Saturday 22 September 2012


Twas brillig, and Jabberwock was cleaning, polishing and arranging his skull collection.

He did this compulsively at least once a month, arranging the hollow lumps of bone and teeth in order of size and beauty, for he had a keen aesthetic sense and could go into raptures over the mathematical curve of a zygomatic arch or the delicate line of an occipital suture. And, after all the skulls were cleaned and set up, he’d sit back and gaze upon them for hours on end, almost catatonic with ecstasy at the beauty of their serried ranks.

The skull collection had grown over the years. Jabberwock himself was surprised at just how large it had grown. He tallied them again, keeping score on a piece of man-skin parchment so that he wouldn’t lose count.

One thousand and thirty-three. He blinked and recounted them, and still came to the same figure. One thousand and thirty-three skulls! If his jaws could have been adapted to whistle instead of merely bite, he would have whistled. That was some collection. Even his rival the Frumious Bandersnatch couldn’t dream of such a haul, though, of course, the Bandersnatch did not possess claws and therefore did not collect skulls of those she vanquished, let alone arrange and polish them as a work of art.

He’d just settled back with a contented burble to gaze upon his collection when a shrill cry came from outside his cave.

“Jabber!” a familiar, but far from welcome, voice screeched. “It’s brillig, Jabber!”

Jabberwock sighed with annoyance. “What do you mean by disturbing me, Jubjub?” he asked crossly. “Every day, you come and annoy me. Can’t you leave me in peace for once?”

“It’s brillig, Jabber!” the Jubjub Bird repeated, its harsh voice echoing from the dim recesses of Jabberwock’s cavernous dwelling. “And you know what that means.”

Jabberwock sat up straight. “Don’t tell me it’s that time come round again.”

“Yes, Jabber,” the Jubjub Bird screeched. “Yes, yes, yes.”

“The slithy toves?” Jabberwock asked, hoping against hope. “Are they gyring and gimbling in the wabe?”

“They’ve pretty much torn up the wabe already with their gyring,” the Jubjub Bird affirmed. “And the borogoves have gone all mimsy, too. You wouldn’t believe how mimsy they look, it’s enough to make anyone ill.”

“What about the mome raths?” Jabberwock asked desperately. “I haven’t heard them outgrabing.”

“Like nobody’s business,” the Jubjub Bird responded enthusiastically. “Just listen and you can hear them.”

Faintly, in the distance, they heard a sound not unlike a pig which had swallowed a foghorn trying to squeal and breaking into a cough halfway through. Even Jabberwock couldn’t pretend he didn’t know what it was.

“Then,” he said, sighing forlornly. “I guess I’d better get ready.”

“What ho!” the Jubjub Bird exclaimed. “I’ll be toddling off to have a bite of supper and then to the old vantage point. Wouldn’t want to miss the show, old boy.”

“I’ll toddle all over you,” Jabberwock said sourly, “if you don’t stop spouting PG Wodehouse at me. I wish I’d never given you the Bertie Wooster collection on your last birthday.”  

“You’ll have to catch me first.” With a triumphant screech, the Jubjub Bird flapped away. Shaking his head in annoyance, Jabberwock finished his preparations and stepped out into the tulgey wood.

At this hour the tulgey wood was darkening fast, the shadows lengthening between the trees, and Jabberwock had no desire to stumble and twist an ankle or, even worse, lose his way. So he lit up his eyes, their flames showing the way clearly. It was an excellent, environmentally sound lighting system, but he could never understand why his flaming eyes gained him a bad reputation amongst the other creatures. He shrugged. What they thought was their problem. He had problems of his own.

Lowering his nose to the ground, he whiffled experimentally. The quarry’s smell was clear, wafted along the ground, and it brought information flooding his manxome sense. It was standing by the Tumtum Tree, and seemed to be in an uffish trance. In other words, it was just where he wanted it.

Burbling happily, he galloped through the tulgey wood, whiffling all the way.


Beamish Boy leaned on his vorpal sword, looking up at the Tumtum tree. It was a very peculiar tree, with large round fruit like human heads with eyes which followed one around, and leaves like the flags of vanished nations. Up past the flags and fruit he thought he could see something else, a shape vaguely like a bird, but it was too dark to make it out. He shrugged. It didn’t matter, anyway.

Beamish Boy was thinking. It wasn’t something he did much, so he’d had to put a lot of effort into it, and it made his head ache. But he was thinking anyway.

He wasn’t thinking of the Jabberwock he was hunting, or of what his father had said about bewaring its claws and jaws. He wasn’t thinking of the fact that a vorpal sword really wasn’t that much of a weapon against a Jabberwock, and that a steel sword would have been a much better option, if not a general-purpose machine-gun. He was in uffish thought, which meant that he was fishing in his mind for compliments to bestow on himself after he killed the monster and went galumphing back with its head.

He had taken a course in galumphing, of course, since it was the traditional mode of locomotion after taking Jabberwock heads, and it was as much part of the training process as wielding vorpal swords. He had managed the swordplay class quite well, if he did say so himself; it certainly hadn’t been his fault that the instructor had been reduced to frustrated tears. “One-two,” the man had screamed. “One-two, one-two. Four strokes in all. Get that through your thick head, you mindless grinning moron!” In the end he’d almost been tempted to take the sword to the instructor, and it was only the fact that a vorpal sword could scarcely cut a sheet of paper which had stopped him.

Oh yes, he was quite confident of his prowess with the vorpal sword. But he’d never been that good at galumphing, and he began to go over the steps, trying to remember just how high to lift his knees and where to put his feet.

Suddenly he woke from his uffish reverie. There was a burbling and whiffling, coming swiftly closer; and then he saw the twin beams of fiery light coming through the tulgey wood. The Jabberwock was here.

And, when it finally came to it, his training didn’t fail him, of course. Hefting the vorpal sword, he stepped forward, and swung it with such rhythm that even his instructor might have approved. One-two, one-two, back and forth, and though the vorpal sword could be defeated by a sheet of cardboard, it cleaved the Jabberwock’s head from his body like a hot knife through butter. Like a tree falling to earth, the colossal carcass collapsed, just as it was supposed to.

Beamish Boy didn’t waste time admiring his handiwork. Hefting the monstrous head on his shoulders, he began slowly and clumsily galumphing back homewards, stumbling frequently and cursing every step of the way.

He’d just arrived in sight of the roofs of the town when the Jabberwock’s head opened its eyes.

“Callooh,” it burbled conversationally. “Callooh, you murderous cretin. Callay, you dolt.”

Beamish Boy opened his mouth, but by then it was already far too late to scream.


Oh frabjous day,” Jabberwock said with relief. “At least that’s over for another year or two.”

“Until the next one comes,” the Jubjub Bird reminded him from outside the cave. “Don’t forget that there will be more coming along. You might think they’ll leave you alone, but they never will.”

Jabberwock refused to let the bird spoil his mood. “Let them come,” he said. “I’ll be ready.” He stretched his neck experimentally. “Yes, with my patented unique detachable head with its self-enclosed life-support system, I’ll always be ready for them.” He snorted. “Them and their vorpal blades! They never learn.”

“Well, I’ll be off then,” the Jubjub Bird said, disgruntled at not having been able to rain on Jabberwock’s parade. “See you in a few days.” With a screech, it flapped away, wondering if it could find better success with the Bandersnatch.

Alone at last, Jabberwock could relax with his skull collection. He’d polished and cleaned them all over again, and tried a new way of arranging them. Tilting his reattached head, he lit up his eyes and considered the effect. Yes, the contrast of a pyramid of brilliantly lit frontal domes and shadowed eye sockets was pleasing. Burbling happily, he set about counting them.

There were, of course, one thousand and thirty four.

 Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Friday 21 September 2012

Raghead 21/9/2012

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Jutta's Problem

By the time Jutta’s mother let her come up from the shelter, the raid was over and the fires had started to die down. But the air was still full of choking smoke, which hung so thickly overhead that the sky was black and red from the glow of the flames.

Despite the smoke which made it hard to breathe, Jutta was intensely glad to have got out of the shelter. It was simply a small cellar, and when full of people, it was so stuffy and difficult to move about that Jutta was afraid she would suffocate. At first it wouldn’t be so bad, when it was only the sirens wailing faintly in the distance. But the bombs would begin falling, and each one would send a jolt through the ground, as if someone was pounding the earth with a titanic hammer. If a bomb fell really close, walls would tremble and Jutta’s mother would grasp her shoulder so tightly that she squirmed with the pain.

This last raid, the bombs had fallen really close, closer than they had ever fallen before. One in particular must have struck the street itself. The tiny narrow windows high up under the cellar roof had flashed white and the huge mass of the building above swayed and creaked. Plaster had rained down from the ceiling and people cried out in fear. Jutta had expected the roof to cave in, and had instinctively crouched down, arms raised over her head, but after creaking and groaning a bit the house had finally settled. Only the air had been full of dust, and that now lay thick over everyone’s face and clothes in a gritty film of grey.

Jutta’s mom had tied a cloth over her hair, to keep the dust out, and she had hated it, because she loved her hair. At ten, she was tall and plain, with a snub nose and teeth which were clearly too large, but her hair was her only pride. It fell halfway to her waist in a shimmering chestnut waterfall, and she loved the feel of it swinging when she turned her head. But now in the street the soot drifted down like malignant snowflakes and settled over everything, even worse than the dust, and she was happy about it.

Behind them, the house tilted to one side, the windows and doorways oddly slanted. Jutta heard her mother and the other women talking, and they were saying how lucky it was that the building hadn’t come down on their heads, and how even a strong wind might knock it down now. Obviously, nobody could use this cellar again.

To one side, the side away from her home, the street was still on fire, and the firemen were at work trying to put out the blaze. Water sloshed in the street and hoses snaked everywhere. One of the engines had been hit, too, and looked like a broken toy, the paint scorched off the twisted metal. A body lay next to it, a cloth drawn over it and a steel helmet placed on the chest. Jutta’s mother hurried her past so she couldn’t get a look, but she glanced back, fascinated. She’d seen a lot of bodies these last months, but had never really got to accept the idea that they were dead.

Her Opa had died as one should, old and frail and in bed. Everyone had known it was coming, and had been ready long in advance, including the old man himself. These people had been alive just moments before. How could they be actually dead? How did it feel like to die like that?

Jutta imagined herself walking along and then suddenly looking down at her broken body in the street. It was a thought that had come more and more often, and she had tried to work it into the embroidery designs she was practising. She’d grown up watching her mother do embroidery, and in the last year had started trying it out herself, and had begun to be fascinated by it. But when her mother caught her doing those designs, she’d confiscate the work and grow angry, so Jutta had to do it on the sly.

The pride of Jutta’s life was actually her embroidery needles. They were in a beautiful little round box, made of cherry wood and intricately carved, which her father had got for her from France. That had been over two years ago, just before her father had gone to Russia, and he hadn’t been back since; but Jutta kept that box of embroidery needles with her all the time. She even took it to school, and kept touching it to make sure it was all right.

Jutta could feel her mother hurrying faster, to get to the corner from which they could see their home and check if it were all right. She felt the rising tension in her mother, transmitted down her hand, as it always happened at this point. And then the woman relaxed, and Jutta knew that the house had escaped again this time.

Some of the other women of the neighbourhood were standing outside Herr Hammer’s store, talking. Jutta often liked to stand outside the store’s windows, looking in at the dresses. If the sun was just right, she could stand so her reflection was placed so that she could pretend that she was wearing one of the nicest dresses on display. But in recent months the dresses had grown few, and today the windows were covered with dust and soot. And in the reddish glow she could see nothing at all.

Jutta saw old Tante Hannelore from next door among the other women outside the store. She noticed them and waved at Jutta’s mother. “Anneliese,” the fat woman called, stepping forward quickly despite her bulk. “Isn’t it just awful?”

“Awful, yes,” Jutta’s mother said. “Our shelter took a near miss. A little more and we might have been buried.”
“That’s just terrible,” Tante Hannelore said, her eyes shining and face flushed with excitement. “Do you know, the raids get closer and closer. The Amis by day and the Tommis by night, one can’t even snatch a little sleep.”

“Well...” Jutta’s mother looked around. “I was thinking of leaving for my mother’s village in Bavaria. It’s not been bombed yet. But it’s a big step and there’s money to consider. I wish Manfred were here.”

“Been a while since you saw him, isn’t it?”

“It’s been two years,” Jutta’s mother said. “Since he was sent to Russia, all we’ve had is a letter sometimes.”

“Herr Gott himself knows what’s going on there in Russia,” Tante Hannelore said. “It’s terrible, terrible there. The stories I’ve heard!”

There was an awkward pause. Jutta’s mother began to say something and checked herself.

“What do you think, dear?” Tante Hannelore squinted at Jutta. “Do you want to go to Bavaria?”

Jutta didn’t know what to say, but was saved by an explosion in the distance. Smoke rose over the rooftops like a mushroom. “A bomb with a delayed action fuse,” Tante Hannelore said knowingly. “It’s just a crime, I tell you, a crime.”

Some of the other women had drifted over and the conversation became multi-sided. Now that it was safe, Jutta’s mother let go of her shoulder and moved away a few steps. Jutta herself grew rapidly bored. She wanted to go home, but her mother had the keys. At least she had her little carved box with her embroidery needles, she thought, and reached in her pocket for it.

It was not there.

For a long moment time seemed to go still for Jutta. Her mouth went dry, and the breath seemed to stick in her throat. She frantically slapped her pockets, one after another, but the box wasn’t in any of them.

For a long moment, the world around Jutta wavered and went dim. She saw her father again, smiling, as he gave her the box, and remembered how she’d squealed and thrown her arms around his neck. Since that moment she’d never been without it.

She’d certainly had it when she’d gone down to the shelter; she remembered holding it tight when the bomb had struck the street and set the plaster raining down. So she’d dropped it inside the shelter, or on the way back. She had to go back and look for it before someone picked it up, or one of the fire trucks ran it over. She looked back the way they’d come, hoping to see it on the ground, but as far as the corner, there were only broken fragments of bricks, and water from the fire hoses.

Her mother was still busy talking, and Jutta decided that if she went back, found it and brought it back quickly, nobody need know it was lost at all. She could hardly even begin to imagine her mother’s reproaches if she had to admit she’d lost the box. She had always scolded Jutta for taking it with her everywhere, and had been predicting that she would lose it sooner or later.

Taking advantage of a moment when a couple of ambulances rushed by, horns blaring, followed by some military trucks, Jutta backed away and walked quickly down the street, her eyes scanning the ground before her boots.

Once she turned the corner, she found the street much more congested. The ambulances and trucks had stopped near the fire engines, and under guard of soldiers, a line of men was forming up with spades and pickaxes. They were shuffling down the street towards where a couple of buildings had completely collapsed. The ambulance men were preparing stretchers.

Jutta kept her head averted as she passed the men. She was afraid that if the soldiers noticed her they would order her back; but apart from that it was the men themselves. They were the thinnest men she had ever seen, and dressed in coarse cloth uniforms which hung baggily on their frames, so she knew they were from the concentration camp outside town, where all the bad men were sent.

Jutta’s mother had once showed her the concentration camp, which had high walls topped with rolls of wire and squat angular guard towers at the corners. All the bad people were sent there, Jutta’s mother had told her, speaking loudly enough to be heard by the tall young guard who stood in the nearest watchtower, looking them over. And in recent months the men from there had been brought into town more and more often, to repair the roads or dig out people from collapsed buildings after the raids. Jutta’s mom had instructed her not to look at the bad men, but they were so thin and wretched that Jutta couldn’t bring herself to look at them anyway.

She still couldn’t see the box, and had already almost reached the building in whose basement they’d sheltered during the raid. If she couldn’t find it she’d have to go back down there, alone and in the dark, and she was petrified at the prospect. But she had to find the box.

She had almost reached the house, which seemed to be tilting more perilously than ever, when the sirens sounded again, shrill and urgent. The second wave of the enemy bombers was here.

Jutta didn’t even have time to think. Over the past months, it had been drilled into her, over and over, that if there was an air raid she had to get into cover at once. Instinctively, she ran for the nearest bit of cover, the tilted building and its cellar. Stumbling over a piece of rubble, she almost fell down the stairs. A moment later, while she was still scrambling down, there was a terrific blast somewhere nearby and the building above swayed. Things splintered and crashed.

“Come up quick,” someone snapped, big fingers grabbing her sleeve and pulling, “before the building comes down on us.” Before Jutta could even turn her head, she was being dragged back up the stairs and into the street. Another explosion, very close, and the shockwave smacked her in the side and sent her staggering.

“Down here, girl.” The hand on her sleeve dragged her down behind the wrecked fire engine. The voice seemed very far away, but Jutta could feel the man’s breath and knew he was shouting into her ear. “Get down beside me and stay down. We’re...”

What he said next was drowned in a colossal rumbling crash as the building disintegrated in a cloud of rubble, collapsing in on itself. The air filled with so much dust and smoke that Jutta squeezed her eyes shut and buried her head in her arms, trying to keep her nose free. Now the explosions were coming constantly, the entire street jolting from the blasts so that she felt as though she were being bounced up and down. Then something struck her on the back of the head and she lost consciousness.

When she recovered her senses the silence was so complete that she thought she had gone deaf, and the darkness was total. Shaking her head, she tried to get up, but someone pressed her down with an arm round her shoulders.

“Don’t get up.” It was the same voice as before. “You were struck on the head with debris. Let’s be sure you’re fine. Can you see?”

“No...” Jutta began, and then realised that her eyes were squeezed shut. “Yes,” she said, blinking painfully. The concrete of the pavement before her eyes wavered and took shape. “Yes, I’m all right. Danke schön.”

Bitte.” The man released her shoulders. “You can try to sit up now.”

“Yes...” Jutta pushed herself up on her arms and then stopped. Just next to her hand there was something. Unbelievingly, she poked at it with a finger, but it was quite real. Completely unharmed, perched on a piece of concrete, it was her needle case.

Gently, Jutta picked it up, and turned it over in her fingers. There wasn’t even a scratch on it. She had no idea how it had come there, what freak of the explosion had lifted it out of wherever it had fallen and dropped it by her hand. She slipped it back into her pocket and turned to thank her protector, a smile ready on her face.

The smile froze. Her protector was one of the men from the camps.

He was a large man, his face broad and heavy-boned, but thin, the skin stretched tight over it. His neck and arms seemed too thin for his uniform, like sticks. But his deep-set eyes were friendly and his gap-toothed smile looked genuine.

“You were lucky,” he said. “I saw you running into that building and went in after you. Never go into a damaged building like that, it could fall at any time.”

“I was looking for something,” Jutta confessed. “I never thought the bombers would come again.”

“It’s part of their strategy,” the man explained. He sounded like a teacher. “They time their second wave to catch our firemen and rescue workers at work.“

“That’s mean,” Jutta said. “It’s really mean.”

“Mean?” the man chuckled. “Well, I suppose it’s mean all right, miss. What’s your name?”

“Jutta Raubal. I live in the next street. And you are?”

“Well, I used to be called Herr Rosenstein, but nowadays I’m just number five three eight two. As for where I live, well...”

You!” The shout was like a clap of thunder. “What are you doing there?”

Jutta’s protector seemed to physically shrink. He sat back on his heels, cringing. “Nothing, Herr Untersturmführer.”

“Nothing, huh?” The shouting man came round the edge of the wrecked fire engine, a pistol in his hand. “You bastards were ordered not to move from the street. What the hell are you...” His eyes fell on Jutta and seemed to bulge in their sockets. “What are you doing to that Aryan girl, Judenschwein?” he screamed.

“I didn’t hurt her, Herr Untersturmführer.” the man who used to be Herr Rosenstein said, still cringing.

“He didn’t hurt me,” Jutta affirmed. “He saved me from the bomb.”

The man with the pistol scarcely glanced at her. “That isn’t the point,” he yelled. “The bastard was ordered to stand in the street. He wasn’t allowed to be in cover...and he is most certainly not allowed even to touch an Aryan woman. For any reason whatsoever!”

Jutta looked at him, frightened. He was dressed in uniform, with twin lightning flashes on his right collar and a skull in the centre of the peaked cap on his head. His thin white face was disfigured with rage and his hand with the pistol was shaking. “Get up,” he screamed at Herr Rosenstein. “On your feet, Jude.”

Jutta’s protector stood, trembling. The officer looked at her, turned back to the man and suddenly hit him across the face with the barrel of the pistol. Herr Rosenstein screamed and fell back down, blood trickling down his face.

“Get up, you bastard,” the officer screamed, kicking at him. His jackboot was flecked with blood and dust. “You get out of here,” he yelled, pointing at Jutta. “Get lost. Verstehe doch!”

Jutta ran away, stumbling over the rubble. Once, at the corner, she looked back. Herr Rosenstein was still down on the ground, and the officer was standing over him. She heard a shot.


Where have you been?” Jutta’s mother shook her by the shoulders like a rag doll. “What do you think I’ve been through, with the bombs and not knowing where you were?”

They were standing in the street outside their home, which had once again come through the bombing perfectly intact. Sirens sounded in the background from fire engines and ambulances. Half the city seemed to be on fire. Scraps of burned paper and debris floated down from the sky like charred snow.

“Please,” Jutta said. “Mutti...”

Jutta’s mother paused in mid-tirade, noticing the look on her face. “Jutta. What’s wrong?”

“I...” Jutta felt numb, her skin without sensation. “Mutti...”

“What’s wrong, baby?” Her mother wrapped her arms round her and drew her close. But then she looked over the girl’s shoulder, down the street in the direction of the Bahnhof; her eyes grew wide and mouth fell open. “ god.”

Mutti?” Jutta asked, alarmed. “What?”

Jutta’s mother wasn’t even listening. “Manfred,” she whispered, “is it really you?”

“Just my luck,” someone said, behind Jutta. “Just came in on the train, and got caught in the air raid right away. Looks like you’re all right, though, the two of you. That’s something.”

“I can’t believe it,” Jutta’s mother said. “Jutta...Vatti’s here.”

Jutta turned. She didn’t recognise the man holding his arms out to her as her father. His face was lined and his face scarred down one cheek, but that wasn’t what made her scream.

She screamed because of the twin lightning bolts on the man’s collar, and she screamed because of the death’s head in the centre of his peaked cap. She saw again the swinging jackboot, and heard the shot. And then she turned, shook off her mother’s hand, and took off down the street.

Jutta’s mother shouted after her, calling her back, her voice coming from far away, a meaningless noise.

Frantically clutching the needle case in her pocket, as if it were an anchor to her world, Jutta kept running.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Tuesday 18 September 2012

In The Land Of The Dead

In the land of the dead, the world is a lifeless grey, and the sky is the colour of tears, pricked out by the black points of the stars.

In the land of the dead, the grey mountains rise up to the colourless sky from the endless plains, and the rivers wind sluggish and black as night, from the beginning of eternity to its end. Wind does not blow, nor does anything grow, in the land of the dead.

In the land of the dead, the ghosts stand, on every crag and rock, unmoving. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go, except wait till the end of time. And who knows what happens then? Not even the ghosts know.

I stood on my own crag, turning slowly under that lightless sky, my anguish in me like a slow-burning fire, and yet I could do nothing to quench it. If I’d still had a voice I would have screamed aloud, and if I’d still had eyes I might have wept, but I was nothing but a wisp, one among untold billions, without even a name.

I did not know how long it was since I’d been dead, or whether I’d been here from the moment of my physical extinction – but I was here now, and too full of sorrow not to despair.

I still remembered, faintly, the moment of my death, of the heavy motorcycle between my legs leaning as I swept round the bend, and the car coming, fast, too fast, on the wrong side of the road, too fast for me to do anything, and the world swinging completely round my head once as I was flung from the saddle. After that there was nothing – until now.

I could still see her face, though, could still feel the pulling inside me, to be with her. We’d had troubles, bad troubles, the kind that killed relationships and destroyed lives, but we’d healed them, we’d come through, we’d had a fresh future together. And I’d been on my way to her, to see her again, the joy of anticipation singing in my blood, when it had happened. I could imagine her, waiting, impatience giving way to annoyance, worry and then stark fear. She would still be waiting for me when the message came. She would wait forever.

But we would never meet again, for there is no marker of identity, no recognition, in the land of the dead.

Far in the distance, in whichever direction I looked, the mountains rose in serried ranks, their slopes crowded with the ghosts, who stood in such profusion on them that their outlines were blurred and misted. And below my crag, the plain was cracked and fissured with aeons of drought, and through it a broad black river flowed slowly. This, then, was what I would know for the rest of eternity, in the land of the dead.

The anguish rose in me again, tearing me apart, and I could tolerate it no longer. The pain folded me up and tumbled me off my crag. I drifted like thistledown towards the distant plain, uncaring of what happened to me. I wished I could feel physical pain, for that would have been a blessing, a release. But there was nothing of that.

I came to rest on a ridge of rock by the river, where another ghost stood, a wisp of a grey stain in the grey air. It twisted slowly as I came down, and though it had no face, I felt its distant, disinterested scrutiny. And, so faintly that I could hardly hear it, came a breath of a voice.

“Despair and anguish – those are our constant companions,” it said. “It would be better that you accepted it, for your own sake.”

“Then is there no escape?” I asked. “Does the pain not grow dimmer with the passage of time?”

For so long was the ghost silent that I thought it would no longer speak. “There is no time here,” it said at last. “No years, and no seasons. Nothing passes by, and there is no dissolution. Nothing grows dimmer, for there is no time to wash the pain away. Only the river flows, endlessly.”

I looked down to the river, and its lifeless black depths, which seemed to suck the grey out of the air and the darkness from the stars. “Whence does the river flow,” I asked, “and where does it go?”

“That is not something we know, or can tell,” the ghost whispered, its voice like the rubbing of desert sands. “The river comes out of eternity and returns to it.”

“But one might flow along with it, and let it carry one along,” I replied. And even as I spoke, I saw boats drifting on the black water, which came to the shore, each laden with the ghosts of the dead. They left the boats and drifted away to find a rock or a ridge to wait out the rest of eternity. And the boats drifted on downstream, empty.

“One could take one of those boats and let it carry one along,” I said.

“The river takes the boats down to the Great Cave, whose mouth is a monster’s jaws,” the ghost replied. “If you should take a boat, the current will catch hold of you and bear you along, for the boats have no oars nor rudder, nor any other way to steer. Then the river will carry you into the monster’s jaws, the teeth will destroy the boat and throw you into the water; and you will be lost evermore.”

“I am lost already,” I said. “There is nothing worse that can happen to me, than I am going through now. I will take a boat, and let it bear me where it will.”

“Then you will be as those who have gone before,” the ghost sighed.

“So others have gone before?” I asked.

“Yes, and they have never returned. The river took them into the monster’s jaws, and they were heard from nevermore.”

“If I am lost, there’s nothing to be done about it. But if I am not, there may be wonders yet to see, and things I can only dream about.”

“Then, come back,” sighed the ghost like the wail of winds over the frozen wastes. “Come back, and tell me what you find, and what wonders you see. Come back, and let me know.”

But I paid it no further heed, and drifted down from the ridge to the bank of the river. Fortuitously a boat arrived just then, small, bearing just three ghosts. And as soon as they had disembarked, the boat began to drift out again into the current.

But I had already climbed aboard it, and let it carry me along. I could not do otherwise, for it had no oars or rudder, or indeed any other way to steer. The current caught the boat, and bore it along past the ghost-crowded banks and the gloomy mountains, until at last it brought me to the entrance of the cave, which was a monster’s mouth set with immense teeth. And then I would have perhaps wished to try to escape the way I had come, but for the anguish that still burned inside me, so that I preferred destruction in the monster’s jaws to an eternal wait among the lightless wastes,

And the current bore the boat into the monster’s teeth, and they crushed and splintered the boat, and threw me into the water, so that I thought I should surely be destroyed. But the water bore me up, carried over the monster’s jaws, and the dark flow bore me down the cave.

And then all around me was darkness – darkness so profound that it went through my very being, darkness that seemed to consume me, and a silence that transcended death, for all that I was a ghost. Through that darkness and silence the black river bore me along, until I truly began to believe that I had merely traded one eternal wait for another and infinitely worse one.

But then the darkness began to lift with a sullen red glow, which began to pervade the cave; and in the glow I saw that I was passing between banks which were crowded with ruins – the ruins of mud huts and great cities, of forts and churches, of slender high-arched bridges of marble and squat watchtowers of granite. And I saw the villages sprout from the mud, grow and change, cottages crushed under the weight of palaces and mansions; and they, in turn, crumbled away, until there were only ruins once more.

And overhead, along the roof of the cave, I saw great and angry suns, flaring blue-white with fury, which were born, flared a moment, and then became sullen red with age; until they burned to a cinder, and left only the ruins of planets, swinging endlessly through the stellar night.

Around me now, in the river, things swam; things with the faces of crocodiles and the bodies of worms or eels, things with razor fins and other, nameless limbs, which writhed and squirmed in the black water. And they saw me, but their teeth could do me no harm, for I was but a ghost.

Then the red glow faded, and the ruins dropped from view; but it was not darkness, for the water had become translucent, with a pearly glow; and through it, below me, I saw the cities I had seen as ruins, but close, alive and vibrant, so much so that I imagined I could reach out and touch them. And in them I saw people; I saw them born and grow up, fall in love and give birth; and I saw them grow old and wither, even as the towns and cities grew old around them. I saw the great lords and ladies at their feasts, and watched them throw scraps to the beggars who waited hopefully outside the window. And I knew that they, too, would die, as the beggars would; just as their cities would fall to the battering rams of warrior hosts, and villages would rise where they now were.

And I saw their faces – the fresh faces of children grow hard and old, and merge into a crowd, a mass, a million million strong, each face with its own pain, its own happiness, its own history; and I saw, among them, those that I thought I almost knew – and, among them, I saw one who hurried to meet his love on a motorcycle, and never reached her; and if I could have turned away then, I would have. And I saw her, too; I saw her as a child, and flowering to womanhood, and I did turn away, for I did not wish to see her sorrows, for they would have scraped wounds across my soul; I did not wish to see her joys, for I knew how transient they were.

Then at last the river brought me out on to a great open plain, under a crystal sky, a plain where houses and mansions stood side by side with skyscrapers and yurts; all that had ever been was there, and all that would ever be. And I drifted between them, the river flowing more and more slowly, until it bore me to the shore.

There I saw a house I thought I knew, with a familiar paint-chipped door.  Inside, I knew, there would be a face familiar and dear, even if I could not put a name to it. I entered like a breath of wind, like a touch of breeze, and I saw her; there was grey in her hair, and lines around her eyes, that I could not recall. And she smiled at a thought, and a tear trickled from the corner of eye, and I wished I could have reached out and wiped it away.

I wish I could have stayed a moment longer, but I already knew I could not. I felt the river pulling at me again, and drawing me away; and I reached out to touch her, my ghost-fingers trailing across her cheek, and I blew her a kiss with my ghost-lips; I wished she could have felt it. And then she faded, and the river was around me, bearing me to I knew not where.

For the land of the dead is unforgiving and strange, and once one passes through, there is no coming back; death does not love life, and death gives no second chances.

I tried to call to her, but my voice was as the rustle of autumn leaves in the wind; I wish I could have told her I had come back. I wish I could have said goodbye.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Monday 17 September 2012

The Madness Of Prince Harry

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
And sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man.
~ Bruce Springsteen, Born In The USA

Horse-faced royal twit wants to play at soldiers, possibly in order to come out of the shadow of his elder brother, or to put publicity associated with running around naked behind him. After all, royals going to war legitimises the war, right? Nothing like a bit of healthy propaganda to rescue a collapsing domestic long as nothing goes wrong.

So the royal twit gets himself sent off to Afghanistan, to “go and kill the brown man” – unlike Springsteen’s narrator, who had no choice, this is something he chose to do, and it was also the second time he’s going back there.

He gets to go there, we should remember, because the kingdom’s soldiers are in that country in order to die for the US President, who is not their king-emperor, at least not officially.

Said royal twit, incidentally, is a racist little thug who has a penchant for referring to brown-skinned people as “ragheads” and “Pakis”, and has been known to dress up in swastikas. Prince Charming, he’s not.

The Afghan resistance, who’s gaining in strength by the day, declares that it will go to some effort to kill or arrest him. They know which base he’s on, from where he will apparently be flying Apache helicopter gunships – you know, like those ones which regularly murder Afghan women and children. So it can be assumed that he’s a fairly prime target, just as he was when he’d gone to Afghanistan the first time round.

Is the Afghan resistance's threat a bluff? Not quite.

Suiting actions to words, the Afghan resistance hits the "fortified" base hard, destroys six Harrier VTOL fighters and damages two, kills two US Marine Corps members of the guard and injures several more. They don’t get the royal twit, at least this time round, and claim the mission wasn’t meant to get him. But you can be sure there’s going to be a lot of disquiet and anxiety in the kingdom right now.

The anxiety and disquiet will handily be increased because the royal twit will have to be kept away from any and all contact with even the tame ”ragheads” and “Pakis”. That’s not just because he’s gone there to kill them, but because they can’t be trusted not to kill him – not for a moment. After all, they’re blowing away their alleged allies in increasing numbers, on a virtually daily basis.

So, let’s go over this again:

Royal twit goes to Afghanistan to play at soldiers. US Marines die to save his life, because he’s a prime target, and will undoubtedly keep dying to save his life as long as he’s there. And he gets to go to Afghanistan because his kingdom’s troops have been sent there to die for the United States.

I’ll bet a lot of the American troops guarding him will cheer if the Taliban does the world a favour and blows the little slimeball away. After all, it's kind of ironic if troops of a republic which fought an independence war to throw out a monarchy have to die to save the life of a twit from that monarchy.

Anyone who’s read Catch 22 will recognise this circular, self-perpetuating scenario. Joseph Heller’s masterpiece is full of this sort of cyclical, cynical episodes. It’s also probably the book I’ve reread the largest number of times, until I can replay entire passages in my mind more or less by rote. (Yes, I do love Heller, though he’s not one of the writers whose writing style has influenced mine...the only such writer I can think of, in retrospect, is Ray Bradbury.)

Actually, I’d have loved to read Heller’s reaction to the current Afghanistan scenario in general. The US wants to occupy Afghanistan -- > in order for it to be viable at all, the US has to do it at a minimal cost in blood and treasure -- > the US accordingly tries to arm and train a proxy Afghan police and army -- > this Afghan police and army promptly turns its weapons on the people who are arming and training them -- > the US then has to depute soldiers whose only function is to stand guard over these proxy Afghan police and army troops -- > thereby increasing its own cost in blood and treasure.

Yep. Very much out of Catch 22.

Actually, though, I’m thinking of another of Heller’s books, which I personally rank above Catch 22. That’s Picture This, Heller’s novel on Aristotle’s Greece and Rembrandt van Rijn’s Netherlands, and it’s full of fascinating historical references by which the author succinctly proves that nothing has really changed in two and a half millennia.

While the novel is structured round the trial and execution of Socrates (just as Catch 22 is structured round the death of the airman Snowden), a lot of it deals with contemporary politics. For instance, Athens sent troops to attack another Greek city-state in order to protect Athenian interests there. As Heller points out, Athens had no interests there until it sent troops. And one of the most liberal Athenian military leaders was someone who had grown rich trading in human slaves. And so on, and on, and on.

These episodes, Heller says in his inimitable dry sarcastic tones, were not wars. They were police actions.

If he were around today, I can imagine Heller shaking his silver mane of hair and getting down to knock the stuffing out of the occupation – and of the royal twit.

The Madness Of Prince Harry, he might have called it.