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C H A P T E R 4 5

 

I was cold. It was a distracted observation, as if it didn’t concern me. Daybreak came. It happened quickly, yet by imperceptible degrees. A corner of the sky changed colours. The air began filling with light. The calm sea opened up around me like a great book. Still it felt like night. Suddenly it was day.

Warmth came only when the sun, looking like an electrically lit orange, broke across the horizon, but I didn’t need to wait that long to feel it. With the very first rays of light it came alive in me: hope. As things emerged in outline and filled with colour, hope increased until it was like a song in my heart. Oh, what it was to bask in it! Things would work out yet. The worst was over. I had survived the night. Today I would be rescued. To think that, to string those words together in my mind, was itself a source of hope. Hope fed on hope. As the horizon became a neat, sharp line, I scanned it eagerly. The day was clear again and visibility was perfect. I imagined Ravi would greet me first and with a tease. “What’s this?” he would say. “You find yourself a great big lifeboat and you fill it with animals? You think you’re Noah or something?” Father would be unshaven and dishevelled. Mother would look to the sky and take me in her arms. I went through a dozen versions of what it was going to be like on the rescue ship, variations on the theme of sweet reunion. That morning the horizon might curve one way, my lips resolutely curved the other, in a smile.

Strange as it might sound, it was only after a long time that I looked to see what was happening in the lifeboat. The hyena had attacked the zebra. Its mouth was bright red and it was chewing on a piece of hide. My eyes automatically searched for the wound, for the area under attack. I gasped with horror.

The zebra’s broken leg was missing. The hyena had bitten it off and dragged it to the stern, behind the zebra. A flap of skin hung limply over the raw stump. Blood was still dripping. The victim bore its suffering patiently, without showy remonstrations. A slow and constant grinding of its teeth was the only visible sign of distress. Shock, revulsion and anger surged through me. I felt intense hatred for the hyena. I thought of doing something to, kill it. But I did nothing. And my outrage was short‑lived. I must be honest about that. I didn’t have pity to spare for long for the zebra. When your own life is threatened, your sense of empathy is blunted by a terrible, selfish hunger for survival. It was sad that it was suffering so much–and being such a big, strapping creature it wasn’t at the end of its ordeal–but there was nothing I could do about it. I felt pity and then I moved on. This is not something I am proud of. I am sorry I was so callous about the matter. I have not forgotten that poor zebra and what it went through. Not a prayer goes by that I don’t think of it.

There was still no sign of Orange Juice. I turned my eyes to the horizon again.

That afternoon the wind picked up a little and I noticed something about the lifeboat: despite its weight, it floated lightly on the water, no doubt because it was carrying less than its capacity. We had plenty of freeboard, the distance between the water and the gunnel; it would take a mean sea to swamp us. But it also meant that whatever end of the boat was facing the wind tended to fall away, bringing us broadside to the waves. With small waves the result was a ceaseless, fist‑like beating against the hull, while larger waves made for a tiresome rolling of the boat as it leaned from side to side. This jerky and incessant motion was making me feel queasy.



Perhaps I would feel better in a new position. I slid down the oar and shifted back onto the bow. I sat facing the waves, with the rest of the boat to my left. I was closer to the hyena, but it wasn’t stirring.

It was as I was breathing deeply and concentrating on making my nausea go away that I saw Orange Juice. I had imagined her completely out of sight, near the bow beneath the tarpaulin, as far from the hyena as she could get. Not so. She was on the side bench, just beyond the edge of the hyena’s indoor track and barely hidden from me by the bulge of rolled‑up tarpaulin. She lifted her head only an inch or so and right away I saw her.

Curiosity got the best of me. I had to see her better. Despite the rolling of the boat I brought myself to a kneeling position. The hyena looked at me, but did not move. Orange Juice came into sight. She was deeply slouched and holding on to the gunnel with both her hands, her head sunk very low between her arms. Her mouth was open and her tongue was lolling about. She was visibly panting. Despite the tragedy afflicting me, despite not feeling well, I let out a laugh. Everything about Orange Juice at that moment spelled one word: seasickness . The image of a new species popped into my head: the rare seafaring green orang‑utan. I returned to my sitting position. The poor dear looked so humanly sick! It is a particularly funny thing to read human traits in animals, especially in apes and monkeys, where it is so easy. Simians are the clearest mirrors we have in the animal world. That is why they are so popular in zoos. I laughed again. I brought my hands to my chest, surprised at how I felt. Oh my. This laughter was like a volcano of happiness erupting in me. And Orange Juice had not only cheered me up; she had also taken on both our feelings of seasickness. I was feeling fine now.

I returned to scrutinizing the horizon, my hopes high.

Besides being deathly seasick, there was something else about Orange Juice that was remarkable: she was uninjured. And she had her back turned to the hyena, as if she felt she could safely ignore it. The ecosystem on this lifeboat was decidedly baffling. Since there are no natural conditions in which a spotted hyena and an orang‑utan can meet, there being none of the first in Borneo and none of the second in Africa, there is no way of knowing how they would relate. But it seemed to me highly improbable, if not totally incredible, that when brought together these frugiv‑orous tree‑dwellers and carnivorous savannah‑dwellers would so radically carve out their niches as to pay no attention to each other. Surely an orangutan would smell of prey to a hyena, albeit a strange one, one to be remembered afterwards for producing stupendous hairballs, nonetheless better‑tasting than an exhaust pipe and well worth looking out for when near trees. And surely a hyena would smell of a predator to an orang‑utan, a reason for being vigilant when a piece of durian has been dropped to the ground accidentally. But nature forever holds surprises. Perhaps it was not so. If goats could be brought to live amicably with rhinoceros, why not orang‑utans with hyenas? That would be a big winner at a zoo. A sign would have to be put up. I could see it already: “Dear Public, Do not be afraid for the orang‑utans! They are in the trees because that is where they live, not because they are afraid of the spotted hyenas. Come back at mealtime, or at sunset when they get thirsty, and you will see them climbing down from their trees and moving about the grounds, absolutely unmolested by the hyenas.” Father would be fascinated.

Sometime that afternoon I saw the first specimen of what would become a dear, reliable friend of mine. There was a bumping and scraping sound against the hull of the lifeboat. A few seconds later, so close to the boat I could have leaned down and grabbed it, a large sea turtle appeared, a hawksbill, flippers lazily turning, head sticking out of the water. It was striking‑looking in an ugly sort of way, with a rugged, yellowish brown shell about three feet long and spotted with patches of algae, and a dark green face with a sharp beak, no lips, two solid holes for nostrils, and black eyes that stared at me intently. The expression was haughty and severe, like that of an ill‑tempered old man who has complaining on his mind. The queerest thing about the reptile was simply that it was. It looked incongruous, floating there in the water, so odd in its shape compared to the sleek, slippery design of fish. Yet it was plainly in its element and it was I who was the odd one out. It hovered by the boat for several minutes.

I said to it, “Go tell a ship I’m here. Go, go.” It turned and sank out of sight, back flippers pushing water in alternate strokes.

 


Date: 2015-02-03; view: 552


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