Sunday, 20 April 2014

On the Muhammad Cartoons

I have put off writing this article for about eight years now, and repeatedly imagined that I would never have to write it. But, apparently, some things have to be stated out loud, with full details and reasons appended.

Before I begin, I would like to state two things clearly:

Firstly, I am an atheist, and I am against all religion, because magical thinking muddies logic and destroys analytical ability.

Secondly, I am in favour of free speech as a right. However, if there is to be free speech, it must be applicable equally, across the board. If there are restrictions, they too must be applied equally, across the board.

Right.

It was in 2006 that I first became aware of the so-called Muhammad Cartoons “controversy”. Back then I was on Orkut, which as far as I am aware still exists, though I don’t know anyone who still uses it. Back then, though, Orkut was a vibrant network with a fairly large user base, and there were many “communities” of atheists where they exchanged notes.

Well, what did I find but that these atheist communities suddenly filled with people sporting Danish flags as their avatars as a gesture of support to Denmark. I’d already, of course, heard in the news about protests against the cartoons, but this Danish flag-waving left me scratching my head. After all, a lot of these same people were, only days earlier, condemning the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, partly carried out by these same Danes. It was surprising to say the least.

The murkiness of the whole thing was exacerbated by the fact that the other nations of Western Europe lined up behind Denmark and offered full support. This was fully and completely amazing because these were the exact same nations which criminalised Holocaust Denial – locked up people for even questioning the official account of the Holocaust, in fact, such as the exact number of dead, not denying it outright – and in the case of Germany even criminalised the swastika. There seemed, to me, something of a gigantic piece of double standards at work here.

On the surface, though, it seemed to be a fairly typical case of Muslim overreaction. A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, which is the largest in Denmark, but virtually unknown outside it, holds an experiment in free speech by inviting some of its staff and other cartoonists to draw the Prophet Muhammad. Result: large scale rioting across the world, death threats against the cartoonists, economic sanctions against Denmark. Those Muslims again, blowing their tops as usual.

Of course, it wasn’t anything like as simple as that. These things never are.

To begin with, we should know who Jyllands-Posten are. By no means is the paper a liberal voice of free speech; in fact,

the solicitation and publication of the ʻMuhammad cartoonsʼ was part of a long and carefully orchestrated campaign by the conservative Jyllands-Posten (also known in Denmark as Jyllands-Pesten – the plague from Jutland), in which it backed the centre-right Venstre party of Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen in its successful bid for power in 2001. Central to Venstreʼs campaign, aside from its neoliberal economic agenda, was the promise to tackle the problem of foreigners who refused to 'integrate' into Danish society. [Source]

Therefore, we have a right-wing paper in a nation with an increasingly large Muslim minority, using the excuse of “free speech” to advance its agenda. I wonder what we would find if we looked at Jyllands-Posten’s record where non-Muslim religious matters are concerned?

While Jyllands-Posten has published satirical cartoons depicting Christian figures, it rejected unsolicited cartoons in 2003 which depicted Jesus, opening it to accusations of a double standard. In February 2006, Jyllands-Posten refused to publish Holocaust cartoons, which included cartoons that mocked or denied the Holocaust, offered by an Iranian newspaper which had held a contest. [Source]

While not definitive, there does seem to be a distinct double standard here, especially since the paper published the initial cartoons as a deliberate and conscious decision, gathering together cartoonists for the specific purpose of drawing them. And though the different cartoons depict completely different scenes – for reasons I will mention, I am not going to post the cartoons on this article, but they can be viewed here – there are several, especially one which shows a bearded man with a bomb for a turban, which are unambiguously meant to offend.

So, where does that leave us, exactly? When you go out of your way to offend someone, and that person is offended, are you entitled to claim that you’ve been unfairly victimised because that person has been offended?

And why, oh, why, were the Muslims offended?

Let’s get one thing out of the way, first: if there is one thing you can absolutely guarantee will rouse a Muslim reaction, it’s insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Everyone with even baseline knowledge of Islam knows that. Muslim poets over the centuries have routinely poured scorn and censure on Allah and on the mullahs, but not one of them has ever insulted Muhammad. That would be the equivalent of a devout Jew insulting YHWH.

Then, the cartoons weren’t all the same. Some of them were neutral depictions of Muhammad. One depicted not the Prophet Muhammad himself but a schoolboy called Muhammad. And some of them were openly and deliberately insulting.

If the cartoons had not been insulting, it’s a guarantee that nothing would have happened. It isn’t as though Muhammad is sacrosanct from depiction in Islam. Shia Islam, in fact, has a fair history of depicting him. But there’s a difference between depicting him and insulting him.

Then, too, it wasn’t just an isolated example, though for the Manichean narrative favoured by the West fed on a diet of Hollywood movies, there’s no such thing as nuance. Just as the Afghans said that the protests after American troops burned Korans in Afghanistan weren’t just about the Korans – it was the culmination of a series of humiliations, the straw that broke the camel’s back – it was a culmination of a series of instances in which immigrants, specifically Muslim immigrants, were targeted in Denmark. And that’s not even including Danish involvement in the illegal imperialist invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

If Jyllands-Posten had wanted a debate about Islam and free speech, as it claimed, it could have chosen literally anything about Islam to draw or write about, rather than this. There are so many things unambiguously wrong with Islam that there is endless material to pick on, from suicide bombing to the treatment of women to the rejection of modern scientific thought. All of those would be perfectly valid, and all of them would also not result in any kind of outpouring of Muslim rage. In fact, sections of Muslims would probably even have welcomed them.

Why was this not done? There’s only one interpretation, that the newspaper set out deliberately to offend.

By any logical definition, an action designed to offend another person comes under hate speech. Freedom of speech is not absolute anywhere in the world; you can’t go into a crowded theatre, yell “fire” and then claim that you’re innocent of the resultant stampede because you were merely expressing your freedom of speech. Similarly, if you go to scream racial epithets at someone, and that person reacts with anger, you can’t get away from the responsibility for knowingly and deliberately provoking that anger. That’s why hate speech laws exist.

[And that is why I am not going to publish the Muhammad cartoons in this article, because it’s just as much hate speech as painting swastikas on synagogues, and for the same reason, I am also not going to post pictures of swastikas on synagogues.]

Even then, the reaction was far from being as immediate or as generally thought. The cartoons first appeared on 30th September 2005, to general public weariness. It wasn’t till 4th October that a death threat was made (by a teenager, whose mother turned him in). After that this is what happened:

…a group of Islamic leaders…called a meeting to discuss their strategy, which took place in Copenhagen a few days after the cartoons appeared…The meeting established 19 "action points" to try to influence public opinion about the cartoons. Ahmed Akkari from an mosque in Aarhus was designated the group's spokesman. The group planned a variety of political activities, including launching a legal complaint against the newspaper, writing letters to media outlets inside and outside Denmark, contacting politicians and diplomatic representatives, organising a protest in Copenhagen, and mobilising Danish Muslims through text messages and mosques…A peaceful protest, which attracted about 3,500 demonstrators, was held in Copenhagen on 14 October 2005.

So far, not the slightest sign of violence. Everything completely peaceful and legal. What happens next?

 This: 

Having received petitions from Danish imams, eleven ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries… asked for a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen on 12 October 2005. They wanted to discuss what they perceived as an "on-going smearing campaign in Danish public circles and media against Islam and Muslims". In a letter, the ambassadors mentioned the issue of the Muhammad cartoons, a recent indictment against Radio Holger, and statements by MP Louise Frevert and the Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen. It concluded:
We deplore these statements and publications and urge Your Excellency's government to take all those responsible to task under law of the land in the interest of inter-faith harmony, better integration and Denmark's overall relations with the Muslim world.


In other words, not only were the initial reactions completely peaceful, this is direct proof that the cartoons didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere, in a void; they were part of a series of actions that the Muslims of Denmark viewed as discriminatory and offensive.

As to why other Muslim countries got involved, there’s a simple response: when neo-Nazi hoodlums vandalise Jewish cemeteries elsewhere or scrawl swastikas on synagogues, why does the relevant Israeli embassy immediately get involved? What’s good for one is good for the other, as long as we are even going to pretend to be neutral and even-handed.

The (right-wing) Danish government, which was supported by Jyllands-Posten, refused to meet the ambassadors, and also ignored further representations from the Organistion of Islamic Countries and the Arab League. If it had met the ambassadors, and stated that it stood for good relations with all religions, but that it had no control over the media, and this officially dissociated itself with the issue, it would have been Jyllands-Posten versus any Muslim who wanted to take it to court. The Danish state would have been out of it. But by refusing to take this simple step, the government entangled itself in the issue, to no credit to itself at all; instead, Danish right-wing Prime Minister Rasmussen endorsed the Jyllands-Posten stand in an interview. Far from being even a neutral, therefore, the Danish government allied itself to one side in the dispute.

It was only at the end of October, nearly a month after the cartoons were published, that there was any further action, and that consisted of lodging a police case, which was dismissed in January 2006 on the grounds that the cartoons were in the “public interest”. By that time, a committee of Imams toured West Asia with a dossier of documents relating to the case, including cartoons from another paper published in November 2005, which were allegedly “even more offensive” than these. There were also – and this caused a great deal of problems – images which were taken from a French “pig squealing contest”, and had nothing whatever to do with the cartoons, but which were (deliberately or inadvertently) passed off as part of the anti-Muslim mindset in Denmark.

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, goes into a discussion of these extras, and strongly defends the cartoons. Like his “New Atheist” counterparts, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins has been accused of cloaking his hatred for Islam in atheism. Personally, I know little about Sam Harris and I only have total and absolute contempt for Hitchens, who was one of the vociferous supporters of the invasion of Iraq. Dawkins, as I have seen, drops all his otherwise careful scholarship when it comes to Islam, and makes sweeping statements which would be hilarious if they weren’t so ugly and inaccurate.

But, Dawkins or the others should be asked, what did they expect to happen when the situation reached the point where it became the property of the mullahs? Did they imagine that there would be no rabble-rousing, no playing to the gallery? In fact, is this rabble rousing and playing to the gallery not precisely the reaction the cartoons were designed to provoke? So, what exactly is the point, that Muslims were guilty of getting angry at something deliberately crafted to make them angry?

It was only after the Imams made this trip, in late January and February 2006, that the protests turned violent. This is in complete and absolute contrast to the usual narrative of lunatic Muslims going on the rampage at the drop of a cartoonist’s pen. In fact, the protests were fuelled by local mullahs who deliberately and cynically egged on people who had not, of course, ever seen the cartoons for themselves, and who had no opportunity to see the cartoons for themselves. Again, this was completely and utterly predictable. Some of these protests were actually just a manifestation of other long-ongoing battles, as in Nigeria where they exacerbated Muslim-Christian conflicts.

 By March, some West Asian countries organised a boycott of Danish exports, another thing which was a direct result of the Danish government’s refusal to stand clearly aside from the cartoons, as we’ve seen. In effect, these boycotts had little real effect, but these were the only official reactions by Muslim nations or organisations to the cartoons. The Organisation of Islamic Countries not only denounced the death threats to the cartoonists, it called the protests “un-Islamic”. But that is something that didn’t fit the dominant anti-Islamic feeling in the West. Nor did the fact that an extremely small minority of the world’s Muslim population participate make it to the dominant Western consciousness; it simply did not fit the theme.

Let me say something clearly here: just as a hundred and sixty years ago, racism against non-white people was perfectly acceptable in mainstream Western society, and as anti-Jewish racism was also acceptable till the end of the Second World War, today anti-Islamism is completely mainstream in the West. It’s also every bit as stupid and ignorant of Islam as racism and anti-Judaism were stupid and ignorant in their turn. The danger is, though, that it tends to turn itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people are made to feel consistently attacked and vulnerable, they will react in ways which are consistent with defending themselves. They will listen to leaders who dramatise the sense of insecurity to cement their own hold on power. This is as true of Islam as anything else, and anyone who pretends shock at the Muslim reaction is being dangerously disingenuous.

Also, let me point out that Islam isn’t a single, unified entity. Like Christianity itself, it isn’t a religion so much as a collection of different religions with only some points in common. The overwhelming number of Muslims are actually more concerned with day to day living than any religious matter, and they couldn’t care less about things like this as long as it’s not shoved in their faces. Even then, the vast majority will not react in any way. But the media will go out of its way to depict the entire Muslim world as violent and unstable. Because that sells.

There was also, at this time, what I feel personally is the single most cynical action in the whole cooked-up “controversy”. It was the decision of other newspapers across Europe to reprint the cartoons in “solidarity”. Now, Denmark, for all its faults, does treat freedom of speech relatively even handedly, and has no laws against Holocaust Denial. However, papers in nations which do have such laws – countries which lock people up for questioning the standard narrative of the Holocaust – gleefully reprinted the cartoons. I don’t know if they felt any cognitive dissonance, but I doubt it.

Whenever I bring this point up – the blatant double standards of those European nations – I can absolutely guarantee that somebody is going to accuse me of being a Holocaust Denier. My response is always the same:

First, that those who deny the Holocaust happened are equivalent to those who claim the earth is flat. Do these European nations have laws against Round Earth Denial?   

Second, the fact that the Holocaust happened does not sanctify one particular narrative of it, and indeed by enforcing one particular narrative, plays into the hands of Holocaust deniers.

Third, the fact of the Holocaust does not excuse the crimes of the so-called state of Israel; and these same nations are completely in support of those crimes.

Right.

So, as you probably will have guessed by now, as an atheist I am strongly against the Muhammad cartoons, for the following reasons:

1. They are clearly an example of hate speech.

2. They are calculated to produce the exact same divide in society that they claim to be against.

3. The standard narrative of them in the popular consciousness is completely opposed to the facts.

4. There are blatant double standards where the Holocaust is concerned.

The real tragedy is that I have to actually point these things out at all.


Saturday, 19 April 2014

Fire In The Sky



Nakamura-san was the most irritable old man in the entire street where Yoshio lived. All the children said so, and they feared him so greatly that they did not even dare to tease him from a safe distance, the way children will. They said the old man was a madman, and a sorcerer to boot.

The only one who didn’t fear him was Yoshio himself, because Nakamura-san liked him very much, and sometimes in the evening would sit on his doorstep and tell stories.

Usually these stories would be of the ancient times, of Samurai warriors fired with the Bushido spirit, and of evil Tengu demons, half man and half bird, who would wait in the forests to trick people they came across. But there was always one line of stories that Nakamura-san told that Yoshio would wait for, that of the Samurai Harado Iori Ryutaro, who was the greatest of all the Samurai who had ever lived.

Harado had been an evil man once, Nakamura-san said. Though born to the Samurai class, he had gone astray early, and had become a thief and a killer for hire, one of the worst of the criminals who lay in wait for travellers on lonely highways. But one day he had picked the wrong target. It had been a ronin who was on pilgrimage to a monastery, and not even a hardened cutthroat and murderer was a match for a Samurai, even if he was only a ronin.

Once the masterless Samurai had easily defeated and captured the robber, he had pressed the tip of his katana to Harado’s throat. “You can turn away from this life,” he had said, “and come with me. Or you can die now. The choice is yours.”

Purely to save his life, Harado had agreed to go with the ronin, intending to escape when he could. But that had led to one thing after another, adventures each of which was more hair-raising than the last, and little by little Harada had himself become a Samurai. In time, he had grown to be the greatest of them all.

Harada had been invincible, Nakamura-san said, so that even the gods were afraid to take him on in combat. But he was merciful and gracious, so much so that before every battle he would burn incense in his helmet, so that perchance the enemy took his head the smell would not offend their nostrils. But he never, ever, lost, and the only heads that rolled belonged to those who dared challenge him in combat.

Endless were the tales Nakamura-san told of the Samurai Harada Iori Ryutaro. Each time he told a different story, an even more marvellous one, and each time Yoshio would thrill to his heart to hear of the exploits of the great warrior, and how he succoured the poor and helpless, and stood up for them against the great lords and the criminals.

“And never forget, Yoshio-san,” he would say formally, “that the great Samurai is real, that he lives in the sky, and that when you really need him, you need only to call to him for help, and he will come.”

Of course, Yoshio didn’t believe that part. Who could, even if he weren’t Christian and told to believe that only the Lord Jesus Christ offered help in times of need? But that didn’t stop him from thirsting after the stories, each of which seemed to be more imaginative than the last.

Today, though, Yoshio had no time to do more than wave to Nakamura-san as he followed his parents to church. The old man was sitting at his window, and waved back, though Yoshiro hoped his parents hadn’t seen it. His parents didn’t approve of his hanging around Nakamura-san.

“Poor old man,” Honourable Mother said. “You shouldn’t bother him with your questions. Let him have some peace.”

“Don’t let him fill your head with non-Christian ideas,” Honourable Father said shortly.

There wasn’t much chance of that today, because they were headed off to church. It was a heavily cloudy day, and Yoshio would much rather have stayed at home, reading perhaps, or maybe helping Honourable Father dig the garden. Honourable Father had been gardening a lot lately, because there had been less and less food to go around. Yoshio had so long got used to going hungry that he hardly noticed it any longer.

His parents stopped to talk to a lady in a formal kimono. He recognised her. It was Mrs Mitsuda, whom he had met several times. She was very severe-looking, but Honourable Mother said she was actually very nice. She had a daughter, Hiroko, who was with her. Hiroko worked, Yoshio had heard, in an office down on the docks, but today was Sunday, of course.

Hiroko smiled at Yoshio. She was very beautiful, and he thought sometimes he ought to marry her when he was older. “How are you, Yoshio-san? The way you’re growing, soon you’ll be big enough to be a soldier.” She’d looked quickly over her shoulder, but her mother and Yoshio’s parents were busy talking and hadn’t heard.

“We’re going to the country tomorrow,” she whispered, leaning close to Yoshio. “My uncle asked us to come. He says it isn’t safe in this town any longer, from the Gaijin.”

“The Gaijin?” Yoshio asked, though of course he knew what she was talking about.

“You know, the B29s.” Hiroko pointed up at the sky. “You listen to the radio?”

Before Yoshio could answer, Honourable Father called to him. His parents and Mrs Mitsuda had evidently finished talking. “We’re getting late for church.”

Yoshio ducked his head politely to Mrs Mitsuda and Hiroko, just as he’d been taught. His parents had already started walking away, and he had to hurry. He could hear mumbled snatches of their conversation.

“Some people have all the luck,” Honourable Mother said longingly. “The country...”

“It’s no better than here,” Honourable Father replied. “In many ways it’s worse.”

“As though we wouldn’t go to the country if we could,” Honourable Mother said. Yoshio could hear the anger in her voice. “At least the country is safe. It...”

“We’re already late for Mass,” Honourable Father interrupted. “Shall we talk about this later?” His back was so stiff that Yoshio knew he was furious, and that there would be problems when they got back home. A charcoal-powered truck chugged past, and he turned his head away to avoid the smoke.

A blinding flash of light raced across his field of vision, so fast that he barely registered it. The next moment he was hit by a blow which struck him from his head to his feet, so hard that he few through the air. The world spun around him, and went black.

When he opened his eyes he was looking at Harado Iori Ryutaro’s face.

The Samurai filled the sky above him, his face working and twisting with some emotion which Yoshio couldn’t interpret. Perhaps it was anger or contempt, he thought, and he tried to shrink away. But he was lying on the ground, on his back, and it was impossible to shrink back any further.

Then the Samurai spoke.

“What has happened to you, my friend Yoshio?” Despite his fearsome face, which still writhed and worked, his voice was gentle. “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes,” Yoshio whispered. His voice rustled in his head, like dried leaves. “Nakamura-san told me about you.”

“And what else did he say?”

“That if I asked for help, you would be there,” Yoshio said.

The Samurai’s immense face looked regretful. “There are times when that is no longer possible,” he said. “Besides, the world has forgotten me. I have no power to help when nobody even believes I exist. But, Yoshio, my friend?”

“Yes?” he whispered.

“One day, I promise you, I will come down from the sky again, and you and I will stand side by side.”

“We will?”

“We will. But you must be brave. Are you brave?”

“I don’t know,” Yoshio whispered.

The Samurai chuckled, his face beginning to fade away along with his voice. “That means you are. If you weren’t, you’d have said you are brave. But you must get up now.”

“Lord –“

“Be brave, Yoshio, and we’ll meet again.”

Yoshio shook his head and opened his eyes again. The Samurai’s immense face had disappeared. Something else hung over him, blocking out the sky.

At first he didn’t know what it was. It was so dark that he thought night had come, and then he realised that it was a cloud. It was, however, like no cloud he had ever seen before. It twisted and boiled on itself, as though writhing in torment. Ominous colours flashed and morphed in it, both in the bulging top and in the gigantic twitching leg which connected it to the ground.

Yoshio stared up at this cloud in fascination. It kept growing, filling out more and more of the sky, taking on even stranger colours and appearances. Now it looked like a monstrous toadstool, growing out of the earth, one that was so poisonous that nobody would even venture close to it. It looked like something that would break its connecting leg and come crashing down on the city.

There was no telling how long he might have sat looking up at the cloud if the buildings around him hadn’t begun to burn. He saw the flames out of the corner of his eye with astonishment, and suddenly realised where he was. He tried to get to his feet, and managed with some difficulty.

“Honourable mother?” he said, looking around, and his voice trailed away. “Honourable,,,”

The city had disappeared. On either side, as far as he could see, there were only ruins blown flat. Fires were rising everywhere, and he was vaguely conscious of great heat. The air felt hard to breathe.

“Father?” he repeated, not sure if he spoke or if his mouth was merely moving. “Mother?”

There was no sign of them. He could not even be sure where he had been before the flash, and where they had been. Everything seemed to have vanished, smashed down as by a giant's fist, except for a smouldering hunk of metal nearby. Looking at it, he suddenly knew it for what it was. It was all that was left of the charcoal- burning truck which had been driving past him when the flash came.

“Eeee!” someone screamed. He turned to look. A young woman was running down the middle of the street, completely naked. He was astonished. It was the first time he had ever seen a naked woman, and he gaped at her, from her bouncing breasts to the triangular patch of black hair between her legs. Then she came closer, and he recognised her. It was Hiroko Mitsuda.

“Hiroko-san,” he tried to tell her, “you must put on clothes. It’s not right running like this, and...” But she took no notice of him at all, Still screaming, she brushed past him and ran away into the smoke from the gathering fires.

Suddenly, as though she had unlocked a door, there were people. They walked towards him from the direction of the cloud, moving as though they did not know where they were going. They didn’t even look like people. Some of them were naked like Hiroko-san. Some didn’t seem to have much skin left. None of them took any notice of him.

“Honourable Father?” he asked blankly. There was no reply. After some time he walked a little way towards the twisting leg of the cloud. Nobody tried to stop him. “Honourable Mother?” But there was nothing.

It was not fear that drove him to follow the shambling crowd, nor was it the gathering fires. It was something else, a feeling he had no word for, just a vague idea that perhaps, somewhere in the crowd, he might find someone, some anchor, some link to the world he knew. The fires on both sides were blazing brightly now, and those in the crowd who could were starting to hurry. Others could not, and lagged behind. He saw a few simply sit down on the street and wait for the fire.

“Grandfather,” Yoshio tried to tell one of these, an old man with a delicate face and a wispy beard. “You shouldn’t give up like this. I’ll help you.” But the old man’s tired eyes looked through him as though he wasn’t there, and Yoshio was forced to move on.

And then, up ahead in the crowd, Yoshio saw a familiar face. It was old Nakamura-san, still in the happi coat he’d been wearing earlier for some reason. He was only a short distance ahead, and Yoshio tried to hurry to catch him up, but suddenly his limbs felt immensely weary. He felt as though he could not take another step. But still he went forward as quickly as he could, because he had to talk to Nakamura-san and tell him about the Samurai and what he’d said.

“Nakamura-san,” he whispered. “Nakamura-san.”

But even then, as his weary limbs pushed him onward, he knew it would be no use at all.


[Dedicated to the victims of the atom-bombing of Nagasaki, 9th August 1945.]


Copyright B Purkayastha, 2014

  


Friday, 18 April 2014

Badlands III: Boat On The River


How long he had spent on the river, he had no way of guessing, because there was no day or night and no way to mark the time.

Under the lowering red sky, the blood of the river looked almost black, and when the bone of the paddle threw up drops which spattered on the hull of skin and sinew, they dried in streaks and blotches which reminded him of writing in some arcane language he didn’t understand.

For longer than he cared to remember, the river’s banks hadn’t changed. The trees still bent their bare branches over the flowing blood. Things chattered and ran through the branches and along the riverbank, half-seen; things which looked like rats, but which he was sure weren’t.

He was not good at paddling, and the boat was small and crude, so that it was unsteady in the sluggish current, and he was glad that the flow was not strong enough to tip him over. If he fell into the blood, in his armour he would sink like a stone. And, perhaps even more importantly, the book beside him would be lost.

He glanced down at the book frequently, as he paddled. It was the whole purpose of the journey, the key to everything. Or so the demon had told him.

Once or twice he looked over his shoulder, but he had long since lost sight of the old tower  where he’d started on his journey and where he’d left the beast. Whenever he thought of it he felt a wrenching of regret that he’d had to leave it behind. He missed it much more than he could have believed possible.

The beast hadn’t reacted, of course, when he’d said goodbye. It had stared out over the river with supreme indifference, and he was certain that it didn’t care if it never saw him again.

***********************

The sky had been turning red for days as they had worked their way down from the mountains. Each morning, it would be a little redder, and each night the glow from the horizon would blot out the stars.

Even the demon had been uneasy, though she had done her best to mask it. “I’ve never seen this kind of thing before,” she said, when he’d asked her. “At least not in...this world. Don’t worry about it, it’s probably nothing.”

“Have you been this way before?” he asked, unsure if he was seeking reassurance or just out of curiosity.

“No,” she answered shortly. “But, as I said, don’t worry. It’s likely nothing.”

But as the days went by, the red glow overshadowed everything, until the night and day were one and there was neither sun, nor moon, nor stars. They could ask nobody about it, because the few villages they passed were abandoned, and clearly had been for some time. But sometimes the knight thought he could hear a crying far away, beyond the sullen red glow in the sky, as if the world was screaming in mortal agony, just over the horizon.

Then, possibly one morning, they had come down from the mountains and reached a high and desolate plateau. Once it must have been a battlefield. The evidence was all around, broken weapons and scattered bones. He’d stooped to examine some of the weapons, and found the lance.

It had been a very old lance, of wood so ancient that it had darkened to the colour of iron. And instead of being tipped with metal, it had a point of bone, which had been discoloured almost to the point where it was indistinguishable from the rest of the weapon.

He’d been about to touch the tip when the demon had stopped him. “Don’t.”

He’d looked at her, surprised. “Why not?”

“This isn’t a good place,” she’d said. “Even I can’t protect you here, Man. We should get down from here at once, and down on the plain.” She’d looked at the lance. “That thing is from a time so old that I have no knowledge about it, no idea of how to handle it. Everything here is like that. Have you looked at these bones?”

He’d felt a shiver play along his spine. “What about them?”

“They aren’t human bones, or the bones of any creature I know. This place is old, Man, old and evil. We can’t stay here.” She’d taken the lance out of his hand effortlessly, and thrown it away. The tip had struck a rock, which hissed and bubbled. “See.”

He’d looked at her and at the rock, and remembered that he’d been about to touch the point.

“Thank you,” he’d said, inadequately.

“Save your thanks till we’re out of here, Man.”

“Where are we going?” he asked her, as they made their way down off the plateau, and left the battlefield behind. “Why didn’t we go back the way we came?”

She glanced at him. “Because this thing, whatever it is, is spreading, Man. Haven’t you noticed? Even if we were to stand here for a while and look at this sky, you’d see it growing redder and lower. It’s spreading, and it has to be stopped.”

“How do we stop it?”

She didn’t reply for so long that he would have asked again if she’d been human. “I don’t know what’s doing it, but it’s in the direction where we’re going. We’ll have to find out when we get there, I suppose.”

So they went down from the plateau, and finally they came out on to the plain.  It was a featureless plain, except for the black trees with leafless branches, which sometimes rustled and moved though there seemed to be no wind. And there was the tower, in the distance, a slender spire of stone rising up from the plain.

Without speaking, he turned the beast in the direction of the tower, and the demon made no attempt to object. It had been much further than he’d thought, and by the time they were close enough to make out detail the hills they had left had faded to a smudge in the red haze of the horizon.

Once it had been a wonderful structure. Even the passage of time had failed to wipe away the smooth clean lines of the stone, unmarred by carvings or damage until the point, so high that it could barely be seen, where it snapped off like a broken stick. Only a jagged point of rock pointed up at the sky, like an accusing finger.

“What do you think it was?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” the demon said, “but I wonder what one might be able to see from up on top. Wait.” In a moment she had disappeared, and all he glimpsed was a shadow gliding up the stone.

While waiting for her to return, he rode the beast around the base of the pillar. It was much broader around than he’d thought, too, though of course it would have to be, to support something so high. There were no doors that he could see, no aperture of any kind. By the time he’d returned to the starting point the sky was definitely an angrier shade of red and the demon was waiting for him.

“There’s a river not far away,” she said, pointing. “We’ve got to make for it. Whatever we’re looking for, it lies downstream. I saw something that looks like docks.”

“What’s that?” He pointed at the object she was carrying.

“I found it up at the top, where it’s broken.” She showed it to him. It was a book, bound in old leather that had turned almost black. When he took it he found it was so heavy that he almost let it fall. “Take a look.”

He opened it. The pages were of parchment cracking at the edges, and inscribed with characters which seemed to change and shimmer before his eyes. “What does it say?”

“I can’t say yet. I haven’t had a proper look, and the language is strange to me. But I think that I can understand it – given time. Let’s make for the river, and we’ll see.”

He’d looked at the demon, and suddenly it was as though it was the first time he’d ever seen her; not as a supernatural being whom he resented as much as accepted, but as something else; a vulnerable, sensitive soul with her own insecurities, someone who was as much finding his way as he was. “Let’s go,” he said, more gently than he might otherwise have.

“There’s one more thing, Man.”

“Yes?”

“I don’t think the river is water,” she said.

He stared at her before turning the beast’s head away. The demon stood watching for a few moments, and then followed slowly.

***********************

They found the boat at the dock. There was just the one, pulled up on the shore and overturned as though the owner had left it there and would return in a short while. But the bottom was dusty and when they turned it over, the paddle underneath was of bone so old that it reminded the knight of the spear on the plateau.

“It’s only big enough for one of us,” he’d said.

“Leave the beast,” she returned. “If we succeed, maybe someday we’ll come up river again. If not...”

He’d waited till it was certain that she wouldn’t continue. “What about you?”

“Keep the book by your side, in the boat. I’ll be inside it, reading.” She’d hesitated a little. “Man?”

“What?”

“Until I’m sure I’ve got all I can from the book, until I come out of my own accord, don’t open it. Don’t call me, either. You’ll have to handle anything you encounter alone, till then. But I’m sure you can manage.”

He’d looked at her, trying to understand what she wasn’t saying. “But suppose we get where we’re going, before you get what you want from the book. Then what?”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, Man. I think wherever this river is taking us, it’s going to be a very, very long way away.”

“How will I know when I get there?”

She’d laughed, the first time in longer than he cared to remember. “Oh, you‘ll know, Man. You will know.”


***********************

The black hump on the riverbank had probably been a considerable building once, perhaps a fortress. It was hard to tell.  

It had been hidden behind a bend in the river, so that by the time he noticed it the boat was already fairly close, and he had to make a quick decision whether to steer for the bank or to pass it by. A quick look at the book gave no solace. It lay inert as it had since he had laid it down by his side.

In the moments that were left to him before it would be too late to change his mind, he took in the edifice. The black stone blocks of which it had been made had tumbled into a shapeless ruin, but there were still walls standing, and between them he could see the red light reflecting off pillars and polished stone.

“Damn, demon,” he muttered between his teeth. “What should I do now?”

His hands had already made the decision for him, pushing the paddle into the blood to shift the boat awkwardly shorewards. Some of the stone blocks had fallen into the river, forming a barrier to the flow and a tiny harbour, so it was not as difficult to touch land as it might otherwise have been.

Clambering out of the boat, he pulled it up on the stone. It was heavy work, and left him straining with the effort, but he had a sudden fear that if he left the boat in the river he would never see it again. Besides, there was the book.

Slipping it under his chain mail, where it lay heavy against his skin, he turned towards the ruin.

There was someone watching him. He had realised this before taking three steps towards the nearest standing wall. Someone was standing behind the wall, just out of sight, watching. He could see the shadow.

“All right,” he said. “Whoever you are. Come out and show yourself, or I’ll come in with my sword swinging.”

There was a moment’s pause, and she came out.

He stopped where he was, and if he had been holding the book or the sword in his hands he’d assuredly have let them fall.

She was silver and gold and magic and moonlight, and she was everything he’d ever yearned for, everything he’d remembered and forgotten.

“Here I am,” she said, spreading out her hands. “As you wanted. Are you happy?”

“Lady.” He worked his tongue in his mouth to free it. “Lady –“

“Where have you come from?” she asked, taking a short step closer. “I have waited in this horrible place, so long, waiting for someone to come, anyone. I’ve waited until I could no longer bear the wait, and still no one would come. Where have you come from? Are you real?”

“I’m real.” He held out his hand for her to touch. Her fingers were long and slim, and they flinched away from the armour of his gauntlet. “I’m very real. Who are you, Lady?”

She looked at him as though she still could not believe it. “Who am I...? Does my name really matter? I don’t even remember if I ever had a name, but I must have, I suppose.” She sat down on a block of stone, and leaned her head on her hands. “Will you take me away?”

He looked at the boat and back at her. “Can you tell me how you came to be here?”

She looked up at him. “It’s a fairly long story. Sit here beside me and I’ll tell you.”

The book lay heavy against his stomach, and the block of stone was small. Besides, sitting down he couldn’t look at her. “I’ll stand, Lady.”

“Well, then.” She looked down at her hands. “I remember some of it, not everything. I lived here, you know.”

“Here?”

“Yes, it wasn’t as you see it now. Back then, it was a staging point on the river, and there were people here, soldiers and traders and the like. My husband was here too.”

“Your husband?”

“He was the officer in charge of the soldiers here. We were very happy together, were thinking of having a baby.” She looked up at him and down again. “It seems funny to think of all that now.

“The stories came, of bandits, out on the plain. Entire caravans destroyed, wiped out with no survivors. Nothing was left. Do you understand?”

“Nothing?” he asked. The way she had said it seemed to have some special significance to her.

She nodded. “Nothing. Nobody knew who had done it, but the scourge was moving closer. Each day it crept closer to this place, until the traders began to demand that my husband and his soldiers do something about it.

“The night before he left, my husband came to me. ‘Put this on,’ he said, handing me an amulet. ‘Before I left home, my mother gave it to me as a charm against danger. Wear it next to your heart, and it will keep you safe while I’m gone.’

“ ‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘You’re the one who will need to guard against danger.’

“But he only laughed. ‘With my strong right arm and my men, I’m well enough protected,’ he said. And before daybreak, he had left along with his men. I never saw him again.

“Two nights later, this place was attacked. I was asleep then, and woke to find the walls already breached and the air filled with fire and smoke and screams. But the screams did not last long.

“My first thought was to flee for my life. There was a way out through the back, a narrow passage my husband had shown me. It was only known to the soldiers, as an emergency exit. I only paused long enough to snatch up my husband’s charm, and then I rushed towards it. But something must have happened to me – maybe I breathed in too much smoke. I must have fainted.

“And when I woke up, I saw them. Gathered around me, looking down, watching.”

There was a pause. “They weren’t just bandits, were they?” he asked, gently. “Something much worse?”

She looked up with desperate eagerness. “You understand, then. When I saw their faces, the fangs dripping blood and their monstrous faces, I would have fainted again. And when I saw what they had done to the rest, to the traders and the servants and the others, I wanted them to kill me. But they would not kill me, and after a while, I understood that they could not.”

“The charm,” he said.

“Yes, of course it was the charm. Can you imagine what I went through after that? Can you imagine my being amongst those...things...knowing that them being here meant that my husband and the others must be dead? That everyone was dead, except me?” She shook her head. “If you could only imagine that, you would understand what I had to do.”

“You threw the charm away,” he said with complete certainty.

She jumped to her feet. “Yes, I threw it away. I thought they would kill me then, and set me free. But they wouldn’t do that any longer. They had other uses for me.”

He looked at her then, and saw in her eyes, and saw what she really was. “Stay back, Lady,” he said quietly.

“They made me one of them,” she said quietly. She took a step closer to him. “They made me one of them, and set me sentinel here, to watch till they returned. But they never came back, ever again.”

“Stand back,” he repeated sharply. His hand went over his shoulder, to the sword. “I shan’t tell you again.”

“And there was nobody here, all this time,” she went on, as though he had not spoken. “Except you.”

He was still reaching for his sword when she threw herself at him. He leaned back, instinctively, and his foot slipped on the stone. He fell backward, landing heavily, as she fell on top of him, but her momentum carried her over his head and among the stones. When he scrambled to his feet, she was lying among them like a broken doll, her limbs scattered awkwardly. He didn’t dare come close to her.

She was stirring when he pushed the boat back into the river, and sitting up when he began paddling away. “Come back,” she called desolately. “I’ve been lonely so long. Come back and make me whole.”

He ignored her, turning his head away. Her cries followed him a long time afterwards, and towards the end merged into a desperate, fading scream of hopeless agony.

***********************

The noise of the waterfall began so gradually that it was a long time before he realised what it was. The flow of the river was beginning to quicken, too, and he began to have increasing difficulty keeping the boat under control. The sky overhead was a sullen red as though it was on fire.

And still the book lay silent against his stomach, where he had left it after escaping from the woman.

The black leafless trees crowded ever more thickly along the banks, so that he could not see past them on either side. The river had narrowed, too, the sides pressing in closely, so that instead of a wide slow flow he was rushing between steep banks, the boat rocking in the growing turbulence.

He dug his paddle into the flow, trying hard to move to the side, but the current was too strong, and the boat simply swung round and round.

Then the boat ran aground.

It happened so suddenly that he almost pitched forward and out. The river rushed past, but the  boat was snagged on something in the flow, something which had snagged the hull and kept it from breaking loose. Peering over the edge, he saw branches. The boat was snagged on a fallen tree.

While he was still trying to work out how to make his way up it to land, a branch whipped out of the river and wrapped itself around him, holding him like a hand. It lifted, pulling him into the air.

Trapped in its grasp, he was carried to the shore.


***********************

There was a voice in his brain. He shook his head, trying to clear it.

“Wake up,” it was saying. “Wake up.”

Had he been asleep? He didn’t know. His entire body ached, with a pain that went down to the bone.

“Open your eyes.” The thoughts were like iron nails being hammered into his skull.

Reluctantly, he did. He was lying on his back, looking up at the trees. Some of the branches were still twined around his limbs.

“Get up,” the thought insisted.

He struggled to sit up. The trees crowded in a circle, close on him on all sides, and bent low, their branches interlocking. Hairy things scuttled among them, looking down at him with glowing eyes. He thought the trees were watching him through those eyes.

“What are you?” the thought rasped. “Why do you come here?”

“Seeking answers,” he said aloud. He was surprised at the calmness of his own voice. “I came seeking answers about what is going on here.”

A ripple as of amusement ran through the branches. “Answers? And what will you do if you find these...answers?”

“Put a stop to whatever it is that is causing all this.” He lifted a hand as much as he could against the restricting branches, and indicated the red sky and the river of blood somewhere behind him. “That is what I want.”

“And what about us?” the thought came. “If you put a stop to all this, what happens to us?”

He did not say anything. The question did not need an answer.

“Kill him,” another thought hammered. “Kill him and finish it.”

“Yes, kill him,” the thoughts crowded on each other. “Kill him, kill him, kill him.” And the creatures in the branches scrambled lower, their eyes glowing. The branches began to tighten around his limbs, his torso, his neck, biting right through the chain mail. But he was barely aware of it.

He was barely aware of it, because something else was happening. A growing warmth against his chest, below the armour, warmth increasing to heat, and heat increasing to blazing incandescent agony...

And then suddenly the demon was inside him. He could feel her inside his skin, looking through his eyes. She raised his arms, flexed his legs, and threw his head back in a primal scream.

The branches whipped away as though they could not let him go fast enough. The demon flung him to his feet, and opened his mouth.

Words poured out. He could not understand the language, he could not even understand how the syllables could be produced by a human throat. But they came, faster and faster, each phrase falling over the one before.

The trees fell away before him. She moved his legs, and he walked through the forest, the branches retreating as he came. The tiny creatures fled, squeaking.

Then he came to a clearing, and there was something squatting there.

At first he thought it was a rock. Then he thought it was an ancient idol. And then he realised it was a tree stump, though one which moved spasmodically and tried to rip itself out of the ground at his approach.

“Kill,” the demon said to him. “Kill.”

His hand reached for the sword as his mind sank back into the darkness.

***********************

When he regained consciousness, she was bending anxiously over him, his head cradled against her breasts. “Man?”

“I’m all right,” he whispered. He did not feel all right. He felt terrible. But then he looked up at her, and he felt better.

“I had to take a great risk,” she said. “I didn’t want to do it. But I had no alternative. If I’d waited even a moment later they would have destroyed you.”

“What happened?” he asked. He turned his head, gingerly, to look past her. He couldn’t see anything. Then he realised that he couldn’t see anything because it was dark. And it was dark because it was...

“Night,” he said, foolishly.

“Yes, it’s night,” she said. “It’s night, and the thing is over. We won.”

“The book?” he asked.

“It burned to ashes. Never mind, it helped us when we needed it.”

“The forest?”

“It’s still here, but it’s a real forest again. Whatever it was in the stump is gone.” She hesitated. “I don’t know what it was, but it was old and twisted, and it was so filled with hate that everything – literally – was its enemy. I think it had been hurt very deeply in the past, and that we out it out of its misery.”

He climbed wearily to his feet. “Now what do we do?” he asked.

She wrapped an arm around his shoulder to support him. “We’ll find our way out of this forest,” she said. “After that, we’ll see.”

***********************

Dawn had just touched the sky when they found their way out of the forest, the knight still leaning on the demon. And then they stopped dead.

“Well,” he said. “Look at that.”

“Yes,” the demon agreed. “Not what I expected, I must say.”

The beast stood there, as though it had been waiting where they’d left it, just for a moment. It glanced at them, and then looked away, with the same air of unconcern.

“It must have followed us,” the knight said. “All this time, it must have been following, down the river, all the way.”

“You realise what this means,” the demon said, as she helped him on to the beast’s back. “It has feelings, too, though it doesn’t show them.”

“I wondered, sometimes, if it did,” he said. He stroked the beast’s head, between the horns. “I’m very glad to see you,” he told it.

The demon swung up on the beast’s back, behind the knight. “You know something, Man?” she asked.

“Yes?”

“If something had happened to you, if I’d been too late to save you, I’d have...”

“What?”

“Forget it,” she said, wrapping her arms round him and leaning her head on his shoulder. “There’s no point in talking about it now.”

The morning grew bright in the blue sky as the beast plodded across the plain.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2014