Friday, 17 August 2012


In the depths of the inner city, the streets near the slave market are narrow and noisome and lethally slippery in the time of the rains. The alleys are dark in the hour of the dusk, and the people hurrying home try and avoid them as best they can.

But sometimes, the alleys are full of coming and going, even in the rain and the dusk. This was one of those times.

In one of the old narrow houses on the steep hillside behind the slave market, old Mondo, the oldest man in town, lay dying.

From all over the neighbourhood the people had come, bearing silks and jewels, fruits and delicious sweets as bribes for the dying man, for they hoped that this way Mondo would spare them after he died. Nobody really believed this would work, because it never had worked, but after all, there was no harm trying.

Old Mondo sat up in bed, coughing. His hair, long and thick, and his magnificent silky beard were the colour of bleached ivory, and his skin was like delicate parchment. But he had once been a big man, almost a giant, and his frame, though gaunt, was still so big that he seemed twice as broad as the people who had come to watch him die.

“Grandpa,” said Shutki the dried-fish wholesaler, bearing a platter of sun-dried eels, the flesh drawn back from their needle-toothed jaws in derisive grins, “here are the choicest of my stock. Pray feast your eyes on them even if your jaws should prove unequal to their consumption.” He tried to lean over Mondo long enough for the old man to indicate, by word or deed, that he had recognised the giver and appreciated the gift, but he was impatiently pushed aside by the next in line. Everyone wanted to make sure Mondo recognised and appreciated them, for otherwise the entire exercise was a waste of time and money.

“Grandpa, grandpa,” Lobhi who kept the inn opposite the slave market gates, and who was rumoured to have made a fortune catering to the needs of the slave merchants and their customers, came rushing up, squeezing tears from her piggy little eyes. “Don’t die and leave me alone, Grandpa! See, I’ve brought you the best fabrics from the furthest corners of the world. Here, feel how soft and light they are, as though they’re made of sunbeams and moonlight!”

From a corner of the room, the head of the local council, Chhucho, his plump arms crossed on his chest, surveyed the scene. There was an expression of distaste on his fat face. “All this,” he said, “and still none knows whom the old man will come to, after he dies. Nobody.”

“Maybe he will not come to anyone,” his wife suggested, timidly.

“Of course he’ll be coming,” Chhucho snorted. “Have you ever known him to pass up an opportunity in his life?” Shaking his head with disgust, he turned and walked out, without a second glance.

He walked right down to the slave market, bending his head under the rain. Things could not be allowed to go on like this. Each time someone was about to die, everyone stopped looking to him for leadership and instead went to the dying person with loads of gifts and food and money that by rights should have been his. He shook himself, the raindrops glittering in the lamplight, and trudged past a beggar missing his left arm. Something had to be done about all this.

He saw the man then, tall and pale, one of the barbarous Northern savages with their long noses and their filthy customs. Doubtless a hanger-on of a slaver caravan, come to buy or to sell, and out for a jar of wine. The sight of one of these foreigners usually roused him to fury, and he began to turn away in disgust, when the Idea came to him, and he paused. Slowly, he turned back and walked over to the foreigner, a smile creasing his lips.

Uff the son of Ohho watched the fat man approach with some perplexity. Earlier the same day, one of the other slave-drivers, who had been to this town before, had pointed him out and told him that the man hated all Northerners, but tolerated them for the business they brought his benighted town. But now this man was coming towards him with a greasy grin on his face.

“Welcome to our city, brother,” Chucho said in the common trade tongue. “You must have come a long way. Got in with a caravan today, did you?” He didn’t wait for Uff’s nod. “Looking for some wine and a hunk of bread, aren’t you? The inns here are villainous to visitors to our fair lands, villainous. Come with me, I’ll give you a good feed.” And without letting Uff get a word in edgewise, he grasped the barbarian’s arm, suppressing his own and natural revulsion at the touch of the pale flesh, and pulled him up towards the house where Mondo lay dying.

“Dear – what...?” Chhucho’s wife stared wide-eyed at the spectacle of her lord and master bringing along a barbarian with him, almost as much as astonished as she was to see him smiling and laughing. She was about to ask further, but fell silent at an imperious gesture from her husband. Chhucho took Uff to a room beside the one in which Mondo lay dying. The door between the rooms was shut, so Uff didn’t know what was going on in there.

“Sit down, sit down,” Chhucho said merrily. “I’ll bring you meat and drink.” Quickly, he exited and met his wife. “Feed him,” he hissed. “Give him all the food we can get our hands on, and then let’s get the hell out of here!”

Uff the son on Ohho belched gently and wiped his mouth. For some time now, he had become increasingly sure that he was alone in this house, but he had been too busy eating and drinking to pay too much attention. But now he cocked his head and listened. Yes, the noise of people coming and going had ceased. He wasn’t sure when; he had been famished and had eaten until none of the gargantuan meal they had put down before him remained.

“I’d better find someone to thank and get back,” he said, and, rising, staggered. It made him giggle, and he lurched to the door by which he had entered. He pushed at it, but it didn’t open, and because he was so drunk, it didn’t occur to him that it might be locked. He wandered around the room and finally found another door. With a slight push, this opened.

Inside, on a bed, lay the oldest man Uff had ever seen. He was so old that his flesh seemed to have melted off his bones, leaving just a skull wrapped in wrinkled skin and a flowing white beard and hair. There was a lot of the beard and hair.

“Very sorry, I’m sure,” Uff muttered, staggering enough to knock over a small table. “I just want get out of here and thanks for the food and drink and...” he stopped when he realised he was babbling, and looked again at the old man. He began to suspect that there was something possibly wrong with the old man. And now that he looked more closely, he realised that this thing was that the old man was dead.

As far as a realisation can, that sobered him to an extent. He was still drunk, but he wasn’t so drunk that he could no longer think. He decided to stop looking for someone to thank and get out as fast as possible, not only because the man was dead but because he suddenly wondered why he should have been left alone in the house with a dead man.

“I’ll – I’ll just be going,” he informed the corpse, and began looking for another door. Apart from a single lamp at the head of the dead man, the room was in shadow, so he had to feel his way along the wall to find a door. Just as he put his hand on the one he’d finally located, there was a soft thump from behind him. He turned just in time to find a head rolling across the floor towards him.

It wasn’t just any head either. Wrapped round in the hair and beard, it looked just like a hirsute ball; but it was the head of the old dead man on the bed, and it rolled at him so quickly that in his drunken state he had no chance to avoid it. A sudden wrenching sensation, a fleeting moment of sharp pain – and the head sat snugly over his left hand, enfolding it, pressing down on it, and he had a head where he’d had a left hand all his life.

Uff the son of Ohho was not, all things considered, a poltroon. But such a thing was so out of his experience that he could, quite literally, not believe that it was happening. For a few moments he stared stupidly at the head, and then with his other hand pushed open the door, and staggered out into the night.

He staggered down the narrow lane, trying to get back to the slave market where the rest of the caravan was camped. The rain was now so heavy that he could hardly see to walk, and for some reason, the further he walked towards the market, the more he seemed to wind up going up strange alleys and in unknown directions.  Soon, even though both drunk and badly frightened, he knew himself completely lost. Trying to think of what to do, he slumped down in a convenient doorway to rest – and promptly fell asleep.

He woke to a sharp prod in his ribs. It was more than a prod; it felt like a kick. He shook his head, trying to clear the mists of sleep, and felt it again. Yes, it was a kick, and not a gentle one at that. With some difficulty, he blinked his eyes open.

The rain had stopped, and a little flickering moonlight shone on the face and shoulders of the man kicking him. He was a big man, with a big shaven head and big moustaches, and he had just drawn his big foot back for another kick. “Wait!” Uff protested. “Don’t kick me!”

“Ah, so the barbarian is up,” the big man said, in the trade tongue. He raised a big knife and waved it around before Uff’s eyes. “Give us all your money, barbarian, and maybe we’ll be kind enough not to cut your throat for you.”

“Who...who are you?” Uff asked.

“Who I am isn’t important,” the big man said, leaning forward and raising his knife. “Give us your money or...” Suddenly he reared away, his face twisting, and snapped something to someone over his shoulder in his own language. There was a scuffling of feet and the lane was empty.

“What...” Uff got slowly to his feet and looked at his arm. The head at the end of it looked back at him, the eyes open, leering. The long hair and beard flowed over his wrist and forearm. “They were scared of you,” Uff said.

The head said nothing, but its toothless jaws worked, its lips writhing into an obscene grin.

“What do you want?” Uff asked. There was no direct response, but suddenly he felt an overwhelmingly powerful urge to walk down a tiny side lane opposite him. Automatically, he got up and began stumbling down the lane, still talking to the head.

“Look,” he reasoned, “I know this is probably some kind of dream or a bad joke, but anyway, I don’t want a head at the end of my arm, so why don’t you leave me alone, and...” Still talking, he turned down an even narrower lane, between windowless houses so close on either side that he could easily have touched them had he wanted. At the end of the lane he came to a low sprawling house with dim lamps burning behind thick windows. Suddenly, the urge to go further left him, and he stood wondering what to do.

A moment later the door swung open and Chhucho emerged, pulling at his breeches. He peered at Uff. “Oh it’s you, is it?” he mumbled. “Well, go on in, whatever your name was.” With a belch full of the fumes of cheap wine, he pushed past the slaver and vanished into the night.

Uff stared after him for a moment, and considered running after him to demand an explanation, but the urge took hold of him again, and he walked in. There was a large room, with lamps on the walls and several young and beautiful women, none of whom had much on in the way of clothes. The nearest of these, whose translucent wrap did nothing to conceal her ample charms, walked over to Uff, smiling.

“Welcome to our foreign visitor,” she said in a high lilting voice, standing on the tips of her painted toes to plant a kiss on his lips. “You’d like my company for the evening, wouldn’t you? It’s only going to cost you...” Then she got a look at his left arm and backed away, her face going pale under the make-up. “It’s Grandpa!” she gasped.

“Grandpa?” One of the other girls took a look and jumped back. “Grandpa...he’s dead?”

“What are you talking about?” Uff demanded.

“Well, you see,” the first girl replied. “Grandpa – he always used to come here of an evening, even when he couldn’t do anything anymore, if you get my drift? He must have come here again, just for old times’ sake.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who’s Grandpa?”

“Oh,” the girl said, “you poor thing. You don’t understand, do you? That...” she pointed at the head, “ Grandpa. Old Mondo. He died tonight, I suppose? Well, you’re in for it now.”

“I don’t understand. I’m sorry. I really don’t understand.”

The girl gave an exasperated sigh. “Look,” she said, “you know the deadhead – that head thing at the end of your arm? It belonged to this old man, Mondo, Grandpa we call him. He died tonight – he must have, because his head’s fixed to your arm now. And he’s there for good.”

“What,” Uff said, trying to assimilate this information, “is he doing there?”

“Haven’t you felt him making you go where he wants you to go?” The girl paused a moment. “But how on earth did you get caught by him anyway? Seeing that you’re a stranger in town and all?”

“I...I think I was tricked...” Uff recounted what had happened to him from the moment Chhucho had greeted him near the slave market. “And I’ve been trying to get back to the market,” he finished, “’and going around in a maze, so far as I can tell.”

“Why,” the prostitute said, colouring angrily, “that fat little sneak! He’s going to end up ruining our business if he begins this kind of thing with foreigners. He...”

“That’s all very well,” Uff interjected, “but what am I going to do about this, then?”

“You...” the girl looked over one plump shoulder from which the wrap had slipped off in her emotion. “Look,” she said, nodding at a man who had just entered the room from the back, rubbing at his crotch, followed by a completely naked young lady. “There’s the doctor.”

“All fine,” the Doctor said, still rubbing his crotch. “She’s in perfect health. I’ll come along to check one of you other girls tomorrow evening.”

“He came here for one of the health check-ups the council demands,” the wrapped girl explained. “Why don’t you ask him instead? Doctor,” she called, still in the trade language for Uff’s benefit, “here’s a foreign visitor who, um, old Grandpa Mondo has taken hold of.”

“Mondo?” the man called the Doctor said. “I did hear he was dying, but nobody called me, so...” He walked over and peered at Uff’s arm. “That’s Mondo, sure enough,” he agreed. “Got a nice healthy host, has he? Lucky, Mondo always was.” With a chuckle, he tried to push past Uff and head for the exit.

“Wait,” Uff said, and grabbed the Doctor’s arm with his one good hand. “Tell me how to get rid of this thing.”

“But you can’t,” the Doctor said, smiling indulgently. “You haven’t a hope, my boy. The deadhead’s flesh is merged with your own, its nervous system integrated with yours. Just try and peel it off and see.” Uff held up his wrist and peered at the head. There seemed to be no dividing line between its skin and his.

“Believe me now?” the Doctor said. “All right, let me go. I have things to do, patients to visit.”

“But there must be some way to get rid of it,” Uff said. “There must simply be some way.”

“Well,” the Doctor said, shrugging, “you could come over to my surgery and we’d amputate your arm. That’s the way they mostly do it.”

Uff thought he hadn’t understood. “Amputate?

“Cut, boy, cut your arm right off. Haven’t you seen the one-armed beggars around town? Ever thought why there were so many?”

“I don’t want to lose my arm!”

“Who does?” the Doctor snorted. “Of course, you could let it stay, but then it’s going to use you for its purposes, and drain your energies to a husk. You’ll be a skeleton in a fortnight and dead in a month.” Taking advantage of Uff’s loosened grip on his arm, he shook off the younger man’s hand and walked out into the night.

“Wait, look...”

“It’s no use,” the girl in the translucent wrapper said. “There really isn’t a cure. You could come with me for a bit, just to cheer you up. I won’t charge you.”

“What about Udberal?” It was the completely naked girl, who had been listening, along with all the others. “You know – the wizard?” She coloured. “I heard he once helped someone, you know, someone who had this kind of thing, and he cured her.”

“Did he?” The wrapped girl turned to her colleague. “I never heard that. Yes, he could go to Udberal...but how?”

“How?” the naked girl blinked. “I don’t get you.”

“I mean, old Mondo won’t want to go to the wizard, so how does our friend here go to him? Udberal won’t come here, that’s certain. He never leaves his home.”

“Um, yes...” The two prostitutes began talking urgently together in their own language, with frequent glances at the head topping off Uff’s arm. At length the wrapped girl nodded vigorously and turned back to Uff.

“You wait,” she said decisively. “I’ll be right back.”

She returned in a few moments, clad in a clinging dress and narrow elegant shoes, still tying back her hair behind her neck. The dress was so narrow that her hips swayed with every step she took. “Walk just behind me,” she commanded Uff, “so that old Mondo gets a whiff of my, you know, my...” she used a word in her own tongue, which Uff could not understand, but whose meaning he guessed, “ every step I take. That way he’ll follow – we hope.”

They walked along the very narrow lane, the head meekly leading Uff just behind the girl’s swaying backside. “There, you see,” she said. “It’s working. I had my doubts.”

Uff followed the girl out into the somewhat less narrow side lane, and they emerged into the lane where he had been threatened by the bandits. He pointed out the place to the girl.

“Is that so?” she said. “I never knew them to come this far into the inner city before. They usually stick to the richer part of town. I’d better mention them to the police chief when he comes for his weekly payout tomorrow.”

“Why did they run away?”

“Well, if they’d killed you, your head would probably have gone and fixed itself on one of them. That’s what usually happens with those who’ve been fixed on already. Of course,” she added with a laugh, “it happens even with those who haven’t been fixed on. The profession of bandit’s a hazardous one.”

They walked for a long time, through a bewildering succession of alleys and stairways. “Why are you doing this for me?” Uff asked at last. “I must be keeping you from”

“Well,” she said, glancing at him over her shoulder, “for one thing, I don’t like Chhucho, and that’s a foul trick he played on you. For another, I like you Northerners. You know how to treat a woman in bed.” She turned away, pointing. “Look, there’s the wizard.”

“Where?” All Uff could see was the intersection of two narrow lanes, and at the centre, a conical heap like a tiny volcano about twice the height of a man. “Does the wizard live in one of those houses?”

“No,” she said, stopping before the volcanolike heap, whose sides were scored with grooves and fissures. “The wizard doesn’t live inside those houses. That thing,” she added with a dramatic pause, “is the wizard’s house.”

“Who seeketh me?” rumbled a deep voice, before Uff could say anything. A wrinkle at the top of the conical heap opened out into a jagged hole, and things writhed and moved inside. “Who standeth before my home, and what doth he want?”

“I bring a supplicant, great Udberal,” the prostitute said humbly. “He hath been afflicted with a deadhead, and would be liberated from its foul clasp.”

“How long hath he been so afflicted?”

“Just since this evening,” the girl said. “He hath not been drained.”

“That is good. Goest thou and prepare the sacrifice prescribed, and return when ye have finished. I shall cogitate on a cure.”

“Sacrifice?” Uff exclaimed. “What...”

“Come on,” said the girl, pulling him by the good arm away from the wizard’s home. She led him up a narrow flight of steps and through a thick stand of trees until they found a grassy clearing washed faintly by moonlight. Here the girl dropped Uff’s arm, kicked off her shoes, and with a quick motion let her dress slide off her body. “Let’s make the sacrifice,” she said.

“What sacrifice?”

“What do you think? Our virginity, you idiot! Of course, I’m not one, and I don’t think you are, but he doesn’t know that! Now come here.”

Swallowing drily, cold sweat trickling down his back, Uff did.


I have cogitated,” said the wizard. The opening at the top twisted and crumpled open. “And I have found a cure.”

“What cure hast thou found, O great Udberal?’

The wizard ignored the girl. “Approach, Uff the son of Ohho,” the heap said.

“How do you, I mean, how dost thou knowest my name?”

“That is not for thee to know. Approach.” Strong whiplike cords lashed out, grabbed the unfortunate slaver and dragged him so quickly into the jagged opening that all he left behind was a startled squeak. The wrinkled closed and the entire cone began to pulse and sway like a mound of jelly. The girl watched in mounting concern.

“Great Udberal?” she asked after a while. “Is he all right?” The heaving mound ignored her, and finally she sat down on the ground to wait.

“I’m going to make him pay for any damage to my good dress,” she said. “No, I’m not,” she added. “Oh, I hope he’s all right,” she said after some more time. “It’s been so long.”

It was almost dawn when the mound ceased to heave and the wrinkle opened. Cords lashed out and unrolled a bundle on the ground. A dazed-looking Uff scrambled to his feet and looked unbelievingly at his left hand, flexing and stretching the restored fingers.

“I thank thee, Great Wizard,” he shouted. “I thank thee for evermore!”

“Wait,” the girl said, after she had finished hugging him with joy. “What price must we pay, O Udberal?”

The heap of the wizard’s dwelling grumpled and gramped to itself for a few moments. “The sacrifice,” Udberal said at last. “Thou must perform it daily, the both of thee, together for as long as you should live. For ‘tis only as long as the sacrifice be made that the deadhead of Mondo shall stay away from thee.” Another opening disgorged the bearded head, which began rolling round and round on the ground in a tight circle. “As long as ye do the sacrifice each and every day,” the wizard rumbled, “the foul deadhead cannot harm you. He lieth here bound in the spell. But remember, if thou shouldst miss a single day, he shall be liberated and come looking for thee – wherever in the wide world thou shouldst be.”

“Oh,” said the girl, overjoyed, “thank you. Thank you, Udberal. I wish I could kiss you for that!” She turned back to Uff, grinning with joy. “Isn’t that nice,” she said.

“Yes,” Uff said, with a desperate smile on his face. “Very nice.”

“Now,” she prattled on, “I can have you to myself always. I’ve wanted you since the moment I saw you. And you’re the best lay I’ve ever had. Isn’t this wonderful?”

“Yes,” said Uff the son of Ohho, trying to smile, as the taste of ashes filled his mouth. “Yes,” he said. “It’s great.”

Trying desperately to forget the fact that he was gay, and that only with the utmost self-control that he had managed to take her once, he followed her down the lane.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2010/12 

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