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