Saturday, 18 August 2012


“So you’re off to the Tsar’s war, are you, Stepan?”

“Yes, Uncle Foma.” The tall Cossack sat down on the wooden bench, arranging his rifle carefully by the wall. “We’re all off to the Tsar’s war, as you put it.”

“And the prospect of fighting makes you happy, does it?” The old man with the bushy white moustache grinned. His teeth were worn and stained. “Tell me the truth, doesn’t it make you feel like a young man going to see his suitor?”

Stepan blushed furiously for no apparent reason. “It’s not like that, Uncle Foma.”

“Don’t tell me that. I remember my young days.” Uncle Foma waited as his wife put two tankards of kvass down on the table. They drank. “It’s not what you think,” the old man said afterwards. “It’s not a clean or tidy business, you’ll find, war isn’t. But I suppose each generation has to find that out for itself.”

“Maybe so.” Stepan carefully drained the last of the tankard of kvass. “That was good,” he said politely.

“So, did you say goodbye to your parents yet?” Foma enquired, wiping the kvass off his moustache. “Or are you going home again before leaving?”

“I came to say goodbye,” Stepan said, obliquely. He stood up slowly. “I’ll be going then, Uncle Foma.”

“All right, but remember what I said. It’s serious business, the war is.” Uncle Foma called to his wife. “He’s leaving.”

“Goodbye, Aleksandra Grigorievna,” Stepan said, bowing slightly. She had never succeeded in getting him to call her Auntie Shura. “I’ll be back after the war and shall see you again.”

“You won’t say goodbye to Nadezhda?” Foma’s fat wife asked.

“No time,” Stepan said. “Tell her I was here.” He went out to where his brown horse waited, head hanging, under a tree. Swiftly clambering on its back, he arranged his sword and the rifle around his shoulders and urged the horse into a trot. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw old Foma standing at his doorway, kvass still in hand, watching him.

Just past the line of the trees which screened him from Foma’s house Stepan pulled on the reins and turned his horse’s head sharply right. He trotted past the trees, and then turned right again, forded the little stream and came up to Foma’s property from the back. There was a small barn and some haystacks between him and the house. Dismounting, he tied the horse to a tree’s branch and went to the barn.

“Nadia,” he said softly, “it’s me.”

“So you are going after all?” Foma’s daughter sat with her arms around her knees and refused to look at him.

“The Tsar commands,” Stepan said. “What else can I do?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Run away, perhaps. Go somewhere else. Do anything except join in this war against the Germans and the Austrians.”

“They’re our enemies,” Stepan said, sitting down on the hay beside her. It was dark in the barn, and cool.

“Are they? Have you ever seen a German, or an Austrian?”

“No...” Stepan thought a moment. “No, I haven’t.”

“There, you see. And now you’re going to leave me here and go away and fight people you’ve never seen and perhaps get killed.”

“I don’t intend to get killed.”

“What you intend hasn’t anything to do with how things turn out.” Nadezhda looked up at Stepan and he saw her eyes were bright with anger. “Look here, this war will destroy you and me and all of us. It will destroy everything we know, and for no reason at all. They can’t make you go, can they?”

“What do you suggest then? I make myself a laughing stock to all the Cossacks? Everyone will be going, except me.”

“How does it matter if they do laugh at you? It’s not going to be quite so funny if they all get killed, is it? And even if you don’t, if you only get wounded and crippled, like old Semyon with only one arm...”

“Listen,” Stepan said violently, “the war will be over in six months. Six months, do you hear? What could possibly happen in six months?”

She laughed, a short harsh laugh. “Six months? Six years, don’t you mean? We’ll all be old before we meet again, Stepan.”

“I have to go,” Stepan said. “It’s the Tsar’s command, and the Tsar is our father.”

“Go on. Have you ever seen the Tsar, our father as you say?”

“I don’t have to...” Stepan stopped suddenly. From quite close they heard Aleksandra Grigorievna calling. “Nadia...Nadia?”

“I must go,” said Nadezhda, rising and pulling at her skirt. “Don’t go, Stepan, please?”

“Kiss me and I’ll think about it.” Stepan bent his lips for the touch of hers. “I’ll think about it, all right? I promise.”

“See that you do.” Nadezhda wiped her eyes on her sleeve and walked out of the barn. Stepan waited a few minutes in the cool darkness. He wished obscurely that he had not come to see the girl. He began to think of the war and what she had said, and rubbed at his moustache vigorously. After some time he decided she wasn’t coming back and quietly slipped out, dodging between haystacks to where his horse waited. 

Riding away from the barn, sword at his side and the rifle over his shoulder, and the good brown horse between his knees, he looked up at the blue sky and down at the yellow fields and thought again of how fortunate he was to be a Cossack and riding off to the Tsar’s war, and how soft and weak women were. And then he thought of the war which would be so soon over, and how he would come riding home again, with a chestful of medals that he would show off to Nadia’s admiring eyes.

The horse’s hooves trampled the dust.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2010/12


(Note: This story is meant in part as homage to one of my absolute favourite pieces of fiction, Mikhail Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows The Don.)


It was Deepwinter.

The land was locked in snow; it lay like a blanket, clothing the trees and filling up the ravines, turning everything into a featureless mass of white. There was nothing, no place, that was free of the snow. It was easy to imagine, in the depth of Deepwinter, that the snow had lain like that for eternity and that it was only a fantasy that there had ever been a time without it. It was even easier to imagine that the snow would never melt again.

The snow ruled over everything. It ruled the lives of the Tribe, too, as surely as it did those of the animals of the forest who slept away Deepwinter if they could or hunted despairingly for food if they could not. It was Deepwinter that was the time of renewal, when the Tribe marked the passage of time and the end of phases in its existence. Even more than Highsummer, Deepwinter was the most important part of the life of the tribe.

It was Deepwinter.

In the caves where the Tribe had shut itself in, the People huddled around the fires and stoked the flames with some of the increasingly scarce fuel; the walls ran with the condensation of their breath and the air was fuggy with their exhalation and the smell of their bodies and their clothing. But they noticed none of these things, because they were used to them and because old Kutti was talking. When she talked, everyone listened.

“So it was in those days,” she was saying, “the old, who could no longer work their share, used to take their leave of the Tribe and walk away into the snows of Deepwinter. They would do this as a gesture of kindness to the Tribe, because they had generosity in those days. Yes, they had moral fibre.” She paused to sigh, and nobody dared suggest that she, being old and no longer able to work, should do what she praised and take herself off into the snowbound wilderness.

“And it is in the deepest of Deepwinter,” she continued, “on the night when the cold is at its most intense and the snows at their thickest, that the Cannibal Spirit walks the land. Just on that one night of all the cycle of the seasons she walks, and any human creature that is abroad on that night is lost beyond redemption, never to be seen again.” She paused again, and put a piece of boar fat into her toothless mouth.

“Bekur had been a young man once,” she resumed, “and he had been a great hero. Oh, he had been young, and strong, and in the Highsummer of his life he had fought and hunted; he had made maidens sigh for him and bedded them and fathered many children for the Tribe, and he had brought on himself all manner of glory. Oh, he had been someone for the Tribe to be proud of, had Bekur.

“But time passed and the seasons went by, and Bekur grew older and his strength began to ebb; he took to sitting by the fire while the young men, among whom were his children’s children, went a-hunting or to war. And little by little his eyes began to dim and his teeth to wear away; his hearing worsened and his hands, which had once been so clever at making things when he had had no other work to do, began to lose their cunning.

“And Bekur decided, although he was held in such high esteem in the Tribe that none would have ever suggested it, that he would leave the People and go out on his own into the snows of Deepwinter, while he still had enough of his senses and strength left to leave this life on his own terms, dying as he had lived, according to his own desires.

“So, one night, when the snows had the world in their grip and the People slept in their caves, Bekur rose from his place by the fire, and picked up the great old bronze knife that had been his companion through a lifetime of hunting and combat, and he tucked it into his belt. He pulled on his fur-lined jacket and hat, and his heavy old boots and then – pausing only to pick up a bag of smoked meat from the cave’s larder – he passed like a ghost between the rows of sleepers and out of the cave’s entrance. There was a sentry, but he, too, slept at his post; and no one saw him go.

“It was Deepwinter; and the snow had fallen all the day. Before dawn, it would fall again.


Bekur paused outside the cave to get his bearings. It had been a while since he had been outside, and the blanket of snow changed every part of the familiar topography, sculpted a new world for him to explore.

High above his head, the sky was cloudless for the moment, except for long wisps of cirrus, and brilliant moonlight rained down on the world. The moon glittered on the snow, so that the land was brighter than the sky; it gleamed on the ice that covered the stream down in the valley, and, when he breathed out, it turned his breath into a gleaming cloud of tiny ice crystals.

It was quite amazingly cold.

It was the cold that got him going, because he could no longer bear the bite of it settling through his thick clothing down into his bones. The cold was like a living thing that twined about him, embraced him, and tried to draw him into itself. He felt its teeth inside his lungs with every breath he took, gnawing him from the inside. He felt its hands run over his body, testing him, prodding and pinching. The cold promised death. The cold was death. It whispered to him, and told him that it would claim him before the morning. It would have driven him back into the shelter of the cave if he had waited another instant, so he took one last look around and plunged down the slope towards the stream.

Down where the frozen strip of water lay, the snows that had slid down the sides of the valley all Deepwinter had hardened and packed themselves so that it was like walking on a hard floor. His boots sank above the ankles in the previous day’s fall of soft powdery snow. When he turned for one last look back at the cave, he could see his footmarks imprinted deeply enough to show up in the moonlight.

Bekur had not left the cave without a specific destination in mind. He did not plan to wander in the snow until exhaustion and exposure claimed him. He knew of a place, far down the river where the cliffs arose on either side, where he could stay alone, and hunt for himself, and live as long as he could, without being a burden to anyone. It was a long walk, and he had not gone that way in many a long year, but it was the place he had decided on, before he had ever left the cave.

He started walking along the side of the frozen river. The wind had begun to rise, whipping along the ground, raising a fine flurry of snow as it blew. And if he had thought the cold intense before, it was as nothing to what it was like now; it sliced through his body like a million knives. The wind rose and rose; when he looked up, he saw that the sky was now full of shredded clouds, and the stars appeared and disappeared as though the wind was ripping them out of the sky.

It was clearly impossible to remain on the riverside, so, reluctantly, because it was much harder going and would take up so much more time, he left the river and went up the side of the valley into the shelter of the trees. He didn’t go far into them, because it was dark there and because the snow was deep-piled and treacherously slippery. He just moved far enough that the wind could not get at him with quite the same force. On his right the moon still shone on the frozen river, and the banks were white in the moonlight. It was all so white and so beautiful that he paused again, and came to the edge of the trees, for a good look, a thing of beauty to take with him to eternity should he not survive the night. Because the wind stung his eyes if he looked down the river, he chose to look back.

There were footprints on the snow.

He saw them at first without really noticing; the wind had blurred the prints and brushed them mostly away. He looked at them and looked away at the moonlit slopes across the river, then when he looked back the wind dropped a little and he saw them. Then he thought that they were his own prints, but he had moved off the bank long enough to have moved far too long a distance to be able to see his own footprints now. Then he saw something else and the sight made him feel a different kind of cold lay icy hands on his spine: the prints were still being formed. Even as he watched, they were still being formed, but there were no feet forming them. When he looked beyond them he could see the broad stretch of the frozen river, and the forested sides of the valley, and in the distance, he could just see the slopes where the caves of the Tribe were.

Not for no reason had Bekur, in his youth, won renown as someone with the bravery of a wild boar. As steadily as his old legs could bear him, he stepped out on to the river bank and walked towards the advancing prints. As he did, the wind stopped suddenly. As though a door had been closed somewhere, it completely fell away.

Whatever it was that was making the footprints stopped.

He actually saw the small puff of snow thrown up by the last step. It hung on the air in a little cloud, and then fell slowly back on to the bank. An instant later, something invisible rushed past him, through him, and over him, cold as the wind that had stopped, and much, much stranger. He felt it in every particle of his body, although just for an instant; and instinctively, turned after it, but there was nothing there to see.

Then he went to the nearest print and stood looking down at it. For the moment he decided to ignore what he could not understand and try to understand what he could.

It was a woman’s foot, he saw at once, and it was bare. Only a woman’s foot was so small, so elegant, and so delicately arched. But, he wondered, what woman would be out barefoot in Deepwinter, when the snow lay on the ground like this?

Then he bent for a closer look, and, for the briefest moment, fear shivered through his soul.

There were claws at the ends of the toes. He could see the marks clearly, now that he had bent low enough to put his old eyes almost to the snow. The clouds overhead had cleared, and the moon shone down with its milky light, and the shadows it threw showed clearly in the snow. The prints left by the invisible feet of a woman had the marks of claws like those of a beast of prey.

Then he remembered that he had nothing, really, to fear; for him, life was over in any case, and death today or tomorrow made a difference only to him. With that, fear departed, and a different, nameless emotion took hold; not fear, not hate, nor courage, just something he had never felt before and so had no name for. He straightened slowly, and, slinging his bag of food over his shoulder, he gripped his bronze knife with the other hand and began walking along the river, in the direction the footprints had been taking.

Although the wind had died, it was growing even colder; a great frost had gripped the land, and even as he walked he could feel the freezing snow crunch under his old boots. But in a way he had ceased to feel the cold. It had no meaning for him any longer, just as his decision to leave the Tribe no longer had any meaning. All that he thought of was to find out what it was that had made those footprints with the claws.

Bekur was not ignorant. Although a hero, a man of action, who had fought and hunted and rutted all his life with apparently no thought for anything else, he knew enough of the traditions and legends of the Tribe to know of what might be waiting for him at the end of the trail. If he had been anyone else, or if he had been younger with a life still worth the living, he would have turned back and hidden in the woods and hoped the night would warm up and pass, howsoever it could, without incident. But he was Bekur, and he was at the end of his life, and so he went on.

As he walked, the land began to rise on both sides, more and more, so that the valley became more like a gorge. He knew these places; he had hunted and loved here, but that was in Midspring and Highsummer. He had never been here on a Deepwinter night before, when no Tribesperson ever, without the strongest reasons, ventured out of the caves. Just here, the river made a wide turn to the north, to his left. The slope on the left almost touched the river, so that he could not see past the bend. He knew that just past the bend the land flattened out again, into a valley, but the snow and the Deepwinter night had so changed everything that it seemed as if the landscape he knew had changed forever.

Then he rounded the bend and stopped, looking up, his mouth open in a soundless scream.

She was huge. She was much taller than he could ever have imagined, towering over him, staring down at him from eyes of total blackness, the blackness of the night sky between the stars. She was pure beauty, and from her head to her feet she was the colour of ice, and all she wore was the cloak of her ice-coloured hair.

“You have been seeking me,” she said. He heard the words within his mind, and it was as though her voice was the voice of the ice, too. If cold had a voice, if snow and ice could speak, that is what she would have sounded like. And the voice filled him, echoed through his being, and it was the voice that filled eternity, a voice that came from the depths of the Hell of ice and the pitiless sky above. It was the voice of Deepwinter.

He tried to say something, whether to agree with her or disagree he did not know. He could say nothing, think nothing. He was nothing.

“You are nothing,” she agreed. “You have never been anything. And yet – in you lies the capacity for greatness. Come to me.”

“What?” he could speak again, but all he could utter was the foolish bleat.

“Do you know me?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I know you, mistress, Cannibal Spirit. I know you.”

“Then you know that I can complete you, make you whole,” she said. Her black eyes bored through him. “I have done so to many – more than you can count. Come to me.”

He took one step toward her, and then another. She stood waiting, a hand raised for him, and her breasts shone in the moonlight. “Come,” she said.

He looked up at her eyes. Her eyes were black and deep and full of the utter peace that knows no happiness and no sorrow. “Come,” she said, and her voice rustled through him.

Now he was no longer old and frozen and very, very afraid. Now he was the Bekur of old, young and strong, and afraid of nothing and no one, and she was comely and lovely and full of promise of happiness. No longer aged and wrinkled, his hand came up to meet hers. Their fingers reached out to touch.

And then – then, at that moment before their fingers touched – he remembered the footprints he had seen, the prints her bare feet had left in the snow, and he remembered the claws.

It was as though someone had restored sight to him. He saw again then, with the dim and blurred eyes of age but more clearly than the eyes of youth. He saw her hand stretched towards his, with the talons at the ends of the fingers; and he saw her ice-coloured lips part, and then he saw her teeth.

“Come,” she whispered, and the teeth glistened in the moonlight.

“No,” he said aloud. He took one step back.

She stood where she was and watched him calmly. “That is not an answer,” she said. “A rat does not say ‘no’ to a god.”

“I came out here to die,” Bekur whispered. The whisper dried to silence in his mouth.

“Death is simple,” came her voice, the voice that rustled through the universe. “I offer much, much more than death. I offer the wine of eternal youth and of immortal being.”

And then Bekur saw the she was no longer alone; even as he looked at her he seemed to see another landscape within her, of snow and ice. And in that landscape within her, were people: men and women, young and healthy-looking all of them, who came and went and gesticulated to him and smiled warmly, and wished to make him welcome.

It was as though she was sucking him into that world; everything seemed to blur and whiten for a moment and then he stood on a white plain of snow, but it was not the same snow that he had stood on. Before him rose a Gate, a dark Gate that at the same time looked welcoming and gentle, for all that it was topped by a death’s head. And those men and women were, suddenly, all around him, with their friendly smiles and welcoming arms. That was not all of it: he knew these people. He knew them all. They were of the Tribe, or of other Tribes of this land, people whom he had met. But they were not old and wizened and toothless: they were young and strong and full of vitality.

“Come to us, and be like us,” they said, and smiled. “Come along with us and be like us.”

“Come, Bekur.” He heard the voice, and it sent his heart racing, so that he was almost afraid to look. But slowly he turned his head. It was Charpoka.

And it was not Charpoka as he had seen her last, bent with the years and almost blind, who had vanished quietly from the cave the previous Deepwinter. It was Charpoka as she had been once, glowing with health and vitality, the same as she had been when she had – so long ago now! Bekur thought, feeling his aged limbs suddenly heavy – taught him about love and how to please a woman. There had been a time when they had both assumed he would take her as mate. But time had passed and he had grown to fame among the Tribes, and far above such a girl as she, for girl she had been, despite her womanly knowledge, and they had grown old apart. And one night she had crept from her place and walked into Deepwinter, and she had never been seen again.

Until now.

“Bekur,” this new young Charpoka said, taking him by the arm. Her naked body was not icy, as he had thought; it was warm and full of life. “Bekur, come to the Gate, and be one of us. Come.”

He looked at her and he allowed her to urge him towards the black portal with the grinning skull atop. The others followed and flanked him, old friends and onetime rivals and those who had once been enemies but in this place could be enemies no longer; he saw even his old parents, restored to a youth in which he had never known them, smiling and laughing and beckoning to him from under the arch of the Gate.

“What lies within the Gate?” he asked.

“All that you ever wanted, Bekur,” Charpoka said, moving her naked body. “All you’ve ever wanted. Youth and health and life everlasting. Me.”

“You? But...” he scarcely knew how to articulate the things that were in his mind at that moment. He looked at her again, then, at her lovely oval face, unmarked by time and experience, and she brought her face to him, raised her lips to his.

“Kiss me,” she said.

It was then he really saw her, as she was – saw the serrated teeth and the black eyes without expression, the flat black eyes of something dragged up from deep under the water, something that belonged to another world.

He realised then that it was not Charpoka, and he tried to pull away from her. He shook himself, clenching his eyes shut from the sight of her eyes and teeth, and an instant later he was standing upon the river bank, before the ice-coloured lady clothed in her ice-coloured hair.

“I may be old and weak and a shadow of what I used to be,” he said, “but still, what I am, is I; not something else, something I cannot recognise.” He began backing away.

In an instant something happened to the face of the ice-coloured woman. The lovely planes and curves of it fell in on themselves, shrank, and transformed. The lips peeled back from her teeth, and her eyes seemed to grow until they filled their sockets; pools of utter blackness. In an instant more, Bekur was looking on a countenance very much like that of a skin-covered skull.

“This is what you have chosen,” the skull-face said.

“I have chosen,” he said, and began walking away. Because she stood between him and his planned destination, he began trudging back through the snow towards the caves of the Tribe. He had expected her to pounce on him, but when he looked back over his shoulder there was nothing there, except a shadow that stood upright and swaying gently in the moonlight. “You can kill me now if you wish,” he said. “I shan’t submit to you.”

For the last time that night, he heard her voice. “They always submit,” she said evenly. “They think they escape, but they never do. They always return, one day.”

The wind began to pick up again as old Bekur made his way back to the cave of the Tribe. It howled like a live thing, shredding the sky and stripping away the stars, and he hid his head between his shoulders as the wind lashed at him, but he made his way back before morning. The sentry still slept; nobody knew he had gone from his place.

And all the way back, he never looked back to see if invisible footsteps were following him.


What happened to Bekur?” the listeners asked.

Old Kutti chewed at another piece of fat. “I was very young girl in those days,” she said. “I remember how he used to sit, by the fire, so old that it seemed that he was older than the stars. He used to sit there and warm himself all day long, even in Highsummer; and he used to say the cold had entered his bones and would never go away.” She paused. “And sometimes he used to tell the story, but only to a few of us, and only very reluctantly. He was not proud of it."

“And what happened to him at last?” asked someone. “Did he die there beside the fire?”

“No,” Kutti said. “He went out again, one Deepwinter night many Deepwinters after the first time he had gone out to die, and nobody ever saw him again.”


Bekur stumbled in the snow.

He could hardly walk anymore now, at least in snow like this. The cold had become one with him. He was the ice and cold; he no longer even felt it. The sky was black, and the snow that had fallen earlier had already begun to freeze over, and he no longer had even the eyesight to pick his way; so he stumbled and blundered through the night, with no longer a thought of finding his haven by the cliffs, seeking only oblivion – or something else.

He became aware of her by degrees. At first he felt the silence, as the wind died and the night stilled. Then he saw the footprints, but they preceded him now, and then at last he knew she stood before him and he raised his eyes.

“You know who I am,” she said, and her smile seemed kindly.

“I know, lady.”

“You thought again of what you wanted.”

“It’s not the same world,” he said. “The men and women of my youth are gone, and the young make fun of what we held sacred. It is not the same.”

“So you came out again, before it is too late.”

He bent his head to acknowledge the words. There was truth in them.

“Come to me,” she said, and he came.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12

Tracks In The Snow

This is the last time I’ll be on this route,” said Uncle Vanya. “I’m retiring tomorrow.”

 “Yes,” said Sasha, the trainee driver. “I heard.”

“Not that I’ll be sorry to leave.” Vanya stroked his beard and watched the locomotive’s headlight slash a path through the darkness. A flurry of snow glittered, caught in the beam, but inside the cabin it was warm and well-lit. “I’ve been driving trains forty years, and I’ve been on many routes, but this one’s the worst.”

“Why?” Sasha steadied himself as the train swayed round the long curve before the bridge over the river. In the distance, the lights over the bridge’s girders could already be seen. “I’ve thought it’s a pretty good route, each time I’ve been over it, myself.”

“Ah, so did I.” Uncle Vanya increased power as the train straightened up after the bend, in order to compensate for the gradient before the bridge. “Once, little fish, when I was your age, I used to love this route too.”

Sasha, who was tall and lanky, hated being called “little fish” even more than he detested being called “radish.” He took it from Vanya without a word of protest, though. Everyone took whatever Vanya said without protest. He had a tongue like a red-hot knife and a brain even sharper behind it, for all that his skin was mottled with age and his beard was white as the snow that lay on either side of the track. He reduced power as the long train rattled over the great bridge. The girders sang in sympathy to the iron monster. On either side of the train, the walls of iron girders vanished overhead. The rattling, muffled through the windows, had a strangely soothing effect.

“Something happened so you didn’t like it anymore?” asked Sasha, over the rumbling.

A railway official emerged from the gatehouse at the far end of the bridge, with a green lantern. He wore a heavy cap and overcoat, so he was only a bundled-up silhouette behind his green light. The train rattled past and left him behind.

“I wouldn’t have his job in a million years!” Vanya said suddenly. Then he glanced at the trainee from the corner of his eye and grinned crookedly. His teeth were stained and yellow from cigarettes and worn with age. “Fishlet, you really want to hear this old tale?”

“Tell me.”

Vanya said nothing for a long time. The train moved past the bridge and picked up speed again, moving between hills covered with pine forests. The snow came down.

“I’m telling you this,” Vanya said eventually, “in full confidence that, even if you chose to pass it on, nobody would believe you. They’d think you’re making it up. I’m not warning you, just telling you. So don’t waste your breath prattling about it to your friends.”

“Why are you telling me that?”

“Because,” Uncle Vanya said, “I’ve never spoken about it before, except to one person, and that man is dead. Once I’d thought I was never going to speak of it again. But since you asked, you ought to know why I don’t like this route, never have, and I’ll be happy if I never travel over it again.”

It was during the war (old Uncle Vanya said) – yes, that war. A very long time ago, and I was young then; younger than you are now, my little fish.

You know the official history of those days, I’ll warrant. You’ve been told how the Nazis attacked us and destroyed everything they could find, and how we were forced back, fighting heroically all the way until we beat them back at Moscow and held them outside Leningrad, and how in the end we saved Mother Russia from the German jackboots. Nowadays the history books make it sound very pretty, but it wasn’t.

In 1941 I was a fireman in one of the old steam engines, barely out of apprenticeship, really. I’d finished my military service but was still in the reserves, but they needed railwaymen, so they let me continue in my job as the war clouds gathered.

I still remember the moment we knew war had been declared. I was helping load coal at one of the Ukrainian railway stations when the air raid sirens went and we heard explosions. Everyone hit the ground. I crawled under the engine, right between the tracks, which was something so stupid that I can’t believe to this day I did it, because obviously the engine would be a prime target. Anyway, nothing happened; the bombs hadn’t been aimed at the railway engine, but at the airport outside town.

Those first few days were filled with such utter and absolute confusion that it’s a wonder that anything got done at all. We in the railways were on the move constantly. We’d pull loaded trains up to stations, hitch to lines of empty wagons, and drive at top speed back again. At least once or twice a day we’d be held up by tracks damaged by bombing. When we found any time at all, we’d have to clean out the firebox and fill up with water and coal. We ate where we stood, right there on the footplate, and kept going with vodka. We’d take turns to sleep, two of us lying on the coal tender while two others drove the engine and fed the fire. We never had any idea what was going on. All we knew was that we literally hadn’t a moment to lose.

It got so bad that sometimes, to save time, we’d be ordered to not bother picking up the empty rolling stock, but to go right back for another loaded train, driving as fast as we could. And the Germans, of course, kept bombing. At least twice my own train was hit by Stukas, but the engine was spared both times. And as we went we’d pass through stations so crowded with refugees they would accidentally push each other off the platforms in the way of the locomotive. It was terrible.

Then one day we pulled a goods train into a little station which we’d been told was the headquarters of one of our armies. We stopped at the platform, amazed because there weren’t any refugees. In fact there wasn’t anyone at all, not even any Red Army soldiers. In the distance we could hear shooting.

“I don’t like this,” Dima, the driver, said. He got off the footplate and went to look for someone – anyone. The rest of us waited, not knowing what to do. In those days initiative was never encouraged in our nation, without orders from above, so we could only wait so long as we had no orders.

A little while later we saw Dima coming back, with his arms held above his head. A squad of German soldiers followed behind him. The town we’d driven to so confidently had fallen in the meantime to troops of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South. We were all taken prisoners of war.

Although we were prisoners, we were, of course, civilians still, and the Germans had need of us. They had captured so much of our rolling stock and they’d advanced so far and so fast that they had no option but to use our captured trains to move their equipment and supplies. And since – of course – our own railwaymen could handle our trains better than theirs could, they conscripted us to keep running the engines, for them.

All through that autumn, as the days became cooler and shorter and the dry earth on either side of the tracks gave way to mud, we hauled Nazi military supplies up to the front and pulled the trains back again. Sometimes the trains we pulled back would be hospital trains full of German wounded. Sometimes they would be goods trains filled with our grain and our steel looted by the Germans. Sometimes the return journey would be pulling an empty train. It hardly mattered to us. It would be nice to be able to say that we were only biding our time to escape, but, really, we weren’t. In our innermost hearts we were convinced the Nazis would win in the end. They simply seemed too strong to resist.

Then one winter evening we were ordered to pull a train from a station on this line – the name won’t mean a thing to you; it was renamed after a war hero many years ago – back to the Polish frontier. We had just delivered another supply train and were looking forward to some rest, but it wasn’t to be. Only Dima and I were on the footplate, and we had to go on the turnstile, turn the engine back round, and drive to the other side of the marshalling yard where that train waited for us. We backed into it and coupled the engine to the lead wagon, which was a passenger wagon loaded with German soldiers. Just behind that was a flatbed piled with sandbags and carrying an anti-aircraft gun. By that time our air force had begun hitting back, and the Nazis were getting more careful and a little less overconfident. Behind that there were many other wagons, but the evening was cold and getting dark; it had begun snowing and we were eager to get moving, and it wasn’t any of our business what the Nazis were pulling back to Poland. In fact, if we’d shown an unhealthy curiosity, we might have got our heads shot off, anyway.

So we drove out of that town and back along this line towards the Polish border. It had been snowing heavily, although the blizzard had stopped. The sky had cleared and a bitter cold had begun to make the snow freeze.

Here, in this warm cabin, you can’t even begin to imagine what a winter night was like back on the footplate of those old coal locomotives. The cabin was, of course, open to the elements at the sides and at the back, and the protection from front wasn’t all that great either. The wind of the train’s passage increased the cold by a hundredfold; and the only warm place was near the firebox, which was so hot that it literally glowed. Every time the fireman, I in this case, opened it, sparks would fly out and singe our clothes because we’d crowd in to it as close as we could. And my fingers in their heavy mittens could scarcely hold the shovel properly; each loading of the box was a torment.

We couldn’t see much up ahead. The coal we were using was bad, and produced dense clouds of black smoke that blew everywhere. If we stuck our heads out of the cabin to see, the wind and the cinders would blind us. Through the front windows all we could see was snow beside the track. That, and the snow and the wind, meant we couldn’t drive as fast as we wanted to, and not as fast as our Nazi masters thought we should have.

So, half-frozen and half-burnt, unable to see ahead, we rolled on toward the frontier. We were driving right along this route, though, naturally, the old tracks have been relaid since then.

I remember Dima very well. He was bald and strong, a nice man in most ways but almost illiterate and highly superstitious. He shivered suddenly, and it wasn’t the chill of the winter. It wasn’t that kind of shiver.

“I feel Death,” he said. “Death is following us. Death sits on this train, with his scythe over his shoulder.”

“How do you mean?” I asked. We slowed down almost to a stop because of signals. “You mean the partisans?” of course by that time the partisans had begun their guerrilla war against the Nazis. “Or do you mean something else?”

Dima pointed out of the side window. “Look,” he said. I followed the line of his finger. Dimly, against the snow, I saw something moving, and beyond it, something else. There were many of the things, running easily through the thick snow, keeping pace with the train. I saw one of the shapes raise its head, and even above the sound of the train I heard a howl.

“Wolves!” I said. “Why are wolves following us?”

“They know Death rides this train,” Dima said. We passed the signals and picked up speed. The wolf pack fell behind.

Then the partisans attacked.

The train wasn’t going at high speed yet, or none of us would have survived. There was a terrific bang and a series of lesser explosions and all of a sudden we were losing way. The train began to roll to a stop. Dima and I jumped off the footplate an instant before someone began to rake the locomotive with machine gun fire. Stumbling in the snow, we tried to hide ourselves in the darkness.

The battle of the train did not take long. The partisan group was strong and the few German guards were speedily destroyed. The partisans walked up to the train, shining torches on the wagons. We heard them exclaiming in horror. Something impelled me to get up and come closer to the partisans, to see what they were seeing, though of course neither Dima nor I made ourselves known to them. We’d have been shot on sight.

That train was a prisoner train. It was loaded with Soviet prisoners, thousands of them, on flatbeds open to the elements. In the middle of winter, they had been put on the flatbeds, most of them still in the summer uniforms they had been wearing when they had been captured. So many of them had frozen to death that the rest had made walls of the bodies of the dead to stave off the wind. Many undoubtedly had fallen off the train, frozen to the point where they could no longer hold on. I can still see the bearded faces of the few survivors, helped off the train by the partisans. They could only kiss their rescuers’ hands in gratitude.

“Now we know why the wolves were following us,” Dima mumbled.

We made off through the snow, and, a few days later, we joined a partisan band, passing ourselves off as marshalling yard labourers who had escaped the Nazis. Dima and I fought with the band until he was killed in 1943, and the Red Army reached us the next year. After that I returned to my old job in the railways. By then the government needed railwaymen as badly as the Nazis had done and nobody ever asked what had happened to me in the interim period.

I’ve seen a lot in my life, little fish, and although the moon is pretty on the snow and the cabin is warm and dry, I have only to look outside this window by my side, and I see those frozen corpses on their flatbeds, and I see those wolves beside the track; and this is why I never want to go over this line again. 

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12

The Beast

The day after they killed the Beast, Juanita’s papa and Uncle Miguel cut off its head and stuck it up on the fence, to make sure everyone knew. Juanita’s mama decided to stay indoors – she refused even to look at the Beast’s head, because she said it would bring bad luck to the baby growing inside her. The men laughed at her, but even Juanita could see that this was one of the times her mama wouldn’t give way.

She also forbade the younger kids from looking at the Beast, but of course, they wouldn’t obey. Juanita’s older sisters – the two of them who weren’t married – usually did exactly as mama asked even though they had their own reasons, but they were visiting Aunt Conchita in the big city and were away. Her three younger brothers went along with the men, of course, chattering as excitedly as sparrows, and she went along too, to make sure they wouldn’t get run over in the street or something.

Juanita was thirteen or fourteen, her mama wasn’t quite sure which. She was cursed, though, her mama had told her many times – cursed with good looks. This was not desirable for a barrio girl, because of the undue attention it drew. So her mama yelled at her every day, kept her inside as much as possible, cut her hair herself, ragged and short, and gave her only old and patched dresses to wear, and no shoes. The family mostly couldn’t afford shoes anyway.

By the time they reached the fence, of course, there was quite a crowd, and some reporters from the papers as well, with their cameras flashing at Miguel and papa, and when Miguel held up the Beast’s head on a hook the cameras flashed most of all. The head hung on the hook, broken and defeated, the dead eyes white and milky, and Carlito – the eldest of Juanita's younger brothers – took a stick and poked it through the cheek of the Beast and held it away from the jaw so that the reporters could photograph the big sharp teeth. In the brilliant sunlight the Beast’s head looked very small and some of the people mocked at it. But Juanita remembered how they had been scared of it when it had walked the night, and she was silent.

After the Beast’s head hung on the fence, and the reporters had taken their photos, they came to talk to papa and Miguel. Juanita was close enough to hear what they were saying – papa described how the Beast had been trapped in a walled courtyard and they had isolated it there and killed it. And the reporters had nodded, half-listening (Juanita could tell by how they kept looking at their watches) and after that they had gone back to their cars and driven out of the barrio.

Afterwards, papa and Miguel had decided to get drunk. Juanita had seen how they were when they drank, so she tried to go away for a while, but mama put her to washing dishes and she was in the next room hearing them talk as they drank. By and by, as she had known would happen, the voices grew louder and the words slurred, and they began boasting about how they had killed the Beast. Each of them said nobody had the cojones to do what they had done, and they were heroes, and they deserved more respect.

“You should go to the church and confess your sin of pride to the padre,” mama said, bustling in and out, but the men paid no attention. At last Uncle Miguel got up and went away, next door, to his house and family, and mama sat down with a sigh, her belly swelling over her stick-thin legs. Papa sat at the table and drank.

“He went away because of you,” said Papa suddenly. “You don’t want me to talk to my friends.”

“You talk to him all the time.” Mama’s voice was as colourless as her face and eyes. “All the time of the day, you spend with your friends.”

“That’s my business, not yours.” Juanita was listening to all this from the kitchen. She knew it would only get worse, and began scrubbing the dishes with single-minded intensity.  

“Your business,” mama was saying, “would be to get a job. When did you last have a regular job?”

“It’s not my fault there’s no opening for truck drivers right now.”

“How do you know? Did you even try to look for an opening? All you’re good for is to drink the devil’s brew and get me with child. I can’t cope any more. Do you hear? I can’t cope any more.”

“The church says it’s our duty to have children.”

“Since when were you such a follower of the church? So many other things the church says which you don’t follow. I know what you do!”

“What?” Papa’s voice was ugly and threatening. “What do you know?”

Juanita quietly put away the last spoons and sneaked out of the kitchen on silent bare feet. Outside in the street the sun glared down, but there was a cold knot in the pit of her stomach because of the fight developing at home. No matter how often it happened, and it happened more and more frequently these days, she never got used to it – or to what happened afterwards.

Carlito and the other two, Miguel (named after Uncle Miguel) and Chico, were nowhere to be seen. She had been given the responsibility of looking after them. Since they weren’t playing in the yard across the street, she thought she knew where they would be, and went down to the fence where papa and Uncle Miguel had hung the Beast’s head. Sure enough, they were there, all three of them, along with several of their friends, all chattering and poking at the Beast’s head with sticks. They ignored her completely when she told them to go home. After watching them for a while, she suddenly felt completely tired of them and wanted to go as far off as possible. She couldn’t go home – not now, not with the fight, when her mama would be looking to work off her anger on a convenient target even as papa shouted and got to work with his hands. So she wandered away through the barrio, coming almost by accident to the yard where the Beast had been killed. The body of the Beast was no longer there. She had no idea what had happened to it.   

A few teenage boys were standing around, peering into the yard and talking. She knew one or two of them by sight, and nodded to them while trying to walk past. But they glanced at each other and the biggest of them, whom she thought was called Roberto, stepped into her path.

“Your father killed the Beast, here, wasn’t it?”

“Yes...he says.” Juanita tried to get past but Roberto, if that was his name, moved to block her. “Please let me go,” she said.

“Where are you going? It’s just a few questions. Answer them and you can go. Is it true that the big universities are sending scientists to study the Beast, and they’ll pay big money for information?”

“How should I know? Some reporters came, but they didn’t look too interested.”

“Look here,” Roberto said, reaching out and grabbing her by the upper arm, his wrist and forearm pressing against Juanita’s breast. “You can’t just say you don’t know. He’s your papa, isn’t he? And the whole barrio says there’s a lot of money to be had from the university.”

“But I don’t know.” Juanita didn’t wriggle to get away because she knew that would just make him hold her tighter. “I don’t know anything about it. He doesn’t tell me anything.”

“Let her go, Roberto,” one of the others, whom she didn’t know, said. “She’s not worth it anyway.”

Roberto dropped her arm, reluctantly. Juanita could feel the marks of his fingers smarting on her upper arm, and knew from experience that there would be bruises. “We’ll talk to you later,” Roberto said threateningly, walking back to his friends.

It was evening when Juanita came back home. She knew there would be trouble but there would be trouble anyway after her parents’ fight. There always was. On the way she passed the wire fence on which the Beast’s head still hung. Some people had gathered in the cooling air of the evening and were talking at the tops of their voices. She saw her papa among them, talking and gesturing angrily, and tried to walk past quickly, but she couldn’t help hearing what they were saying.

“It was just a harmless creature,” someone yelled, “and you killed it. Beast indeed!”

“It was just some kind of large dog or something with skin disease,” someone else said.

“Harmless? Then why were you all hiding under your beds when you heard it howling? Now it’s dead you can show how brave you all were.” Papa was shouting at the top of his voice. “Just because you all are jealous of me, that’s why.”

“If it was that deadly, how come only the two of you killed it?”

“Because we’re brave, that’s why. As for what it was – let the university say.”

“The university? When are they coming? And what about the money they’ll be paying? You planning to keep it all to yourself are you?”

“What money?” Juanita could hear her papa yelling all the way as she walked quickly home, his voice thick with anger. “What money are you all talking about?” Yes, it was bad. It was one of the worst. She told herself she should run away. But run where, to whom? All she knew was the barrio and the barrio was full of people like Roberto who felt her breasts and undressed her with their eyes.

Her mama was waiting, and met her with a slap that made her eyes water. She blinked the tears back and kept her face quite expressionless, so her mama hit her again.

That night Juanita lay in bed trembling, listening to her papa move around in the next room. Her mama was in the back room with the boys, but Juanita was in the room she shared with the sisters who were off visiting Aunt Conchita, so she was alone.

She listened to papa moving around, and thought about the Beast suddenly, and thought how frightened the Beast must have been, when papa and Uncle Miguel had trapped it and attacked it with their sticks and machetes. She felt like the Beast now, trapped and helpless, listening to papa move around and mutter drunkenly, and for the first time she felt intensely sorry for the Beast. But the Beast was dead and had escaped. There was no escape for her.

With a soft creak, the door of her room swung slowly open.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12


It was a small round pond in the middle of the forest, a pond in which the willows on its single, circular bank bent over their shadows, and the blue sky and the birds that flew across it found themselves reflected during the day; and, at night, the surface shimmered with the reflections of stars and moon and sometimes the ephemeral blaze of a meteor.

It was a very deep pond. Under the surface the sides were nearly perpendicular and went down a long, long way. So deep was it, in fact, that there was a local story that it wasn’t really a pond at all but the entrance to an ancient, flooded mine. But it was only a story; and though deep, the pond was only a pond.

In summer, tourists came to the pond. It was not directly connected by a road or even a real path, but that was all to the good, because nobody wanted the near-perfect beauty of the spot ruined by roads and souvenir stalls and the like. But the highway was not too far off, and the tourists came hiking through the woods with their cameras slung round their necks; and some of them swam in the beautifully clear water, so clear that one could see, far down, the fishes swim in and out of the shadows of the willows.

Early one morning, just after dawn, when day was as yet only a pink flush in the sky, the flaps of a tent on the bank parted and a bearded face peered out. Apparently satisfied with the weather, the owner of the face emerged from inside the tent, stretched, yawning, and turned in a half circle by the ashes of last night’s campfire until he faced the pond. Then he stopped, staring.

At first he thought that the long, thick black object in the middle of the pond was only a shadow. A few moments later, he decided it was no shadow, because it rose and fell, rose and fell, not with the water like a shadow would, but as something separate from it. And yet, his brain would not admit to itself the evidence of his own eyes until the sky was eggshell blue and the light was too strong for the phenomenon to be denied.

There was a whale in the pond.

He could see the top of it clearly now, the great slate-grey back, the upper surface of the gigantic squared head and the spatulate flippers. The tail lifted, water falling away from the huge flukes. The whale, as if to put all doubts at rest, spouted, a column of vapour and spray rising many metres into the air. Then, apparently exhausted from the effort, it went back to floating somnolently.

The young man bent and parted the flaps of the tent. “You’d better come out and have a look at this,” he said.

By the time the sun had appeared over the rim of the surrounding trees, the pond’s bank was dotted with people. Some were casual visitors who had come to visit and stayed to gape. Others had come because they had been called; and they, in turn, called others on their cell-phones and told them what was up. And it wasn’t too long before the first hunters arrived carrying rifles and shotguns; stupid men, but effective, as such men usually are. They only happened to be just too late, because the first TV cameras already were there and because of this, they did not get a chance to fire even one shot.

By mid-morning there were so many people crowding the bank of the pond that new arrivals could only reach when others made room for them. The media were there, in large numbers. The police was there, too, and there were the gawkers in their hundreds, and of course there were the scientists. A team of biologists – both staff and research students – from the University were there, too, and other scientists were on the way from more distant parts of the country.

Helicopters clattered overhead, taking aerial camera footage, and often descending so close that the water of the pond rippled from the downwash and the topmost branches of the tallest trees whipped from the blast. It was only after repeated demands from the scientists that the choppers rose higher and stayed further away, but they never vanished altogether. And all through this the whale lay in the water, its great humped back breaching the surface, rolling ever so slightly and every few minutes exhaling noisily in a tall angled column of vapour.

“It’s a sperm whale,” the scientists told the importunate TV cameras. “A mature bull, from the size of it. And, no, we have no idea how it came to be here. This is a freshwater pond and we are very far from the sea.”

“Couldn’t it have...swum here somehow?” asked the prettiest and most highly-paid of the TV anchorwomen.

“We,” the scientist in question explained patiently, “are in the middle of a forest, many hundred kilometres from the sea, and this pond has only a couple of small brooks for inflow.” He motioned towards one, seen as a silver thread on the opposite bank. “You could step across one without wetting your shoes.”

“No, I meant, suppose this pond has some kind of...outlet to the sea, from down below? Can’t it have swum up that way?”

The scientist stared at her. “This is a freshwater lake,” he repeated. “I don’t know if you’re aware of the fact, but the sea is salt. And also, I don’t know if you’re aware that whales breathe air.”

Bastard, the anchorwoman hissed below her breath, and gave him a bright professional smile. “But still there could be some way we haven’t discovered that it could have got here from the sea, couldn’t it?”

“Yes,” said the scientist, blank-faced. “It could have flown. There might be flying whales just like flying fish.” That last bit never made it on the TV, of course.

Double bastard, the anchorwoman hissed, and smiled again. “Thank you, sir.”

At half past eleven, shortly before the only local with a scuba apparatus arrived, the first rubber dinghy put out on the water of the pond, followed closely by another. They approached the whale with great caution, thoughts of Moby Dick undoubtedly in their minds; and the whale, his colossal oblong head rising and falling slowly in the water, watched them come with one of his small eyes, but did nothing except breathe out another ten-metre-tall column of hot moist wind.

As the dinghies got closer, they could truly appreciate, at last, the size of the animal – twenty metres of muscle and bone and blubber wrapped in slate-grey skin, scarred with the beaks of squid and marked by their suckers. They could see the great flukes spread out behind, which could rise and smash them down below, and not one of them on the dinghies but re-checked his or her life-jacket. But the whale did nothing, just watched them come.

“Is he ill?” asked one of the graduate students, almost toppling overboard in her effort to get a clearer view. “Is something wrong with him?”

“Well, he probably has buoyancy problems in the fresh water, but he seems all right,” her professor said, reaching out a hand to steady her. “I would be much happier in my mind if only we could find out how the whale got here and...” the rest of what he said was drowned by another of the whale’s terrifically loud exhalations.

“Look at those scars,” said another of the students, taking yet another close-up photograph. “He must be quite old to have got so many.”

“An old bull,” the professor agreed. “But we knew that already from the size.” He dug his oar into the water so that the dinghy moved even closer to the whale. “I think we could almost get within touching range,” he said.

Very slowly and majestically, the whale raised his flukes and slapped the water surface. It sounded like a cannon discharge and the dinghies both wobbled and dipped.

“Maybe we shouldn’t get any closer, come to think of it,” the professor said.

Meanwhile, far under the flat bottoms of their rubber boats, the scuba diver was looking up towards the whale. He was staying well down, but even so he could see the light from the sky through the crystal clear water, warmed now by the sun’s rays. He saw the elongated bulk of the whale and the oval patches of darkness that were the dinghies. He heard the crash of the whale’s tail very clearly and uncomfortably loudly, and it sent a thrill of terror through him. But the whale made no other move, and a moment later he resumed swimming towards it, until he was in its shadow.

The blue surface light faded. The immense cone of the giant animal’s shadow fell over him, cold and almost intimidating. Looking up, he could see the great flippers and the narrow jaw of the huge beast, and the slight movements of the body as it rose and fell. It seemed to him that any moment that immense head would plunge under the surface and the whole tremendous bulk of it would come hurtling down towards him in a vertical dive. He remembered the videos on National Geographic, of sperm whales eating giant squids alive. It wasn’t a good time for that recollection. A few seconds later he had swum out of the shadow into the warm sunlit water and decided that watching proceedings from the shore was safer after all.

And so the day went on. By the time the sun was falling towards the trees, the news had made international headlines; and all over the world, scientists and paranormal researchers and plain simple cranks were making servers crash and giving airline booking staff headaches.

Everyone wanted something; the cetologists wanted to get a good look at the sperm whale from such close quarters and get to check what effect, if any, the fresh water was having on it; the animal rights campaigners were demanding it be set free, somehow, anyhow; the geologists were going slowly mad trying to find any possible route by which it might have reached the pond from the sea; the politicians were frantically trying to think of some way of making political capital out of this; a body of UFO enthusiasts had declared that the whale had been dropped into the lake from an alien spacecraft as a sign of something or other; and the gun owners’ associations were stridently proclaiming their God-given right to pepper this intruder with bullets.

Quantities of fish had been dumped into the water near its enormous head, but the whale had shown no interest. Nor did it make any move after warning off the dinghies with its tail, except for the periodic column of spray as it breathed. As darkness fell, the people drifted away, except for a police guard and a few campers, but they would be back tomorrow, and there would be questions answered, or they would know the reason why.

The night closed in, and to the occasional whoosh of the whale’s exhalation, little by little, everyone slept.

The bearded young camper was up at the crack of dawn. Today, though, he wasted no time in stretching and yawning. As soon as he had emerged from his tent, he turned to the pond. For a long moment, he goggled. Then he bent and parted the flap.

“It’s gone!” he said. “The damned pond’s empty!”

His girlfriend, who had still been sleeping, sat up, wiping her eyes with her hands. “Maybe it’s just diving,” she suggested.

“No,” he insisted. “It’s gone. I know.”

“You’re probably right,” she said. “And a good thing too. It’s going to be much better off in the sea where it belongs.”

“Well,” said the young man then, “at least you’ll now admit that the magic spell I found in that old book achieved something? When I tried it out the night before last, you were laughing at me.”

“Nothing of the sort,” said the girl, sticking out her small jaw. “Your magic spell, if you remember, was all about saving a life. What life did bringing that whale here possibly save?”

And far away, on the other side of the planet, where the winter seas were rough and flecked with chunks of floating ice, a harpooner on a Japanese whaling ship was still cursing his luck. To have a big sperm whale right in the sights – to be actually pressing the trigger of his harpoon gun – only to have the whale vanish like that...of course it must have dived somehow, however unlikely that was after it had been systematically chased down and exhausted, but he could have sworn it had just disappeared, right before his eyes, and the harpoon had then expended itself harmlessly in the water. What rotten luck, and now the whaling voyage was almost done and nothing to show for the effort.

It made him want to look for another job, it did. 

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12


She walked down the steps from the hospital, feeling faintly embarrassed by the uniformed doorman holding the huge umbrella over her head, even though she was entitled to it. The others, who got no such service, who either provided their own waterproofing or got wet, looked at her with a mix of scorn and envy. She had never quite learned to stare them in the eye with the stare that came naturally with privilege.

But then, she told herself, she had earned this privilege. She had earned it many times over, and continued earning it every moment of every day.

She bent to enter the chauffeur-driven stretch limousine waiting at the foot of the stairs. This, too, was earned, not a gift or a donation or a freebie. She had to keep reminding herself that she was earning all of this each time the chauffeur opened the door for her and saluted, his white uniform getting soaked in the rain.

She drove – or, to be more accurate, had herself driven – straight home. She no longer had a job to go to – every moment of her life was her job, in a sense all too real. She was free to do whatever she wanted, go wherever she wanted – but accompanied, supervised and escorted, to ensure that not the slightest bit of harm came to her. It was as though she were a queen or president, which was not true. She was far more important in many ways than any mere queen or president.

She went back into the building, to her own private elevator, and was shown up to her discreetly opulent flat.  She never had got used to the flat, with its wall-to-wall carpet and the rubber plants in the corner and the air-conditioning. Sometimes she wished she were still working as a secretary and living in a three-room flat she shared with two other girls, but of course those days were past. One of those girls worked now for the hospital she had to visit twice a week as part of the conditions of her current...employment. The girl and she looked away from each other in mutual embarrassment when their paths crossed.

Often, as now, she stood behind her sealed windows and looked out at the night. Far below, the traffic crawled, beads of light on a string. From this high up, she was higher than all the buildings around, and could see beyond the great flat dark strip of the river to where the buildings across on the other side spread their multi-coloured glow. Once upon a time, not really very long ago, she would have been out now, on this Friday evening, unwinding after a hard week of work. But now there was nothing to unwind from and no way to unwind, nowhere she could go.

She kicked off her shoes and sat down with a glass of fruit juice, looking down on the city. Sometimes she wished she had never volunteered, never chosen the honour, never taken on herself the burden of protection. But now it was too late and she no longer had a choice.

She had justified it to her family, her friends, and to herself often enough, so often that she was beginning to sound trite even to her own ears, so she had stopped justifying herself. In any case, it didn’t need justification. History was its own witness here – a history of death, destruction and extermination, a history which had brought creatures numbering in the billions to extinction, the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the great auk, moa, Stellar’s Sea Cow, the Yangtze dolphin; no end to the parade of names, all gone forever; victims of greed and stupidity and apathy, until an appalled world had rightly cried, never again.

She remembered the ads asking for volunteers, the substantial rewards on offer. She had thought about it all night, lain awake in that tiny little bed in that tiny little room, with the wind whistling through the cracks around the window that didn’t quite fit in its frame. The next day she’d gone and signed up and gone through the necessary checks, physical and psychological, that they’d put her through. Why not? It was Sunday and she in any case had had nothing better to do.

Yes, she had those rewards now, just looking around her showed her that they had kept their promise, just as she had kept hers. Oh yes, she had kept hers, and would keep it for as long as it took; and then, when at last time ensured she could keep it no more, she would go on her way with a substantial pension, and someone else would take over the task. She knew that and did not resent it.

When she had made her decision, when she had told her family and friends about her ‘condition’, they had been shocked. She had seen it in their eyes, heard it in their voices, but not one of them – not one – had ever said a word asking her not to do it. She had the arguments ready, all about how she was in a dead-end situation with no prospects and no way out that she could see, and when a chance like this came her way, she couldn’t afford to let it go by.

She pictured it often in her mind these days, the tapeworm that lay somnolent in her intestine now, its six or seven metres of white ribbon-body bathed in her digested food, safe and secure and warm in the darkness. The world’s last pork tapeworm, kept alive inside her, where it had been implanted; she thought of its eggs, harvested along with the mature “segments” from her body and preserved in pig muscle, ready to be implanted once more when the time came. She thought of how she was no longer a woman but a living museum, home to the last of a kind. She thought about how she had said goodbye to all relationships forever. Who would want to be with someone like her? 

She sipped at her fruit juice and wondered if what she was carrying under her heart knew of her, could know of her, could understand anything. She wondered if it would have cared.

Tomorrow, she thought, she would apply for a couple of weeks’ vacation. They would vet it, of course, to ensure that it was risk-free, but she was sure they’d grant it in the end.

They owed it to her.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12



The fence is endless, stretching out of the darkness and into darkness. It is day, but overhead the clouds are like lead, and the light so poor it seems to be night.

The fence is of chain and barbed wire strung on posts. The strands are rather far apart – but not too far. Nobody can climb through this fence.

The path past the fence is white concrete, and looks whiter than it really is in the gloom. It parallels the path, going on and on until the eye loses it, as it does the fence, in the darkness and the distance.

I’m walking down the path, my pistol heavy at my hip, my sword slapping against my side at every step. I look straight ahead, where the path merges with the darkness. I look ahead, not to my right, where the fence is; I know what I will see if I look in that direction.

I will see the hands.

I will see their hands and arms, stretching through the fence and reaching for me, the tips of their fingers – white as death, drained of blood – almost brushing the sleeve of my shirt. If I listen, I will hear them sigh; the sighing is softer than the wind, less important than the swish of grass under marching boots. I ignore the sighs. I do not hear them. I shall not hear them. I will not look at the hands and arms, reaching, reaching.

I snap awake. There is a night-light. The room isn’t completely dark – I can’t stand complete darkness anymore. There was a time when I could stand anything, but I am old now. I’m old, and things have changed. How they have changed.

The dream still has me in its grip. It’s a dream I have had many times over the years, and it’s growing more frequent as I age. There are variations – sometimes I am in a well with the hands reaching down, and sometimes I am on a hilltop and the hands strain up to touch me, to hold me and drag me down with them. But most frequently it’s the fence.

I’ve mentioned these dreams to nobody. They are nobody’s business but mine – and, besides, I am who I am. I can’t have anyone suspecting I am cracking up or going senile. And it’s not as though the dream can do anything to me. Not even the hands...

I blink and struggle to sit upright. This sort of thinking shall not do. I am Nakamura Kenji, and nobody – no business opponent, no personal enemy, and certainly no vaporous dream – has ever got the better of me.

I climb slowly out of bed and walk down the short hallway to the little kitchen. Certainly I should get someone to live with me – but the habit of years is hard to break. I have been alone since my wife died, and I never felt the need to share my time with anyone. But I am growing old, and my body is slowing down.

The tea I make is weak, almost flavourless, the way I have grown to like it. The tea helps me to concentrate, helps me to beat back the dream, to banish the shadows. When I think of it, the shadows the dream leaves behind are long and threatening. I am Nakamura Kenji, and I am not affected by dreams, but even then this dream lays an oppressive hand on my soul.

I return to bed, the aftertaste of the tea lingering on the back of my tongue. I walk along the darkened corridor, with the sureness of years of practice, although my steps are short and tottering, an old man’s steps. But once it was different. I walked as I walk in the dream, tall and strong and confident, and the years roll away, and I am young once more...

Back in bed, I lie on my back, staring up at the dimly-lit ceiling. This always happens after the dream, and most times I lie awake till morning. I can’t say I ponder the dream. The dream isn’t something to ponder on – it is.

Tonight, on a sudden impulse I am at a loss to explain, I reach out and switch off the night-light. I do not normally act on impulses. I have not come to be where I am by acting on impulses. But I am going to lie awake anyway, I think, so I might as well lie awake in the dark, for a change.

I try to remember when I first had the dream. It must have been a long, long time ago, just after the war. Not that it really matters when it began; I know whence it came. Normally I don’t think of it. It was a long time ago, more than seventy years, after all. But, again, just for a change, I decide, let me think of it all again, the time when I was young and strong and my back still unbent. Let me think back to Nanjing...

That was the winter when we fought the worm people, the winter when we drove them from Shanghai and up the Yangtze valley, the winter we surrounded and routed them at their capital and drove their armies into dispersed retreat. That was the winter when we showed the world that we, too, were a great and proud people. That was the winter of our glory. It was the winter of 1937.

Back then Nakamura Kenji was not the man he would later become, the man whose word could make corporate empires rise and fall, the man whose face would repeatedly cover business magazines. No, Nakamura Kenji was a raw sub-lieutenant, just out of the training college and at the head of his first command...

I remember the night before the fall of the city, when the worm army was already in full retreat and burning houses and farms as it fled. Sergeant Watanabe Kiyoshi – he was later killed fighting in Burma – was my second in command. When I think of him now, I have no memory of what he looked like, but I remember his eyes. They were not a human being’s eyes. They were the eyes of a tiger, the eyes of a wolf.

“You must learn to kill, Nakamura-san,” Watanabe had told me that night, with the glow of fires reddening the sky. The fires shone in his eyes, so that he looked like a demon. “You must learn the art of killing.” It was far too direct a speech for a senior sergeant to make to a sub-lieutenant, but Kiyoshi was a veteran of the Shanghai battles, and I was a mere newcomer, too intimidated by my own men to even give them effective orders. The commands I gave sounded like requests, even to my own ears.

“I have killed,” said I, remembering the Chinese soldier in his faded blue uniform I had seen through the scopes of a sniper rifle, and how his head had jerked backwards and his gun dropped from his hand when I squeezed the trigger. Had it been only that morning? “I know how to kill,” I repeated.

“That sort of killing!” Watanabe had shaken his head, and someone among the troops chuckled. “If you permit me to say this, Nakamura-san, that sort of killing isn’t real killing. Real killing’s not at the other end of a sniper scope. Real killing,” and he licked his lips, I remember this very well, “real killing is where you see the fear in your enemy’s eyes before you skewer him with your bayonet or,” he glanced at my sword, “chop him in half with that.”

I had watched a column of light tanks clank and clatter past so I didn’t have to look at him. “I don’t know if I can kill like that,” I said. “I doubt if I’d want to. In any case, the sort of war we’re fighting doesn’t give much opportunity for sword-play, does it?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised, Nakamura-san,” Watanabe had boomed. “Once you get used to killing, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is.”

The next evening we were in Nanjing. The gate to the enemy capital had fallen that afternoon and the remaining Chinese soldiers were retreating across the Yangtze but some had remained and were mixing in with the worm civilians. It was chaos everywhere.

“Orders,” the Colonel’s aide told me, when I went to meet him, leaving Watanabe in charge of my men. “Those are the orders, from Prince Asaka himself.” And by the time I came back, it had already begun.

“Killing is more than fun, Nakamura-san,” Watanabe had told me the other night. “Killing is a duty.” And so the major had informed me.

I found that my men had not waited for orders – it had begun already, the heaps of corpses were already piling up. I didn’t interfere – I was ordered not to interfere – and, yes, I watched, and I learned. Yes, slowly, I began to learn.

Human life is not sacred, this I knew. Human life, even my own, is as nothing. So of what value is the life of a mere worm? My life is forfeit to the Emperor, this I have been told since the moment I joined the military; and if my life is not mine, of what value are these lives?

And I watched, and I learned, yes, I learned.

One day I killed my first Chinese with the sword. He was one of the soldiers who had hidden in the Safe Zone, and we had found him and dragged him out. He was a sturdy man, no longer young, with deep lines alongside his mouth and nose. His arms were bound behind his back and he was hobbled as well.

All that morning I had watched my fellow officers behead worms with their swords. Chinese prisoners, some hundred of them, had been lined up before a dry ditch. One by one they had been made to kneel and then their heads were chopped off. It was sword practice.

 Sakamoto, my colleague from the training college, had already dispatched six or seven in this way. It seemed easy when he did it, the head toppling while the body still knelt. The Chinese were remarkably silent, and not one of them tried to resist or run away, not that it would have done them any good. I stayed back until Captain Hondo’s eyes fell on me. He had been directing the practice.

“You, Nakamura. Wash your sword with that one’s blood!”

The Chinese looked at me just once, as I approached. I don’t know what he saw in my eyes and I no longer remember what I saw in his; but I remember his neck bared for my stroke, and how I raised my arms and brought them down in a short arc, and the sudden thudding resistance of the neck, and then the Chinese was toppling.

“Easy, wasn’t it?” Hondo grinned. “You’ll learn, boy.”

Yes, I learned. In those weeks, a lot I learned. Each time my sword was washed with blood, I learned, and in other ways, besides.

I learned several minor truths, and I learned one Great Truth, one that has stood me in good stead since that day.

In the screams of prisoners being used for bayonet practice, I learned that killing is easy, and gets easier the more one does of it. Standing before the violated corpse of a young mother, who had begged for her life and at last tried to buy it with a ring, I learned, too, that looting and rape are pleasant and good for morale, and that there are fewer more pleasant things than inflicting fear when one can inflict fear. I learned that a human is no more than a goat or a chicken, and that a man can die as easily and meaninglessly as a fowl can, and that life is as meaningless as death, and equally to be scorned. Yes, I learned that as well. But those were minor truths, as one might think for oneself.

There was the Great Truth, though: the Truth that says that nothing really matters anymore; when the tide of blood is loosed on the world, life and death having ceased to have meaning, then there is no meaning to the world, and, therefore, anything and everything is justified to get one’s goals. There is no right or wrong, and this is the Greatest Truth of all.

It has stood me in good stead since that day.

One afternoon I stood in front of a burning building and watched burning scraps of paper rain down all around me. Idly, I picked up a piece of that paper. The unburned part was thin and yellowed, obviously of great age. Perhaps that building had been a library, I had thought, and pitched a hand grenade into the fire. And this from me, Nakamura Kenji, who had once loved reading delicate poetry!

You understand how much I had learned.

Rape was so casual that I stopped thinking about it; what the worms did to each other was so far beneath my human level of comprehension that what we did to them was without importance. Does it matter to the man who stamps the life of a cockroach out whether the cockroach has dreams? I have only vague memories; women tied to chairs and raped, women killed and then raped, women raped and then killed, women raped to death. How did it matter? They were worms.

One day in the late winter I stood beside the Yangtze, downstream, and watched the river bring the corpses in. They stacked up like driftwood, and the smell of them was scarcely tolerable even from far up from the bank. I remember seeing the corpse of a woman, breasts enormously distended, with a rotting baby still clutched in the crook of one arm, come floating in. The soldiers with me fired at the breasts of the dead woman and popped them like balloons, and I laughed even as they laughed. It was funny.

That evening, I remember, we had received some new reinforcements, straight out of training, and they were looking at me with faces full of fear. I had no idea why – after all, I was their officer, and there was no reason why they should fear me. Tomorrow, in any case, Sergeant Watanabe Kiyoshi and I would teach them the finer points of using the bayonet, and they needed the toughening-up. But I remember that night, when I went into my quarters and looked into the mirror, I could scarcely recognise my eyes. They were a killer’s eyes, those of a soulless murderer. I was happy; I was gratified. At last, I thought, I am fit to be a warrior for the Emperor. At last, I truly belong.

I must have dozed off for a moment. What useless line of thinking was I on? I remember vague thoughts about yellow-uniformed soldiers in forage caps and puttees, and the swords, flashing, and bound worms toppling headless into the ditches they had dug beforehand. How does it matter? It was long ago, and it was far away, and none of it matters any more.

I switch the night-light on and look at the vague shadows on the ceiling. Some of the shadows look like faces. I look at them and slowly, the room begins to spin, and fades away...

I am walking along the river bank, and the corpses are piled one on top of the other, the Chinese worm corpses, and I walk past them, and I know they are reaching for me with their bloodless hands and sighing with their voiceless voices. I know, but I am Nakamura Kenji, and they can do nothing to me, so long as I do not look at them and I do not hear.

(Dedicated to the victims of the Rape of Nanjing, Dec 1937 to Feb 1938.) 

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12

The Tower

Each evening in this season, when the sun was low in the west and the birds were flying home to roost, the girl walked up the hill to the tower.

The tower was very old. Nobody knew when it had been built, or who had built it, or for what purpose. Local lore had it that it had been built by jinni under the direction of Suleiman the Magnificent, back in the days when the trade caravans stitched the east and west together and it was still possible to sail off the edge of a flat world. No historian or archaeologist had attempted to research its origins, and, as the years and the centuries passed, even the blocks of fitted granite of which it had built eroded slowly away.

The girl was in her nineteenth year. She lived in the old house at the bottom of the hill, the big old house with the strange turrets at the corners and the many tiny windows. The locals also claimed the house was haunted by the ghosts of those who had built the house. The girl, who had lived in the house since she was born, had never seen or heard a ghost and did not believe in their existence.

She was a strange girl in many ways. With her square jaw and wide mouth, she was far from pretty, but with her long loose hair, as black as her eyes and her skin, so very white, she looked as though she were made of moonlight and darkness. The effect was heightened by the black clothes she wore always. Her parents had named her Laila, and she had been known by this name for the first fifteen years of her life. In those days she had been a happy and vivacious girl, essentially like the other girls of the small town in this remote valley.

But then, three years ago, the Great Plague had carried off both her parents within three days of each other, and Laila had vanished from public view. For a long time nobody had seen her, and the people who had known her thought she had either died as well, or, crazed by grief, had wandered away. None of them had checked, because the Great Plague had left no family, no house untouched, and each person had grief enough of his or her own. The old house had stood silent with door and windows shut, and the peasants had passed it by making signs as they always had, to ward off the evil eye.

And then one day the door of the old house had been flung open and the girl who had been Laila had emerged to face the world. But her smiles were gone, and her brightly coloured clothes had vanished, never to be seen again; and she spoke gravely, and only when spoken to. She declared that she was no longer Laila, but that her new name was Starlight, and she would respond only to that. Time passed, and the months went by; and slowly the people of the town came to call her by that name. And if anyone ever asked where she had been in the months after her parents had died, she would only shake her head, and her lips would twitch slightly, as though to say something, but she never would.

The girl who was once Laila worked all through the night, making dresses of strange beauty and with great and wondrous skill; and in the mornings she would take them down to the town, where the great ladies from the cities of the plain would come for their holidays; and she would sell enough of them to make a living, and as the sun sank towards the west she would walk up the hill again, her unsold wares slung over her arm along with whatever purchases she chose to make in the marketplace, food and fabric and the like.

Never would she remain in the town come evening, even though business would have been much better then. Nor would she ever offer the same dress for sale more than on one day. If it failed to be sold, she would cut it up and convert it into something different, blend it and modify it into another creation dazzling and original and strange. She would go up from the town to the strange old house, and for most of the year she would go straight indoors and emerge only the next morning with more dresses to sell. Men and women who thought about such things wondered if she slept at all, since she lived alone and had to cook and clean for herself, let alone sew the dresses for the following day; but if any of them ever asked her the question, she provided no answer, and with her silence they had to be content.

I said for most of the year; but when the days were warm and the sun stayed long in the sky before going to sleep in the west, the girl who had been Laila and was now Starlight would come up from the town, go indoors and come out again in a few moments. And as the evening shadows grew long, she would climb the narrow stony path to the old tower atop the hill. Sometimes other visitors saw her there, a strange and remote figure, somehow forbidding, not the Starlight who had sold dresses down in the town all day. She would stand by the tower, not speaking to anyone, not looking to left or right, until night fell and she was alone; and then, hours after the darkness had thrown her cloak over the land, Starlight would walk down the path by starlight, and return to her strange old house, there to sew clothes all the night long.

Perhaps inevitably, stories began to be told about Starlight; that she was the child of jinni and the Dark Ones, that shades of darkness rose from the depths of the earth to do her bidding, and the like. These stories grew until even the great ladies who came up from the cities of the plain came to hear of them; but instead of repelling them, the stories drew them to Starlight, and they bought her dresses, until rare was the day when she had to walk uphill with even a single item of unsold apparel slung over her arm.

And so Starlight entered her nineteenth year, plain of feature and dress, remote of manner and mysterious, with the wild tales that floated around about her and made of her a figure glamorous and strange. And yet none of the young men of the valley ever tried to scrape closer acquaintance with her; and no robber or burglar ever dared to target the strange old house at the head of the valley, and no rapist ever laid a hand on the young woman who walked downhill from the tower when the summer stars were in the sky.

One evening, then, as the sun’s red disc vanished in a wash of pink in the west, Starlight went up the hill as usual, in her plain black dress and her long black hair hanging loose on her back. She stood under the tower and watched the ravens come home to roost on their great black wings. The ravens circled round the tower and then entered the windows that circled it at the top, where they would roost for the night. Starlight watched the ravens enter and she watched the night sweep over the land from the east, and she watched the stars come out. Then she turned, as always, and entered the little door at the foot of the tower.

Inside, the stairs were narrow and steep, so narrow indeed that she could touch both walls without even extending her arms, and dark except where the narrow windows gave access to a little light. The girl knew the stairs well, because she had climbed them so often, and she went up effortlessly, automatically allowing for the places where the ancient stone had crumbled away over the years. Up she went, until she stood at the platform right at the top, and as every night in this season, she looked down at the lights of the town. Sometimes when the night was clear, she could even see the distant lights of the cities of the plain, which she had never visited, and never would.

Up here the wind blew always, the wind from the mountains, and it brought with it the knowledge that the people in the lighted streets far below her had chosen to ignore and forget; the knowledge that the spark of a fire or a love was for a moment, that spoke of years passing by and of relationships grown cold, of the rooms of a life grown full of dust and dead memories. It spoke of dreams that died in the light of day and of the futility of things, of ancient stone towers that were built to last forever but crumbled in a paltry thousand years. It spoke of the loneliness of love and of the hopelessness of hope.

And the wind spoke of more things; it told her that there were worse things than being sent away to have a love-child that was stillborn, and so surviving the plague that destroyed her parents; it told her that the pleasure-seekers of the valley were, even as she, lonely inside their skins. And it told of the ends that came as surely as the beginnings, but of the ends that left the survivors to go on, trying to begin all over again. Every night, the wind told her that.   

The girl stood high up here as on every evening in this season, and listened to the wind. She listened and then she slipped off her shoes and climbed on the parapet of the tower, and spread her arms wide like wings, and she looked up at the stars, and wished she could fly beyond the mountains, and she felt the tears on her cheeks. Then, as the vertigo began to take hold of her, and she began to feel her balance slipping, she climbed down off the ancient stone parapet before she could fall, and, as on every evening, she went down to her empty house and her dressmaker’s tools, crying all the way.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12