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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 83)

2006-08-22 21:28

  CHAPTER   83

  The storm came on slowly one afternoon. The clouds looked as if they were stumbling along before the wind, frightened. The sea took its cue. It started rising and falling in a manner that made my heart sink. I took in the solar stills and the net. Oh, you should have seen that landscape! What I had seen up till now were mere hillocks of water. These swells were truly mountains. The valleys we found ourselves in were so deep they were gloomy. Their sides were so steep the lifeboat started sliding down them, nearly surfing. The raft was getting exceptionally rough treatment, being pulled out of the water and dragged along bouncing every which way. I deployed both sea anchors fully, at different lengths so that they would not interfere with each other.

  Climbing the giant swells, the boat clung to the sea anchors like a mountain climber to a rope. We would rush up until we reached a snow-white crest in a burst of light and foam and a tipping forward of the lifeboat. The view would be clear for miles around. But the mountain would shift, and the ground beneath us would start sinking in a most stomach-sickening way. In no time we would be sitting once again at the bottom of a dark valley, different from the last but the same, with thousands of tons of water hovering above us and with only our flimsy lightness to save us. The land would move once more, the sea-anchor ropes would snap to tautness, and the roller coaster would start again.

  The sea anchors did their job well-in fact, nearly too well. Every swell at its crest wanted to take us for a tumble, but the anchors, beyond the crest, heaved mightily and pulled us through, but at the expense of pulling the front of the boat down. The result was an explosion of foam and spray at the bow. I was soaked through and through each time.

  Then a swell came up that was particularly intent on taking us along. This time the bow vanished underwater. I was shocked and chilled and scared witless. I barely managed to hold on. The boat was swamped. I heard Richard Parker roar. I felt death was upon us. The only choice left to me was death by water or death by animal. I chose death by animal.

  While we sank down the back of the swell, I jumped onto the tarpaulin and unrolled it towards the stern, closing in Richard Parker. If he protested, I did not hear him. Faster than a sewing machine working a piece of cloth, I hooked down the tarpaulin on both sides of the boat. We were climbing again. The boat was lurching upwards steadily. It was hard to keep my balance. The lifeboat was now covered and the tarpaulin battened down, except at my end. I squeezed in between the side bench and the tarpaulin and pulled the remaining tarpaulin over my head. I did not have much space. Between bench and gunnel there was twelve inches, and the side benches were only one and a half feet wide. But I was not so foolhardy, even in the face of death, as to move onto the floor of the boat. There were four hooks left to catch. I slipped a hand through the opening and worked the rope. With each hook done, it was getting harder to get the next. I managed two. Two hooks left. The boat was rushing upwards in a smooth and unceasing motion. The incline was over thirty degrees. I could feel myself being pulled down towards the stern. Twisting my hand frantically I succeeded in catching one more hook with the rope. It was the best I could do. This was not a job meant to be done from the inside of the lifeboat but from the outside. I pulled hard on the rope, something made easier by the fact that holding on to it was preventing me from sliding down the length of the boat. The boat swiftly passed a forty-five-degree incline.

  We must have been at a sixty-degree incline when we reached the summit of the swell and broke through its crest onto the other side. The smallest portion of the swell's supply of water crashed down on us. I felt as if I were being pummelled by a great fist. The lifeboat abruptly tilted forward and everything was reversed: I was now at the lower end of the lifeboat, and the water that had swamped it, with a tiger soaking in it, came my way. I did not feel the tiger-I had no precise idea of where Richard Parker was; it was pitch-black beneath the tarpaulin-but before we reached the next valley I was half-drowned.

  For the rest of that day and into the night, we went up and down, up and down, up and down, until terror became monotonous and was replaced by numbness and a complete giving-up. I held on to the tarpaulin rope with one hand and the edge of the bow bench with the other, while my body lay flat against the side bench. In this position-water pouring in, water pouring out-the tarpaulin beat me to a pulp, I was soaked and chilled, and I was bruised and cut by bones and turtle shells. The noise of the storm was constant, as was Richard Parker's snarling.

  Sometime during the night my mind noted that the storm was over. We were bobbing on the sea in a normal way. Through a tear in the tarpaulin I glimpsed the night sky. Starry and cloudless. I undid the tarpaulin and lay on top of it.

  I noticed the loss of the raft at dawn. All that was left of it were two tied oars and the life jacket between them. They had the same effect on me as the last standing beam of a burnt-down house would have on a householder. I turned and scrutinized every quarter of the horizon. Nothing. My little marine town had vanished. That the sea anchors, miraculously, were not lost-they continued to tug at the lifeboat faithfully-was a consolation that had no effect. The loss of the raft was perhaps not fatal to my body, but it felt fatal to my spirits.

  The boat was in a sorry state. The tarpaulin was torn in several places, some tears evidently the work of Richard Parker's claws. Much of our food was gone, either lost overboard or destroyed by the water that had come in. I was sore all over and had a bad cut on my thigh; the wound was swollen and white. I was nearly too afraid to check the contents of the locker. Thank God none of the water bags had split. The net and the solar stills, which I had not entirely deflated, had filled the empty space and prevented the bags from moving too much.

  I felt exhausted and depressed. I unhooked the tarpaulin at the stern. Richard Parker was so silent I wondered whether he had drowned. He hadn't. As I rolled back the tarpaulin to the middle bench and daylight came to him, he stirred and growled. He climbed out of the water and set himself on the stern bench. I took out needle and thread and went about mending the tears in the tarpaulin.

  Later I tied one of the buckets to a rope and bailed the boat. Richard Parker watched me distractedly. He seemed to find nearly everything I did boring. The day was hot and I proceeded slowly. One haul brought me something I had lost. I considered it. Cradled in the palm of my hand was all that remained between me and death: the last of the orange whistles.

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