Thursday 9 January 2014

Last Night Your Mother

Last night came your mother
Waking almost-screaming into the darkness of pre-dawn nightmare echo
Breathing hard, panic in her breast, calling for you, but not making a sound
Throat dry with the fear of what she had seen, of what had played behind
The closed lids of her eyes.That was your mother last night,
Dragging her feet across the floor to the window, looking out at the night
Telling herself that she could see the stars, and that they would keep the night safe -
Watching for a star, but the clouds were thick in the sky. Stars there were none.
The shadows of the dream still-sharp, like the broken jagged teeth of glass in windowpanes
Scrawl upon a wall, graffiti in clotted red paint like old blood. Big letters, big messages
Of power and glory, of Death To Something or Other, and Life to nothing at all.
It was a grey city, in the dream, filled with grey light and shadow, where nothing grew.
A river, lead-coloured, winding below broken bridge, flowing sluggish away,
Yet irresistible as the turning of the years, the ice of winter vanished, to the dry dreary dust of the desert
That was the river, flowing over jagged wreck, the rocks of space and time,
And she was on the bridge, her bare feet bleeding on broken iron girders and the edge of concrete
With blood to mark her way, but no pain, not in her feet. The pain was elsewhere. Your mother
Leaning over the railing, crying your name, as the leaden current bore you away from her  
Trying to jump, to go after you, but the blood stuck her to the bridge, the broken bridge and the blood
Holding her back. And you were away with the flow, not waving, not screaming, just going
And not even glancing back at her, not once. And there was more, but that she does not remember,
Is grateful not to remember, but she stood awake at the window, trying to breathe.
That was your mother last night, and the clouds hid the stars. She did not cry
She could not cry. Nor did she go back to bed again.
But that was last night, and this is today. Today, and she walks through the streets, not looking
At broken glass in windows, or at graffiti on walls. This is your mother today
And she will not think of you, she will not think of you
She will not even go to drop a tear on your grave.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Tuesday 7 January 2014


Vinod and Rukhsana walk up the steps to the bridge over the railway tracks, not talking. Vinod is three steps ahead, his long legs carrying him along faster, though he’s careful not to go so fast that she can’t keep up. Rukhsana knows what he’s doing and tries not to hurry, but her anxiety carries her along anyway.

The crowds are thick on the bridge – it’s six in the evening, and people are rushing home, eager to catch their commuter trains. There’s a real chance they can become separated, but Vinod waits, his height marking him clearly in the mass of hurrying people. Rukhsana dodges around a fat bald man carrying a bulging rucksack and comes up to him.

Vinod glares at her. “Why are you following me? I didn’t ask you to follow me.”

“I do as I choose,” Rukhsana snaps back. “If I want to follow you that’s my right. Why are you waiting for me, anyway, if you don’t want me to be with you?”

“Who says I’m waiting for you? You’re just like your family – stubborn as mules, the lot of them.”

“Like your family’s any better.” They’re standing face to face, like rocks in the stream, the crowd flowing around them. “What do you have against my family? They haven’t done anything to you.”

“What about your brother then? Each time I see him, he looks at me as if he wants to tear my heart out.”

There’s a brief pause, as if they’re both shocked by what he’s just said.

“Majid’s...” Rukhsana hesitates. “He’s just gone a bit religious. I told you, he wasn’t always like this. My parents say it’s just a phase.”

“Yeah, right, and meanwhile he’s grown one of those beards and spends half his day at the mosque.”

“So?” Rukhsana turns away, turns back. “He’s not done anything to you, has he? He doesn’t even talk to you.”

“Do you imagine I want him to talk to me?”

“And do you want me to talk to you? If you don’t, just leave me alone, why don’t you?”

“You know that isn’t what I meant.” Vinod looks away from her and shakes his head. “You’re playing games with what I say.”

“And you? You’re talking about my family, but your family won’t even admit I exist.” Someone in a hurry bangs against Rukhsana and knocks her off balance. She clutches at Vinod for support. They stand for a moment, holding on.

“We’ve already missed the train,” Vinod says, glancing down at the platform below. “If we’re going to catch the next one, we’d better hurry.”

“You go,” Rukhsana says. “I think I’ll go back, visit my cousin, go home later. Bye. See you around sometime, maybe.”

He turns a face full of acute unhappiness to her, begins to say something, thinks better of it, and turns away. She watches him walk down the stairs to the platform. The train is coming in, a green metal snake winding past the far end of the station, and she has a sudden fear that if she lets him get on it alone, this time it will really be over, for good, and she won’t get back with him again.

“Vinod,” she calls, suddenly. “Wait.” Of course he can’t hear. She can still see him, though, his height marking him out among the bobbing heads on the platform, his red-clad shoulders and the green straps of his backpack. “Wait,” she still calls, and begins running down the steps, knowing she won’t be able to reach him before the train comes in, but rushing anyway.

The train is already at the platform, and he’s up ahead, waiting for a clot of people to get out so he can get in. This is something he always does, though he often misses trains because of it, and for once she’s grateful. She’s running as fast as she can through the crowd, and he’s just ahead now, stepping forward to try and get on, though the train’s already beginning to move, and she reaches out, her hand brushes the sleeve of his shirt, and she screams at him to wait, wait for her.

The next moment a giant hand picks her up and flings her to one side. She has a brief glimpse of light and shade whirling around her head, and then it hits her hard and she can’t see or hear anything more.

There is a distant roaring noise, like a waterfall far away. She tries to open her eyes, but they won’t open. She doesn’t know where she is, and when she tries to sit up there’s a heavy weight across her hips. She pushes with her hands, and the weight rolls away.

The distant roaring noise is getting louder, and turning into a babble of voices, though she still can’t hear any words. She turns over to her side, and manages to push herself up. Finally she can open her eyes, but all she can see is a blur. She grows dizzy and begins to fall back again.

Someone shakes her by the shoulder, a face leaning over her, shouting something. She struggles to understand what he wants. “Miss?” she hears faintly. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she mumbles. Her lips are stiff, they won’t move normally. “I’m all right.”

“Are you sure?” She can see slightly better now, and the face has a thick moustache above a khaki policeman’s uniform. “You were close to the bomb.”

“Bomb?” she repeats. Bomb, she thinks. Of course it was a bomb. Someone set off a bomb.

“Vinod?” she whispers to herself. Vinod, he must be somewhere, close by, and if she was close to the bomb, he was too. “Vinod,” she repeats, but the policeman has gone. Slowly, she gets to her feet. Her vision is wavering, and the air is full of smoke and dust. She can’t really feel the ground with her feet. She looks around – there are people everywhere, lying on the concrete, some of them sitting up, clutching bloodstained faces and arms. There’s a smell of burning. “Vinod?” she asks for the third time.

Then she sees him, or she sees his shirt, the bright red T shirt and the straps of his backpack. There he is, by the pillar, but surely the T shirt wasn’t that shade of red, and the backpack’s straps were green, not stained dark with blackish blood, and she tries to run to him, but the ground melts away beneath her feet. There’s a startled shout from somewhere as she tumbles into darkness.

Then there’s nothing at all.


Later, much later, she goes to the hospital to see him. She’s late, the visiting hours are already over, but she manages to get in through the door anyway. His parents are in the corridor, outside the ward, talking with a couple of other people. She recognises Vinod’s cousin, whom she’s seen in a Facebook photo with him. The fourth person is his married sister. Varsha, her name is. Varsha.

Suddenly unsure, she hesitates, not knowing what to do. There’s not enough space in the corridor to get past them without squeezing, and the hospital smells make her nervous. Her throat’s dry with tension. She wants to turn away, to go back, but can’t move.  

The sister notices her first, and nudges the dad. She can hear a flurry of whispers. “That girl,” she hears. “It’s that girl.”

The dad seems to have reached a decision. He turns towards her, eyebrows lifted enquiringly. “Yes?”

“Ah,” she says. “Namaste, Uncle. I’m Vinod’s friend, Rukhsana.”

“Yes, we know who you are. What can we do for you?”

“I just came to see how he is,” she says.

“You’ve got a nerve!” the cousin snaps. He’s short and broad, his black eyes blazing with aggression. “It’s because of you that he’s in this condition, and you dare come here.”

“Because of me?”

“You Muslims – it’s you who blew up the train. It’s all you Muslims’ doing.” His voice is climbing with excitement, and he starts towards Rukhsana. The dad grabs him by the arm and the mum tries to shush him.

“I was hit by the bomb too,” Rukhsana says. Her arm is still bandaged heavily under the sleeve, and he surely can see it, but he’s too angry to care. “I could’ve been killed too.”

“But you didn’t, did you?” the cousin is yelling now. “And you Muslims, you use suicide bombers, you don’t care if you get killed yourselves if you can kill others. We know you.”

A nurse sticks her face round the corner of the door to the ward, signalling, probably for quiet. “Shh,” Varsha says. She turns to Rukhsana. “It’s not that we blame you, personally,” she says. “It’s just that – this has been a traumatic thing for everyone, you know. It’s probably better if you left now.”

“Could I see him? Just for a moment?”

Varsha glances at the father, who shakes his head. “He doesn’t want to see you,” he says.

“Yes,” the mother repeats. Her eyes are like wet black stones. “He doesn’t want to have anything to do with you.”

“You understand,” Varsha says. She seems to want to say something more, to come to Rukhsana, but hangs back at the last moment. “Please, leave now.”

Rukhsana nods. She turns away without saying goodbye. By the time she’s half way to the lift her eyes are so blurred with tears she can’t see where she’s going.


She’s sitting in the cafeteria, listening to the traffic outside, staring at the patterns she’s stirred in her coffee. In these last weeks she’s been doing this sort of thing a lot, looking for relief in little, meaningless, actions. So far it hasn’t helped.

A hand falls on the table by her coffee cup. A familiar hand, with a small brown blotch on the back of the thumb.

She looks up. Even though she knew he was coming, her heart skips a beat.

“Hi,” she says. It seems inadequate. She tries to smile. “How are you?”

He shrugs with one shoulder. The other is still encased in plaster. “I’m mending. It’s quite painful.” He looks at her. “How about you? Were you hurt badly?”

“Not too badly,” she says. “I’m all right.”

“You’ve lost weight. It suits you.”

“Um. Are you planning on having anything?”

“No. These medicines have taken away my appetite.” He turns slowly, looks around the room, but nobody’s taking any notice of them. “Do you come here every day now?”

“Pretty much. Did Varsha tell you I would be here?”

“Of course, otherwise how would I know where to find you?”

“Yes, well, I was surprised when she called me last night. She wasn’t exactly nice to me the other time we met, in the hospital. None of them were.”

There’s an uncomfortable silence. She breaks it at last.

“The police arrested Majid, you know,” she said.

“Arrested your brother? Why?”

“They picked up a lot of Muslim boys, from the mosques, on suspicion of being involved in the bomb thing.”

“Is he still in there?”

“No, they let him go after two days. My father called people he knew, pulled strings.”

“What about your brother? What does he say about it?”

Rukhsana shrugs. “I don’t know. I couldn’t ask him. Now he hardly ever comes to the house, and when he does, he doesn’t talk. I’ve no idea what he plans on doing.”

They sit across the table. She stirs the coffee, watching the swirls in it.

“They used to say you can predict the future in tea leaves,” she says. “I wonder if it’s possible with coffee.”

“It isn’t possible at all.”

“Yeah, I know. I was just wondering.” She hesitates. “Do you really hate me?”

“Do you really have to ask?”

There’s a long silence. She doesn’t want to look up.

His hand falls on hers, his fingers sliding over hers and holding her.

“Perhaps you can read the future in there, after all,” he says.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Monday 6 January 2014


Once upon a time, war was a predator. Back then, warfare, as Clausewitz said, was

...not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.

Now, of course, political policy is a limited thing. It's limited in terms of both goal and time. Once the aggressor in a Clausewtiz style war is appeased, once he has eaten his full, his interest in the war is over. That's the way it used to be.

Today, things are a little different.

Today, war is a parasite. It exists not as an instrument of political coercion, but as an economic tool; and economics, unlike politics, has no limit except that of greed.

Once upon a time, war profiteers used to hang around the margins of a conflict ordered by kings and generals. Today, war is an industry run for a profit.

Now, there's a very fundamental difference between the goals of a predator and a parasite. For a predator, it's essential to capture its prey (and secure its meal) with a minimum expenditure of time and energy. It is successful when it can deal out a swift kill, satisfy its hunger, and leave.

For a parasite, though, a swift kill - or any kill, for that matter - would be disastrous. A successful parasite is one which keeps its host alive, so that it can keep providing said parasite with everything that it needs. The host will be sick, debilitated, and hurting; but it will not be allowed to lie down and die, because, when it does, the parasite dies, too.

During the great wars of earlier times, like say the First World War, armies were rapidly expanded and weapons manufactured, but once peace returned those armies were sent home and the surplus weapons scrapped. Of course, as Smedley Butler said, war was a racket, but it was a racket which functioned in fits and starts, because it wasn't an industry. Today, it is.

Today, the rationale of war is profit, from the seizing of resources to the continuous manufacture and consumption of weaponry and ordnance. The arms industry is no longer something which goes into hibernation between conflicts; it is something which creates and perpetuates conflicts. The media, the entertainment industry, the stock market  (what with all the armament and reconstruction shares on offer) all have become part of the war industry, and therefore have a vested interest in keeping it going. 

Biological parasites, actually, are far more horrifying in their effects on their hosts than predators are. The war industry is no different.

Today, everyone but the war industry are victims, part of the host as it were. The people whose taxes fund the armament industry, the soldiers who fight for wars not their own, the civilians who are converted into “collateral damage”, they are all victims. Everyone suffers and everyone dies, but the host lives on.

Rather than a means to an end, war has become an end in itself. Remember how they called the First World War the war that would end all wars?

We know how that turned out, and also we know why.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Skullcrusher's Son

When Fireflash had her first child, in the shadow of the Black Mountains, she decided to name him Fluffy, because of his fluffy, triangular ears.

Now, this wasn’t the most appropriate name to choose for one destined – in fact, bred – to be a warrior prince of the orc people. Still less was it fitting for the son and heir of Urmug the Skullcrusher, because the Skullcrusher was the greatest of all the orc tribal chiefs.

But when Fluffy was born, Urmug was away on campaign on the other side of the Great River, in the service of a baron so terrible that no one ever dared speak his name aloud. So, Fireflash was free to call her child anything she wanted. And because Fireflash was a strong-willed orc, and had a slightly perverse sense of humour, she did exactly as she wished.

But his name was the least of the problems, because Fluffy could of course change it to something else when he grew to adulthood. And, being a sweet-tempered orc, he bore the taunts of the other orc-kids with equanimity. The problem was that he was too sweet-tempered.

“That son of yours,” Fireflash’s friends told her. “Is something wrong with him? My son hit him over the head today, and he didn’t even fight back!”

“Yesterday my daughter tripped him and pushed him into the mud,” observed another friend. “And he didn’t even beat her black and blue. He didn’t touch her at all!”

“And what did your daughter do then?” Fireflash asked with a grim smile.

“What do you expect?” the friend said. “She was scared, of course. She ran home.”

“Yes,” the women all agreed. “You ought to do something about him, Fireflash.”

Then one day Fluffy’s teacher, Varfu, turned up at Fireflash’s doorstep. “Your son,” he said, frowning so ominously that Fireflash’s hackles would’ve begun rising if she’d had any hackles to rise. “Why don’t you control your son?”

“Why,” Fireflash asked. “What has he done now?”

“What hasn’t he done?” Varfu glowered. “In Basic Weapons Training he began whittling wood into pens with his sword. Pens, I tell you! What does he want to be, a clerk?”

“Anything else?” If Varfu had known Fireflash better he’d have known he was treading on thin ice from the way her voice had gone very quiet and soft. “Is that all, or did he do anything else?”

“Of course he did something else,” Varfu shouted. “In Advanced Hatemongering he not only refused to join in the Daily Hatefest, he said we should love each other and all other creatures. What do you have to say about that?”

“I’ll think about it.”

“You’d better do something about it,” Varfu yelled. “Or I’ll...”

“Or you’ll what?” Fireflash asked, grabbing the teacher by the collar and pushing him against the wall. Even for a lady orc, Fireflash was overmuscled, and Varfu wasn’t expecting the assault. She began banging him against the wall rhythmically, until he grew glassy-eyed and began to sag at the knees. “All you’ll  do,” Fireflash said, letting go finally, “is go back to your school and get back to your job. That’s all.”

“You haven’t heard the last of this,” Varfu promised, picking himself up. “You won’t get away with this kind of behaviour. And as for that son of yours –“

“That son of mine,” Fireflash replied coldly, “is also the son of Urmug the Skullcrusher. And I am the wife of that same Urmug the Skullcrusher. Remember that, teacher.”

But, afterwards, when Varfu had gone, still muttering balefully, Fireflash frowned to herself. Not that she worried about the teacher’s impotent threats, but something certainly had to be done about Fluffy before he got himself into serious trouble. She’d have to have a talk with him.

So, that night, after dinner, Fireflash went to Fluffy’s room, where he was making something out of wood and glue, his tongue protruding with the effort. Fireflash watched him for a while. “What are you doing?” she asked at last.

“I’m making a model,” Fluffy explained, without looking up.

“I can see that,” Fireflash said, not very convincingly. “What is it a model of?”

“It’s a bridge,” Fluffy replied, gluing a curved stick over a line of upright pegs. “I like bridges. I’m going to make another one afterwards, a cantilever design, and then one that’s...”

“Why on earth do you want to make bridges?” Fireflash asked. “Actually, son, we have to talk. Your teacher was here today, and...”

Fluffy sighed and sat back, looking up from his model. “And he was complaining that I’m not doing work properly at school, learning to use weapons and hate like a warrior should. But, mum, I don’t want to be a warrior. I want to  be an architect.”


“I want to be an architect,” Fluffy repeated, indicating the model bridge. “That’s why I’m making this.”

“An architect? But orcs are never architects!”

“There’s always got to be a first time for everything,” Fluffy said. “Besides, mum, the constant warfare thing is getting old. There’s more to life than fighting and killing.”

“But this family has always been famous as a warrior clan,” Fireflash pointed out. “Your father is the greatest warrior of all. And he wants you to follow in his footsteps.”

“Well, I don’t want to follow in anybody’s footsteps,” Fluffy said. “I want to be an architect.”

“Try to be reasonable,” Fireflash urged. “Everyone will laugh at your father if you aren’t a great warrior worthy of his blood. Why, nobody in this clan has ever been anything but a great warrior. And you are Skullcrusher’s son.”

“They’d laugh at him a lot more if I were a lousy warrior,” Fluffy said. “And I couldn’t fight a battle to, literally, save my life...even if I am Skullcrusher’s son.”

“We’ll see about that,” Fireflash said grimly, and turned to leave. By the time she’d reached the door, her son was already back at his model.

Very early the next morning, Fireflash went to the great shaman of the tribe, Ugluq. She’d lain awake most of the night thinking of various alternatives, but finally decided she had no alternative. Even so, the idea of approaching the shaman made her quail with apprehension.

The shaman Ugluq lived in a house carved out of the skull of a monster from the southern marshes. It balanced on the edge of a cliff, high above the rest of the village, with its empty eye sockets glaring down on everyone else’s houses. At night strange flickering lights would shine in those sockets, and all the orcs would see them and feel awed and afraid.

The shaman Ugluq was mixing liquids in a vat when Fireflash arrived at his doorstep. Strangely coloured vapours rose from the vat, and occasionally bubbles would waver into the air, wobble around and go pop.

Fireflash waited respectfully till the shaman deigned to notice her existence, which he did once the liquid in the vat had all turned a muddy brown colour and stopped bubbling and steaming. Then she stepped forward and explained her problem.

“Hmmm,” the shaman said. “I think I will have to talk to the boy.”

“Oh,” Fireflash said. “I was hoping you could, you know...”

“ ‘Tis no matter for potions and such,” Ugluq said. “Such thoughts as your child have must be cured at the root, before they grow into something that threatens our whole way of life.” Briskly, he stirred the liquid in the vat, but it failed to emit even a single bubble or puff of violet vapour. “Go, wife of Urmug, and bring the boy.”

“What, now?”

“Or would you prefer that I come to your hovel, woman?”

Shuddering at the thought of the shaman setting foot in her house, Fireflash shook her head vigorously. “I’ll bring him,” she said, “right away.”

Hurrying down to the village, she managed to intercept Fluffy just before he reached the school, and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Come along with me,” she said grimly. “Someone wants to talk to you. Don’t worry,” she added. “The school will still be here when you return.”

Fluffy didn’t need her grip on his shoulder to come along with her willingly enough. “Who is it?”

“You’ll see.” Fireflash had no desire to frighten Fluffy any more than necessary, and to all the orcs the shaman’s home was always a thing of dread. “He just wants to talk to you about choice.”

“Why?” Fluffy asked. “Is he an architect too?”

Fireflash made a small noise which sounded as though she were choking. “Architect, indeed! No, he isn’t. Here we are.”

Fluffy looked up at the skull with no fear at all, but plenty of interest. “That’s the shaman’s home, isn’t it? I’ve never seen it from close up before.”

“And you won’t need to do it again, I hope,” Fireflash said. “Come along in here. Watch out for the teeth.”

The shaman Ugluq looked up from pouring the brown liquid in the vat into a number of smaller bottles. “Ah, there you are.” He turned to Fluffy with a terrible frown. “You, boy.”

“Yes, great shaman?” Fluffy asked, quite unaffected by the frown.

“Pay attention to me, boy. What are you looking at?”

“Um, nothing much. I was just thinking, this must get very windy and cold in winter, what with all those open spaces between the bones. You must spend a terrible amount of time just staying warm.”

“What does that have to do with –“

“Also, it’s right at the edge of the cliff. Seems a bit unstable to me. Suppose there’s a rock slide, what would happen?”

“What would happen?” Fireflash asked, despite herself.

“The whole thing would fall down into the river, of course,” Fluffy said. “Now, if the great shaman here were to build a nice, comfortable place a little further away from the edge, with proper weather protection, he’d be much better off. Of course, maybe the appearance matters.” Fluffy glanced at the shaman. “Is that important? The appearance has to be intimidating?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Well, that could be managed too. Now if only one had a good architect...”

The shaman Ugluk sighed a great, deep sigh, full of sorrow and regret. “I see,” he said to Fireflash, “that this is beyond my capabilities. It’s a case for the Demon Orc Himself.”

“The Demon Orc?” Fireflash gasped. “But that’s far too cruel. How can he bear...”

“Do you want the boy cured or don’t you?”

“Very well.” Fireflash bit her lip till it bled. “The Demon Orc it is.”

“I’ll summon Him, then.” The shaman reached up to a ridge of bone which served him for a shelf and fetched a handful of coloured stones. “Hap, hip, hop,” he said, throwing some of them on the floor. “Hoop, hup, hep,” he added, throwing a few more. The stones rattled on the floor and began bouncing against each other in a most fascinating manner. “Heap!” Ugluq shouted, throwing the last of them among the others. There was a flash of eye searing light, and Fluffy vanished.

“Fluffy?” Fireflash looked around. “Fluffy!” But there was nothing left of the boy, not even a hair from one of his pointed ears.

“Where is he?” she yelled at the shaman. “Where is my son?”

Ugluq shook his head, a confused expression in his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said. “I was summoning the Demon Orc, and it was He who should have appeared. I don’t know what happened.”

“How do you mean you don’t know? It’s my son you’re talking about, and you say you don’t know?” Fireflash so forgot herself that she grabbed the shaman by the lapels of his tunic and began shaking him back and forth. “You either get him back or I’ll...”

What she intended to do, neither of them ever found out, because there was another huge flash and suddenly Fluffy stood before them. But he wasn’t alone. Standing beside him, with one enormous clawed hand on his shoulder, was a gigantic hulking figure, black as the darkest night, in whose shadowed face only two red eyes glowed like embers. It was, of course, the Demon Orc Himself.

“Lord,” Ugluq said, bowing nearly to the floor. “Thou hast arrived.”

“I very nearly didn’t,” said the Demon Orc, in a voice like lightning sharpened on thunder. “I was over on the far side of the Valley of Fire, and had it not been for this boy...”

“Yes, the boy,” Ugluq said eagerly. “I was going to tell you about this boy. You see, Lord, he –“

“I was saying,” the Demon Orc rumbled, “that if it wasn’t for this boy I couldn’t have got here at all. He designed a bridge for me to get across the Valley of Fire. What do you have to say to that?”

It was obvious that Ugluq had nothing to say to that.

“When I saw that it would be hard for me to get here in anything like time,” the Demon Orc said, “I decided to call the object of the Summons over so I could have a look at him. And he made a bridge for me, right over the fire, as easy as you please.”

“Um, yes, Lord. You see...”

“What was it you said you want to be, boy?” the Demon Orc asked, as though the shaman hadn’t spoken. “An...architect, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, Lord,” Fluffy replied.

“An excellent idea,” the Demon rumbled. “We need more like this boy. More architects, and fewer warriors. I’m getting tired of blood sacrifices. What’s your name, boy?”

“Fluffy, Lord,” Fireflash’s son said in a small voice, embarrassed for the first time ever by his name.

“Fluffy the Master Builder,” the Demon Orc declared. “That’s a great name. Is he yours?” he asked suddenly, turning to Fireflash.

“Yes, Lord. My husband is...”

“It does not matter who he is. Your son will be the first of a new direction for the orc race. We have had enough of the constant, degrading warfare. Let’s begin the task of building. You will see to it that he is given all the help he can.”

“Yes, Lord.”

“And you will lend him to me whenever I want. I may have need of more bridges and other things.” With a lingering glow from his red eyes, the Demon Orc disappeared.

And that was how our ancestors, the orc folk, gave up their savage ways and grew into the greatest of all civilisations. That is why we live in this exquisite city, Orcopolis, and not in stinking tribal villages. There’s just one loose end left over, one little mystery the old history never cleared up.

We still don’t know if the shaman Ugluq allowed Fluffy to build him a new home.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

From Hell's Heart

The ocean was black and cold and it went on for ever and ever.

Down at this depth, where no light from above ever reached, the cold and dark and the intense pressure filled the universe. Down at this depth, the sun was a myth, and the stars not even that. Here, nothing had changed in millennia, and nothing ever would.

There was life here, too. The creatures that lived at these levels belonged here, and knew nothing else; they lived and died here, knowing nothing of light but the occasional glow of a predator’s phosphorescent organs, of the world above with its green waters, its algae and plankton, and the play of sun and moon on the waves.

Except one.


 It swam through the darkness, hunting.

It had eaten earlier, but that had been long ago, and it was hungry again. It knew its prey was down here, somewhere, monsters with gigantic eyes and tentacles lined with flaying hooks. It did not fear them, because they were nothing more than slashing, writhing food.

It scanned the darkness as it went, not with its vision, for there was nothing to see by; as it undulated through the water, its enormous head beamed sound into the dark, in pulses which echoed faintly back. The echoes were information, building up a picture of the world before it just as clearly as though it were high noon.

Ignoring the cold and the enormous pressure on its body, it hunted.

Suddenly, there was an echo, far in the distance, fuzzy and uncertain, but large, quick-moving. It turned, its great head questing, clicks and pings rushing away into the cold. The echoes came, stronger now, clearer, and it banked, turning, swimming faster now. The prey, suddenly aware of it, was trying to get away, the sound-image of its shape twisting and writhing as it desperately attempted to get to safety.

The prey didn’t have a chance.

Sound was not just a pathfinder for it; sound was a weapon. It switched, no longer clicking and pinging in search patterns. Now it sent out hammer-blows of noise, meant to smash into soft prey-tissue, stun it, and keep it from escaping while death rushed at it from the darkness.

As always, so it was this time. The prey twisted, trying to move to one side, but it was slow now, semi-conscious. Even so, it fought back hard, lashing with its hooked arms and stripping away skin and the soft tissue beneath. It could not fight long.

Satiated, the hunter swam on, till the other need that drove it became insistent, and would no longer be denied. Pressing down with its tail it began to rise, in a curve which took it out of the world of freezing cold and the eternal dark.

Far above, the sunshine and the air were beckoning.


No,” Hansen said. He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms on his broad chest. “No,” he repeated. “I can’t do this. Sorry.”

The man across the desk seemed unperturbed. “Now, if it’s a question of money –“

“Money, yes, we need money,” Hansen said. “But this you ask me to do, it is not possible.”

“But you do own a whale catcher, don’t ye?” The man glanced at the picture on the wall by way of confirmation. “The Svend Foyn. Is that not her?”

“Yes, but I don’t use her for hunting. I only use it for tourists in season, to look at the whales. Nothing more. Now if you’ll excuse me –“

The man across the desk didn’t make any move to rise. “How much do you make, as you say, taking tourists out in season? Not nearly enough, I’m thinking, to pay the bills. Am I not right, Captain Hansen?”

It was on the tip of Hansen’s tongue to lie, but of course the man was right. The evidence was all around him, from the crack in the windowpane to Hansen’s own jacket hanging on the wall, with its scuffed sleeves and wilting collar. “How much I make isn’t the issue,” he said curtly. “I am not going out hunting, not for any money in the world.”

“But I am not asking you to,” the visitor said. He was still watching Hansen calmly, as though the repeated refusals had made no impression on him at all. “I am not asking you to start...hunting...again. I told you what I want to do.”

Hansen turned his chair to one side and looked out of the window. It was a depressing sight, the iron girders of dockyard equipment, splashed with gull guano, against a grey sky. “It does not exist,” he said.

“It does, and you have seen it.” The man’s voice was definite. “That is why I picked you.”

Hansen glanced back at him. “Who told you I’d seen...something?”

The other man shrugged slightly, his heavy shoulders moving just enough to raise the mane of hair that spilled from his head. “I have – sources. It does not matter who told me. But you have seen it, man, have ye not?”

Hansen turned back to the window. “I don’t know what I saw. Could’ve been a wave, or a hunk of ice – it could have been anything. I never got close enough for a better look.”

“Oh?” The visitor leaned across the desk, his eyes gleaming. “And why not? Since you take tourists out for a living, new things should interest you, should they not, Captain?”

Hansen frowned. “Somehow, I didn’t want to. It...wasn’t something that attracted me to have a closer look.”

“No!” The visitor stood up so fast his chair rocked back on its legs and almost fell over. “That is just it. Nobody wants to come close to it. It repels, I tell ye, there is something about it that repels. Now surely you remember what you thought when you saw it?”

Hansen frowned, trying to remember. What had it been like, the times he’d glimpsed it, far away in the water? “A hill,” he said at last. “It looked like a hill, rising from the waves. It looked grey, or white, with the water streaming from it.”

“Surely, then, ye know what it is?” The man began walking up and down the room. Once again, Hansen noticed the heavy limp, which seemed to grow more pronounced at every step. “You can have no doubt, man. It can be nothing else.”

Hansen stared at him. “And you mean to kill it.”

“Aye, and only it. I can have no peace till it is dead.” The man turned to Hansen and fixed him with his piercing gaze. “Now tell me – will you do this, or shall I find somebody else? Remember, I am able to pay enough to take care of your problems.”

Hansen looked at his hands on the table. Then he looked at the table itself, at the scratched surface and the broken corner which was still obvious though he’d tried to sand it smooth. He thought about the bank passbook in the drawer, and the figures in it which told their own depressing story.

“I’ll have to think about it,” he said.


From the bridge of the Svend Foyn, the grey sea merged with the grey sky in a blur with no horizon.

Hansen stood at the helm, growing more uncomfortable with the passage of every hour. The wind off the water was like a knife, penetrating even his heavy jacket, and he had long since stopped being able to feel his face. But the silent figure standing next to him showed no discomfort; leaning slightly on the rail, in order to spare the leg, he stared unblinkingly over the bow at the ocean.

“Couldn’t we have come out in better weather?” Hansen asked again, moving his numb lips with some difficulty.

The man said nothing for a while. Then he shook his head. “It is out there now. Later, it will be far, and I don’t know when it will come again.”

“How do you know it’s out there?”

“I know.” The man turned slightly away, the set of his head and shoulders making it clear that no further questions were welcome.

Hansen peered at him. Once again, he was struck by how strange the man looked, with his white hair and beard, his limp and his stilted manner of speech. He hadn’t even given Hansen a name. “It doesn’t matter,” he had said. “Call me what ye will, whatever pleases.” He had even insisted on paying the advance in cash, so that there wasn’t even a cheque with his name on it.

More and more, with every passing moment, Hansen had begun regretting the whole trip. The money already paid – and more to come, Hansen whispered to himself – had been good enough to pay off most of his debt. But the more he thought about it, the more doubts he had about the whole thing, including the compromises he’d had to make.

He’d lied to the crew, of course. That was unavoidable, but he couldn’t risk the word getting out that he was on an illegal hunting trip. Afterwards – well, he was sure nothing would happen. They’d never find the...thing...and just get back to port when the fuel ran out, or when the man standing beside him gave up, whichever came earlier. He looked at the man again, and wondered if he ever would give up. There was no indication of it.

“Do you want to go down to the cabin and have some coffee or something?” he asked. “It’s cold.”

“You go if you want,” the reply came. “I’ll stay here and watch. It won’t be long now, I’m thinking.”

Hansen looked out over the featureless grey sea. “You really think it’s out there,” he said.

“Do ye doubt that I think it?”

“But,” Hansen worked his mouth before he could pronounce the words. “But...Moby Dick?”

“Aye. The devil white whale himself.”

“How can it be alive? It’s fiction.”

The man glanced at him under one of his bushy eyebrows. His lip curled. “Fiction, aye?”

“You don’t think it is?”

“You think I’m crazy, don’t ye?” The man snorted. “But wait, before the day is out, you will see for yourself.” He turned back to watching the ocean.

Hansen shook his head. Not only did he have a delusional madman aboard, he was chasing a fictional animal.

Sighing, he wondered why he’d been stupid enough to take the job at all, money or not, and came up with nothing.

As though to drive the point home, the wind was picking up, from a whine to a whistling scream.


It had been deep, much deeper than usual, and though it was rising now, it had been troubled for some time by a growing feeling of danger.

Danger was nothing new to it. It had faced it many times, and each time it had won through. But it did not welcome danger; all it had ever wanted was to be left alone, and it did not understand why it could not be left alone.

With each undulation of its tail, it became more certain of the approaching peril. And, deep within it, something else began to grow in response.

A familiar, blazing anger.


There,” the man said suddenly. “There he blows.”

Hansen had been down to the galley to get a flask of coffee, and had just poured a cup for himself. He turned, so quickly that the coffee splashed out of the cup, but not quickly enough. He had an impression, from the corner of his eye, of something white glimpsed for a moment, in the act of slipping below the surface. “What?”

“Did ye not see him blow?” The man’s hand was on Hansen’s shoulder, pulling him around. “There, to starboard. I told you we would see him today.”

Hansen stared in the direction he was pointing. For a long time he looked, but there was nothing. “I don’t see anything,” he said.

“But he’s there, I tell you.” The passenger shuffled in excitement, his hand reaching for the wheel. “Wait a moment and...”

He never completed the sentence. Something was rising from the water, only a short distance from the boat. At first Hansen could not understand what it was – a waterspout, he thought, but not one like he’d ever seen before. Then he understood, and gasped in awe.

“There he breaches,” the man beside shouted, but Hansen barely heard him. He was staring at the whale.

It rose and rose from the waves, as though it would never stop. Moby Dick was a living mountain, reaching for the sky; he was a god come alive, an ancient living god, a cruel god who would destroy mere humans as the result of a whim.  He was an elemental force, at one with the sea which slid from his flanks, and part at the same time of the white mist hanging above. His immense head was a boulder, his flippers like swords, and his humped back like a hill of ice. As he lunged for the sky, his twisted jaw fell open, and Hansen had a glimpse of a row of teeth. For an incredibly long moment, the whale hung in the air, and Hansen knew the animal was looking at them – not just at the boat, but at them, and sizing them up as a god might puny humans who would dare threaten his domain. Then, with a crash of tons of bone and muscle on water, the animal vanished in a sheet of spray.

“Moby Dick,” Hansen whispered. His lips felt numb. “Good lord. It’s Moby Dick.”

The man beside him was hunched eagerly over the bridge railing. “He’ll come up again,” he said. “When he does, be ready to follow. And ye have the harpoon prepared?”

Hansen glanced at the harpoon gun mounted at the bow. “I said I would, didn’t I?” he replied irritably. His mind was still full of the great, magnificent animal. “You’re really bent on killing it?”

“That is what I hired your ship, did I not?” The passenger didn’t bother even to look at him. “Now look sharp, and when he blows, follow.”

“But I don’t understand,” Hansen replied. “How can it exist? It’s a fictional character.”

“Fictional, aye,” the man said. “Fictional – and yet ye saw his white hump and twisted jaw, and the irons in him, did you not?”

Hansen didn’t reply immediately. He shook his head. “I may have imagined part of it,” he said. “I mean, we saw a whale – a very large albino sperm whale. We may have imagined the rest.”

The man snorted contemptuously, and then pointed over the bows. “There.”

Hansen saw the whale at almost the same moment, the back breaking the water and the brief spume of the spout. The animal was swimming away, then, towards the open ocean. He looked up. The sky was darker than before, and the wind was picking up quickly.

“There’s a storm coming,” he said.

The other man shrugged. “So?”

“So, maybe we should go back to port and wait it out? Your whale will still be there afterwards.”

The passenger laughed, shortly. “By the time the storm’s over, the thing will be far away, and I’ll not catch up with him for years. It’s not a beast, Hansen, it’s a devil. If ever there was one.” He glanced at the sky. “It’s only a little blow, and you have a good solid ship. What are you afraid of, man?”

“I’m not afraid,” Hansen replied. “But I don’t think...” he stopped as the whale rose to the surface again.

“Follow him,” the limping man ordered.

Hansen reached for the helm.


They followed the whale the rest of the day. Sometimes it would rise to breathe so far away that Hansen would be tempted to give up the chase, no matter what the man by his side said; but then it would come up so close that it seemed they’d be within range of the harpoon gun within a couple more breaths. Once or twice he had the strange feeling that the whale was playing with him. But surely that was a stupid concept. It was a dumb beast, after all.

Meanwhile the wind picked up and the sea was so rough that the Svend Foyn was awash amidships, and rolling almost over with each wave. Even Hansen, with years of experience, was nauseated. But not his strange companion.

“There’s no turning back now,” he shouted over the wind, his voice filled with exultation, pointing to where the whale had risen to breathe, less than fifty metres away. “We’ve almost run him down.”

“The wind’s getting worse,” Hansen said, but his words were torn away from his mouth by the force of the gale. It was howling now like a live thing, as alive as the huge white animal that rose in the water up ahead. “We ought to turn back –“

“No! Prepare the harpoon gun. We almost have him.”

Hansen looked at him. The man was hanging almost over the bridge railing, pointing. His hair and beard streamed in the wind. “It’s ready,” he said, pointing down to the bow where the gun stood on its swivel. “Remember that it’s an old one, an explosive harpoon, not one of the electric models. You have to aim for the base of the head, between the flippers. Are you sure you know how to –“

“Enough! I will handle it.”

“You’d better take a life jacket,” Hansen said, handing it to him. “It’s a rough sea.”

The man grunted. Pushing past Hansen, he walked down the gangway towards the gun platform, limping slightly. A sudden wave rocked the vessel, and for a moment Hansen thought he would fall over, but he didn’t even touch the railing. A moment later, he was standing behind the gun.

Hansen looked around to try and spot the whale. By rights, the animal should have been completely exhausted by now, having been run down for most of a day, and should barely be able to even submerge. But there was no trace of it. The wind was whipping the grey sea, and the light was so bad he wasn’t sure he could make out the whale even if it did surface. But then it was the harpooner’s job to direct him now, on the final approach.

The sea was coming rougher than ever, running across, and Hansen cast a worried glance up at the sky and then at the ship itself. Amidships the deck was completely buried in the water, and while that wasn’t unusual, he had no desire to travel further in this than he had to.

“For god’s sake, old man,” he muttered to himself. “Get it done so we can go home.”

As if on cue, a shout from the bows interrupted his thoughts. He turned back to see the man at the gun waving furiously, and glaring up at the bridge. With one hand he was pointing at the starboard quarter. Hansen turned just in time to see something white roll in the trough of two waves and vanish.

Like all whale catcher boats, the Svend Foyn had a very shallow draught and was usually easy to manoeuvre, but in rough seas it made her highly unstable. As Hansen swung the wheel, the boat lurched alarmingly, and he had to shift his weight quickly to keep his footing. The man on the gun platform seemed not affected, though – arm raised, he was leaning over the breech of the weapon, looking out across the water.

“This is crazy,” Hansen said, aloud. “If he doesn’t make his shot in ten minutes, I’m taking us home, whatever he thinks. It’s soon going to be too dark to see, anyway, and...”

He never finished. Just to port of the bow, Moby Dick erupted from the waves. He breached so close that he seemed almost near enough to touch, hanging for an eternity in the air before falling in a crash of spray which struck the gun platform. Hansen, startled, swung the wheel without thinking. Already in the middle of the turn, the boat hesitated for a moment, and then, sluggishly, began swinging back.

It was then that the whale surfaced again. The man on the bow, swinging the gun one way, shouted, turning, and fired, the harpoon skimming over the sea and crashing into the water. Hansen heard the flat crack of the exploding charge.

“Did you get him?” he shouted down to the bow. “Is the harpoon –“

The next moment a wall of water struck the boat from port. It was a physical blow, of such immense strength that there was nothing Hansen could do about it. Caught by the force of the wave, the Svend Foyn was instantly buried. The heavy steel spring loaded mast dipped towards the sea, and the hull shook desperately as it struggled to come up again.

And then it was that the whale struck. Hansen had only a glimpse of the animal from the corner of his eye, as it hurled itself from the water on the high, port side. He didn’t know what it had hit, only that the additional weight was all that it needed to send the catcher boat over. With a scream, he was hurled off the bridge and into the sea. The ship rolled over, crashing down over him. Freezing water closed over his head, and he knew nothing more.

When he recovered consciousness, he was drifting on the sea, being tossed by the waves. There was no trace of the Svend Foyn, but pieces of wreckage littered the ocean near him – a plastic bucket, pieces of wood, and a diary. He reached for it, and the pages disintegrated in his hands.

Then he saw the man. He was not far away, but drifting further steadily, his arms wrapped round a chunk of wood. He was looking across the water at Hansen. The life jacket was orange round his neck and shoulders.

“Damn you, Ahab,” Hansen said, using the name for the first time. “You’ve sunk us. Damn you!”

The man shook his head. “I’m not Ahab,” he called back over the water. “I’m Ishmael.”


“I’m the one who never dies.” The words floated over the noise of the storm and wave. “The whale and I, doomed to seek each other until one of us hunts the other down and frees us both.” He shouted something else, but Hansen did not hear.

He felt the cold growing around him, and knew now that there was no way out, that though there would be a rescue, it would only find the one survivor. Turning himself round in the water, he looked out over the sea as a wave took him high.

Far in the distance, lightning was flashing. He thought it lit up a white bulk in the water, but it was hard to be sure. When he turned around again, Ishmael had disappeared.

And then he was alone, in the gathering storm, alone with the cold and the sea.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014