Saturday, 1 October 2011

Creation Myth

Long, long ago, at the very dawn of time, Akula created the Universe out of darkness and cosmic dust, and moulded it together and breathed on it so that it sparked to fire.  And the Universe blazed in shimmering mists of light, painted with all the colours that were, or could ever be; all but one.

So the other gods, great and small, grew jealous, that Akula had created something of such beauty; and they went in a body to Great Zog, who sat on His throne of black ice in the heart of His realm of desolation. And there they made complaint against Akula.

“For sure,” said one, “by making this abomination, she has tried to set herself above us all; and, if truth be told, she has challenged Your position as the Supreme One among all the gods.”

“Yes,” chimed in the others, eagerly. “She has created something which even You, with all Your powers, have not; and now she will lay claim to being the greatest of all the gods.”

But Great Zog was not at once consumed with anger, as they had hoped. Instead, He sent them away and called Akula to His presence. She came to Him on her chariot drawn by seven fire-breathing dragons, and, dismounting, stood humbly at the foot of His throne.

“Why have you created this thing?” Great Zog asked. “Your brothers and sisters the other gods are angry and disturbed.”

“It’s a sterile and pointless existence,” Akula said, “if we don’t use what powers we have to create. For, if nothing else, the Universe is beautiful.”

“And of what use is this beauty?” Great Zog enquired. “How does it help in any way?”

“It is its own reward.” Akula waved her slender arm at the curtains of light flickering all around the realms of the gods. “We have never seen the like.”

“The other gods say that you are setting yourself up to take over My position as the Supreme One,” Great Zog said. “They claim that since I have not created what you have, despite all My powers, you can claim to be greater than Me.”

“I admit and acknowledge that Your powers are greater than mine, Great Father,” Akula said humbly. “But, the fact remains that I have created what I have created, and that no one of the other gods – You included – have done so.”

And then at last was Great Zog roused to anger, and He ordered Akula to destroy the Universe she had created; but she refused. “I should be a traitor to my own principles,” she said, “apart from being a traitor to my creation.“

But Great Zog said, all full of righteous anger, “I see that your brothers and sisters were right, for you have been blinded with your own arrogance and thirst for power. Since you will not destroy your creation, you will be one with it.” And He turned her into a flicker of colour among all the others, the only colour that she had not created.

Then the other gods began talking amongst themselves. “Surely,” they said, “Great Zog is no longer the most powerful of us, for He could not do even what someone as minor and unimportant as Akula could manage. It is time, therefore, that we supplant Him and choose one amongst us to be the Supreme Lord of all the gods.”

And so the gods made their plans to overthrow Great Zog, and a titanic battle for power was fought in the heavens, with fire and the sword; at the end of which the realm of the Gods was destroyed, and all the gods with it.

Only Akula, sorrowing, remained, a flicker of colour among the others. And now that there was nobody outside it to see the colours of the Universe and marvel, there was no longer a purpose to the Universe – and it began to cool down and darken.

So the aeons passed, and the fires cooled, and the colours faded and turned to ash; and at last all there remained was a plain of grey ashes, congealing out of the last of the colours. And Akula stood amongst the ashes, and she was made of ashes too; and at last there was nothing left except the ashes, and they were Akula. And Akula looked around her, and thought of the destroyed realms of the gods, and she sorrowed and wept.

And the tears of Akula fell on the ashes that were all that was left of Creation, and turned them into mud; and then Akula took the mud, and moulded it; she breathed on it again until it sparked to fire, and, still sorrowing, released it into the eternal void. And she kept on weeping and moulding, and breathing fire on what she moulded, and when the ashes of the plain were gone she took the ashes of her own body, bit by bit, and moulded them as well, and sent them, too, swimming away into the void, with a smile and a tear.

And in the aeons to come, what she had moulded turned into stars and planets, into great galaxies and all the wonders of the Cosmos, and expanded to fill out all of eternity; in time there were worlds without number on which life squirmed and crawled and looked up into the sky and wondered. Great civilisations rose and fell, and searched for the Ultimate Truth of all things.

But of Akula there was nothing more.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

"If God was content with emptiness, would the Universe exist?"

I came across this question on Yahoo Answers. Normally I don't answer questions, especially questions I find overwhelmingly idiotic, but this one was intellectually interesting, so I submitted this answer:

First, you posit the existence, which is unproven, of an entity called “god”. I would ask you precisely what you mean by this term. Is it the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic YHWH/Lord God/Allah, the one who created the Universe in six days? Is it one of the many gods of cultures all over earth who created the universe in many different ways? Is it perhaps the “gods” of yet other religious traditions, who either had nothing to do with the creation of the Universe or came into existence after it was created (as the deities in the Hindu pantheon, whom the Rig Veda specifically mentions as being younger than the world)?

Assuming you mean the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic “god”; let us for the purposes of this answer set aside the question of its existence and look at the “creation” of the Universe you ask about.

According to modern astrophysical theory, there was no such thing as “emptiness” before the Universe appeared. When the Universe came into existence at the Big Bang, it encompassed not just matter [including stars (as well as pulsars, quasars, and so on), planets (as well as asteroids, satellites, and meteoroids), dark matter, black holes and perhaps things we have not discovered or posited yet] arranged into galaxies, and energies (inclusive of the full spectrum of radiation, gravity and dark energy) – but even space. Space, which is a closed system curved by gravity, came into existence along with the Universe. It is expanding as the Universe is expanding, because it’s part of the same system as the Universe itself.

Ergo, it’s meaningless to ask if your putative “god”, whether or not it created the Universe, might have been content with emptiness. There was no “emptiness” for it to be content with.

Friday, 30 September 2011

A Grim Brothers Fairy Tale

The day after Hansel and Gretel returned from killing the witch who had held them captive and was planning to eat them, their father, the woodcutter, and their stepmother began quarrelling again.

After all, the kids’ return didn’t help to fill the larder with food, and, as the stepmother pointed out over and over, she still couldn’t afford a new dress or shoes.

“It’s nice that they’re back,” the father muttered, looking down at the floor.

“La, la,” said the stepmother, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “If you care more for those brats than for the fact that your wife – whom you swore to cherish and protect – is barefoot and in rags, not to mention in imminent danger of starving to death, why then...”

In the end the woodcutter gave in. “All right,” he said. “We’ll take them and dump them in the forest tomorrow...again.”

“I have my own ideas about that,” the woman thought to herself. “These brats have an unholy knack of finding their way out of the forest, so I’ll take care of this business myself.”

Now, Hansel and Gretel had, of course, by now trained themselves never to be without a pocket full of white pebbles each to mark the trail, so although they’d heard their parents squabbling, they were not unduly perturbed, and had a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, as always, the stepmother shook the children out of bed before dawn and ordered them to get ready to accompany her and their father to the forest. As always, Hansel dropped pebbles behind him as they walked deeper and deeper into the forest. But the stepmother, who was smarter than she looked, walked at the back of the group, and with her feet pushed the pebbles away from the path so that they could not be seen.

There was an old well by the side of the path, which had been abandoned so long that the creepers had broken down the wall around it, and the rope and pulley had rotted clean away. As the little group was walking past this well, the stepmother, who was also faster and stronger than she looked, stepped forward quickly, grabbed the children and dropped them both into it. It was a long, long way down, and their screams echoed quite satisfactorily as they fell, ending in an equally satisfactory splash.

Dusting her hands on her dress and whistling a merry tune, the stepmother took her husband by the ear and, so that he wouldn’t have any sudden impulse to try and rescue the children, dragged him home to help with the dinner.


The water at the bottom of the well was dank and clogged with slime, debris, and tangled weed. Hansel and Gretel were dragged down a long way by the weight of the pebbles in their pockets before they managed to tip them out and kick their way to the surface. Coughing and gasping, they clung to each other, treading water.

The sides of the well were so slippery with moss and slime that there was not a hope of them being able to climb up without help, and the circle of light high up seemed impossibly far. Hansel and Gretel both knew that they couldn’t survive long, and started weeping bitter tears of sorrow at their own stupidity in returning to their murderous parents when they could have gone anywhere else after murdering the old witch.

“Why are you crying?” a voice asked.

Hansel and Gretel stopped crying and looked round at the source of the voice. In the dim light at the bottom of the well, it was difficult to see clearly, but it seemed to be a tiny woman sitting on a leaf. She moved slightly and they saw that she had dragonfly wings on her back.

“Who are you?” Gretel, always more outgoing than her brother, asked.

“I’m the fairy Longlegs,” the creature replied. “And you are?”

“I’m Gretel, and he’s my brother Hansel,” the girl replied, coughing out some scummy green water.  

The fairy Longlegs mulled this information over while she waited for the girl to stop coughing. “Why are you crying?” she repeated, in a tone of polite interest.

“Why?” Hansel said. “Because we’re going to drown to death, that’s why.”

“Drown? Oh dear. That’s bad, isn’t it. You don’t really want to drown, do you?”
“We don’t have a choice, do we?” Gretel said, and she and Hansel began sobbing again.

“A choice? Of course you have a choice. I mean, you could always come with me.”

“Come with you? Where?”

“Why, down to Fairyland.” The fairy Longlegs pointed down into the water with one shapely little hand. “Come with me. You won’t drown.” She stretched herself on her leaf, and the children saw for the first time that her legs were very long, thickly muscled, green and ended in webbed feet. “Take my hands, here, and dive down with me.” As soon as Hansel and Gretel had each taken one of her hands, she leaped into the air, dived into the water and swam straight down.

“Hold on to my hands tightly,” the fairy said. “Don’t let go, whatever you do, or you’re lost.”

It was a strange journey down into the darkness, holding on to the fairy’s hands. Somehow, Hansel and Gretel had no problem breathing, and they could even see around them dimly. The sides of the well vanished, and they were swimming down into a sunless sea deep below the ground. Strange fish, blind and ghostly white, glimmered in the darkness as they swam by, and half-glimpsed monsters writhed away into the darkness at their approach, tentacles twisting. And very far below them, they could see glowing patches of green light, which became more distinct as they descended, and slowly took the shape of huge pits dotting a great black plain.

Kicking easily with her muscular legs and webbed feet, the fairly Longlegs pulled the children down into one of the glowing green pits. The green light brightened, and they suddenly realised they were rising. A few moments later the fairy had pulled them out of the water and set them down beside an ornamental pool with a fountain in its centre.

For the first time the children had a good look at the fairy. She was very pretty, with her long red hair and skin like porcelain, and her shimmering dragonfly-wings. She hopped along before them down a path set with statues, chattering to them all the while.

“Welcome to Fairyland,” Longlegs said.

The sky of Fairyland was green, and the yellow sun blazed down on a series of fantastic castles and palaces, so high and delicately wrought that it seemed impossible that they shouldn’t collapse under their own weight. And among them, fairies of every shape and size flew, and ran, and galloped. Huge fairies the size of elephants, with horns on their heads, or tiny ones difficult to see with the naked eye, all came crowding round to look at the newcomers, and followed them down the path to where a distant hill rose like a cone from the landscape.

“You will have to present yourself to the Fairy King,” Longlegs said. “He’ll be extremely interested to meet you. I don’t believe he’s ever seen a human before with his own eyes.”

The Fairy King was on his throne at the top of the conical hill. He crawled ceaselessly all over the throne with his thousands of legs, his glittering jewelled body in constant motion, and his glowing red eyes examined the children with consuming interest.

“Welcome to Fairyland,” he said at last, after listening to the children tell their tale of woe. “We’re all very glad to see you – gladder than you can ever know.” He looked at Longlegs. “Surely we can give them a cottage of their own?”

“I know the very place,” the fairy acknowledged. “Come on, you two. It’s time to go to your new home.

“So you’re the ones who killed the old witch, are you?” the fairy continued, as she led them towards a darling little cottage set in the sweetest glade you could imagine. Roses on creepers climbed the walls, and little birds twittered and flitted around the neat thatched roof. “We knew that vile old creature well, and we’re all very excited to meet the brave children who killed her. You deserve some kind of reward.”

“What a lovely cottage!” Gretel said, clapping her hands. “Is it for us?”

“But someone lives there,” Hansel objected, pointing to the curl of smoke from the chimney and the pretty lace curtains at the windows.

“Yes, someone lives there,” the fairy Longlegs said. In a trice she changed into a lean old woman with a horrible, leering face. “I live there,” she said, grabbing the children by the shoulders with bony fingers that had a grip like steel, “and I’ll have you for dinner tonight.”

“Why?” cried out the children. “What have we done?”

“The witch you killed was my sister,” the old woman said. “It’s true she and I never got along, and you’ve done me a favour by putting an end to her, but she was still my sister. And I’m going to have you both for dinner, so there.”

So she took them into the cottage, and ate them with real appetite that evening. But she slaughtered them very humanely, without even a tiny little bit of torture; and she cooked them with extreme skill, turning them into gourmet dishes which she shared with the King of the Fairies and other prominent denizens of Fairyland. She was famous throughout Fairyland for her cooking, but seldom made the effort to turn out a meal like this. But, as she said, this was a special occasion.

After all, she had promised the children a reward, and she always kept her word, did the fairy Longlegs.

She was also famous throughout Fairyland for that.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Please Help Me

I had just dropped off to sleep when there came this terrific knocking on the front door.

Cursing, I got out of bed and went downstairs to the door. The knocks were so loud that the door was threatening to break from its mounting, and I just managed to get it open in time. I agree I wasn’t thinking too clearly – the proper response when someone bashes at your door in the middle of the night is possibly not to throw it wide open for them.

But, anyway, that’s what happened. My concern was at the moment for my door; doors are expensive; and hiding under the bed wouldn’t have stopped whoever it was from breaking it down anyway.

So I threw open the door a millisecond before it would have disintegrated and goggled at the knight in chain mail on my doorstep.

“I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” the knight said politely. “It’s just that I’m rather in a jam, and I’d appreciate a little help.”

“What kind of jam?” I asked, politely stepping aside to let him in. At moments like this one I tend to act in some ways like an automaton, even if my heart feels like it’s going to explode through my chest any moment.

“It’s a long story,” he said, stepping in and looking for a place to put his lance down. It was so long that he had to lean it against one corner of a wall and the tip reached the ceiling. I looked outside before closing the door, but there was no horse in the street.

“I thought you would have a horse,” I said, shutting the door. It felt a foolish remark, but evidently not to him. “Horses don’t get to heaven,” he muttered, dumping his shield with a clang on the floor.

“Heaven?” I picked up the shield – it was very heavy, so heavy that I staggered a little – and propped it against the wall. It had a heraldic emblem of a red cross on a white field. “What are you talking about?”

“I’ll get to that.” He walked over to the chairs, squeaking slightly at every step. “My damned armour is getting rusty,” he said. “Not that I’m surprised. I’m surprised at nothing any more.” Sighing, he sat on my most prized chair; an antique carved piece I’d bought at auction. With a splintering crash, the chair collapsed.

“Sorry about that,” he said, indifferently. “You can say what you want, but it was going to happen. Everything happens to me.”

“Look,” I said, carefully, “that chair was worth a great deal of money, so I think it’s something that happened to me as much as it did to you.”

“Ah, it would have collapsed anyway; it must have had dry rot or something – it was old enough. Besides” – he scrabbled in the wreckage and handed me a piece of paper – “this might be a treasure map or something.”

“But –“

“And anyway, your troubles are nothing compared to mine. All you’ve had is a broken chair. I’ve been kicked out from heaven,” he said, sitting on another chair. I held my breath, but this one held though it creaked horribly. Then I realised what he’d just said.

“You’ve been kicked out from heaven?”

“Are you deaf? That’s what I said, didn’t I? I’ve been kicked out from heaven, that’s what I said.”

“You’re telling me you’re dead?”

“No longer,” he muttered. “That’s just it. No longer.”

“Let me get this straight.” My head felt as though it was wobbling insecurely on my neck. “You came here from heaven? You’re dead?”

“I think I told you I wasn’t dead any longer.” Now he sounded distinctly miffed. “I don’t know why you can’t understand simple things I tell you.”

I gulped. “Why have you been kicked out from heaven?” It seemed to be the best way of humouring this lunatic.

“Ah, there’s the rub.” He removed the heavy helmet he wore and rubbed his face. It was heavily bearded and he had longish greying hair. His face was pale and deeply lined, his eyes set so far back in their sockets that they merely emitted a grey glitter. And only now did I realise something else – I could see him clearly, even though I had, in my hurry, forgotten to turn on any lights. And with this realisation a faint foreshadowing of fear came on my soul.

“Ah, there’s the rub,” he repeated, rubbing away. “I was in heaven a good long time; eight hundred years, a thousand, something like that. All very nice, if you like things that way.”

“You didn’t?”

“Don’t interrupt. Heaven’s all right, as I was saying, but it’s deadly dull. Not a single tournament or skirmish, not even a decent drinking session or game of dice. But you learn early on to keep your thoughts to yourself, so you don’t get into trouble.” He paused and began rubbing his beard.

“I said, didn’t I, that I’d been in heaven a good long time? Well, I was there ever since I died in one of those Crusades – I don’t rightly remember which. Anyway, I had a high old time in those years, killing the infidels, burning their homes, raping their women, and selling their children into slavery. All that was all right, you know; and by special blessings of the Pope and all, we went right to heaven because we’d done a great and good thing.

“And now yesterday –“ his beard shook with emotion as much as rubbing “– they tell me that all that’s now officially declared evil and so I’m a sinner and I’ve to get out of heaven, after all these years and all.” He bent his head on his hands and began to sob. “After all these years!” he blubbered.

I made as if to pat him on the shoulder, but thought better of it. His shoulders were thick with chain mail and surcoat. He’d never have felt my pat. “So,” I said, “they told you to leave heaven. Then what? I mean, what did they tell you to do, become a ghost or something?”

“No, no, it’s far worse than that.” He raised his grey shining eyes to mine. “I protested. They told me to go to hell.”

“Hell?” I looked around. “Hell, I mean, I know this isn’t much, but for all that – well, it isn’t hell.”

“Isn’t it?” he said darkly. “If you really think about it, the way you all live…but anyway, they didn’t tell me to go straight to hell. That’s something, isn’t it?”

“Depends,” I said cautiously, waiting for what was coming next.

“No,” he went on, as though I hadn’t spoken. “They told me to take a night’s detour through earth. They said I could be alive that long – and if I could do something that still counted as a good deed, they’d consider re-admitting me to heaven.”

“Just you, alone?”

“How should I know? There were thousands of us on those Crusades. But how does it matter to me what happens to others? I’m I, after all.”

“So you’re here to do a good deed, and you want me to help you? Is that it?”

“That’s it,” he said, looking almost pathetically grateful. “That’s just it.”

“Well,” I said slowly, “if you’ll pardon me for asking – why pick on me?”

“Why not pick on you? Your door was right in front of me when I arrived. Whom should I pick on otherwise, the King of Sweden?”

“All right. Let me think.” Under normal conditions, in broad daylight besides, I might have possibly had a doubt or two regarding his account. I don’t really know why I believed him. Maybe because this was the dead of night and conditions were far from normal. Maybe because he was armed and armoured and I was in shorts and a sleeveless T shirt. Maybe because he just looked like he was telling the truth – and then there were the glowing eyes and the fact that I could see him clearly in the dark. “You’re here only for the night?”

“Just for tonight, and half of that’s over,” he said hoarsely, leaning towards me. His halitosis made me recoil. “You know, I have a sneaking suspicion they won’t even wait until dawn. They’ll just pull the plug at any moment and say the night’s ended in some part of the world. So…”

“So, really, you haven’t any time.” I stood up and paced back and forth in the darkness, past the wrecked chair. “What do you want me to do to help?”

“You haven’t any problems I could set right, do you?”

“No,” I assured him, and then added, “none that can be put right in a night, anyway. Troubles I have plenty of, but not the sort you can help solve.”

“Try me,” he said, his grey eyes glowing in their pits with pathetic desperation. “Please, try me.”

So I told him a few of them. He blenched.

“No, I see what you mean,” he said. “You really can’t think of any little problem you have for me to put right?”

“Listen,” I said slowly, “you did say heaven was deadly dull. Who knows? Hell might be a better place.”

“I’d rather not take the chance,” he said. “I mean, I’m used to heaven and all.”

I can’t really say why it seemed important that I help him – it just did. So I paced back and forth some more, and thought – thought hard. Ultimately I went upstairs and got my cell-phone. With a sigh of relief, I found that her phone number was still on it. I was afraid I’d deleted it.

She was still up, of course. She had always been a queen of the night. “It’s going to cost you,” she said when I’d explained the situation. “I mean, this is really going to cost you.”

“I was afraid of that,” I said unhappily. “How much?”

She laughed her rich husky hooker’s laugh. “You’d turn white if I put a price on it, so I won’t. But I’ll want some favours. Big favours. Huge. I’ll call them in when the time comes.”

“Listen,” I said desperately, “I’m not asking for any bloodshed or anything, you understand? It’s not as though anyone’s going to die.”

“Except your mad friend who thinks he’s been kicked out of heaven?”

“Except him,” I agreed. “But he’ll re-die, not die, and it’s his lookout.”

“Just tell me this,” she asked then, slowly, “why are you doing this for him? Just what is in it for you?”

“Nothing,” I informed her. “Nothing at all. I just feel sorry for the bugger. And also,” I added as a crash sounded from downstairs, the sound evidently of the creaking chair finally giving up the struggle, “I need him to stop smashing my place up.”

“Okay,” she said. “It’s your lookout. I’ll play my part – for now.”

I went back downstairs, slipping the cell phone, now in silent mode, into the pocket of my shorts. The knight was prodding a third chair, apparently testing it for strength. “Look here, Sir Knight, I have an idea. Chivalry is still good currency in heaven, I assume?”

“Chivalry?” he asked, turning slowly, his face uncomprehending. “What’s that?”

“You know – suppose you saved a damsel from rape or something. That would count?”

“It would depend on whether she was a good Christian,” he said, turning back to the chair. “If she is, then that’s fine. If she isn’t…”

I thought back to my – uh, friend’s – throaty chuckle. “I can assure you,” I said, “that she’s not a veiled Saracen infidel. Not by any stretch of the imagination.”

“All right,” said the knight, and stood up. “She’s in trouble, is she?”

“Yes,” I told him, and calculated how long it would take for my friend to set up the scene. “You’d better get going soon,” I said. “She’s just prayed to the Lord that she’s in desperate trouble, and the Lord told me about it…” I wondered if he would swallow this rubbish; he did. I then felt a brief vibration in my pocket. “In fact, the Lord says that you’re the only one who can save her.”

“Where is she? And what is the trouble?”

“It’s a bit of a way,” I told him. “We’ll have to take my car, since you have no horse. As for the trouble – you’ll find out when you get there…”

Of the entire episode, that car ride was the strangest. The knight’s immense lance was sticking out of the rear window, his shield and helmet clanging together in the back seat, while he held tight to his side of the dashboard with sheer terror as I drove through the utterly deserted streets. If anyone saw us, I didn’t see them. Maybe they were too drunk to care anyway.

“Relax,” I told the knight, afraid he’d carve holes in my dash; but he didn’t stop his tooth-clenched muttering. I realised he was praying.

From my house I drove right across town to one of those narrow mazes of lanes where any but the residents would be utterly lost. In fact, I was an old resident, which is why I knew precisely where I was going. My friend was a former resident too – and for a little time tonight, she, like I, would be a resident again.

I stopped near a dark old building from which a strong smell of something oily and greasy came. Across the street was the old church she had mentioned. It was dark, small, and deserted.

“It’s time,” I said, and got out to open his door. His relief at stopping was so great that he almost fell out, and would have had the door not been slightly too small to comfortably allow him and his armour. He stood near the car and shivered. I fetched his lance and his shield and helmet, one by one, and gave them to him.

“Where is this lady?” he asked.

“She’ll be right along,” I said. “You begin walking that way.” I pointed.

“Aren’t you coming?”

“You want this good deed to go to your credit only, don’t you? What good would it do to share it with me?”

He nodded and shambled off, uncomplaining. Again, I was struck by his extreme gullibility, but I had no time to dwell on that. I fished out my cell phone and hit the right buttons.

“Where is your friend?” she asked at once. “I’m scared. You know these are real crooks here.”

“Have they noticed you yet?” I asked soothingly.

“I’m nearly sure I’m being followed.” The edge in her voice was clear. “I should never have let you talk me into this.”

I watched the knight, still visible now because of his little glow of light. “He’s coming,” I said. “He’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

“He’d better. And suppose he can’t handle them?”

“I’m there too, aren’t I?” I got back into the car and turned on the engine, keeping it in neutral. “I’ll be there so fast you won’t have a hair on your head touched.”

“It’s not the hair on my head I’m worried about.” She was about to say something more, but then I heard a scuffling noise, as of someone running, and a gasping scream. At the same time the knight broke into a lumbering trot, his lance under his armpit. I heard him yelling something, even as I trod on the accelerator and shoved the gearshift to first.

From where I was parked I had to make two separate turns to get to her, something I’d not quite planned on – they had charged her a bit further from the place, the mouth of a dark alley, I’d counted on. So it took me longer to reach her than I thought it would. So by the time I got there, it was all over. My friend was backed up against the wall while the knight pinned one attacker to a dumpster with his lance through the man’s jacket collar, while slapping another back and forth across the face with his free hand. A third attacker lay on the road, peacefully sleeping.

I got out of the car. The knight turned his glowing eyes to me. “Have I done it?” he asked.

“You’ve done it,” I affirmed.

“Thank you,” he said. If he smiled I couldn’t see it under his helmet. A moment later he had vanished, quite without any kind of fuss, like a soap bubble collapsing. He was simply gone.

“I suggest you go too,” I told the one who – released from the dumpster – stumbled forward and began vomiting. The slapped one had already taken to his heels. The sleeper kept sleeping.

“Told you we’d be in time,” I told my friend, helping her into the car. “Where are you parked?”

“He just vanished,” she kept repeating. “He just…went away.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I suppose he was telling the truth after all.”

An hour later, I got back into bed, telling myself I’d sort it all out in the morning. I thought the excitement would stop me sleeping. I was wrong. In five minutes I was sleeping the slumber of the utterly exhausted.

I hadn’t slept an hour when I was woken by a thunderous knocking.

I stumbled downstairs to the front door and threw it open just in time. Outside, one three-fingered hand raised to knock again, stood a one-legged, one armed man in a tattered kaffiyeh and half an explosive jacket.

Salaam aleikum,” he greeted, pushing past me. “I’ve just been kicked out of Paradise because they suddenly decided suicide bombing was a sin, and I kind of need your help…”

It Happened One Day

Ahmed saw the plane come down. He saw it slant down through the air, one wing askew, like a wounded bird, and he watched it fall on Auntie Arifa’s house with a crash of shattered masonry and twisted metal. He saw a huge puff of dust rise from the house like a blooming flower. Then, at last, he began running.

Ahmed was between nine and ten. He didn’t know his exact age, of course; nobody in the village had ever heard of birth records. He was short and thin and had a huge mop of black hair which his mother trimmed unevenly with blunt scissors. When he ran, the hair bounced.

By the time he had reached the house the dust had just begun to settle. People had already begun gathering. There wasn’t that much left of the building, but fortunately it was the grain shed out back, and not the main house. Ahmed walked up to the smashed aeroplane, full of curiosity.

“Stand back, boy,” someone called. “It might catch fire.”

Ahmed ignored him. In reality, he didn’t even hear the man. He was too busy looking up at the broken silver bird to think about other things.

“Let him be,” someone was saying to the first man. “That’s Halima’s mad son. You can’t do a thing with him.”

Ahmed ignored him too. The plane had broken open like a split toy. The pointed nose was jammed into the earth, the tail section had broken off entirely and filled the courtyard in a tangle of wires and metal so hot he could feel the heat from where he was, and the dust was still thick in the air. He looked up at the wing which was draped upside-down over what was left of the roof. The tip of it hung just low enough for him to be able to touch, if he stood on tiptoe. All along the underside of it were objects that looked a bit like blunt eggs with shiny brown noses.

“Get back,” someone else was shouting, but not to him. They were shouting at the other children. “It’s not safe. Get back.”

Ahmed came back towards the nose of the plane. The cockpit hung above him, upside down, like a shining silver teardrop. He could see the body of the pilot hanging in its harness. The corpse was so encased in straps and flying suit and helmet that it didn’t look like a human being. It looked like something out of a magazine he had once seen, with pictures of people who had gone into space. Although he tried, he couldn’t see the face at all.

When he finally came back to the street just about the entire village was there. Most of those present had decided the plane wasn’t going to catch fire after all. They came closer to examine the wreckage. Auntie Arifa was there, sitting down, and was still shaking a bit. Some of the other women were giving her water to drink. Auntie Arifa wasn’t in her burqa. Her face was very pale. Her mouth worked, mumbling.

Ahmed watched the people gather. As usual, he watched everything but never spoke. He almost never said anything, and this was why everyone called him crazy. Ahmed didn’t mind being called crazy. What they called him didn’t matter.

He felt a light touch on his shoulder. It was his sister, Samina, who was fourteen and considered very beautiful. She was his only surviving sibling. The other two had died in the same bombing that had killed his father. Their mother had gone to Kabul three days ago because of the dispute over the farm, and had not yet returned. “Are you all right, Ahmed?” she asked. He nodded slightly.

He saw Najib and some other young men drive up in an ancient Toyota truck with broken headlights and a cracked windscreen. Najib was one of the most handsome of the young men of the village, and one of the most boastful. People said he was always trying too hard to impress the girls. Now he jumped out of the truck, brandishing a rifle. His friends were also armed, like him. They spilled out of the bed of the pickup, whooping.

“We shot it down,” Najib said. He shook his rifle and fired it in the air. The noise made a flat crack, like a punctuation mark. “We shot at it, and it fell.”

“Don’t be a fool, Najib,” one of the villagers said. It was old Uncle Hassan, who had only one eye. “It had some kind of engine failure or something. You didn’t shoot it down with your pop-gun.”

Najib rounded on him furiously but checked himself when he saw who had spoken. Hassan was not someone to be contradicted openly. He had lost his eye as a mujahid fighting in the anti-Soviet jihad. “I know what I know,” Najib contented himself with saying, and fired in the air again. “We shot it and it fell.”

“Stop firing and dancing around with those guns, you idiots,” three or four of the villagers spoke together. “They will be here any minute and they’ll bomb us all if they see you doing that.”

Najib was full of baffled fury. Ahmed could see the look in his eyes. He looked around desperately and noticed Samina. “What are you doing here without covering your face, you little slut? Go home right now.”

Samina said nothing. Her hand tightened on Ahmed’s shoulder, otherwise there might have been no reaction at all. Najib advanced on her, a hand raised. “Go home, I said.”

“Since when do you give orders here, Najib?” Samina asked. “Did you join the Taliban, or something?”

“How’s that your concern? You go home or I’ll slap the cheek out of you.” He leaned towards her. He was breathing quickly and angrily. “I don’t want to beat a woman, but you’re forcing me.”

“Why don’t you join the Taliban then?” Samina asked. “If you want to fight, I’m sure they’d be glad to have you.”

“For the last time...” Najib swung his hand back. “You get back home and cover your face. Hussy.”

Ahmed stepped between his sister and the young man. His dark eyes stared up at the pale handsome face with its short beard. Najib looked at him, and hesitated. He had a healthy fear of madness.

“I’ll take care of you later,” he muttered, and walked back to his friends. Hassan and the other villagers had talked them into putting away their guns. The dust had now settled completely and the broken plane looked like a knife blade thrust up at the sky.

“So they can fall after all,” some of the men were saying. “They can die, as well.”

“I wonder what kind of man he was, the pilot,” someone else said. “I suppose they have wives and children too.”

“So long as they don’t kill us in revenge for him, I don’t see it matters.”

“They’ll be along here later, and if they think it was the Taliban who did it, there will be hell to pay.”

“There will be hell to pay anyway, with the likes of him around,” the first man said, jerking a thumb at Najib, who pretended not to hear.

“We should go away,” Samina said. “You know how they might bomb us any moment. You know what happened to Father and the others.” They both looked up at the sky.

“Mustafa!” someone screamed. It was Auntie Arifa, who had suddenly realised her son was missing. “Mustafa! He was playing behind the barn!”

She ran to the broken wall and began trying to pull at it with her hands. A few of the villagers, and then more, began to help her. A few men went to fetch tools. Auntie Arifa kept screaming.

“I wonder,” Samina said, “why people do the things they do.” She pulled at Ahmed’s arm. “Let’s go home,” she said.

Ahmed hesitated. He looked at the broken plane and remembered how it had fallen like a bird that had been hurt. He looked at the crowd tearing at the smashed building. He looked around at the dry brown hills and the bowl of blue sky above.

“Mustafa!” Aunt Arifa screamed. “Mustafa!” They had just found him.

“You youngsters get out of here,” old Hassan said to Ahmed, Samina and to some of the other children. “There’s nothing for you to see.”

“Let’s go, Ahmed,” said Samina. “Let’s go before I have to hit you.”

“They kill,” Hassan said to no one in particular. “Even when they don’t intend to, they kill.”

They passed Najib. He was talking to his friends and waving his hands around. “I tell you we shot it down,” he was saying.

All the way home, they could hear Aunt Arifa wailing.

An explanation for my recent absence

First, I hurt my hand.

This wasn't a minor injury - when your hand is pretty badly crushed by a Dobermann's jaws, you don't just shrug it off.

Said Dobermann is my daughter Teddie, who accidentally bit me on the left hand and leg while I was struggling to break up a sudden fight between her and my other two daughters, specifically my Neapolitan Mastiff daughter Juno. My hand was badly hurt, and Teddie's hip was also badly hurt, so that she was limping around, unable to put the hurt leg to the ground, and crying with pain. All this was on Sunday,  the 18th.

Early on the 19th I took her to the vet. He said she'd sprained her ligaments, would take two weeks to recover, and prescribed a course of medication. When on Wednesday, the 21st, she had shown absolutely no improvement at all, I took her back to the vet, who took X rays and discovered that she had fractured her femur at the hip joint (just below the condyle). By that time she'd begun bruising and her leg was swollen.

So for the past few days I've been working at the clinic, which is in the middle of busy season, nursing an injured hand and an injured daughter, who's only been showing some improvement over the last two days. In the meantime I've had relationship problems as well, which have caused me major stress and anxiety - and then, the day before yesterday, my cousin Katja  from Hamburg (all of 42) died after a brief viral illness, leaving behind two children.

So, yeah, this hasn't been the best month of my life, ever.

In the forest, the river

This is a story about a girl and a dolphin.
The girl lived in a little hut on the bank of a channel that fed a tributary of a great river, in the middle of a thick forest, so thick that the sun had to struggle to reach the ground even when it was high noon.
The girl lived with her grandfather.  Neither she nor the old man had been born in the forest. The life they led, in that little hut by the river, was nothing like the life the old man had known before, or the life the little girl remembered from her earliest years. The man and the girl had been slaves. They had run away and were now free, but if they were caught they would be slaves again.
The girl was somewhere between eleven and twelve years old, thin for her age, and went about nearly naked most of the time. She spent her days tending the little patch of ground she farmed along with her grandfather, gathering wood for the fire, and swimming and walking around the forest in the vicinity of the hut. She loved the forest, and sometimes, she almost felt the forest loved her in return.
Down on the coast, the great city raised its church spires and mansions skywards, and in the fields, plantations and mines around it the slaves worked at producing sugar and rubber, coffee and tin, to feed the hunger of the city’s residents – to feed and clothe them, and for them to send off to foreign lands on big ships in return for other things they could eat and wear and play with. The slaves saw none of these things. They existed for one thing – to work. And, once in a while, some would take the opportunity to run away. There was only one refuge, the obvious refuge – the dark sheltering wall of the forest.
The girl and her grandfather had run away when the fever had struck the slave lines and carried away the girl’s parents and the old man’s wife all in the space of two short weeks. The slave overseers had made even the sick slaves work till they dropped, and the rest of them had been merely waiting until they, too, sickened and died. As long as the rubber and tin kept flowing, the mine managers and plantation owners couldn’t care less about whether the slaves lived or died.
So, one night when the lightning had flashed incessantly in the sky and the rain had thrashed the ground, the old man had taken the girl in his arms – then only a toddler, but already put to work sorting and arranging – and had escaped out of the slave lines into the forest. There had been guards posted, but they had been hiding from the storm, and nobody had seen them go.
They had been in the forest ever since.
The day the girl first met the dolphin was just after the season of the great rains, when the river overflowed its banks and submerged large portions of the forest. The girl had been up since before the dawn, and now that her work was all done, she’d come down to the river for a swim. Though the water was murky with the debris of the flood, here in the channel it was still quite calm and still. The little girl knew the channel well, its twists and turns, and where the bottom fell away into deeper water where the current could be strong, and where it was completely safe to swim. She knew the channel so well that she could, and often did, swim it in the middle of the night in pitch blackness and never lose her way.
On this day, the girl had walked into the channel to her armpits, and was about to push off with her feet from the flat rock on which she was standing, when a surge of water swept over her body, as though something large had passed her just under the surface. The water was opaque with murk, its surface dotted with twigs and leaves, and the girl wondered for a moment if she had imagined it. But the movement came again, and a very slight touch, as though someone had drawn a feather across her midriff.
Terror might have come then, if the girl hadn’t known the channel so well. She knew – none better – that hereabouts there were none of the caymans that lay like logs of wood on the mud flats further downstream. Nor did the great constrictors that twined around the branches of trees inhabit this patch of forest – and, in any case, these would have either attacked her already or stayed away. They would not have been swimming around her as though curious as to what she was.
She thought momentarily of leaving the water and watching from the bank for whatever it was to show itself.  But if it had come to her only because she was in the water, it might leave and then she’d be left wondering what it was. She hesitated, unsure.
Then the surface of the water bulged in front of her and parted, as something rose. First it was a beak, long and thin, followed by a bulbous pink head. The beak opened, rows of sharp teeth gaping, and a little black eye gazed at the girl for a moment. The creature breathed out with a mighty huff, and then plunged under again. A curve of bright pink back broke the surface, followed by a pair of flukes that slapped the water and vanished. The water rippled and spread from the spot, slapping against the girl’s chest and upper arms. Slowly, the ripples spread and vanished.
The girl knew what it was, of course, though she had never seen one before. It was the boto, the encantado, the pink dolphin which haunted the river and in the season of floods swam amongst the trees of the forest, which her grandfather had told her took human form and seduced maidens in the night, leaving them pregnant with its babies when the dawn came. It was the creature of mystery and awe, of which she’d heard so much and never thought to see with her own eyes. She was still gaping open mouthed at the water when the surface exploded.
The boto rose from the water like a god rising from the depths. His beak lunged for the sky, spray flying from the flippers as he pushed himself up, his body a column of flesh, looking far larger than his actual size. He hung suspended above the surface for an endless moment, his body shuddering, his little black eyes watching the girl. Slowly, toppling, he fell back into the water with a mighty splash and disappeared.
“Why did he come here?” the girl asked her grandfather that evening.
They sat on the bank in the darkness and listened to the boto break the surface to breathe every few minutes. “He must have followed a female into the forest when the flood was high,” the old man said, “and lost his way when the water began to recede.”
“Does that mean he’s trapped here?” the girl asked anxiously.
The old man peered at her in the darkness. “Why, no. If he wants to go, all he has to do is swim downstream. He’ll be all right.”
The girl hesitated before asking the next question. “Did you mean all that you’d told me – about the boto taking human form and seducing maidens?”
Her grandfather chuckled softly and touched her shoulder. “You know that’s a story as well as I do. Why – were you hoping it wasn’t true...or that it was?”
The girl did not answer. Embarrassed and furious with herself, she turned away and hoped her grandfather wouldn’t know that she was blushing.
Over the next days she spent more and more time with the boto. He would swim around her as she stood on the rock, rubbing her body with his flank, or nuzzling her with his long beak as though he were a friendly dog. And though she had seen that same beak snap a large fish in two with no effort at all, and knew something of the animal’s power, she felt no fear of him whatsoever.
Sometimes the boto would roll on the surface, slapping the water playfully with his flippers, or juggle a large seed he’d found somewhere as though it were a ball. He’d flip it back and forth, and then push it to her, as if it were a gift, and she would pick it up and take it to the shore. She had a small pile of these gifts from the dolphin in one corner of the hut, and her grandfather had begun teasing her that the dolphin was courting her and would come for her one of these nights.
And she would swim with him, down where the water was dark and impenetrable, and he would guide her,  as though she were blind, and she would let him rub and push her along. And as well as she knew the river,  the dolphin knew it too, even though he had never been in it before. He could find his way quite unerringly past the sunken trees and jutting rocks, the flotsam and jetsam at the bottom she had come to know well over the years, as clearly as though he could see them all.
“Some say,” her grandfather told her when she mentioned it, “that they have a separate sense, that they can see where it is impossible to see, know where they are going when it is impossible to know. Perhaps it’s a secret we will be able to understand someday. All we can say is that they are special in a way we don’t understand.”
As the days went on, the water levels dropped, and the girl grew anxious that the dolphin would go away. Each morning, as soon as she woke, she rushed to the river’s edge and scanned the surface eagerly, until she was rewarded with the sight and sound of the boto’s rising to breathe. Only then would she settle down to the chores of the day.
Some days the dolphin would disappear, often for many hours, and she would fret and worry constantly until the familiar sigh would come from the river and she would sigh, too, with relief and happiness. knowing the creature was back again.
“You’re so besotted with that animal,” her grandfather grumbled, “that I wonder who’s going to end up seducing whom.” But he would watch the girl and the dolphin play in the water, and he would smile secretly.
And then one day the slave overseers came to the forest.
They came in rowboats, muskets across their knees and coils of ropes and whips at their belts, to hunt down the runaway slaves who had not gone far enough into the forest, to whip and tie them and bring them back to the plantations and the mines, to grow more coffee and rubber and dig out more tin for the people in the city to exchange for the bright and shining toys and the shimmering foreign textiles their hearts so craved. They came with their dogs and their chains, but all they found were abandoned huts and little villages surrounded by plots of cultivation that were already falling back into jungle. Their coming had been expected, warned of by word of mouth, and the slaves had fled deeper in the forest, where the wild men dwelt and the slave overseers dare not follow.
The only exception was the girl and her grandfather, who lived away from the other runaway slaves, had no contact with them, and who did not know.
The girl saw them first. She had gone some way down the channel, to find a vine the old man had asked her to look for, because he wanted to use it to make ropes. She hadn’t found it where she’d expected, so she’d had to go further until she had almost reached the point where the channel emptied into a wider one.
The slavers’ boat was rowing up the channel.
The girl froze, sure they’d spotted her. But they were looking up river, and talking to themselves in low voices. They did not see her, and she slipped silently behind a tree and then deeper into the forest, until she could break into a run. Going by a more direct route, she managed to beat the boat back to her grandfather.
The old man was digging in the plot behind the hut when she arrived, gasping for breath, her little breasts rising and falling. All expression left his face when he heard what she had to say. For her, slavery was a word, a dim and almost forgotten memory. For him, it was a weight he had borne on his shoulders almost all his life. If there was one thing he feared, apart from dying and leaving the girl to fend for herself before she was ready, it was a return to slavery.
“We have to escape,” he said. “But where?”
Already, they could hear the dogs. They were long-limbed tan-and-black striped monsters, bred and trained to hunt runaway slaves, and it was said that any of their quarry would be better off giving himself up rather than be ripped into by their great yellow teeth.  Some of the slavers would follow the dogs through the forest, running behind them as they struck the scent, while others would take the boats up the channels and creeks and cut off the slaves’ retreat. It was a very familiar tactic, but no less effective for that.
“The dogs will catch us if we try to run into the forest,” the old man said. “Where is the boat? Almost here?”
“The boat is still part way down the channel,” the girl replied. “The dogs will be here long before it, from the sound.”
“We must go into the water, then,” the old man told her, “and swim upstream. They will stop and search this place, and that will give us a chance to put some distance between us and them. Come.”
“We’ll lose everything that we have put together here,” the girl said.
“We’ll lose it just as surely if we wait to be taken back in chains,” the old man snapped. “Come quickly.”
The howling of the dogs was loud in their ears as they slipped into the channel, swimming smoothly upstream and as far as possible underwater. They swam as close to each other as they could, touching each other in the murk because they could not see, and coming up only long enough to take a quick breath before submerging again. Although both were strong swimmers, the exhaustion and tension overcame them and finally drove them to leave the water and wait on the bank for a brief rest.
“Once they find that the hut’s deserted,” the girl observed, “they’ll come upstream behind us.”
“They will,” her grandfather said. “But we have no choice but to keep going.”
“The water is getting shallow,” the girl told him. “Soon it will be too shallow to swim. And we can’t wade fast enough to beat the boat, even if we manage to stay in the water so that the dogs lose our scent and can’t find it again.”
“We have no choice,” her grandfather repeated. “If it were only I, maybe it would be different. After all, I’m old and I don’t have long to live. And I’ve had a taste of freedom, at least. But you deserve better.”
“Don’t talk like that,” the girl said. “We must keep going.”
Only a little way past the next bend of the stream, the girl’s toes touched the bottom mud, and she found herself standing hip-deep in the water. It was too shallow to swim.
“Should we wade as far as we can,” the girl asked, “or get out now and move on through the forest?”
“I...” the old man began. What he was about to say was lost in a distant shout and the slaver’s boat rounded the bend behind them.
“They didn’t stop at the hut,” the old man gasped.  “Go quickly – get away while you can.”
“I’m not leaving you,” the girl told him.
“Go,” the old man said, and slapped her. She stared at him with shock. He had never struck her before. “You’re young,” he said. “You have a future, you can have a life. They might settle for me alone. Go!”
Still staring at him, she backed away. He turned away from her to look at the oncoming slavers, the tears running silently down his cheeks.
The overseer was in a foul mood.   He had been on many slave hunts, but never one as fruitless as this one. They had been hunting for days, almost run out of time and rations, and not found a single slave. At the most they could remain out for one day more, and then they’d have to turn back.
He hated the slaves for the animals they were. He hated them because they forced him to come out into the heat and humidity of the river, this horrible place where the air was thick with clouds of mosquitoes, ticks would bury their heads in your skin if you accidentally brushed the leaves on which they were lying in wait, and leeches would bite your legs if you stepped in the water, and for all he knew schools of murderous toothy fish were waiting to strip you to the bone. It was all the fault of the slaves, and they didn’t even have the decency to get caught.
He’d dropped the dog handlers and their animals at the mouth of the channel, waiting until he was sure that they’d picked up a scent, and then followed the waterway. He had no great optimism that the dogs would hunt any slaves down – the quarry had grown remarkably elusive and resourceful in recent days, and they’d most likely have left already, or would the moment they heard the dogs. Perhaps they’d leave behind a decoy or two. Well, he had had enough of decoys. A murderous anger had begun to smoulder inside him. If he caught a slave or two, he’d take them back, yes, but first he would make them pay.
He had ignored the hut when he’d glimpsed it some distance up the bank, and snapped at the boatmen to continue. Unless the slaves who had lived in it were deaf or too infirm to move, they’d be long since gone, and if they were still there, the dog handlers could have them.  He looked over the prow of the boat, at the sluggish murky water, and his rage at the slaves rose with every splash of the oars in the water.
By the time they finally glimpsed the two wading figures, he was almost beside himself.
The nearest was an old man. The overseer was not particular – a slave was a slave – but his attention was fixed on the other one, the adolescent girl. She was further off, but they could always come back for the old man. He wasn’t going anywhere. Now, that girl – she would be valuable on the market, and besides, with her nubile young body and her small bare breasts, she was a morsel he would enjoy to the maximum.
Slapping the oarsmen on the shoulders, he turned the rudder to steer towards the girl. The water was very shallow, and the boat wasn’t flat-bottomed, but he wasn’t about to run aground. Not now, with victory within his grasp.
A few more oar strokes, and he would have her. He could feel his heart hammering with excitement.  Standing up, he leaned forwards for a better look.
And then the water under the boat erupted.
The boto had been far away in the forest, swimming among the trunks of half-submerged trees, looking for fish; and now he was returning to the channel, to the spot in the river he had begun to think of as home.
As he went, he scanned the environment before him, bouncing a stream of sonic waves off submerged logs and stones, off the shelving earth of the banks and the flat undersurface of the water above, painting a picture of the world in sound. A fish darted past his jaws, invisible in the murk but roiling the water with its fear-stricken passage. Without pausing, he stunned it with a sonic hammer-blow and scooped it up with a snap of his toothy beak.  A few more thrusts of his flukes and he was in the main channel, swimming homewards.
He had grown extremely fond of the creature which now regularly came to frolic with him in the water. Unlike the females of his own kind, he didn’t have to fight with all his strength for her affections, and she didn’t demand anything from him except his companionship, which he was more than happy to give. He always felt a thrill of pleasure when she plunged into the water and swam over to him, kicking about in her hilarious, clumsy way. He hadn’t yet seen her today, and was looking forwards to it.
He realised something was wrong long before he reached the spot. The water vibrated, erratically, and there was a noise of splashing and commotion. At first he thought it was wounded prey – but this was far too noisy, far too unnatural, to be prey. Cautious at first, pressing himself to the muddy bottom, he swam over to investigate.
He sensed her presence before he came upon her. He’d got to know her so well, over the time that he’d spent with her, that he could recognise her signatures instantly – the sonic imprint of her legs and hips, the sound of her voice, raised in anger and fear. And he could see the huge shape, squat and hulking, which was heaving itself through the water at her, accompanied by splashing.
The boto knew fighting. Like all the big males of his kind, he could be brutal when he had to be, utterly without pity as he snapped and bit at blowhole and fluke as he fought for females. He could be roused to an anger so single minded that his kind was feared by all the other denizens of the great river. And in this instant the anger took over, driving caution from his brain.
The creature who was his friend was in danger, and that was all that mattered.
The boto struck from below and to the side, slamming himself against the wooden hull of the boat. It lurched, tilted, and as the overseer flung out his arms and dropped overboard with a splash, the boat almost turned turtle, shipped water, and rolled back, the oarsmen yelling. The overseer, cursing, scrabbled in the muddy bottom of the channel for his gun, slipped and fell, and finally found his feet. Roaring furiously, he waded towards the girl.
And then the boto struck again.
We can stop now,” the old man said. “They’ll never find us now.”
The girl leaned against the nearest half-submerged tree, gasping. For longer than either of them could remember, they had followed the dolphin as he had led them through a succession of little waterways and flooded passages through the trees, alternately walking and swimming, until now, with night falling, they could go no further.
“They won’t be back anyway,” the girl said. “They were frightened out of their wits.”
“They’ll probably destroy the hut before they go,” the old man said. “It’s a pity, but in a day or two we can go back and see what we can salvage.”
“Just now,” the girl said, “I just want to find somewhere I can lie down and sleep.”
Not far away, the boto snorted in the gathering darkness.
“He saved us, didn’t he?” the girl asked. “Grandfather? You remember the story about them taking human form?”
“What about it?” the old man asked.
“I think he’s fine as he is,” the girl said.
With an explosive rush of air, the boto breathed again.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

Rescue Party

"It's been a while since I last met you,” Professor McGrath said.
He was a big man with a white beard, thinning white hair, and greyish blue eyes that failed to look myopic despite the thick spectacles he wore. I had asked him before about those spectacles: surely he could have had contact lenses or corrective surgery. He had said the spectacles made a better impression. They were more “academic”. It was an odd conceit of his. I have known him for over fifteen years and never found any other eccentricity in him.

“Yes,” I replied. “Two years and a bit, in fact. I did try to contact you but they told me you were on an extended sabbatical from the university. And then last week I was told you’d come back, but when I went to meet you I was told to wait because you were in a meeting. I sat and waited in your office for an hour and left because I had things to do. And of course your cell has been switched off.”

“Two years?” he sounded pensive. “That long? Yes, I suppose it must have been. I’m sorry about making you wait. I was – I am – engaged in a difficult project. It’s taken up all my time.”

“What have you been up to?” I asked. “Writing a book on some obscure historical point no one but your fellow historians will ever read?”

“Well…” he hesitated. “Not exactly. Although I suppose if it had come out all right I might have got a book out of it.” He got up, went over to the window, and stood looking outside at the bright sunshine on the trees. He was big and burly, the Irish genes he had inherited from the father’s side of the family showing clearly. In a red hat and suit he’d be a shoo-in for Santa Claus. Not unnaturally, he hated Christmas celebrations and I had long since learned not to greet him on that day. “Look here,” he said, turning around, “if I tell you something, will you promise it will stay between us? That you won’t give it any publicity? After all, this is something I don’t want widely known. None of us do.”

“I’m a mathematician,” I said. “Who’s ever going to listen to what I have to say? I can’t even make people listen to my ideas about Boolean algebra, for heaven’s sake! Who’ll listen to what I have to say about you, even if I did say anything?”

Now no one who knows me will ever give me credit for being observant or sensitive to other peoples’ moods, but it was obvious that he had something on his mind and that he wanted to talk. I’m not a total moron, after all.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll tell you. But it’s going to take a while.” 

“I’ve got time,” I said, smiling. “As much time as you need.”


You know Bishop Mathew. (Professor McGrath said) Maybe you don’t know him to speak to, but you’ve seen his photo in the paper, you’ve seen him on TV. You know what he’s like – he even looks like a fanatic, with his balding head, his thin, ascetic face, his burning eyes. He looks like some holdover from the Spanish Inquisition. I suspect he knows it and deliberately plays up the impression. And you know that his church is going through a revival phase. Which means, basically, that they are trying to re-invigorate faith in all the poor devils of the congregation.

Now, of course, I have no place on the list of the faithful. I have never been a believer in either the God hypothesis or organised religion. Odd for an Irishman born of a long line of Catholic Irishmen, wouldn’t you say? So I was surprised, a shade over two years ago, to get an invitation from Bishop Mathew’s office. Could I spare the time to meet him? He would come here and meet me in my office. I wouldn’t even have to make the journey to his diocese.

I wondered for a moment whether he had the intention of taking me to task for abandoning Christianity, but then I reasoned that this would be the last thing he would try. It would get him nowhere, and he must have known it. Still and all, what did a Bishop of the Church want with a professor of history?

I wasn’t left in doubt long. He came straight to the point, sitting in that chair you’re sitting in now. “The Church,” he said, “is in trouble. Faith is in decline everywhere. Morals have gone down the drain. Nothing is as it should be. No one lives as Our Lord said we should. We need to bring faith back into the world. Ordinary means will no longer suffice. We need something exceptional. Someone exceptional.” 

“How should I be of help?” I asked when he paused. 

“I’m coming to that,” he said. “There is, it has come to my notice, secret research being done. That research has almost succeeded in producing something. A wonder. Science does not always do Satan’s work after all. I need that thing to work and I need your professional expertise.”

“And what is that wonder you mentioned?” I must confess that by this time I had begun harbouring doubts about his sanity. Maybe it would have been better for all of us if he had been insane after all. Not maybe; for sure. 

“There is a man, a physicist,” he said. “His name is Theopoulos. He’s a Greek, an unbeliever of the Greek Orthodox Church or maybe even an atheist, but he’s creating something that proves to me, at any rate, that God moves through the most unlikely routes to fulfil his purpose.

“He is making a machine to travel through time,” he said. “No, don’t scoff, or I am wasting my time talking to you. I have attended his demonstrations of the machine. He met me in Greece. He was desperate for two things: financial backing, and the opportunity to try it out in some venture great enough to win him recognition. You’ll understand, Professor, that anyone who says he is making a time machine might as well claim he can flap his arms and fly. The same number of people would believe him.

“So we made a deal. We – this diocese - supply him the money he needs, and he undertakes a mission for us. His machine is now almost ready. We’ve formulated the mission. Now what we need is the specialist knowledge to help us carry it out. You, being an acknowledged expert on West Asia in the time of the Roman Caesar Tiberius, have the knowledge we need.”

I was beginning to have a bad feeling about this. Obviously it was his project he was talking about, not the church’s; and I already told you he was a fanatic. Also, in the remote event that his mad scientist actually managed to create a working time machine, the mention of West Asia in the time of Tiberius had distinctly alarming possibilities. I decided to find out the worst right away.

“And what is the nature of the mission?” I asked.

He leaned forward over the desk until he was almost speaking into my face. His voice was very quiet, nearly a whisper.

“We want to go back, rescue our Lord Jesus Christ and bring him into the present,” he said. 


In the end I agreed. What else would you have me do? I am an academic, after all; and after talking and writing about ancient Judea and Galilee for years, wouldn’t you have thought it natural for me to see what happened there with my own eyes? Even if I was convinced it was impossible?

I took long leave from the University. I had it coming, so they made no serious difficulties. In any case, once I had told them it would end in a research paper they were happy enough. Universities have their egos just like individuals. 

I flew to Athens and then down to Rhodes where Mathew met me. Together we met Theopoulos. He was a short, pudgy man of middle years, almost completely bald. He spoke English, but with a heavy accent I often had trouble understanding. He had, he said, finally finished his time machine. It was, he assured me, capable of moving objects and people back in time. “But not into the future,” he said. “Because the future, it has not happened yet.” It took, however, an appalling amount of energy to make itself work, and unless he could get the energy consumption down it was still impractical.

“To do that I will have to work many years more,” he said. “I need much money. More than His Highness the Bishop can get for me. I need to do something which will attract enough attention for me to get official backing. The Bishop’s plan is what I am depending on.”


I don’t propose to bore you with details of all the preparations we went through over the next year. I’ll just mention the most important ones. Theopoulos demonstrated his machine, so well that even I was forced to admit that it worked, that it did send objects to the past (or at least made objects vanish) and then brought them back into the present when the controls were set accordingly. He made modifications – so many modifications! – and it was only when, one late evening, that I saw him send and bring back a dog that I finally admitted that he had done it. He had created something that actually was a time machine.

In the meantime Mathew made his plans and I did my research. Because between reading about something and actually preparing to go there lay gulfs of ignorance and peril. Mathew was the driving force; we would certainly have abandoned the project if he had not been at our backs all the while, cajoling, arguing, arranging. He must have stripped his diocese of every penny it could spare. And he had his own demands.

It was incredible, looking back on it, how little information there actually was about Jesus Christ in history. If your sources are the Gospels, you are faced with irreconcilable contradictions. If you depend on outside sources, you come up blank. No one seems to have heard of him, except the Jewish historian Josephus, in a couple of passages that are such obvious interpolations that they have no value at all.

We did not even have any agreement on the year that Christ was executed – John had him executed in 33CE, while according to the other Synoptic Gospels he was crucified in 30CE. We had to read through the gospels to cherry pick bits and pieces which seemed to make sense, which were in accord with what we knew, and with that we made our own composite history. I personally was not even convinced that Jesus Christ even existed; but of course I went along with what I was sure was a mad plan. I wanted to see the Jerusalem of the first century CE for myself, you see.

What with astronomical data and checking the dates of Jewish Passover, we finally selected the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nissan, Friday, April 3, 33 CE, as the most likely date of the crucifixion. Why was the date of crucifixion so important, you ask? Why did we not just go over and grab Jesus from the cradle, as it were? Well, for one thing, there is no information about Christ in the days before he actually entered Jerusalem. All we can be sure of is that all the stuff about his birth in a manger in Bethlehem, and his escape to Egypt, and even the Nazareth part of his history – all that was rubbish. Nazareth did not even exist in the first century CE – it was a burial ground. For another thing, our dear beloved bishop insisted that we take Christ at the last possible moment – when he actually became fully Christ, as it were, when his ideology was fully developed. 

We prepared. And we made plans.

The first thing we had to contend with was the fact that at this distance of time the machine was not perfectly accurate. It could not insert us at exactly the moment we chose, except by accident. We could have snatched Jesus from among his disciples before he was arrested, if only Mathew had permitted, but that he refused. So, our window of opportunity was only after the time when Jesus was arrested, tried before the Jewish court, the Lesser Sanhedrin, condemned for breaking Mosaic Law, and sent to the Roman Prefect, Lucius Pontius Pilatus, for re-trial on the charge of proclaiming himself king. All this, you understand, was on the supposition that Jesus existed and that all these things happened. Then when Pontius had finally sentenced him to death, had him scourged and sent to be crucified, we planned to take him from his guards on the way. Before that it would have been impossible; at all times, Christ would have been too securely guarded. And according to our Bishop Mathew, of course, he would not have matured enough ideologically to be the Christ.

All told, therefore, we had an hour, maybe less, to do what we were supposed to do. And we were faced with the fact that we did not even know where he would be crucified, there being no place called Golgotha anywhere near Jerusalem and there never had been; and also that the machine could not even be depended to put us where and when we needed to be.

A pretty problem!

It was obvious that we would have to be prepared to stay around for a while, if necessary, to have a chance of sneaking him away. And during this time, we would have to dress and comport ourselves in a way that would not arouse suspicion.

And – need I mention it? – the three of us, between us, stood not a chance of success. Actually, it would be two of us, since Theopoulos would have to stay back at the controls of his machine. We needed some more people to help. Those, Mathew found for us – about ten brawny young men. I don’t know where he found them; some secret Church organisation, perhaps. We were given to understand that questions would not be welcome, so we did not ask any. We just got them ready for the job. It required a great deal of training.

Training for what, do you ask? There was only one way we might hope to be unrecognised and avoid challenge under any conceivable circumstance while we got ready to snatch Christ. That is, if we were dressed up as soldiers of the Legion.

From heaven knows where – theatrical costumers, perhaps – we acquired legionary outfits, complete with greaves, helmets, armour, sandals, bullhide shields with metal inserts, and even javelins and gladiuses, short swords. We learned as much classical Greek as possible, because that was the lingua franca of the legions. In this Theopoulos was not of great help; classical Greek is in any case not the same as the modern tongue. We had to pretend to be members of the Cohors Italica, the only Roman troops in West Asia at the time. All other legions were local levies; we would never have been able to pass ourselves off as them successfully. We prepared. We drilled, using as our source everything from Hollywood movies to Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. We planned.

How odd it all seems to me now, like the games of children!

And in the meantime, Theopoulos modified his machine and it grew and grew and grew. No, I can’t really describe it; it took up an entire floor of his building, a sprawl of wiring and plates and chambers and refrigerating units and huge storage batteries. I’m a historian, not a scientist. I’ll give you Theopoulos’ address if you want, but I don’t think he’ll give you the time of day.

It was not mobile, of course; we couldn’t trundle it over to Jerusalem, but it did have an additional feature: it could project one, within limits, both in terms of space and time. We could be sent from Rhodes to Jerusalem as we went from the twenty first century to the first, and then back again. And there was a sort of radio by which we could send coded signals; not long messages, but something to let Theopoulos know when we wanted to come back again.

But where in Jerusalem should we go?

As I told you already, there is no place called “Golgotha” near Jerusalem, or the Place of the Skull, where the Bible says Jesus was crucified; in fact there is no word in Hebrew called Golgotha. However, it stood to reason that Jesus would be crucified somewhere close to the city. The only place that suggested itself was a hill called the Hill of the Stonings, where the Jews used to perform their own executions. We did not know where it was; but we could narrow it down. And, poring over maps and plans, we did.

Why did we not send a reconnaissance party over first to scout out the land? Remember the energy costs I was talking about?

Finally we were ready, as ready as we could get. The funds were running out anyway. We would either have to go through with it or call it all off. It could no longer be postponed.

We “left” late one afternoon, with rain slashing down outside, dressed as a decuria of the Cohors Italica. The Bishop chose to stay behind, as I knew he would. If we had failed to find Jesus, I think he would have gone crazy right there in first century Jerusalem, and we would have had, I think, to leave him there. In his absence, I dressed as the decurion, the officer in charge, of this ten man platoon. I even shaved my beard for the part. 

I should mention a couple of things. We were clothed as legionaries, of course, and armed each with a long javelin and a short sword, but we were carrying extras. 

On the hollow side of each shield, instead of the short loaded javelins of the legionary, we carried a selection of smoke bombs and stun grenades. These were essential; we had to have some way of covering our planned abduction. Drilling or not, training or not, we’d not last ten minutes if we had to fight real legionaries, as we knew perfectly well.

There was one other item. 

I’ve told you that there was no certainty that the machine would bring us to the right spot at the right time. Also we might spend much time looking for the site of the crucifixion and the procession bringing Jesus there. It was by no means impossible that we might actually find him crucified. According to our ecclesiastic boss, once Christ was actually affixed to his cross, it became holy and a blasphemy to leave the cross untenanted. We must, he said, leave a body there for the disciples to bury, venerate, and grieve over. I don’t know how crazy that sounds to you; but the whole thing was crazy anyway. 

So, we actually carried a body with us.

I don’t know where the corpse came from; some West Asian mortuary, probably, obtained with the payment of a judicious bribe. The man was naked, very recently dead, so that rigor mortis had not fully passed off as yet. He was in a coffin lined with padded silk, a coffin equipped with carrying rods like a stretcher. We were supposed to bring Jesus back the same way, if he was in no shape to co-operate. The corpse was bearded and long haired. He looked very like the Jesus one sees depicted in all religious art. I don’t know of what he had died. There was no mark on him so far as I could see. At least he was circumcised, though. If not, the whole thing would have descended to the level of farce. Who ever heard of an uncircumcised Jew?

The ten of us – eleven if you count the corpse – stood on a platform while, somewhere, unseen to us, Theopoulos made his adjustments. There was no sign of Mathew. I have no idea if he simply had no stomach to be present when we left on his mission or he was busy arranging for the reception of his Lord. When the moment came, there was no fanfare. No dramatic countdown. Just a shimmy in the air and a brief blurring of everything around us to grey.

Then there was stony ground instead of concrete beneath our feet and the walls of a city in the near distance. It was all very undramatic. It was sometime in the later afternoon, with the unmistakable sensation of a hot day giving way to a hot night. We were on a hillside, and that walled city must be Jerusalem. There was no one else but us around.

How did I feel at that instant? Triumphant? Ecstatic? No. I was worried, because I was convinced there was something I had forgotten. Something important. 

We looked at each other. We of course had no idea what the time was, and we had no means of telling if we were too late or if there was no execution at all. We might be three years too late. We might be looking to rescue a man who had never been born. We might even be a day or two off, here or there. How would we know?

I had been to Jerusalem, of course, but that was the Jerusalem of the twenty first century. It had nothing to do with this walled city of two thousand years earlier. 

No way to find out but by walking along looking for the Hill of Stoning. So we did.


It was nearing sunset, and we had very nearly given up hope, when we finally found them. 

Three crosses, silhouetted against the reddening sky. 

I think I was more amazed that there was actually a crucifixion at all, and three crosses, that the Gospels had been borne out that far, than anything else. By that time we were all rather out of breath, because we had walked most of the way round the city, lugging our armour and that damned coffin along with us. We did not make exclamations; we did not point; we just walked silently towards the top of that hill. 

There was a thin scatter of people around. Very few, actually, and even fewer women, not the great crowds of Gospel. I don’t know who any of them were; but of the men, most were obviously not Jews. There was not a single unshorn beard or fringed robe in sight. This was no surprise. The following day was the Jewish festival of P’sach, the Passover. Jews would all be at home, preparing for it. A small guard of Roman legionaries sat near the crucifixes, chatting. None of the women, of course, were standing on the sides of the cross looking up at the man there with adoring eyes, as we see in the ludicrous Catholic statuary. They stood far away, averting their eyes, and most appeared to be sobbing. No wonder.

When we were close I looked up at the men on the crosses. They were, of course, all nude. Crucifixion never left a stitch on the condemned man’s body, no loincloth of the Catholic fantasy. The nearest to me was the one on the right. There was no doubt that he was either dead or close to death; his head hung on his chest, a swollen tongue protruded between parted lips, if he were breathing I could not detect it. I passed him by with no further glance; it was not he I was interested in. The soldiers were sitting at the foot of the centre cross. It was obviously that which we needed. But one had to be certain. 

As we trudged up to them, the legionaries glanced casually up at us. They were all local levies, obviously, with pronounced Semitic features. One of them said something I could not catch, then stood up. We stopped, a few metres away. He repeated what he had said. Now I am a historian of West Asia, but I’ll admit freely to you that my knowledge of spoken ancient Aramaic is poor, so I did not attempt to answer him in that language. Instead I asked him in Hebrew, which at least I can speak: “Which one is Yeshua ben Yosef?”

He looked instinctively up at the central crucifix, and that was all we required by way of confirmation. We could not delay any further. Every moment counted. We had rehearsed this many times, what we would do.

Our hands reached behind our shields and came out bearing smoke and stun grenades which we threw in all directions. Those legionaries and spectators never knew what had hit them. Just imagine; they had never heard of explosives, and suddenly their world went up in a series of deafening blasts and thick clouds of black smoke. Is it a wonder that most of them hit the ground and stayed there, shivering in superstitious fear, and the rest of them ran as fast as they could? I mean, those blasts were so loud, that smoke so dense, that they almost blinded and deafened us

And that is the source of the legend, I guess, of the darkness that fell upon the world when Jesus died, the noises and the earthquake. Of course no graves opened to let the dead walk; and nothing happened to the great veil in the Temple. But I think you know as well as I do how legends and stories grow in the retelling.

We did not hesitate; the tools we required, the mattocks and spades, were of course at the foot of the crosses. They had been placed there to put the crucifixes up in the first place. We grabbed them and went to work at the foot of the central cross. It was much shorter than the common idea which comes from the fantasies of the church. A cross is effective as soon as the condemned man’s feet are off the ground; any further height is superfluous and inefficient. Whatever else the Romans were, they were not inefficient. By the same token, the crosses were T shaped – the top part over the crossbar, as always, was missing. It had no function, would merely have made the crucifix top-heavy, and the Romans, as I said, did not mess around.

In minutes we had that cross down on the ground and were using our swords to cut the ropes that held the man to the wood. Because, of course, crucifixion involved tying the condemned to the cross; nailing was frowned on because the man usually passed out from pain and died relatively quickly from shock and blood loss. And crucifixion was a method designed to ensure that the prisoner lived in agony for the longest time possible. Days, sometimes. 

So, we cut the ropes and lifted him from the cross. Did we, devout Catholics as we all – bar myself – were, stop to worship him? Did we pause a moment in reverence? Did we hell. So far we hadn’t even taken a good look at him; we hadn’t had the opportunity or the time. He did moan once as we put him down, so he was alive, at any rate. We worked in two teams. The coffin had already been opened, and even as we took Jesus down the other team had the corpse in place. And there was my problem. The thing I had forgotten.

How the hell would we lash the corpse to the cross? We did not have any ropes!

If we’d had time, of course, we could have found ropes somewhere. But we hadn’t time. 

The smoke was beginning to disperse. Before lobbing a few more smoke bombs, I saw a few sledgehammers lying among the mattocks. Those sledgehammers were meant to finish off condemned men who had lasted inconveniently long, by breaking their legs. With their entire weight suspended from the arms, the men died quickly after that.

“Get those hammers” I told one of my men. “You might find spikes there too.” Which he did; because it was easier to construct the crucifixes at the site of the execution than to make the prisoner carry them all the way to the place of execution. A prisoner who did that was usually too exhausted to last more than a few hours on the cross. And as I said a death by crucifixion is meant to be a lingering one…

So we nailed that poor devil of a dead man to the wood. We put spikes through his wrists; the bones of the hand are so weak that had we nailed his palms to the wood, they would have torn out as soon as we had raised the cross. We put another through his feet; and, as my men heaved together and got the cross up, I threw the last of the smoke bombs and stun grenades to keep everyone’s heads down. Even as they burst, I reached into a pouch at my belt and pressed a switch that would let Theopoulos know it was time to bring us back. 

At that moment there was a shouting. I turned round just in time to see the cross up, but swaying dangerously; it seemed as if it would fall at any instant. One of the “legionaries” of my decuria, in a gesture wholly instinctive, reached out with his javelin to steady the cross. The tip went straight into the dead man’s side. I did not wait to see if any blood emerged; the other men had managed to stabilise the cross, and that was all that mattered. I called them together quickly. Even as we all assembled round the coffin, the air shimmered, turned grey…

…and we were standing on concrete, in Theopoulos’ machine, and we had the man called Yeshua ben Yosef, alias Jesus Christ, in a coffin with us. 

Somehow it did not sink in right then. We had things to do. There was a medical team waiting, which was part of the contingency plans. They took charge of Jesus, and whisked him away at once, coffin and all. I did not see him again for a month.

In the next days, the team that had gone with me vanished as mysteriously as it had come. I stayed with Theopoulos for the time being. I had suggested that since my role was over, I should leave, but Mathew requested me to stay and help for the time being – and of course my burning curiosity held me. I tried to learn to speak Aramaic as well as possible. Theopoulos fiddled with his equipment. Mathew vanished on one of his mysterious missions. Jesus, presumably, was in hospital. 

Time passed. 


It was a hot summer day when I saw Jesus again. It was not on Rhodes – there is no point telling you where it was exactly, but it was in a house in a forested valley far from the nearest town. I don’t know who owns the house, but I think – no, I’m almost certain – that its owners were the same organisation that had supplied my fellow “legionaries”. 

I got there in a car sent by Mathew, and driven by a heavily muscled young man who spoke not at all the whole way. The Bishop himself met me at the door. He looked pale and drawn.

“You’ve got to help,” he said. “He’s impossible! He refuses everything!”

The man he was talking about sat in a chair, awkwardly. Someone had dressed him in a dressing gown. Probably it was the only garment of ours he could wear. He sat and stared at me and I looked back at him. You have to understand that this was the first occasion I have ever got a proper look at him. Earlier there just wasn’t time.

Throw all your notions out of the window. Jesus Christ was not a narrow faced Nordic with long straight blond hair and beard. I guess that was our doing, leaving that crucified corpse for them to worship and to bury. Men and women who fail to recognise their living Lord cannot be expected to fail to recognise him when he is dead, even though his appearance is changed.

Well, then. Jesus Christ was stunted, scrawny, and sunburnt. What else had I expected of a carpenter and itinerant religious teacher? He had a round head with the skin stretched tight over the bones, a scrubby black beard, and kinky black hair. When he opened his mouth his teeth were worn down and stained dark brown. But his eyes were what I stared at longest.

The look in those eyes was that of a man enraged to the point of being beyond reason.

“He’s furious,” Bishop Mathew said behind me. “He says he wanted to be crucified, that he schemed and worked to be crucified, that we’ve stolen his death from him, that he won’t help us whatever happens, and that our church,” he swallowed audibly, “is evil, is a parasite, an abomination.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Talk to him! Get him to understand!”

I could hear the desperation in the poor man’s voice. I could sympathise. He had schemed for this for so long, gathered allies, made preparations, probably seen himself overthrowing the established order, bring the Lord Jesus out to sit in the Vatican and rule the Christian world, an authentic Godhead, with Mathew himself as his vicar on earth. He had done so much. And just because of the exasperating, inexplicable mulishness of that rescued Godhead, it was all in danger of falling apart.

I tried. I talked to Jesus, in Hebrew and in Aramaic. He did not answer a word except to curse me as Satan’s angel. Probably he did not speak a word of Hebrew, and as for my Aramaic, the accent may have defeated him. I could have written down what I wanted to tell him, but it wouldn’t have done the least bit of good. He was, naturally, absolutely illiterate. Which carpenter’s son of that era from Galilee wouldn’t be? 


At last we sent him back. What else could we have done about him? We couldn’t keep him indefinitely. Once word leaked out, as it would, he would have been mobbed. And – fanatic that he was – if he had begun condemning the church in public, as he most assuredly would have, there would have been hell to pay. I could just see him being torn to pieces by a crowd of the furious devout.

He wanted to commit suicide by others’ hands. Balked once, he would have tried again.

I was present the day he went back. By that time he had stopped communicating in any way at all. 

There was nothing to it. He was put on the platform, alone, in a white shift, Theopoluos pressed some buttons. And the Lord Jesus disappeared to the time he had been brought from.

I came back here and rejoined work without a word to anyone. Theopoulos as far as I know is looking for another sponsor for fine tuning his invention. I have no idea where Mathew is – he disappeared after Christ left. I wonder sometimes if he has got himself transported to another era to get away from the consequences of his defeat. For, make no mistake about this, he staked all he had, money, faith, ambition, and he lost.
You don’t recover from that kind of defeat.


And that’s all I have to say about the whole bloody mess,” Professor McGrath told me. “I wouldn’t mind going back to that era again, but not for any more ecclesiastical kidnappings. No sir. Put me in a nylon toga and send me back for a study tour, that’s all I want. Not that it’s going to happen again. Shall we go and have some beer? It’s on me.”

Quite a bit later, as he drained his second glass and wiped the suds off his moustache, McGrath spoke again on that topic, as if getting some thing off his chest. 

“There’s just this one big doubt I have,” he said. “Or call it a niggle, a worry, whatever you want. You know I said that when we went back, the machine couldn’t be depended on to get us to the precise point in time we needed? Well, we did send him to the site of a garden not far from the crucifixion site, but we slipped up a little on the time.

“We’d meant him to reach Jerusalem at the time we took him, before dusk on Friday before Passover. He actually got there, Theopoulos told me, only two days later.

“Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ walked again in Jerusalem three days after being publicly crucified, on Sunday morning…”

 Copyright B Purkayastha 2011