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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 41)

2006-08-22 21:08

  CHAPTER   41

  The elements allowed me to go on living. The lifeboat did not sink. Richard Parker kept out of sight. The sharks prowled but did not lunge. The waves splashed me but did not pull me off.

  I watched the ship as it disappeared with much burbling and belching. Lights flickered and went out. I looked about for my family, for survivors, for another lifeboat, for anything that might bring me hope. There was nothing. Only rain, marauding waves of black ocean and the flotsam of tragedy.

  The darkness melted away from the sky. The rain stopped.

  I could not stay in the position I was in forever. I was cold. My neck was sore from holding up my head and from all the craning I had been doing. My back hurt from leaning against the lifebuoy. And I needed to be higher up if I were to see other lifeboats.

  I inched my way along the oar till my feet were against the bow of the boat. I had to proceed with extreme caution. My guess was that Richard Parker was on the floor of the lifeboat beneath the tarpaulin, his back to me, facing the zebra, which he had no doubt killed by now. Of the five senses, tigers rely the most on their sight. Their eyesight is very keen, especially in detecting motion. Their hearing is good. Their smell is average. I mean compared to other animals, of course. Next to Richard Parker, I was deaf, blind and nose-dead. But at the moment he could not see me, and in my wet condition could probably not smell me, and what with the whistling of the wind and the hissing of the sea as waves broke, if I were careful, he would not hear me. I had a chance so long as he did not sense me. If he did, he would kill me right away. Could he burst through the tarpaulin, I wondered.

  Fear and reason fought over the answer. Fear said Yes. He was a fierce, 450-pound carnivore. Each of his claws was as sharp as a knife. Reason said No. The tarpaulin was sturdy canvas, not a Japanese paper wall. I had landed upon it from a height. Richard Parker could shred it with his claws with a little time and effort, but he couldn't pop through it like a jack-in-the-box. And he had not seen me. Since he had not seen me, he had no reason to claw his way through it.

  I slid along the oar. I brought both my legs to one side of the oar and placed my feet on the gunnel. The gunnel is the top edge of a boat, the rim if you want. I moved a little more till my legs were on the boat. I kept my eyes fixed on the horizon of the tarpaulin. Any second I expected to see Richard Parker rising up and coming for me. Several times I had fits of fearful trembling. Precisely where I wanted to be most still-my legs-was where I trembled most. My legs drummed upon the tarpaulin. A more obvious rapping on Richard Parker's door couldn't be imagined. The trembling spread to my arms and it was all I could do to hold on. Each fit passed.

  When enough of my body was on the boat I pulled myself up. I looked beyond the end of the tarpaulin. I was surprised to see that the zebra was still alive. It lay near the stern, where it had fallen, listless, but its stomach was still panting and its eyes were still moving, expressing terror. It was on its side, facing me, its head and neck awkwardly propped against the boat's side bench. It had badly broken a rear leg. The angle of it was completely unnatural. Bone protruded through skin and there was bleeding. Only its slim front legs had a semblance of normal position. They were bent and neatly tucked against its twisted torso. From time to time the zebra shook its head and barked and snorted. Otherwise it lay quietly.

  It was a lovely animal. Its wet markings glowed brightly white and intensely black. I was so eaten up by anxiety that I couldn't dwell on it; still, in passing, as a faint afterthought, the queer, clean, artistic boldness of its design and the fineness of its head struck me. Of greater significance to me was the strange fact that Richard Parker had not killed it. In the normal course of things he should have killed the zebra. That's what predators do: they kill prey. In the present

  circumstances, where Richard Parker would be under tremendous mental strain, fear should have brought out an exceptional level of aggression. The zebra should have been properly butchered.

  The reason behind its spared life was revealed shortly. It froze my blood-and then brought a slight measure of relief. A head appeared beyond the end of the tarpaulin. It looked at me in a direct, frightened way, ducked under, appeared again, ducked under again, appeared once more, disappeared a last time. It was the bear-like, balding-looking head of a spotted hyena. Our zoo had a clan of six, two dominant females and four subordinate males. They were supposed to be going to Minnesota. The one here was a male. I recognized it by its right ear, which was badly torn, its healed jagged edge testimony to old violence. Now I understood why Richard Parker had not killed the zebra: he was no longer aboard. There couldn't be both a hyena and a tiger in such a small space. He must have fallen off the tarpaulin and drowned.

  I had to explain to myself how a hyena had come to be on the lifeboat. I doubted hyenas were capable of swimming in open seas. I concluded that it must have been on board all along, hiding under the tarpaulin, and that I hadn't noticed it when I landed with a bounce. I realized something else: the hyena was the reason those sailors had thrown me into the lifeboat. They weren't trying to save my life. That was the last of their concerns. They were using me as fodder. They were hoping that the hyena would attack me and that somehow I would get rid of it and make the boat safe for them, no matter if it cost me my life. Now I knew what they were pointing at so furiously just before the zebra appeared.

  I never thought that finding myself confined in a small space with a spotted hyena would be good news, but there you go. In fact, the good news was double: if it weren't for this hyena, the sailor wouldn't have thrown me into the lifeboat and I would have stayed on the ship and I surely would have drowned; and if I had to share quarters with a wild animal, better the upfront ferocity of a dog than the power and stealth of a cat. I breathed the smallest sigh of relief. As a precautionary measure I moved onto the oar. I sat astride it, on the rounded edge of the speared lifebuoy, my left foot against the tip of the prow, my right foot on the gunnel. It was comfortable enough and I was facing the boat.

  I looked about. Nothing but sea and sky. The same when we were at the top of a swell. The sea briefly imitated every land feature-every hill, every valley, every plain. Accelerated geotectonics. Around the world in eighty swells. But nowhere on it could I find my family. Things floated in the water but none that brought me hope. I could see no other lifeboats.

  The weather was changing rapidly. The sea, so immense, so breathtakingly immense, was settling into a smooth and steady motion, with the waves at heel; the wind was softening to a tuneful breeze; fluffy, radiantly white clouds were beginning to light up in a vast fathomless dome of delicate pale blue. It was the dawn of a beautiful day in the Pacific Ocean. My shirt was already beginning to dry. The night had vanished as quickly as the ship.

  I began to wait. My thoughts swung wildly. I was either fixed on practical details of immediate survival or transfixed by pain, weeping silently, my mouth open and my hands at my head.

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