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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 46)

2006-08-22 21:08

  CHAPTER   46

  Clouds that gathered where ships were supposed to appear, and the passing of the day, slowly did the job of unbending my smile. It is pointless to say that this or that night was the worst of my life. I have so many bad nights to choose from that I've made none the champion. Still, that second night at sea stands in my memory as one of exceptional suffering, different from the frozen anxiety of the first night in being a more conventional sort of suffering, the broken-down kind consisting of weeping and sadness and spiritual pain, and different from later ones in that I still had the strength to appreciate fully what I felt. And that dreadful night was preceded by a dreadful evening.

  I noticed the presence of sharks around the lifeboat. The sun was beginning to pull the curtains on the day. It was a placid explosion of orange and red, a great chromatic symphony, a colour canvas of supernatural proportions, truly a splendid Pacific sunset, quite wasted on me. The sharks were makos-swift, pointy-snouted predators with long, murderous teeth that protruded noticeably from their mouths. They were about six or seven feet long, one was larger still. I watched them anxiously. The largest one came at the boat quickly, as if to attack, its dorsal fin rising out of the water by several inches, but it dipped below just before reaching us and glided underfoot with fearsome grace. It returned, not coming so close this time, then disappeared. The other sharks paid a longer visit, coming and going at different depths, some in plain sight at hand's reach below the surface of the water, others deeper down. There were other fish too, big and small, colourful, differently shaped. I might have considered them more closely had my attention not been drawn elsewhere: Orange Juice's head came into sight.

  She turned and brought her arm onto the tarpaulin in a motion that imitated exactly the way you or I would bring out an arm and place it on the back of the chair next to our own in a gesture of expansive relaxation. But such was clearly not her disposition. Bearing an expression profoundly sad and mournful, she began to look about, slowly turning her head from side to side. Instantly the likeness of apes lost its amusing character. She had given birth at the zoo to two young ones, strapping males five and eight years old that were her-and our-pride. It was unmistakably these she had on her mind as she searched over the water, unintentionally mimicking what I had been doing these last thirty-six hours. She noticed me and expressed nothing about it. I was just another animal that had lost everything and was vowed to death. My mood plummeted.

  Then, with only a snarl for notice, the hyena went amok. It hadn't moved from its cramped quarters all day. It put its front legs on the zebra's side, reached over and gathered a fold of skin in its jaws. It pulled roughly. A strip of hide came off the zebra's belly like gift-wrap paper comes off a gift, in a smooth-edged swath, only silently, in the way of tearing skin, and with greater resistance. Immediately blood poured forth like a river. Barking, snorting and squealing, the zebra came to life to defend itself. It pushed on its front legs and reared its head in an attempt to bite the hyena, but the beast was out of reach. It shook its good hind leg, which did no more than explain the origin of the previous night's knocking: it was the hoof beating against the side of the boat. The zebras attempts at self-preservation only whipped the hyena into a frenzy of snarling and biting. It made a gaping wound in the zebra's side. When it was no longer satisfied with the reach it had from behind the zebra, the hyena climbed onto its haunches. It started pulling out coils of intestines and other viscera.

  There was no order to what it was doing. It bit here, swallowed there, seemingly overwhelmed by the riches before it. After devouring half the liver, it started tugging on the whitish, balloon-like stomach bag. But it was heavy, and with the zebra's haunches being higher than its belly-and blood being slippery-the hyena started to slide into its victim. It plunged head and shoulders into the zebra's guts, up to the knees of its front legs. It pushed itself out, only to slide back down. It finally settled in this position, half in, half out. The zebra was being eaten alive from the inside.

  It protested with diminishing vigour. Blood started coming out its nostrils. Once or twice it reared its head straight up, as if appealing to heaven-the abomination of the moment was perfectly expressed.

  Orange Juice did not view these doings indifferently. She raised herself to her full height on her bench. With her incongruously small legs and massive torso, she looked like a refrigerator on crooked wheels. But with her giant arms lifted in the air, she looked impressive. Their span was greater than her height-one hand hung over the water, the other reached across the width of the lifeboat nearly to the opposite side. She pulled back her lips, showing off enormous canines, and began to roar. It was a deep, powerful, huffing roar, amazing for an animal normally as silent as a giraffe. The hyena was as startled as I was by the outburst. It cringed and retreated. But not for long. After an intense stare at Orange Juice, the hairs on its neck and shoulders stood up and its tail rose straight in the air. It climbed back onto the dying zebra. There, blood dripping from its mouth, it responded to Orange Juice in kind, with a higher-pitched roar. The two animals were three feet apart, wide-open jaws directly facing. They put all their energies into their cries, their bodies shaking with the effort. I could see deep down the hyena's throat. The Pacific air, which until a minute before had been carrying the whistling and whispering of the sea, a natural melody I would have called soothing had the circumstances been happier, was all at once filled with this appalling noise, like the fury of an all-out battle, with the ear-splitting firing of guns and cannons and the thunderous blasts of bombs. The hyena's roar filled the higher range of what my ears could hear, Orange Juice's bass roar filled the lower range, and somewhere in between I could hear the cries of the helpless zebra. My ears were full. Nothing more, not one more sound, could push into them and be registered.

  I began to tremble uncontrollably. I was convinced the hyena was going to lunge at Orange Juice.

  I could not imagine that matters could get worse, but they did. The zebra snorted some of its blood overboard. Seconds later there was a hard knock against the boat, followed by another. The water began to churn around us with sharks. They were searching for the source of the blood, for the food so close at hand. Their tail fins flashed out of the water, their heads swung out. The boat was hit repeatedly. I was not afraid we would capsize-I thought the sharks would actually punch through the metal hull and sink us.

  With every bang the animals jumped and looked alarmed, but they were not to be distracted from their main business of roaring in each others faces. I was certain the shouting match would turn physical. Instead it broke off abruptly after a few minutes. Orange Juice, with huffs and lip-smacking noises, turned away, and the hyena lowered its head and retreated behind the zebra's butchered body. The sharks, finding nothing, stopped knocking on the boat and eventually left. Silence fell at last.

  A foul and pungent smell, an earthy mix of rust and excrement, hung in the air. There was blood everywhere, coagulating to a deep red crust. A single fly buzzed about, sounding to me like an alarm bell of insanity. No ship, nothing at all, had appeared on the horizon that day, and now the day was ending. When the sun slipped below the horizon, it was not only the day that died and the poor zebra, but my family as well. With that second sunset, disbelief gave way to pain and grief. They were dead; I could no longer deny it. What a thing to acknowledge in your heart! To lose a brother is to lose someone with whom you can share the experience of growing old, who is supposed to bring you a sister-in-law and nieces and nephews, creatures to people the tree of your life and give it new branches. To lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches. To lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you. It is like losing-I'm sorry, I would rather not go on. I lay down on the tarpaulin and spent the whole night weeping and grieving, my face buried in my arms. The hyena spent a good part of the night eating.s like losing-I'm sorry, I would rather not go on.

  I lay down on the tarpaulin and spent the whole night weeping and grieving, my face buried in my arms. The hyena spent a good part of the night eating.

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