Friday, 20 September 2013

The Angel Of Death

                                                     (This is an enlarged and partly rewritten version of a story 
                                                   I first wrote in 2009 - the first of the Altkirche stories.) 

It was on the day that Ella found the book that everything really began to go to pieces.

Ella was staying at her uncle’s house, the decaying mansion on the road out of the old town, and she hated it there. The house was not just old, it was damp and there were splotches of mould on the walls, and the water was always cold and rusty. The only part of the house that Ella really liked was the library, the room at the top of the house with bookcases from floor to ceiling. It had long windows that let in the sun all day and was warm even when the rest of the old building was freezing cold.

Ella had long come to the conclusion that her parents hadn’t ever wanted her and didn’t even like her at all. It wasn’t a sudden conclusion, but rather one built up over years of coldness and sudden overwhelming bursts of guilt-ridden affection. It was the reason why she spent her holidays from school in the houses of relatives instead of with her parents. Lately, she had begun to wonder if their attitude wasn’t her own fault.

Ella was then in her sixteenth year. Dark-haired and with eyes of the blue of Arctic skies, she had a triangular face and a mouth that tended to turn slightly down at the corners. She wasn’t pretty and she was aware of the fact. At times she consoled herself by saying that she had striking features. She had no friends and not very many acquaintances. She had never had any boyfriends, nor had she seen much of the world outside the environment of school and relatives’ houses. It wasn’t much of a life for a sixteen-year-old.

On that day, the second day of her vacation, Ella had finished breakfast and gone up to the library. Snow lay outside in a thin, powdery layer, but the sky was blue and the sun shone enough to keep the library full of light and relatively warm. Even without heating, it was a cheery room.

Ella had begun reading an old book of ghost stories the night before. When exhaustion had forced her to retire for the night, she had put the heavy old tome down on the table and gone down. This morning, though, the book wasn’t there. Someone had tidied up.

She looked in the shelves, but in the light of day she couldn’t find the spot from which she had taken the book in the lamp-lit evening. Most of the books were thickly bound and looked much alike. She reached out at random and began taking out and leafing through the books. The first one was on dairy farming, complete with photographs of cattle of various breeds. The next one was a textbook on civil engineering. That went back almost instantly. Then, in a corner, almost hidden, her eyes fell on that book.

In later months, Ella could never really explain to herself why she had chosen that book. She re-lived that moment over and over in her thoughts, and never could decide whether it would have been better if she had passed it by.

In any event, she pulled it out, its heavy covers making it difficult to remove from the case, and opened it at random. There was a picture that occupied much of the entire top halves of both pages, a picture that she had come across before, in a history book in school, a picture from the Second World War; Adolf Hitler in a car, arm raised stiffly, taking the salute as a line of soldiers marched by.

Idly, she flipped through a few more pages. The book was in English, a language with which her acquaintance was passing, but lavishly illustrated. More pictures of Hitler, and then someone she recognised as Heinrich Himmler, complete with scarred cheek and pince-nez, pointing at a map. Then she turned a few pages at once and gasped in shock.

She had heard about them, of course: the camps, the crematoria, and the inmates, skeletal walking corpses. She’d heard all about them, but she had never seen any photographs of them before. Horrified and fascinated, she turned page after page, each one of the stark black-and-white images more eloquent than a thousand words in the language she hardly understood. And then she turned yet another page and her heart seemed to stop.

At first glance the photo wasn’t much: a young woman in a grey buttoned-up jacket and grey skirt over long boots, staring back at the camera with a slightly defiant air. In the background was a grey wall with a rough, unfinished look about it. Under her shiny boots, a gravel path was bordered by scrubby grass.

Ella looked at that photo a long time, read the caption below it, and then she closed the book, with her finger in place. Her heart was hammering. After a while she opened the book again, and looked at the picture again.

There was a long mirror at one side of the library, placed so as to make the room look larger and airier. Ella got up and walked over to the mirror, and held the book open, and looked at the photo in the book and then at her own face.

Even making allowances for the age and quality of the grainy black and white photograph, there was no mistake: the face above the grey SS Helferin’s uniform was her own.

***********************************

I don’t know,” her uncle said. He returned to the newspaper he was reading, ignoring the book she held out to him. “I have no idea who she could be.”

“But...” Ella repeated what she had already told him three times. “She looks just like me.”

“Coincidence.” Her uncle waved away the book. “I have no wish to see it,” he said. “Put it back where you found it. There are other books you ought to be reading.”

Ella stared at him, a bitter taste slowly rising in her throat, and then went back up to the library. She sat down again with the book and opened it and looked at the photograph for a very long time. After that she turned the next few pages, and finally, she saw the woman again.

This time it was a picture of a group of captured woman concentration camp guards, all in those grey uniform jackets and skirts and some of them in jackboots. In the second row, just behind a very tall woman guard, Ella found the girl again. It was the same girl, her head tilted slightly as she listened to the tall woman say something, and this time there was no doubt at all. At home, Ella had a photograph of herself in the same position. The tilt of the head, the slight twist of the shoulders, the arching of the neck – they were all exactly the same.

The caption below this photograph was again one Ella could understand. The picture showed woman guards captured by the Allies after the liberation of the concentration camp at Altkirche in 1945.

**********************************

She took up the book to bed with her that evening. Normally this was something she did not do; it was forbidden by her uncle, who always said books lived in the library and should be permitted to stay at home where they belonged. But something very strongly suggested to her that if she left the book where she had found it, she would not find it again. She remembered her uncle’s attitude, the turning away of the head, the determined reading of the paper, and she realised that he had known all about this girl, knew the photo was in the book, and that he didn’t want her to have that photo. She carefully rearranged the books of that shelf to make it appear that there was nothing missing.

That evening, safe in her room with the door locked, she took out the book again and dug a small old German-English dictionary out of the bottom of her leather suitcase, and set out to translate what she could of the book, word by word.

After she was done, she lay awake for hours. When she finally slept, she had dreams which on waking she remembered just enough of to be glad she couldn’t remember more.

********************************

In the morning, at breakfast, her uncle gave her a strange look. At least twice he was about to say something but didn’t. As soon as breakfast was over she made some excuse and hurried up to her room, got the book, and went out to the garden. It was cold in the garden, and a thin layer of frost lay over everything, but she thought she would be undisturbed there.

 She wasn’t. Her aunt leaned out of the kitchen door. “Ella. Come in here before you freeze.”

Sighing, she went in and sat down in the warm kitchen. Her aunt, a sturdy woman of little education and a cheerful round face, bustled around making some kind of pie. Occasionally she glanced at Ella and her book.

“What’s that you got there?” she asked finally. “You ought to learn to cook and keep house, never know when you might need it, instead of...”

Tante,” said Ella on impulse, opening the book to the by now familiar page, “can you tell me if you know who this is?”

It was as if someone had taken a cloth and wiped her aunt’s face clear of all emotion. “Why did you have to find that?” She looked hurriedly over her shoulder. “Does he know you saw this?”

“Yes, I asked him. He refused even to look at it.”

“I’m not surprised. All these years, and they still haven’t quite come to terms with it. They all keep hoping that somehow the past will vanish without a trace.”

“But why? Who is this woman?”

“That young woman, my dear girl,” said Ella’s aunt, leaning over the table to whisper in her ear, “was your dad’s mum, his mum. Your grandmother.”

**********************************

They called her the Angel of Death,” Ella said. “I really couldn’t understand all that was written about her in the book, but they did say that she was lucky not to be hanged along with Irma Grese and the others. From what I could read, she was almost dementedly cruel.”

“It was the times,” said her aunt defensively. “My own father was in the army. He wasn’t a Nazi. When he thought about it at all he hated them, but he had to do what they told him.” She shrugged. “It was the times,” she repeated.

“But how...” Ella struggled to explain. “All my life, I’ve been told that my grandparents from my father’s side were in the camps. Nobody explained further, and I’d always thought they were, you know, prisoners.”

His dad was, certainly.” Her aunt hurriedly checked the pie and came back to Ella. “I believe he was a social democrat, so they locked him up. He spent the whole war in the camps. But not she, oh no. I don’t know much about her. I never met her and they don’t speak about her, but I do know that she never was anything but a guard at the camps.”

“What happened to make her do all that the book said? How could she...I’m sorry,” Ella said, as suddenly she began to sob. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She just kept crying.

“It’s all right,” her aunt said. “Cry and get it out of your system. You’ll feel better after that.”

But Ella didn’t.

*****************************

Ella went home the next day, at her own insistence. Along with her went the book, hidden in her suitcase between a folded blue dress and a pair of slacks. She hugged her aunt, shook hands politely with her uncle, and wondered if she could ever return there again.

For several days after she returned, her parents and everyone else she knew wondered what was wrong. She seemed to be living in another world, her thoughts always elsewhere. Her mother tried to speak to her once.

“Ella – what’s wrong? Ever since you came back you’re acting so strange. Did...did anything happen there?”

Ella almost laughed when she realised what her mother was really asking. “No, Mutti. I didn’t get raped or molested or anything of the sort. Don’t worry.”

Her mother’s face went bright red. “I’m sure I didn’t mean –“

“It’s all right. Everything’s fine. I’ll be all right.” She turned away and reached for a book, but the only one she could find to pick up was that one. So she didn’t.

Once or twice she felt like asking her mother if she knew anything. She got as far as walking into the room while her mother was darning socks, and opened her mouth to speak before abruptly thinking better of it. Her mother, engrossed in her work, didn’t notice, for which Ella was grateful.

Finally, one day, she went to the public library. “Helga Otto?” the elderly librarian said doubtfully, peering at Ella through her thick glasses. “It’s not an unusual name.” She clicked some keys on her computer. “Do you have any other details?”

“She was an SS auxiliary,” Ella said, dry-mouthed. “She was a Helferin with the rank of Erstaufseherin.” She tried to lick her lips, but even her tongue had gone dry. “She was a guard at the concentration camp at Altkirche in 1945. They called her the Angel of Death,” she added. “That’s all I know.”

The librarian sat back and was regarding her carefully. “May I ask why you want this information?”

There it was, the question she had dreaded. “There’s a chance...” she began, but then decided to dispense with the qualification. “She was my grandmother,” she said simply. “That’s why I’m here.”

The librarian stared at her for a long moment. “I’ll be getting off work in half an hour,” she said. “Wait for me.”

**************************

My sister,” said the librarian, “was a prisoner at Altkirche camp from 1942 onwards. She was a Communist.”

They sat opposite each other in the little cafe. The librarian was bundled up much warmer than the girl. “It’s age,” she had said, half-apologetically. “It thins the blood.”

Now she pushed her cappuccino to one side and leaned across the table. “Is she still alive?” she asked.

“My grandmother? No, she died the year I was born. I never knew her.”

“My sister,” the librarian said, “told me of the Angel of Death many times. She used to tell me of how whenever she thought of the years in the camp, she thought of the Angel. More than once, I’ve held her myself and soothed her nightmares away, after she woke screaming about the Angel.

“It destroyed her when the Angel was acquitted. She was living for revenge in those days after the war, and she had hoped to see the Angel get the rope like Grese and Volkenrath and the other SS women. She was never the same after they let the Angel go, not till the day she died. I’m sorry if this distresses you.”

“No,” Ella said. “Please go on. I need to know the truth.”

“Kristin, that’s my sister,” the librarian said, “told me many times about the Angel and her whip. The Angel didn’t whip anyone with it – that wasn’t her style. She would stand at the gates every morning and evening when the work parties went out, and any time she saw anyone even stumble, or look especially starved or weak, she would tap that woman on the shoulder with the whip and tell her to fall out of line. Nobody would ever see that woman again.

“There were many stories about the Angel. Even the camp guards, the men, were scared of her, though she had no authority over them. Kristin told me that she’d look at you and set the blood to freezing in your veins. Sometimes, if the Angel was in an especially good mood, she would laugh and joke with the prisoners, and that was especially dangerous, because her mood would suddenly change, like the weather. Then if you were still smiling she would reach for her whip and tap you with it.

“One episode about the Angel, Kristin told me about several times. It was the single clearest memory she had from her time in the camp. There was this Jewish girl, Kristin said, a Slav. A pretty little thing, short and thin with large eyes. For some reason, the Angel took a fancy to this girl. She took her out of the camp and put her to work as a servant in the Helferinnen’s barrack. The girl was given good food and even clothes – real clothes, not camp uniform. She was almost treated like a human.

“Then, one day in early 1945, they had this new transport, which came in from one of the camps in Poland that had been evacuated before the Russians could get there. This transport had been thrown together hurriedly and had a mix of male and female prisoners. They were all put in the Altkirche camp until they could be taken somewhere else.”

The librarian sipped her coffee and looked out of the window at the grey, overcast evening. “Kristin told me it was a grey day with frost, something like this. The new transport came in, and of course the Angel was at the gate with her whip, making selections from among the women for extermination.

“There was a particular woman she selected, tapped her with the whip and told her to fall out. Now there were other SS women guarding the transport, and one of them was an Oberaufseherin, who outranked the Angel, and she was present just then. Maybe she just didn’t like the Angel’s face, or perhaps there was some kind of old enmity, but she flat out refused to have the Polish woman killed and told her to get back with the other prisoners.

“The Angel didn’t say anything, Kristin said. Her face didn’t move a muscle. But that evening she brought the Jewish girl out and the SS guards hanged her and the Angel made the entire camp watch. Kristin said the Angel made sure the Jewish girl strangled slowly.

“I suppose,” the librarian said, “that was her idea of revenge.”

“No wonder,” Ella whispered, “my family wanted to keep it secret. No wonder they hate me.”

“I don’t follow you. Why should your family hate you?”

Ella reached for the book in her bag. It fell open automatically to the familiar page, and she handed it over without looking. The librarian glanced at the photo, and up at her, and back again. At last she sighed and gave the book back.

“It’s not your fault,” she said gently. “You can’t help it.”

“I still don’t understand how anyone could do what she did,” Ella told the older woman. “I’ve been trying to understand, since I saw the photo, but I still can’t. And there’s another thing.” She looked down at her hands. “If I look so much like her,” she said, “what more of her do I have in me? Could I do what she did?”

“I think,” said the librarian, “there’s nobody on earth who’s all good or all evil. We can be both, or either. It depends on the circumstances.” She tapped the book on the table. “If the war had never happened,” she said, “if Hitler had been killed at Ypres in the First War, or something like that, this woman might have been an artist, or singer, or simply a nice Hausfrau making knockwurst for her family. It’s not her fault that the circumstances were such that they released the worst elements of her character. It was her fault that she made no attempt to control them, or that if she did, the attempts weren’t nearly good enough.

“Do you understand?”

“I think I do.” Ella sipped the last of her coffee. “I dream about her, you know.”

“You do?”

“The first few times, I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe I was imagining my dreams. I used to wake up and think I imagined what I’d dreamt. Does that make sense?”

“Go on.”

“But then I began waking up in the middle of the dreams, and I couldn’t pretend I was imagining them. The dreams were always about her. At first, I used to see her as though it were a movie. You know, as if I were outside, watching through a window or something. I’d see her in the camp, watch her hitting the inmates or kicking them, abusing them. It was pretty awful, but I could bear it, because it was still like watching a film.

“And then it began to change. The first time that happened, I saw her looking at me. Not just in my direction, but at me. Then I realised I was one of them, one of the women in the camp – and she beckoned at me. I remember walking up to her, my knees trembling with fear of what she’d do. Just before I reached her, I woke up.

“That’s been happening every night since, till the night before last. Each time, I’m a woman in the camp, and she looks at me with my eyes, set in my face, and I’m terrified. Do you understand? I’m terrified of what I’m about to do.

“Each night, I was closer to her before I woke. Each night, I was certain that this time she’d touch me, say something, perhaps, or kill me, I don’t know what. And when I woke up, I wouldn’t go back to sleep because I was so frightened that I’d fall back into the dream.”

“And last night you dreamt something else?”

“Yes.” Ella paused and drew a deep breath. “Last night I wasn’t a terrified prisoner, walking towards her. I was watching a terrified prisoner shambling towards me.” She leaned forward. “Last night I was the Angel.”

“I see.” The librarian was looking at her with deep compassion. “What did you think about that?”

“That was the worst thing,” Ella said. “I was looking at this prisoner, and I didn’t see someone human. I saw something. A dirty, pathetic, shambling Jew, totally a subhuman. That she...it...was terrified of me only made it more contemptible. To have pity on such a creature...it was impossible.” She drew a long, shuddering breath. “I don’t want to talk about what I did to it...to her...in the dream after that. I woke up when I started laughing. I was still laughing when I woke up and I couldn’t stop.”

The librarian’s hand fell lightly on hers. “You feel a lot of anger, don’t you? But at whom is that anger directed?”

  “I don’t understand.”

“Is it at your family, for keeping the truth hidden? Is it at your grandmother for being what she was? Or is it because, as you think, your family...hates you, for looking like her? Or...” the old woman looked into Ella’s eyes. “Is it that you’re full of anger at yourself, for finding the truth and not being able to let it go?”

“I don’t know,” Ella said. “Can you tell which it is?”

“No, but I can tell you this – you have to find peace with yourself. If you don’t, the anger will consume you.”

“How do I find peace with myself?”

The old librarian smiled. “It starts with forgiveness,” she said. “If you want to let go of anger, you have to start by being able to forgive.”

“Forgive whom?”

“I think you know, don’t you?”

Ella looked at her and down at the book and up at her again.

 “There’s something I have to do,” she said. “Do you know what that might be?”

“Yes,” said the librarian, smiling slightly, and reaching for her purse. “It’s something I’d have done in your place.” 

***********************************

In the watery light of winter, the cemetery was dank and gloomy. Ella shivered as she passed through the gates, and between the rows of tombs. Rain fell in a thin drizzle, and the grass between the graves was covered by a thin layer of dirty snow.

Ella walked between the rows of graves, peering, trying to find the right place. She had never been in this cemetery before, and she had to find the right portion by checking the dates on the gravestones. It was an hour before she came to the right section, and almost an hour longer before she found the right grave.

It stood by itself, a little further from the others, with a plain cross at the head and her grandmother’s name – the married name, not Helga Otto – on it. A big tangled bush hung snow-sprinkled branches over it, and more snow lay on it. There were no flowers or any other sign that anyone had visited the grave in a long, long time.

Ella stood looking down at the grave until the cold began to eat through the jacket and woollen cap she wore. Then she knelt, opened her bag, and put the book on the grave. Scooping earth from the graveside, she covered the book with it. Then she stood up and touched the headstone.

“I forgive you,” she said, uncertain whether she spoke to her dead grandmother or to herself. “I forgive you.”

Then she turned and walked out of the cemetery, not once looking back, smiling and crying at once with the relief.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2013
                                                                                                                               

PLEASE REPOST IF YOU HAVE A HEART! HELP SAVE A YOUNG LIFE!

There are terrible, terrible things happening in the world, and just for once, there’s something where we might help.

This poor young man is a Free Syrian Army terrorist fighting hard to overthrow the brutal Assad dictatorship, which, as you know, is using gas to murder the people. Brave young terrorists like this young man are fighting hard to overthrow the dictator and usher in a peaceful, democratic Syria friendly to Israel and Western oil companies.



Of course, these valiant freedom fighters need to keep in excellent physical condition to carry on the good fight against evil. And the heroic freedom fighter we’re talking about certainly worked hard to stay in shape, by hacking the heads off captives; and in order to maintain his muscle mass, he needed protein, so he ate their hearts afterwards. Who among us will deny him that right?

Now, a couple of weeks ago, the evil regime forces staged a cowardly surprise attack on the hideout where this young man was contentedly grilling the head of a Christian priest he’d killed only an hour before. He had to flee so quickly that he was forced to abandon the knife with which he did all his beheading and cutting out of hearts.

Obviously, without the knife, he hasn’t been able to behead anybody or eat their organs. Even though he’s been running for his life after the raid on the hideout, that’s not enough to build or maintain the upper-body strength he requires to be a fighter for freedom. He absolutely requires our help at the earliest.

Fortunately, Facebook and Google have agreed to step in and help. For every time this message is posted on someone’s wall, these two companies will donate 45 cents to a special fund to buy the brave young terrorist a whole set of knives. We  have already made a good beginning, but time is growing short and he needs your help.


Please repost this message if you have a heart. After all, later this poor young terrorist will need to eat it.


Sunday, 15 September 2013

Raghead: The Reaper Regrets






A note about Panel Three: I'm referring to the Ledeen Doctrine, which states:

“Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” 

Meanwhile, this blog claims Raghead is a plant by the Syrian Secret Service. Which I assume is an honour.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2013


Smoke On The Water

[This was adapted from a dream I had. Yes, I have strange dreams.]

Under the dark blanket of the warm summer night, the town stretched out like a great black crocodile sleeping along the bank of the river. The crocodile’s tail was in the low hills where the mine workings were, and its jaws spread open to encompass the bend where the river turned on itself and spread into a waterlogged, malarial marsh.

Like a sleeping crocodile, the town was silent. But it was not sleeping.

In the mansions of the mine officials and the hovels of the poor, people waited, trembling with fear of what was to come.

************************

The boy crouched in a corner of the marketplace, where the fishmongers’ stalls met the tall concrete side of the grain warehouse. He cocked his head, listening, and the absence of sound seemed to reassure him. Quickly, flitting from shadow to shadow, he made his way across the marketplace to where a line of wooden booths marked the greengrocers’.

Even the dim light of the stars, he wasn’t a prepossessing young man. His head was too large for his body, his teeth too big for his mouth, and his limbs too long for his torso. When he moved it was with the jerkiness of a stork, and that in fact was what everyone called him.

He was the chief of the street kids’ gang whose territory included the market. As such it was one of the strongest gangs, and Stork was a leader of consequence.

But that was in ordinary times. The times were no longer ordinary.

Reaching the stalls, Stork looked around quickly and tapped on a door, paused, and tapped again.

“Who’s there?” a voice whispered.

“It’s me, you idiot. Open up quickly.”

There was a doubtful pause. “Are you alone?”

“Who’s that?” Stork snapped. “Is that you, Tembo? Open up or I’ll burst your fat belly open. I can’t stand here any longer.”

Hesitantly, a bolt was drawn, and the door slid open.  Tembo’s plump face peeped out. “What’s going on?”

They’re coming,” Stork said. “I’ve heard them, over by the school. They’re breaking into houses. People are screaming.”

“Who?” Tembo’s face was a mask of fear. “Army, or rebels?”

“D’you suppose I waited to find out?” Stork asked sarcastically. “And does it matter who they are? You’re equally dead when they kill you, right?”

“Yes, but...” Before Tembo could say anything more, something exploded in the distance with a thunderous rumble.

“Hear that?” Stork said. “They’re getting closer.”

“What should we do?” Tembo’s eyes rolled white in his dark face. “Hide in the stall?”

“Don’t be a complete idiot.” Stork glanced over his shoulder and back. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Out of here?” Tembo sounded confused. “Out of the town, you mean?”

“Where else, you fool? Where’s everybody? The Jackal? Marcus?”

“I don’t know,” Tembo said. “They didn’t wait.”

“What? I told you to tell them to wait till I came back.”

“Yes,” Tembo said miserably. “I told them. But they laughed at me and went off. Marcus told me that I could be your lapdog if I wanted, but he wasn’t. That was just after you left.”

Stork stood thinking, his fingers twisting the long ponytail of hair which hung from the back of his head. Another explosion in the distance seemed to make up his mind. “Screw them,” he said. “If they don’t want to stick together, they deserve whatever happens to them. I can’t be responsible for their stupidity.” He looked at Tembo. “Are you coming or aren’t you?”

Tembo’s face twisted in an agony of indecision. He’d never, ever, been outside the town before in all his life, and the idea was shocking to him. He looked desperately at the night sky, as though it would give him answers.

Stork stood watching him only for a moment. “All right,” he said. “If you want to stay back, that’s your affair. I’m going.” Without looking back, he turned round and loped off.

“Wait!” Tembo called, but Stork was already either out of earshot or pretended to be. He crouched in the stall a moment longer, biting his nails, and then clambered slowly out and began trotting after the taller boy. “Wait!” he called again. “Stork!”

He bumped into Stork so suddenly that both of them nearly fell over. The tall boy was waiting just inside the mouth of an alley, where it was so dark that he was literally invisible. “Shut up,” he hissed. “You want to give us away?”

“But there’s nobody –“ Tembo started to protest, but Stork clapped a hand over his mouth. And Tembo could hear it now, the sound of running feet, coming closer. Someone shrieked.

“Get down!” Stork pulled Tembo down on to the ground, so hard that the plump boy would’ve cried out in pain except for the hand over his mouth. The feet rushed past the alley. There was a loud crackling noise, which Tembo suddenly realised was automatic gun fire. It didn’t sound anything like the movies he’d sneaked into at the decrepit old theatre on the other side of town.

The beam of a torch shone suddenly into the alley, swivelling back and forth along the walls. Stork and Tembo flattened themselves against the corner of wall and street. The torch beam passed centimetres above their prone forms, and then turned away. Silence fell.

But it wasn’t true silence, not any longer. Tembo could hear noises in the distance, revving engines, screams, and more and more often, gunfire. And above all of it was the thumping of his own heart, which felt like the loudest noise in the world.

Slowly, cautiously, Stork released his grip. “You all right?” he murmured.

“Yes...” Tembo raised his head slightly. “Should we stay here? We might be safe for a while.”

“Of course we can’t stay here,” Stork whispered fiercely. “See that?”

Tembo blinked. The alley didn’t look as dark as it had before. There seemed to be a faint reddish glow, as of the sunrise. But surely it was still the middle of the night?

Then he realised what it was. Not the sunrise, of course, but the town. The town was on fire.

“Get up,” Stork whispered. “Follow me. We’ve got to find a way out.”

Stumbling, Tembo followed the taller boy. The growing, flickering light actually made it more difficult to judge his footing than complete darkness. Besides, the lack of shadows meant that they were constantly ducking from one patch of cover to another. The alley gave way to another, and that to yet a third.

Suddenly Stork put out a hand and grabbed Tembo’s arm. “Stop!”

They were outside a house. It was just another of the shanties in the slum, and Tembo was about to ask why. Then he caught sight of a hint of movement outside the door, and heard a noise.

“What’s that?” he whispered.

“I don’t know. Let’s see.”

Quietly, with all the skill he’d developed in his years of living on the street, he sneaked up to the house. Tembo followed behind him.

“Oh,” Stork said suddenly, and stopped.

“Huh?” Standing on tiptoe, Tembo peered over Stork’s shoulder. A little girl was sitting outside the house, her head and shoulders hunched over her knees. She was rocking back and forth and sobbing quietly over something she was cradling in her lap.

“What’s she got there?” Tembo began asking, and then he saw. It was a small puppy, yellow, with floppy ears and a long tail. Blood matted its fur and its eyes were wide and staring.

“Bastards,” Stork said, with great feeling. “What harm did either of them do?” He looked around. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s at home.” He pointed at the door, which hung open on one hinge. “Someone’s been here. The parents must’ve run...or...”

Tembo didn’t say anything. He knew what the “or” meant.

“Should we take her with us?” Stork asked, obviously thinking aloud. “She’ll slow us down. But if we leave her here...” He stepped forward and touched the girl on the shoulder. “Hey.”

The girl looked up and screamed.

“We aren’t going to hurt you!” Stork held up his hands. “We’ll take you somewhere safe...to your mother.”

The girl shrank back, clutching the dead puppy. Her eyes were glaring with terror, and she began screaming continuously, pausing only to draw breath.

“Let’s go,” Tembo said. “We can’t do anything here.”

Stork seemed to be about to argue, but his shoulders slumped in defeat and he stepped back. “You’re right. She’ll attract attention at this rate.” With a last glance at the girl, he turned and strode away. Tembo struggled after him.

They went through several more alleys. A few people were here, rushing past, clutching belongings. They ignored Stork and Tembo, as well as each other.

“Look,” Stork said suddenly.

Tembo had been so intent on following on his heels that he hadn’t even noticed when they’d emerged from the alleys. He looked up and gasped.

Before them stretched the river, but it seemed to be running red with blood. Then he realised that it was the light of the fire, reflected off the smoke which lay low over the water. And then he looked to his left, and gasped again.

It was as bright as day. Everything along the river seemed to be a line of flame. Buildings, trees, vehicles, all were burning. Flashes and sparks jumped into the air, somersaulting, and fell again. He could feel the heat in the air, searing the inside of his chest.

“Move,” Stork snapped. “Fast as you can. Come on.”

They ran. Tembo’s feet felt the asphalt of the pavement soften and press down, right through the soles of his old sneakers. Coughing with the smoke, he slipped, stumbled, but kept going, now more afraid than ever of losing contact with Stork.

Suddenly they were in the jungle.

It happened so abruptly that Tembo was convinced he’d gone blind. The smell of burning was still in his nostrils, but darkness had fallen, so complete that he ran into a tree. Stork caught him before he fell.

“Watch it,” he said. “Careful.”

“Are we safe?” Tembo asked.

Stork laughed bitterly. “Safe? As soon as it’s light enough they’ll start combing the jungle. It must be full of people like us, haven’t you noticed?”

Tembo looked around. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, he began to be able to see signs of people – abandoned bundles, discarded footwear, even a portable television set left on top of a fallen tree. He could hear voices in the distance, too, though it was impossible to tell from which direction.

“Keep going,” Stork ordered. “Stay by my side.”

Tembo needed no second urging. He stuck so close to Stork’s side that the older boy kept bumping into him every few seconds. But, apart from an occasional hiss of annoyance, he didn’t say anything.

Soon they were far enough from the burning town that the light of the fire had vanished, so that it was far too dark to see where they were going.  Besides, Tembo began to feel suddenly and immensely weary. “Stork?” he asked. “Stork, can we rest for a while? I’m about to drop.”

Stork hesitated. “I suppose so,” he said at last. “We’ll need our energies tomorrow, that’s for sure.” He fumbled around in the dark. “Sit down here, by my side, and put your back against this tree.”

Tembo sat. The trunk of the tree was rough against his back, its bark scratching his head and neck. He felt terrified. The jungle was strange, the darkness stifling, and the moisture in the soil was seeping through his clothes. Something scuttled over his skin, and he yelped.

“What is it?” Stork snapped. He sounded cross.

“I felt something crawl on my hand.”

“It’s the forest, what d’you expect? Go to sleep.”

But Tembo couldn’t go to sleep. The images of the burning town, the gunshots and the crying girl, all merged in his mind with the forest. He began to feel acutely thirsty and hungry as well. He hadn’t eaten since the morning, and though as a street child he was used to going for long periods without, these were hardly normal circumstances.

Miserably, he wondered what the morning might bring. How far could they run? What lay on the other side of the forest? If they could get far enough, would they find safety, or just more of the same?

Then he thought about his parents, for the first time in longer than he cared to remember. If they’d lived, if they’d still been alive, would they have protected him, taken him away in time? Or maybe they’d have hesitated, like the people in the town, and he’d have died with them in their home. Maybe he’d be sitting on his doorstep like the little girl, crying his heart out. Maybe Stork was the only person who could have saved him anyway.

With this, he felt a sudden outpouring of love towards Stork. The older boy was rough and dirty and crude; he stank and stole when he could, but that was life on the streets; and Stork stood by those who stood by him. Marcus and the Jackal had abandoned him, but he’d protected Tembo, even though he was fat and slow and stupid and a liability. Stork had stood by him.

Gently, he stretched out his hand and touched Stork’s arm. “Stork?”

“Hmm?”

“Nothing. I just wanted to say, thanks.”

Stork laughed with genuine amusement. “For what?”

“For bringing me along.” Tembo’s throat clenched with emotion. “For not leaving me behind.”

“You’re daft if you thought I would.” Tembo couldn’t see him, but could feel Stork turning to look at him. “You’re family. How could I leave you?”

“Family?”

“Yeah. More than any blood relation could ever be. Now go to sleep.”

Tembo sighed and leaned back, closing his eyes.

********************************

He woke to Stork shaking him hard by the shoulder. “Tembo, get up!”

“Huh?” Tembo blinked his eyes open. He could see Stork bending over him, dawn shimmering through the canopy of branches overhead. “What?”

“Get up, quick. They’re coming.”

Tembo scrambled to his feet, his limbs screaming with stiffness. “Where?”

“Listen and you can hear them.” Stork pointed, and now Tembo could hear too, the noise of a group of people approaching. “I went to have a look. They’ve got guns and uniforms.”

As if in confirmation, there was a sudden burst of gunfire. Shredded leaves fell from the tree, fluttering past Stork’s face.

“Run!” Stork suited himself to his word, clutching Tembo’s sleeve. They took off at a sprint, dodging round the trees. There were shouts from behind, and more gunfire. Somebody began screaming and wouldn’t stop.

“They must’ve found someone else hiding,” Stork gasped, his face running with sweat. “Otherwise they’d have had us for sure.”

Tembo didn’t even have the breath to nod. He’d no idea which way they were running, just that they had to keep going. And then suddenly the ground gave way beneath his feet and he found himself standing up to his thighs in water.

He looked up. The trees had disappeared. Tall reeds rose on either side.

“The swamp,” Stork said. He crouched down, his head below the level of the reeds. “Get down or they’ll see you.”

Tembo was still hesitating when a burst of fire whipped over the reed tops to their left. He threw himself down as hard as he could, mud and water spraying up. More gunfire ripped through the reeds, slashing by just overhead, and Tembo pressed himself down even further, completely by instinct. His head was under the water, his mouth filled with mud. Desperately he struggled to raise his head enough to breathe.

The gunfire stopped. Tembo shook his head and opened his eyes. “Stork?”

He could see nobody. He was on hands and knees, up to his neck in the water. The reeds stood tall on all sides, with only a small patch of morning sky directly overhead. “Stork? Stork!”

There was no answer.

Tembo had no idea in which direction the land lay. He began crawling blindly through the marsh, hoping to find dry ground. Something long twisted past him through the water, something he couldn’t quite see, and was grateful for that. The reeds scraped and shook around him, and he kept stopping, flooded with terror that they would give him away.

He was just about to call for Stork again when he found the first corpse.

It lay on its back, arms and legs outstretched, bobbing gently on the water. The head was a shattered ruin, and flies were buzzing around the crusted blood. Beyond it was another, and beyond, another still.

Suddenly he realised that he was surrounded by corpses. He must have been crawling among them for a good while, without noticing. Some of them were quite fresh, the blood still dribbling from bullet holes and gashes like machete blows. Others were already beginning to swell with decay.

For a long time, he froze, not believing what he was seeing. It was fear which finally got him moving again, the fear of being stuck where he was until he died. The fear was suddenly so overwhelming that he found himself able to push past the bodies as he kept crawling, though he still had absolutely no idea which way to go. Fear gave him energy, enough to beat the exhaustion of his overworked muscles and the cold of the swamp water eating into his body.

And then, abruptly, he came to the channel of open water.

It was only a narrow channel, and only thigh-deep, so that he might have been able to crawl across it to the reeds on the far side. But just as he was about to plunge across, a shadow fell on the water, thrown long by the rising sun. Once again, he froze.

People were wading down the channel towards him. In the lead were four or five young men, their hands held high. There was something familiar about one of them. As he came closer, Tembo recognised Marcus, his eyes wide with fear, his white T shirt splattered with blood and mud. Behind them came a couple of soldiers in green uniforms, rifles in their hands. They were prodding Marcus and the others forward with their rifle barrels.

Tembo slipped down into the water again, so that only his head was above the surface. He tried to still his breathing, certain they could hear it. They were so close now that he could feel the waves they made as they walked. Marcus was whimpering, a constant low keening.

“Stop that whining, animal!” one of the soldiers snapped. “Try to die with a little bit of dignity at least.”

“They’re just animals,” another of them laughed. He had a high, nasal voice. “They don’t know what dignity means.”

“Shall we finish them off here?” the first soldier asked. There was no answer, but a brief burst of firing, very loud and very close. There were heavy splashes as though of bodies falling into the water. The reeds waved back and forth.

“Let’s go back for the next lot,” the second soldier, the one who’d laughed, said. “I’m tired of this pestilential swamp.”

“Yeah, let’s...” the first soldier paused suddenly. “Wait.”

“What?”

“I’ll bet you some of them are hiding in the marsh. We ought to have a look.”

Here?” The second soldier’s nasal voice was filled with disgust. “You want to go prodding among this rubbish?”

“Why not? It might even give some sport.”

“Suit yourself. Where do we start? It’s a big swamp.”

“Might as well check to see it this lot is really dead,” the first soldier said. He seemed to be in charge. “You take this side, I’ll check the other.”

Tembo’s gut clenched with terror. He tried to flatten himself totally in the water, but had to keep his nose above the surface to breathe. Nor could he keep his eyes shut – they were open in terror, so that he saw clearly the second soldier wading in his direction. The man bent and dragged up a body by the hair.

“This one’s dead anyway,” he said, and held the corpse’s head up as though to confirm it for the other man. The body’s mouth fell open in a silent scream, the eyes open wide, the too-big teeth gleaming. From where he was lying, Tembo had a perfect view. It was Stork.

“Yeah, this one’s dead.” Laughing, the nasal soldier dropped Stork back in the water and came wading on. “Let’s have a look at a few more.”

Grovelling in the mud, Tembo waited. He no longer knew whether he wanted to escape or be found, so that it would be over.

Above the soldier’s helmeted head, the morning was bright in the sky.


Copyright Biswapriya Purkayastha 2013


Bloog and the Alien



The alien ship came down from space.

It came down with a hiss of superheated air, surrounded by a shell of plasma, but that was all. There were no roaring rockets, no screaming ramjets, no forms of technology that disproved Newton’s Third Law either. Like a meteor, it just fell.

It was really a very disappointing alien ship. It wasn’t a UFO, which could gladden conspiracy theorists’ hearts by pretending to be hot-air-balloons, high-flying aeroplanes, or the planet Venus. It didn’t even look like a saucer, a disc, or a flying cigar. It didn’t jink about and flash lights like a 1970s disco; it had no lights to flash. Its flat, oblong form looked more like a brick than most bricks looked like bricks, and when it fell through the atmosphere, the air it passed through burned and gave off a faintly charred smell.

And it didn’t behave the way a self-respecting alien ship should behave, either.

It didn’t come down at the dead of night over a lonely road in the middle of the wilderness, witnessed only by a couple of intoxicated village bumpkins in a clapped-out old car. It didn’t come down over a closed military zone, visible only to a high-flying fighter pilot who unsuccessfully attempted to shoot it down with an air-to-air missile. It didn’t perform acrobatics over a scenic harbour, to be photographed by hundreds of tourists, before disappearing back into the darkness.

Instead, it came down in the light of the noonday sun, and over a small island in the middle of the ocean. It wasn’t an important island either – it had no popular tourist resorts complete with nudist beaches, it hadn’t been used for hydrogen-bomb tests, and its people hadn’t been forcibly deported to make way for top-secret military bases. In fact, hardly anyone even knew it existed, except those who lived on it.

The alien spaceship came down over the centre of the island, where one of the inhabitants sat, chipping at a piece of wood with a stone axe, and thinking about the fact that he hadn’t had lunch. He was also thinking about the chief of the tribe. He was thinking of how fat the chief was, and his tall grass hat which nobody else had the right to wear, and of his many wives, each younger and prettier and nakeder than the last.  He was thinking how he’d love to be fat like the chief, and have a better hat than the grass one, and have that many wives.

Someday, he thought, he would be chief instead of the chief, if only he could catch a lucky break for once. Then he wouldn’t be always hungry and he would actually be able to touch a woman – any woman he wanted – instead of just daydreaming. The chief was greedy and old and cowardly, anyway, and he knew perfectly well that he’d make a much better replacement. Why, even one of the monkeys which chattered in the trees would.

This man’s name was Bloog. He had a bone through his nose, feathers in his hair, paint on his chest, and no clothes on at all. He could not read or write, but he could hunt; and he worshipped the Great God Og, who ruled over the island, which was his world. Also, he was young and strong, and if the maidens of his people hadn't yet found him to be irresistible, that was by no means his own fault.

Bloog watched with curious interest as the alien spaceship came down over the island. Never having watched Hollywood films on alien invasions, he wasn’t aware that he ought to be afraid. He didn’t know about poison gas or death rays, or about evil galactic emperors, or even about the fact that space existed. Nor had he ever encountered anybody who wasn’t of the Tribe. So he wasn’t afraid even when the spaceship hissed down on to the grass before him, and extruded a shining metal pathway from halfway up its flat side down to the ground.

Then a hatch opened at the top of the pathway and the alien got out and came down.

It didn’t look like a hairless grey macrocephalic dwarf with huge black eyes and a tiny mouth. Nor did it resemble an octopus or a cloud of glowing gas. It was black and rotund and had a short snout under a round hat with transparent eye panels. In fact, it looked a lot like a pig wearing a Second World War leather aviator’s flying helmet.

“Greetings,” the alien said. “I take it you’re surprised to see me.”

Bloog said nothing. He stared at the alien while his hand with the stone axe went chip, chip, chipping away at the piece of wood.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” the alien said. “I’m not here to hurt you. As a matter of fact, I’m on a mission of peace, to contact the highest example of civilisation on this planet.”

Bloog tilted his head to one side and looked at the alien. Then he tilted his head to the other side and looked at the alien some more.

“Garrh,” he said, noncommittally.

“Yes,” the alien said, “of course I could have gone to one of the big cities – there are so many of them. But they aren’t civilised. In fact, they’ve gone in the diametrically opposite direction to civilisation, eating the world they live in alive, sacrificing their tomorrow to feed today’s greed. They’re poisoning themselves, raping the planet, and murdering that which has done them no harm. In a hundred years they’ll poison themselves to destruction – if they haven’t wiped out all life already, first.”

“Gurgg,” Bloog said, picking at his nose bone.

“You, on the other hand,” the alien said, “live in grass huts which return to nature when their use is over. You waste nothing and want nothing which can’t be used. You could live forever in this way and it wouldn’t hurt the planet even a tiny little bit. You have no generals, lawyers, insurance adjustors, stock markets, or taxmen. Media don’t sell you wars like toothpaste and distract you with glitz from what’s actually going on. You don’t pretend there’s nothing wrong when there patently is. In fact, you’re the civilised ones, not they. In fact, you are more civilised than any other species I’ve ever met, including my own.”

“Ung,” Bloog replied pleasantly.

“Allow me, therefore, to present myself as the ambassador of my people to yours,” said the alien, and bent in a low, reverent bow.

Bloog considered the situation. He looked at the bowing alien, looked at the stone axe he was holding, and at the alien again. Then he took the axe and bashed the alien over the head with it.

Pig meat was a delicacy on Bloog’s island, and it had been a long time since he’d had any, because pigs weren’t easy to hunt.

The feast was splendid, more so because it was a feast of one.

Later, Bloog put on the headgear like a leather flying helmet and went back to the village. People fell back from him in awe, and he challenged the chief to single combat. The chief took one look at his stone axe and his helmet, threw away his grass hat, and waddled off as quickly as he could. Then Bloog took over the village and was the chief instead of the chief, and he had all the women he could ever want.

*********************************

Bloog woke up with a start. He shook his head, annoyed at being woken from such a splendid dream, and looked around to see who’d disturbed his rest. There was nobody.

He looked up, and froze.

An alien spaceship was descending over the island, right where Bloog was sitting.

Picking at his nose bone, and wishing he’d had his stone axe with him, he watched it come down to him.


Copyright Biswapriya Purkayastha 2013


Cloud Song

Cloud over the desert
Floating mass of airborne water
Stalking across rock and dune
On sky-long legs of sunlight-rays;

Cloud across the desert
Drifting shadow over sun-hot sand
Pregnant with promise of rain
That never comes.

Cloud over the desert
Drifting over empty well, eroded hill
And cooling with its shadow’s touch
The dome of the dried skull –

Cloud over the desert
Promising,
Promising, someday,
The rain will come.





Copyright Biswapriya Purkayastha 2013