One day two boys caught a thief.
Of course this wasn’t an ordinary thief. Ordinary thieves don’t get caught by schoolboys, and ordinary thieves steal things more valuable than...but the story is getting ahead of itself.
The two boys’ nicknames – for their names don’t matter – were Peevan and Scamper. Peevan was the elder and larger, and had untidy hair which fell over his eyes. Scamper was sleek and brown, and moved quickly, like oil over water. They were friends – such close friends, in fact, that most people assumed they were brothers.
Now this was the summer vacation, and Peevan and Scamper were back from roaming the countryside on their bicycles, and had come to Peevan’s grandmother’s house. And Peevan’s grandma had a problem.
“Something keeps stealing the jam from my jam cupboard,” she said. “Whenever I open the cupboard, there’s more jam missing, and the lid of one of the jars is loose.”
“It must be a rat,” Peevan said, demonstrating that he wasn’t always that quick in his thought processes.
“It can’t possibly be a rat,” his grandma snapped. She was a great lady, and loved them both very much, but at times had little patience with idiocy. “A rat couldn’t open the jar top.”
This was a serious thing, of course, since both Peevan and Scamper loved Grandma’s jam. One of the reasons they kept going to her house was the lovely jam. And if someone was stealing the jam that was theirs by rights, it was war.
Peevan said it first. “This is war,” he said.
Grandma wasn’t listening. “It’s beyond bearing,” she said. “Each day, the jam gets stolen. I’ll be out of the larder room for literally five minutes, and when I’m back, the jar’s opened and half the jam’s gone.”
“How long since this has been going on?” Peevan asked.
“About, oh, a week now.” Grandma looked at the calendar on the wall. “It began the day after the earthquake last week. Six days.”
“Did you try locking the door of the jam cupboard?” Scamper asked.
“I’m not a fool, boy,” Grandma informed him. “Of course I locked the door. And,” she added, “before you ask, the door was still locked when I came back.”
Peevan and Scamper looked at each other. “So that means,” the former said, “that whatever’s stealing the jam is inside the cupboard.”
“Or is entering it from somewhere,” Scamper said. “Nothing gets stolen except the jam, I take it?”
“No. And who would want my jam?”
“Anyone who’s ever tasted it.”
“Don’t flatter me, boy. Flattery won’t get you anywhere.”
“Since the larder doesn’t have any windows,” Peevan said, “the thief must come in through the door to the kitchen. Right?”
“Right,” Sacmper agreed Of course they both knew the cupboard, tall and made of dark wood, which stood against one wall of the dark little larder. “So we should be able to catch the thief.”
Grandma looked at them. “What will you two do that I haven’t already?”
“Well, you see, Grandma,” Peevan explained, “we might just see something you could have missed. I mean, you’re used to seeing the same things every day, so it might be easy to miss something new.” Which proves that he could be diplomatic when he had to be.
Grandma peered at him suspiciously, but decided eventually to take him at his word. “Once or twice I heard a noise from inside,” she said. “At least,” she amended, “I think I heard a noise. But it was always gone when I opened the door – and so was the jam.”
“Umm.” Peevan and Scamper exchanged glances. “Is there any jam in the cupboard now?”
“No,” Grandma said. “There hasn’t been since the night before last. And there isn’t going to be. I’ve had enough of my jam being stolen.”
“Oh please, Gran. We need some jam in there to act as bait. Otherwise how could we know what’s stealing it?”
Grandma sighed. “I have one jar left,” she said plaintively. “One single, solitary, tiny jar of peach jam. You want me to give it to the thief?”
“Relax, Gran,” Scamper assured her, “if – when – we catch the thief you won’t lose the jam.”
“And your jam cupboard will be safe,” Peevan pointed out. “You can fill it with jam again.”
“All right,” Grandma gave in. “I’d have given you two the jam anyway, so I suppose it’s yours to do with as you see fit.” She opened the low cupboard below the sink and fetched out a small glass jar filled with the brown jam. “What do you want to do with it?”
“You’d better go and put it in the cupboard,” Peevan said, “in case the thief’s watching for you to do it. And I suppose you’d better lock it, too, if you’ve been doing it regularly. We’ll wait outside the larder door.”
“And then come right out and go away,” Scamper said. “We don’t want whoever it is thinking you’re lying in wait.”
“Oh, and you’d better give us the key on the way out,” Peevan added. “And a torch – the larder is dark enough already, let alone inside the cupboard.”
“Yes, sir!” Grandma snapped off a salute and went off to the larder with the jar.
When Grandma had come out and wandered off, Peevan and Scamper crouched just outside the door, waiting to rush in. Peevan held the key in his hand like a lance. Scamper held the torch like another lance.
For a long time nothing happened. Nothing continued to happen for so long that Peevan and Scamper glanced uneasily at each other. “Do you think we should just go in and see?” the latter murmured.
“No,” Peevan whispered back. “Whoever the thief is might be scared off if he knows we’re out here. I mean, we’re young and fast, and Grandma’s old.”
“Maybe there isn’t really a thief,” Scamper bit his lip. “Grandma’s old like you said, and old people sometimes forget, and...”
“Wait!” Peevan held up a hand. “Did you hear that?”
“What...” Then Scamper heard it too, a stealthy scuffling sound, something like shoe leather on concrete, but much softer. “It’s coming from inside,” he said.
“Come on!” Very slowly, Peevan eased open the larder door and peered in cautiously. The dark little room was empty to all appearances of any living thing. The sound was clearer now, though, and it was clearly coming from the jam cupboard. Silently, moving on their toes, the two boys entered the larder and moved towards the cupboard. The noise was still coming, and they heard a muffled clunk, exactly as of a jar filled with peach jam being knocked over. Peevan raised the key, stabbed it into the keyhole, and threw the door open, just as Scamper hit the torch button.
In the light of the torch they saw it clearly – a little brown thing, all leathery flaps, long thin limbs, and tiny needle teeth, squatting over the jam jar, which lay on its side, the lid open. It squeaked, tiny black eyes rolling frantically in the glare of the light, and then made a frantic dart for the back of the shelf.
Too late. Peevan’s hand came down hard, trapping one of the leathery brown flaps against the wooden shelf.
“Got you,” he said, superfluously.
“Watch out!” Scamper exclaimed. “It’ll bite.”
The thing, however, made no attempt to bite. It made a couple of frantic attempts to pull away from Peevan’s grasp before collapsing in a huddled mass on the shelf. And then it began sobbing.
Peevan and Scamper exchanged astonished glances. “It’s crying,” Peevan said.
“Like a baby,” Scamper replied. They gaped at the sobbing little creature, still trapped by Peevan’s hand. And then, shockingly, it began to speak.
“Let me go,” it squeaked between sobs. “You let me go right now!”
“You talk?” Peevan asked, superfluously.
“Why were you stealing Gran’s jam?” Scamper asked, more constructively. “You’ve been tormenting the poor old lady, stealing it every day.”
“If you’d wanted it,” Peevan said, censoriously, “you only had to ask. She’s never said no to anyone who asked...not yet, anyway.”
“She wouldn’t have given it some everyday,” Scamper pointed out. “Why did you want so much for, anyway?”
The creature was still struggling to escape, squeaking and sobbing pathetically, but Peevan’s grip was firm. He gave it a little shake. “Well?” he asked. “Who are you, and what do you want with Grandma’s jam?”
“Don’t hurt me,” the thing squeaked. “I only needed it to get the Princess home.”
Peevan and Scamper glanced at each other. “What Princess?”
“She has to get back,” the creature squeaked, tugging ineffectually. “Our vehicle is out of fuel, and that’s why I was taking the stuff, I swear.”
“Your vehicle?” Peevan poked the creature’s knobby head with the tip of the index finger of his free hand. “You’d better start from the beginning and tell us what this is about.”
“We won’t hurt you if you do,” Scamper added, reassuringly.
The creature’s sobs subsided a little. “We came...up...to your world,” it said, “like we always do, like we always have done, these thousands of years.”
“Up to our world?” Scamper asked.
“Let it tell its story,” Peevan said.
“Yes,” the creature continued, “as I was saying, we’ve always come up, for thousands of years now. Nothing ever went wrong before. But this time...” It paused, apparently overwhelmed by emotion. “This time,” it continued eventually, “a horrible monster attacked our vehicle.”
“A horrible monster?”
“Yes, it was huge with long teeth and covered with long, thin black tentacles all over.”
Peevan and Scamper exchanged glances. They’d recognised the description of the neighbour’s dog, Maggie. “Go on,” the former said. “What did this, um, monster, do?”
“It ripped at our machine with its teeth,” the creature said, “and tore off the fuel section – which it then,” it’s voice broke into sobs again, “...ate. We managed to get away, but now we have no fuel to get home.”
It sounded authentic. Maggie had always loved jam. “And Grandma’s jam is your fuel?” Peevan asked.
“Yes, of course,” the creature informed him. “We smelt it at once when we managed to hide the machine. But we need an awful lot, and taking little by little this way it took far too long.”
“You said you’d come up to our world,” Peevan said. “So where are you from?”
The little brown creature shook with agitation. “I’m not supposed to say.” Peevan gave it a shake and it gave in. “We came from under there,” it said, tapping the wooden shelf with a claw. “Below your houses and streets, under the ground.”
“Under the ground?” Scamper exclaimed. “Isn’t it always, uh, dark and damp down there?”
“Of course it is,” the creature sighed. “Always damp and dark, and not too comfortable either, when an earthquake comes. That’s why we came up the other day, because it was so uncomfortable after the last earthquake – all the sanitation lines damaged and all – that the Princess wanted some light and fresh air.”
Scamper and Peevan exchanged another glance. They’d just remembered Grandma mentioning the earthquake.
“This would never have happened,” the creature moaned, “if only the monster hadn’t caught us. The Princess was so cross!”
“Has anyone been in this jam...I mean, has anyone had this problem before?”
“I don’t know, but there are more and more of us coming up. Everyone has machines now, you see. In the olden days, of course, they’d have to dig their way up.”
“Of course,” Peevan agreed. “So how much more of this...fuel...do you need?”
“This jar would have been the last,” the thing said, giving another couple of experimental tugs. “It would have been enough to get us home.”
“And where is this machine of yours?” Scamper asked.
“And the Princess?” Peevan added, showing that he didn’t lose sight of the big picture.
The thing paused in its struggling and its sobbing. “I can’t tell you that,” it said.
“Fine,” Scamper informed it, taking the jar and screwing the lid shut. “We were going to give this to you, but since you aren’t interested in telling us...”
“We’ll just tell Grandma instead,” Peevan finished. He raised his voice. “Gran!”
“Yes?” the old lady’s voice came from somewhere in the house.
“Don’t call her,” the thing said urgently. “I’ll take you to the machine. Don’t call her, please!”
“We’re still waiting, Gran,” Peevan said. “We’ll let you know as soon as something happens.”
“Now take us to where the machine is,” Scamper said sternly. “Otherwise you’ll never get any jam again. And you’ll be stuck here for good.”
“How did you get into this cupboard anyway?” Peevan asked.
“I’ll show you.” The thing reached out with a claw and poked at the back of the shelf. A large piece of wood slid aside. “I made the panel myself,” the thing said with pride.
“That’s nice,” Peevan said dubiously, “but how do we go down there? It’s far too small for a human.”
“It just goes down to the back of the house,” the creature said. “Let me go and I’ll meet you there.”
“Nothing doing,” Peevan said. He lifted up the thing and stuffed it into his pocket, where it fit awkwardly, a squeaking, wriggling, lumpy mass. “We’ll take you to the back of the house and show us.”
“I’ll take the jam along,” Scamper said.
They peered into the kitchen. Grandma, fortunately, wasn’t there, so they could sneak outside without being asked questions. Peevan took out the creature and put it down on the ground by the back wall, still keeping a firm grip. “Now,” he said, “where is the vehicle?”
“Right there,” the thing said, pointing at a largish stone next to the wall. It was a stone neither Peeven nor Scamper remembered having seen before, but they weren’t observant boys as far as back gardens went. “We disguised it, of course.”
“Of course,” Peevan agreed. “And where is this Princess?”
“She’s inside,” the creature squeaked.
“I can’t,” the thing gasped in horror. “She’s the princess!”
“Call her,” Peevan said, shaking the little body. “Or...”
“All right,” the little thing said. “Don’t hurt me.” It raised its voice into a shriller squeak. “Princess!”
The top of the rock opened and a head stuck out. It was a bulbous head, with large round eyes, and was covered in colours that shifted from white to red and green and purple to white again. “Why are you calling?” it asked. “How dare you call...” Its voice trailed off as it noticed Peewan and Scamper.
“You’re the Princess?” Scamper asked in astonishment.
“Of course she’s the Princess,” Peevan’s captive said indignantly, fear forgotten. “She’s the greatest princess ever to rule the land. She...”
“All right, all right,” Peevan said hastily. “Your, er, Majesty, this, um, subject of yours claims that you’re from down there and need fuel to get back.”
“And this is the fuel,” Scamper said, holding up the jam jar.
“This is true,” the Princess said. “Roggy is perfectly correct. We were just visiting this land...for a brief visit...when a monster attacked us.”
“Roggy?” Peevan looked at the little brown thing. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Peevan and this is Scamper.”
“You can let him go now,” the Princess said. “He won’t try to run away.”
“We have this, um, fuel for you.” Scamper held up the jar. “I take it this is the last bit you need?”
The Princess eyed the jar. “That’s right,” she said. “Give it to us, and we’ll go away and never come back again. At least,” she amended, “we’ll never come back here again. We don’t want the monster to catch us again, you see.”
“All right,” Peevan nodded, and let Roggy go. The little creature stretched on his spindly limbs and shook his leathery flaps. Scamper handed him the jar.
“Thank you,” the Princess said. “Thanks ever so much.” She beckoned with a stubby hand. “Come, Roggy.”
“Wait,” Peevan exclaimed. “Aren’t you even going to beg us not to tell people about you?”
“Tell them all you want,” the Princess said cheerily. “Who’s ever going to believe you?”
The lid over the stone slid back into place. There was a brief shimmer, and it disappeared. For an instance, Peevan and Scamper saw a hole in the ground, which swiftly closed again. And there was only a shimmer in the air, which faded, too.
“What are you boys doing out there?” Grandma asked from the kitchen door.
Deep underneath the ground, the vehicle sped downwards.
“You did well,” the Princess said. “You say they didn’t even ask for three wishes as per the standard contract?”
“I don’t think they even heard of the three wishes.” Roggy shook his head and turned levers expertly, guiding the craft. “I’m told the youth of today don’t read.”
“Still, you did superbly. I’ll be glad to get home.”
“In that case, Princess, I suggest you increase speed,” Roggy said. “The faster we go, the sooner we’ll get there, you know.”
“I’m doing the best I can,” the Princess complained. “You know something, Rog? I’m glad we got stuck for a week up there.”
“Princess?” Roggy glanced back from the lever-studded control panel. “Really?”
“Yes.” The Princess spooned another dollop of the jam into her mouth and kicked at the pedals with all her feet.
“This is the best fuel I’ve ever tasted,” she said happily.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015