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Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 90

   I said, “Richard Parker, is something wrong? Have you gone blind?” as I waved my hand in his face.
   For a day or two he had been rubbing his eyes and meowing disconsolately, but I thought nothing of it. Aches and pains were the only part of our diet that was abundant. I caught a dorado. We hadn’t eaten anything in three days. A turtle had come up to the lifeboat the day before, but I had been too weak to pull it aboard. I cut the fish in two halves. Richard Parker was looking my way. I threw him his share. I expected him to catch it in his mouth smartly. It crashed into his blank face. He bent down. After sniffing left and right, he found the fish and began eating it. We were slow eaters now.
   I peered into his eyes. They looked no different from any other day. Perhaps there was a little more discharge in the inner corners, but it was nothing dramatic, certainly not as dramatic as his overall appearance. The ordeal had reduced us to skin and bones.
   I realized that I had my answer in the very act of looking. I was stairing into his eyes as if I were an eye doctor, while he was looking back vacantly. Only a blind wild cat would fail to react to such a stare.
   I felt pity for Richard Parker. Our end was approaching.
   The next day I started feeling a stinging in my eyes. I rubbed and rubbed, but the itch wouldn’t go away. The very opposite: it got worse, and unlike Richard Parker, my eyes started to ooze pus. Then darkness came, blink as I might. At first it was right in front of me, a black spot at the centre of everything. It spread into a blotch that reached to the edges of my vision. All I saw of the sun the next morning was a crack of light at the top of my left eye, like a small window too high up. By noon, everything was pitch-black.
   I clung to life. I was weakly frantic. The heat was infernal. I had so little strength I could no longer stand. My lips were hard and cracked. My mouth was dry and pasty, coated with a glutinous saliva as foul to taste as it was to smell. My skin was burnt. My shrivelled muscles ached. My limbs, especially my feet, were swollen and a constant source of pain. I was hungry and once again there was no food. As for water, Richard Parker was taking so much that I was down to five spoonfuls a day. But this physical suffering was nothing compared to the moral torture I was about to endure. I would rate the day I went blind as the day my extreme suffering began. I could not tell you when exactly in the journey it happened. Time, as I said before, became irrelevant. It must have been sometime between the hundredth and the two-hundredth day. I was certain I would not last another one.
   By the next morning I had lost all fear of death, and I resolved to die.
   I came to the sad conclusion that I could no longer take care of Richard Parker. I had failed as a zookeeper. I was more affected by his imminent demise than I was by my own. But truly, broken down and wasted away as I was, I could do no more for him.
   Nature was sinking fast. I could feel a fatal weakness creeping up on me. I would be dead by the afternoon. To make my going more comfortable I decided to put off a little the intolerable thirst I had been living with for so long. I gulped down as much water as I could take. If only I could have had a last bite to eat. But it seemed that was not to be. I set myself against the rolled-up edge of the tarpaulin in the middle of the boat. I closed my eyes and waited for my breath to leave my body. I muttered, “Goodbye, Richard Parker. I’m sorry for having failed you. I did my best. Farewell. Dear Father, dear Mother, dear Ravi, greetings. Your loving son and brother is coming to meet you. Not an hour has gone by that I haven’t thought of you. The moment I see you will be the happiest of my life. And now I leave matters in the hands of God, who is love and whom I love.”
   I heard the words, “Is someone there?”
   It’s astonishing what you hear when you’re alone in the blackness of your dying mind. A sound without shape or colour sounds strange. To be blind is to hear otherwise.
   The words came again, “Is someone there?”
   I concluded that I had gone mad. Sad but true. Misery loves company, and madness calls it forth.
   “Is someone there?” came the voice again, insistent.
   The clarity of my insanity was astonishing. The voice had its very own timbre, with a heavy, weary rasp. I decided to play along.
   “Of course someone’s there,” I replied. “There’s always some one there. Who would be asking the question otherwise?”
   “I was hoping there would be someone else.”
   “What do you mean, someone else? Do you realize where you are? If you’re not happy with this figment of your fancy, pick another one. There are plenty of fancies to pick from.”
   Hmmm. Figment. Fig-ment. Wouldn’t a fig be good?
   “So there’s no one, is there?”
   “Shush…I’m dreaming of figs.”
   “Figs! Do you have a fig? Please can I have a piece? I beg you. Only a little piece. I’m starving.”
   “I don’t have just one fig. I have a whole figment.”
   “A whole figment of figs! Oh please, can I have some? I…”
   The voice, or whatever effect of wind and waves it was, faded.
   “They’re plump and heavy and fragrant,” I continued. “The branches of the tree are bent over, they are so weighed down with figs. There must be over three hundred figs in that tree.”
   Silence.
   The voice came back again. “Let’s talk about food…”
   “What a good idea.”
   “What would you have to eat if you could have anything you wanted?”
   “Excellent question. I would have a magnificent buffet. I would start with rice and sambar. There would be black gram dhal rice and curd rice and—”
   “I would have—”
   “I’m not finished. And with my rice I would have spicy tamarind sambar and small onion sambar and—”
   “Anything else?”
   “I’m getting there. I’d also have mixed vegetable sagu and vegetable korma and potato masala and cabbage vadai and masala dosai and spicy lentil rasam and—”
   “I see.”
   “Wait. And stuffed eggplant poriyal and coconut yam kootu and rice idli and curd vadai and vegetable bajji and—”
   “It sounds very—”
   “Have I mentioned the chutneys yet? Coconut chutney and mint chutney and green chilli pickle and gooseberry pickle, all served with the usual nans, popadoms, parathas and puris, of course.”
   “Sounds—”
   “The salads! Mango curd salad and okra curd salad and plain fresh cucumber salad. And for dessert, almond payasam and milk payasam and jaggery pancake and peanut toffee and coconut burfi and vanilla ice cream with hot, thick chocolate sauce.”
   “Is that it?”
   “I’d finish this snack with a ten-litre glass of fresh, clean, cool, chilled water and a coffee.”
   “It sounds very good.”
   “It does.”
   “Tell me, what is coconut yam kootu?”
   “Nothing short of heaven, that’s what. To make it you need yams, grated coconut, green plantains, chilli powder, ground black pepper, ground turmeric, cumin seeds, brown mustard seeds and some coconut oil. You saute the coconut until it’s golden brown—”
   “May I make a suggestion?”
   “What?”
   “Instead of coconut yam kootu, why not boiled beef tongue with a mustard sauce?”
   “That sounds non-veg.”
   “It is. And then tripe.”
   “Tripe? You’ve eaten the poor animal’s tongue and now you want to eat its stomach?”
   “Yes! I dream of tripes a la mode de Caen—warm—with sweetbread.”
   “Sweetbread? That sounds better. What is sweetbread?”
   “Sweetbread is made from the pancreas of a calf.”
   “The pancreas!”
   “Braised and with a mushroom sauce, it’s simply delicious.”
   Where were these disgusting, sacrilegious recipes coming from? Was I so far gone that I was contemplating setting upon a cow and her young? What horrible crosswind was I caught in? Had the lifeboat drifted back into that floating trash?
   “What will be the next affront?”
   “Calf’s brains in a brown butter sauce!”
   “Back to the head, are we?”
   “Brain souffle!”
   “I’m feeling sick. Is there anything you won’t eat?”
   “What I would give for oxtail soup. For roast suckling pig stuffed with rice, sausages, apricots and raisins. For veal kidney in a butter, mustard and parsley sauce. For a marinated rabbit stewed in red wine. For chicken liver sausages. For pork and liver pate with veal. For frogs. Ah, give me frogs, give me frogs!”
   “I’m barely holding on.”
   The voice faded. I was trembling with nausea. Madness in the mind was one thing, but it was not fair that it should go to the stomach.
   Understanding suddenly dawned on me.
   “Would you eat bleeding raw beef?” I asked.
   “Of course! I love tartar steak.”
   “Would you eat the congealed blood of a dead pig?”
   “Every day, with apple sauce!”
   “Would you eat anything from an animal, the last remains?”
   “Scrapple and sausage! I’d have a heaping plate!”
   “How about a carrot? Would you eat a plain, raw carrot?”
   There was no answer.
   “Did you not hear me? Would you eat a carrot?”
   “I heard you. To be honest, if I had the choice, I wouldn’t. I don’t have much of a stomach for that kind of food. I find it quite distasteful.”
   I laughed. I knew it. I wasn’t hearing voices. I hadn’t gone mad. It was Richard Parker who was speaking to me! The carnivorous rascal. All this time together and he had chosen an hour before we were to die to pipe up. I was elated to be on speaking terms with a tiger. Immediately I was filled with a vulgar curiosity, the sort that movie stars suffer from at the hands of their fans.
   “I’m curious, tell me—have you ever killed a man?”
   I doubted it. Man-eaters among animals are as rare as murderers among men, and Richard Parker was caught while still a cub. But who’s to say that his mother, before she was nabbed by Thirsty, hadn’t caught a human being?
   “What a question,” replied Richard Parker.
   “Seems reasonable.”
   “It does?”
   “Yes.”
   “Why?”
   “You have the reputation that you have.”
   “I do?”
   “Of course. Are you blind to that fact?”
   “I am.”
   “Well, let me make clear what you evidently can’t see: you have that reputation. So, have you ever killed a man?”
   Silence.
   “Well? Answer me.”
   “Yes.”
   “Oh! It sends shivers down my spine. How many?”
   “Two.”
   “You’ve killed two men?”
   “No. A man and a woman.”
   “At the same time?”
   “No. The man first, the woman second.”
   “You monster! I bet you thought it was great fun. You must have found their cries and their struggles quite entertaining.”
   “Not really.”
   “Were they good?”
   “Were they good?”
   “Yes. Don’t be so obtuse. Did they taste good?”
   “No, they didn’t taste good.”
   “I thought so. I’ve heard it’s an acquired taste in animals. So why did you kill them?”
   “Need.”
   “The need of a monster. Any regrets?”
   “It was them or me.”
   “That is need expressed in all its amoral simplicity. But any regrets now?”
   “It was the doing of a moment. It was circumstance.”
   “Instinct, it’s called instinct. Still, answer the question, any regrets now?”
   “I don’t think about it.”
   “The very definition of an animal. That’s all you are.”
   “And what are you?”
   “A human being, I’ll have you know.”
   “What boastful pride.”
   “It’s the plain truth.”
   “So, you would throw the first stone, would you?”
   “Have you ever had oothappam?”
   “No, I haven’t. But tell me about it. What is oothappam?”
   “It is so good.”
   “Sounds delicious. Tell me more.”
   “Oothappam is often made with leftover batter, but rarely has a culinary afterthought been so memorable.”
   “I can already taste it.”
   I fell asleep. Or, rather, into a state of dying delirium.
   But something was niggling at me. I couldn’t say what. Whatever it was, it was disturbing my dying.
   I came to. I knew what it was that was bothering me.
   “Excuse me?”
   “Yes?” came Richard Parker’s voice faintly.
   “Why do you have an accent?”
   “I don’t. It is you who has an accent.”
   “No, I don’t. You pronounce the ‘ze’.”
   “I pronounce ze ‘ze’, as it should be. You speak with warm marbles in your mouth. You have an Indian accent.”
   “You speak as if your tongue were a saw and English words were made of wood. You have a French accent.”
   It was utterly incongruous. Richard Parker was born in Bangladesh and raised in Tamil Nadu, so why should he have a French accent? Granted, Pondicherry was once a French colony, but no one would have me believe that some of the zoo animals had frequented the Alliance Francaise on rue Dumas.
   It was very perplexing. I fell into a fog again.
   I woke up with a gasp. Someone was there! This voice coming to my ears was neither a wind with an accent nor an animal speaking up. It was someone else! My heart beat fiercely, making one last go at pushing some blood through my worn-out system. My mind made a final attempt at being lucid.
   “Only an echo, I fear,” I heard, barely audibly.
   “Wait, I’m here!” I shouted.
   “An echo at sea…”
   “No, it’s me!”
   “That this would end!”
   “My friend!”
   “I’m wasting away…”
   “Stay, stay!”
   I could barely hear him.
   I shrieked.
   He shrieked back.
   It was too much. I would go mad.
   I had an idea.
   “My name,” I roared to the elements with my last breath, “is Piscine Molitor Patel.” How could an echo create a name? “Do you hear me? I am Piscine Molitor Patel, known to all as Pi Patel!”
   “What? Is someone there?”
   “Yes, someone’s there!”
   “What! Can it be true? Please, do you have any food? Anything at all. I have no food left. I haven’t eaten anything in days. I must have something. I’ll be grateful for whatever you can spare. I beg you.”
   “But I have no food either,” I answered, dismayed. “I haven’t eaten anything in days myself. I was hoping you would have food. Do you have water? My supplies are very low.”
   “No, I don’t. You have no food at all? Nothing?”
   “No, nothing.”
   There was silence, a heavy silence.
   “Where are you?” I asked.
   “I’m here,” he replied wearily.
   “But where is that? I can’t see you.”
   “Why can’t you see me?”
   “I’ve gone blind.”
   “What?” he exclaimed.
   “I’ve gone blind. My eyes see nothing but darkness. I blink for nothing. These last two days, if my skin can be trusted to measure time. It only can tell me if it’s day or night.”
   I heard a terrible wail.
   “What? What is it, my friend?” I asked.
   He kept wailing.
   “Please answer me. What is it? I’m blind and we have no food and water, but we have each other. That is something. Something precious. So what is it, my dear brother?”
   “I too am blind!”
   “What?”
   “I too blink for nothing, as you say.”
   He wailed again. I was struck dumb. I had met another blind man on another lifeboat in the Pacific!
   “But how could you be blind?” I mumbled.
   “Probably for the same reason you are. The result of poor hygiene on a starving body at the end of its tether.”
   We both broke down. He wailed and I sobbed. It was too much, truly it was too much.
   “I have a story,” I said, after a while.
   “A story?”
   “Yes.”
   “Of what use is a story? I’m hungry.”
   “It’s a story about food.”
   “Words have no calories.”
   “Seek food where food is to be found.”
   “That’s an idea.”
   Silence. A famishing silence.
   “Where are you?” he asked.
   “Here. And you?”
   “Here.”
   I heard a splashing sound as an oar dipped into water. I reached for one of the oars I had salvaged from the wrecked raft. It was so heavy. I felt with my hands and found the closest oarlock. I dropped the oar in it. I pulled on the handle. I had no strength. But I rowed as best I could.
   “Let’s hear your story,” he said, panting.
   “Once upon a time there was a banana and it grew. It grew until it was large, firm, yellow and fragrant. Then it fell to the ground and someone came upon it and ate it.”
   He stopped rowing. “What a beautiful story!”
   “Thank you.”
   “I have tears in my eyes.”
   “I have another element,” I said.
   “What is it?”
   “The banana fell to the ground and someone came upon it and ate it—and afterwards that person felt better.”
   “It takes the breath away!” he exclaimed.
   “Thank you.”
   A pause.
   “But you don’t have any bananas?”
   “No. An orang-utan distracted me.”
   “A what?”
   “It’s a long story.”
   “Any toothpaste?”
   “No.”
   “Delicious on fish. Any cigarettes?”
   “I ate them already.”
   “You ate them?”
   “I still have the filters. You can have them if you like.”
   “The filters? What would I do with cigarette filters without the tobacco? How could you eat cigarettes?”
   “What should I have done with them? I don’t smoke.”
   “You should have kept them for trading.”
   “Trading? With whom?”
   “With me!”
   “My brother, when I ate them I was alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific.”
   “So?”
   “So, the chance of meeting someone in the middle of the Pacific with whom to trade my cigarettes did not strike me as an obvious prospect.”
   “You have to plan ahead, you stupid boy! Now you have nothing to trade.”
   “But even if I had something to trade, what would I trade it for? What do you have that I would want?”
   “I have a boot,” he said.
   “A boot?”
   “Yes, a fine leather boot.”
   “What would I do with a leather boot in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific? Do you think I go for hikes in my spare time?”
   “You could eat it!”
   “Eat a boot? What an idea.”
   “You eat cigarettes—why not a boot?”
   “The idea is disgusting. Whose boot, by the way?”
   “How should I know?”
   “You’re suggesting I eat a complete stranger’s boot?”
   “What difference does it make?”
   “I’m flabbergasted. A boot. Putting aside the fact that I am a Hindu and we Hindus consider cows sacred, eating a leather boot conjures to my mind eating all the filth that a foot might exude in addition to all the filth it might step in while shod.”
   “So no boot for you.”
   “Let’s see it first.”
   “No.”
   “What? Do you expect me to trade something with you sight unseen?”
   “We’re both blind, may I remind you.”
   “Describe this boot to me, then! What kind of a pitiful salesman are you? No wonder you’re starved for customers.”
   “That’s right. I am.”
   “Well, the boot?”
   “It’s a leather boot.”
   “What kind of leather boot?”
   “The regular kind.”
   “Which means?”
   “A boot with a shoelace and eyelets and a tongue. With an inner sole. The regular kind.”
   “What colour?”
   “Black.”
   “In what condition?”
   “Worn. The leather soft and supple, lovely to the touch.”
   “And the smell?”
   “Of warm, fragrant leather.”
   “I must admit—I must admit—it sounds tempting!”
   “You can forget about it.”
   “Why?”
   Silence.
   “Will you not answer, my brother?”
   “There’s no boot.”
   “No boot?”
   “No.”
   “That makes me sad.”
   “I ate it.”
   “You ate the boot?”
   “Yes.”
   “Was it good?”
   “No. Were the cigarettes good?”
   “No. I couldn’t finish them.”
   “I couldn’t finish the boot.”
   “Once upon a time there was a banana and it grew. It grew until it was large, firm, yellow and fragrant. Then it fell to the ground and someone came upon it and ate it and afterwards that person felt better.”
   “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all I’ve said and done. I’m a worthless person,” he burst out.
   “What do you mean? You are the most precious, wonderful person on earth. Come, my brother, let us be together and feast on each other’s company.”
   “Yes!”
   The Pacific is no place for rowers, especially when they are weak and blind, when their lifeboats are large and unwieldy, and when the wind is not cooperating. He was close by; he was far away. He was to my left; he was to my right. He was ahead of me; he was behind me. But at last we managed it. Our boats touched with a bump even sweeter-sounding than a turtle’s. He threw me a rope and I tethered his boat to mine. I opened my arms to embrace him and to be embraced by him. My eyes were brimming with tears and I was smiling. He was directly in front of me, a presence glowing through my blindness.
   “My sweet brother,” I whispered.
   “I am here,” he replied.
   I heard a faint growl.
   “Brother, there’s something I forgot to mention.”
   He landed upon me heavily. We fell half onto the tarpaulin, half onto the middle bench. His hands reached for my throat.
   “Brother,” I gasped through his overeager embrace, “my heart is with you, but I must urgently suggest we repair to another part of my humble ship.”
   “You’re damn right your heart is with me!” he said. “And your liver and your flesh!”
   I could feel him moving off the tarpaulin onto the middle bench and, fatally, bringing a foot down to the floor of the boat.
   “No, no, my brother! Don’t! We’re not—”
   I tried to hold him back. Alas, it was too late. Before I could say the word alone, I was alone again. I heard the merest clicking of claws against the bottom of the boat, no more than the sound of a pair of spectacles falling to the floor, and the next moment my dear brother shrieked in my face like I’ve never heard a man shriek before. He let go of me.
   This was the terrible cost of Richard Parker. He gave me a life, my own, but at the expense of taking one. He ripped the flesh off the man’s frame and cracked his bones. The smell of blood filled my nose. Something in me died then that has never come back to life.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 91

   I climbed aboard my brother’s boat. With my hands I explored it. I found he had lied to me. He had a little turtle meat, a dorado head, and even—a supreme treat—some biscuit crumbs. And he had water. It all went into my mouth. I returned to my boat and released his.
   Crying as I had done did my eyes some good. The small window at the top left of my vision opened a crack. I rinsed my eyes with sea water. With every rinsing, the window opened further. My vision came back within two days.
   I saw such a vision that I nearly wished I had remained blind. His butchered, dismembered body lay on the floor of the boat. Richard Parker had amply supped on him, including on his face, so that I never saw who my brother was. His eviscerated torso, with its broken ribs curving up like the frame of a ship, looked like a miniature version of the lifeboat, such was its blood-drenched and horrifying state.
   I will confess that I caught one of his arms with the gaff and used his flesh as bait. I will further confess that, driven by the extremity of my need and the madness to which it pushed me, I ate some of his flesh. I mean small pieces, little strips that I meant for the gaff’s hook that, when dried by the sun, looked like ordinary animal flesh. They slipped into my mouth nearly unnoticed. You must understand, my suffering was unremitting and he was already dead. I stopped as soon as I caught a fish.
   I pray for his soul every day.
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Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
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 arrangement 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 and 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 it 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 in 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 island 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 stems 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 have 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 reason 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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Chapter 93

   I grew weary of my situation, as pointless as the weather. But life would not leave me. The rest of this story is nothing but grief, ache and endurance.
   High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.
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Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
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Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 94

   When we reached land, Mexico to be exact, I was so weak I barely had the strength to be happy about it. We had great difficulty landing. The lifeboat nearly capsized in the surf. I streamed the sea anchors—what was left of them—full open to keep us perpendicular to the waves, and I tripped them as soon as we began riding a crest. In this way, streaming and tripping the anchors, we surfed in to shore. It was dangerous. But we caught one wave at just the right point and it carried us a great distance, past the high, collapsing walls of water. I tripped the anchors a last time and we were pushed in the rest of the way. The boat hissed to a halt against the sand.
   I let myself down the side. I was afraid to let go, afraid that so close to deliverance, in two feet of water, I would drown. I looked ahead to see how far I had to go. The glance gave me one of my last images of Richard Parker, for at that precise moment he jumped over me. I saw his body, so immeasurably vital, stretched in the air above me, a fleeting, furred rainbow. He landed in the water, his back legs splayed, his tail high, and from there, in a few hops, he reached the beach. He went to the left, his paws gouging the wet sand, but changed his mind and spun around. He passed directly in front of me on his way to the right. He didn’t look at me. He ran a hundred yards or so along the shore before turning in. His gait was clumsy and uncoordinated. He fell several times. At the edge of the jungle, he stopped. I was certain he would turn my way. He would look at me. He would flatten his ears. He would growl. In some such way, he would conclude our relationship. He did nothing of the sort. He only looked fixedly into the jungle. Then Richard Parker, companion of my torment, awful, fierce thing that kept me alive, moved forward and disappeared forever from my life.
   I struggled to shore and fell upon the sand. I looked about. I was truly alone, orphaned not only of my family, but now of Richard Parker, and nearly, I thought, of God. Of course, I wasn’t. This beach, so soft, firm and vast, was like the cheek of God, and somewhere two eyes were glittering with pleasure and a mouth was smiling at having me there.
   After some hours a member of my own species found me. He left and returned with a group. They were six or seven. They came up to me with their hands covering their noses and mouths. I wondered what was wrong with them. They spoke to me in a strange tongue. They pulled the lifeboat onto the sand. They carried me away. The one piece of turtle meat I had brought from the boat they wrenched from my hand and threw away.
   I wept like a child. It was not because I was overcome at having survived my ordeal, though I was. Nor was it the presence of my brothers and sisters, though that too was very moving. I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. For example—I wonder—could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less? I’ll tell you, that’s one thing I hate about my nickname, the way that number runs on forever. It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse. That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day. I wish so much that I’d had one last look at him in the lifeboat, that I’d provoked him a little, so that I was on his mind. I wish I had said to him then—yes, I know, to a tiger, but still—I wish I had said, “Richard Parker, it’s over. We have survived. Can you believe it? I owe you more gratitude than I can express. I couldn’t have done it without you. I would like to say it formally: Richard Parker, thank you. Thank you for saving my life. And now go where you must. You have known the confined freedom of a zoo most of your life; now you will know the free confinement of a jungle. I wish you all the best with it. Watch out for Man. He is not your friend. But I hope you will remember me as a friend. I will never forget you, that is certain. You will always be with me, in my heart. What is that hiss? Ah, our boat has touched sand. So farewell, Richard Parker, farewell. God be with you.”
   The people who found me took me to their village, and there some women gave me a bath and scrubbed me so hard that I wondered if they realized I was naturally brown-skinned and not a very dirty white boy. I tried to explain. They nodded and smiled and kept on scrubbing me as if I were the deck of a ship. I thought they were going to skin me alive. But they gave me food. Delicious food. Once I started eating, I couldn’t stop. I thought I would never stop being hungry.
   The next day a police car came and brought me to a hospital, and there my story ends.
   I was overwhelmed by the generosity of those who rescued me. Poor people gave me clothes and food. Doctors and nurses cared for me as if I were a premature baby. Mexican and Canadian officials opened all doors for me so that from the beach in Mexico to the home of my foster mother to the classrooms of the University of Toronto, there was only one long, easy corridor I had to walk down. To all these people I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks.
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Poruke Odustao od brojanja
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Part Three.
Benito Juarez Infirmary, Tomatlan, Mexico


Chapter 95

   Mr. Tomohiro Okamoto, of the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport, now retired, told me that he and his junior colleague at the time, Mr. Atsuro Chiba, were in Long Beach, California—the American western seaboard’s main container port, near L.A.—on unrelated business when they were advised that a lone survivor of the Japanese ship Tsimtsum, which had vanished without a trace in Pacific international waters several months before, was reported to have landed near the small town of Tomatlan, on the coast of Mexico. They were instructed by their department to go down to contact the survivor and see if any light could be shed on the fate of the ship. They bought a map of Mexico and looked to see where Tomatlan was. Unfortunately for them, a fold of the map crossed Baja California over a small coastal town named Tomatan, printed in small letters. Mr. Okamoto was convinced he read Tomatlan. Since it was less than halfway down Baja California, he decided the fastest way to get there would be to drive.
   They set off in their rented car. When they got to Tomatan, eight hundred kilometres south of Long Beach, and saw that it was not Tomatlan, Mr. Okamoto decided that they would continue to Santa Rosalia, two hundred kilometres further south, and catch the ferry across the Gulf of California to Guaymas. The ferry was late and slow. And from Guaymas it was another thirteen hundred kilometres to Tomatlan. The roads were bad. They had a flat tire. Their car broke down and the mechanic who fixed it surreptitiously cannibalized the motor of parts, putting in used parts instead, for the replacement of which they had to pay the rental company and which resulted in the car breaking down a second time, on their way back. The second mechanic overcharged them. Mr. Okamoto admitted to me that they were very tired when they arrived at the Benito Juarez Infirmary in Tomatlan, which is not at all in Baja California but a hundred kilometres south of Puerto Vallarta, in the state of Jalisco, nearly level with Mexico City. They had been travelling non-stop for forty-one hours. “We work hard,” Mr. Okamoto wrote.
   He and Mr. Chiba spoke with Piscine Molitor Patel, in English, for close to three hours, taping the conversation. What follows are excerpts from the verbatim transcript. I am grateful to Mr. Okamoto for having made available to me a copy of the tape and of his final report. For the sake of clarity I have indicated who is speaking when it is not immediately apparent. Portions printed in a different font were spoken in Japanese, which I had translated.
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Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 96

   “Hello, Mr. Patel. My name is Tomohiro Okamoto. I am from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport. This is my assistant, Atsuro Chiba. We have come to see you about the sinking of the ship Tsimtsum, of which you were a passenger. Would it be possible to talk to you now?”
   “Yes, of course.”
   “Thank you. It is very kind of you. [translation]Now, Atsuro-kun, you’re new at this, so pay attention and see to learn.”
   “Yes, Okamoto-san.”
   “Is the tape recorder on?”
   “Yes it is.”
   “Good. Oh I’m so tired! For the record, today is February 19th, 1978. Case file number 250663, concerning the disappearance of the cargo ship Tsimtsum.[/translation] Are you comfortable, Mr. Patel?”
   “Yes, I am. Thank you. And you?”
   “We are very comfortable.”
   “You’ve come all the way from Tokyo?”
   “We were in Long Beach, California. We drove down.”
   “Did you have a good trip?”
   “We had a wonderful trip. It was a beautiful drive.”
   “I had a terrible trip.”
   “Yes, we spoke to the police before coming here and we saw the lifeboat.”
   “I’m a little hungry.”
   “Would you like a cookie?”
   “Oh, yes!”
   “Here you go.”
   “Thank you!”
   “You’re welcome. It’s only a cookie. Now, Mr. Patel, we were wondering if you could tell us what happened to you, with as much detail as possible.”
   “Yes. I’d be happy to.”
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Poruke Odustao od brojanja
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Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 97

   The story.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 98

   Mr. Okamoto: “Very interesting.”
   Mr. Chiba: “What a story.”
   [translation]“He thinks we’re fools.[/translation] Mr. Patel, we’ll take a little break and then we’ll come back, yes?”
   “That’s fine. I’d like another cookie.”
   “Yes, of course.”
   Mr. Chiba: [translation]“He’s already had plenty and most he hasn’t even eaten. They’re right there beneath his bedsheet.”
   “Just give him another one. We have to humour him.[/translation] We’ll be back in a few minutes.”
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 99

   Mr. Okamoto: “Mr. Patel, we don’t believe your story.”
   “Sorry—these cookies are good but they tend to crumble. I’m amazed. Why not?”
   “It doesn’t hold up.”
   “What do you mean?”
   “Bananas don’t float.”
   “I’m sorry?”
   “You said the orang-utan came floating on an island of bananas.”
   “That’s right.”
   “Bananas don’t float.”
   “Yes, they do.”
   “They’re too heavy.”
   “No, they’re not. Here, try for yourself. I have two bananas right here.”
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “Where did those come from? What else does he have under his bedsheet?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Damn it. [/translation] No, that’s all right.”
   “There’s a sink over there.”
   “That’s fine.”
   “I insist. Fill that sink with water, drop these bananas in, and we’ll see who’s right.”
   “We’d like to move on.”
   “I absolutely insist.”
   [Silence]
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “What do we do?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “I feel this is going to be another very long day.” [/translation]
   [Sound of a chair being pushed back. Distant sound of water gushing out of a tap]
   Pi Patel: “What’s happening? I can’t see from here.”
   Mr. Okamoto [Distantly]: “I’m filling the sink.”
   “Have you put the bananas in yet?”
   [Distantly] “No.”
   “And now?”
   [Distantly] “They’re in.”
   “And?”
   [Silence]
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “Are they floating?”
   [Distantly] “They’re floating.” [/translation]
   “So, are they floating?”
   [Distantly] “They’re floating.”
   “What did I tell you?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Yes, yes. But it would take a lot of bananas to hold up an orang-utan.”
   “It did. There was close to a ton. It still makes me sick when I think of all those bananas floating away and going to waste when they were mine for the picking.”
   “It’s a pity. Now, about—”
   “Could I have my bananas back, please?”
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “I’ll get them.”
   [Sound of a chair being pushed back]
   [Distantly] “Look at that. They really do float.” [/translation]
   Mr. Okamoto: “What about this algae island you say you came upon?”
   Mr. Chiba: “Here are your bananas.”
   Pi Patel: “Thank you. Yes?”
   “I’m sorry to say it so bluntly, we don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but you don’t really expect us to believe you, do you? Carnivorous trees? A fish-eating algae that produces fresh water? Tree-dwelling aquatic rodents? These things don’t exist.”
   “Only because you’ve never seen them.”
   “That’s right. We believe what we see.”
   “So did Columbus. What do you do when you’re in the dark?”
   “Your island is botanically impossible.”
   “Said the fly just before landing in the Venus flytrap.”
   “Why has no one else come upon it?”
   “It’s a big ocean crossed by busy ships. I went slowly, observing much.”
   “No scientist would believe you.”
   “These would be the same who dismissed Copernicus and Darwin. Have scientists finished coming upon new plants? In the Amazon basin, for example?”
   “Not plants that contradict the laws of nature.”
   “Which you know through and through?”
   “Well enough to know the possible from the impossible.”
   Mr. Chiba: “I have an uncle who knows a lot about botany. He lives in the country near Hita-Gun. He’s a bonsai master.”
   Pi Patel: “A what?”
   “A bonsai master. You know, bonsai are little trees.”
   “You mean shrubs.”
   “No, I mean trees. Bonsai are little trees. They are less than two feet tall. You can carry them in your arms. They can be very old. My uncle has one that is over three hundred years old.”
   “Three-hundred-year-old trees that are two feet tall that you can carry in your arms?”
   “Yes. They’re very delicate. They need a lot of attention.”
   “Whoever heard of such trees? They’re botanically impossible.”
   “But I assure you they exist, Mr. Patel. My uncle—”
   “I believe what I see.”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Just a moment, please. [translation]Atsuro, with all due respect for your uncle who lives in the country near Hita-Gun, we’re not here to talk idly about botany.”
   “I’m just trying to help.”
   “Do your uncle’s bonsai eat meat?”
   “I don’t think so.”
   “Have you ever been bitten by one of his bonsai?”
   “No.”
   “In that case, your uncle’s bonsai are not helping us.[/translation] Where were we?”
   Pi Patel: “With the tall, full-sized trees firmly rooted to the ground I was telling you about.”
   “Let us put them aside for now.”
   “It might be hard. I never tried pulling them out and carrying them.”
   “You’re a funny man, Mr. Patel. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
   Pi Patel: “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
   Mr. Chiba: “Ha! Ha! Ha! [translation]It wasn’t that funny.”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Just keep laughing.[/translation] Ha! Ha! Ha!”
   Mr. Chiba: “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Now about the tiger, we’re not sure about it either.”
   “What do you mean?”
   “We have difficulty believing it.”
   “It’s an incredible story.”
   “Precisely.”
   “I don’t know how I survived.”
   “Clearly it was a strain.”
   “I’ll have another cookie.”
   “There are none left.”
   “What’s in that bag?”
   “Nothing.”
   “Can I see?”
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “There goes our lunch.” [/translation]
   Mr. Okamoto: “Getting back to the tiger…”
   Pi Patel: “Terrible business. Delicious sandwiches.”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Yes, they look good.”
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “I’m hungry.” [/translation]
   “Not a trace of it has been found. That’s a bit hard to believe, isn’t it? There are no tigers in the Americas. If there were a wild tiger out there, don’t you think the police would have heard about it by now?”
   “I should tell you about the black panther that escaped from the Zurich Zoo in the middle of winter.”
   “Mr. Patel, a tiger is an incredibly dangerous wild animal. How could you survive in a lifeboat with one? It’s—”
   “What you don’t realize is that we are a strange and forbidding species to wild animals. We fill them with fear. They avoid us as much as possible. It took centuries to still the fear in some pliable animals-domestication it’s called—but most cannot get over their fear, and I doubt they ever will. When wild animals fight us, it is out of sheer desperation. They fight when they feel they have no other way out. It’s a very last resort.”
   “In a lifeboat? Come on, Mr. Patel, it’s just too hard to believe!”
   “Hard to believe? What do you know about hard to believe? You want hard to believe? I’ll give you hard to believe. It’s a closely held secret among Indian zookeepers that in 1971 Bara the polar bear escaped from the Calcutta Zoo. She was never heard from again, not by police or hunters or poachers or anyone else. We suspect she’s living freely on the banks of the Hugli River. Beware if you go to Calcutta, my good sirs: if you have sushi on the breath you may pay a high price! If you took the city of Tokyo and turned it upside down and shook it, you’d be amazed at all the animals that would fall out: badgers, wolves, boa constrictors, Komodo dragons, crocodiles, ostriches, baboons, capybaras, wild boars, leopards, manatees, ruminants in untold numbers. There is no doubt in my mind that feral giraffes and feral hippos have been living in Tokyo for generations without being seen by a soul. You should compare one day the things that stick to the soles of your shoes as you walk down the street with what you see lying at the bottom of the cages in the Tokyo Zoo—then look up! And you expect to find a tiger in a Mexican jungle! It’s laughable, just plain laughable. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
   “There may very well be feral giraffes and feral hippos living in Tokyo and a polar bear living freely in Calcutta. We just don’t believe there was a tiger living in your lifeboat.”
   “The arrogance of big-city folk! You grant your metropolises all the animals of Eden, but you deny my hamlet the merest Bengal tiger!”
   “Mr. Patel, please calm down.”
   “If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?”
   “Mr. Patel—”
   “Don’t you bully me with your politeness! Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”
   “We’re just being reasonable.”
   “So am I! I applied my reason at every moment. Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.”
   “Calm down, Mr. Patel, calm down.”
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “The bathwater? Why is he talking about bathwater?” [/translation]
   “How can I be calm? You should have seen Richard Parker!”
   “Yes, yes.”
   “Huge. Teeth like this! Claws like scimitars!”
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “What are scimitars?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Chiba-san,, instead of asking stupid vocabulary questions, why don’t you make yourself useful? This boy is a tough nut to crack. Do something!” [/translation]
   Mr. Chiba: “Look! A chocolate bar!”
   Pi Patel: “Wonderful!”
   [Long silence]
   Mr. Okamoto: [translation] “Like he hasn’t already stolen our whole lunch. Soon he’ll be demanding tempura.” [/translation]
   [Long silence]
   Mr. Okamoto: “We are losing sight of the point of this investigation. We are here because of the sinking of a cargo ship. You are the sole survivor. And you were only a passenger. You bear no responsibility for what happened. We—”
   “Chocolate is so good!”
   “We are not seeking to lay criminal charges. You are an innocent victim of a tragedy at sea. We are only trying to determine why and how the Tsimtsum sank. We thought you might help us, Mr. Patel.”
   [Silence]
   “Mr. Patel?”
   [Silence]
   Pi Patel: “Tigers exist, lifeboats exist, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might. Yet the plain fact is that the Tsimtsum brought them together and then sank.”
   [Silence]
   Mr. Okamoto: “What about this Frenchman?”
   “What about him?”
   “Two blind people in two separate lifeboats meeting up in the Pacific—the coincidence seems a little far-fetched, no?”
   “It certainly does.”
   “We find it very unlikely.”
   “So is winning the lottery, yet someone always wins.”
   “We find it extremely hard to believe.”
   “So did I.”
   [translation] “I knew we should have taken the day off. [/translation] You talked about food?”
   “We did.”
   “He knew a lot about food.”
   “If you can call it food.”
   “The cook on the Tsimtsum was a Frenchman.”
   “There are Frenchmen all over the world.”
   “Maybe the Frenchman you met was the cook.”
   “Maybe. How should I know? I never saw him. I was blind. Then Richard Parker ate him alive.”
   “How convenient.”
   “Not at all. It was horrific and it stank. By the way, how do you explain the meerkat bones in the lifeboat?”
   “Yes, the bones of a small animal were—”
   “More than one!”
   “—of some small animals were found in the lifeboat. They must have come from the ship.”
   “We had no meerkats at the zoo.”
   “We have no proof they were meerkat bones.”
   Mr. Chiba: “Maybe they were banana bones! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
   [translation] “Atsuro, shut up!”
   “I’m very sorry, Okamoto-san. It’s the fatigue.”
   “You’re bringing our service into disrepute!”
   “Very sorry, Okamoto-san.” [/translation]
   Mr. Okamoto: “They could be bones from another small animal.”
   “They were meerkats.”
   “They could be mongooses.”
   “The mongooses at the zoo didn’t sell. They stayed in India.”
   “They could be shipboard pests, like rats. Mongooses are common in India.”
   “Mongooses as shipboard pests?”
   “Why not?”
   “Who swam in the stormy Pacific, several of them, to the lifeboat? That’s a little hard to believe, wouldn’t you say?”
   “Less hard to believe than some of the things we’ve heard in the last two hours. Perhaps the mongooses were already aboard the lifeboat, like the rat you mentioned.”
   “Simply amazing the number of animals in that lifeboat.”
   “Simply amazing.”
   “A real jungle.”
   “Yes.”
   “Those bones are meerkat bones. Have them checked by an expert.”
   “There weren’t that many left. And there were no heads.”
   “I used them as bait.”
   “It’s doubtful an expert could tell whether they were meerkat bones or mongoose bones.”
   “Find yourself a forensic zoologist.”
   “All right, Mr. Patel! You win. We cannot explain the presence of meerkat bones, if that is what they are, in the lifeboat. But that is not our concern here. We are here because a Japanese cargo ship owned by Oika Shipping Company, flying the Panamanian flag, sank in the Pacific.”
   “Something I never forget, not for a minute. I lost my whole family.”
   “We’re sorry about that.”
   “Not as much as I am.”
   [Long silence]
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “What do we do now?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “I don’t know.” [/translation]
   [Long silence]
   Pi Patel: “Would you like a cookie?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Yes, that would be nice. Thank you.”
   Mr. Chiba: “Thank you.”
   [Long silence]
   Mr. Okamoto: “It’s a nice day.”
   Pi Patel: “Yes. Sunny.”
   [Long silence]
   Pi Patel: “Is this your first visit to Mexico?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Yes, it is.”
   “Mine too.”
   [Long silence]
   Pi Patel: “So, you didn’t like my story?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “No, we liked it very much. Didn’t we, Atsuro? We will remember it for a long, long time.”
   Mr. Chiba: “We will.”
   [Silence]
   Mr. Okamoto: “But for the purposes of our investigation, we would like to know what really happened.”
   “What really happened?”
   “Yes.”
   “So you want another story?”
   “Uhh…no. We would like to know what really happened.”
   “Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story?”
   “Uhh…perhaps in English. In Japanese a story would have an element of invention in it. We don’t want any invention. We want the ‘straight facts’, as you say in English.”
   “Isn’t telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention?”
   “Uhh…”
   “The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”
   “Ha! Ha! Ha! You are very intelligent, Mr. Patel.”
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “What is he talking about?”
   “I have no idea.” [/translation]
   Pi Patel: “You want words that reflect reality?”
   “Yes.”
   “Words that do not contradict reality?”
   “Exactly.”
   “But tigers don’t contradict reality.”
   “Oh please, no more tigers.”
   “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”
   “Uhh…”
   “You want a story without animals.”
   “Yes!”
   “Without tigers or orang-utans.”
   “That’s right.”
   “Without hyenas or zebras.”
   “Without them.”
   “Without meerkats or mongooses.”
   “We don’t want them.”
   “Without giraffes or hippopotamuses.”
   “We will plug our ears with our fingers!”
   “So I’m right. You want a story without animals.”
   “We want a story without animals that will explain the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”
   “Give me a minute, please.”
   “Of course. [translation]I think we’re finally getting somewhere. Let’s hope he speaks some sense.” [/translation]
   [Long silence]
   “Here’s another story.”
   “Good.”
   “The ship sank. It made a sound like a monstrous metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished. I found myself kicking water in the Pacific Ocean. I swam for the lifeboat. It was the hardest swim of my life. I didn’t seem to be moving. I kept swallowing water. I was very cold. I was rapidly losing strength. I wouldn’t have made it if the cook hadn’t thrown me a lifebuoy and pulled me in. I climbed aboard and collapsed.
   “Four of us survived. Mother held on to some bananas and made it to the lifeboat. The cook was already aboard, as was the sailor.
   “He ate the flies. The cook, that is. We hadn’t been in the lifeboat a full day; we had food and water to last us for weeks; we had fishing gear and solar stills; we had no reason to believe that we wouldn’t be rescued soon. Yet there he was, swinging his arms and catching flies and eating them greedily. Right away he was in a holy terror of hunger. He was calling us idiots and fools for not joining him in the feast. We were offended and disgusted, but we didn’t show it. We were very polite about it. He was a stranger and a foreigner. Mother smiled and shook her head and raised her hand in refusal. He was a disgusting man. His mouth had the discrimination of a garbage heap. He also ate the rat. He cut it up and dried it in the sun. I—I’ll be honest—I had a small piece, very small, behind Mother’s back. I was so hungry. He was such a brute, that cook, ill-tempered and hypocritical.
   “The sailor was young. Actually, he was older than me, probably in his early twenties, but he broke his leg jumping from the ship and his suffering made him a child. He was beautiful. He had no facial hair at all and a clear, shining complexion. His features—the broad face, the flattened nose, the narrow, pleated eyes-looked so elegant. I thought he looked like a Chinese emperor. His suffering was terrible. He spoke no English, not a single word, not yes or no, hello or thank you. He spoke only Chinese. We couldn’t understand a word he said. He must have felt very lonely. When he wept, Mother held his head in her lap and I held his hand. It was very, very sad. He suffered and we couldn’t do anything about it.
   “His right leg was badly broken at the thigh. The bone stuck out of his flesh. He screamed with pain. We set his leg as best we could and we made sure he was eating and drinking. But his leg became infected. Though we drained it of pus every day, it got worse. His foot became black and bloated.
   “It was the cook’s idea. He was a brute. He dominated us. He whispered that the blackness would spread and that he would survive only if his leg were amputated. Since the bone was broken at the thigh, it would involve no more than cutting through flesh and setting a tourniquet. I can still hear his evil whisper. He would do the job to save the sailor’s life, he said, but we would have to hold him. Surprise would be the only anaesthetic. We fell upon him. Mother and I held his arms while the cook sat on his good leg. The sailor writhed and screamed. His chest rose and fell. The cook worked the knife quickly. The leg fell off. Immediately Mother and I let go and moved away. We thought that if the restraint was ended, so would his struggling. We thought he would lie calmly. He didn’t. He sat up instantly. His screams were all the worse for being unintelligible. He screamed and we stared, transfixed. There was blood everywhere. Worse, there was the contrast between the frantic activity of the poor sailor and the gentle repose of his leg at the bottom of the boat. He kept looking at the limb, as if imploring it to return. At last he fell back. We hurried into action. The cook folded some skin over the bone. We wrapped the stump in a piece of cloth and we tied a rope above the wound to stop the bleeding. We laid him as comfortably as we could on a mattress of life jackets and kept him warm. I thought it was all for nothing. I couldn’t believe a human being could survive so much pain, so much butchery. Throughout the evening and night he moaned, and his breathing was harsh and uneven. He had fits of agitated delirium. I expected him to die during the night.
   “He clung to life. At dawn he was still alive. He went in and out of consciousness. Mother gave him water. I caught sight of the amputated leg. It cut my breath short. In the commotion it had been shoved aside and forgotten in the dark. It had seeped a liquid and looked thinner. I took a life jacket and used it as a glove. I picked the leg up.
   “’What are you doing?’ asked the cook.
   “’I’m going to throw it overboard,’ I replied.
   “’Don’t be an idiot. We’ll use it as bait. That was the whole point.’
   “He seemed to regret his last words even as they were coming out, for his voice faded quickly. He turned away.
   “’The whole point?’ Mother asked. ‘What do you mean by that?’
   “He pretended to be busy.
   “Mother’s voice rose. ‘Are you telling us that we cut this poor boy’s leg off not to save his life but to get fishing bait?’
   “Silence from the brute.
   “’Answer me!’ shouted Mother.
   “Like a cornered beast he lifted his eyes and glared at her. ‘Our supplies are running out,’ he snarled. ‘We need more food or we’ll die.’
   “Mother returned his glare. ‘Our supplies are not running out! We have plenty of food and water. We have package upon package of biscuits to tide us over till our rescue.’ She took hold of the plastic container in which we put the open rations of biscuits. It was unexpectedly light in her hands. The few crumbs in it rattled. ‘What!’ She opened it. ‘Where are the biscuits? The container was full last night!’
   “The cook looked away. As did I.
   “’You selfish monster!’ screamed Mother. ‘The only reason we’re running out of food is because you’re gorging yourself on it!’
   “’He had some too,’ he said, nodding my way.
   “Mother’s eyes turned to me. My heart sank.
   “’Piscine, is that true?’
   “’It was night, Mother. I was half asleep and I was so hungry. He gave me a biscuit. I ate it without thinking…’
   “’Only one, was it?’ sneered the cook.
   “It was Mother’s turn to look away. The anger seemed to go out of her. Without saying another word she went back to nursing the sailor.
   “I wished for her anger. I wished for her to punish me. Only not this silence. I made to arrange some life jackets for the sailor’s comfort so that I could be next to her. I whispered, ‘I’m sorry, Mother, I’m sorry.’ My eyes were brimming with tears. When I brought them up, I saw that hers were too. But she didn’t look at me. Her eyes were gazing upon some memory in mid-air.
   “’We’re all alone, Piscine, all alone,’ she said, in a tone that broke every hope in my body. I never felt so lonely in all my life as I did at that moment. We had been in the lifeboat two weeks already and it was taking its toll on us. It was getting harder to believe that Father and Ravi had survived.
   “When we turned around, the cook was holding the leg by the ankle over the water to drain it. Mother brought her hand over the sailor’s eyes.
   “He died quietly, the life drained out of him like the liquid from his leg. The cook promptly butchered him. The leg had made for poor bait. The dead flesh was too decayed to hold on to the fishing hook; it simply dissolved in the water. Nothing went to waste with this monster. He cut up everything, including the sailor’s skin and every inch of his intestines. He even prepared his genitals. When he had finished with his torso, he moved on to his arms and shoulders and to his legs. Mother and I rocked with pain and horror. Mother shrieked at the cook, ‘How can you do this, you monster? Where is your humanity? Have you no decency? What did the poor boy do to you? You monster! You monster!’ The cook replied with unbelievable vulgarity.
   “’At least cover his face, for God’s sake!’ cried my mother. It was unbearable to have that beautiful face, so noble and serene, connected to such a sight below. The cook threw himself upon the sailor’s head and before our very eyes scalped him and pulled off his face. Mother and I vomited.
   “When he had finished, he threw the butchered carcass overboard. Shortly after, strips of flesh and pieces of organs were lying to dry in the sun all over the boat. We recoiled in horror. We tried not to look at them. The smell would not go away.
   “The next time the cook was close by, Mother slapped him in the face, a full hard slap that punctuated the air with a sharp crack. It was something shocking coming from my mother. And it was heroic. It was an act of outrage and pity and grief and bravery. It was done in memory of that poor sailor. It was to salvage his dignity.
   “I was stunned. So was the cook. He stood without moving or saying a word as Mother looked him straight in the face. I noticed how he did not meet her eyes.
   “We retreated to our private spaces. I stayed close to her. I was filled with a mix of rapt admiration and abject fear.
   “Mother kept an eye on him. Two days later she saw him do it. He tried to be discreet, but she saw him bring his hand to his mouth. She shouted, ‘I saw you! You just ate a piece! You said it was for bait! I knew it. You monster! You animal! How could you? He’s human! He’s your own kind!’ If she had expected him to be mortified, to spit it out and break down and apologize, she was wrong. He kept chewing. In fact, he lifted his head up and quite openly put the rest of the strip in his mouth. ‘Tastes like pork,’ he muttered. Mother expressed her indignation and disgust by violently turning away. He ate another strip. ‘I feel stronger already,’ he muttered. He concentrated on his fishing.
   “We each had our end of the lifeboat. It’s amazing how willpower can build walls. Whole days went by as if he weren’t there.
   “But we couldn’t ignore him entirely. He was a brute, but a practical brute. He was good with his hands and he knew the sea. He was full of good ideas. He was the one who thought of building a raft to help with the fishing. If we survived any time at all, it was thanks to him. I helped him as best I could. He was very short-tempered, always shouting at me and insulting me.
   “Mother and I didn’t eat any of the sailor’s body, not the smallest morsel, despite the cost in weakness to us, but we did start to eat what the cook caught from the sea. My mother, a lifelong vegetarian, brought herself to eat raw fish and raw turtle. She had a very hard time of it. She never got over her revulsion. It came easier to me. I found hunger improved the taste of everything.
   “When your life has been given a reprieve, it’s impossible not to feel some warmth for the one to whom you owe that reprieve. It was very exciting when the cook hauled aboard a turtle or caught a great big dorado. It made us smile broadly and there was a glow in our chests that lasted for hours. Mother and the cook talked in a civil way, even joked. During some spectacular sunsets, life on the boat was nearly good. At such times I looked at him with—yes—with tenderness. With love. I imagined that we were fast friends. He was a coarse man even when he was in a good mood, but we pretended not to notice it, even to ourselves. He said that we would come upon an island. That was our main hope. We exhausted our eyes scanning the horizon for an island that never came. That’s when he stole food and water.
   “The flat and endless Pacific rose like a great wall around us. I never thought we would get around it.
   “He killed her. The cook killed my mother. We were starving. I was weak. I couldn’t hold on to a turtle. Because of me we lost it. He hit me. Mother hit him. He hit her back. She turned to me and said, ‘Go!’ pushing me towards the raft. I jumped for it. I thought she was coming with me. I landed in the water. I scrambled aboard the raft. They were fighting. I did nothing but watch. My mother was fighting an adult man. He was mean and muscular. He caught her by the wrist and twisted it. She shrieked and fell. He moved over her. The knife appeared. He raised it in the air. It came down. Next it was up—it was red. It went up and down repeatedly. I couldn’t see her. She was at the bottom of the boat. I saw only him. He stopped. He raised his head and looked at me. He hurled something my way. A line of blood struck me across the face. No whip could have inflicted a more painful lash. I held my mother’s head in my hands. I let it go. It sank in a cloud of blood, her tress trailing like a tail. Fish spiralled down towards it until a shark’s long grey shadow cut across its path and it vanished. I looked up. I couldn’t see him. He was hiding at the bottom of the boat. He appeared when he threw my mother’s body overboard. His mouth was red. The water boiled with fish.
   “I spent the rest of that day and the night on the raft, looking at him. We didn’t speak a word. He could have cut the raft loose. But he didn’t. He kept me around, like a bad conscience.
   “In the morning, in plain sight of him, I pulled on the rope and boarded the lifeboat. I was very weak. He said nothing. I kept my peace. He caught a turtle. He gave me its blood. He butchered it and laid its best parts for me on the middle bench. I ate.
   “Then we fought and I killed him. He had no expression on his face, neither of despair nor of anger, neither of fear nor of pain. He gave up. He let himself be killed, though it was still a struggle. He knew he had gone too far, even by his bestial standards. He had gone too far and now he didn’t want to go on living any more. But he never said ‘I’m sorry.’ Why do we cling to our evil ways?
   “The knife was all along in plain view on the bench. We both knew it. He could have had it in his hands from the start. He was the one who put it there. I picked it up. I stabbed him in the stomach. He grimaced but remained standing. I pulled the knife out and stabbed him again. Blood was pouring out. Still he didn’t fall over. Looking me in the eyes, he lifted his head ever so slightly. Did he mean something by this? I took it that he did. I stabbed him in the throat, next to the Adam’s apple. He dropped like a stone. And died. He didn’t say anything. He had no last words. He only coughed up blood. A knife has a horrible dynamic power; once in motion, it’s hard to stop. I stabbed him repeatedly. His blood soothed my chapped hands. His heart was a struggle—all those tubes that connected it. I managed to get it out. It tasted delicious, far better than turtle. I ate his liver. I cut off great pieces of his flesh.
   “He was such an evil man. Worse still, he met evil in me—selfishness, anger, ruthlessness. I must live with that.
   “Solitude began. I turned to God. I survived.”
   [Long silence]
   “Is that better? Are there any parts you find hard to believe? Anything you’d like me to change?”
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “What a horrible story.”
   [Long silence]
   Mr. Okamoto: “Both the zebra and the Taiwanese sailor broke a leg, did you notice that?”
   “No, I didn’t.”
   “And the hyena bit off the zebra’s leg just as the cook cut off the sailor’s.”
   “Ohhh, Okamoto-san, you see a lot.”
   “The blind Frenchman they met in the other lifeboat—didn’t he admit to killing a man and a woman?”
   “Yes, he did.”
   “The cook killed the sailor and his mother”
   “Very impressive.”
   “His stories match.”
   “So the Taiwanese sailor is the zebra, his mother is the orang-utan, the cook is… the hyena—which means he is the tiger!”
   “Yes. The tiger killed the hyena—and the blind Frenchman—just as he killed the cook.” [/translation]
   Pi Patel: “Do you have another chocolate bar?”
   Mr. Chiba: “Right away!”
   “Thank you.”
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “But what does it mean, Okamoto-san?”
   “I have no idea.”
   “And what about those teeth? Whose teeth were those in the tree?”
   “I don’t know. I’m not inside this boy’s head.” [/translation]
   [Long silence]
   Mr. Okamoto: “Please excuse me for asking, but did the cook say anything about the sinking of the Tsimtsum?”
   “In this other story?”
   “Yes.”
   “He didn’t.”
   “He made no mention of anything leading up to the early morning of July 2nd that might explain what happened?”
   “No.”
   “Nothing of a nature mechanical or structural?”
   “No.”
   “Nothing about other ships or objects at sea?”
   “No.”
   “He could not explain the sinking of the Tsimtsum at all?”
   “No”
   “Could he say why it didn’t send out a distress signal?”
   “And if it had? In my experience, when a dingy, third-rate rust-bucket sinks, unless it has the luck of carrying oil, lots of it, enough to kill entire ecosystems, no one cares and no one hears about it. You’re on your own.”
   “When Oika realized that something was wrong, it was too late. You were too far out for air rescue. Ships in the area were told to be on the lookout. They reported seeing nothing.”
   “And while we’re on the subject, the ship wasn’t the only thing that was third-rate. The crew were a sullen, unfriendly lot, hard at work when officers were around but doing nothing when they weren’t. They didn’t speak a word of English and they were of no help to us. Some of them stank of alcohol by mid-afternoon. Who’s to say what those idiots did? The officers—”
   “What do you mean by that?”
   “By what?”
   “’Who’s to say what those idiots did?’”
   “I mean that maybe in a fit of drunken insanity some of them released the animals.”
   Mr. Chiba: “Who had the keys to the cages?”
   “Father did.”
   Mr. Chiba: “So how could the crew open the cages if they didn’t have the keys?”
   “I don’t know. They probably used crowbars.”
   Mr. Chiba: “Why would they do that? Why would anyone want to release a dangerous wild animal from its cage?”
   “I don’t know. Can anyone fathom the workings of a drunken man’s mind? All I can tell you is what happened. The animals were out of their cages.”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Excuse me. You have doubts about the fitness of the crew?”
   “Grave doubts.”
   “Did you witness any of the officers being under the influence of alcohol?”
   “No.”
   “But you saw some of the crew being under the influence of alcohol?”
   “Yes.”
   “Did the officers act in what seemed to you a competent and professional manner?”
   “They had little to do with us. They never came close to the animals.”
   “I mean in terms of running the ship.”
   “How should I know? Do you think we had tea with them every day? They spoke English, but they were no better than the crew. They made us feel unwelcome in the common room and hardly said a word to us during meals. They went on in Japanese, as if we weren’t there. We were just a lowly Indian family with a bothersome cargo. We ended up eating on our own in Father and Mother’s cabin. ‘Adventure beckons!’ said Ravi. That’s what made it tolerable, our sense of adventure. We spent most of our time shovelling excrement and rinsing cages and giving feed while Father played the vet. So long as the animals were all right, we were all right. I don’t know if the officers were competent.”
   “You said the ship was listing to port?”
   “Yes.”
   “And that there was an incline from bow to stern?”
   “Yes.”
   “So the ship sank stern first?”
   “Yes.”
   “Not bow first?”
   “No.”
   “You are sure? There was a slope from the front of the ship to the back?”
   “Yes.”
   “Did the ship hit another ship?”
   “I didn’t see another ship.”
   “Did it hit any other object?”
   “Not that I saw.”
   “Did it run aground?”
   “No, it sank out of sight.”
   “You were not aware of mechanical problems after leaving Manila?”
   “No.”
   “Did it appear to you that the ship was properly loaded?”
   “It was my first time on a ship. I don’t know what a properly loaded ship should look like.”
   “You believe you heard an explosion?”
   “Yes.”
   “Any other noises?”
   “A thousand.”
   “I mean that might explain the sinking.”
   “No.”
   “You said the ship sank quickly.”
   “Yes.”
   “Can you estimate how long it took?”
   “It’s hard to say. Very quickly. I would think less than twenty minutes.”
   “And there was a lot of debris?”
   “Yes.”
   “Was the ship struck by a freak wave?”
   “I don’t think so.”
   “But there was a storm?”
   “The sea looked rough to me. There was wind and rain.”
   “How high were the waves?”
   “High. Twenty-five, thirty feet.”
   “That’s quite modest, actually.”
   “Not when you’re in a lifeboat.”
   “Yes, of course. But for a cargo ship.”
   “Maybe they were higher. I don’t know. The weather was bad enough to scare me witless, that’s all I know for sure.”
   “You said the weather improved quickly. The ship sank and right after it was a beautiful day, isn’t that what you said?”
   “Yes.”
   “Sounds like no more than a passing squall.”
   “It sank the ship.”
   “That’s what we’re wondering.”
   “My whole family died.”
   “We’re sorry about that.”
   “Not as much as I am.”
   “So what happened, Mr. Patel? We’re puzzled… Everything was normal and then…?”
   “Then normal sank.”
   “Why?”
   “I don’t know. You should be telling me. You’re the experts. Apply your science.”
   “We don’t understand.”
   [Long silence]
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “Now what?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “We give up. The explanation for the sinking of the Tsimtsum is at the bottom of the Pacific.”
   [Long silence]
   Mr. Okamoto: “Yes, that’s it. Let’s go.[/translation] Well, Mr. Patel, I think we have all we need. We thank you very much for your cooperaticon. You’ve been very, very helpful.”
   “You’re welcome. But before you go, I’d like to ask you something.”
   “Yes?”
   “The Tsimtsum sank on July 2nd, 1977.”
   “Yes.”
   “And I arrived on the coast of Mexico, the sole human surviwor of the Tsimtsum, on February 14th, 1978.”
   “That’s right.”
   “I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between.”
   “Yes, you did.”
   “Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”
   “That’s right.”
   “Neither makes a factual difference to you.”
   “That’s true.”
   “You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it.”
   “I guess so.”
   “In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”
   “Yes, that’s true.”
   “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question…”
   Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
   Mr. Okamoto: [translation] “Yes. [/translation] The story with animals is the better story.”
   Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
   [Silence]
   Mr. Chiba: [translation] “What did he just say?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “I don’t know.”
   Mr. Chiba: “Oh look—he’s crying.” [/translation]
   [Long silence]
   Mr. Okamoto: “We’ll be careful when we drive away. We don’t want to run into Richard Parker.”
   Pi Patel: “Don’t worry, you won’t. He’s hiding somewhere you’ll never find him.”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Mr. Patel. We’re grateful. And we’re really very sorry about what happened to you.”
   “Thank you.”
   “What will you be doing now?”
   “I guess I’ll go to Canada.”
   “Not back to India?”
   “No. There’s nothing there for me now. Only sad memories.”
   “Of course, you know you will be getting insurance money.”
   “Oh.”
   “Yes. Oika will be in touch with you.”
   [Silence]
   Mr. Okamoto: “We should be going. We wish you all the best, Mr. Patel.”
   Mr. Chiba: “Yes, all the best.”
   “Thank you.”
   Mr. Okamoto: “Goodbye.”
   Mr. Chiba: “Goodbye.”
   Pi Patel: “Would you like some cookies for the road?”
   Mr. Okamoto: “That would be nice.”
   “Here, have three each.”
   “Thank you.”
   Mr. Chiba: “Thank you.”
   “You’re welcome. Goodbye. God be with you, my brothers.”
   “Thank you. And with you too, Mr. Patel.”
   Mr. Chiba: “Goodbye.”
   Mr. Okamoto: [translation] “I’m starving. Let’s go eat. You can turn that off.” [/translation]
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