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Chapter 38
I don't understand. For days the ship had pushed on,bullishly indifferent to its surroundings. The sun shone, rain fell,winds blew, currents flowed, the sea built up hills, the sea dugup valleys – the Tsimtsum did not care. It moved with theslow, massive confidence of a continent.
I had bought a map of the world for the trip; I had set itup in our cabin against a cork billboard. Every morning I gotour position from the control bridge and marked it on themap with an orange-tipped pin. We sailed from Madras acrossthe Bay of Bengal, down through the Strait of Malacca, aroundSingapore and up to Manila. I loved every minute of it. It wasa thrill to be on a ship. Taking care of the animals kept usvery busy. Every night we fell into bed weary to our bones.
We were in Manila for two days, a question of fresh feed, newcargo and, we were told, the performing of routine maintenancework on the engines. I paid attention only to the first two. Thefresh feed included a ton of bananas, and the new cargo, afemale Congo chimpanzee, part of Father's wheeling anddealing. A ton of bananas bristles with a good three, fourpounds of big black spiders. A chimpanzee is like a smaller,leaner gorilla, but meaner-looking, with less of the melancholygentleness of its larger cousin. A chimpanzee shudders andgrimaces when it touches a big black spider, like you and Iwould do, before squashing it angrily with its knuckles, notsomething you and I would do. I thought bananas and achimpanzee were more interesting than a loud, filthy mechanicalcontraption in the dark bowels of a ship. Ravi spent his daysthere, watching the men work. Something was wrong with theengines, he said. Did something go wrong with the fixing ofthem? I don't know. I don't think anyone will ever know. Theanswer is a mystery lying at the bottom of thousands of feet ofwater.
We left Manila and entered the Pacific. On our fourth dayout, midway to Midway, we sank. The ship vanished into apinprick hole on my map. A mountain collapsed before myeyes and disappeared beneath my feet. All around me was thevomit of a dyspeptic ship. I felt sick to my stomach. I feltshock. I felt a great emptiness within me, which then filled withsilence. My chest hurt with pain and fear for days afterwards.
I think there was an explosion. But I can't be sure. Ithappened while I was sleeping. It woke me up. The ship wasno luxury liner. It was a grimy, hardworking cargo ship notdesigned for paying passengers or for their comfort. Therewere all kinds of noises all the time. It was precisely becausethe level of noise was so uniform that we slept like babies. Itwas a form of silence that nothing disturbed, not Ravi's snoringnor my talking in my sleep. So the explosion, if there was one,was not a new noise. It was an irregular noise. I woke upwith a start, as if Ravi had burst a balloon in my ears. Ilooked at my watch. It was just after four-thirty in themorning. I leaned over and looked down at the bunk below.
Ravi was still sleeping.
I dressed and climbed down. Normally I'm a sound sleeper.
Normally I would have gone back to sleep. I don't know why Igot up that night. It was more the sort of thing Ravi woulddo. He liked the word beckon; he would have said, "Adventurebeckons," and would have gone off to prowl around the ship.
The level of noise was back to normal again, but with adifferent quality perhaps, muffled maybe.
I shook Ravi. I said, "Ravi! There was a funny noise. Let'sgo exploring."He looked at me sleepily. He shook his head and turnedover, pulling the sheet up to his cheek. Oh, Ravi!
I opened the cabin door.
I remember walking down the corridor. Day or night itlooked the same. But I felt the night in me. I stopped atFather and Mother's door and considered knocking on it. Iremember looking at my watch and deciding against it. Fatherliked his sleep. I decided I would climb to the main deck andcatch the dawn.. Maybe I would see a shooting star. I wasthinking about that, about shooting stars, as I climbed thestairs. We were two levels below the main deck. I had alreadyforgotten about the funny noise.
It was only when I had pushed open the heavy doorleading onto the main deck that I realized what the weatherwas like. Did it qualify as a storm? It's true there was rain, butit wasn't so very hard. It certainly wasn't a driving rain, likeyou see during the monsoons. And there was wind. I supposesome of the gusts would have upset umbrellas. But I walkedthrough it without much difficulty. As for the sea, it lookedrough, but to a landlubber the sea is always impressive andforbidding, beautiful and dangerous. Waves were reaching up,and their white foam, caught by the wind, was being whippedagainst the side of the ship. But I'd seen that on other daysand the ship hadn't sunk. A cargo ship is a huge and stablestructure, a feat of engineering. It's designed to stay afloatunder the most adverse condit............
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