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What Was His Name?
The dazzling orange sun was setting while the hunger ate through my stomach. The salty ocean air burned my nostrils and scorched my eyes. My hand reached for a tin of crackers and barely had the energy to shake it around. I heard the tinkling of some crumbs, and frantically hurried them past my pasty, foul-tasting lips, savoring their tasteless taste. My mother was slumped underneath the tarpaulin, her appearance just as dreary as my mood, while the cook suspiciously had enough energy to be humming a series of random pitches to himself. He had been fishing for us for the past - how many days had it been? I peered down over the side of the boat and counted twenty-six tallies carved into it. Only twenty-six days on this lifeboat, and I was already out of luck. The food and fresh water supply was out. Being a vegetarian, I lived on crackers for as long as I could. I always offered them to my mother, but she dismissed them with a wave of her hand. Seeing my glorious mother in her most beautiful sari, but all ripped up and grimy, while her cheeks were sunken and her appearance emaciated, made my heart sink deeper than the Tsimtsum had, which was what left us in this situation in the first place. That extraordinary cook was the reason for our survival; he was somehow able to bring an abundance of fish onboard. Fish, who, it seemed, swarmed towards our meager lifeboat, finding our insignificant speck in the middle of the great Pacific Ocean.
Then came the news. How dreadful indeed! By the will of Allah and the mercy of Jesus, it surely could not have been true!
“We’re all out of bait,” admitted his gruff voice. The cook, whose heavy French accent permeated into his speech and whose flowery, wiggly-sounding words had to have been concocted!
He opened up a can of worms. The can, which I might remark, was empty. A new era of problems on this damp, miserable lifeboat. How I missed the taste of fish! The first time its saltiness had touched the tip of my tongue, how I flinched and swallowed its sliminess uneasily. My mother had closed her eyes and prayed to Ganesh for forgiveness; yet today, I yearned for the scales of the flying fish to slice my tongue, and longed to see that final array of colors on the skin of a dorado near death.
A husky voice jarred me out of my thoughts. “We need new bait, do we not?” The voice wavered and then continued from the back of the lifeboat.
“And they say…”
I peered at him with my dry, bloodshot eyes.
“They say human meat is the sweetest.”
I was dumbfounded, while my mother rose aggressively from her position underneath the tarpaulin. She raised her fist as if to yell and strike him in the face. And yet, she recoiled. Her eyes brightened and then darkened. Her expression was brooding, and she curled up yet again underneath the tarpaulin. She stared up at me with her warm, mocha-brown eyes, almost pleadingly. Only then did I realize how beautiful they truly were. Her unmoving gaze seemed to ask me, What do you need from me?
My expression must have been unfathomable, because she started violently toward the cook. Irate, and at a loss, she seemed to reconsider how she should approach the situation.
“You need meat…?”
A firm statement, the end of which tilted up unsurely into a question.
“Yes.” The gravelly voice again.
“And where do you plan to get it from?”
The cook surveyed her from head to toe, as if calculating how much meat, skin, blood, and bone she had on her.
All would be taken from my mother. I screeched violently and realized which victim the cook had selected. Human meat! How could I have been so stupid?
And yet, my mind reeled. My thoughts seemed to melt away, and I could think of nothing but my empty stomach. What I would give to fill it! To think of the savory, smooth taste of fish that would soon be in my mouth was torture, for I knew that I could not experience it. If only we had bait…
They say human meat is the sweetest...the sweetest...sweetest…
It echoed in my consciousness. If only we had bait…
“Look at him now,” pleaded the cook. “He is drooling, and he hasn’t had water for days!”
My mother’s gaze was stony and solemn in her deep thought.
“But… Pi needs me.”
I needed my mother, but in what way? I loved her, but was love more important than survival? My lips cracked and bled when I suddenly found the energy to scream.
“No! Never! You’ll never take her!”
My mother’s smooth, chocolaty voice rang out. She strode over calmly, knelt beside me, and embraced me in a warm hug.
“You need the bait to survive. This is my choice. I love you, Pi.”
She stood and turned to face the cook as I watched in horror. My limbs were frozen. My blood could not pump, and my mouth was as dry as cotton.
He could at least have allowed her to finish her last word.
The butcher’s knife was in her back. She departed from this cruel world in a waterfall of blood, still standing. I watched helplessly as she crumpled to the floor of the lifeboat, her sari winding around her. I just sat there. Why didn’t I do anything?
The woman who had given me not only life, but love, had left me so unceremoniously. She was a mess of matted hair and bloody intestines. To think of what a lively woman she had been! And to have life so brutally ripped from the soul by none other than a cook’s knife! The same silver blade that had gutted countless fish, for which I had been so grateful. It lay on the hard bottom of the lifeboat, next to my mother.
I glanced at the cook, who had a glint in his eye.
Then I knelt down and gently stroked my mother’s hair. She truly was a beautiful, lively woman. My heart disintegrated, and I felt the pain coursing through my arteries. So much pain that it was almost soothing. I peered into her cold, earthy eyes, which looked, but saw only beyond. Only then did I realize how lifeless they truly were. With my fingertips, I gently closed her eyelids over them. Tranquility.
I wanted tears to come, to leave streaks on my cheeks, to bathe me and cleanse my sorrows away, to drown me and then flood the Pacific Ocean. None did. I reached for the knife, beautiful in a blood-curdlingly malicious way. I saw my reflection in its blade.
How many days had it been?
Twenty-six crude scratches on the side of the boat.
And an empty can.
It was a matter of death and death. To die alone on this grimy lifeboat, or to choose love, which was in some form, life without death?
I saw the cook’s reflection in the knife. Was I imagining it, or had I wanted to commit the deed before he did?
I wondered how the knife’s handle would look sticking out of the neck of an emaciated, scrawny Indian boy on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
What was his name?
Once, a lifetime ago, his name was Piscine Molitor Patel.