Saturday, 19 April 2014

Fire In The Sky

Nakamura-san was the most irritable old man in the entire street where Yoshio lived. All the children said so, and they feared him so greatly that they did not even dare to tease him from a safe distance, the way children will. They said the old man was a madman, and a sorcerer to boot.

The only one who didn’t fear him was Yoshio himself, because Nakamura-san liked him very much, and sometimes in the evening would sit on his doorstep and tell stories.

Usually these stories would be of the ancient times, of Samurai warriors fired with the Bushido spirit, and of evil Tengu demons, half man and half bird, who would wait in the forests to trick people they came across. But there was always one line of stories that Nakamura-san told that Yoshio would wait for, that of the Samurai Harado Iori Ryutaro, who was the greatest of all the Samurai who had ever lived.

Harado had been an evil man once, Nakamura-san said. Though born to the Samurai class, he had gone astray early, and had become a thief and a killer for hire, one of the worst of the criminals who lay in wait for travellers on lonely highways. But one day he had picked the wrong target. It had been a ronin who was on pilgrimage to a monastery, and not even a hardened cutthroat and murderer was a match for a Samurai, even if he was only a ronin.

Once the masterless Samurai had easily defeated and captured the robber, he had pressed the tip of his katana to Harado’s throat. “You can turn away from this life,” he had said, “and come with me. Or you can die now. The choice is yours.”

Purely to save his life, Harado had agreed to go with the ronin, intending to escape when he could. But that had led to one thing after another, adventures each of which was more hair-raising than the last, and little by little Harada had himself become a Samurai. In time, he had grown to be the greatest of them all.

Harada had been invincible, Nakamura-san said, so that even the gods were afraid to take him on in combat. But he was merciful and gracious, so much so that before every battle he would burn incense in his helmet, so that perchance the enemy took his head the smell would not offend their nostrils. But he never, ever, lost, and the only heads that rolled belonged to those who dared challenge him in combat.

Endless were the tales Nakamura-san told of the Samurai Harada Iori Ryutaro. Each time he told a different story, an even more marvellous one, and each time Yoshio would thrill to his heart to hear of the exploits of the great warrior, and how he succoured the poor and helpless, and stood up for them against the great lords and the criminals.

“And never forget, Yoshio-san,” he would say formally, “that the great Samurai is real, that he lives in the sky, and that when you really need him, you need only to call to him for help, and he will come.”

Of course, Yoshio didn’t believe that part. Who could, even if he weren’t Christian and told to believe that only the Lord Jesus Christ offered help in times of need? But that didn’t stop him from thirsting after the stories, each of which seemed to be more imaginative than the last.

Today, though, Yoshio had no time to do more than wave to Nakamura-san as he followed his parents to church. The old man was sitting at his window, and waved back, though Yoshiro hoped his parents hadn’t seen it. His parents didn’t approve of his hanging around Nakamura-san.

“Poor old man,” Honourable Mother said. “You shouldn’t bother him with your questions. Let him have some peace.”

“Don’t let him fill your head with non-Christian ideas,” Honourable Father said shortly.

There wasn’t much chance of that today, because they were headed off to church. It was a heavily cloudy day, and Yoshio would much rather have stayed at home, reading perhaps, or maybe helping Honourable Father dig the garden. Honourable Father had been gardening a lot lately, because there had been less and less food to go around. Yoshio had so long got used to going hungry that he hardly noticed it any longer.

His parents stopped to talk to a lady in a formal kimono. He recognised her. It was Mrs Mitsuda, whom he had met several times. She was very severe-looking, but Honourable Mother said she was actually very nice. She had a daughter, Hiroko, who was with her. Hiroko worked, Yoshio had heard, in an office down on the docks, but today was Sunday, of course.

Hiroko smiled at Yoshio. She was very beautiful, and he thought sometimes he ought to marry her when he was older. “How are you, Yoshio-san? The way you’re growing, soon you’ll be big enough to be a soldier.” She’d looked quickly over her shoulder, but her mother and Yoshio’s parents were busy talking and hadn’t heard.

“We’re going to the country tomorrow,” she whispered, leaning close to Yoshio. “My uncle asked us to come. He says it isn’t safe in this town any longer, from the Gaijin.”

“The Gaijin?” Yoshio asked, though of course he knew what she was talking about.

“You know, the B29s.” Hiroko pointed up at the sky. “You listen to the radio?”

Before Yoshio could answer, Honourable Father called to him. His parents and Mrs Mitsuda had evidently finished talking. “We’re getting late for church.”

Yoshio ducked his head politely to Mrs Mitsuda and Hiroko, just as he’d been taught. His parents had already started walking away, and he had to hurry. He could hear mumbled snatches of their conversation.

“Some people have all the luck,” Honourable Mother said longingly. “The country...”

“It’s no better than here,” Honourable Father replied. “In many ways it’s worse.”

“As though we wouldn’t go to the country if we could,” Honourable Mother said. Yoshio could hear the anger in her voice. “At least the country is safe. It...”

“We’re already late for Mass,” Honourable Father interrupted. “Shall we talk about this later?” His back was so stiff that Yoshio knew he was furious, and that there would be problems when they got back home. A charcoal-powered truck chugged past, and he turned his head away to avoid the smoke.

A blinding flash of light raced across his field of vision, so fast that he barely registered it. The next moment he was hit by a blow which struck him from his head to his feet, so hard that he few through the air. The world spun around him, and went black.

When he opened his eyes he was looking at Harado Iori Ryutaro’s face.

The Samurai filled the sky above him, his face working and twisting with some emotion which Yoshio couldn’t interpret. Perhaps it was anger or contempt, he thought, and he tried to shrink away. But he was lying on the ground, on his back, and it was impossible to shrink back any further.

Then the Samurai spoke.

“What has happened to you, my friend Yoshio?” Despite his fearsome face, which still writhed and worked, his voice was gentle. “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes,” Yoshio whispered. His voice rustled in his head, like dried leaves. “Nakamura-san told me about you.”

“And what else did he say?”

“That if I asked for help, you would be there,” Yoshio said.

The Samurai’s immense face looked regretful. “There are times when that is no longer possible,” he said. “Besides, the world has forgotten me. I have no power to help when nobody even believes I exist. But, Yoshio, my friend?”

“Yes?” he whispered.

“One day, I promise you, I will come down from the sky again, and you and I will stand side by side.”

“We will?”

“We will. But you must be brave. Are you brave?”

“I don’t know,” Yoshio whispered.

The Samurai chuckled, his face beginning to fade away along with his voice. “That means you are. If you weren’t, you’d have said you are brave. But you must get up now.”

“Lord –“

“Be brave, Yoshio, and we’ll meet again.”

Yoshio shook his head and opened his eyes again. The Samurai’s immense face had disappeared. Something else hung over him, blocking out the sky.

At first he didn’t know what it was. It was so dark that he thought night had come, and then he realised that it was a cloud. It was, however, like no cloud he had ever seen before. It twisted and boiled on itself, as though writhing in torment. Ominous colours flashed and morphed in it, both in the bulging top and in the gigantic twitching leg which connected it to the ground.

Yoshio stared up at this cloud in fascination. It kept growing, filling out more and more of the sky, taking on even stranger colours and appearances. Now it looked like a monstrous toadstool, growing out of the earth, one that was so poisonous that nobody would even venture close to it. It looked like something that would break its connecting leg and come crashing down on the city.

There was no telling how long he might have sat looking up at the cloud if the buildings around him hadn’t begun to burn. He saw the flames out of the corner of his eye with astonishment, and suddenly realised where he was. He tried to get to his feet, and managed with some difficulty.

“Honourable mother?” he said, looking around, and his voice trailed away. “Honourable,,,”

The city had disappeared. On either side, as far as he could see, there were only ruins blown flat. Fires were rising everywhere, and he was vaguely conscious of great heat. The air felt hard to breathe.

“Father?” he repeated, not sure if he spoke or if his mouth was merely moving. “Mother?”

There was no sign of them. He could not even be sure where he had been before the flash, and where they had been. Everything seemed to have vanished, smashed down as by a giant's fist, except for a smouldering hunk of metal nearby. Looking at it, he suddenly knew it for what it was. It was all that was left of the charcoal- burning truck which had been driving past him when the flash came.

“Eeee!” someone screamed. He turned to look. A young woman was running down the middle of the street, completely naked. He was astonished. It was the first time he had ever seen a naked woman, and he gaped at her, from her bouncing breasts to the triangular patch of black hair between her legs. Then she came closer, and he recognised her. It was Hiroko Mitsuda.

“Hiroko-san,” he tried to tell her, “you must put on clothes. It’s not right running like this, and...” But she took no notice of him at all, Still screaming, she brushed past him and ran away into the smoke from the gathering fires.

Suddenly, as though she had unlocked a door, there were people. They walked towards him from the direction of the cloud, moving as though they did not know where they were going. They didn’t even look like people. Some of them were naked like Hiroko-san. Some didn’t seem to have much skin left. None of them took any notice of him.

“Honourable Father?” he asked blankly. There was no reply. After some time he walked a little way towards the twisting leg of the cloud. Nobody tried to stop him. “Honourable Mother?” But there was nothing.

It was not fear that drove him to follow the shambling crowd, nor was it the gathering fires. It was something else, a feeling he had no word for, just a vague idea that perhaps, somewhere in the crowd, he might find someone, some anchor, some link to the world he knew. The fires on both sides were blazing brightly now, and those in the crowd who could were starting to hurry. Others could not, and lagged behind. He saw a few simply sit down on the street and wait for the fire.

“Grandfather,” Yoshio tried to tell one of these, an old man with a delicate face and a wispy beard. “You shouldn’t give up like this. I’ll help you.” But the old man’s tired eyes looked through him as though he wasn’t there, and Yoshio was forced to move on.

And then, up ahead in the crowd, Yoshio saw a familiar face. It was old Nakamura-san, still in the happi coat he’d been wearing earlier for some reason. He was only a short distance ahead, and Yoshio tried to hurry to catch him up, but suddenly his limbs felt immensely weary. He felt as though he could not take another step. But still he went forward as quickly as he could, because he had to talk to Nakamura-san and tell him about the Samurai and what he’d said.

“Nakamura-san,” he whispered. “Nakamura-san.”

But even then, as his weary limbs pushed him onward, he knew it would be no use at all.

[Dedicated to the victims of the atom-bombing of Nagasaki, 9th August 1945.]

Copyright B Purkayastha, 2014


Friday, 18 April 2014

Badlands III: Boat On The River

How long he had spent on the river, he had no way of guessing, because there was no day or night and no way to mark the time.

Under the lowering red sky, the blood of the river looked almost black, and when the bone of the paddle threw up drops which spattered on the hull of skin and sinew, they dried in streaks and blotches which reminded him of writing in some arcane language he didn’t understand.

For longer than he cared to remember, the river’s banks hadn’t changed. The trees still bent their bare branches over the flowing blood. Things chattered and ran through the branches and along the riverbank, half-seen; things which looked like rats, but which he was sure weren’t.

He was not good at paddling, and the boat was small and crude, so that it was unsteady in the sluggish current, and he was glad that the flow was not strong enough to tip him over. If he fell into the blood, in his armour he would sink like a stone. And, perhaps even more importantly, the book beside him would be lost.

He glanced down at the book frequently, as he paddled. It was the whole purpose of the journey, the key to everything. Or so the demon had told him.

Once or twice he looked over his shoulder, but he had long since lost sight of the old tower  where he’d started on his journey and where he’d left the beast. Whenever he thought of it he felt a wrenching of regret that he’d had to leave it behind. He missed it much more than he could have believed possible.

The beast hadn’t reacted, of course, when he’d said goodbye. It had stared out over the river with supreme indifference, and he was certain that it didn’t care if it never saw him again.


The sky had been turning red for days as they had worked their way down from the mountains. Each morning, it would be a little redder, and each night the glow from the horizon would blot out the stars.

Even the demon had been uneasy, though she had done her best to mask it. “I’ve never seen this kind of thing before,” she said, when he’d asked her. “At least not in...this world. Don’t worry about it, it’s probably nothing.”

“Have you been this way before?” he asked, unsure if he was seeking reassurance or just out of curiosity.

“No,” she answered shortly. “But, as I said, don’t worry. It’s likely nothing.”

But as the days went by, the red glow overshadowed everything, until the night and day were one and there was neither sun, nor moon, nor stars. They could ask nobody about it, because the few villages they passed were abandoned, and clearly had been for some time. But sometimes the knight thought he could hear a crying far away, beyond the sullen red glow in the sky, as if the world was screaming in mortal agony, just over the horizon.

Then, possibly one morning, they had come down from the mountains and reached a high and desolate plateau. Once it must have been a battlefield. The evidence was all around, broken weapons and scattered bones. He’d stooped to examine some of the weapons, and found the lance.

It had been a very old lance, of wood so ancient that it had darkened to the colour of iron. And instead of being tipped with metal, it had a point of bone, which had been discoloured almost to the point where it was indistinguishable from the rest of the weapon.

He’d been about to touch the tip when the demon had stopped him. “Don’t.”

He’d looked at her, surprised. “Why not?”

“This isn’t a good place,” she’d said. “Even I can’t protect you here, Man. We should get down from here at once, and down on the plain.” She’d looked at the lance. “That thing is from a time so old that I have no knowledge about it, no idea of how to handle it. Everything here is like that. Have you looked at these bones?”

He’d felt a shiver play along his spine. “What about them?”

“They aren’t human bones, or the bones of any creature I know. This place is old, Man, old and evil. We can’t stay here.” She’d taken the lance out of his hand effortlessly, and thrown it away. The tip had struck a rock, which hissed and bubbled. “See.”

He’d looked at her and at the rock, and remembered that he’d been about to touch the point.

“Thank you,” he’d said, inadequately.

“Save your thanks till we’re out of here, Man.”

“Where are we going?” he asked her, as they made their way down off the plateau, and left the battlefield behind. “Why didn’t we go back the way we came?”

She glanced at him. “Because this thing, whatever it is, is spreading, Man. Haven’t you noticed? Even if we were to stand here for a while and look at this sky, you’d see it growing redder and lower. It’s spreading, and it has to be stopped.”

“How do we stop it?”

She didn’t reply for so long that he would have asked again if she’d been human. “I don’t know what’s doing it, but it’s in the direction where we’re going. We’ll have to find out when we get there, I suppose.”

So they went down from the plateau, and finally they came out on to the plain.  It was a featureless plain, except for the black trees with leafless branches, which sometimes rustled and moved though there seemed to be no wind. And there was the tower, in the distance, a slender spire of stone rising up from the plain.

Without speaking, he turned the beast in the direction of the tower, and the demon made no attempt to object. It had been much further than he’d thought, and by the time they were close enough to make out detail the hills they had left had faded to a smudge in the red haze of the horizon.

Once it had been a wonderful structure. Even the passage of time had failed to wipe away the smooth clean lines of the stone, unmarred by carvings or damage until the point, so high that it could barely be seen, where it snapped off like a broken stick. Only a jagged point of rock pointed up at the sky, like an accusing finger.

“What do you think it was?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” the demon said, “but I wonder what one might be able to see from up on top. Wait.” In a moment she had disappeared, and all he glimpsed was a shadow gliding up the stone.

While waiting for her to return, he rode the beast around the base of the pillar. It was much broader around than he’d thought, too, though of course it would have to be, to support something so high. There were no doors that he could see, no aperture of any kind. By the time he’d returned to the starting point the sky was definitely an angrier shade of red and the demon was waiting for him.

“There’s a river not far away,” she said, pointing. “We’ve got to make for it. Whatever we’re looking for, it lies downstream. I saw something that looks like docks.”

“What’s that?” He pointed at the object she was carrying.

“I found it up at the top, where it’s broken.” She showed it to him. It was a book, bound in old leather that had turned almost black. When he took it he found it was so heavy that he almost let it fall. “Take a look.”

He opened it. The pages were of parchment cracking at the edges, and inscribed with characters which seemed to change and shimmer before his eyes. “What does it say?”

“I can’t say yet. I haven’t had a proper look, and the language is strange to me. But I think that I can understand it – given time. Let’s make for the river, and we’ll see.”

He’d looked at the demon, and suddenly it was as though it was the first time he’d ever seen her; not as a supernatural being whom he resented as much as accepted, but as something else; a vulnerable, sensitive soul with her own insecurities, someone who was as much finding his way as he was. “Let’s go,” he said, more gently than he might otherwise have.

“There’s one more thing, Man.”


“I don’t think the river is water,” she said.

He stared at her before turning the beast’s head away. The demon stood watching for a few moments, and then followed slowly.


They found the boat at the dock. There was just the one, pulled up on the shore and overturned as though the owner had left it there and would return in a short while. But the bottom was dusty and when they turned it over, the paddle underneath was of bone so old that it reminded the knight of the spear on the plateau.

“It’s only big enough for one of us,” he’d said.

“Leave the beast,” she returned. “If we succeed, maybe someday we’ll come up river again. If not...”

He’d waited till it was certain that she wouldn’t continue. “What about you?”

“Keep the book by your side, in the boat. I’ll be inside it, reading.” She’d hesitated a little. “Man?”


“Until I’m sure I’ve got all I can from the book, until I come out of my own accord, don’t open it. Don’t call me, either. You’ll have to handle anything you encounter alone, till then. But I’m sure you can manage.”

He’d looked at her, trying to understand what she wasn’t saying. “But suppose we get where we’re going, before you get what you want from the book. Then what?”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, Man. I think wherever this river is taking us, it’s going to be a very, very long way away.”

“How will I know when I get there?”

She’d laughed, the first time in longer than he cared to remember. “Oh, you‘ll know, Man. You will know.”


The black hump on the riverbank had probably been a considerable building once, perhaps a fortress. It was hard to tell.  

It had been hidden behind a bend in the river, so that by the time he noticed it the boat was already fairly close, and he had to make a quick decision whether to steer for the bank or to pass it by. A quick look at the book gave no solace. It lay inert as it had since he had laid it down by his side.

In the moments that were left to him before it would be too late to change his mind, he took in the edifice. The black stone blocks of which it had been made had tumbled into a shapeless ruin, but there were still walls standing, and between them he could see the red light reflecting off pillars and polished stone.

“Damn, demon,” he muttered between his teeth. “What should I do now?”

His hands had already made the decision for him, pushing the paddle into the blood to shift the boat awkwardly shorewards. Some of the stone blocks had fallen into the river, forming a barrier to the flow and a tiny harbour, so it was not as difficult to touch land as it might otherwise have been.

Clambering out of the boat, he pulled it up on the stone. It was heavy work, and left him straining with the effort, but he had a sudden fear that if he left the boat in the river he would never see it again. Besides, there was the book.

Slipping it under his chain mail, where it lay heavy against his skin, he turned towards the ruin.

There was someone watching him. He had realised this before taking three steps towards the nearest standing wall. Someone was standing behind the wall, just out of sight, watching. He could see the shadow.

“All right,” he said. “Whoever you are. Come out and show yourself, or I’ll come in with my sword swinging.”

There was a moment’s pause, and she came out.

He stopped where he was, and if he had been holding the book or the sword in his hands he’d assuredly have let them fall.

She was silver and gold and magic and moonlight, and she was everything he’d ever yearned for, everything he’d remembered and forgotten.

“Here I am,” she said, spreading out her hands. “As you wanted. Are you happy?”

“Lady.” He worked his tongue in his mouth to free it. “Lady –“

“Where have you come from?” she asked, taking a short step closer. “I have waited in this horrible place, so long, waiting for someone to come, anyone. I’ve waited until I could no longer bear the wait, and still no one would come. Where have you come from? Are you real?”

“I’m real.” He held out his hand for her to touch. Her fingers were long and slim, and they flinched away from the armour of his gauntlet. “I’m very real. Who are you, Lady?”

She looked at him as though she still could not believe it. “Who am I...? Does my name really matter? I don’t even remember if I ever had a name, but I must have, I suppose.” She sat down on a block of stone, and leaned her head on her hands. “Will you take me away?”

He looked at the boat and back at her. “Can you tell me how you came to be here?”

She looked up at him. “It’s a fairly long story. Sit here beside me and I’ll tell you.”

The book lay heavy against his stomach, and the block of stone was small. Besides, sitting down he couldn’t look at her. “I’ll stand, Lady.”

“Well, then.” She looked down at her hands. “I remember some of it, not everything. I lived here, you know.”


“Yes, it wasn’t as you see it now. Back then, it was a staging point on the river, and there were people here, soldiers and traders and the like. My husband was here too.”

“Your husband?”

“He was the officer in charge of the soldiers here. We were very happy together, were thinking of having a baby.” She looked up at him and down again. “It seems funny to think of all that now.

“The stories came, of bandits, out on the plain. Entire caravans destroyed, wiped out with no survivors. Nothing was left. Do you understand?”

“Nothing?” he asked. The way she had said it seemed to have some special significance to her.

She nodded. “Nothing. Nobody knew who had done it, but the scourge was moving closer. Each day it crept closer to this place, until the traders began to demand that my husband and his soldiers do something about it.

“The night before he left, my husband came to me. ‘Put this on,’ he said, handing me an amulet. ‘Before I left home, my mother gave it to me as a charm against danger. Wear it next to your heart, and it will keep you safe while I’m gone.’

“ ‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘You’re the one who will need to guard against danger.’

“But he only laughed. ‘With my strong right arm and my men, I’m well enough protected,’ he said. And before daybreak, he had left along with his men. I never saw him again.

“Two nights later, this place was attacked. I was asleep then, and woke to find the walls already breached and the air filled with fire and smoke and screams. But the screams did not last long.

“My first thought was to flee for my life. There was a way out through the back, a narrow passage my husband had shown me. It was only known to the soldiers, as an emergency exit. I only paused long enough to snatch up my husband’s charm, and then I rushed towards it. But something must have happened to me – maybe I breathed in too much smoke. I must have fainted.

“And when I woke up, I saw them. Gathered around me, looking down, watching.”

There was a pause. “They weren’t just bandits, were they?” he asked, gently. “Something much worse?”

She looked up with desperate eagerness. “You understand, then. When I saw their faces, the fangs dripping blood and their monstrous faces, I would have fainted again. And when I saw what they had done to the rest, to the traders and the servants and the others, I wanted them to kill me. But they would not kill me, and after a while, I understood that they could not.”

“The charm,” he said.

“Yes, of course it was the charm. Can you imagine what I went through after that? Can you imagine my being amongst those...things...knowing that them being here meant that my husband and the others must be dead? That everyone was dead, except me?” She shook her head. “If you could only imagine that, you would understand what I had to do.”

“You threw the charm away,” he said with complete certainty.

She jumped to her feet. “Yes, I threw it away. I thought they would kill me then, and set me free. But they wouldn’t do that any longer. They had other uses for me.”

He looked at her then, and saw in her eyes, and saw what she really was. “Stay back, Lady,” he said quietly.

“They made me one of them,” she said quietly. She took a step closer to him. “They made me one of them, and set me sentinel here, to watch till they returned. But they never came back, ever again.”

“Stand back,” he repeated sharply. His hand went over his shoulder, to the sword. “I shan’t tell you again.”

“And there was nobody here, all this time,” she went on, as though he had not spoken. “Except you.”

He was still reaching for his sword when she threw herself at him. He leaned back, instinctively, and his foot slipped on the stone. He fell backward, landing heavily, as she fell on top of him, but her momentum carried her over his head and among the stones. When he scrambled to his feet, she was lying among them like a broken doll, her limbs scattered awkwardly. He didn’t dare come close to her.

She was stirring when he pushed the boat back into the river, and sitting up when he began paddling away. “Come back,” she called desolately. “I’ve been lonely so long. Come back and make me whole.”

He ignored her, turning his head away. Her cries followed him a long time afterwards, and towards the end merged into a desperate, fading scream of hopeless agony.


The noise of the waterfall began so gradually that it was a long time before he realised what it was. The flow of the river was beginning to quicken, too, and he began to have increasing difficulty keeping the boat under control. The sky overhead was a sullen red as though it was on fire.

And still the book lay silent against his stomach, where he had left it after escaping from the woman.

The black leafless trees crowded ever more thickly along the banks, so that he could not see past them on either side. The river had narrowed, too, the sides pressing in closely, so that instead of a wide slow flow he was rushing between steep banks, the boat rocking in the growing turbulence.

He dug his paddle into the flow, trying hard to move to the side, but the current was too strong, and the boat simply swung round and round.

Then the boat ran aground.

It happened so suddenly that he almost pitched forward and out. The river rushed past, but the  boat was snagged on something in the flow, something which had snagged the hull and kept it from breaking loose. Peering over the edge, he saw branches. The boat was snagged on a fallen tree.

While he was still trying to work out how to make his way up it to land, a branch whipped out of the river and wrapped itself around him, holding him like a hand. It lifted, pulling him into the air.

Trapped in its grasp, he was carried to the shore.


There was a voice in his brain. He shook his head, trying to clear it.

“Wake up,” it was saying. “Wake up.”

Had he been asleep? He didn’t know. His entire body ached, with a pain that went down to the bone.

“Open your eyes.” The thoughts were like iron nails being hammered into his skull.

Reluctantly, he did. He was lying on his back, looking up at the trees. Some of the branches were still twined around his limbs.

“Get up,” the thought insisted.

He struggled to sit up. The trees crowded in a circle, close on him on all sides, and bent low, their branches interlocking. Hairy things scuttled among them, looking down at him with glowing eyes. He thought the trees were watching him through those eyes.

“What are you?” the thought rasped. “Why do you come here?”

“Seeking answers,” he said aloud. He was surprised at the calmness of his own voice. “I came seeking answers about what is going on here.”

A ripple as of amusement ran through the branches. “Answers? And what will you do if you find these...answers?”

“Put a stop to whatever it is that is causing all this.” He lifted a hand as much as he could against the restricting branches, and indicated the red sky and the river of blood somewhere behind him. “That is what I want.”

“And what about us?” the thought came. “If you put a stop to all this, what happens to us?”

He did not say anything. The question did not need an answer.

“Kill him,” another thought hammered. “Kill him and finish it.”

“Yes, kill him,” the thoughts crowded on each other. “Kill him, kill him, kill him.” And the creatures in the branches scrambled lower, their eyes glowing. The branches began to tighten around his limbs, his torso, his neck, biting right through the chain mail. But he was barely aware of it.

He was barely aware of it, because something else was happening. A growing warmth against his chest, below the armour, warmth increasing to heat, and heat increasing to blazing incandescent agony...

And then suddenly the demon was inside him. He could feel her inside his skin, looking through his eyes. She raised his arms, flexed his legs, and threw his head back in a primal scream.

The branches whipped away as though they could not let him go fast enough. The demon flung him to his feet, and opened his mouth.

Words poured out. He could not understand the language, he could not even understand how the syllables could be produced by a human throat. But they came, faster and faster, each phrase falling over the one before.

The trees fell away before him. She moved his legs, and he walked through the forest, the branches retreating as he came. The tiny creatures fled, squeaking.

Then he came to a clearing, and there was something squatting there.

At first he thought it was a rock. Then he thought it was an ancient idol. And then he realised it was a tree stump, though one which moved spasmodically and tried to rip itself out of the ground at his approach.

“Kill,” the demon said to him. “Kill.”

His hand reached for the sword as his mind sank back into the darkness.


When he regained consciousness, she was bending anxiously over him, his head cradled against her breasts. “Man?”

“I’m all right,” he whispered. He did not feel all right. He felt terrible. But then he looked up at her, and he felt better.

“I had to take a great risk,” she said. “I didn’t want to do it. But I had no alternative. If I’d waited even a moment later they would have destroyed you.”

“What happened?” he asked. He turned his head, gingerly, to look past her. He couldn’t see anything. Then he realised that he couldn’t see anything because it was dark. And it was dark because it was...

“Night,” he said, foolishly.

“Yes, it’s night,” she said. “It’s night, and the thing is over. We won.”

“The book?” he asked.

“It burned to ashes. Never mind, it helped us when we needed it.”

“The forest?”

“It’s still here, but it’s a real forest again. Whatever it was in the stump is gone.” She hesitated. “I don’t know what it was, but it was old and twisted, and it was so filled with hate that everything – literally – was its enemy. I think it had been hurt very deeply in the past, and that we out it out of its misery.”

He climbed wearily to his feet. “Now what do we do?” he asked.

She wrapped an arm around his shoulder to support him. “We’ll find our way out of this forest,” she said. “After that, we’ll see.”


Dawn had just touched the sky when they found their way out of the forest, the knight still leaning on the demon. And then they stopped dead.

“Well,” he said. “Look at that.”

“Yes,” the demon agreed. “Not what I expected, I must say.”

The beast stood there, as though it had been waiting where they’d left it, just for a moment. It glanced at them, and then looked away, with the same air of unconcern.

“It must have followed us,” the knight said. “All this time, it must have been following, down the river, all the way.”

“You realise what this means,” the demon said, as she helped him on to the beast’s back. “It has feelings, too, though it doesn’t show them.”

“I wondered, sometimes, if it did,” he said. He stroked the beast’s head, between the horns. “I’m very glad to see you,” he told it.

The demon swung up on the beast’s back, behind the knight. “You know something, Man?” she asked.


“If something had happened to you, if I’d been too late to save you, I’d have...”


“Forget it,” she said, wrapping her arms round him and leaning her head on his shoulder. “There’s no point in talking about it now.”

The morning grew bright in the blue sky as the beast plodded across the plain.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

The Age Of Enlightenment

    “You really must stop saying such things, you know,” I said.

    Dr Rex peered at me short-sightedly across the restaurant table. “Why should I?” he asked mildly.

    I shrugged helplessly. Much as I loved him and long as I’d known him, he was so impractical that he could reduce those who knew him to helpless frustration. “Because institutions don’t like hearing such ideas,” I explained. “Because it might get you known as a crank. Universities are chary of hiring cranks, so you might not get that professorship you’re angling for.”

    “And a lecturer’s salary only goes so far,” Dr Rex’s wife whined. “Can you imagine how we live? It’s been months since we were even in a restaurant like this one and…”

    We both ignored her, which wasn’t easy. She was a great whiner. But we’d had a lot of practice.

    “Still,” Dr Rex said, “the truth is the truth.”

    “And a hypothesis, which this is, is still only speculation. Even if you think it might be possible, why speak of it? It can’t have the slightest relevance to everyday life, after all.”

    “Lots of things have no relevance to everyday life, like neutrinos for instance, but we study them all the same.”

    I knew that was aimed at me, because neutrinos were my special field of study. “Neutrinos,” I said, “exist. You are, on the other hand, talking of things that even you admit are merely possible – in an alternate universe. And even alternate universes are pure speculation.”

    “You tell him,” Dr Rex’s wife whined. “You tell him to think of the real world for once instead of his awful creatures.” She shuddered. “Just imagine, thinking rats could run the world. Ugh!”

    “But I never said anything about rats,” Dr Rex protested.

    “Whatever,” she sniffed. “It’s all horrible.”

    “She has a point though,” I informed him. “You claim that it might be possible, in an alternate universe, for mammals to become the dominant life forms.”

    “So?” asked Dr Rex, blinking. “What’s wrong with that? Scientifically, there’s nothing wrong with the idea.”

    “It’s just that most of us are usually attached to the notion that mammals are unimportant parasites hovering around the fringes of our existence. You might as well claim that insects could rule the world.”

    “Insects,” Dr Rex said, “lack brain mass. They lack cognitive behaviour patterns. Mammals, on the other hand…”

    “Here he goes again,” his wife wailed.

    “There’s nothing – scientifically speaking – to say dinosaurs have to be the ultimate in evolution,” Dr Rex pointed out. “That’s all, really, that I’m saying – no more.”

    “In the old days, such a thought would have got you labelled a heretic.”

    “It’s the age of enlightenment.” Dr Rex shifted his little arms and blinked at the window. “Look at that,” he said.

    I followed his gaze. Resplendent in his green skin and red horn, his crest flattened by the wind, an Ornitholestes went by on roller skates.

    “He must be going to the punk rock concert that I saw in the papers,” I said.

    “Degenerates,” Dr Rex’s wife said. “Our son – if we had one – would never have been like that.” I glanced at her. I never could understand why he’d ever married her. After all, it wasn’t as if they were even the same species. In any case, I never could figure out what would make anyone marry an Acrocanthosaurus.  They are known to be the most difficult to get along with of all the sentient species.

    “They’re young, dear,” Dr Rex said, shifting on his heavy tail.

    “No, they’re an inferior species,” she said. “I know it isn’t right to say so, but it’s true all the same.”

    We paused as the little Bambiraptor waitress brought up our plates of Seismosaurus steaks. She was a fast moving little creature, with big eyes and a narrow intelligent head. Her arms and tail were lined with feathers.

    “You look at that little creature,” Dr Rex said, “and you can tell what I meant about mammals being able to rule the world, if things had been different. Look how fast and agile and intelligent she is, with her large brain.”

    “And with her large brain,” I observed, “she’s still serving dishes at the restaurant, while we are – with our smaller brains – speculating about alternate universes.”

    If Dr Rex had ever heard the word “irony” he didn’t show it. “Give that Bambiraptor and the similar species the education we’ve had, and do you have any idea how far they could go? But the places in the universities are kept for the approved species only, no matter how dumb they are. And they can be very dumb. I know first-hand all about the university.”

    “You really think brain size is all that matters?” I asked.

    “Take this Seismosaurus, for instance,” Dr Rex replied, prodding at his large and undeniably somewhat overdone steak. “If it had the brains, it might have been sitting here eating us for supper, but –“

    “They’re vegetarians,” I interjected, but he’d already moved on.

    “But, even though it’s a dinosaur like us, it’s a farm animal we slaughter and eat.”

    “So?” I felt a bit adrift, as I often did with the old Tyrannosaur and his sudden shifts of logic. “What does that have to do with anything?”

    “You see, we’re evolved dinosaurs; now I’m talking about evolved mammals. Not the rats my wife is so scared of.”

    “Evolved to what?”

    “Just what, I can’t tell you. But it would have to be bipedal, of course, like us – so that it could use its front legs as hands to pick up and do things. It would no longer need a tail, perhaps. It would also probably lose most of its body hair…you know how the mammals are covered with hair…because, well, it’s really only an idea of mine but I believe that if it lost its hair it would feel the cold and want fire and clothes for warmth, which would spur it to develop sentience and civilisation. What I’m expecting is something much smaller than us, of course, because the mammals need more food, but bipedal and hairless.”

    “It would look horrible,” said his wife. “Imagine, a two-legged, hairless rat.”

    “Not horrible to themselves, my dear,” said Dr Rex. “They might speculate about us – and we’d be horrible to them.”

    “We can’t be horrible,” said his wife, firmly.

    “You know,” I said, “most of the population does think along her lines. They’d think your intelligent mammals to be just large, bipedal naked rats. In any case, what’s the point of your theory, anyway? How does it change anything?”

    “It’s supposed to teach us humility,” Dr Rex mumbled through his Seismosaurus steak. “It’s supposed to teach us that nothing is forever, either.”

    “You mean the mammals might still take over?” I asked.

    “Sure,” he said. “After all, we aren’t here forever, as the Allosaurus fossils teach us.”

    “Mammals are rats,” I said firmly.

    “Rats,” he said. “And what are we?”

    “Dinosaurs,” I said, and bit angrily at my steak to take away the shiver that ran down my spine. “We’re dinosaurs.”

    Now why do you suppose the mad old tyrannosaur began laughing like that?

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Raghead: Crimea River

I believe this link ought to be interesting to those who wonder what I'm talking about.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Why Rhino Has Horns: A Folk Tale From Korangustan

Long, long ago, when the world was new, the Great Mother made all the plants and animals out of the clay outside her door, and breathed on them so they came to life, and threw them out on the veldt so that they could run and play around.

Time passed, and the Great Mother saw that the animals were all alike, so that she could not tell them apart.

“Suppose one of them needs something, or causes an injury to another,” she thought to herself. “How can I ever identify which is which?” So she thought that she must give them different looks and abilities so that she could distinguish between them.

So, one day, she called them all together to the gate of her kraal, so that she might give them abilities which would suit them and which they wanted. From all over the veldt, they came in a crowd to the gates of her kraal, and she called them one by one and asked them to choose what they wanted. To the lion, she gave majesty and courage, to the giraffe height, to the elephant wisdom, to the buffalo valour and bad temper, to the gazelle grace and agility, and so on.  The tortoise was late, because he was lazy and did not want to leave his home in the river bank, so she gave him a home which he had to carry about with him at all times.

And so, little by little, all the animals had new forms and abilities. When they hopped, ran, flew or stampeded away from the kraal, the Great Mother saw they were now different, and could easily be told apart, and she was content.

Now one of the animals was Rhino, who at that time did not look at all like what he is like now. No, back then, Rhino was one of the most handsome-looking animals in the veldt. He was slim-bodied, slender-limbed, and had long soft fur which shone like gold in the sun. He was, in fact, quite the best-looking of all the animals, without exception, and this was because he had stood first in line at the kraal and had had his pick of all that was on offer.

This aroused the jealousy of some of the other animals. Hyena was sly and vicious by nature, and she had been consumed by a violent hatred of Rhino ever since she had first seen him gliding smoothly over the veldt while she could only gallop along clumsily, with her high shoulders and sloping back. She decided that she must harm him somehow, in whatever way she could. But she also realised that she could not do it alone, because everyone knew how sly she was and nobody believed anything she said.

So one day she went to visit Baboon. He had seen her coming from a distance and taken the precaution of climbing on to a thorny acacia tree, where she could not reach him. But Hyena had no intention of hunting Baboon, at least not on this occasion.

“Baboon, my brother,” she said in her sweetest tones, “don’t worry, I’m not here to harm you. I want your help against Rhino, whom I hate because he is favoured by the Great Mother for no other reason than he was first in line. I, on the other hand, must fight for my meals and live off scavenging if the hunting is poor.”

“I agree entirely,” said Baboon, who had his own grievances against Rhino, as Hyena well knew. “Everyone praises his slender limbs and golden fur, but they laugh at my doglike face and my red calloused bottom.”

“So shall we ally together and bring about Rhino’s downfall?” Hyena asked.

“We shall,” Baboon agreed, and although he was careful not to come down from the tree, he and Hyena talked far into the afternoon.

Then Hyena went to Warthog, who, because he was as ugly as cracked mud, had just as much reason to hate Rhino, and she talked to him too. Warthog agreed to help, just as Hyena had anticipated. Then she went back to her den, satisfied.

The next day, Hyena came to where Rhino was drinking at the waterhole.

“Oh, how beautiful you are, Rhino,” she gushed. “I just have to look at you to admire every line of your body.”

Rhino looked at her with surprise, because he had never heard her saying anything good about anyone before. “Thank you for your kind words, Sister Hyena,” he said warily.

“Have you thought about taking a wife, Rhino?” Hyena asked. “With your wonderful good looks, you shouldn’t be alone. The Great Mother would want you to have a family.”

“Well,” Rhino said shyly, “I have sometimes, but I really wouldn’t know what to say to a female, you know.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Hyena said. “With your wonderful golden fur, and those lovely slender limbs of yours, you won’t have a problem. As soon as they see you, the females will fall head over tail in love.” She paused a moment to let Rhino preen at his reflection in the water. “Only...”

Rhino looked at her. “What?”

Hyena hesitated. “I just had a thought. No, it’s probably nothing. Just let it go.”

“What is it?” Rhino demanded. “Tell me.”

“It’s just that I wondered what your prospective in-laws would say. After all,” she licked her fur delicately, “they’ll want a son-in-law who can feed and take care of their daughter well, and the grandchildren too, of course. Isn’t that so?”

“So?” Rhino bristled indignantly. “Do you mean to say I can’t feed and take care of them?”

“No, no, Brother Rhino,” Hyena hastily assured him. “I don’t mean anything of the sort. I merely meant that they’ll look at that slender frame of yours, and think that you’re all skin and bones. Obviously, they’ll say, you don’t get enough to eat. So they’ll refuse to give their daughter in marriage to you. That’s what I was thinking. But then I’m just a silly hyena, and I don’t really know anything of these matters.” Bowing low, she turned away. “It was great talking to you, Brother Rhino,” she said over her shoulder.

Rhino looked at her retreating back, and told himself that she was right when she said she was only a stupid hyena who knew nothing of these matters. Still, as he went about his daily business, the thought came more and more to dwell on his mind. He would look at the birds on the trees with their families of chirping fledglings, and the meerkats with their babies sitting beside them, and he would think that he really should get himself a wife. But as soon as he thought that, he would remember the hyena’s words, and he would begin to wonder just what the in-laws would say. By the time he met Warthog, who was sitting half out of his burrow enjoying the sunshine, he could think of nothing else.

“What’s the problem, neighbour?” Warthog asked. “You look worried.”

“It’s nothing,” Rhino assured him. “I was just thinking of starting a family.”

“Good, good,” Warthog said. “That’s a very good idea, neighbour. So, whom are you going to marry?”

“I’m sure I’ll find somebody,” Rhino said. “I’m told a female just has to look at my wonderful golden fur to fall head over tail for me.”

“Of course, of course.” Warthog casually ground his tusks together, as though thinking of something else. “I hope your in-laws won’t cause a problem though.”

“About what?” Rhino asked sharply. “About what would they cause a problem?”

Warthog wrinkled his snout deprecatingly. “I’m just a stupid ugly pig,” he said, “so I don’t know much about these matters. But I thought that the in-laws might just ask themselves how a, I meant svelte...creature like you could possibly keep their daughter fed and healthy. Not to speak of the kids you’ll be having, either.”

Rhino was silent a long time. “Do you know,” he said finally, “you’re the second person to tell me something like this today. What do you suppose I could do about that?”

“Well,” Warthog said, shrugging his mane. “You could give up the idea of marriage and a family. Or else...”

“Or else?”

“You could go back to the Great Mother’s kraal and ask her to make you big and heavy, so that the in-laws will have no doubt about your ability to take care of their child.” He ducked his head obsequiously and began backing into his den. “That’s just a suggestion, but then I’m a stupid ugly pig, and it’s time I turned in. Good night, neighbour.”

Rhino did not get any sleep that night. The next morning he turned up at the Great Mother’s kraal. She was sweeping the yard, and looked up at him in surprise.

“Great Mother,” Rhino said, “I need a favour, I want you to make me big and heavy.”

“Whatever for?” the Great Mother asked in astonishment. “Aren’t you happy as you are?”

Rhino felt far too shy to say that he was afraid of what his prospective in laws might say. So he merely shook his head. “No, Great Mother. I’d just like you to make me big and heavy.”

The Great Mother looked at him, perplexed. But she had a long day ahead of her, with little time to waste, so she shrugged. “If you’re sure...” She took away his slim body, and gave him one which was as heavy and round as a barrel. Since it was too large for his thin legs to support, she took them away and gave him thick sturdy limbs like pillars. And then because his small elegant head was now far too small for his new body, she took that away too, and gave him one which was huge and heavy and ponderous.  

“There,” she said at last. “Are you happy now?”

“Thank you, Great Mother,” Rhino said, and went off to search for a mate, lumbering slowly along because he could no longer glide effortlessly through the grass as he had been wont to do. His beautiful golden fur began to snag on the thorn bushes and brambles, so that it ripped and tore away in clumps, and after that the brambles began ripping at his soft exposed skin, and gnats and flies gathered, biting at him. Soon he started looking very bedraggled indeed, patchy and bloodstained.

Then Baboon saw him. “Ha ha,” he shouted, from the top of an acacia tree. “Just look at you, Rhino. Fat as a barrel and ugly as a hippopotamus. You’re a sight.” And all day he kept following Rhino along, keeping up a stream of mockery. “Find a wife, will you?” he jeered. “They’ll be dropping dead of laughter when they see what you look like now.”

Finally Rhino had enough. The next morning he turned up at the Great Mother’s kraal. “O Great Mother,” he said. “I can’t bear this any longer. Please give me my old form back again.”

“I can’t do that,” the Great Mother said sadly. “I’m afraid you’re stuck as you are. But I can remove what’s left of your fur, so that it doesn’t stick in the bushes, and I can make your skin thick to protect it from the thorns and biting insects. That’s the best I can do.”

“Do it,” Rhino said miserably.

So the Great Mother took away what was left of his lovely shimmering golden fur, and gave him thick naked skin tough enough to withstand the brambles and the biting insects. She then sat back to look at him. “I’m afraid you aren’t very good-looking any longer,” she said. “Could you tell me just why you wanted to change from the way you used to look like?”

So Rhino, weeping bitterly, told her the whole story.

“I see,” the Great Mother said grimly. “It was all a conspiracy hatched by Hyena and the others, to destroy you. The way you are now, you’ll be helpless against Lion and Leopard, and Hyena intends that they hunt you and kill you.” She thought a moment. “I think I know what to do,” she said. “I’ll give you weapons to defend yourself with.”

So she took the remnants of the fur and twisted and bent the hairs together until they became matted and hard as bone, and she fashioned horns out of them and stuck them on Rhino’s nose. “Never forget,” she told him, “that those animals are your enemies. Never trust anything that they say again.”

So Rhino lumbered away from the kraal, not just completely different from the way he used to look but filled with anger towards all the rest of the animal world. And that is why, to this day, he is always bad-tempered and aggressive.

As for Hyena, she was disappointed that Rhino was not eaten by Lion and Leopard. But then he was no longer the most beautiful animal on the veldt, and she had to be satisfied with that.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014


1. This is a story by me. There is no place called Korangustan, and never was.
2. The illustration of the rhinoceros is a watercolour by me as well.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Sea of Suns

One night I woke as from a dream
Of the skies red with reflected flames
And screaming in the streets
Of “Death To,”
“Down With” –
Of raised hands holding
Holy books and flashing swords,
And fire raining from the skies
From death-robots flying on high.

I woke, and went to the window
Looked out at the sky.

Out where uncounted galaxies
Blaze with a billion billion stars
Quasars pumping X rays into the void
Black holes gulping the slow-crawling
Gravity-bent radio beams and rays of light;
Things stranger than anything that can be imagined
Dark matter and energy
Pulsars like the heartbeat of space and time.

The nurseries of the Cosmos -
Monster-clouds of dust and gas
Birthing stars anew.
A hundred million trillion worlds
Filled with wonder, filled with mystery
And meaning for me and for you.

I stood looking out into the void
And from the corner of my eye
Watched as men with guns, drones with rockets
And companies with bulldozers and bank accounts
Told us how we must live and die.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

On Camel Sex, and stuff :D

I had a tough day today, and then this happened, and it cheered me up no end :)))

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Little Lost Vampire

Jack and Jill were going up the hill when they found the vampire.

Actually, if Jack and Jill had gone straight up the hill as their Mum had told them, they’d never have found the vampire. But fetching pails of water was deadly boring work, and both Jack and Jill were always looking for some diversion from the drudgery.

Today this diversion had taken the shape of Mrs Hubbard’s cupboard, which the old lady had thrown out some days earlier because it was always empty and just taking up space. The cupboard, however, was very large and elaborately carved, and two bored children could easily find a few moments’ distraction in it.

Of course, Jack and Jill weren’t bad children. They wouldn’t waste too much time in the cupboard, just enough to pretend to themselves that it was a pirate ship on a stormy sea, or a spacecraft between the stars, or maybe a capsule tunnelling towards the earth’s core. They’d already played several variations of this game, but it hadn’t yet got old.

So when they saw the cupboard, still standing in the tall grass by the side of the path, they paused in their uphill trudge, and looked at each other.

“Mum said we’ve got to be back by noon,” Jill said warningly, but cast a longing glance at the old piece of furniture.

“Noon is when the sun’s directly overhead, right?” Jack replied. “Plenty of time then, the sun isn’t quite overhead yet.”

“All right,” Jill agreed readily. “Just for a moment, though.”

“Let’s be a steam engine today,” Jack said. “I’ll drive.”

“Not on your life,” Jill snapped. “We’re always some stupid vehicle, and you always drive. Today let’s be a jail, and you’re my prisoner.”

But what it would be was never resolved, because when they opened the cupboard, they found the vampire crouching there, in the far corner.

It was a very sorry looking vampire. In fact, it was a very sorry-looking newborn vampire, small and wet and still feebly clawing at the remnants of its eggshell, which were clinging to its moist fur. When it saw Jack and Jill, it opened its tiny pink mouth and hissed warningly.

The hiss didn’t have any effect, of course, because neither Jack nor Jill knew enough to be afraid. Jill reached out and patted the vampire’s tiny head.

“Poor little thing,” she said. “I wonder how it came here.”

“You let me go,” the vampire squeaked. “You let me go right now.”

“It talks!” Jack said.

“You let me go or I’ll bite you,” the vampire said. Suiting action to words, it turned its head and snapped at Jill’s fingers, but of course its fangs were still too soft to do any damage.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Jill said. She picked up the vampire and peered at it closely. It shrilled in fear.

“You’re scaring it, Jill,” Jack said. “Put it down.”

Reluctantly, Jill complied. The vampire scuttled back into the far corner and crouched among the fragments of its eggshell.

 “What’s your name?” Jack asked it.

“I’m not old enough to have a name yet,” the vampire said. “How could I have a name?”

“Maybe we could find it a name,” Jill suggested.

“We’d need to know if it’s a boy or a girl,” Jack replied.

They both looked at it. They couldn’t identify if it were a boy or a girl vampire.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” 

“How should I know?” the vampire whined. “I’ve just been born. And I’m hungry.”

Jack and Jill looked at each other. “What do baby vampires eat, you suppose?” Jack asked.

“Milk?” Jill replied doubtfully, her mind filled with vague memories of old Mrs Shoe’s many children. “Where can we get milk?”

“I want my mummy,” the vampire squalled. “I’m hungry and tired, and I want my mummy.”

“Where is its mummy, do you think?” Jack asked. “Maybe we could find her and ask her what to feed it.”

“If we could find her,” Jill said practically, “we could give it to her and let her take care of it.”

They both looked at the vampire. It had begun to cry. A sobbing baby vampire is a sight to melt the hardest heart, and Jack and Jill didn’t have hard hearts, despite the helmet Jack wore on his head to stop him from breaking it.

“Let’s find someone who knows where to find its mummy,” Jack said, reaching to pick it up.

“Don’t touch me,” the vampire wailed. It was trembling with fear and tension in his hands. He stroked it, awkwardly but tenderly, and slowly it began to relax a little. He slipped it inside his jacket.

“It’ll be warm there,” he explained.

“Who can we ask where to find its mummy, do you think?” Jill looked around the hillside. Except for Mrs Hubbard’s cupboard and a few of Bo Peep’s sheep wandering around, it was empty. Even Bo Peep wasn’t to be seen. “Should we take it back home and ask mum?”

“Are you crazy?” Jack snapped. “She’ll scold us for looking in the cupboard in the first place, and make us bring the vampire back here. If she doesn’t tell us just to throw it out over the back wall to starve. You know how she is about vampires.”

Jill shuddered. She knew how their mum was about vampires.

“There’s the old wizard’s house,” she said doubtfully. “We could always try it.”

The old wizard lived in a house dug under the earth, on the other side of the hill. All day and night purple and green smoke came out of hidden chimneys, and at odd hours strange howls and squeaks came out of it. Nobody ever went that way, not even the grown-ups.

“Do we have to go there?” Jack asked reluctantly.

“Who else can we ask?” Jill replied reasonably enough. “Do you know anyone else who might know anything about vampires?”

Jack had to agree. He did not know anyone else who might know anything about vampires.

So they left the cupboard behind and began trudging across the line of the slope. It was hard going.

“How’s the baby?” Jill asked after a while.

“I think it’s gone to sleep,” Jack said. “I can feel it snoring.”

“That’s good.” They had just come in sight of the wizard’s underground house. A yellow and red cloud was hanging over it and emitting puce-coloured lightning at regular intervals.

“How do we go in?” Jack asked doubtfully. “I don’t like the looks of that lightning.”

“We...” Jill hesitated. “Should we go and knock on the door, do you think?”

“No,” a bush nearby said. “For one thing, the lightning is too dangerous. For another thing, there is no door.”

When Jack and Jill had stopped gasping with shock, they discovered that the bush was, of course, not a bush at all. In fact, it was the wizard, who was sitting on the hillside and whose green clothes and long hair and beard had made him look a little like a bush, if that is you didn’t peer too close.

“The lightning is too dangerous even for me to get too close,” he explained. “I’m afraid the experiment hasn’t worked out quite as I intended. However, it should burn itself out soon enough. It’s just a matter of a year or so.”

Jack remembered his manners. “Greetings, O Great Wizard,” he said, taking off his helmet. “We come seeking your sublime help, Enlightened One.”

“We found this baby vampire,” Jill explained more succinctly. “We’re looking for its mummy so we can return it to her.”

“A vampire, you say.” What little of the old wizard’s face could be seen beneath the hair and beard wrinkled thoughtfully. “I haven’t seen one of that breed around in these parts in a long time. Where did you find it?”

They told him.

“Ummm, hmmm,” the wizard said. “Let me see the creature.”

They showed it to him. It had hooked its claws into Jack’s jacket and wrapped its tail round its head, as baby vampires will when they sleep, you know, so they had a little difficulty taking it out. The wizard ummed and hmmmed a little more, peering at it from all angles.

“I think I can help you,” he said at last. “From the markings on its fur, I can recognise the vampire clan.”

“You can send it back to its mummy?” Jill gasped with delight. “That would be great.”

“No, no,” the wizard explained hastily. “I can just tell you where the mother is. You take it back to her yourself.”

“Where is she, then?” Jack asked.

“The mother will be at the clan’s nesting grounds.” The wizard scratched at his beard. “You could, I suppose, travel to them, but they’re a little far away.”

“How far?”

“From here,” the wizard began, “you’d first have to go down to the shore of the Sunless Sea, and then find a boat to take you across. On the far side, you’ll have to climb the Impossible Mountains, and then pass through the Forbidden Valley, until you come to the Desert of Thirst. Right in the very heart of that dread Desert, there is a plateau which has no name, but whose sides as sheer as a wall and as smooth as glass. If you can climb to the top, you will find before you the nesting grounds of this vampire’s clan.” He paused. “With luck, the journey will take you, at the most, about seven years.”

Neither Jack nor Jill said anything. There was nothing to say.

“Or else,” the wizard added, “you could just take a left turn through reality, and be there in a jiffy.”

“How do we take a left turn through reality?” Jack asked, baffled.

“I’ll show you,” the wizard said, and clicked some of his fingers. Instantly, the hillside shivered and vanished. Jack, Jill and the baby vampire took a left turn through reality and disappeared.

“Let’s see,” the wizard mumbled, “I think I forgot to tell them how to come back again. Oh well.” And he went back to watching his experiment, where the cloud had now become pink and brown, and the lightning was purple. In five minutes he had forgotten all about Jack, Jill, and the vampire.

Long before that, the three of them had arrived at the clan’s nesting grounds.

It was night there, of course, and the vampires were just waking. They hung from spires of rock like fruit, turning their heads and yawning away the last vestiges of sleep as they wished each other good evening. Jack and Jill stood looking up at them, petrified. They literally had no idea what to do.

By then the vampires had noticed them. One by one, they leaped and bounded down from the rock spires and gathered round.

“Humans,” one said. “We’ve got humans here.”

“How horrible,” an elegant lady vampire said, making a gesture filled with such disgust that even Jack and Jill noticed it. “A human infestation.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” a third vampire licked his lips. “Humans are tasty.”

“I had human once,” a fourth said. “I didn’t like it at all.”

“What was the matter with it?” another vampire asked curiously.

“It was bland,” the fourth vampire explained.”And bits were too salty.”

“Don’t eat it then,” the lip-licking vampire snapped. “All the more for me.”

The vampires edged closer. Their claws began reaching out towards Jack and Jill.

It was the baby vampire which saved the situation. Waking up suddenly, it opened its little pink mouth in a howl. “Mummy? I want my mummy!

To say the vampires were astonished would be a considerable understatement. They jumped back so hurriedly a couple of them fell over. “A baby,” they said. “These humans have a baby with them!”

Jack finally found his voice. “Yes, we found this baby, um, and we came here to return it to its mum.” He held the baby up. “See?”

“We didn’t mean any harm,” Jill added hurriedly. “We just wanted to give it back.”

“Luna,” one of the vampires called. “Where is Luna?”

“Luna,” the others took up the call. “Luna!”

“Coming!” A moment later a young vampire came bounding through the rock spires. “What happened?”

Then she saw the baby.

“It’s just that we found it,” Jack explained again, after Luna had snatched the child from them. “We wanted to find its mummy.”

“I told you I’d laid an egg and it vanished.” Luna glared around at the vampires, cradling the child to her breast. “I told you all that the egg must have disappeared down a transdimensional wormhole, and you wouldn’t believe me.”

“It must have been the wizard’s experiment,” Jill offered. “It must have opened the what you said and made the egg vanish, somehow.”

Luna wasn’t listening. “All of you were calling me crazy,” she said, “calling me that silly young Luna, who can’t even make up tales anyone can believe. Do you believe me now?”

“Yes, Luna,” one or two of the vampires muttered. “We’re sorry.”

“And it’s all due to these humans,” another, cheerful-looking, vampire said. “What do we do with them anyway?”

“We can’t eat them now,” the lip-licking vampire admitted reluctantly. “I suppose we have to let them go home.”

“How do we go home?” Jack asked, stricken. “We don’t know the way!”

Luna looked at them at last. “I’ll take you home,” she said. “It’s the least I can do. Where do you live?”

They told her. “And when you come to the hill,” Jack said, “on which there’s the well, then –“

“The well!” Jill gasped. “Jack, we forgot the water! Mum will kill us!”

“Don’t worry,” Luna said. “Hold on to my tail.” As soon as they did, she jumped up on the spires and took a right turn through reality. A few moments later they were on the hill, next to the well.

The sun had just reached directly overhead in the sky.

“Thanks so much,” Jack and Jill told Luna. “Thanks so, so much. We’ll fill the pail and rush home.”

“Thank you,” said the vampire. “And when the baby grows up a bit I’ll bring it to see you. Bye for now.” Taking a left turn through reality, she vanished.

“Quick,” Jack gasped, “let’s fill the pail and run.”

They filled the pail and ran. Perhaps they ran a little too fast.

The helmet, which Jack hadn’t put on securely after meeting the wizard, fell off. He reached for it, stumbled and pitched headlong. Jill was pulled off balance and rolled down behind him.

“Jack,” she cried, when she’d finished rolling. “Are you all right?”

Jack said nothing. He was sitting next to the overturned pail, rubbing his head, which was bleeding.

He’d broken his crown, of course. Again.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014