C H A P T E R 7 0

Butchering a turtle was hard work. My first one was a small hawksbill. It was its blood that tempted me, the “good, nutritious, salt‑free drink” promised by the survival manual. My thirst was that bad. I took hold of the turtle’s shell and grappled with one of its back flippers. When I had a good grip, I turned it over in the water and attempted to pull it onto the raft. The thing was thrashing violently. I would never be able to deal with it on the raft. Either I let it go–or I tried my luck on the lifeboat. I looked up. It was a hot and cloudless day. Richard Parker seemed to tolerate my presence at the bow on such days, when the air was like the inside of an oven and he did not move from under the tarpaulin until sunset.

I held on to one of the turtle’s back flippers with one hand and I pulled on the rope to the lifeboat with the other. It was not easy climbing aboard. When I had managed it, I jerked the turtle in the air and brought it onto its back on the tarpaulin. As I had hoped, Richard Parker did no more than growl once or twice. He was not up to exerting himself in such heat.

My determination was grim and blind. I felt I had no time to waste. I turned to the survival manual as to a cookbook. It said to lay the turtle on its back. Done. It advised that a knife should be “inserted into the neck” to sever the arteries and veins running through it. I looked at the turtle. There was no neck. The turtle had retracted into its shell; all that showed of its head was its eyes and its beak, surrounded by circles of skin. It was looking at me upside down with a stern expression. I took hold of the knife and, hoping to goad it, poked a front flipper. It only shrank further into its shell. I decided on a more direct approach. As confidently as if I had done it a thousand times, I jammed the knife just to the right of the turtle’s head, at an angle. I pushed the blade deep into the folds of skin and twisted it. The turtle retreated even further, favouring the side where the blade was, and suddenly shot its head forward, beak snapping at me viciously. I jumped back. All four flippers came out and the creature tried to make its getaway. It rocked on its back, flippers beating wildly and head shaking from side to side. I took hold of a hatchet and brought it down on the turtle’s neck, gashing it. Bright red blood shot out. I grabbed the beaker and collected about three hundred millilitres, a pop can’s worth. I might have got much more, a litre I would guess, but the turtle’s beak was sharp and its front flippers were long and powerful, with two claws on each. The blood I managed to collect gave off no particular smell. I took a sip. It tasted warm and animal, if my memory is right. It’s hard to remember first impressions. I drank the blood to the last drop.

I thought I would use the hatchet to remove the tough belly shell, but it proved easier with the sawtoothed edge of the knife. I set one foot at the centre of the shell, the other clear of the flailing flippers. The leathery skin at the head end of the shell was easy cutting, except around the flippers. Sawing away at the rim, however, where shell met shell, was very hard work, especially as the turtle wouldn’t stop moving. By the time I had gone all the way around I was bathed in sweat and exhausted. I pulled on the belly shell. It lifted reluctantly, with a wet sucking sound. Inner life was revealed, twitching and jerking–muscles, fat, blood, guts and bones. And still the turtle thrashed about. I slashed its neck to the vertebrae. It made no difference. Flippers continued to beat. With two blows of the hatchet I cut its head right off. The flippers did not stop. Worse, the separated head went on gulping for air and blinking its eyes. I pushed it into the sea. The living rest of the turtle I lifted and dropped into Richard Parker’s territory. He was making noises and sounded as if he were about to stir. He had probably smelled the turtle’s blood. I fled to the raft.

I watched sullenly as he loudly appreciated my gift and made a joyous mess of himself. I was utterly spent. The effort of butchering the turtle had hardly seemed worth the cup of blood.

I started thinking seriously about how I was going to deal with Richard Parker. This forbearance on his part on hot, cloudless days, if that is what it was and not simple laziness, was not good enough. I couldn’t always be running away from him. I needed safe access to the locker and the top of the tarpaulin, no matter the time of day or the weather, no matter his mood. It was rights I needed, the sort of rights that come with might.

It was time to impose myself and carve out my territory.

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