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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 59)

2006-08-22 21:28

  CHAPTER   59

  Alone or not, lost or not, I was thirsty and hungry. I pulled on the rope. There was a slight tension. As soon as I lessened my grip on it, it slid out, and the distance between the lifeboat and the raft increased. So the lifeboat drifted faster than the raft, pulling it along. I noted the fact without thinking anything of it. My mind was more focused on the doings of Richard Parker.

  By the looks of it, he was under the tarpaulin.

  I pulled the rope till I was right next to the bow. I reached up to the gunnel. As I was crouched, preparing myself for a quick raid on the locker, a series of waves got me thinking. I noticed that with the raft next to it, the lifeboat had changed directions. It was no longer perpendicular to the waves but broadside to them and was beginning to roll from side to side, that rolling that was so unsettling for the stomach. The reason for this change became clear to me: the raft, when let out, was acting as a sea anchor, as a drag that pulled on the lifeboat and turned its bow to face the waves. You see, waves and steady winds are usually perpendicular to each other. So, if a boat is pushed by a wind but held back by a sea anchor, it will turn until it offers the least resistance to the wind-that is, until it is in line with it and at right angles to the waves, which makes for a front-to-back pitching that is much more comfortable than a side-to-side rolling. With the raft next to the boat, the dragging effect was gone, and there was nothing to steer the boat head into the wind. Therefore it turned broadside and rolled.

  What may seem like a detail to you was something which would save my life and which Richard Parker would come to regret.

  As if to confirm my fresh insight, I heard him growl. It was a disconsolate growl, with something indefinably green and queasy in its tone. He was maybe a good swimmer, but he was not much of a sailor.

  I had a chance yet.

  Lest I got cocky about my abilities to manipulate him, I received at that moment a quiet but sinister warning about what I was up against. It seemed Richard Parker was such a magnetic pole of life, so charismatic in his vitality, that other expressions of life found it intolerable. I was on the point of raising myself over the bow when I heard a gentle thrashing buzz. I saw something small land in the water next to me.

  It was a cockroach. It floated for a second or two before being swallowed by an underwater mouth. Another cockroach landed in the water. In the next minute, ten or so cockroaches plopped into the water on either side of the bow. Each was claimed by a fish.

  The last of the foreign life forms was abandoning ship.

  I carefully brought my eyes over the gunnel. The first thing I saw, lying in a fold of the tarpaulin above the bow bench, was a large cockroach, perhaps the patriarch of the clan. I watched it, strangely interested. When it decided it was time, it deployed its wings, rose in the air with a minute clattering, hovered above the lifeboat momentarily, as if making sure no one had been left behind, and then veered overboard to its death.

  Now we were two. In five days the populations of orang-utans, zebras, hyenas, rats, flies and cockroaches had been wiped out. Except for the bacteria and worms that might still be alive in the remains of the animals, there was no other life left on the lifeboat but Richard Parker and me.

  It was not a comforting thought.

  I lifted myself and breathlessly opened the locker lid. I deliberately did not look under the tarpaulin for fear that looking would be like shouting and would attract Richard Parker's attention. Only once the lid was leaning against the tarpaulin did I dare let my senses consider what was beyond it.

  A smell came to my nose, a musky smell of urine, quite sharp, what every cat cage in a zoo smells of. Tigers are highly territorial, and it is with their urine that they mark the boundaries of their territory. Here was good news wearing a foul dress: the odour was coming exclusively from below the tarpaulin. Richard Parker's territorial claims seemed to be limited to the floor of the boat. This held promise. If I could make the tarpaulin mine, we might get along.

  I held my breath, lowered my head and cocked it to the side to see beyond the edge of the lid. There was rainwater, about four inches of it, sloshing about the floor of the lifeboat-Richard Parker's own freshwater pond. He was doing exactly what I would be doing in his place: cooling off in the shade. The day was getting beastly hot. He was flat on the floor of the boat, facing away from me, his hind legs sticking straight back and splayed out, back paws facing up, and stomach and inner thighs lying directly against the floor. The position looked silly but was no doubt very pleasant.

  I returned to the business of survival. I opened a carton of emergency ration and ate my fill, about one-third of the package. It was remarkable how little it took to make my stomach feel full. I was about to drink from the rain-catcher pouch slung across my shoulder when my eyes fell upon the graduated drinking beakers. If I couldn't go for a dip, could I at least have a sip? My own supplies of water would not last forever. I took hold of one of the beakers, leaned over, lowered the lid just as much as I needed to and tremulously dipped the beaker into Parker's Pond, four feet from his back paws. His upturned pads with their wet fur looked like little desert islands surrounded by seaweed.

  I brought back a good 500 millilitres. It was a little discoloured. Specks were floating in it. Did I worry about ingesting some horrid bacteria? I didn't even think about it. All I had on my mind was my thirst. I drained that beaker to the dregs with great satisfaction.

  Nature is preoccupied with balance, so it did not surprise me that nearly right away I felt the urge to urinate. I relieved myself in the beaker. I produced so exactly the amount I had just downed that it was as if a minute hadn't passed and I were still considering Richard Parker's rainwater. I hesitated. I felt the urge to tilt the beaker into my mouth once more. I resisted the temptation. But it was hard. Mockery be damned, my urine looked delicious! I was not suffering yet from dehydration, so the liquid was pale in colour. It glowed in the sunlight, looking like a glass of apple juice. And it was guaranteed fresh, which certainly couldn't be said of the canned water that was my staple. But I heeded my better judgment. I splashed my urine on the tarpaulin and over the locker lid to stake my claim.

  I stole another two beakers of water from Richard Parker, without urinating this time. I felt as freshly watered as a potted plant.

  Now it was time to improve my situation. I turned to the contents of the locker and the many promises they held.

  I brought out a second rope and tethered the raft to the lifeboat with it.

  I discovered what a solar still is. A solar still is a device to produce fresh water from salt water. It consists of an inflatable transparent cone set upon a round lifebuoy-like buoyancy chamber that has a surface of black rubberized canvas stretched across its centre. The still operates on the principle of distillation: sea water lying beneath the sealed cone on the black canvas is heated by the sun and evaporates, gathering on the inside surface of the cone. This salt-free water trickles down and collects in a gully on the perimeter of the cone, from which it drains into a pouch. The lifeboat came equipped with twelve solar stills. I read the instructions carefully, as the survival manual told me to. I inflated all twelve cones with air and I filled each buoyancy chamber with the requisite ten litres of sea water. I strung the stills together, tying one end of the flotilla to the lifeboat and the other to the raft, which meant that not only would I not lose any stills should one of my knots become loose, but also that I had, in effect, a second emergency rope to keep me tethered to the lifeboat. The stills looked pretty and very technological as they floated on the water, but they also looked flimsy, and I was doubtful of their capacity to produce fresh water.

  I directed my attention to improving the raft. I examined every knot that held it together, making sure each was tight and secure. After some thought, I decided to transform the fifth oar, the footrest oar, into a mast of sorts. I undid the oar. With the sawtoothed edge of the hunting knife I painstakingly cut a notch into it, about halfway down, and with the knife's point I drilled three holes through its flat part. Work was slow but satisfying. It kept my mind busy. When I had finished I lashed the oar in a vertical position to the inside of one of the corners of the raft, flat part, the masthead, rising in the air, handle disappearing underwater. I ran the rope tightly into the notch, to prevent the oar from slipping down. Next, to ensure that the mast would stand straight, and to give myself lines from which to hang a canopy and supplies, I threaded ropes through the holes I had drilled in the masthead and tied them to the tips of the horizontal oars. I strapped the life jacket that had been attached to the footrest oar to the base of the mast. It would play a double role: it would provide extra flotation to compensate for the vertical weight of the mast, and it would make for a slightly raised seat for me.

  I threw a blanket over the lines. It slid down. The angle of the lines was too steep. I folded the lengthwise edge of the blanket over once, cut two holes midway down, about a foot apart, and linked the holes with a piece of string, which I made by unweaving a length of rope. I threw the blanket over the lines again, with the new girdle string going around the masthead. I now had a canopy.

  It took me a good part of the day to fix up the raft. There were so many details to look after. The constant motion of the sea, though gentle, didn't make my work any easier. And I had to keep an eye on Richard Parker. The result was no galleon. The mast, so called, ended hardly a few inches above my head. As for the deck, it was just big enough to sit on cross-legged or to lie on in a tight, nearly-to-term fetal position. But I wasn't complaining. It was seaworthy and it would save me from Richard Parker.

  By the time I had finished my work, the afternoon was nearing its end. I gathered a can of water, a can opener, four biscuits of survival ration and four blankets. I closed the locker (very softly this time), sat down on the raft and let out the rope. The lifeboat drifted away. The main rope tensed, while the security rope, which I had deliberately measured out longer, hung limply. I laid two blankets beneath me, carefully folding them so that they didn't touch the water. I wrapped the other two around my shoulders and rested my back against the mast. I enjoyed the slight elevation I gained from sitting on the extra life jacket. I was hardly higher up from the water than one would be from a floor sitting on a thick cushion; still, I hoped not to get wet so much.

  I enjoyed my meal as I watched the sun's descent in a cloudless sky. It was a relaxing moment. The vault of the world was magnificently tinted. The stars were eager to participate; hardly had the blanket of colour been pulled a little than they started to shine through the deep blue. The wind blew with a faint, warm breeze and the sea moved about kindly, the water peaking and troughing like people dancing in a circle who come together and raise their hands and move apart and come together again, over and over.

  Richard Parker sat up. Only his head and a little of his shoulders showed above the gunnel. He looked out. I shouted, “Hello, Richard Parker!” and I waved. He looked at me. He snorted or sneezed, neither word quite captures it. Prusten again. What a stunning creature. Such a noble mien. How apt that in full it is a Royal Bengal tiger. I counted myself lucky in a way. What if I had ended up with a creature that looked silly or ugly, a tapir or an ostrich or a flock of turkeys? That would have been a more trying companionship in some ways.

  I heard a splash. I looked down at the water. I gasped. I thought I was alone. The stillness in the air, the glory of the light, the feeling of comparative safety-all had made me think so. There is commonly an element of silence and solitude to peace, isn't there? It's hard to imagine being at peace in a busy subway station, isn't it? So what was all this commotion?

  With just one glance I discovered that the sea is a city. Just below me, all around, unsuspected by me, were highways, boulevards, streets and roundabouts bustling with submarine traffic. In water that was dense, glassy and flecked by millions of lit-up specks of plankton, fish like trucks and buses and cars and bicycles and pedestrians were madly racing about, no doubt honking and hollering at each other. The predominant colour was green. At multiple depths, as far as I could see, there were evanescent trails of phosphorescent green bubbles, the wake of speeding fish. As soon as one trail faded, another appeared. These trails came from all directions and disappeared in all directions. They were like those time-exposure photographs you see of cities at night, with the long red streaks made by the tail lights of cars. Except that here the cars were driving above and under each other as if they were on interchanges that were stacked ten storeys high. And here the cars were of the craziest colours. The dorados-there must have been over fifty patrolling beneath the raft-showed off their bright gold, blue and green as they whisked by. Other fish that I could not identify were yellow, brown, silver, blue, red, pink, green, white, in all kinds of combinations, solid, streaked and speckled. Only the sharks stubbornly refused to be colourful. But whatever the size or colour of a vehicle, one thing was constant: the furious driving. There were many collisions-all involving fatalities, I'm afraid-and a number of cars spun wildly out of control and collided against barriers, bursting above the surface of the water and splashing down in showers of luminescence. I gazed upon this urban hurly-burly like someone observing a city from a hot-air balloon. It was a spectacle wondrous and awe-inspiring. This is surely what Tokyo must look like at rush hour.

  I looked on until the lights went out in the city.

  From the Tsimtsum all I had seen were dolphins. I had assumed that the Pacific, but for passing schools of fish, was a sparsely inhabited waste of water. I have learned since that cargo ships travel too quickly for fish. You are as likely to see sea life from a ship as you are to see wildlife in a forest from a car on a highway. Dolphins, very fast swimmers, play about boats and ships much like dogs chase cars: they race along until they can no longer keep up. If you want to see wildlife, it is on foot, and quietly, that you must explore a forest. It is the same with the sea. You must stroll through the Pacific at a walking pace, so to speak, to see the wealth and abundance that it holds.

  I settled on my side. For the first time in five days I felt a measure of calm. A little bit of hope-hard earned, well deserved, reasonable-glowed in me. I fell asleep.

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