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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 92)

2006-08-22 21:28

  CHAPTER   92

  I made an exceptional botanical discovery. But there will be many who disbelieve the following episode. Still, I give it to you now because it's part of the story and it happened to me.

  I was on my side. It was an hour or two past noon on a day of quiet sunshine and gentle breeze. I had slept a short while, a diluted sleep that had brought no rest and no dreams. I turned over to my other side, expending as little energy as possible in doing so. I opened my eyes.

  In the near distance I saw trees. I did not react. I was certain it was an illusion that a few blinks would make disappear.

  The trees remained. In fact, they grew to be a forest. They were part of a low-lying island. I pushed myself up. I continued to disbelieve my eyes. But it was a thrill to be deluded in such a high-quality way. The trees were beautiful. They were like none I had ever seen before. They had a pale bark, and equally distributed branches that carried an amazing profusion of leaves. These leaves were brilliantly green, a green so bright and emerald that, next to it, vegetation during the monsoons was drab olive.

  I blinked deliberately, expecting my eyelids to act like lumberjacks. But the trees would not fall.

  I looked down. I was both satisfied and disappointed with what I saw. The island had no soil. Not that the trees stood in water. Rather, they stood in what appeared to be a dense mass of vegetation, as sparkling green as the leaves. Who had ever heard of land with no soil? With trees growing out of pure vegetation? I felt satisfaction because such a geology confirmed that I was right, that this island was a chimera, a play of the mind. By the same token I felt disappointment because an island, any island, however strange, would have been very good to come upon.

  Since the trees continued to stand, I continued to look. To take in green, after so much blue, was like music to my eyes. Green is a lovely colour. It is the colour of Islam. It is my favourite colour.

  The current gently pushed the lifeboat closer to the illusion. Its shore could not be called a beach, there being neither sand nor pebbles, and there was no pounding of surf either, since the waves that fell upon the island simply vanished into its porosity. From a ridge some three hundred yards inland, the island sloped to the sea and, forty or so yards into it, fell off precipitously, disappearing from sight into the depths of the Pacific, surely the smallest continental shelf on record.

  I was getting used to the mental delusion. To make it last I refrained from putting a strain on it; when the lifeboat nudged the island, I did not move, only continued to dream. The fabric of the island seemed to be an intricate, tightly webbed mass of tube-shaped seaweed, in diameter a little thicker than two fingers. What a fanciful island, I thought.

  After some minutes I crept up to the side of the boat. “Look for green,” said the survival manual. Well, this was green. In fact, it was chlorophyll heaven. A green to outshine food colouring and flashing neon lights. A green to get drunk on. “Ultimately, a foot is the only good judge of land,” pursued the manual. The island was within reach of a foot. To judge-and be disappointed-or not to judge, that was the question.

  I decided to judge. I looked about to see if there were sharks. There were none. I turned on my stomach, and holding on to the tarpaulin, I slowly brought a leg down. My foot entered the sea. It was pleasingly cool. The island lay just a little further down, shimmering in the water. I stretched. I expected the bubble of illusion to burst at any second.

  It did not. My foot sank into clear water and met the rubbery resistance of something flexible but solid. I put more weight down. The illusion would not give. I put my full weight on my foot. Still I did not sink. Still I did not believe.

  Finally, it was my nose that was the judge of land. It came to my olfactory sense, full and fresh, overwhelming: the smell of vegetation. I gasped. After months of nothing but salt-water-bleached smells, this reek of vegetable organic matter was intoxicating. It was then that I believed, and the only thing that sank was my mind; my thought process became disjointed. My leg began to shake.

  “My God! My God!” I whimpered.

  I fell overboard.

  The combined shock of solid land and cool water gave me the strength to pull myself forward onto the island. I babbled incoherent thanks to God and collapsed.

  But I could not stay still. I was too excited. I attempted to get to my feet. Blood rushed away from my head. The ground shook violently. A dizzying blindness overcame me. I thought I would faint. I steadied myself. All I seemed able to do was pant. I managed to sit up.

  “Richard Parker! Land! Land! We are saved!” I shouted.

  The smell of vegetation was extraordinarily strong. As for the greenness, it was so fresh and soothing that strength and comfort seemed to be physically pouring into my system through my eyes.

  What was this strange, tubular seaweed, so intricately entangled? Was it edible? It seemed to be a variety of marine algae, but quite rigid, far more so than normal algae. The feel of it in the hand was wet and as of something crunchy. I pulled at it. Strands of it broke off without too much effort. In cross-section it consisted of two concentric walls: the wet, slightly rough outer wall, so vibrantly green, and an inner wall midway between the outer wall and the core of the algae. The division in the two tubes that resulted was very plain: the centre tube was white in colour, while the tube that surrounded it was decreasingly green as it approached the inner wall. I brought a piece of the algae to my nose. Beyond the agreeable fragrance of the vegetable, it had a neutral smell. I licked it. My pulse quickened. The algae was wet with fresh water.

  I bit into it. My chops were in for a shock. The inner tube was bitterly salty-but the outer was not only edible, it was delicious. My tongue began to tremble as if it were a finger flipping through a dictionary, trying to find a long-forgotten word. It found it, and my eyes closed with pleasure at hearing it: sweet. Not as in good, but as in sugary. Turtles and fish are many things, but they are never, ever sugary. The algae had a light sweetness that outdid in delight even the sap of our maple trees here in Canada. In consistency, the closest I can compare it to is water chestnuts.

  Saliva forcefully oozed through the dry pastiness of my mouth. Making loud noises of pleasure, I tore at the algae around me. The inner and outer tubes separated cleanly and easily. I began stuffing the sweet outer into my mouth. I went at it with both hands, force-feeding my mouth and setting it to work harder and faster than it had in a very long time. I ate till there was a regular moat around me.

  A solitary tree stood about two hundred feet away. It was the only tree downhill from the ridge, which seemed a very long way off. I say ridge; the word perhaps gives an incorrect impression of how steep the rise from the shore was. The island was low-lying, as I've said. The rise was gentle, to a height of perhaps fifty or sixty feet. But in the state I was in, that height loomed like a mountain. The tree was more inviting. I noticed its patch of shade. I tried to stand again. I managed to get to a squatting position but as soon as I made to rise, my head spun and I couldn't keep my balance. And even if I hadn't fallen over, my legs had no strength left in them. But my will was strong. I was determined to move forward. I crawled, dragged myself, weakly leapfrogged to the tree.

  I know I will never know a joy so vast as I experienced when I entered that tree's dappled, shimmering shade and heard the dry, crisp sound of the wind rustling its leaves. The tree was not as large or as tall as the ones inland, and for being on the wrong side of the ridge, more exposed to the elements, it was a little scraggly and not so uniformly developed as its mates. But it was a tree, and a tree is a blessedly good thing to behold when you've been lost at sea for a long, long time. I sang that tree's glory, its solid, unhurried purity, its slow beauty. Oh, that I could be like it, rooted to the ground but with my every hand raised up to God in praise! I wept.

  As my heart exalted Allah, my mind began to take in information about Allah's works. The tree did indeed grow right out of the algae, as I had seen from the lifeboat. There was not the least trace of soil. Either there was soil deeper down, or this species of tree was a remarkable instance of a commensal or a parasite. The trunk was about the width of a man's chest. The bark was greyish green in colour, thin and smooth, and soft enough that I could mark it with my fingernail. The cordate leaves were large and broad, and ended in a single point. The head of the tree had the lovely full roundness of a mango tree, but it was not a mango. I thought it smelled somewhat like a lote tree, but it wasn't a lote either. Nor a mangrove. Nor any other tree I had ever seen. All I know was that it was beautiful and green and lush with leaves.

  I heard a growl. I turned. Richard Parker was observing me from the lifeboat. He was looking at the island, too. He seemed to want to come ashore but was afraid. Finally, after much snarling and pacing, he leapt from the boat. I brought the orange whistle to my mouth. But he didn't have aggression on his mind. Simple balance was enough of a challenge; he was as wobbly on his feet as I was. When he advanced, he crawled close to the ground and with trembling limbs, like a newborn cub. Giving me a wide berth, he made for the ridge and disappeared into the interior of the island.

  I passed the day eating, resting, attempting to stand and, in a general way, bathing in bliss. I felt nauseous when I exerted myself too much. And I kept feeling that the ground was shifting beneath me and that I was going to fall over, even when I was sitting still.

  I started worrying about Richard Parker in the late afternoon. Now that the setting, the territory, had changed, I wasn't sure how he would take to me if he came upon me.

  Reluctantly, strictly for safety's sake, I crawled back to the lifeboat. However Richard Parker took possession of the island, the bow and the tarpaulin remained my territory. I searched for something to moor the lifeboat to. Evidently the algae covered the shore thickly, for it was all I could find. Finally, I resolved the problem by driving an oar, handle first, deep into the algae and tethering the boat to it.

  I crawled onto the tarpaulin. I was exhausted. My body was spent from taking in so much food, and there was the nervous tension arising from my sudden change of fortunes. As the day ended, I hazily remember hearing Richard Parker roaring in the distance, but sleep overcame me.

  I awoke in the night with a strange, uncomfortable feeling in my lower belly. I thought it was a cramp, that perhaps I had poisoned myself with the algae. I heard a noise. I looked. Richard Parker was aboard. He had returned while I was sleeping. He was meowing and licking the pads of his feet. I found his return puzzling but thought no further about it-the cramp was quickly getting worse. I was doubled over with pain, shaking with it, when a process, normal for most but long forgotten by me, set itself into motion: defecation. It was very painful, but afterwards I fell into the deepest, most refreshing sleep I had had since the night before the Tsimtsum sank.

  When I woke up in the morning I felt much stronger. I crawled to the solitary tree in a vigorous way. My eyes feasted once more upon it, as did my stomach on the algae. I had such a plentiful breakfast that I dug a big hole.

  Richard Parker once again hesitated for hours before jumping off the boat. When he did, mid-morning, as soon as he landed on the shore he jumped back and half fell in the water and seemed very tense. He hissed and clawed the air with a paw. It was curious. I had no idea what he was doing. His anxiety passed, and noticeably surer-footed than the previous day, he disappeared another time over the ridge.

  That day, leaning against the tree, I stood. I felt dizzy. The only way I could make the ground stop moving was to close my eyes and grip the tree. I pushed off and tried to walk. I fell instantly. The ground rushed up to me before I could move a foot. No harm done. The island, coated with such tightly woven, rubbery vegetation, was an ideal place to relearn how to walk. I could fall any which way, it was impossible to hurt myself.

  The next day, after another restful night on the boat-to which, once again, Richard Parker had returned-I was able to walk. Falling half a dozen times, I managed to reach the tree. I could feel my strength increasing by the hour. With the gaff I reached up and pulled down a branch from the tree. I plucked off some leaves. They were soft and unwaxed, but they tasted bitter. Richard Parker was attached to his den on the lifeboat-that was my explanation for why he had returned another night.

  I saw him coming back that evening, as the sun was setting. I had retethered the lifeboat to the buried oar. I was at the bow, checking that the rope was properly secured to the stem. He appeared all of a sudden. At first I didn't recognize him. This magnificent animal bursting over the ridge at full gallop couldn't possibly be the same listless, bedraggled tiger who was my companion in misfortune? But it was. It was Richard Parker and he was coming my way at high speed. He looked purposeful. His powerful neck rose above his lowered head. His coat and his muscles shook at every step. I could hear the drumming of his heavy body against the ground.

  I have read that there are two fears that cannot be trained out of us: the startle reaction upon hearing an unexpected noise, and vertigo. I would like to add a third, to wit, the rapid and direct approach of a known killer.

  I fumbled for the whistle. When he was twenty-five feet from the lifeboat I blew into the whistle with all my might. A piercing cry split the air.

  It had the desired effect. Richard Parker braked. But he clearly wanted to move forward again. I blew a second time. He started turning and hopping on the spot in a most peculiar, deer-like way, snarling fiercely. I blew a third time. Every hair on him was raised. His claws were full out. He was in a state of extreme agitation. I feared that the defensive wall of my whistle blows was about to crumble and that he would attack me.

  Instead, Richard Parker did the most unexpected thing: he jumped into the sea. I was astounded. The very thing I thought he would never do, he did, and with might and resolve. He energetically paddled his way to the stern of the lifeboat. I thought of blowing again, but instead opened the locker lid and sat down, retreating to the inner sanctum of my territory.

  He surged onto the stern, quantities of water pouring off him, making my end of the boat pitch up. He balanced on the gunnel and the stern bench for a moment, assessing me. My heart grew faint. I did not think I would be able to blow into the whistle again. I looked at him blankly. He flowed down to the floor of the lifeboat and disappeared under the tarpaulin. I could see parts of him from the edges of the locker lid. I threw myself upon the tarpaulin, out of his sight-but directly above him. I felt an overwhelming urge to sprout wings and fly off.

  I calmed down. I reminded myself forcefully that this had been my situation for the last long while, to be living with a live tiger hot beneath me.

  As my breathing slowed down, sleep came to me.

  Sometime during the night I awoke and, my fear forgotten, looked over. He was dreaming: he was shaking and growling in his sleep. He was loud enough about it to have woken me up.

  In the morning, as usual, he went over the ridge.

  I decided that as soon as I was strong enough I would go exploring the inland. It seemed quite large, if the shoreline was any indication; left and right it stretched on with only a slight curve, showing the island to have a fair girth. I spent the day walking-and falling-from the shore to the tree and back, in an attempt to restore my legs to health. At every fall I had a full meal of algae.

  When Richard Parker returned as the day was ending, a little earlier than the previous day, I was expecting him. I sat tight and did not blow the whistle. He came to the water's edge and in one mighty leap reached the side of the lifeboat. He entered his territory without intruding into mine, only causing the boat to lurch to one side. His return to form was quite terrifying.

  The: next morning, after giving Richard Parker plenty of advance, I set off to explore the island. I walked up to the ridge. I reached it easily, proudly moving one foot ahead of the other in a gait that was spirited if still a little awkward. Had my legs been weaker they would have given way beneath me when I saw what I saw beyond the ridge.

  To start with details, I saw that the whole island was covered with the algae, not just its edges. I saw a great green plateau with a green forest in its centre. I saw all around this forest hundreds of evenly scattered, identically sized ponds with trees sparsely distributed in a uniform way between them, the whole arramgement giving the unmistakable impression of following a design.

  But it was the meerkats that impressed themselves most indelibly on my mind. I saw in one look what I would conservatively estimate to be hundreds of thousasands of meerkats. The landscape was covered in meerkats. And when I appeared, it seamed that all of them turned to me, astonished, like chickens in a farmyard, and stood up.

  We didn't have any meerkats in our zoo. But I had read about them. They were in the books and in the literature. A meerkat is a small South African mammal related to the mongoose; in other words, a carnivorous burrower, a foot long and weighing two pounds when mature, slender andd weasel-like in build, with a pointed snout, eyes sitting squarely at the front of its face, short legs, paws with four toes and long, non-retractile claws, and an eight-inch tail. Its fur is light brown to grey in colour with black or brown bands on its back, while the tip of its tail, its ears and the characteristic circles around its eyes are black. It is an agile and keen-sighted creature, diurnal and social in habits, and feeding in its native range-the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa-on, among other things, scorpions, to whose venom it is completely immune. When jt is on the lookout, the meerkat has the peculiarity of standing perfectly upright on the tips of its back legs, balancing itself tripod-like with its tail. Often a group of meerkats will take the stance collectively, standing in a huddle and gazing in the same direction, looking like commuters waiting for a bus. The earnest expression on their faces, and the way their front paws hang before them, make them look either like children self-consciously posing for a photographer or patients in a doctor's office stripped naked and demurely trying to cover their genitals.

  That is what I beheld in one glance, hundreds of thousands of meerkats-more, a million-turning to me and standing at attention, as if saying, “Yes, sir?” Mind you, a standing meerkat reaches up eighteen inches at most, so it was not the height of these creatures that was so breathtaking as their unlimited multitude. I stood rooted to the spot, speechless. If I set a million meerkats fleeing in terror the chaos would be indescribable. But their interest in me was shortlived. After a few seconds, they went back to doing what they had been doing before I appeared, which was either nibbling at the algae or staring into the ponds. To see so many beings bending down at the same time reminded me of prayer time in a mosque.

  The creatures seemed to feel no fear. As I moved down from the ridge, none shied away or showed the least tension at my presence. If I had wanted to, I could have touched one, even picked one up. I did nothing of the sort. I simply walked into what was surely the largest colony of meerkats in the world, one of the strangest, most wonderful experiences of my life. There was a ceaseless noise in the air. It was their squeaking, chirping, twittering and barking. Such were their numbers and the vagaries of their excitement that the noise came and went like a flock of birds, at times very loud, swirling around me, then rapidly dying off as the closest meerkats fell silent while others, further off, started up.

  Were they not afraid of me because I should be afraid of them? The question crossed my mind. But the answer-that they were harmless-was immediately apparent. To get close to a pond, around which they were densely packed, I had to nudge them away with my feet so as not to step on one. They took to my barging without any offence, making room for me like a good-natured crowd. I felt warm, furry bodies against my ankles as I looked into a pond.

  All the ponds had the same round shape and were about the same size-roughly forty feet in diameter. I expected shallowness. I saw nothing but deep, clear water. The ponds seemed bottomless, in fact. And as far down as I could see, their sides consisted of green algae. Evidently the layer atop the island was very substantial.

  I could see nothing that accounted for the meerkats' fixed curiosity, and I might have given up on solving the mystery had squeaking and barking not erupted at a pond nearby. Meerkats were jumping up and down in a state of great ferment. Suddenly, by the hundreds, they began diving into the pond. There was much pushing and shoving as the meerkats behind vied to reach the pond's edge. The frenzy was collective; even tiny meerkittens were making for the water, barely being held back by mothers and guardians. I stared in disbelief. These were not standard Kalahari Desert meerkats. Standard Kalahari Desert meerkats do not behave like frogs. These meerkats were most definitely a subspecies that had specialized in a fascinating and surprising way.

  I made for the pond, bringing my feet down gingerly, in time to see  meerkats  swimming-actually swimming-and  bringing to

  shore fish by the dozens, and not small fish either. Some were dorados that would have been unqualified feasts on the lifeboat. They dwarfed the meerkats. It was incomprehensible to me how meerkats could catch such fish.

  It was as the meerkats were hauling the fish out of the pond, displaying real feats of teamwork, that I noticed something curious: every fish, without exception, was already dead. Freshly dead. The meerkats were bringing ashore dead fish they had not killed.

  I kneeled by the pond, pushing aside several excited, wet meerkats. I touched the water. It was cooler than I'd expected. There was a current that was bringing colder water from below. I cupped a little water in my hand and brought it to my mouth. I took a sip.

  It was fresh water. This explained how the fish had died-for, of course, place a saltwater fish in fresh water and it will quickly become bloated and die. But what were seafaring fish doing in a freshwater pond? How had they got there?

  I went to another pond, making my way through the meerkats. It too was fresh. Another pond; the same. And again with a fourth pond.

  They were all freshwater ponds. Where had such quantities of fresh water come from, I asked myself. The answer was obvious: from the algae. The algae naturally and continuously desalinated sea water, which was why its core was salty while its outer surface was wet with fresh water: it was oozing the fresh water out. I did not ask myself why the algae did this, or how, or where the salt went. My mind stopped asking such questions. I simply laughed and jumped into a pond. I found it hard to stay at the surface of the water; I was still very weak, and I had little fat on me to help me float. I held on to the edge of the pond. The effect of bathing in pure, clean, salt-free water was more than I can put into words. After such a long time at sea, my skin was like a hide and my hair was long, matted and as silky as a fly-catching strip. I felt even my soul had been corroded by salt. So, under the gaze of a thousand meerkats, I soaked, allowing fresh water to dissolve every salt crystal that had tainted me.

  The meerkats looked away. They did it like one man, all of them turning in the same direction at exactly the same time. I pulled myself out to see what it was. It was Richard Parker. He confirmed what I had suspected, that these meerkats had gone for so many generations without predators that any notion of flight distance, of flight, of plain fear, had been genetically weeded out of them. He was moving through them, blazing a trail of murder and mayhem, devouring one meerkat after another, blood dripping from his mouth, and they, cheek to jowl with a tiger, were jumping up and down on the spot, as if crying, “My turn! My turn! My turn!” I would see this scene time and again. Nothing distracted the meerkats from their little lives of pond staring and algae nibbling. Whether Richard Parker skulked up in masterly tiger fashion before landing upon them in a thunder of roaring, or slouched by indifferently, it was all the same to them. They were not to be ruffled. Meekness ruled.

  He killed beyond his need. He killed meerkats that he did not eat. In animals, the urge to kill is separate from the urge to eat. To go for so long without prey and suddenly to have so many-his pent-up hunting instinct was lashing out with a vengeance.

  He was far away. There was no danger to me. At least for the moment.

  The next morning, after he had gone, I cleaned the lifeboat. It needed it badly. I won't describe what the accumulation of human and animal skeletons, mixed in with innumerable fish and turtle remains, looked like. The whole foul, disgusting mess went overboard. I didn't dare step onto the floor of the boat for fear of leaving a tangible trace of my presence to Richard Parker, so the job had to be done with the gaff from the tarpaulin or from the side of the boat, standing in the water. What I could not clean up with the gaff-the smells and the smears-I rinsed with buckets of water.

  That night he entered his new, clean den without comment. In his jaws were a number of dead meerkats, which he ate during the night.

  I spent the following days eating and drinking and bathing and observing the meerkats and walking and running and resting and growing stronger. My running became smooth and unselfconscious, a source of euphoria. My skin healed. My pains and aches left me. Put simply, I returned to life.

  I explored the island. I tried to walk around it but gave up. I estimate that it was about six or seven miles in diameter, which means a circumference of about twenty miles. What I saw seemed to indicate that the shore was unvarying in its features. The same blinding greenness throughout, the same ridge, the same incline from ridge to water, the same break in the monotony: a scraggly tree here and there. Exploring the shore revealed one extraordinary thing: the algae, and therefore the island itself, varied in height and density depending on the weather. On very hot days, the algae's weave became tight and dense, and the island increased in height; the climb to the ridge became steeper and the ridge higher. It was not a quick process. Only a hot spell lasting several days triggered it. But it was unmistakable. I believe it had to do with water conservation, with exposing less of the algae's surface to the sun's rays.

  The converse phenomenon-the loosening of the island-was faster, more dramatic, and the reasons for it more evident. At such times the ridge came down, and the continental shelf, so to speak, stretched out, and the algae along the shore became so slack that I tended to catch my feet in it. This loosening was brought on by overcast weather and, faster still, by heavy seas.

  I lived through a major storm while on the island, and after the experience, I would have trusted staying on it during the worst hurricane. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle to sit in a tree and see giant waves charging the island, seemingly preparing to ride up the ridge and unleash bedlam and chaos-only to see each one melt away as if it had come upon quicksand. In this respect, the island was Gandhian: it resisted by not resisting. Every wave vanished into the island without a clash, with only a little frothing and foaming. A tremor shaking the ground and ripples wrinkling the surface of the ponds were the only indications that some great force was passing through. And pass through it did: in the lee of the island, considerably diminished, waves emerged and went on their way. It was the strangest sight, that, to see waves leaving a shoreline. The storm, and the resulting minor earthquakes, did not perturb the meerkats in the least. They went about their business as if the elements did not exist.

  Harder to understand was the island's complete desolation. I never saw such a stripped-down ecology. The air of the place carried no flies, no butterflies, no bees, no insects of any kind. The trees sheltered no birds. The plains hid no rodents, no grubs, no worms, no snakes, no scorpions; they gave rise to no other trees, no shrubs, no grasses, no flowers. The ponds harboured no freshwater fish. The seashore teemed with no weeds, no crabs, no crayfish, no coral, no pebbles, no rocks. With the single, notable exception of the meerkats, there was not the least foreign matter on the island, organic or inorganic. It was nothing but shining green algae and shining green trees.

  The trees were not parasites. I discovered this one day when I ate so much algae at the base of a small tree that I exposed its roots. I saw that the roots did not go their own independent way into the algae, but rather joined it, became it. Which meant that these trees either lived in a symbiotic relationship with the algae, in a giving-and-taking that was to their mutual advantage, or, simpler still, were an integral part of the algae. I would guess that the latter was the case because the trees did not seem to bear flowers or fruit. I doubt that an independent organism, however intimate the symbiosis it has entered upon, would give up on so essential a part of life as reproduction. The leaves' appetite for the sun, as testified by their abundance, their breadth and their super-chlorophyll greenness, made me suspect that the trees had primarily an energy-gathering function. But this is conjecture.

  There is one last observation I would like to make. It is based on intuition rather than hard evidence. It is this: that the island was not an island in the conventional sense of the term-that is, a small landmass rooted to the floor of the ocean-but was rather a free-floating organism, a ball of algae of leviathan proportions. And it is my hunch that the ponds reached down to the sides of this huge, buoyant mass and opened onto the ocean, which explained the otherwise inexplicable presence in them of dorados and other fish of the open seas.

  It would all bear much further study, but unfortunately I lost the algae that I took away.

  Just as I returned to life, so did Richard Parker. By dint of stuffing himself with meerkats, his weight went up, his fur began to glisten again, and he returned to his healthy look of old. He kept up his habit of returning to the lifeboat at the end of every day. I always made sure I was there before him, copiously marking my territory with urine so that he didn't forget who was who and what was whose. But he left at first light and roamed further afield than I did; the island being the same all over, I generally stayed within one area. I saw very little of him during the day. And I grew nervous. I saw how he raked the trees with his forepaws-great deep gouges in the trunks, they were. And I began to hear his hoarse roaring, that aaonh cry as rich as gold or honey and as spine-chilling as the depths of an unsafe mine or a thousand angry bees. That he was searching for a female was not in itself what troubled me; it was that it meant he was comfortable enough on the island to be thinking about producing young. I worried that in this new condition he might not tolerate another male in his territory, his night territory in particular, especially if his insistent cries went unanswered, as surely they would.

  One day I was on a walk in the forest. I was walking vigorously, caught up in my own thoughts. I passed a tree-and practically ran into Richard Parker. Both of us were startled. He hissed and reared up on his hind legs, towering over me, his great paws ready to swat me down. I stood frozen to the spot, paralyzed with fear and shock. He dropped back on all fours and moved away. When he had gone three, four paces, he turned and reared up again, growling this time. I continued to stand like a statue. He went another few paces and repeated the threat a third time. Satisfied that I was not a menace, he ambled off. As soon as I had caught my breath and stopped trembling, I brought the whistle to my mouth and started running after him. He had already gone a good distance, but he was still within sight. My running was powerful. He turned, saw me, crouched-and then bolted. I blew into the whistle as hard as I could, wishing that its sound would travel as far and wide as the cry of a lonely tiger.

  That night, as he was resting two feet beneath me, I came to the conclusion that I had to step into the circus ring again.

  The major difficulty in training animals is that they operate either by instinct or by rote. The shortcut of intelligence to make new associations that are not instinctive is minimally available. Therefore, imprinting in an animal's mind the artificial connection that if it does a certain action, say, roll over, it will get a treat can be achieved only by mind-numbing repetition. It is a slow process that depends as much on luck as on hard work, all the more so when the animal is an adult. I blew into the whistle till my lungs hurt. I pounded my chest till it was covered with bruises. I shouted “Hep! Hep! Hep!”-my tiger-language command to say “Do!”-thousands of times. I tossed hundreds of meerkat morsels at him that I would gladly have eaten myself. The training of tigers is no easy feat. They are considerably less flexible in their mental make-up than other animals that are commonly trained in circuses and zoos-sea lions and chimpanzees, for example. But I don't want to take too much credit for what I managed to do with Richard Parker. My good fortune, the fortune that saved my life, was that he was not only a young adult but a pliable young adult, an omega animal. I was afraid that conditions on the island might play against me, that with such an abundance of food and water and so much space he might become relaxed and confident, less open to my influence. But he remained tense. I knew him well enough to sense it. At night in the lifeboat he was unsettled and noisy. I assigned this tension to the new environment of the island; any change, even positive, will make an animal tense. Whatever the cause, the strain he was under meant that he continued to show a readiness to oblige; more, that he felt a need to oblige.

  I trained him to jump through a hoop I made with thin branches. It was a simple routine of four jumps. Each one earned him part of a meerkat. As he lumbered towards me, I first held the hoop at the end of my left arm, some three feet off the ground. When he had leapt through it, and as he finished his run, I took hold of the hoop with my right hand and, my back to him, commanded him to return and leap through it again. For the third jump I knelt on the ground and held the hoop over my head. It was a nerve-racking experience to see him come my way. I never lost the fear that he would not jump but attack me. Thankfully, he jumped every time. After which I got up and tossed the hoop so that it rolled like a wheel. Richard Parker was supposed to follow it and go through it one last time before it fell over. He was never very good at this last part of the act, either because I failed to throw the hoop properly or because he clumsily ran into it. But at least he followed it, which meant he got away from me. He was always filled with amazement when the hoop fell over. He would look at it intently, as if it were some great fellow animal he had been running with that had collapsed unexpectedly. He would stay next to it, sniffing it. I would throw him his last treat and move away.

  Eventually I quit the boat. It seemed absurd to spend my nights in such cramped quarters with an animal who was becoming roomy in his needs, when I could have an entire island. I decided the safe thing to do would be to sleep in a tree. Richard Parker's nocturnal practice of sleeping in the lifeboat was never a law in my mind. It would not be a good idea for me to be outside my territory, sleeping and defenceless on the ground, the one time he decided to go for a midnight stroll.

  So one day I left the boat with the net, a rope and some blankets. I sought out a handsome tree on the edge of the forest and threw the rope over the lowest branch. My fitness was such that I had no problem pulling myself up by my arms and climbing the tree. I found two solid branches that were level and close together, and I tied the net to them. I returned at the end of the day.

  I had just finished folding the blankets to make my mattress when I detected a commotion among the meerkats. I looked. I pushed aside branches to see better. I looked in every direction and as far as the horizon. It was unmistakable. The meerkats were abandoning the ponds-indeed, the whole plain-and rapidly making for the forest. An entire nation of meerkats was on the move, their backs arched and their feet a blur. I was wondering what further surprise these animals held in store for me when I noticed with consternation that the ones from the pond closest to me had surrounded my tree and were climbing up the trunk. The trunk was disappearing under a wave of determined meerkats. I thought they were coming to attack me, that here was the reason why Richard Parker slept in the lifeboat: during the day the meerkats were docile and harmless, but at night, under their collective weight, they crushed their enemies ruthlessly. I was both afraid and indignant. To survive for so long in a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger only to die up a tree at the hands of two-pound meerkats struck me as a tragedy too unfair and too ridiculous to bear.

  They meant me no harm. They climbed up to me, over me, about me-and past me. They settled upon every branch in the tree. It became laden with them. They even took over my bed. And the same as far as the eye could see. They were climbing every tree in sight. The entire forest was turning brown, an autumn that came in a few minutes. Collectively, as they scampered by in droves to claim empty trees deeper into the forest, they made more noise than a stampeding herd of elephants.

  The plain, meanwhile, was becoming bare and depopulated.

  From a bunk bed with a tiger to an overcrowded dormitory with meerkats-will I be believed when I say that life can take the most surprising turns? I jostled with meerkats so that I could have a place in my own bed. They snuggled up to me. Not a square inch of space was left free.

  They settled down and stopped squeaking and chirping. Silence came to the tree. We fell asleep.

  I woke up at dawn covered from head to toe in a living fur blanket. Some meerkittens had discovered the warmer parts of my body. I had a tight, sweaty collar of them around my neck-and it must have been their mother who had settled herself so contentedly on the side of my head-while others had wedged themselves in my groin area.

  They left the tree as briskly and as unceremoniously as they had invaded it. It was the same with every tree around. The plain grew thick with meerkats, and the noises of their day started filling the air. The tree looked empty. And I felt empty, a little. I had liked the experience of sleeping with the meerkats.

  I began to sleep in the tree every night. I emptied the lifeboat of useful items and made myself a nice treetop bedroom. I got used to the unintentional scratches I received from meerkats climbing over me. My only complaint would be that animals higher up occasionally relieved themselves on me.

  One night the meerkats woke me up. They were chattering and shaking. I sat up and looked in the direction they were looking. The sky was cloudless and the moon full. The land was robbed of its colour. Everything glowed strangely iin shades of black, grey and white. It was the pond. Silver shapes were moving in it, emerging from below and breaking the black surface of the water.

  Fish. Dead fish. They were floatimg up from deep down. The pond-remember, forty feet across-was filling up with all kinds of dead fish until its surface was no longer black but silver. And from the way the surface kept on being disturbed, it was evident that more dead fish were coming up.

  By the time a dead shark quietly appeared, the meerkats were in a fury of excitement, shrieking like tropical birds. The hysteria spread to the neighbouring trees. It was deafening. I wondered whether I was about to see the sight of fish being hauled up trees.

  Not a single meerkat went down to the pond. None even made the first motions of going down. They did no more than loudly express their frustration.

  I found the sight sinister. There was something disturbing about all those dead fish.

  I lay down again and fought to go back to sleep over the meerkats' racket. At first light I was stirred from my slumber by the hullabaloo they made trooping down the tree. Yawning and stretching, I looked down at the pond that had been the source of such fire and fluster the previous night.

  It was empty. Or nearly. But it wasn't the work of the meerkats. They were just now diving in to get what was left.

  The fish had disappeared. I was confounded. Was I looking at the wrong pond? No, for sure it was that one. Was I certain it was not the meerkats that had emptied it? Absolutely. I could hardly see them heaving an entire shark out of water, let alone carrying it on their backs and disappearing with it. Could it be Richard Parker? Possibly in part, but not an entire pond in one night.

  It was a complete mystery. No amount of staring into the pond and at its deep green walls could explain to me what had happened to the fish. The next night I looked, but no new fish came into the pond.

  The answer to the mystery came sometime later, from deep within the forest.

  The trees were larger in the centre of the forest and closely set. It remained clear below, there being no underbrush of any kind, but overhead the canopy was so dense that the sky was quite blocked off, or, another way of putting it, the sky was solidly green. The trees were so near one another that their branches grew into each other's spaces; they touched and twisted around each other so that it was hard to tell where one tree ended and the next began. I noted that they had clean, smooth trunks, with none of the countless tiny marks on their bark made by climbing meerkats. I easily guessed the reason why: the meerkats could travel from one tree to another without the need to climb up and down. I found, as proof of this, many trees on the perimeter of the heart of the forest whose bark had been practically shredded. These trees were without a doubt the gates into a meerkat arboreal city with more bustle in it than Calcutta.

  It was here that I found the tree. It wasn't the largest in the forest, or in its dead centre, or remarkable in any other way. It had good level branches, that's all. It would have made an excellent spot from which to see the sky or take in the meerkats' nightlife.

  I can tell you exacctly what day I came upon the tree: it was the day before I left the island.

  I noticed the tree because it seemed to have fruit. Whereas elsewhere the forest canopy was uniformly green, these fruit stood out black against green. The branches holding them were twisted in odd ways. I looked intently. An entire islaand covered in barren trees but for one. And not even all of one. The fruit grew from only one small part of the tree. I thought that perhaps I had come upon the forest equivalent of a queen bee, and I wondered whether this algae would ever cease to amaze me with its botainical strangeness.

  I wanted to try the fruit, but the tree was too high. So I returned with a rope. If the algae was delicious, what would its fruit be like?

  I looped the rope; around the lowest limb of the tree and, bough by bough, branch by branch, made my way to the small, preciouis orchard.

  Up, close the fruit were dull green. They were about the size and shape of oranges. Each was at the centre of a number of twigs that were tightly curled around it-to protect it, I supposed. As I got closer, I could see another purpose to these curled twigs: support. The fruit had not one stem, but dozens. Their surfaces were studded with sterns that connected them to the surrounding twigs. These fruit must surely be heavy and juicy, I thought. I got close.

  I reached with a hand and took hold of one. I was disappointed at how light it felt. It weighed hardly anything. I pulled at it, plucking it from all its stems.

  I made myself comfortable on a sturdy branch, my back to the trunk of the tree. Above me stood a shifting roof of green leaves that let in shafts of sunlight. All round, for as far as I could see, hanging in the air, were the twisting and turning roads of a great suspended city. A pleasant breeze ran through the trees. I was keenly curious.  I examined the fruit.

  Ah, how I wish that moment had never been! But for it I might haave lived for years-why, for the rest of my life-on that island. Nothing, I thought, could ever push me to return to the lifeboat and to the suffering and deprivation I had endured on it-nothing! What reaison could I have to leave the island? Were my physical needs not met here? Was there not more fresh water than I could drink in all my lifetime? More algae than I could eat? And when I yearned for variety, more meerkats and fish than I could ever desire? If the island floated and moved, might it not move in the right direction? Might it not turn out to be a vegetable ship that brought me to land? In the meantime, did I not have these delightful meerkats to keep me company? And wastn't Richard Parker still in need of improving his fourth jump? The thought of leaving the island had not crossed my mind once since I had arrived. It had been many weeks now-I couldn't say how many exactly-and they would stretch on. I was certain about that.

  How wrong I was.

  If that fruit had a seed, it was the seed of my departure.

  The fruit was not a fruit. It was a dense accumulation of leaves glued together in a ball. The dozens of stems were dozens of leaf stems. Each stem that I pulled caused a leaf to peel off.

  After a few layers I came to leaves that had lost their stems and were flatly glued to the ball. I used my fingernails to catch their edges and pull them off. Sheath after sheath of leaf lifted, like the skins off an onion. I could simply have ripped the “fruit” apart-I still call it that for lack of a better word-but I chose to satisfy my curiosity in a measured way.

  It shrunk from the size of an orange to that of a mandarin. My lap and the branches below were covered with thin, soft leaf peelings.

  It was now the size of a rambutan.

  I still get shivers in my spine when I think of it.

  The size of a cherry.

  And then it came to light, an unspeakable pearl at the heart of a green oyster.

  A human tooth.

  A molar, to be exact. The surface stained green and finely pierced with holes.

  The feeling of horror came slowly. I had time to pick at the other fruit.

  Each contained a tooth.

  One a canine.

  Another a premolar.

  Here an incisor.

  There another molar.

  Thirty-two teeth. A complete human set. Not one tooth missing.

  Understanding dawned upon me.

  I did not scream. I think only in movies is horror vocal. I simply shuddered and left the tree.

  I spent the day in turmoil, weighing my options. They were all bad.

  That night, in bed in my usual tree, I tested my conclusion. I took hold of a meerkat and dropped it from the branch.

  It squeaked as it fell through the air. When it touched the ground, it instantly made for the tree.

  With typical innocence it returned to the spot right next to me. There it began to lick its paws vigorously. It seemed much discomforted. It panted heavily.

  I could have left it at that. But I wanted to know for myself. I climbed down and took hold of the rope. I had made knots in it to make my climbing easier. When I was at the bottom of the tree, I brought my feet to within an inch of the ground. I hesitated.

  I let go.

  At first I felt nothing. Suddenly a searing pain shot up through my feet. I shrieked. I thought I would fall over. I managed to take hold of the rope and pull myself off the ground. I frantically rubbed the soles of my feet against the tree trunk. It helped, but not enough. I climbed back to my branch. I soaked my feet in the bucket of water next to my bed. I wiped my feet with leaves. I took the knife and killed two meerkats and tried to soothe the pain with their blood and innards. Still my feet burned. They burned all night. I couldn't sleep for it, and from the anxiety.

  The island was carnivorous. This explained the disappearance of the fish in the pond. The island attracted saltwater fish into its subterranean tunnels-how, I don't know; perhaps fish ate the algae as gluttonously as I did. They became trapped. Did they lose their way? Did the openings onto the sea close off? Did the water change salinity so subtly that it was too late by the time the fish realized it? Whatever the case, they found themselves trapped in fresh water and died. Some floated up to the surface of the ponds, the scraps that fed the meerkats. At night, by some chemical process unknown to me but obviously inhibited by sunlight, the predatory algae turned highly acidic and the ponds became vats of acid that digested the fish. This was why Richard Parker returned to the boat every night. This was why the meerkats slept in the trees. This was why I had never seen anything but algae on the island.

  And this explained the teeth. Some poor lost soul had arrived on these terrible shores before me. How much time had he-or was it she?-spent here? Weeks? Months? Years? How many forlorn hours in the arboreal city with only meerkats for company? How many dreams of a happy life dashed? How much hope come to nothing? How much stored-up conversation that died unsaid? How much loneliness endured? How much hopelessness taken on? And after all that, what of it? What to show for it?

  Nothing but some enamel, like small change in a pocket. The person must have died in the tree. Was it illness? Injury? Depression? How long does it take for a broken spirit to kill a body that has food, water and shelter? The trees were carnivorous too, but at a much lower level of acidity, safe enough to stay in for the night while the rest of the island seethed. But once the person had died and stopped moving, the tree must have slowly wrapped itself around the body and digested it, the very bones leached of nutrients until they vanished. In time, even the teeth would have disappeared.

  I looked around at the algae. Bitterness welled up in me. The radiant promise it offered during the day was replaced in my heart by all the treachery it delivered at night.

  I muttered, “Nothing but teeth left! TEETH!”

  By the time morning came, my grim decision was taken. I preferred to set off and perish in search of my own kind than to live a lonely half-life of physical comfort and spiritual death on this murderous island. I filled my stores with fresh water and I drank like a camel. I ate algae throughout the day until my stomach could take no more. I killed and skinned as many meerkats as would fit in the locker and on the floor of the lifeboat. I reaped dead fish from the ponds. With the hatchet I hacked off a large mass of algae and worked a rope through it, which I tied to the boat.

  I could not abandon Richard Parker. To leave him would mean to kill him. He would not survive the first night. Alone in my lifeboat at sunset I would know that he was burning alive. Or that he had thrown himself in the sea, where he would drown. I waited for his return. I knew he would not be late.

  When he was aboard, I pushed us off. For a few hours the currents kept us near the island. The noises of the sea bothered me. And I was no longer used to the rocking motions of the boat. The night went by slowly.

  In the morning the island was gone, as was the mass of algae we had been towing. As soon as night had fallen, the algae had dissolved the rope with its acid.

  The sea was heavy, the sky grey.

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