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Chapter 92
I made an exceptional botanical discovery. But there will bemany who disbelieve the following episode. Still, I give it to younow 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 aday of quiet sunshine and gentle breeze. I had slept a shortwhile, a diluted sleep that had brought no rest and no dreams.
I turned over to my other side, expending as little energy aspossible in doing so. I opened my eyes.
In the near distance I saw trees. I did not react. I wascertain it was an illusion that a few blinks would makedisappear.
The trees remained. In fact, they grew to be a forest. Theywere part of a low-lying island. I pushed myself up. I continuedto disbelieve my eyes. But it was a thrill to be deluded in sucha high-quality way. The trees were beautiful. They were likenone I had ever seen before. They had a pale bark, andequally distributed branches that carried an amazing profusionof leaves. These leaves were brilliantly green, a green so brightand emerald that, next to it, vegetation during the monsoonswas drab olive.
I blinked deliberately, expecting my eyelids to act likelumberjacks. But the trees would not fall.
I looked down. I was both satisfied and disappointed withwhat I saw. The island had no soil. Not that the trees stood inwater. Rather, they stood in what appeared to be a densemass of vegetation, as sparkling green as the leaves. Who hadever heard of land with no soil? With trees growing out ofpure vegetation? I felt satisfaction because such a geologyconfirmed that I was right, that this island was a chimera, aplay of the mind. By the same token I felt disappointmentbecause an island, any island, however strange, would havebeen very good to come upon.
Since the trees continued to stand, I continued to look. Totake 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 myfavourite colour.
The current gently pushed the lifeboat closer to the illusion.
Its shore could not be called a beach, there being neither sandnor pebbles, and there was no pounding of surf either, sincethe waves that fell upon the island simply vanished into itsporosity. From a ridge some three hundred yards inland, theisland sloped to the sea and, forty or so yards into it, fell offprecipitously, disappearing from sight into the depths of thePacific, surely the smallest continental shelf on record.
I was getting used to the mental delusion. To make it last Irefrained from putting a strain on it; when the lifeboat nudgedthe island, I did not move, only continued to dream. The fabricof the island seemed to be an intricate, tightly webbed mass oftube-shaped seaweed, in diameter a little thicker than twofingers. 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 wasgreen. In fact, it was chlorophyll heaven. A green to outshinefood colouring and flashing neon lights. A green to get drunkon. "Ultimately, a foot is the only good judge of land," pursuedthe 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 weresharks. There were none. I turned on my stomach, andholding on to the tarpaulin, I slowly brought a leg down. Myfoot entered the sea. It was pleasingly cool. The island lay justa little further down, shimmering in the water. I stretched. Iexpected the bubble of illusion to burst at any second.
It did not. My foot sank into clear water and met therubbery resistance of something flexible but solid. I put moreweight down. The illusion would not give. I put my full weighton my foot. Still I did not sink. Still I did not believe.
Finally, it was my nose that was the judge of land. It cameto my olfactory sense, full and fresh, overwhelming: the smell ofvegetation. I gasped. After months of nothing butsalt-water-bleached smells, this reek of vegetable organic matterwas intoxicating. It was then that I believed, and the only thingthat sank was my mind; my thought process becamedisjointed. My leg began to shake.
"My God! My God!" I whimpered.
I fell overboard.
The combined shock of solid land and cool water gave methe strength to pull myself forward onto the island. I babbledincoherent thanks to God and collapsed.
But I could not stay still. I was too excited. I attempted toget to my feet. Blood rushed away from my head. The groundshook violently. A dizzying blindness overcame me. I thought Iwould faint. I steadied myself. All I seemed able to do waspant. I managed to sit up.
"Richard Parker! Land! Land! We are saved!" I shouted.
The smell of vegetation was extraordinarily strong. As for thegreenness, it was so fresh and soothing that strength andcomfort seemed to be physically pouring into my systemthrough my eyes.
What was this strange, tubular seaweed, so intricatelyentangled? Was it edible? It seemed to be a variety of marinealgae, but quite rigid, far more so than normal algae. The feelof it in the hand was wet and as of something crunchy. Ipulled at it. Strands of it broke off without too much effort. Incross-section it consisted of two concentric walls: the wet,slightly rough outer wall, so vibrantly green, and an inner wallmidway between the outer wall and the core of the algae. Thedivision in the two tubes that resulted was very plain: thecentre tube was white in colour, while the tube that surroundedit was decreas-ingly green as it approached the inner wall. Ibrought a piece of the algae to my nose. Beyond the agreeablefragrance 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 tubewas bitterly salty – but the outer was not only edible, it wasdelicious. My tongue began to tremble as if it were a fingerflipping through a dictionary, trying to find a long-forgottenword. It found it, and my eyes closed with pleasure at hearingit: sweet. Not as in good, but as in sugary. Turtles and fishare many things, but they are never, ever sugary. The algaehad a light sweetness that outdid in delight even the sap ofour maple trees here in Canada. In consistency, the closest Ican compare it to is water chestnuts.
Saliva forcefully oozed through the dry pastiness of mymouth. Making loud noises of pleasure, I tore at the algaearound me. The inner and outer tubes separated cleanly andeasily. I began stuffing the sweet outer into my mouth. I wentat it with both hands, force-feeding my mouth and setting it towork harder and faster than it had in a very long time. I atetill there was a regular moat around me.
A solitary tree stood about two hundred feet away. It wasthe only tree downhill from the ridge, which seemed a verylong way off. I say ridge; the word perhaps gives an incorrectimpression of how steep the rise from the shore was. Theisland was low-lying, as I've said. The rise was gentle, to aheight 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 managedto 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 Ihadn't fallen over, my legs had no strength left in them. Butmy will was strong. I was determined to move forward. Icrawled, dragged myself, weakly leapfrogged to the tree.
I know I will never know a joy so vast as I experiencedwhen I entered that tree's dappled, shimmering shade andheard the dry, crisp sound of the wind rustling its leaves. Thetree was not as large or as tall as the ones inland, and forbeing on the wrong side of the ridge, more exposed to theelements, it was a little scraggly and not so uniformly developedas its mates. But it was a tree, and a tree is a blessedly goodthing to behold when you've been lost at sea for a long, longtime. I sang that tree's glory, its solid, unhurried purity, its slowbeauty. Oh, that I could be like it, rooted to the ground butwith my every hand raised up to God in praise! I wept.
As my heart exalted Allah, my mind began to take ininformation about Allah's works. The tree did indeed grow rightout of the algae, as I had seen from the lifeboat. There wasnot the least trace of soil. Either there was soil deeper down,or this species of tree was a remarkable instance of acommensal or a parasite. The trunk was about the width of aman's chest. The bark was greyish green in colour, thin andsmooth, and soft enough that I could mark it with myfingernail. The cordate leaves were large and broad, and endedin a single point. The head of the tree had the lovely fullroundness of a mango tree, but it was not a mango. I thoughtit 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 Iknow was that it was beautiful and green and lush with leaves.
I heard a growl. I turned. Richard Parker was observing mefrom the lifeboat. He was looking at the island, too. He seemedto want to come ashore but was afraid. Finally, after muchsnarling and pacing, he leapt from the boat. I brought theorange whistle to my mouth. But he didn't have aggression onhis mind. Simple balance was enough of a challenge; he was aswobbly on his feet as I was. When he advanced, he crawledclose to the ground and with trembling limbs, like a newborncub. Giving me a wide berth, he made for the ridge anddisappeared into the interior of the island.
I passed the day eating, resting, attempting to stand and, ina general way, bathing in bliss. I felt nauseous when I exertedmyself too much. And I kept feeling that the ground wasshifting beneath me and that I was going to fall over, evenwhen I was sitting still.
I started worrying about Richard Parker in the lateafternoon. Now that the setting, the territory, had changed, Iwasn't sure how he would take to me if he came upon me.
Reluctantly, strictly for safety's sake, I crawled back to thelifeboat. However Richard Parker took possession of the island,the bow and the tarpaulin remained my territory. I searchedfor something to moor the lifeboat to. Evidently the algaecovered the shore thickly, for it was all I could find. Finally, Iresolved the problem by driving an oar, handle first, deep intothe algae and tethering the boat to it.
I crawled onto the tarpaulin. I was exhausted. My body wasspent from taking in so much food, and there was the nervoustension arising from my sudden change of fortunes. As the dayended, I hazily remember hearing Richard Parker roaring in thedistance, but sleep overcame me.
I awoke in the night with a strange, uncomfortable feeling inmy lower belly. I thought it was a cramp, that perhaps I hadpoisoned myself with the algae. I heard a noise. I looked.
Richard Parker was aboard. He had returned while I wassleeping. He was meowing and licking the pads of his feet. Ifound his return puzzling but thought no further about it – thecramp was quickly getting worse. I was doubled over with pain,shaking with it, when a process, normal for most but longforgotten by me, set itself into motion: defecation. It was verypainful, but afterwards I fell into the deepest, most refreshingsleep I had had since the night before the Tsimtsum sank.
When I woke up in the morning I felt much stronger. Icrawled to the solitary tree in a vigorous way. My eyes feastedonce more upon it, as did my stomach on the algae. I hadsuch a plentiful breakfast that I dug a big hole.
Richard Parker once again hesitated for hours beforejumping off the boat. When he did, mid-morning, as soon ashe landed on the shore he jumped back and half fell in thewater and seemed very tense. He hissed and clawed the airwith a paw. It was curious. I had no idea what he was doing.
His anxiety passed, and noticeably surer-footed than theprevious day, he disappeared another time over the ridge.
That day, leaning against the tree, I stood. I felt dizzy Theonly way I could make the ground stop moving was to closemy eyes and grip the tree. I pushed off and tried to walk. Ifell instantly. The ground rushed up to me before I couldmove a foot. No harm done. The island, coated with suchtightly woven, rubbery vegetation, was an ideal place to relearnhow to walk. I could fall any which way, it was impossible tohurt myself.
The next day, after another restful night on the ‘ boat – towhich, once again, Richard Parker had returned – I was ableto walk. Falling half a dozen times, I managed to reach thetree. I could feel my strength increasing by the hour. With thegaff I reached up and pulled down a branch from the tree. Iplucked off some leaves. They were soft and unwaxed, but theytasted bitter. Richard Parker was attached to his den on thelifeboat – that was my explanation for why he had returnedanother 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 thebow, 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 gallopcouldn't possibly be the same listless, bedraggled tiger who wasmy companion in misfortune? But it was. It was RichardParker and he was coming my way at high speed. He lookedpurposeful. His powerful neck rose above his lowered head. Hiscoat and his muscles shook at every step. I could hear thedrumming of his heavy body against the ground.
I have read that there are two fears that cannot be trainedout of us: the startle reaction upon hearing an unexpectednoise, and vertigo. I would like to add a third, to wit, the rapidand direct approach of a known killer.
I fumbled for the whistle. When he was twenty-five feet fromthe lifeboat I blew into the whistle with all my might. A piercingcry split the air.
It had the desired effect. Richard Parker braked. But heclearly 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 hairon him was raised. His claws were full out. He was in a stateof extreme agitation. I feared that the defensive wall of mywhistle blows was about to crumble and that he would attackme.
Instead, Richard Parker did the most unexpected thing: hejumped into the sea. I was astounded. The very thing Ithought he would never do, he did, and with might andresolve. He energetically paddled his way to the stern of thelifeboat. I thought of blowing again, but instead opened thelocker lid and sat down, retreating to the inner sanctum of myterritory.
He surged onto the stern, quantities of water pouring offhim, making my end of the boat pitch up. He balanced on thegunnel and the stern bench for a moment, assessing me. Myheart grew faint. I did not think I would be able to blow intothe whistle again. I looked at him blankly. He flowed down tothe floor of the lifeboat and disappeared under the tarpaulin. Icould see parts of him from the edges of the locker lid. Ithrew myself upon the tarpaulin, out of his sight – but directlyabove him. I felt an overwhelming urge to sprout wings and flyoff.
I calmed down. I reminded myself forcefully that this hadbeen my situation for the last long while, to be living with alive 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 growlingin his sleep. He was loud enough about it to have woken meup.
In the morning, as usual, he went over the ridge.
I decided that as soon as I was strong enough I would goexploring the island. It seemed quite large,if the shoreline was any indication; left and right it stretchedon with only a slight curve, showing the island to have a fairgirth. I spent the day walking – and falling – from the shoreto the tree and back, in an attempt to restore my legs tohealth. At every fall I had a full meal of algae.
When Richard Parker returned as the day was ending, alittle earlier than the previous day, I was expecting him. I sattight and did not blow the whistle. He came to the water'sedge and in one mighty leap reached the side of the lifeboat.
He entered his territory without intruding into mine, onlycausing the boat to lurch to one side. His return to form wasquite terrifying.
The next morning, after giving Richard Parker plenty ofadvance, I set off to explore the island. I walked up to theridge. I reached it easily, proudly moving one foot ahead of theother in a gait that was spirited if still a little awkward. Hadmy legs been weaker, they would have given way beneath mewhen I saw what I saw beyond the ridge.
To start with details, I saw that the whole island wascovered with the algae, not just its edges. I saw a great greenplateau with a green forest in its centre. I saw all around thisforest hundreds of evenly scattered, identically sized ponds withtrees sparsely distributed in a uniform way between them, thewhole arrangement giving the unmistakable impression offollowing a design.
But it was the meerkats that impressed themselves mostindelibly on my mind. I saw in one look what I wouldconservatively estimate to be hundreds of thousands ofmeerkats. The landscape was covered in meerkats. And when Iappeared, it seemed 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 readabout them. They were in the books and in the literature. Ameerkat is a small South African mammal related to themongoose; in other words, a carnivorous burrower, a foot longand weighing two pounds when mature, slender and weasel-likein build, with a pointed snout, eyes sitting squarely at the frontof its face, short legs, paws with four toes and long,non-retractile claws, and an eight-inch tail. Its fur is light brownto grey in colour with black or brown bands on its back, whilethe tip of its tail, its ears and the characteristic circles aroundits 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 otherthings, scorpions, to whose venom it is completely immune.
When it is on the lookout, the meerkat has the peculiarity ofstanding perfectly upright on the tips of its back legs, balancingitself tripod-like with its tail. Often a group of meerkats will takethe stance collectively, standing in a huddle and gazing in thesame direction, looking like commuters waiting for a bus. Theearnest expression on their faces, and the way their front pawshang before them, make them look either like childrenself-consciously posing for a photographer or patients in adoctor's office stripped naked and demurely trying to covertheir genitals.
That is what I beheld in one glance, hundreds of thousandsof meerkats – more, a million – turning to me and standing atattention, as if saying, "Yes, sir?" Mind you, a standing meerkatreaches up eighteen inches at most, so it was not the height ofthese creatures that was so breathtaking as their unlimitedmultitude. I stood rooted to the spot, speechless. If I set amillion meerkats fleeing in terror, the chaos would beindescribable. But their interest in me was short-lived. After afew seconds, they went back to doing what they had beendoing before I appeared, which was either nibbling at the algaeor staring into the ponds. To see so many beings bendingdown at the same time reminded me of prayer time in amosque.
The creatures seemed to feel no fear. As I moved downfrom the ridge, none shied away or showed the least tension atmy presence. If I had wanted to, I could have touched one,even picked one up. I did nothing of the sort. I simply walkedinto what was surely the largest colony of meerkats in theworld, one of the strangest, most wonderful experiences of mylife. There was a ceaseless noise in the air. It was theirsqueaking, chirping, twittering and barking.
Such were their numbers and the vagaries of theirexcitement that the noise came and went like a flock of birds,at times very loud, swirling around me, then rapidly dying offas the closest meerkats fell silent while others, further off,started up.
Were they not afraid of me because I should be afraid ofthem? The question crossed my mind. But the answer – thatthey were harmless – was immediately apparent. To get closeto a pond, around which they were densely packed, I had tonudge them away with my feet so as not to step on one.
They took to my barging without any offence, making room forme like a good-natured crowd. I felt warm, furry bodies againstmy ankles as I looked into a pond.
All the ponds had the same round shape and were aboutthe same size – roughly forty feet in diameter. I expectedshallowness. I saw nothing but deep, clear water. The pondsseemed bottomless, in fact. And as far down as I could see,their sides consisted of green algae. Evidently the layer atop theisland was very substantial.
I could see nothing that accounted for the meerkats' fixedcuriosity, and I might have given up on solving the mysteryhad squeaking and barking not erupted at a pond nearby.
Meerkats were jumping up and down in a state of greatferment. Suddenly, by the hundreds, they began diving into thepond. There was much pushing and shoving as the meerkatsbehind vied to reach the pond's edge. The frenzy wascollective; even tiny meerkittens were making for the water,barely being held back by mothers and guardians. I stared indisbelief. These were not standard Kalahari Desert meerkats.
Standard Kalahari Desert meerkats do not behave like frogs.
These meerkats were most definitely a subspecies that hadspecialized in a fascinating and surprising way.
I made for the pond, bringing my feet down gingerly, intime to see meerkats swimming – actually swimming – andbringing to shore fish by the dozens, and not small fish either.
Some were dorados that would have been unqualified feasts onthe lifeboat. They dwarfed the meerkats. It wasincomprehensible to me how meerkats could catch such fish.
It was as the meerkats were hauling the fish out of thepond, displaying real feats of teamwork, that I noticedsomething curious: every fish, without exception, was alreadydead. Freshly dead. The meerkats were bringing ashore deadfish they had not killed.
I kneeled by the pond, pushing aside several excited, wetmeerkats. I touched the water. It was cooler than I'd expected.
There was a current that was bringing colder water frombelow. I cupped a little water in my hand and brought it tomy 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 willquickly become bloated and die. But what were seafaring fishdoing in a freshwater pond? How had they got there?
I went to another pond, making my way through themeerkats. It too was fresh. Another pond; the same. And againwith a fourth pond.
They were all freshwater ponds. Where had such quantitiesof fresh water come from, I asked myself. The answer wasobvious: from the algae. The algae naturally and continuouslydesalinated sea water, which was why its core was salty whileits outer surface was wet with fresh water: it was oozing thefresh water out. I did not ask myself why the algae did this, orhow, or where the salt went. My mind stopped asking suchquestions. I simply laughed and jumped into a pond. I found ithard 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 theedge of the pond. The effect of bathing in pure, clean, salt-freewater was more than I can put into words. After such a longtime at sea, my skin was like a hide and my hair was long,malted and as silky as a fly-catching strip. I felt even my soulhad been corroded by salt. So, under the gaze of a thousandmeerkats, I soaked, allowing fresh water to dissolve every saltcrystal that had tainted me.
The meerkats looked away. They did it like one man, all ofthem turning in the same direction at exactly the same time. Ipulled myself out to see what it was. It was Richard Parker.
He confirmed what I had suspected, that these meerkats hadgone for so many generations without predators that anynotion of flight distance, of flight, of plain fear, had beengenetically weeded out of them. He was moving through them,blazing a trail of murder and mayhem, devouring one meerkatafter another, blood dripping from his mouth, and they, cheekto jowl with a tiger, were jumping up and down on the spot,as if crying, "My turn! My turn! My turn!" I would see thisscene time and again. Nothing distracted the meerkats fromtheir little lives of pond staring and algae nibbling. WhetherRichard Parker skulked up in masterly tiger fashion beforelanding upon them in a thunder of roaring, or slouched byindifferently, it was all the same to them. They were not to beruffled. Meekness ruled.
He killed beyond his need. He killed meerkats that he didnot eat. In animals, the urge to kill is separate from the urgeto eat. To go for so long without prey and suddenly to haveso many – his pent-up hunting instinct was lashing out with avengeance.
He was far away. There was no danger to me. At least forthe moment.
The next morning, after he had gone, I cleaned the lifeboat.
It needed it badly. I won't describe what the accumulation ofhuman and animal skeletons, mixed in with innumerable fishand turtle remains, looked like. The whole foul, disgusting messwent overboard. I didn't dare step onto the floor of the boatfor fear of leaving a tangible trace of my presence to RichardParker, so the job had to be done with the gaff from thetarpaulin or from the side of the boat, standing in the water.
What I could not clean up with the gaff – the smells and thesmears – 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 ateduring the night.
I spent the following days eating and drinking and bathingand observing the meerkats and walking and running andresting and growing stronger. My running became smooth andunselfconscious, a source............
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