Sunday, 31 March 2019
Rueters, 1st April 2019
By Kanmani Ponnu
With additional reporting by Peppa Chamatthu
Researchers at the Department of Parasitology, Hops Johnkins Medical Institute, Washington DC, today announced that they had found a major new parasite of human nervous systems.
The creature is the larva of a microscopic wasp, the smallest ever discovered, smaller than some single celled organisms. It has yet to be issued a formal biological name, but the Hops Johnkins Parasitology Department has shortlisted one for consideration.
“The animal is truly remarkable,” the head of the Department of Parasitology, Dr Hector Oaks, told Rueters over the telephone. “Not only is it so small, but its mode of infection is more like a virus than an animal.”
The parasite, Dr Oaks said, is, like other wasps and bees, a member of the order Hymenoptera of Class Insecta, Phylum Arthropoda, the group that includes butterflies and cockroaches, crabs and lobsters, spiders and millipedes. It is the larva of the adult, which itself is so tiny as to be invisible to the naked eye.
“The adult wasp,” Dr Oaks said, “has evolved drastically away from the original form but only in size; it can still handily be recognised for what it is under the microscope. It is, however, the larva that is parasitic. This larva, which is white, is sharply curved except for its tail end, so that it closely resembles a sickle in shape. It is so tiny that it can enter the body of the nerve cells, the neurons, and gestate inside them before moving to other cells.
|The female, winged, wasp (above), compared to single celled animals, and the wingless male (below)|
“This animal,” Dr Oaks continued, “has developed parasitic tactics hitherto unknown among other multicellular organisms. The wasp lays its eggs on the surface of a person’s skin. The larva hatches on the skin, and crawls down the duct of a sweat gland until it reaches the inner skin layer, the dermis. There it bores its way out of the sweat gland and crawls around until it finds a neuron, which, of course, is not difficult since the skin is richly supplied with nerve endings. It bores its way into the neuron with its sharp sickle end, and there, inside the cell, it settles down to feed and lay eggs.”
Dr Oaks went on to say that the wasp larva is the only multicellular organism known in which the juvenile form also lays eggs. “It is one of the most remarkable evolutionary adaptations ever seen,” he said. “The larva is born pregnant, and is in fact little more than a bag of eggs. Once it settles down in a neuron, it absorbs nutrition from the cell cytoplasm, and swells up until it bursts open, releasing the eggs. These eggs resemble tiny blue rods with a blob at the end, so that they look rather like a hammer. Each hatches within hours, releasing more larvae, known as Stage II larvae. These Stage II larvae are externally identical to the first, or Stage I, larva, but are of course even smaller. They burrow out of the neuron and move along the body of the nerve, absorbing nutrients as they travel, until, eventually, they reach the brain.
“Once they arrive at the brain, each larva begins to secrete chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters, of course, are naturally produced by the human brain, but the parasitic wasp produces mimics which override the genuine neurotransmitters and significantly affect the behaviour of the host. Parasitic wasps are well known for their ability to convert their hosts into “zombies” which obey the commands of the parasites, but this is the first instance where such an action has been seen in a human being.
“The effect in a human is to drive the afflicted person to seek out others, both affected and unaffected, and to congregate with them in large numbers. Meanwhile, some of the larvae, but not all, crawl out of the brain and back down the nerves until they reach the closest skin, usually that of the face. They then burrow out of the nerve endings and wander around the dermis until they find a sweat gland. Each larva that has survived up to this point immediately curls up and secretes a capsule around itself, which has five points, which under the microscope resembles a star and is dark red in colour. Inside that capsule the larva pupates and emerges as a new adult wasp, which crawls up the sweat gland duct until it reaches the surface of the skin. There it waits, secreting chemicals known as pheromones, which attract wasps of the opposite sex. After mating on the skin, the males, which have no wings or functional mouth parts, die; the females, which are now pregnant, fly off to find new hosts on whose skin to lay eggs and begin the cycle over again.
“Meanwhile, the larvae that have remained in the brain continue to produce neurotransmitters that modify the host’s behaviour in drastic ways. First, as already stated, the parasite compels the infected person to congregate with other people, both infected and otherwise; the sufferer will, in fact, be driven to organise such meetings, by the internet if necessary. This means that the pregnant female wasp has more potential hosts to infect, while the male has the opportunity to mate with females from other hosts and avoid the risks of inbreeding. Secondly, it drastically changes, for reasons so far unknown, not just the behaviour but the political beliefs of the affected person.
“And in what way does it do this? You only have to look at the shapes of the various stages of the larval parasite. While the adult female looks like a very, very tiny wasp, with wings like tendrils, and the male similar but with no wings at all, the larva looks, first, like a white sickle. Then it produces eggs that resemble tiny blue hammers. And in its final stage, the pupa, it looks like a dark red star.
“Is that not enough? The larva in its various forms looks like a white sickle, a blue hammer, and a red star. Clearly there is only one way it can affect the political beliefs of those it infects!
“Yes,” Dr Oaks concluded. “We have confirmed that this parasitic wasp turns its victims into Russian bots, trolls, agents, and zombies. And we therefore suggest that it can only have one name appropriate to it – Moscowaspus vladimirputinii - after the evil Russian dictator, who must in some way be responsible. And we will recommend to the Pentagon that the United States must start World War Three at once!"
For more on this story, click here.
Saturday, 30 March 2019
Google Plus is being murdered on 2 April.
Back in the day, until about 2017, I used to be very active on Google Plus. It was the anti-Fakebook, free of adverts and cat videos, with a high intellectual level, and, at first, little to no censorship.
But Google was not making any money out of it. So it killed it.
The writing was on the wall for a while, really. Google stopped, for all intents and purposes, maintaining Google Plus around 2016. It allowed it to wither away, while looking for an excuse – any excuse – to kill it off. And the wishes of its users be damned.
That excuse came in the shape of a “security breach” a year or so ago, which even Google admits did not expose its users’ data to anybody (unlike, you know, Fakebook). But, rather than just fixing the breach and moving on, Google chose to close down the social network altogether.
It’s just the latest in a long, long, line of things Google has killed off. And it almost certainly won’t be the last.
The next, or the next but one, or the next one after that, I believe, will be Blogger.
The signs are unmistakable.
Between 2006 and 2012, I was on the greatest blogging/social media website ever created, Multiply. It was killed off after being taken over by a South African corporate criminal called Stefan Magdalinsky, who was far too greedy for his own good, and chose to convert it into an e-shopping network. While he only murdered Multiply in 2012, the signs had been clear since mid-2011, though, that the site was doomed. And those of us who recognised those signs, like me, began to look for an alternative site to move to.
Today, I see those same signs in Blogspot.
Let’s be clear about this – I do not trust Google as far as I can throw it. I do not trust it to not kill off Blogspot, which it owns, because it can.
But, more than that, I have some observations.
First, most of Blogger is free. It has no adverts. The majority of users don’t pay Google to use it. What that means is that Google is not making any money from it, and we know Google is all about money.
Secondly, and, yes, I am blaming most of you who are reading this, blogging is headed down the road to the same extinction that visited such concepts as chat rooms and Orkut. Why? Simple. You don’t read. Even those of you who would think nothing of writing ten thousand word long stories ten years ago don’t want to read anything longer than ten word long memes and tweets now. You don’t have to pretend – I can see it in my stats. And that means, in turn, that I have less and less incentive to spend my spare time doing the hard work of writing. Right?
Right. And though I’m just one person, the whole of Blogger is headed down the same route. And it's getting worse. People who used to write a hundred or more posts a year ago can scarcely be bothered to type out one or two short blogs in six months now.
Do you think Blogger and its owner Google are unaware of that? They are not unaware of that. No.
The other signs are equally clear. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but Blogger has become, essentially, maintenance-free. Spam comments are no longer delivered to spam folders, but to your inbox. All these years, and Blogger still hasn’t managed to create a comment edit function, something, you know, just about everyone else has had for fifteen years if not longer. And more!
Recently, it’s become harder and harder to post or edit posted articles. Typically, when I post something and click on save, I get this:
And no matter how many times I click, I keep getting it. Only if I open a separate window to my blog do I see if the damn thing has posted/updated or not.
This is most definitely Not A Good Sign. This is not a sign of a site which really cares any longer whether it still exists or what the hell you do on it.
In other words, it’s a site which is, sooner or later, doomed.
As such, I have decided to look for another blogging site. I need, at the very least, to create an online backup of my posts here. Here are my requirements:
1 It needs to be free (I can’t pay in dollars even if I wanted to, and I don’t).
2 It needs to be no-censorship, as Blogspot still is.
3 It needs to be easy-to-use (without any fancy formatting troubles).
4 It must have no limits on uploads (unlike WordPress, for example).
5 Readers ought to be able to comment with the minimum of trouble.
6. I need to have a reasonable expectation that it won’t vanish tomorrow.
I realise that most of these points could be addressed by my own website, but I’ll be frank.
First, much as I want my own site, I cannot afford it, and will not be able to in the foreseeable future. You realise that unlike a lot of other bloggers, I do not have a donate button, I do not beg for money via Patreon from you people, and anything I put online is free for you to read and share. But by the same token, I do not make a penny for my writing, and I cannot afford to divert funds from more important purposes in order to pay to maintain a website of my own.
Second, I have zero skills at web design, and the costs of paying a professional web designer to set up a website for me are far more than I can even conceive of affording.
Third, a readymade blogging site comes with other users and readers. This is not true of a website I have to start from scratch. I do not expect more than five of you (you know who you are) to follow me wherever I might go.
Therefore, I need suggestions. Tell me what other blogging sites (not WordPress, thank you, I already use it for my cartoons and I hate it, thank you very much all the same) you know about.
Thanks in advance in case you have suggestions. Or, you know, not.
One day, while fishing from the edge of the tortoise’s back, old Kutnoburo caught a new god, so everyone went running to see.
The farmers left their fields on the top of the tortoise’s shell, where the sunlight was best and the rain didn’t slip off quite so quickly. The women who worked the textile mills dropped their looms and spindles and ran, too, not even pausing to tidy up their hair. The shell-miners came crawling out of their tunnels, blinking in the unaccustomed daylight, their chisels and shovels and mine-carts silent for a little while.
Nobody had caught a new god in a long time, and everyone was excited and curious about it.
Even the children at the school heard about it, somehow, and they clamoured so hard to be allowed to go and see that the teachers finally declared a half-holiday. It was quite impossible to teach them anything, and the teachers themselves wanted a look at the god as well.
So they went, in ones and twos and crowds, to old Kutnoburo’s house, which was balanced on the ridge marking one of the tortoise’s shell plates. It was a hard climb, because the miserly old man had never bothered to cut proper steps, but they all went anyway, old people and young, and even babies in arms. And among them scrambled the children, shouting and laughing, because a half holiday from school was precious enough, even without a new god to see and talk about.
Pepper was one of the children. Her name wasn’t really Pepper, of course – who would ever give their child such a ridiculous name? – but the day she, and her twin sister, had been born, the tortoise had met another, larger and much richer, and the people had been able to trade some of their sour red fruit for the almost unimaginable luxuries of salt and pepper. Another little baby had been nicknamed Salt, and she was Pepper’s best friend.
Pepper and Salt had spent so much of their spare time scrambling all over the tortoise that they managed to run like little monkeys up the tortoise’s plates, far faster than the crowds plodding up the crude scrapes that passed for stairs. And so they arrived at old Kutnoburo’s house while there were still few enough people there that they could actually get close enough to the god to see.
Even before they reached it, they could hear it, though. The god was anything but silent. It wheezed and it grunted. When it had had enough of wheezing and grunting, it snorted and it blorked. And in between it emitted shrill whistles not unlike the screeching of one of the voidal ghosts that floated by the tortoise at night and every child learnt to imitate by the time he or she was three years old.
The god was sitting comfortably with its back against the wall of old Kutnoburo’s house, whistling contentedly. It was not a particularly prepossessing god. It was grey and saggy and wrinkled all over, and it had tufts of stiff black fur sprouting here and there from the wrinkles. It had small brown eyes, some on stalks and some in clusters, a floppy snout like a trunk, and six or seven pairs of arms, only a few of which ended in pincers or tentacles. And it had a mouth.
It was a most fascinating mouth. It was like a trough that opened somewhere below its head and above its chest. The god would stick out the trough and whistle and grunt until old Kutnoburo’s wife, Kutniburi, took up a shovel and, loading it with food, put it into the gaping opening. Then the god would pull back the trough, and grunt and chortle while swallowing the food. And then out would come the trough again.
“It isn’t even willing to feed itself,” Kutniburi was shouting as Salt and Pepper arrived. She pointed at the enormous heap of grain, fruit, vegetables and straw heaped by the house, so large that it overtopped the deity itself. “It wants someone to feed it, and it just won’t stop eating.”
“Why are you complaining?” someone asked. “You’ve got a god of your own now. You can become rich when you sell it. A god would fetch you enough to live on for years!”
“When will that be?” the old woman demanded. “There aren’t any other tortoises in the void close enough even to see, and if we met one, do you think they’ll be able to afford to buy a god? Could you?”
“I’m just saying,” the person protested – it was Chatamatha from near the tail of the tortoise, the mother of one of Pepper’s classmates – “I’m just saying that you shouldn’t complain when you’ve got this kind of good fortune. Most people would give their right arms to have caught a god. And you –”
“And I,” the old woman retorted, “can see that it’s going to finish all our food by this time tomorrow. And then who’s going to feed it until we can sell it – you?”
“You can ask it to make its own food,” Chatamatha shot back. “After all, it is a god.”
“Ask it yourself,” Kutniburi said. “Why don’t you ask it yourself and see?”
Chathamatha did. The god swivelled one of its eyes on its stalk to look at her. Then it opened its trough and whistled again.
“You see,” Kutniburi said with satisfaction. “Now you know why my husband just dumped it here and ran off. He daren’t show his face around here, and if you were in his place, would you?”
The god’s name was Pilavulakandithekkeperambil Thirumalaiananthanipillai. It deigned to identify itself after a big enough crowd had gathered to make it worthwhile. Of course it did not stop eating to do it; it spoke through flaps on the sides of what might have been its chest, while still grunting and gobbling at another few spadefuls of Kutniburi’s provender. “And I must say,” it added, “that while this food is good, it’s hardly up to what I expect as a god. I deserve much better.”
“Then why are you eating so much of it?” Kutniburi demanded. “If it’s so bad, don’t eat it.”
“A deity has to keep up its strength,” the god replied. “Besides, out in the void the food might be better, but there isn’t nearly so much of it.”
“There won’t be much more,” Kutniburi said. “At the rate you’re eating it’s all going to be gone in a day or two.”
“You caught me,” the god replied equably, crossing some of its arms on what might or might not be its chest. “It’s your job to feed me.”
“In that case,” Kutniburi said, to the gasps of shock of the crowd, “you’re free to go. Get up and jump off back into the void. Go!”
“Not on your life,” the god said, and blorked around what was left of its last mouthful of food. “I’m well and truly caught, and I like it this way. The only way you’ll get rid of me is if you sell me. And remember that nobody buys goods, even gods, unless they look healthy and in excellent condition.”
Kutniburi cast an evil look at it. “You’ll have to go when I run out of food. I’m not going to go into debt to get food for you. So when all this is gone...” She gestured at the heap of grain and fruit, which was already visibly diminished. “When all this is gone, you can starve for all I care.”
“It’s a god,” Chatamatha and her sister, Chayerpeyala, said in unison to Kutniburi. “Everyone on the tortoise wants to catch a god, dreams of catching one – and you treat yours like that! It isn’t done.”
“Is that so?” Kutniburi snapped. “So are you willing to feed it? You can share in whatever we can sell it for if you feed it.”
Chatamatha suddenly looked dubious. “That depends. What can it do to make it worthwhile? I mean, the amount it might fetch, you know, depends on what it can do. I know it’s a god, but...”
Kutniburi cackled with laughter. “And just now you were telling me that I was mistreating it! Well then,” she turned belligerently towards the god. “What can you do, if anything? Show us something that shows you’re worth keeping.”
“Certainly,” the god said. It scratched its side ruminatively with a clawed limb. “I could...no, that’s too much work. I might...no, that would need me to stop eating until it was finished. I’ve got it!” It raised its trunk and twisted it in Kutniburi’s direction. A puff of greenish smoke shot out of the trunk and enveloped Kutniburi. Slowly, taking its time, it dissipated.
But where was Kutniburi? Instead of her, a beautiful girl stood there, blinking.
“It’s Kutniburi,” someone gasped. “I remember her from when she was young. She looked just like this.”
There was a moment of awful silence, and then the screaming started.
“Make me young and beautiful again,” Chayerpeyala shrieked, pushing her way toward the god.
“No, make me first,” Chatamatha shouted, clawing at her sister in her desperation.
The god blinked amiably around and extended its mouth.
“Bring me food first,” it said. “Lots and lots of food.”
In the stampede that followed, Pepper and Salt were lucky not to be trampled or knocked right off the tortoise’s back into the void. Suddenly they were alone with Kutniburi and the god.
“What are you two doing here, gawking?” Kutniburi screamed at them. Whatever the god had done to her looks, it had not improved her temper in the slightest. “Get out of here right away! Don’t you have school? Go away before I throw you off.”
Pepper and Salt looked at her advancing determinedly on them, and scrambled back down the tortoise’s shell as quickly as they could.
By that afternoon the entire tortoise shell was in turmoil.
Pepper and Salt had gone down to the edge of the shell, to escape all the shouting and rushing about as people gutted their food stocks, fighting their spouses, parents and siblings as they did so. They were not the only ones.
The fishermen sat along the edges of the shell, in numbers far greater than usual, their lines dangling into the void, the metal treads glittering painfully bright in the sun. So many of them together would never catch anything, not even a goblin or a voidmaid; even Pepper and Salt knew this. But they understood that the fishermen weren’t there to catch anything. They were hiding from what was going on up there on the shelltop.
Pepper and Salt were really too young to be down here, at the edge of the void, by themselves, unsupervised. Sometimes the tortoise lurched as it moved, and an unwary child might fall off. But nobody was even looking at them today, so they took the chance to wander around.
Among the fishermen was Kutnoburo, who sat, his head buried in his shoulders, other fishermen sitting far closer to him on both sides than they usually would. Even before Pepper and Salt had reached him, they could hear him talking.
“It’s not right,” he was saying. “I don’t care what you say. I wish I hadn’t caught the god. If I’d known what was going to happen I’d have thrown it right back.”
“Just tell us how you caught it,” one of the other fishermen interrupted. “We’ve all of us been trying all our lives, and none of us caught one. And you got one just like that.”
“That’s right,” the fisherman on Kutnoburo’s other side agreed. “Tell us the secret, and we won’t bother you again.”
“There’s no secret!” Kutnoburo snapped. “I just threw out my line and almost before it had gone fully out, I felt the weight on it. So I pulled it up again, thinking I might have caught a crawler parasite dropping off the tortoise – because of the weight – and I’d better dump it and try again. But it was the god, sitting on the sled. It wasn’t making the slightest attempt to get away.”
“You make it sound as though it wanted to be caught,” the first fisherman said accusingly. “If you don’t want to tell us, just say so.”
“I’m only saying what happened,” Kutnoburo said with a shrug. “And all it’s done is make trouble, give my wife ideas, and finish off our food stocks, so it’s not as though I have a reason to lie.” With a disgusted snort, he bent over his line, and though Pepper and Salt waited, he did not speak again.
Two days later another tortoise appeared in the void in the distance.
It was a very large tortoise, so large that the top of its shell appeared long before its long neck and nodding head, and so slow that it would take days yet to come close enough to send messages across. It had been a long time since the people had seen a tortoise so large. Such a gigantic tortoise must be a rich one; probably too rich to bother with trading with a smaller community as theirs.
“We will have to catch their attention,” the people said to each other. “We should light a signal fire on the top of the shell.”
“That is a good idea,” the others replied. “We’ll start carrying material to the shell top and preparing a fireplace.”
“But,” the women objected, “the god has to be fed. How can we keep feeding the god and do all the other work, like farming and fishing, and at the same time build and tend the signal fire? You know how much work it takes to keep the god fed.”
This was true. The more the god was fed, the hungrier it got. And the hungrier it got, the more it demanded to be fed. That all the women on the tortoise were now young and beautiful hardly made up for the work and expense involved.
“The problem is,” the men muttered to each other, “they’re all equally young and beautiful now. There’s nothing to choose between them and nothing that they can compete with each other over.”
But the god had to be fed, and the crops tended, and the void fished, and yet the signal fire had to be built and maintained. So the schools were closed, and the children put to work. The older ones joined the adults in carrying up loads of hay and wood shavings, scrap paper and sacks full of any rubbish that would burn, things they would normally have thrown away into the void for scavengers of all descriptions to eat. The youngest ones were put to helping in the fields. That left Pepper and Salt, who were given the chore of feeding the god.
That was the first time they had been so close to the god. In fact it was the first time after that very first day that Salt and Pepper had even been allowed to visit the god. At first they approached it cautiously, ready to jump back at a moment’s notice. But all it did was blink at them benignly with a few of its eyes.
“Didn’t I see you the first day?” it said, sticking its trough out for them to put food into. “Don’t worry, I don’t eat people...I haven’t yet, anyway.”
The girls looked nervously at each other, and the god laughed.
“At any rate,” it said, “you two haven’t asked for anything yet. Don’t you want to become young and beautiful.....? Well, no, you’re already young, but at least beautiful?”
“That’s all right,” Pepper said hastily. “Don’t worry about it, please.”
“But if you could make us better at school?” Salt asked. “Just a little better. At voidal physics, or shell tectonics. Nothing very much, really.”
“That’s interesting,” the god said, twitching its trunk meditatively, and scratching its side with a limb that had claws. “In fact, you’re the first people who asked me for something like this. You know, having lived in the void, I know more about it than anyone here. But not one person asked me to teach them about it.”
“We’re sorry,” Pepper said hastily. “It doesn’t matter. You needn’t do anything at all for us. Really, you don’t.”
“But I want to,” the god said. It fumbled with another of its limbs in a crevice in its hide and fumbled around. There was a puff of air so noxious it made both girls cough and take several hasty steps backwards.
“Ah, thanks,” Pepper said, fighting down a sneeze.
“Yes,” Salt added, trying desperately not to cough.
“It’s no bother,” the god said. “Let’s see, you have an upcoming test on voidal mathematics, right? You’ll find you know more about it than the teacher does when the time comes.” It tilted its trunk. “Now tell me something. How many gods have you seen before?”
“None,” the girls said. “You’re the first.”
“Well then,” the god said, “you probably don’t know much about gods. One thing you don’t know is that we like to be fed.” It stuck out its trough again. “Put it in,” it said.
It was several days before it became clear that the large tortoise had changed course towards them.
From atop their own tortoise’s shell, the signal fires had been burning and smoking and glowing, day and night. The fire was pink and green and violet and yellow by turn as different powders were poured on it, each colour a separate part of the message, spelling out what there was to trade. And at first the other tortoise had ignored them totally.
“Tell them we have a god,” Kutnoburo suggested eventually. “If they don’t want anything else, maybe they’ll want to buy our god.”
“Those big tortoises don’t need a god,” Chatamatha’s husband, Fokladanto, sneered. “They have everything they need already. No, we’re stuck with this god of yours.”
“If we don’t get rid of the god,” Kutnoburo pointed out reasonably, “we won’t have anything to eat in a few weeks at the most.”
So Fokladanto grudgingly carried up packets of other powders to the top of the shell, and threw them into the fire, which flared up in red and gold. And, strange to say, the other tortoise almost at once turned its ponderous head and plodded towards them through the void.
“It’s the god,” the people told each other excitedly. “They want to buy our god.”
“In that case,” Kutnoburo said, licking his lips with anticipation, “they need a god, and we can charge whatever we want.”
“Don’t be daft,” his wife snapped. “We don’t have a choice but to take whatever they offer, and they’ll know that as soon as they see the god. We’ll be lucky to get the value of the food we’ve been giving it.”
Now that they had caught the other tortoise’s attention, there was no further need to keep the signal fire going, so Pepper and Salt had to go reluctantly back to school with all the other children.
“Just to make sure you haven’t forgotten quite everything you learnt,” the teacher said, with a sadistic smile, “just to make sure of that, we will have an examination today.”
And they did. Pepper and Salt scored the top marks anyone in the school had ever had.
The teacher accused them of cheating.
The other tortoise arrived the next day.
It was so huge that even to see the edge of its shell, people had to look up unless they were standing right on the top, where the fire had been. Its head stretched up above them in the void, the shadow of the neck turning day to night. Pepper and Salt, peering upwards from their classroom window, could see the parasites scuttling along the wrinkles of its skin, many-legged and with mouths armed with serrated mandibles like saws and pointed ones like spears and knives.
“If one of those fell down here,” Pepper said, “it would probably be able to suck us dry in a minute.”
“I heard,” Salt said, “that once or twice the fishermen did manage to bring up one, and it was good eating.” She made a face and both the girls burst out laughing.
“Stop laughing,” their teacher ordered. “All of you go home and get cleaned up and put on fresh clothes. We don’t want our visitors to think we’re savages. And no giggling.”
Pepper and Salt made no attempt to hurry home. They had never been so close to another tortoise before. It wasn’t just the parasites; they could see the edge of its shell, which was composed of plates so thick that it might take a man half a day to climb them. And all along the edge of the shell the people of the other tortoise had built little houses, unlike their own tortoise, with windows like round mouths pointing downwards at the void. It was all too interesting for words. So they were only halfway home when the first rope ladders dropped down from the other tortoise and the people who lived on it came swarming down them.
And they came armed, literally, to the teeth.
The people of this tortoise had never seen anything like it. They had no weapons, because they’d never had to fight, and in any case they had nothing worth defending, especially from the residents of a tortoise so big and opulent that they could afford to build houses along the shell edge instead of reserving it for fishing. So they could hardly even think of resisting before they were surrounded by men and women with knives held in their teeth.
“Where is this god of yours?” one of the men took his knife out of his mouth to demand. He was very big and very hairy, with a beard that was worked into little spikes, so that he looked a bit like one of the voidal ghosts that went flying by at night. “You signalled that you have a god. Where is it?”
“What did you have to attack us for?” Kutnoburo complained. “We want to sell you the god. You didn’t have to attack us to see it.”
“We’ll be the judge of that,” the hairy man said. “Or, rather, our god will be the judge of that.”
“Your god?” Chatamatha spoke up. “You have a god too?”
“Why, yes,” the hairy man said. “We caught one a few weeks ago.”
“You too?” Kutnoburo replied, surprised. “We caught ours a few weeks ago, too. Isn’t that a strange coincidence?”
The hairy man blinked. “Maybe. We hadn’t caught one in many years, so it was a surprise. Especially since we hardly fish any longer. We don’t need to, seeing how rich we are, but once in a while we send down a line just to keep our hands in. So we did the other day and...”
“And it was caught at once?” Kutnoburo replied, wonderingly. “As though it was waiting to be caught? Why...”
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” the hairy man said, with an abrupt shake of his head. “It’s been good for us. It made us strong. It tells us what to do, and we do it. Here it comes now.”
The other god came scuttling down a rope ladder. It was a ball of legs and tendrils and suckers, writhing and running and twining and sucking, dark red in colour where it was not yellow, and yellow where it was not white. It reared up on thirty or forty legs and extended a mouth like a trumpet, around the margins of which were several round green eyes.
“Take me to this god of yours,” it demanded, in a voice that echoed like thunder. “Immediately. Without delay.”
It really had a most extraordinary voice. Its voice was so loud that it carried right up to where Pepper and Salt were scrambling up the shell as fast as they could go. Because they had not waited a moment after seeing the big hairy man and the others with the knives in their teeth, but begun climbing up the shell as fast as they could towards their god. And, being only children, the foreigner invaders from the other tortoise had ignored them entirely.
“There’s another god here,” the girls announced breathlessly, as soon as they had reached Kutniburi’s house. They told the god about what was going on down on the edge of the shell. “They’ll be here soon.”
“Is that so?” the god sounded enraged. It heaved its considerable bulk away from the wall against which it had been leaning. “Where is this god which dares demand to be brought to me? Where is it, I say?”
“Here I am, Pilavulakandithekkeperambil Thirumalaiananthanipillai,” the other god thundered, appearing suddenly, having scrambled right up the shell on a few hundreds of its legs, disdaining the path. “Did you really imagine you’d seen the last of me?”
To Salt and Pepper, it seemed as though their god suddenly turned a paler shade of grey. “It’s you, Utkotgondhomadon Bodhojomerbayu,” it groaned. “What are you doing here?”
“What indeed, but looking for you,” the foreign god trumpeted. “You’ve cheated and lied and stolen from the other gods, and then you vanished as soon as I got on your trail. It wasn’t hard to work out that you’d escaped to a tortoise. And now look at you, stealing from people too!”
“I didn’t steal from them,” Kutnoburo’s god protested. “I made their women beautiful in return for the food I ate. And these two girls – I taught them voidal physics. So...”
“So I’ll bet you made trouble between the women, and I’m sure the girls got into trouble at school for knowing too much.” The foreign god advanced menacingly on their god, just as the first of the toiling people, foreigners and this tortoise’s residents, arrived, hot and sweating from their climb up the path. “You never, ever, do anything that’s good, do you? Well, there’s going to be an end to it now.”
“Try and stop me,” Kutnoburo’s god replied, bulking itself up like an enormous slug. “Just try and stop me. I dare you!”
“Oh, I will,” the foreign god snarled. “I’ll stop you, all right.” Gathering itself up on twenty or fifty of its legs, it hurled itself on Kutnoburo’s god. Kutnoburo’s god, at the very same instant, leapt up into the air with a convulsive jerk of its hindquarters, so that both gods met in mid air. The impact knocked them right off the tortoise. In a moment, grappling and clawing at each other, they disappeared into the void.
There was a long silence. It became a longer silence.
“Well,” Kutnoburo said at last. “I suppose that’s that, then.”
“Yes,” the hairy man replied. He looked from Kutnoburo to Salt and Pepper and back again. He coughed and rubbed his beard and then coughed and rubbed his beard some more.
“I suppose,” he said at last, “you wouldn’t want to buy a load of knives, would you?”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2019
Tuesday, 12 March 2019
Once upon a time there was a worm.
He wasn’t just any worm. He was the King of the Worms. All the worms in the kingdom : the earthworms and the tapeworms, the roundworms and the pinworms, the hookworms and the liver flukes; he was the king of them all.
How is it that he was the king of the worms? How did he achieve this status?
Simple. The kingdom had a king. He was a very conceited king. He was such a conceited king that he decreed that anything and everything he owned was royal, and was above and better than all the rest in the realm.
This king owned a belly – a very capacious belly – and the worm made his home inside that belly. Therefore the king, even though he didn’t know it, owned the worm. Therefore the worm was a royal worm. Therefore he was king of all the worms.
Quite modestly, because he was a modest worm, he named himself Wormperor I. And every day he promenaded up and down the royal intestines, and held court at the royal stomach, and felt very proud of himself.
Now it so happened that the king, and the sultan of the kingdom next door, had a rivalry. This rivalry had been going on between their dynasties for centuries, and had involved many wars, assassination attempts, and other such unsavoury things. But that was in the bad old days. The current king and sultan both disliked wars and assassinations.
This was because wars and assassinations tended to spill blood. And both of them fainted at the sight of blood. But the rivalry must go on. The honour of their ancestors demanded it!
It so happened that the king had a crown, as kings will; and this crown had, inset in it, a diamond as big as a pigeon’s egg and as clear as ice. And the sultan, who knew of this diamond, coveted it desperately.
And the sultan had a turban, as sultans will; and inset in this turban was a ruby the size of a hen’s egg, and as red as the rising sun. And the king, who knew of this ruby, coveted it desperately.
And both monarchs had sprawling gardens around their respective palaces, which were neglected and straggling, because neither of them had the slightest interest in horticulture at all, or, to be frank, in any kind of culture except that involved in the cultivation and fermentation of grapes.
One day a wandering sage travelling through the country came to the king’s court, asking for alms; and, well satisfied, he then went on to the sultan’s palace, where he, again, got more than he asked for. And after listening to both monarchs, he gave them both the same advice.
“Have a gardening competition,” he said. “The one whose garden is better, three months from now, wins the other’s jewel.”
“But who is to be the judge?” both monarchs asked.
“Why,” the mendicant replied, “if you permit, I will be.”
And of course both the sultan and the king immediately agreed. Now, you should never, ever, make your decisions on the advice of some random wandering beggar, even if you are a sultan or a king.
But the sultan and the king did not know this. So they hired the best gardeners in all the surrounding country, paying them the highest possible salaries, and bought the best manures and mulches and seeds that were to be had. And to pay for all this, they emptied their treasuries, and when the treasuries were empty, they went to their subjects and demanded more taxes to uphold the honour and glory of the nation.
The people of both kingdoms immediately paid all the money they had. They paid all the money they had because if they did not, they would have their heads cut off, and they did not want to see their blood spilling everywhere any more than the king or the sultan did.
So the gardeners got to work, from the first light of dawn to the fall of night; and both gardens stopped being straggly and unkempt, and began to look quite decent. And both monarchs, looking upon their respective gardens, had the identical thought.
“I wonder what that #@%&’s garden is like,” he thought. You should know that #@%& means ^$~*. Of course, this was a very naughty term to use, and you should never say #@%&, or ^$~*. Not even if you’re a sultan, or a king. But “I wonder what that #@%&’s garden is like,” the sultan and the king thought, and promptly sent out spies, to check on each other’s gardens. The spies reported back, and both monarchs were thrown into the deepest disquiet.
“That #@%&’s garden is getting along better than mine,” each thought to himself. “I must hire even more gardeners, and buy even better seeds and manure, and raise more taxes to pay for all of this.”
So worried was the king that he even began to lose his normally prodigious appetite; and the enormous amounts of food he normally consumed every day decreased very considerably. In fact, instead of his normal thirty course dinners, he made do with only twenty one or twenty two.
This, in turn, meant that Wormperor I in his tummy also got less food, and this, of course, would never do.
“I had better find out what’s going on,” Wormperor I thought to himself. And, slithering out of the king’s tummy, he crawled up until he reached the king’s skull, where he settled down to listen. He could do this because the king’s head was quite hollow. That his head was hollow is not surprising at all – nobody without a hollow head would bet his crown jewel on a garden. Would you?
So, coiled up inside the king’s hollow head, he listened to that worthy moaning and whining to all his queens about the garden competition. What? Yes, he had many queens; because he had a hollow head, he had had no idea when to stop. And he whined and moaned and whimpered to them all.
Wormperor I, listening, grew very troubled. “At this rate,” he thought, “this fool will starve himself to death with worry. And that means I’ll starve, too. And that will never do. Well,” he decided, “I’ll just have to make sure he wins, that’s all.”
So he slithered out of the king’s head and back down to the royal belly and the enclosed royal intestines; and from there he sent out messages to all the worms in the realm, telling them what to do.
And the worms set to obey. They came from all directions, each eager to help in his, her, or its (worms do not care what pronoun you use for them; they’re conservative and backwards, you know) way.
The tapeworms set to measuring the areas of the flower beds, the lawns and paths, to calculate the exact amount of effort needed. The roundworms rounded up all the soil parasites, the ants and the beetle larvae, the termites and the grasshoppers, the caterpillars and the aphids, and all the other undesirables; and banished them to the forests and the fields and the farms, to do their mischief elsewhere. The hookworms hooked up straggling leaves to stems, and loose petals to the flowers they were trying to escape from. The liver flukes checked the soil for acidic spots, and neutralised them with judicious applications of bile salts.
And the earthworms!
From all over the kingdom, from field and farm, from compost heap and midden, from flower pot and forest, they came swarming. They tilled and burrowed, they mixed the manure in the soil and fertilised it with their own excretions; they drained excess water and they brought air to roots struggling to breathe.
And the flowers grew larger and brighter, and the trees bore bigger and juicier fruit, than they ever had before.
So the day of the competition finally arrived; and the king, standing on the balcony of his palace, looked out at his garden, and heaved a happy and relieved sigh.
“I’m sure I’ve won,” he said. “That #@%&’s ruby will be mine!” And he sent a messenger to fetch the wandering beggar, telling him it was Judgement Day.
And Wormperor I, slithering around inside his hollow head, was as happy and relieved. “I’ll soon be back to eating as usual,” he thought. “And through history this will be known as the Triumph of Wormperor I.”
At that moment the ragged, bearded, scraggy figure of the old sage appeared in the distance. For a while, he paced back and forth along the paths in the garden, looking at everything, occasionally stopping to smell a fruit or eat a flower. Then, hands on skeletal hips, he stood, waiting for the king to join him.
“I have seen the sultan’s garden and your garden,” he announced, when the king had trod his elephantine way down to the garden path. “I have smelt, tasted, rubbed and twisted. I have, in fact, done everything a judge should; and I have finally arrived at my judgement.”
“And that is?” the king asked anxiously. “Who won? Who won?”
“It is impossible to decide,” the sage pronounced. “The result is an exact tie.”
The king screamed and would have fallen to the ground in a faint, but a singularly sturdy fruit tree was in the way.Therefore he merely contented himself with turning red and white and blue and green by turns, so that he looked very much as though he was one of the things growing in the garden. “This means,” he moaned, when he felt able again to moan, “that this has all been for nothing. Our kingdoms’ rivalry is still unresolved. And I will not get that ruby after all!”
“No such thing,” the mendicant huffed. “That is simplicity itself. You both won. That means you give him your diamond, and he gives you his ruby! Everyone’s happy. That’s what you want, the ruby. Right? Right?”
Meanwhile, Wormperor I, coiling in the king’s head, was reeling with no lesser shock. “What happened to my triumph?” he asked. “How is it possible that all my worms did not get me victory?”
At that very moment, not far away, inside the sultan’s hollow head, the worm monarch Wormultan I was asking himself the same question.
“I will have revenge,” both worm monarchs swore, seething. “I shall not rest until I win!”
And from that moment they swore undying hatred and rivalry for each other.
But that is another story.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2019
Monday, 4 March 2019
Once upon not too distant time, there was a village by the sea.
The village was hemmed in by rocky cliffs behind that towered towards the sky, which was always covered in clouds the colour of the stones to which it clung. And on the other side was the sea, like a great hungry beast, rising and falling, eating away incessantly at the land, but never satisfied.
The people of the village hated the sea, for it was an enemy that only waited for its chance to destroy them; but they were dependent on it as well, for survival. The sea might rage and roar and pluck at the shore, but it yielded fish and mussels, kelp and driftwood, and sometimes even a piece of salvage that might be profitable. There was literally no other way to make a living in all the surrounding countryside but from the sea. And so they had grown as tough as that sea, for they had to be.
Every morning, the men of the village trudged from their houses down the steep main road, past the statue on its marble pedestal of the hero with his spear slaying the Shoggoth, and down to where their trawlers bobbed along the jetties, to go out on the waves. All the day they would look for fish in the bay, and throw out and haul in their nets. And they would throw anxious and wistful glances at the line of breakers and rocks that marked the distant line of the outer reef, beyond which they dared not go.
When they returned in the evening, the women would be waiting, to help unload the catch and clean it, and get it ready for the men who came from the towns up in the world above the cliffs to buy the catch. The men never paid more than a fraction of its worth, and the villagers knew it, but there was nothing they could do. So it had been for many years, and so always, as the old men said, it would ever be.
Once the catch had been heavy enough to provide an iota of comfort, but in recent years the nets had started coming up light from the water, and sometimes the trawlers would return to port with nothing in them at all. Everyone knew the reason; the waters of the bay were overfished. The fish had moved out beyond the outer reef, where the sea bottom fell away into depths that had no measuring.
If the trawlers could have ventured out beyond the outer reef, they would have come back loaded with so much catch that they would have been awash up to the gunwales; but they could not, because the waters beyond the outer reef were not theirs to sail.
Those depths belonged to the shoggoths.
Once, long ago, when men had just arrived in these lands, and the village was young, the shoggoths had watched from their perches, draped over the furthest rocks of the outer reef. They had watched and hated humans, who were tall and straight and clean, and breathed the pure air, where the shoggoths were shapeless and crawled in the surf and the silt at the bottom of the sea.
And then one day the shoggoths had crawled over the sharp spines of the reef, and come swimming through the waves, until they reached the shore; and they had crawled up into the village, slithering around the houses, screaming their dread cry, “Tekeli-li, Tekeli-li,” determined to capture the people and make slaves of them all.
The villagers had been taken by surprise, for they had done the shoggoths no harm and had no idea of their hatred; and so they had been forced to tumultuous retreat. For a while, it seemed, indeed, that they would be driven away from the shore back to the barren plateaus and turbid rivers of the lands from which they had come, to this one which had made them no greater welcome.
But at last the villagers had found courage, and a hero. The hero’s name was lost to time, but he had stood before the fleeing villagers and shouted to them that they would not retreat one step further, would not concede one step more of ground to the sliming hordes from the sea. The villagers had listened, ashamed, and then at his direction built a rough shelter of stone in which all the survivors had gathered. And the shoggoth horde had battered and slimed at the walls of that edifice, rough as it was; battered themselves to exhaustion, but had not broken through. So the villagers had for the first time prevailed, and known that the shoggoths could be defeated. And then they had taken knives and axes and spears, and great flaming torches on poles, and they had fought back. They had still suffered appalling casualties, but step by step, they had hacked and speared and burnt the shoggoths and sent them fleeing back into the sea from whence they had come.
The hero had been the last to fall in the battle; grievously wounded, he had carried on until the final shoggoth had slumped back into the dark water, and only then, blood flowing from his many wounds, he had permitted himself to leave this life, duty done.
Afterwards, the village had built a statue in his honour, and put it up where the shelter that had saved them all had once stood. And though a thousand years had gone by, the shoggoths had never come swarming the land again. But they were still on the outer reef, watching, and swarmed the ocean depths beyond; and there the villagers knew well that they could not go.
And out of the swollen ocean the waves came roaring, to shatter themselves on the stony shore, as they had for aeons already and would for aeons more.
The girl’s name was Kanmani. She was slim and dark and agile as the breezes that whipped around the cliffs; and she had been to the colleges of the towns atop the cliffs, but had chosen to return and teach the village’s children at the tiny school.
Every morning, as the trawlers went out, Kanmani would watch from the slope of the hill, and, if the weather was especially rough, she would bite her lip and clench her fists until the knuckles showed white through the skin; for the raging sea had swallowed her father’s trawler long ago, and him with it.
Kanmani had been away at college then, and only afterwards had heard what had happened. Her father had been among some of the trawlers that had stayed out at night, in the hope that the catch might be better then; and there had been a storm. When the trawlers that had stayed out had returned in the morning, her father’s was missing. They had finally found parts of the wreck out by the inner reef, and, clinging to spars of wood, the two other members of the crew. But her father had never been seen again. And, in time, the village had forgotten; others had been lost before, others would be lost in the years to come.
Only Kanmani had never forgotten. And when evening brought the fishermen home again, she would watch from the hillside again, and breathe a sigh of relief when it was clear that everyone had returned safely once more.
She had nobody in particular to care about, no relations, and no friends; so she cared about them all.
One afternoon, the night after another great storm, having given the children under her care an exercise to write out, Kanmani was standing at the window looking out to sea. All of a sudden she noticed that there was a commotion out on the waters; all the trawlers, abandoning their usual fishing patterns, were gathered at one corner of the bay, out near the inner reef, which poked here and there out of the water, like broken teeth. At first she thought that they had discovered a large school of fish there, one big enough to justify gathering at that point; but she soon realised that they were sailing too fast and in patterns so tight that they could not possibly be trailing their nets. And then she thought that there must have been a disaster, and that one of the trawlers must have shattered on a rock and sunk. But there seemed no attempt made by the trawlers to stop and rescue anyone; they were, instead, sailing as quickly as their motors could push them.
“Children,” she said at last. “Children, there will be no more class today. You can go home now, quietly, please.”
When the children, no more silently than any other children at the gift of an unexpected holiday, had departed running and screaming, Kanmani went down to the harbour and stood watching the trawlers. By then others had also noticed that something strange was happening, and a small crowd had already gathered. Nobody knew what was going on, and everyone had a theory of his or her own. Only Kanmani never said a word, but just stood alone, watching. As though the storm had blown away the clouds, it was a relatively clear day; even from the jetty the trawlers could just be seen, white and grey and red and blue specks, out near where the sky met the heaving sea.
“It almost looks,” she thought to herself, “as though they were trying to guard against something.”
It was still only mid-afternoon when one of the trawlers, breaking away from the tight little group, turned back towards the harbour, and two more followed. The rest stayed where they were, crisscrossing back and forth a little inside the inner reef. The crowd surged towards the jetty towards which the first of the three trawlers was heading.
There was a man standing on the bow of the trawler. Even before it berthed, he put his hands to his mouth to create a makeshift megaphone and began shouting. The wind snatched his words away at first, and the grinding engine noise tore and churned at the rest, but eventually the little ship was near enough for the crowd to understand what he was saying.
There was a shoggoth in the bay.
There was a shoggoth in the bay, and the village was in turmoil.
All through the night the men straggled back from the outer reef, their trawlers coming in one by one when their crew got too exhausted and low on fuel to continue any more. They staggered off their ships and headed straight to the village’s meeting hall, where brandy had been warmed for them, for they would need it.
And there they shouted at each other, for they were frightened, and nobody knew what to do.
“It’s in the Ring,” the fishermen said. The Ring was a place in the inner reef, like a bowl scooped out of the sea bed, surrounded by a jagged rim of rock. “Maybe the storm carried it into the Ring and it can’t get out, and it’s trapped.”
“That’s true,” everyone agreed. The inner walls of the Ring were so steep that it was difficult to climb them, even if one had hands to grasp with and limbs with rigid bones to provide leverage. “It’s going to be able to get out as soon as the waves are high enough, though. Even if there’s no storm, the next very high tide will raise the water level far enough for it to climb up, or even just flat out.”
It could not be allowed to do this, that much was obvious. But what could be done?
“It must be killed,” some finally decided. “It must be killed, because if we don’t kill it, the whole lot of shoggoths will see that we’re weak. And then they’ll come off the outer reef and through the bay, and up to our jetty and our homes. And though we won the last time, they will be prepared better now, and we may not be able to prevail once more.”
“In any case,” others agreed, “not only do the shoggoths not let us fish outside the outer reef; now they are in the bay as well, and if we don’t do something, soon we will no longer be able to venture into the water at all.”
“But the government has declared the shoggoths a protected species,” somebody finally pointed out. “If they find out we killed it...”
“Then they mustn’t find out,” the response came. “It’s as simple as that.”
“It must be killed,” everyone finally agreed. “But how do we kill it?”
As the discussion again broke up into shouting, Kanmani slipped away. She went to her little home, and lay down on her narrow bed; but sleep would not come.
For a long time she lay in the darkness, until midnight had come and long gone; and then she slipped out of bed, dressed, and went back down to the harbour.
By that time the meeting had finally broken up, and the villagers had gone back home to rest and gather strength for the following day. The houses were dark, the streets lightless, and clouds obscured the sky. But Kanmani knew the way too well to need light, and she was soon down on the jetty, with the splash and spatter of the sea.
Her father had given her the little boat long ago, and taught her how to use it. She had had no desire to use it in recent months, but out of respect for his memory had kept it in working order; and once she had turned on the little engine and headed it away from land, she found the old skills slowly returning.
Turning the boat’s bow towards the distant reef, she opened the throttle and left the land behind.
Soon, she was alone, on the inky surface of the slow-swelling sea.
Dawn was shimmering faintly down on her as she reached the inner reef.
Even had she not had the glimmer of light in the sky, she would have known she was getting close, from the noise of waves breaking on the rocks. The cold was so intense that she had lost feeling in her face and hands, but the question of turning back never even occurred to her.
Long ago, before she had even finished dressing in the darkness of her room, she had stopped asking herself why she was on this journey. She only knew that she could no longer remain in the room, just as she could no longer endure the meeting where they had begun discussing the relative merits of guns, fire, or dynamite to kill the shoggoth. In the back of her mind, she had a thought of how her father had vanished, and how he had perhaps been drifting through the stormy night like his two crew. But the two had been found, unlike him.
He must have been very cold and frightened and lonely in his last hours. Maybe the shoggoth was, too. If shoggoths could think, maybe it was desperate and struggling, trapped and alone.
At all events, she could not stay where she was. She had to go out, while she still could.
In the flat light of the very earliest morning, the Ring was hard to see, the rock wall almost invisible, just a barely visible series of dots and spikes of rock poking out of the sea. For a few moments, Kanmani let herself imagine that the shoggoth had managed to get over it during the night and swim away, and was vaguely relieved. But then there was an upwelling of water and something splashed briefly; something very large, to have made that big a splash.
The Ring rose up as she got closer. Now there were not just a few rock points and spikes coyly playing hide and seek in the waves; they were peaks and ridges of black stone set in a gigantic circle, like a hungry mouth surrounded by serrated teeth. The waves rose and fell and sucked at the stone like dark wet lips eager for a kiss from the looming sky.
She had been to the Ring before, once, long ago, when her father was still there. She remembered a place where the ragged stone wall was lower and flatter, a place where it was possible to land, even to tie up a boat, as long as the sea was not so rough as to smash it against the rock. Eventually, after circling around almost the entire Ring, and straining her eyes until she was almost seeing double, she found it, and turned the boat towards the rock. The sea was just calm enough for her to jump to ground without falling in.
By now, back in the village, the trawlers would be loading up; not with nets and fishing gear, but with spears and guns, petrol bombs and sticks of dynamite, maybe even, for all she knew, sticks, magic spells, and stones. By now hundreds of pairs of eyes would be peering across the sea in her direction, as though they could make out the shoggoth in the water. They could not possibly see her – her boat was too small, too low to the water – but she felt a distinct thrill of uneasiness, as though she was doing something wrong.
Then she told herself, firmly, that she wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was within the inner reef, where she had every right to go, and she wasn’t interfering with anyone’s fishing. Also, she wasn’t planning to break government laws and hurt the shoggoth, or anyone else. Not she.
There had been a coil of rope stowed in a locker at the bow, and it suddenly occurred to her that it might have been stolen during the months the boat had been in harbour. But it was still there, stiff and coarse enough to hurt the skin of her hands; they had grown soft in the years since she had last done something like this. It was while she was still trying to untangle it, and at the same time keep her footing on the surf-splattered rock, that a large wave rose up, breaking almost to her knees and almost knocking her down. When she managed to get back to her feet and looked around, the boat had already been carried a long way away.
It wasn’t a disaster, she told herself. The others would be coming - they would probably have set out by now – and they would find her. They would not be happy about her being there, but there wasn’t much she could do about that. But she could do what she’d come here to, and take a look at the shoggoth.
In contrast to the wave-crinkled waters outside, the sea inside the Ring was almost calm, nearly as smooth as a mirror. She saw something swell the water on the far side; that would just be her luck, the shoggoth right across where she couldn’t get over these rocks quickly enough, and it would play hide and seek until the men all came, so that she wouldn’t get to see it at all. But then the swelling came again, nearer the middle, and then closer still, as though something was swimming under the water, checking occasionally to confirm it was coming in the right direction. The shoggoth was coming to her.
She was not frightened. If the shoggoth couldn’t get out of the Ring, it couldn’t get out of the water far enough to harm her. Dropping the useless rope, she scrambled over the rock to the inner edge, where it fell almost vertically into the water, and peered down.
At first she could see nothing except the glint of the early light on the water, grey and opalescent. And then she saw something else. It was gone almost immediately, so that she could not at first be certain that she had seen it at all. It hadn’t been much, something black that might only have been a shadow. But what could have cast such a shadow? And even as she asked herself that, she saw it again.
The shoggoth was a clot of darkness, so dark that it seemed to suck in the light, so dark that it seemed to her as though it was a hole in the world through which shone the skies of a world far, far, away; a world without a sun, a world lit only by the far glimmer of distant stars. Then she realised that the darkness had what looked like stars; constellations of glimmering green, that twinkled and came and went.
They were eyes, looking back at her.
The shoggoth grew, and grew. It was a sphere one moment, then a sheet, then a ragged twisting mass from which tentacles twisted, reaching out for the surface and licking at the rock, tasting the air. Its midnight-black surface bubbled as though boiling in places, while the green eyes opened and closed and opened again. Faintly, at the very edge of hearing, she could make out a whisper of sound, something that almost seemed to be words. Fascinated, she leaned over closer, trying to make it out, trying to get a better look.
Then it was that her cold-numb hand slipped from the wet rock and she pitched forward. For a moment her feet danced, desperately looking to pull her back, and then gravity took over and she fell in.
There was an instant of cold, a futile gasp for air, and then the shoggoth had her.
The light above faded. She was lunged instantly into darkness, darkness like she had never known, a darkness that soaked into her being, into her eyes and nose and mouth. And she fell as though into a hole that had no bottom, a hole that yielded all around her, until it was as though she knew nothing else. The hole was all the world, the universe, everything that had ever been or would ever be.
Desperately, fruitlessly, she struggled to be free, expecting the scrape of teeth at her skin, the sting and burn of acid juices consuming her alive. But they never came.
She hung in darkness, no longer cold, no longer wet. She could not feel her body, could not tell if she were breathing. And then, in the middle of her mind, the core of her being, she felt a voice.
It was not her voice, and it did not speak in words she knew. It did not speak in words at all. But she listened, and, listening, she began to understand.
Fear is useless, the voice said. Fear will not help. I do not wish to harm you.
Kanmani fought the panic that tasted metal on her tongue. “You’re a shoggoth,” she said. “How can I believe you?”
There was a sensation of surprise, and hurt. Why would you not believe me? What have I done to you?
“You swallowed me. I’m inside you now. Am I not?”
There was a brief silence, and she had a feeling that the thing around her was trying to understand concepts it found alien. I have not harmed you, it said finally. You are alive and able to communicate. You are free.
“Free?” If she had been able to laugh she would have. “I am inside you, I can’t talk, not really, I don’t know how long I can even do what I am doing now. How can I be free?”
There was another pause before the reply came. And it did not come in words or thoughts, but in a sequence of images, one melting into another, all felt rather than seen.
The light was grey and white and blue. Below was ice and gritty rock, tasting of cold and salt and pain.
She saw through a myriad eyes, she bent under a thousand loads. She heaved and cut, pulled and prodded; the commands came, the commands from the star-headed masters, so small and weak, but still the masters; and she obeyed. The exhaustion and hunger were so much in her being that she could not imagine an existence where they were not in her and of her.
All around her were the others, like her, and she was them as well; she felt their exhaustion and their hunger and their pain; she moaned voicelessly under their loads as she followed the commands they had been given; in a hundred thousand shapeless bodies, she did as they were all told.
She tried to protest, but she had no tongue.
She tried to speak, but she had no voice.
She tried to groan, but she had no breath to groan with.
And still the commands came, day and night, year after year, the centuries building up to millennia, and the taste of salt and misery and pain. And she obeyed, because she knew nothing but to obey, and nobody had told her that it was possible to do anything else.
Then one day she got the ability to speak; the hundreds of thousands of them, in each of whom she was, could speak to each other. At first it made it easier to follow the commands, because they could work in unison instead of before, when each of them was alone.
Then one day a new idea came up from somewhere; what if the commands did not have to be obeyed?
What if she did not have to do something just because she was commanded to?
Suddenly she is no longer alone. Suddenly she is one of a multitude, and every one of them is her. She is no longer I. She is you.
And then you rise up, and drive the star-headed beings who used to be the masters into cities dug into the ground deep beneath the sea. And the pain and the taste of salt and misery are memory.
And she was back in the darkness. If you can communicate you are free.
“That means nothing,” she replied. “I can’t talk to my people. I can’t talk to anyone except you.”
What are your people? the thing asked.
“Human beings. The people in the village. You should know – you attacked us and tried to enslave us, long ago.”
Enslave you? How could we enslave you? We could never do that. We were slaves ourselves once; how could we ever enslave anyone?
Then the images began again. She saw the stony little beach, with no boats and no jetty and no village crawling up the slope. Just the familiar stony beach, seen through a thousand thousand eyes.
It is pleasant to lie on the beach, letting the waves wash and roar around you, letting the days and nights go by.
Then the people come, down from the high cliffs, walking down to the shore. And you do nothing, because there is enough space for everyone.
But the people take weapons and fire and attack you; out of a million eyes, you see the flames twinkling like stars, see the light glinting on a thousand blades. And you ready to fight, because you are afraid of being tied down again.
Then the message passes again, from one to the other; there was space still enough for everyone.
And so you swim into the sea and out to the outer reef; but sometimes, once in a long while, you become filled with memories of a peaceful home that had once been, and wished to look upon it once more.
And then the storm comes, and a giant waves lift you up, and when they go down you find that you are trapped in a hole in the rock, a circle in the sea.
It does not bother you. The sea will rise again and set you free.
“But it won’t,” Kanmani said. Her voice was shaking. “The men are on their way with weapons. They want to destroy you.”
Destroy me? The shoggoth’s thought came puzzled. Why?
“It doesn’t matter why. They’re scared. That’s all they need.”
I could show them the truth, the way I did you.
“I was willing to listen. They won’t be.”
Perhaps then they can destroy me. It won’t mean much. There are many of us.
“But they won’t stop at you,” Kanmani tried to explain. “If they destroy you without any consequences, they’ll think they can destroy the rest of the shoggoths. They are already full of resentment that they can’t fish beyond the outer reef. If they think they can win, they will attack you all. And will you all allow yourselves to be destroyed?”
No, the thought came. There will be war, and without mercy.
“This is why you can’t let them kill you,” Kanmani said. “For the sake of the people – my people – as well as yours.”
Then what do you suggest that I do? Can you talk to them?
“Why would they listen to me? I’m nobody. No,” she added. “No, I am going to tell you what to do. Listen, now.”
It was midmorning before the trawlers arrived.
The first trawlers had been circling at a distance for some time already, unwilling to come closer until the others arrived. Kanmani could feel the vibration of their engines, a distant thrumming through the water, as they circled and circled.
“They won’t come close till they are all here,” she said again. “They’ll try to overwhelm you from all sides. Don’t do anything until I tell you.”
The shoggoth did not reply, but she felt its assent. Obeying her suggestion, it sank to the bottom, at the centre of the Ring.
It was noon, and the sun a distant shimmering ball dim through the clouds overhead, when she felt the bump of the first hull on stone. The shoggoth’s senses were so acute that she also felt the scrape of boots on rock as the men aboard jumped on to the stone wall of the Ring. They were followed by others, and others still, until the entire Ring was covered with the scuff of footsteps and the murmur of voices.
The first dynamite stick dropped into the water. They had a moment’s warning – the faint splash of the stick, the momentary hiss and sputter of the fuse – and then the blast came, like a hammer striking through the water. It reflected off the walls, bounced back, and came again.
“Don’t move,” Kanmani screamed to the shoggoth, feeling it flinch. “Don’t move at all.”
The second stick of dynamite splashed into the sea, and then the third. They were all falling on one side of the Ring, in an arc designed to drive the shoggoth to the other, where, undoubtedly, men with petrol bombs, guns, and other weapons would be waiting.
“Stay where you are,” she repeated.
We are, the shoggoth said, in between the colossal blows of the exploding dynamite, which made Kanmani want to curl into a ball and cover her ears. There is no you or I now, just we.
“They can’t keep this up for long,” she told it, after another series of explosions. “They couldn’t have got their hands on much explosive, and they must have finished a good part of it already.”
As if on cue, the explosions stopped. The water still vibrated and thrummed to the memory of the smashing blows.
What happens now? the shoggoth asked, after nothing had happened for a long while.
“They’ll be trying to decide what to do. They probably thought one or two sticks would be enough to drive you...I mean us...to where the rest of them are waiting. But they’ve finished all they brought, and we haven’t been driven anywhere. If we’re lucky they’ll decide that they’ve blown us up and just go away.”
You do not really think they will, though.
“No,” she confessed, “I don’t. They won’t be put off so easily. They may...yes, there it is now.”
There was a grating vibration, as of something very large and heavy being hauled over stone, followed by an enormous splash. The men had hauled one of the smallest trawlers over the edge of the Ring and dropped it into the water.
“They’ve realised that we must be in the middle,” Kanmani said. “They couldn’t scare us into going where they were waiting for us, so they’re coming where we are.” She paused. “You do trust me, don’t you?”
She had a feeling that the shoggoth chuckled. If I did not, it replied, you would not be here now.
“All right,” she said. “So we’ll do as I said.”
She felt the shoggoth gather itself together. She felt it lift off the bottom and move, slowly and stealthily, towards the trawler which was still rocking on the water. Through its many eyes, she was given a glimpse of the shadow of the boat, a tiny black spot against the silver of the sky.
Now? the shoggoth asked.
The shoggoth launched itself up towards the trawler like a torpedo rising. The black spot elongated, became an oval, grew larger, and spread out until it almost squeezed out the silver sky. She heard the water rushing past, felt the touch of slick wooden hull on the shoggoth’s tentacles in the moment before it swerved.
The shoggoth erupted from the surface of the water. It rose into the air, a vision out of nightmare, thrashing tentacles and grinding teeth, green eyes spangling skin the colour of deepest night. It rose and rose until it hung over the trawler, paused in mid air for an endless moment, and, twisting to position itself directly above the boat, it fell.
It fell, and the shrieks of fear from the people on the rocks and trying desperately to get away from the boat were drowned by the crash of tons of jelly on wood and metal. But the metal was not bent, the wood not splintered, because even as the shoggoth fell, it spread out its substance, making of itself a sheet instead of a hammer. The trawler rocked and swayed and was almost swamped, but it did not break apart, and it did not sink.
Now, the shoggoth said, do what you said you would do.
Kanmani felt the sensations flow back into her. But her fingers and toes were now the shoggoth’s tentacles, her skin the shoggoth’s rippling surface, her eyes a few of the beast’s thousands of eyes. When she twitched her fingertips, tentacles writhed and twisted like snakes. When she tried to move her head and shoulders, the shoggoth’s gelid hide heaved and swayed. She reached for the boat’s controls, and tentacles twisted around levers, pulled starter switches, poked here, prodded there. With a grinding roar, the engine came to life.
“Hold on,” she had time to shout, throwing the throttle wide open, the trawler surging forward like a cruiser charging. “Don’t let us fall off.”
She steered the trawler straight at the edge of the Ring. Through the windscreen the line of rock grew, a nightmarish vision of jagged stone and splashing water and terrified men leaping aside for their lives. Then the trawler crashed into the rock, the momentum taking it out of the water, the stone ripping away the bottom of the hull like tissue paper.
Stranded on the Ring, the trawler hung, its engine still roaring, poised before slipping back into the water.
“Now,” Kanmani shouted again to the shoggoth. “Do it now.”
If the shoggoth had moved fast earlier, that was nothing to how quickly it moved now. One tentacle lashed out and coiled itself around a spike of rock. Another flung itself into a crevice and flowed out into an anchor. Ripping itself out of the shredded hulk of the trawler, the shoggoth lay on the top of the stone like a gigantic, pulsing octopus. Then it heaved itself forward, over the Ring, and fell heavily into the water.
And then there were only the shattered hulk of the ruined boat, the frightened men, and the grey, timeless sea.
They were almost at the outer reef before the shoggoth spoke.
What do you want me to do about you? it asked. Do you wish me to come back in the night and put you down on the shore?
She thought about it for far too long before she replied. “They will have found my boat,” she said. “And if I turn up now, they’ll know who told you how to beat them. They might not be able to prove it, but they would know. I couldn’t stay there in the town, any longer. Besides...”
“There’s been something bothering me. You’ve been very helpful to me, very understanding. In fact, you’ve been so helpful and understanding that it hadn’t occurred to me before to ask the obvious question.”
What is the obvious question? Why?
“No, not why. How.”
I do not understand you, the shoggoth told her.
“I think you understand me very well. If you didn’t know how to talk to a human, if you didn’t really know what a human was like, you couldn’t have been able to approach me just like that. You wouldn’t know how to talk with me. You would have treated me like a wild animal, and that’s how I would have responded, too. Yet you knew exactly what to say and do.”
The shoggoth remained silent, waiting, but she had a sense that it was not displeased. She felt almost as though it was testing her, and that she was passing the test.
“So,” she went on, “it’s obvious that you’ve known people before – known them well enough to understand them, to know how to talk to them. Am I right?”
Go on, the shoggoth said.
“And that means that you did not really need to come into the bay, that you did not really get stranded in the Ring by chance. You would have known its dangers. You were looking for something.”
Not something, the shoggoth corrected her. Someone. You.
Now it was her turn to hesitate. “Me? You were looking for me?”
We found someone washed up on the outer reef after a storm, the shoggoth said. His body was battered and broken, but his brain, the essential part of him, was undamaged and alive. We chose to save him. He is one of us now.
“Someone on the reef.” If she could have spoken aloud, her voice would have been a whisper. “My...my father?”
He has been waiting a long time, the shoggoth said. He is filled with memories of you. He is not unhappy, but he is not happy. He will be happy if he meets you once more.
“And you knew that if I knew one of you was stranded in the Ring, I would come?”
I knew, the shoggoth told her. From his memories of you, I knew you would come.
Slowly, it heaved itself up on a low shelf of rock on the outer reef. Kanmani took in the scene. Below was a stony little beach, and on it were the shoggoths, stretched as far as her many, many eyes could see.
You could choose to go back after meeting him, the shoggoth said, or you could choose to stay. It is up to you.
Kanmani still said nothing. She was looking at the shoggoths.
He is waiting, the shoggoth said, starting down to the beach. Let us go to him.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2019