.

  I felt a gentle tug. The raft swung round. I raised my head. The lifeboat and the raft had already separated as far as the rope would go, about forty feet. The rope tensed and lifted out of the water and wavered in the air. It was a highly distressing sight. I had fled the lifeboat to save my life. Now I wanted to get back. This raft business was far too precarious. It only needed a shark to bite the rope, or a knot to become undone, or a large wave to crash upon me, and I would be lost. Compared to the raft, the lifeboat now seemed a haven of comfort and security.

  I gingerly turned over. I sat up. Stability was good, so far. My footrest worked well enough. But it was all too small. There was just enough space to sit on and no more. This toy raft, mini-raft, micro-raft, might do for a pond, but not for the Pacific Ocean. I took hold of the rope and pulled. The closer I got to the lifeboat, the slower I pulled. When I was next to the lifeboat, I heard Richard Parker. He was still eating.

  I hesitated for long minutes.

  I stayed on the raft. I didn't see what else I could do. My options were limited to perching above a tiger or hovering over sharks. I knew perfectly well how dangerous Richard Parker was. Sharks, on the other hand, had not yet proved to be dangerous. I checked the knots that held the rope to the lifeboat and to the raft. I let the rope out until I was thirty or so feet from the lifeboat, the distance that about rightly balanced my two fears: being too close to Richard Parker and being too far from the lifeboat. The extra rope, ten feet or so, I looped around the footrest oar. I could easily let out slack if the need arose.

  The day was ending. It started to rain. It had been overcast and warm all day. Now the temperature dropped, and the downpour was steady and cold. All around me heavy drops of fresh water plopped loudly and wastefully into the sea, dimpling its surface. I pulled on the rope again. When I was at the bow I turned onto my knees and took hold of the stem. I pulled myself up and carefully peeped over the gunnel. He wasn't in sight.

  I hurriedly reached down into the locker. I grabbed a rain catcher, a fifty-litre plastic bag, a blanket and the survival manual. I slammed the locker lid shut. I didn't mean to slam it-only to protect my precious goods from the rain-but the lid slipped from my wet hand. It was a bad mistake. In the very act of revealing myself to Richard Parker by bringing down what blocked his view, I made a great loud noise to attract his attention. He was crouched over the hyena. His head turned instantly. Many animals intensely dislike being disturbed while they are eating. Richard Parker snarled. His claws tensed. The tip of his tail twitched electrically. I fell back onto the raft, and I believe it was terror as much as wind and current that widened the distance between raft and lifeboat so swiftly. I let out all the rope. I expected Richard Parker to burst forth from the boat, sailing through the air, teeth and claws reaching for me. I kept my eyes on the boat. The longer I looked, the more unbearable was the expectation.

  He did not appear.

  By the time I had opened the rain catcher above my head and tucked my feet into the plastic bag, I was already soaked to the bones. And the blanket had got wet when I fell back onto the raft. I wrapped myself with it nonetheless.

  Night crept up. My surroundings disappeared into pitch-black darkness. Only the regular tugging of the rope at the raft told me that I was still attached to the lifeboat. The sea, inches beneath me yet too far for my eyes, buffeted the raft. Fingers of water reached up furtively through the cracks and wet my bottom.

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