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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 49)

2006-08-22 21:08

  CHAPTER   49

  In the morning I could not move. I was pinned by weakness to the tarpaulin. Even thinking was exhausting. I applied myself to thinking straight. At length, as slowly as a caravan of camels crossing a desert, some thoughts came together.

  The day was like the previous one, warm and overcast, the clouds low, the breeze light. That was one thought. The boat was rocking gently, that was another.

  I thought of sustenance for the first time. I had not had a drop to drink or a bite to eat or a minute of sleep in three days. Finding this obvious explanation for my weakness brought me a little strength.

  Richard Parker was still on board. In fact, he was directly beneath me. Incredible that such a thing should need consent to be true, but it was only after much deliberation, upon assessing various mental items and points of view, that I concluded that it was not a dream or a delusion or a misplaced memory or a fancy or any other such falsity, but a solid, true thing witnessed while in a weakened, highly agitated state. The truth of it would be confirmed as soon as I felt well enough to investigate.

  How I had failed to notice for two and a half days a 450-pound Bengal tiger in a lifeboat twenty-six feet long was a conundrum I would have to try to crack later, when I had more energy. The feat surely made Richard Parker the largest stowaway, proportionally speaking, in the history of navigation. From tip of nose to tip of tail he took up over a third of the length of the ship he was on.

  You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better. We see that in sports all the time, don't we? The tennis challenger starts strong but soon loses confidence in his playing. The champion racks up the games. But in the final set, when the challenger has nothing left to lose, he becomes relaxed again, insouciant, daring. Suddenly he's playing like the devil and the champion must work hard to get those last points. So it was with me. To cope with a hyena seemed remotely possible, but I was so obviously outmatched by Richard Parker that it wasn't even worth worrying about. With a tiger aboard, my life was over. That being settled, why not do something about my parched throat?

  I believe it was this that saved my life that morning, that I was quite literally dying of thirst. Now that the word had popped into my head I couldn't think of anything else, as if the word itself were salty and the more I thought of it, the worse the effect. I have heard that the hunger for air exceeds as a compelling sensation the thirst for water. Only for a few minutes, I say. After a few minutes you die and the discomfort of asphyxiation goes away. Whereas thirst is a drawn-out affair. Look: Christ on the Cross died of suffocation, but His only complaint was of thirst. If thirst can be so taxing that even God Incarnate complains about it, imagine the effect on a regular human. It was enough to make me go raving mad. I have never known a worse physical hell than this putrid taste and pasty feeling in the mouth, this unbearable pressure at the back of the throat, this sensation that my blood was turning to a thick syrup that barely flowed. Truly, by comparison, a tiger was nothing.

  And so I pushed aside all thoughts of Richard Parker and fearlessly went exploring for fresh water.

  The divining rod in my mind dipped sharply and a spring gushed water when I remembered that I was on a genuine, regulation lifeboat and that such a lifeboat was surely outfitted with supplies. That seemed like a perfectly reasonable proposition. What captain would fail in so elementary a way to ensure the safety of his crew? What ship chandler would not think of making a little extra money under the noble guise of saving lives? It was settled. There was water aboard. All I had to do was find it.

  Which meant I had to move.

  I made it to the middle of the boat, to the edge of the tarpaulin. It was a hard crawl. I felt I was climbing the side of a volcano and I was about to look over the rim into a boiling cauldron of orange lava. I lay flat. I carefully brought my head over. I did not look over any more than I had to. I did not see Richard Parker. The hyena was plainly visible, though. It was back behind what was left of the zebra. It was looking at me.

  I was no longer afraid of it. It wasn't ten feet away, yet my heart didn't skip a beat. Richard Parker's presence had at least that useful aspect. To be afraid of this ridiculous dog when there was a tiger about was like being afraid of splinters when trees are falling down. I became very angry at the animal. “You ugly, foul creature,” I muttered. The only reason I didn't stand up and beat it off the lifeboat with a stick was lack of strength and stick, not lack of heart.

  Did the hyena sense something of my mastery? Did it say to itself, “Super alpha is watching me-I better not move”? I don't know. At any rate, it didn't move. In fact, in the way it ducked its head it seemed to want to hide from me. But it was no use hiding. It would get its just deserts soon enough.

  Richard Parker also explained the animals' strange behaviour. Now it was clear why the hyena had confined itself to such an absurdly small space behind the zebra and why it had waited so long before killing it. It was fear of the greater beast and fear of touching the greater beast's food. The strained, temporary peace between Orange Juice and the hyena, and my reprieve, were no doubt due to the same reason: in the face of such a superior predator, all of us were prey, and normal ways of preying were affected. It seemed the presence of a tiger had saved me from a hyena-surely a textbook example of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

  But the great beast was not behaving like a great beast, to such an extent that the hyena had taken liberties. Richard Parker's passivity, and for three long days, needed explaining. Only in two ways could I account for it: sedation and seasickness. Father regularly sedated a number of the animals to lessen their stress. Might he have sedated Richard Parker shortly before the ship sank? Had the shock of the shipwreck-the noises, the falling into the sea, the terrible struggle to swim to the lifeboat-increased the effect of the sedative? Had seasickness taken over after that? These were the only plausible explanations I could come up with.

  I lost interest in the question. Only water interested me.

  I took stock of the lifeboat.

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