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Chapter 61
The next morning I was not too wet and I was feelingstrong. I thought this was remarkable considering the strain Iwas under and how little I had eaten in the last several days.
It was a fine day. I decided to try my hand at fishing, forthe first time in my life. After a breakfast of three biscuits andone can of water, I read what the survival manual had to sayon the subject. The first problem arose: bait. I thought aboutit. There were the dead animals, but stealing food from undera tiger's nose was a proposition I was not up to. He wouldnot realize that it was an investment that would bring him anexcellent return. I decided to use my leather shoe. I had onlyone left. The other I had lost when the ship sank.
I crept up to the lifeboat and I gathered from the lockerone of the fishing kits, the knife and a bucket for my catch.
Richard Parker was lying on his side. His tail jumped to lifewhen I was at the bow but his head did not lift. I let the raftout.
I attached a hook to a wire leader, which I tied to a line. Iadded some lead weights. I picked three that had an intriguingtorpedo shape. I removed my shoe and cut it into pieces. Itwas hard work; the leather was tough. I carefully worked thehook into a flat piece of hide, not through it but into it, sothat the point of the hook was hidden. I let the line downdeep. There had been so many fish the previous evening that Iexpected easy success.
I had none. The whole shoe disappeared bit by bit, slighttug on the line by slight tug on the line, happy freeloading fishby happy freeloading fish, bare hook by bare hook, until I wasleft with only the rubber sole and the shoelace. When theshoelace proved an unconvincing earthworm, out of sheerexasperation I tried the sole, all of it. It was not a good idea. Ifelt a slight, promising tug and then the line was unexpectedlylight. All I pulled in was line. I had lost the whole tackle.
This loss did not strike me as a terrible blow. There wereother hooks, leader wires and weights in the kit, besides awhole other kit. And I wasn't even fishing for myself. I hadplenty of food in store.
Still, a part of my mind – the one that says what we don'twant to hear – rebuked me. "Stupidity has a price. You shouldshow more care and wisdom next time."Later that morning a second turtle appeared. It came rightup to the raft. It could have reached up and bit my bottom ifit had wanted to. When it turned I reached for its hind flipper,but as soon as I touched it I recoiled in horror. The turtleswam away.
The same part of my mind that had rebuked me over myfishing fiasco scolded me again. "What exactly do you intend tofeed that tiger of yours? How much longer do you think he'lllast on three dead animals? Do I need to remind you thattigers are not carrion eaters? Granted, when he's on his lastlegs he probably won't lift his nose at much. But don't youthink that before he submits to eating puffy, putrefied zebrahe'll try the fresh, juicy Indian boy just a short dip away? Andhow are we doing with the water situation? You know howtigers get impatient with thirst. Have you smelled his breathrecently? It's pretty awful. That's a bad sign. Perhaps you'rehoping that he'll lap up the Pacific and in quenching his thirstallow you to walk to America? Quite amazing, this limitedcapacity to excrete salt that Sundarbans tigers have developed.
Comes from living in a tidal mangrove forest, I suppose. But itis a limited capacity. Don't they say that drinking too muchsaline water makes a man-eater of a tiger? Oh, look. Speak ofthe devil. There he is. He's yawning. My, my, what anenormous pink cave. Look at those long yellow stalactites andstalagmites. Maybe today you'll get a chance to visit."Richard Parker's tongue, the size and colour of a rubberhot-water bottle, retreated and his mouth closed. He swallowed.
I spent the rest of the day worrying myself sick. I stayedaway from the lifeboat. Despite my own dire predictions,Richard Parker passed the time calmly enough. He still hadwater from the rainfall and he didn't seem too concerned withhunger. But he did make various tiger noises – growls andmoans and the like – that did nothing to put me at ease. Theriddle seemed irresolvable: to fish I needed bait, but I wouldhave bait only once I had fish. What was I supposed to do?
Use one of my toes? Cut off one of my ears?
A solution appeared in the late afternoon in a mostunexpected way. I had pulled myself up to the lifeboat. Morethan that: I had climbed aboard and was rummaging throughthe locker, feverishly looking for an idea that would save mylife. I had tied the raft so that it was about six feet from theboat. I fancied that with a jump and a pull at a loose knot Icould save myself from Richard Parker. Desperation hadpushed me to take such a risk.
Finding nothing, no bait and no new idea, I sat up – onlyto discover that I was dead centre in the focus of his stare.
He was at the other end of the lifeboat, where the zebra usedto be, turned my way and sitting up, looking as if he'd beenpatiently waiting for me to notice him. How was it that I hadn'theard him stir? What delusion was I under that I thought Icould outwit him? Suddenly I was hit hard across the face. Icried out and closed my eyes. With feline speed he had leaptacross the lifeboat and struck me. I was to have my faceclawed off – this was the gruesome way I was to die. Thepain was so severe I felt nothing. Blessed be shock. Blessed bethat part of us that protects us from too much pain andsorrow. At the heart of life is a fuse box. I whimpered, "Goahead, Richard Parker, finish me off. But please, what youmust do, do it quickly. A blown fuse should not be overtested."He was taking his time. He was at my feet, making noises.
No doubt he had discovered the locker and its riches. Ifearfully opened an eye.
It was a fish. There was a fish in the locker. It was floppingabout like a fish out of water. It was about fifteen inches longand it had wings. A flying fish. Slim and dark grey-blue, withdry, featherless wings and round, unblinking, yellowish eyes. Itwas this flying fish that had struck me across the face, notRichard Parker. He was still fifteen feet away, no doubtwondering what I was going on about. But he had seen thefish. I could read a keen curiosity on his face. He seemedabout ready to investigate.
I bent down, picked up the fish and threw it towards him.
This was the way to tame him! Where a rat had gone, a flyingfish would follow. Unfortunately, the flying fish flew. In mid-air,just ahead of Richard Parker's open mouth, the fish swervedand dropped into the water. It happened with lightning speed.
Richard Parker turned his head and snapped his mouth, jowlsflapping, but the fish was too quick for him. He lookedastonished and displeased. He turned to me again. "Where'smy treat?" his face seemed to inquire. Fear and sadnessgripped me. I turned with the half-hearted, half-abandonedhope that I could jump onto the raft before he could jumponto me.
At that precise instant there was a vibration in the air andwe were struck by a school of flying fish. They came like aswarm of locusts. It was not only their numbers; there wasalso something insect-like about the clicking, whirring sound oftheir wings. They burst out of the water, dozens of them at atime, some of them flick-flacking over a hundred yards throughthe air. Many dived into the water just before the boat. Anumber sailed clear over it. Some crashed into its side,sounding like firecrackers going off. Several lucky ones returnedto the water after a bounce on the tarpaulin. Others, lessfortunate, fell directly into the boat, where they started a racketof flapping and flailing and splashing. And still others flew rightinto us. Standing unprotected as I was, I felt I was living themartyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Every fish that hit me was likean arrow entering my flesh. I clutched at a blanket to protectmyself while also trying to catch some of the fish. I receivedcuts and bruises all over my body.
The reason for this onslaught became evident immediately:
dorados were leaping out of the water in hot pursuit of them.
The much larger dorados couldn't match their flying, but theywere faster swimmers and their short lunges were verypowerful. They could overtake flying fish if they were justbehind them and lunging from the water at the same time andin the same direction. There were sharks too; they also leaptout of the water, not so cleanly but with devastatingconsequence for some dorados. This aquatic mayhem didn't lastlong, but while it did, the sea bubbled and boiled, fish jumpedand jaws worked hard.
Richard Parker was tougher than I was in the face of thesefish, and far............
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