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Chapter 59
Alone or not, lost or not, I was thirsty and hungry. I pulledon the rope. There was a slight tension. As soon as I lessenedmy grip on it, it slid out, and the distance between the lifeboatand the raft increased. So the lifeboat drifted faster than theraft, pulling it along. I noted the fact without thinking anythingof it. My mind was more focused on the doings of RichardParker.
By the looks of it, he was under the tarpaulin.
I pulled the rope till I was right next to the bow. I reachedup to the gunnel. As I was crouched, preparing myself for aquick raid on the locker, a series of waves got me thinking. Inoticed that with the raft next to it, the lifeboat had changeddirections. It was no longer perpendicular to the waves butbroadside to them and was beginning to roll from side to side,that rolling that was so unsettling for the stomach. The reasonfor this change became clear to me: the raft, when let out,was acting as a sea anchor, as a drag that pulled on thelifeboat and turned its bow to face the waves. You see, wavesand steady winds are usually perpendicular to each other. So, ifa boat is pushed by a wind but held back by a sea anchor, itwill turn until it offers the least resistance to the wind – that is,until it is in line with it and at right angles to the waves, whichmakes for a front-to-back pitching that is much morecomfortable than a side-to-side rolling. With the raft next to theboat, the dragging effect was gone, and there was nothing tosteer the boat head into the wind. Therefore it turnedbroadside and rolled.
What may seem like a detail to you was something whichwould save my life and which Richard Parker would come toregret.
As if to confirm my fresh insight, I heard him growl. It wasa disconsolate growl, with something indefinably green andqueasy in its tone. He was maybe a good swimmer, but hewas not much of a sailor.
I had a chance yet.
Lest I got cocky about my abilities to manipulate him, Ireceived at that moment a quiet but sinister warning aboutwhat I was up against. It seemed Richard Parker was such amagnetic pole of life, so charismatic in his vitality, that otherexpressions of life found it intolerable. I was on the point ofraising myself over the bow when I heard a gentle thrashingbuzz. I saw something small land in the water next to me.
It was a cockroach. It floated for a second or two beforebeing swallowed by an underwater mouth. Another cockroachlanded in the water. In the next minute, ten or so cockroachesplopped into the water on either side of the bow. Each wasclaimed by a fish.
The last of the foreign life forms was abandoning ship.
I carefully brought my eyes over the gunnel. The first thingI saw, lying in a fold of the tarpaulin above the bow bench,was a large cockroach, perhaps the patriarch of the clan. Iwatched it, strangely interested. When it decided it was time, itdeployed its wings, rose in the air with a minute clattering,hovered above the lifeboat momentarily, as if making sure noone had been left behind, and then veered overboard to itsdeath.
Now we were two. In five days the populations oforang-utans, zebras, hyenas, rats, flies and cockroaches hadbeen wiped out. Except for the bacteria and worms that mightstill be alive in the remains of the animals, there was no otherlife left on the lifeboat but Richard Parker and me.
It was not a comforting thought.
I lifted myself and breathlessly opened the locker lid. Ideliberately did not look under the tarpaulin for fear thatlooking would be like shouting and would attract RichardParker's attention. Only once the lid was leaning against thetarpaulin did I dare let my senses consider what was beyondit.
A smell came to my nose, a musky smell of urine, quitesharp, what every cat cage in a zoo smells of. Tigers are highlyterritorial, and it is with their urine that they mark theboundaries of their territory. Here was good news wearing afoul dress: the odour was coming exclusively from below thetarpaulin. Richard Parker's territorial claims seemed to belimited to the floor of the boat. This held promise. If I couldmake the tarpaulin mine, we might get along.
I held my breath, lowered my head and cocked it to theside to see beyond the edge of the lid. There was rainwater,about four inches of it, sloshing about the floor of the lifeboat– Richard Parker's own freshwater pond. He was doing exactlywhat I would be doing in his place: cooling off in the shade.
The day was getting beastly hot. He was flat on the floor ofthe boat, facing away from me, his hind legs sticking straightback and splayed out, back paws facing up, and stomach andinner thighs lying directly against the floor. The position lookedsilly but was no doubt very pleasant.
I returned to the business of survival. I opened a carton ofemergency ration and ate my fill, about one-third of thepackage. It was remarkable how little it took to make mystomach feel full. I was about to drink from the rain-catcherpouch slung across my shoulder when my eyes fell upon thegraduated drinking beakers. If I couldn't go for a dip, could Iat least have a sip? My own supplies of water would not lastforever. I took hold of one of the beakers, leaned over, loweredthe lid just as much as I needed to and tremulously dippedthe beaker into Parker's Pond, four feet from his back paws.
His upturned pads with their wet fur looked like little desertislands surrounded by seaweed.
I brought back a good 500 millilitres. It was a littlediscoloured. Specks were floating in it. Did I worry aboutingesting some horrid bacteria? I didn't even think about it. AllI had on my mind was my thirst. I drained that beaker to thedregs with great satisfaction.
Nature is preoccupied with balance, so it did not surprise methat nearly right away I felt the urge to urinate. I relievedmyself in the beaker. I produced so exactly the amount I hadjust downed that it was as if a minute hadn't passed and Iwere still considering Richard Parker's rainwater. I hesitated. Ifelt the urge to tilt the beaker into my mouth once more. Iresisted the temptation. But it was hard. Mockery be damned,my urine looked delicious! I was not suffering yet fromdehydration, so the liquid was pale in colour. It glowed in thesunlight, looking like a glass of apple juice. And it wasguaranteed fresh, which certainly couldn't be said of the cannedwater that was my staple. But I heeded my better judgment. Isplashed my urine on the tarpaulin and over the locker lid tostake my claim.
I stole another two beakers of water from Richard Parker,without urinating this time. I felt as freshly watered as a pottedplant.
Now it was time to improve my situation. I turned to thecontents of the locker and the many promises they held.
I brought out a second rope and tethered the raft to thelifeboat with it.
I discovered what a solar still is. A solar still is a device toproduce fresh water from salt water. It consists of an inflatabletransparent cone set upon a round lifebuoy-like buoyancychamber that has a surface of black rubberized canvasstretched across its centre. The still operates on the principle ofdistillation: sea water lying beneath the sealed cone on theblack canvas is heated by the sun and evaporates, gathering onthe inside surface of the cone. This salt-free water trickles downand collects in a gully on the perimeter of the cone, fromwhich it drains into a pouch. The lifeboat came equipped withtwelve solar stills. I read the instructions carefully, as thesurvival manual told me to. I inflated all twelve cones with airand I filled each bu............
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