Friday 18 January 2013

Fairly Useless Facts (No 1)

Barnacles are small crustaceans which begin as free-swimming shrimp-like animals, but spend their adult lives attached permanently to something solid – a rock, a shell, a piece of wood, the bottom of a ship or the head of a whale – filter-feeding from the surrounding water by their legs. It’s not much of a life, but then barnacles aren’t exactly occupying an ecological niche which relishes a challenge.

There’s one big, enormous, huge challenge to being a sessile filter-feeder though: how do you reproduce? You can’t exactly walk around to find and seduce a mate. And though most barnacles are hermaphroditic, self-fertilisation is an ecological dead end in terms of genetic diversity. Evolution frowns on it. 

So, since it can’t exactly f*ck itself, what is the barnacle to do? It could release clouds of eggs and sperm into the water, but if it’s anchored to a moving object, or the current is too strong, said eggs and sperm might be too widely dispersed to meet. And then the barnacle’s chances of spreading its genes are, in a word, f*cked.

The barnacle has solved this somewhat vexatious problem by growing the longest penis in the animal kingdom – forty times longer than its body. 

So you can imagine these animals, many species of which look like calcium-plated forts, stretching forth their, um...members...and knocking at the doors of their neighbours. “Little prick, little prick, let me in/No by the hair of my chinny chin chin” or something similar.

And now imagine the same thing applied to humans. The act of sex would be, er, a little difficult except across a building. Bedrooms would probably have to be built like shoeboxes. And after intercourse, men would likely have to wrap their flaccid organs round their waists and carry them around like tails.

Have I grossed you out enough yet?


The Monster

Long before the fishing fleet had come into port, the people had gathered on the shore, chattering excitedly. Nobody wanted to miss the fleet coming in, because the crews had radioed in that they had caught the Monster, and everyone wanted to see.

Elia was as eager as anyone else. She was twelve going on thirteen, and bored out of her mind most of the time, growing up in a fishing town where nothing happened that didn’t involve fish and trawlers. She hated both with an impartial hatred, though – as her mother never tired of reminding her – everything in her life was paid for by the fishing industry.

Each day Elia told herself three or four times that she’d get out of here at the first possible opportunity, leave the stink of fish and sea behind and go to the big cities up north where one might have to work hard but at least would be rewarded with a life. Each day she thought of the time to come and could scarcely control her impatience. But in the meantime nothing happened, and as each day slipped by, she got more and more frustrated.

So when the fishing crew radioed about the Monster, she reacted with the utmost alacrity at the prospect of excitement. It was Saturday, too, so the school was closed and she had nothing to do except run errands for her mother. Her father wasn’t around, of course – he was away on a trawler, as always. Elia hardly saw him except between trips.

Elia had grown up, like the other children of the town, listening to tales of the Monster, which lived out beyond the reef and could drag down ships into the ocean depths, or so the stories said. Nobody had ever actually seen this happen.  For that matter, nobody had ever actually seen the Monster, only known someone who had known someone who had seen it. Nobody really believed any part of the story any longer, even though the old people swore that it was true.

But, today, suddenly, the news had broken like a storm, and everyone had gone along rushing down to the little port, because the Monster was real. The Monster had been caught, and the fleet was bringing it in.

Elia found herself standing next to Sahana, who had once been her friend in school but had ditched her the previous summer to become someone else’s friend. Elia had never even acknowledged Sahana’s existence after that, but in the excitement of the moment she forgot.

“Can you see them?” she asked. Sahana was a head taller than Elia – the tallest girl in the school, taller than most of the grown men, even. “Are they coming?”

Sahana went up on her toes and craned her neck. “I can see some boats,” she said. “They’re too far away to tell if it’s the fishing fleet, though.” Her voice was flat and uninterested, and Elia felt a sudden flash of anger.

“Aren’t you excited?” she asked. “It’s the Monster.”

Sahana shrugged. “It’s just an animal after all,” she replied. “There are other things to be interested in.”

“Then why are you here?” Elia wanted to ask her, but Sahana had already turned away to talk to one of the other girls. Frustrated, Elia walked through the crowd to find a better view of the boats. All around her, the people were chattering animatedly.

“I remember when I was a kid, my mother used to tell me to behave or the Monster would get me,” old Grandmother Koko was saying in her quavering voice. She reached out and clutched at Elia’s sleeve. “Your mother ever told you that, girl?”

“No, Grandma,” Elia replied, trying to get her sleeve out of the old woman’s grip as politely as she could. Grandma Koko was a tiny woman, as wizened as a mummy, and her breath was sour. Everyone was slightly afraid of her, though nobody could say why. “I don’t think she ever did that.”

“She probably didn’t believe in it,” Grandma Koko said. “Like everyone else these days. But I can tell you I always knew it was out there.”

“But it’s been caught,” someone else said. Grandma Koko turned to speak to him, and Elia took the opportunity to extricate her sleeve. But she couldn’t help hearing the old woman’s words as she turned away.

“Yes, and it’s not going to turn out well, mark my words. The Monster will be a curse on us all, even more now than it ever was.”

Elia walked through the crowd right to the end of the pier, from where she could see the boats. They were the trawlers of the fishing fleet, she could see that well enough now, but two of them were not coming in with the others. They were moving past in the direction of the bay on the other side, where the sea was enclosed in a shallow pool. And between them she seemed to see something, like a dark shadow in the water. But it must have been a trick of the light, she thought, because the sky was cloudless and the boats could never have thrown a shadow which was so big.

By now the two trawlers were close enough that she could recognise that one of them was her father’s, with its high prow and orange-painted cabin. He had named it after her, but she didn’t like it and never went near it if she could help. But now she found herself craning dangerously over the edge of the pier to try and get a closer look at whatever it was they had between them, the thing she could still see as a huge dark shadow in the water. For an instant, something seemed to break the surface, but it was gone again before she got a look.

“They aren’t bringing the Monster into the port,” she heard people saying. “They’ll put it into the bay.”

“It’s because it’s too ugly,” someone else replied. “It’s going to scare the kiddies.”

“Shh. Don’t let Grandma Koko hear you.”

Everyone within earshot except Elia laughed. The excitement she’d felt was quickly ebbing away. They weren’t even going to bring the Monster into the port, and she’d been stupid to imagine anything interesting would ever happen. Probably there wasn’t even a Monster, just a rotting log of wood or something. Disconsolately, she turned away and began to work her way through the crowd.

The first of the other trawlers had just come in and was trying to unload its catch, but the people were crowding it too close. “Give us room!” the captain shouted. It was Uncle Abdul, Elia’s father’s friend with the scarred arms and missing upper front teeth. “Let us get the fish off the boat at least.”

“What about the Monster?” a dozen voices shouted back. “Have you caught the Monster, or haven’t you?”

“Yes,” Uncle Abdul said, gesturing. “We’ve caught it, all right, but we aren’t bringing it into port. It’s over in the bay.”

“Why? What’s so bad about it that you aren’t bringing it in?”

But Uncle Abdul didn’t reply, instead starting to swing the nets out for unloading. The people moved back, reluctantly, and began to disperse.

“We’ll know later,” they said. “Let them finish unloading the catch and then we’ll see.”

Elia left the port and walked far enough to be able to see the faded red brick walls of her home. But there was nothing there either, and she was in no mood to help her mother cook or clean. So she turned away and began wandering through the streets, which were still filled with knots of people walking home from the port, all talking at once. She passed Grandma Koko, who was still prophesying disaster that the Monster had been caught. Before she quite realised where she was going, she found herself outside the town and climbing the path to the top of the cliff overlooking the bay. The path was very steep, covered with loose stones, and she was theoretically banned from climbing it, but of course she had many times before, usually with friends. She’d lost count of the number of times she’d skinned a knee or elbow on it.

Usually, when climbing this path, she would look around her and out to the sea to her left, but today she was so deeply sunk in frustration and gloom over her life that she had reached the top before she’d quite realised that she was there. From here, she could look right down into the bay, and there were the boats, and, between them, a huge dark splotch in the water.

Even though she’d heard tales of the Monster all her life, Elia stood looking down at the vast shadow in the water for a long time before it suddenly came to her what it was. Even then she couldn’t believe that it could possibly be so huge, a gigantic reddish splotch bigger than the two trawlers put together. Something broke the surface with a faint splash, and then subsided again.

“What is it?” she heard a whisper at her shoulder. Even before she turned she knew it was Sahana. “I saw you come up here,” the tall girl added, “and then I remembered that from here you could see down there into the bay. So I came along too.”

“Why?” Elia wanted to ask. “You weren’t interested earlier – you said it was only an animal.” But her eyes were drawn again to that great shadow in the water, moving feebly between the boats, which were on either side like sentinels. She could just make out the lines from the hull down to the water, securing the creature. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what it is.”

Other people had evidently realised the vantage point the cliff offered, and it was beginning to fill up with people. “Look at that,” the awed voices came from right and left. “It could swallow a boat whole, it could.”

“It’s evil, that’s what it is,” one or two others said. “They should never have brought it in.”

“Well, it’s done for now, whatever it is. Wonder why they took it there, though. They could just have brought it in to the port and chopped it up.”

“Are you crazy? Look at the size of that thing. If it broke loose on the pier, can you imagine what damage it might have done?”

Not very much, Elia thought, looking down at the bay. The creature, whatever it was, hardly seemed able to move, let alone free itself from the lines securing it to the boat. Suddenly she felt sorry for it, and sick of the whole business. She wished they’d never caught it.

“You kids aren’t supposed to be up here,” someone said to Elia. “It’s dangerous. You might fall in. Get down to the town at once!”

For a moment Elia thought of refusing, but it was Aunt Farzana, who was her mother’s friend, and then she’d get a month’s worth of lectures on how children should obey adults and how she shouldn’t be rude. So she turned away and began walking down the path, kicking morosely at the loose pebbles.

Down on the pier she met Uncle Abdul, who glanced at her curiously. “You aren’t up there with the rest? Don’t tell me you’ve begun obeying stupid orders now.”

“I was,” Elia said. She liked Uncle Abdul, whose arms were so covered with scars that they looked like sculpture. She had once asked her father how they had got so scarred, and her father had replied that it wasn’t anyone’s business except Abdul’s. “They told me to come down. Uncle, what is the Monster?”

“No idea,” Uncle Abdul replied cheerfully. “It’s huge and ugly is all we can say. We’re going to contact the people at the university in the city – they can come and see it and tell us what it is.”

“When will they come? Today?”

“Who knows? The university is a long way from here. Besides we’re just fishermen and they might think we’re just making a big deal out of nothing. You’re going home now, Elia?”

“Yes. There’s nothing else to do.” She hesitated. “Uncle, do you think I can ever get out of here?”

The man with the scars looked gravely down at her. “Is that what you really want? To leave here?”

“All my life,” Elia confessed. “Do you think it’s wrong to dream about that?”

“Wrong? No. You have a right to your own life. What do you intend to do? Go up to the cities?”

“Yes. I want a different life from this.” She blushed suddenly. “I’m sorry if that sounded rude. After all, it’s what everyone does here.”

Abdul laughed. “I’ve known you since you were born, and you can’t offend me that easily. But you do know that life in the cities is hard – in many ways a lot harder than life here? It’s a constant struggle and you won’t be among those who love and care for you.”

“I know, but that’s a chance I’ll be willing to take. But you do think I can do it?”

“Of course you can.” They were in sight of Elia’s home now, and Abdul stopped at the corner of the street. “I’ll be dropping by later,” he said, smiling his gap-toothed grin, “after your dad comes home. I’ll mention to him that you’re a bright girl and might want a better life than what this town offers you. Ease into it, gently, you know.”

“Thank you, Uncle.” Elia smiled back at him. “I feel a bit like that Monster – trapped.”

“Well, there’s a difference,” Abdul told her. “You’re getting out of here. The Monster isn’t.”

Smiling again, he waved and walked away down the lane.


That night, Elia lay awake in bed listening to the voices in the living room. She could hear clearly enough through the thin wall, especially when they were raised, like now. They were arguing – her father, Uncle Abdul and her mother. They weren’t arguing about her, though. They were talking about the Monster.

“We should just get rid of it,” her mother was saying, again and again. “It’s not right to keep a thing like that at our doorstep.”

“Don’t be silly, woman,” her father replied. “We’re living in the modern age now. The scientists should know what it is.”

“And in the meantime it’s right out there, waiting to get loose and do god knows what.”

“It’s not going anywhere,” Uncle Abdul replied, so quietly that Elia could barely hear. “And it can’t do anyone any harm. It’s not really dangerous at all.”

“That’s right.” Elia’s father pushed back his chair, and she knew he would start waving his arms round as he always did when he got excited. “It’s almost dead anyway. I hope the scientists come quickly, or it won’t live.”

Elia got out of bed and walked over to her window. From here she could just see the sea on the horizon, black and full of nameless dangers. She hated the sea at all times but most of all at night. She wondered how it would be to be out there, knowing something as huge as the shadow in the bay was swimming around underneath, and shivered.

A little while later the voices in the other room quietened down, and she went back to bed. After a while she fell into an uneasy sleep.

She dreamt that she was floating on a sea so flat and deep she knew it went on forever, in a boat so small that she could scarcely turn round in it. Somewhere down there, in the vast depths, things swam round and round, and she knew that eventually one would come up and knock her into the water if she didn’t get away. But there was nothing in the boat, not even a paddle, and now she noticed that it was beginning to leak.

Then something came up from underneath, so huge that the sea flowed away from it as from a rising island, and took the boat and her on its back. In the dark she could not see it, except for foam from the waves sluicing off its body.  It carried her slowly towards the land, where she could see a crowd waiting, calling out. And then she heard the shouts from the crowd, and she knew they were calling out of hate for the giant carrying her, and were screaming for its destruction. She could see the knives and axes they were carrying, the iron rods and machetes. And yet the giant carried her calmly towards them, and she could do nothing but wait helplessly. When she tried to call out, her voice stuck in her throat, and she could hardly breathe.

She came awake shaking, clutching the blanket, wet with sweat. It was still dark outside, but she couldn’t bear to stay in bed any longer. Opening the window, she leaned out into the night and gulped in the air.

Far away, above the ocean, she could see the blinking lights of one of the big ships which passed, sailing away to countries across the world, where it was now afternoon and the people had pink skins and yellow hair. She wondered what kind of lives they had and whether they too wanted to get out of their little towns and go to their big cities, and what those big cities might be like.

At breakfast neither of her parents would look at each other and talked with forced politeness, which meant that they’d been fighting. Elia’s father looked at her instead. “What are you planning to do today?” he asked.

Elia shrugged. “I have homework,” she lied. “How did you catch the Monster?”

“The Monster isn’t anything you should be worried about,” her mother said sharply. “Forget about the Monster.”

Elia’s father glanced at them, one to the other. “I’ll be going down to the boat now,” he said. “Want to come? You can do your homework later.”

“No! She’s not going out there,” Elia’s mother said. “Besides, you know she hates the boat.”

“It’s all right,” Elia muttered. More and more, her parents used her as a piece in their private battles, and she was beginning to hate and dread it. “I don’t want to go out there anyway.”

Ignoring her mother’s little glance of triumph at her father, she dug fiercely at her food with a spoon. Later, at the first opportunity, she left home and walked up to the cliff. It was still early, and she was the only one there. Down in the bay, the shadow of the Monster still lay between the two boats. It seemed to her that it was moving more feebly than before, and she remembered what her father had said, that it was nearly dead.

All of a sudden she felt a surge of sympathy for the Monster. It was a rush so strong that she felt salt tears stinging her eyes. The Monster might be huge, but it had done no harm to anyone, and it was trapped now and dying slowly for no fault of its own. She remembered her dream, and how the people had gathered to kill the monster which was bearing her to shore.

By the time she had come down to the town, the people had begun to gather. The mood had begun to change, and she could hear angry muttering against the Monster. “Why should we have it here?” people asked each other. “It should be finished off, and the faster the better, whatever it is.”

She heard her father’s name mentioned, too, and Uncle Abdul’s. “Those two and their friends think we should get the city people involved in our affairs. What did the scientists ever do for us? This is nothing to do with them.”

Grandma Koko was there, too, her shrill voice piping above the crowd’s mutters. “It’s wrong to have brought it here,” she said. “It’s wrong, and evil, and the faster it’s destroyed the better.”

Elia listened till she could bear to listen no more. She couldn’t go home without her mother pouncing on her, and there was nowhere in the town she could go. Wandering aimlessly, she found her feet taking her past the edge of the pier and along the strip of rocks at the base of the cliff. Right now, the tide was out, and the pitted rocks were exposed. Later it would be all under water and the waves would crash against the cliff.

She had no conscious destination in mind, and it was with genuine astonishment that she found herself at the side of the bay, opposite her father’s trawler. Uncle Abdul’s trawler was there, also, on its other side. She could see her father, too, a tiny figure moving around on the deck and peering into the sea. The Monster would be there, too, and she suddenly decided that she should go to the boat, right away. She could  tell her father about what was happening in the town.

Kicking off her cheap sandals, she clambered over the rocks and down to the water. It had not yet warmed up with the day, and she gasped slightly with the shock. She wasn’t a good swimmer, and normally would never have gone into the ocean alone. But the trawler wasn’t far off, and the water was calm, and she thought she could make it.

She very nearly did. Until she was close enough to be able to see the scrapes and scratches on the orange paint of the hull, she was still swimming quite well, enough to think she would be able to make the boat in a few hard strokes. But then – suddenly, as though a switch had been thrown – she began to feel immensely weary. Her legs and arms no longer wanted to obey her. She tried to move them, and the water felt like molasses, harder and harder to move through. When she made a desperate attempt to lunge forward, her head went under, and she could no longer bring it up. She heard, as though from a great distance, a shout of alarm from the deck; and then the water had closed over her, and she was sinking, and couldn’t force herself up again however hard she tried.

Convulsing with sudden terror, she felt the precious air slip through her mouth and nose, and she was twisting now, the surface a blue-white glow above her, slipping away, the green-gold depths closing in. The boat was so close that its hull was close enough to touch – her fingertips felt its smooth slippery surface, and then she was sinking past it, down past the keel, towards the green gloom below.

Giving up, finally, was almost easy – knowing that the sea which she had hated had won, and that she would never go anywhere again, she closed her eyes, and let herself drop.

And then – a pressure wave which pushed at her like an opening door, and something huge and cold closed around her, coiling firmly around her body, halting her sinking. Her eyes flew open with shock.

An eye stared back at her, an eye so huge that she could not at first believe it. It swivelled, a huge black pupil in a white circle, set in a field of flesh; and the flesh was the colour of red, pulsating blood.

She might have cried out had she had the breath to do it, but all that happened was that the last of her air went trickling out of her lungs, and the eye swivelled, watching the rising bubbles, and then looked back at her again.

And now – with this new horror – her mind might have given way to gibbering, terrified insanity; but she felt immensely calm. She could suddenly see so much – the mass of tentacles, the great undulating flippers at the end of the vast body, and the gigantic eye, regarding her searchingly; and she could see the lines that kept the great body fastened, digging cruelly into the red flesh. And as suddenly as her calm came, as though someone was whispering in her ear, she knew that the Monster meant her no harm – that even in its agony it was no threat to her at all,

So then it was with no surprise at all that she felt herself raised towards the surface, felt her face and shoulders thrust into the sweet, cold air, and the tentacle uncoiled itself from her and slipped away. And here was the boat – Uncle Abdul’s boat – next to her, and Uncle Abdul hanging over the side, yelling and reaching down with his scarred arms.

He pulled her on to the deck with no trouble at all, and she lay panting, taking in the air she never had thought to breathe again. She was vaguely aware of her father and Uncle Abdul  hovering anxiously over her, and kneeling on the deck, rubbing her hands and feet.

When she could speak again, she sat up. And the first thing she said was, “Let it go.”

“What?” Her father frowned in puzzlement. “You need to rest, dear. Lie down.”

“No. You must let the Monster go at once.”

“That beast? It was trying to kill you. It dragged you down. If you hadn’t got away –“

“I didn’t get away. I was drowning and it lifted me up.” Slowly, aching all over, Elia pulled herself erect, and pointed. “I was swimming from the shore – I came to tell you that the people from the town will be here soon, to cut up the Monster. The water was too cold for me, I suppose. I lost my strength and began to sink. And I’d have drowned, too, if the Monster hadn’t caught me and lifted me up.”

 Her father was shaking his head, and gently pushing her to sit down again, but Elia would not be stopped. “Listen to me,” she said. “Dad – Uncle Abdul – it’s a thinking feeling creature. It’s suffering – and if you don’t let it go, the people will come and kill it. They’re probably on the way now.”

“I’m afraid she’s right about the people,” Uncle Abdul said. “This morning I heard things before I came out. Grandma Koko and her cronies have been busy, I suppose.”

“If you don’t let it go,” Elia said, “it’s going to die in vain. The people will kill it and destroy its body before the scientists ever get here – if they come at all. And, Dad, it saved me.”

Her father looked at her a long time. Then, reluctantly, he nodded.

“Let’s get a move on,” he said.


In the glow of the setting sun, the coast was a black line marked with humps, like the back of a dozing sea monster.

Elia stood at the bow of her namesake, wrapped in one of her father’s old sweaters, the cold, gritty deck rising and falling beneath her bare feet. She had long since grown accustomed to the motion, and no longer had to hold on to something to feel that she wouldn’t be thrown headlong. Far behind, the night was already falling, a line of shadow sweeping across the deep water in which the Monster was now swimming.

Hugging herself, she remembered the last sight of the Monster, after her father and Uncle Abdul had cut away the last lines and set it free. For an instant, the gigantic creature had risen to the surface, like a red mountain rolling in the water. Its immense eyes had turned, watching them, and it had made a curious motion with one of its tentacles. And then the great flat fins at the back of its body had flickered, pressing on the water, driving the Monster down to its deep world of water and eternal night.

“Elia,” her father called, “it’s cold. Come down to the cabin.”

Elia nodded, though she didn’t know if her father could see the motion in the gathering dusk. For a moment she stood there, watching the approaching land, and knowing that there would be questions and recriminations from her mother. The people would be angry, too, with her father and with Uncle Abdul, that the Monster had got away. But the Monster was out beyond their reach now, in the deep water where they’d never find it again.

“I wonder what it was,” she said, aloud. “Maybe, if I can study about such things, I can find out. Maybe then people won’t be frightened of them anymore.”

“Elia,” her father called. “Down. Now.”

Lingering for one last moment on deck, Elia looked back over the trawler’s diminishing wake. Out there, she thought, the Monster must be revelling in the freedom it had thought lost forever, and in the life it had got back.

Once again, she remembered that last view of the Monster, as it had raised its eyes from the water, and how it had made that curious gesture with its tentacle.

And, though her father and Uncle Abdul still insisted it was only a mindless beast, she knew that in that instant before it had dived beneath the waves, the Monster had waved to her.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013