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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 99)

2006-08-22 21:28

  CHAPTER   99

  Mr. Okamoto: “Mr. Patel, we don't believe your story.”

  “Sorry-these cookies are good but they tend to crumble. I'm amazed. Why not?”

  “It doesn't hold up.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Bananas don't float.”

  “I'm sorry?”

  “You said the orang-utan came floating on an island of bananas.”

  “That's right.”

  “Bananas don't float.”

  “Yes, they do.”

  “They're too heavy.”

  “No, they're not. Here, try for yourself. I have two bananas right here.”

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“Where did those come from? What else does he have under his bedsheet?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Damn it.</translation> No, that's all right.”

  “There's a sink over there.”

  “That's fine.”

  “I insist. Fill that sink with water, drop these bananas in, and we'll see who's right.”

  “We'd like to move on.”

  “I absolutely insist.”

  [Silence]

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“What do we do?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “I feel this is going to be another very long day.”</translation>

  [Sound of a chair being pushed back. Distant sound of water gushing out of a tap]

  Pi Patel: “What's happening? I can't see from here.”

  Mr. Okamoto [distantly]: “I'm filling the sink.”

  “Have you put the bananas in yet?”

  [Distantly] “No.”

  “And now?”

  [Distantly] “They're in.”

  “And?”

  [Silence]

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“Are they floating?”

  [Distantly] “Tkey're floating.”</translation>

  “So, are they floating?”

  [Distantly] “They're floating.”

  “What did I tell you?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Yes, yes. But it would take a lot of bananas to hold up an orang-utan.”

  “It did. There was close to a ton. It still makes me sick when I think of all those bananas floating away and going to waste when they were mine for the picking.”

  “It's a pity. Now, about?

  “Could I have my bananas back, please?”

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“I'll get them.”

  [Sound of a chair being pushed back]

  [Distantly] “Look at that. They really do float.”</translation>

  Mr. Okamoto: “What about this algae island you say you came upon?”

  Mr. Chiba: “Here are your bananas.”

  Pi Patel: “Thank you. Yes?”

  “I'm sorry to say it so bluntly, we don't mean to hurt your feelings, but you don't really expect us to believe you, do you? Carnivorous trees? A fish-eating algae that produces fresh water? Tree-dwelling aquatic rodents? These things don't exist.”

  “Only because you've never seen them.”

  “That's right. We believe what we see.”

  “So did Columbus. What do you do when you're in the dark?”

  “Your island is botanically impossible.”

  “Said the fly just before landing in the Venus flytrap.”

  “Why has no one else come upon it?”

  “It's a big ocean crossed by busy ships. I went slowly, observing much.”

  “No scientist would believe you.”

  “These would be the same who dismissed Copernicus and Darwin. Have scientists finished coming upon new plants? In the Amazon basin, for example?”

  “Not plants that contradict the laws of nature.”

  “Which you know through and through?”

  “Well enough to know the possible from the impossible.”

  Mr. Chiba: “I have an uncle who knows a lot about botany. He lives in the country near Hita-Gun. He's a bonsai master.”

  Pi Patel: “A what?”

  “A bonsai master. You know, bonsai are little trees.”

  “You mean shrubs.”

  “No, I mean trees. Bonsai are little trees. They are less than two feet tall. You can carry them in your arms. They can be very old. My uncle has one that is over three hundred years old.”

  “Three-hundred-year-old trees that are two feet tall that you can carry in your arms?”

  “Yes. They're very delicate. They need a lot of attention.”

  “Whoever heard of such trees? They're botanically impossible.”

  “But I assure you they exist, Mr. Patel. My uncle?

  “I believe what I see.”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Just a moment, please. <translation>Atsuro, with all due respect for your uncle who lives in the country near Hita-Gun, we're not here to talk idly about botany.”

  “I'm just trying to help.”

  “Do your uncle's bonsai eat meat?”

  “I don't think so.”

  “Have you ever been bitten by one of his bonsai?”

  “No.”

  “In that case, your uncle's bonsai are not helping us.</translation> Where were we?”

  Pi Patel: “With the tall, full-sized trees firmly rooted to the ground I was telling you about.”

  “Let us put them aside for now.”

  “It might be hard. I never tried pulling them out and carrying them.”

  “You're a funny man, Mr. Patel. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

  Pi Patel: “Ha! Ha! Ha!”

  Mr. Chiba: “Ha! Ha! Ha! <translation>It wasn't that funny.”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Just keep laughing.</translation> Ha! Ha! Ha!”

  Mr. Chiba: “Ha! Ha! Ha!”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Now about the tiger, we're not sure about it either.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “We have difficulty believing it.”

  “It's an incredible story.”

  “Precisely.”

  “I don't know how I survived.”

  “Clearly it was a strain.”

  “I'll have another cookie.”

  “There are none left.”

  “What's in that bag?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Can I see?”

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“There goes our lunch.”</translation>

  Mr. Okamoto: “Getting back to the tiger……”

  Pi Patel: “Terrible business. Delicious sandwiches.”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Yes, they look good.”

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“I'm hungry.”</translation>

  “Not a trace of it has been found. That's a bit hard to believe, isn't it? There are no tigers in the Americas. If there were a wild tiger out there, don't you think the police would have heard about it by now?”

  “I should tell you about the black panther that escaped from the Zurich Zoo in the middle of winter.”

  “Mr. Patel, a tiger is an incredibly dangerous wild animal. How could you survive in a lifeboat with one? It's?

  “What you don't realize is that we are a strange and forbidding species to wild animals. We fill them with fear. They avoid us as much as possible. It took centuries to still the fear in some pliable animals-domestication it's called-but most cannot get over their fear, and I doubt they ever will. When wild animals fight us, it is out of sheer desperation. They fight when they feel they have no other way out. It's a very last resort.”

  “In a lifeboat? Come on, Mr. Patel, it's just too hard to believe!”

  “Hard to believe? What do you know about hard to believe? You want hard to believe? I'll give you hard to believe. It's a closely held secret among Indian zookeepers that in 1971 Bara the polar bear escaped from the Calcutta Zoo. She was never heard from again, not by police or hunters or poachers or anyone else. We suspect she's living freely on the banks of the Hugli River. Beware if you go to Calcutta, my good sirs: if you have sushi on the breath you may pay a high price! If you took the city of Tokyo and turned it upside down and shook it, you'd be amazed at all the animals that would fall out: badgers, wolves, boa constrictors, Komodo dragons, crocodiles, ostriches, baboons, capybaras, wild boars, leopards, manatees, ruminants in untold numbers. There is no doubt in my mind that feral giraffes and feral hippos have been living in Tokyo for generations without being seen by a soul. You should compare one day the things that stick to the soles of your shoes as you walk down the street with what you see lying at the bottom of the cages in the Tokyo Zoo-then look up! And you expect to find a tiger in a Mexican jungle! It's laughable, just plain laughable. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

  “There may very well be feral giraffes and feral hippos living in Tokyo and a polar bear living freely in Calcutta. We just don't believe there was a tiger living in your lifeboat.”

  “The arrogance of big-city folk! You grant your metropolises all the animals of Eden, but you deny my hamlet the merest Bengal tiger!”

  “Mr. Patel, please calm down.”

  “If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn't love hard to believe?”

  “Mr. Patel?

  “Don't you bully me with your politeness! Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

  “We're just being reasonable.”

  “So am I! I applied my reason at every moment. Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.”

  “Calm down, Mr. Patel, calm down.”

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“The bathwater? Why is he talking about bathwater?”</translation>

  “How can I be calm? You should have seen Richard Parker!”

  “Yes, yes.”

  “Huge. Teeth like this! Claws like scimitars!”

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“What are scimitars?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Chiba-san,, instead of asking stupid vocabulary questions, why don't you make yourself useful? This boy is a tough nut to crack. Do something!”</translation>

  Mr. Chiba: “Look! A chocolate bar!”

  Pi Patel: “Wonderful!”

  [Long silence]

  Mr. Okamoto: <translation>“Like he hasn't already stolen our whole lunch. Soon he'll be demanding tempura.”</translation>

  [Long silence]

  Mr. Okamoto: “We are losing sight of the point of this investigation. We are here because of the sinking of a cargo ship. You are the sole survivor. And you were only a passenger. You bear no responsibility for what happened. We?

  “Chocolate is so good!”

  “We are not seeking to lay criminal charges. You are an innocent victim of a tragedy at sea. We are only trying to determine why and how the Tsimtsum sank. We thought you might help us, Mr. Patel.”

  [Silence]

  “Mr. Patel?”

  [Silence]

  Pi Patel: “Tigers exist, lifeboats exist, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might. Yet the plain fact is that the Tsimtsum brought them together and then sank.”

  [Silence]

  Mr. Okamoto: “What about this Frenchman?”

  “What about him?”

  “Two blind people in two separate lifeboats meeting up in the Pacific-the coincidence seems a little far-fetched, no?”

  “It certainly does.”

  “We find it very unlikely.”

  “So is winning the lottery, yet someone always wins.”

  “We find it extremely hard to believe.”

  “So did I.”

  <translation>“I knew we should have taken the day off.</translation> You talked about food?”

  “We did.”

  “He knew a lot about food.”

  “If you can call it food.”

  “The cook on the Tsimtsum was a Frenchman.”

  “There are Frenchmen all over the world.”

  “Maybe the Frenchman you met was the cook.”

  “Maybe. How should I know? I never saw him. I was blind. Then Richard Parker ate him alive.”

  “How convenient.”

  “Not at all. It was horrific and it stank. By the way, how do you explain the meerkat bones in the lifeboat?”

  “Yes, the bones of a small animal were?

  “More than one!”

  “-of some small animals were found in the lifeboat. They must have come from the ship.”

  “We had no meerkats at the zoo.”

  “We have no proof they were meerkat bones.”

  Mr. Chiba: “Maybe they were banana bones! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

  <translation>“Atsuro, shut up!”

  “I'm very sorry, Okamoto-san. It's the fatigue.”

  “You're bringing our service into disrepute!”

  “Very sorry, Okamoto-san.”</translation>

  Mr. Okamoto: “They could be bones from another small animal.”

  “They were meerkats.”

  “They could be mongooses.”

  “The mongooses at the zoo didn't sell. They stayed in India.”

  “They could be shipboard pests, like rats. Mongooses are common in India.”

  “Mongooses as shipboard pests?”

  “Why not?”

  “Who swam in the stormy Pacific, several of them, to the lifeboat? That's a little hard to believe, wouldn't you say?”

  “Less hard to believe than some of the things we've heard in the last two hours. Perhaps the mongooses were already aboard the lifeboat, like the rat you mentioned.”

  “Simply amazing the number of animals in that lifeboat.”

  “Simply amazing.”

  “A real jungle.”

  “Yes.”

  “Those bones are meerkat bones. Have them checked by an expert.”

  “There weren't that many left. And there were no heads.”

  “I used them as bait.”

  “It's doubtful an expert could tell whether they were meerkat bones or mongoose bones.”

  “Find yourself a forensic zoologist.”

  “All right, Mr. Patel! You win. We cannot explain the presence of meerkat bones, if that is what they are, in the lifeboat. But that is not our concern here. We are here because a Japanese cargo ship owned by Oika Shipping Company, flying the Panamanian flag, sank in the Pacific.”

  “Something I never forget, not for a minute. I lost my whole family.”

  “We're sorry aboutt that.”

  “Not as much as I am.”

  [Long silence]

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“What do we do now?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “I don't know.”</translation>

  [Long silence]

  Pi Patel: “Would you like a cookie?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Yes, that would be nice. Thank you.”

  Mr. Chiba: “Thank you.”

  [Long silence]

  Mr. Okamoto: “It's a nice day.”

  Pi Patel: “Yes. Smnny.”

  [Long silence]

  Pi Patel: “Is this your first visit to Mexico?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Yes, it is.”

  “Mine too.”

  [Long silence]

  Pi Patel: “So, you didn't like my story?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “No, we liked it very much. Didn't we, Atsuro? We will remember it for a long, long time.”

  Mr. Chiba: “We will.”

  [Silence]

  Mr. Okamoto: “But for the purposes of our investigation, we would like to know what really happened.”

  “What really happened?”

  “Yes.”

  “So you want another story?”

  “Uhh……no. We would like to know what really happened.”

  “Doesn't the telling of something always become a story?”

  “Uhh……perhaps in English. In Japanese a story would have an element of invention in it. We don't want any invention. We want the 'straight facts', as you say in English.”

  “Isn't telling about something-using words, English or Japanese-already something of an invention? Isn't just looking upon this world already something of an invention?”

  “Uhh……”

  “The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn't that make life a story?”

  “Ha! Ha! Ha! You are very intelligent, Mr. Patel.”

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“What is he talking about?”

  “I have no idea.”</translation>

  Pi Patel: “You want words that reflect reality?”

  “Yes.”

  “Words that do not contradict reality?”

  “Exactly.”

  “But tigers don't contradict reality.”

  “Oh please, no more tigers.”

  “I know what you want. You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

  “Uhh……”

  “You want a story without animals.”

  “Yes!”

  “Without tigers or orang-utans.”

  “That's right.”

  “Without hyenas or zebras.”

  “Without them.”

  “Without meerkats or mongooses.”

  “We don't want them.”

  “Without giraffes or hippopotamuses.”

  “We will plug our ears with our fingers!”

  “So I'm right. You want a story without animals.”

  “We want a story without animals that will explain the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”

  “Give me a minute, please.”

  “Of course. <translation>I think we're finally getting somewhere. Let's hope he speaks some sense.”</translation>

  [Long silence]

  “Here's another story.”

  “Good.”

  “The ship sank. It made a sound like a monstrous metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished. I found myself kicking water in the Pacific Ocean. I swam for the lifeboat. It was the hardest swim of my life. I didn't seem to be moving. I kept swallowing water. I was very cold. I was rapidly losing strength. I wouldn't have made it if the cook hadn't thrown me a lifebuoy and pulled me in. I climbed aboard and collapsed.

  “Four of us survived. Mother held on to some bananas and made it to the lifeboat. The cook was already aboard, as was the sailor.

  “He ate the flies. The cook, that is. We hadn't been in the lifeboat a full day; we had food and water to last us for weeks; we had fishing gear and solar stills; we had no reason to believe that we wouldn't be rescued soon. Yet there he was, swinging his arms and catching flies and eating them greedily. Right away he was in a holy terror of hunger. He was calling us idiots and fools for not joining him in the feast. We were offended and disgusted, but we didn't show it. We were very polite about it. He was a stranger and a foreigner. Mother smiled and shook her head and raised her hand in refusal. He was a disgusting man. His mouth had the discrimination of a garbage heap. He also ate the rat. He cut it up and dried it in the sun. I-I'll be honest-I had a small piece, very small, behind Mother's back. I was so hungry. He was such a brute, that cook, ill-tempered and hypocritical.

  “The sailor was young. Actually, he was older than me, probably in his early twenties, but he broke his leg jumping from the ship and his suffering made him a child. He was beautiful. He had no facial hair at all and a clear, shining complexion. His features-the broad face, the flattened nose, the narrow, pleated eyes-looked so elegant. I thought he looked like a Chinese emperor. His suffering was terrible. He spoke no English, not a single word, not yes or no, hello or thank you. He spoke only Chinese. We couldn't understand a word he said. He must have felt very lonely. When he wept, Mother held his head in her lap and I held his hand. It was very, very sad. He suffered and we couldn't do anything about it.

  “His right leg was badly broken at the thigh. The bone stuck out of his flesh. He screamed with pain. We set his leg as best we could and we made sure he was eating and drinking. But his leg became infected. Though we drained it of pus every day, it got worse. His foot became black and bloated.

  “It was the cook's idea. He was a brute. He dominated us. He whispered that the blackness would spread and that he would survive only if his leg were amputated. Since the bone was broken at the thigh, it would involve no more than cutting through flesh and setting a tourniquet. I can still hear his evil whisper. He would do the job to save the sailor's life, he said, but we would have to hold him. Surprise would be the only anaesthetic. We fell upon him. Mother and I held his arms while the cook sat on his good leg. The sailor writhed and screamed. His chest rose and fell. The cook worked the knife quickly. The leg fell off. Immediately Mother and I let go and moved away. We thought that if the restraint was ended, so would his struggling. We thought he would lie calmly. He didn't. He sat up instantly. His screams were all the worse for being unintelligible. He screamed and we stared, transfixed. There was blood everywhere. Worse, there was the contrast between the frantic activity of the poor sailor and the gentle repose of his leg at the bottom of the boat. He kept looking at the limb, as if imploring it to return. At last he fell back. We hurried into action. The cook folded some skin over the bone. We wrapped the stump in a piece of cloth and we tied a rope above the wound to stop the bleeding. We laid him as comfortably as we could on a mattress of life jackets and kept him warm. I thought it was all for nothing. I couldn't believe a human being could survive so much pain, so much butchery. Throughout the evening and night he moaned, and his breathing was harsh and uneven. He had fits of agitated delirium. I expected him to die during the night.

  “He clung to life. At dawn he was still alive. He went in and out of consciousness. Mother gave him water. I caught sight of the amputated leg. It cut my breath short. In the commotion it had been shoved aside and forgotten in the dark. It had seeped a liquid and looked thinner. I took a life jacket and used it as a glove. I picked the leg up.

  “'What are you doing?' asked the cook.

  “'I'm going to throw it overboard,' I replied.

  “'Don't be an idiot. We'll use it as bait. That was the whole point.'

  “He seemed to regret his last words even as they were coming out, for his voice faded quickly. He turned away.

  “'The whole point?' Mother asked. 'What do you mean by that?'

  “He pretended to be busy.

  “Mother's voice rose. 'Are you telling us that we cut this poor boy's leg off not to save his life but to get fishing bait?'

  “Silence from the brute.

  “'Answer me!' shouted Mother.

  “Like a cornered beast he lifted his eyes and glared at her. 'Our supplies are running out,' he snarled. 'We need more food or we'll die.'

  “Mother returned his glare. 'Our supplies are not running out! We have plenty of food and water. We have package upon package of biscuits to tide us over till our rescue.' She took hold of the plastic container in which we put the open rations of biscuits. It was unexpectedly light in her hands. The few crumbs in it rattled. 'What!' She opened it. 'Where are the biscuits? The container was full last night!'

  “The cook looked away. As did I.

  “'You selfish monster!' screamed Mother. 'The only reason we're running out of food is because you're gorging yourself on it!'

  “'He had some too,' he said, nodding my way.

  “Mother's eyes turned to me. My heart sank.

  “'Piscine, is that true?'

  “'It was night, Mother. I was half asleep and I was so hungry. He gave me a biscuit. I ate it without thinking……'

  “'Only one, was it?' sneered the cook.

  “It was Mother's turn to look away. The anger seemed to go out of her. Without saying another word she went back to nursing the sailor.

  “I wished for her anger. I wished for her to punish me. Only not this silence. I made to arrange some life jackets for the sailor's comfort so that I could be next to her. I whispered, 'I'm sorry, Mother, I'm sorry.' My eyes were brimming with tears. When I brought them up, I saw that hers were too. But she didn't look at me. Her eyes were gazing upon some memory in mid-air.

  “'We're all alone, Piscine, all alone,' she said, in a tone that broke every hope in my body. I never felt so lonely in all my life as I did at that moment. We had been in the lifeboat two weeks already and it was taking its toll on us. It was getting harder to believe that Father and Ravi had survived.

  “When we turned around, the cook was holding the leg by the ankle over the water to drain it. Mother brought her hand over the sailor's eyes.

  “He died quietly, the life drained out of him like the liquid from his leg. The cook promptly butchered him. The leg had made for poor bait. The dead flesh was too decayed to hold on to the fishing hook; it simply dissolved in the water. Nothing went to waste with this monster. He cut up everything, including the sailor's skin and every inch of his intestines. He even prepared his genitals. When he had finished with his torso, he moved on to his arms and shoulders and to his legs. Mother and I rocked with pain and horror. Mother shrieked at the cook, 'How can you do this, you monster? Where is your humanity? Have you no decency? What did the poor boy do to you? You monster! You monster!' The cook replied with unbelievable vulgarity.

  “'At least cover his face, for God's sake!' cried my mother. It was unbearable to have that beautiful face, so noble and serene, connected to such a sight below. The cook threw himself upon the sailor's head and before our very eyes scalped him and pulled off his face. Mother and I vomited.

  “When he had finished, he threw the butchered carcass overboard. Shortly after, strips of flesh and pieces of organs were lying to dry in the sun all over the boat. We recoiled in horror. We tried not to look at them. The smell would not go away.

  “The next time the cook was close by, Mother slapped him in the face, a full hard slap that punctuated the air with a sharp crack. It was something shocking coming from my mother. And it was heroic. It was an act of outrage and pity and grief and bravery. It was done in memory of that poor sailor. It was to salvage his dignity.

  “I was stunned. So was the cook. He stood without moving or saying a word as Mother looked him straight in the face. I noticed how he did not meet her eyes.

  “We retreated to our private spaces. I stayed close to her. I was filled with a mix of rapt admiration and abject fear.

  “Mother kept an eye on him. Two days later she saw him do it. He tried to be discreet, but she saw him bring his hand to his mouth. She shouted, 'I saw you! You just ate a piece! You said it was for bait! I knew it. You monster! You animal! How could you? He's human! He's your own kind!' If she had expected him to be mortified, to spit it out and break down and apologize, she was wrong. He kept chewing. In fact, he lifted his head up and quite openly put the rest of the strip in his mouth. 'Tastes like pork,' he muttered. Mother expressed her indignation and disgust by violently turning away. He ate another strip. 'I feel stronger already,' he muttered. He concentrated on his fishing.

  “We each had our end of the lifeboat. It's amazing how willpower can build walls. Whole days went by as if he weren't there.

  “But we couldn't ignore him entirely. He was a brute, but a practical brute. He was good with his hands and he knew the sea. He was full of good ideas. He was the one who thought of building a raft to help with the fishing. If we survived any time at all, it was thanks to him. I helped him as best I could. He was very short-tempered, always shouting at me and insulting me.

  “Mother and I didn't eat any of the sailor's body, not the smallest morsel, despite the cost in weakness to us, but we did start to eat what the cook caught from the sea. My mother, a lifelong vegetarian, brought herself to eat raw fish and raw turtle. She had a very hard time of it. She never got over her revulsion. It came easier to me. I found hunger improved the taste of everything.

  “When your life has been given a reprieve, it's impossible not to feel some warmth for the one to whom you owe that reprieve. It was very exciting when the cook hauled aboard a turtle or caught a great big dorado. It made us smile broadly and there was a glow in our chests that lasted for hours. Mother and the cook talked in a civil way, even joked. During some spectacular sunsets, life on the boat was nearly good. At such times I looked at him with-yes-with tenderness. With love. I imagined that we were fast friends. He was a coarse man even when he was in a good mood, but we pretended not to notice it, even to ourselves. He said that we would come upon an island. That was our main hope. We exhausted our eyes scanning the horizon for an island that never came. That's when he stole food and water.

  “The flat and endless Pacific rose like a great wall around us. I never thought we would get around it.

  “He killed her. The cook killed my mother. We were starving. I was weak. I couldn't hold on to a turtle. Because of me we lost it. He hit me. Mother hit him. He hit her back. She turned to me and said, 'Go!' pushing me towards the raft. I jumped for it. I thought she was coming with me. I landed in the water. I scrambled aboard the raft. They were fighting. I did nothing but watch. My mother was fighting an adult man. He was mean and muscular. He caught her by the wrist and twisted it. She shrieked and fell. He moved over her. The knife appeared. He raised it in the air. It came down. Next it was up-it was red. It went up and down repeatedly. I couldn't see her. She was at the bottom of the boat. I saw only him. He stopped. He raised his head and looked at me. He hurled something my way. A line of blood struck me across the face. No whip could have inflicted a more painful lash. I held my mother's head in my hands. I let it go. It sank in a cloud of blood, her tress trailing like a tail. Fish spiralled down towards it until a shark's long grey shadow cut across its path and it vanished. I looked up. I couldn't see him. He was hiding at the bottom of the boat. He appeared when he threw my mother's body overboard. His mouth was red. The water boiled with fish.

  “I spent the rest of that day and the night on the raft, looking at him. We didn't speak a word. He could have cut the raft loose. But he didn't. He kept me around, like a bad conscience.

  “In the morning, in plain sight of him, I pulled on the rope and boarded the lifeboat. I was very weak. He said nothing. I kept my peace. He caught a turtle. He gave me its blood. He butchered it and laid its best parts for me on the middle bench. I ate.

  “Then we fought and I killed him. He had no expression on his face, neither of despair nor of anger, neither of fear nor of pain. He gave up. He let himself be killed, though it was still a struggle. He knew he had gone too far, even by his bestial standards. He had gone too far and now he didn't want to go on living any more. But he never said 'I'm sorry.' Why do we cling to our evil ways?

  “The knife was all along in plain view on the bench. We both knew it. He could have had it in his hands from the start. He was the one who put it there. I picked it up. I stabbed him in the stomach. He grimaced but remained standing. I pulled the knife out and stabbed him again. Blood was pouring out. Still he didn't fall over. Looking me in the eyes, he lifted his head ever so slightly. Did he mean something by this? I took it that he did. I stabbed him in the throat, next to the Adam's apple. He dropped like a stone. And died. He didn't say anything. He had no last words. He only coughed up blood. A knife has a horrible dynamic power; once in motion, it's hard to stop. I stabbed him repeatedly. His blood soothed my chapped hands. His heart was a struggle-all those tubes that connected it. I managed to get it out. It tasted delicious, far better than turtle. I ate his liver. I cut off great pieces of his flesh.

  “He was such an evil man. Worse still, he met evil in me-selfishness, anger, ruthlessness. I must live with that.

  “Solitude began. I turned to God. I survived.”

  [Long silence]

  “Is that better? Are there any parts you find hard to believe? Anything you'd like me to change?”

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“What a korrible story.”

  [Long silence]

  Mr. Okamoto: “Both the zebra and the Taiwanese sailor broke a leg, did you notice that?”

  “No, I didn't.”

  “And the hyena bit off the zebra's leg just as the cook cut off the sailor's.”

  “Ohhh, Okamoto-san, you see a lot.”

  “Tke blind Frenchman they met in the other lifeboat-didn't he admit to killing a man and a woman?”

  “Yes, he did.”

  “The cook killed the sailor and his mother”

  “Very impressive.”

  “His stories match.”

  “So the Taiwanese sailor is the zebra, his mother is the orang-utan, the cook is …… the hyena ?which means he is the tiger!”

  “Yes. The tiger killed the hyena-and the blind Frenchman-just as he killed the cook.”</translation>

  Pi Patel: “Do you have another chocolate bar?”

  Mr. Chiba: “Right away!”

  “Thank you.”

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“But what does it mean, Okamoto-san?”

  “I have no idea.”

  “And what about those teeth? Whose teeth were those in the tree?”

  “I don't know. I'm not inside this boy's head.”</translation>

  [Long silence]

  Mr. Okamoto: “Please excuse me for asking, but did the cook say anything about the sinking of the Tsimtsum?”

  “In this other story?”

  “Yes.”

  “He didn't.”

  “He made no mention of anything leading up to the early morning of July 2nd that might explain what happened?”

  “No.”

  “Nothing of a nature mechanical or structural?”

  “No.”

  “Nothing about other ships or objects at sea?”

  “No.”

  “He could not explain the sinking of the Tsimtsum at all?”

  “No”

  “Could he say why it didn't send out a distress signal?”

  “And if it had? In my experience, when a dingy, third-rate rust-bucket sinks, unless it has the luck of carrying oil, lots of it, enough to kill entire ecosystems, no one cares and no one hears about it. You're on your own.”

  “When Oika realized that something was wrong, it was too late. You were too far out for air rescue. Ships in the area were told to be on the lookout. They reported seeing nothing.”

  “And while we're on the subject, the ship wasn't the only thing that was third-rate. The crew were a sullen, unfriendly lot, hard at work when officers were around but doing nothing when they weren't. They didn't speak a word of English and they were of no help to us. Some of them stank of alcohol by mid-afternoon. Who's to say what those idiots did? The officers?

  “What do you mean by that?”

  “By what?”

  “'Who's to say what those idiots did?'”

  “I mean that maybe in a fit of drunken insanity some of them released the animals.”

  Mr. Chiba: “Who had the keys to the cages?”

  “Father did.”

  Mr. Chiba: “So how could the crew open the cages if they didn't have the keys?”

  “I don't know. They probably used crowbars.”

  Mr. Chiba: “Why would they do that? Why would anyone want to release a dangerous wild animal from its cage?”

  “I don't know. Can anyone fathom the workings of a drunken man's mind? All I can tell you is what happened. The animals were out of their cages.”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Excuse me. You have doubts about the fitness of the crew?”

  “Grave doubts.”

  “Did you witness any of the officers being under the influence of alcohol?”

  “No.”

  “But you saw some of the crew being under the influence of alcohol?”

  “Yes.”

  “Did the officers act in what seemed to you a competent and professional manner?”

  “They had little to do with us. They never came close to the animals.”

  “I mean in terms of running the ship.”

  “How should I know? Do you think we had tea with them every day? They spoke English, but they were no better than the crew. They made us feel unwelcome in the common room and hardly said a word to us during meals. They went on in Japanese, as if we weren't there. We were just a lowly Indian family with a bothersome cargo. We ended up eating on our own in Father and Mother's cabin. 'Adventure beckons!' said Ravi. That's what made it tolerable, our sense of adventure. We spent most of our time shovelling excrement and rinsing cages and giving feed while Father played the vet. So long as the animals were all right, we were all right. I don't know if the officers were competent.”

  “You said the ship was listing to port?”

  “Yes.”

  “And that there was an incline from bow to stern?”

  “Yes.”

  “So the ship sank stern first?”

  “Yes.”

  “Not bow first?”

  “No.”

  “You are sure? There was a slope from the front of the ship to the back?”

  “Yes.”

  “Did the ship hit another ship?”

  “I didn't see another ship.”

  “Did it hit any other object?”

  “Not that I saw.”

  “Did it run aground?”

  “No, it sank out of sight.”

  “You were not aware of mechanical problems after leaving Manila?”

  “No.”

  “Did it appear to you that the ship was properly loaded?”

  “It was my first time on a ship. I don't know what a properly loaded ship should look like.”

  “You believe you heard an explosion?”

  “Yes.”

  “Any other noises?”

  “A thousand.”

  “I mean that might explain the sinking.”

  “No.”

  “You said the ship sank quickly.”

  “Yes.”

  “Can you estimate how long it took?”

  “It's hard to say. Very quickly. I would think less than twenty minutes.”

  “And there was a lot of debris?”

  “Yes.”

  “Was the ship struck by a freak wave?”

  “I don't think so.”

  “But there was a storm?”

  “The sea looked rough to me. There was wind and rain.”

  “How high were the waves?”

  “High. Twenty-five, thirty feet.”

  “That's quite modest, actually.”

  “Not when you're in a lifeboat.”

  “Yes, of course. But for a cargo ship.”

  “Maybe they were higher. I don't know. The weather was bad enough to scare me witless, that's all I know for sure.”

  “You said the weather improved quickly. The ship sank and right after it was a beautiful day, isn't that what you said?”

  “Yes.”

  “Sounds like no more than a passing squall.”

  “It sank the ship.”

  “That's what we're wondering.”

  “My whole family died.”

  “We're sorry about that.”

  “Not as much as I am.”

  “So what happened, Mr. Patel? We're puzzled…… Everything was normal and then……?”

  “Then normal sank.”

  “Why?”

  “I don't know. You should be telling me. You're the experts. Apply your science.”

  “We don't understand.”

  [Long silence]

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“Now what?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “We give up. The explanation for the sinking of the Tsimtsum is at the bottom of the Pacific.”

  [Long silence]

  Mr. Okamoto: “Yes, that's it. Let's go.</translation> Well, Mr. Patel, I think we have all we need. We thank you very much for your cooperaticon. You've been very, very helpful.”

  “You're welcome. But before you go, I'd like to ask you something.”

  “Yes?”

  “The Tsimtsum sank on July 2nd, 1977.”

  “Yes.”

  “And I arrived on the coast of Mexico, the sole human surviwor of the Tsimtsum, on February 14th, 1978.”

  “That's right.”

  “I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between.”

  “Yes, you did.”

  “Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”

  “That's right.”

  “Neither makes a factual difference to you.”

  “That's true.”

  “You can't prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it.”

  “I guess so.”

  “In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”

  “Yes, that's true.”

  “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “That's an interesting question……”

  Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”

  Mr. Okamoto: <translation>“Yes.</translation> The story with animals is the better story.”

  Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

  [Silence]

  Mr. Chiba: <translation>“What did he just say?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “I don't know.”

  Mr. Chiba: “Oh look-he's crying.”</translation>

  [Long silence]

  Mr. Okamoto: “We'll be careful when we drive away. We don't want to run into Richard Parker.”

  Pi Patel: “Don't worry, you won't. He's hiding somewhere you'll never find him.”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Mr. Patel. We're grateful. And we're really very sorry about what happened to you.”

  “Thank you.”

  “What will you be doing now?”

  “I guess I'll go to Canada.”

  “Not back to India?”

  “No. There's nothing there for me now. Only sad memories.”

  “Of course, you know you will be getting insurance money.”

  “Oh.”

  “Yes. Oika will be in touch with you.”

  [Silence]

  Mr. Okamoto: “We should be going. We wish you all the best, Mr. Patel.”

  Mr. Chiba: “Yes, all the best.”

  “Thank you.”

  Mr. Okamoto: “Goodbye.”

  Mr. Chiba: “Goodbye.”

  Pi Patel: “Would you like some cookies for the road?”

  Mr. Okamoto: “That would be nice.”

  “Here, have three each.”

  “Thank you.”

  Mr. Chiba: “Thank you.”

  “You're welcome. Goodbye. God be with you, my brothers.”

  “Thank you. And with you too, Mr. Patel.”

  Mr. Chiba: “Goodbye.”

  Mr. Okamoto: <translation>“I'm starving. Let's go eat. You can turn that off.”</translation>

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