“The Butter Thief” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

TWA 60 Donald-01

The first time Drake had eaten butter right from the tin, all the old hands had laughed at him.

The Antarctic wind howled outside the tent walls as Drake heated the tin on the stove. It took less time than he had expected to be able to get a spoon into it. He pulled out a gelid yellow bite and swallowed it down. He fought back his gag reflex. Laughter circled him.

“Welcome to the arse of the world, mate.”

Mills was a tall and muscled Australian, looking like he had just finished a day surfing Snapper Rocks, not skidooing through ten degree weather and setting up a research camp.

Roberts gave a nervous, barking laugh and pushed his black-rimmed glasses further up his nose. “Just because the rations schedule has butter making up twenty percent of our daily calories, that doesn’t mean you eat it raw.”

“Here.” Foster, the expedition leader, pushed Drake aside as he dumped several heaping spoonfuls of butter into a pot. He added a package of instant porridge, several packages of nuts and granola, and some of the ice that had been set on the stove to melt. Much better than Drake’s way, though he learned to be less fastidious too. In sub-zero weather, calories were life. Roberts had a strict regimen of 3500 calories a day for each of them, 5000 working out on the ice, and after a long day of drilling out ice core samples, one wasn’t picky about how one reacted that quota.

Drake wouldn’t go so far as to say he liked butter right out of the tin, but he got used to it.

—–

He was on KP yet again. Roberts was on the radio to their base at Fossil Bluff while Foster made a series of notes on the latest samples in the log. They had hit some unexpected rock strata, and the drill had stuttered as if it had hit an air pocket. Roberts had a theory about that. Roberts had a theory about everything.

Mills came in from the “cloak room,” after having locked down the drill rig and checked on the skidoos under their tarp. He removed his gloves and coat and warmed his hands over the stove.

“This slop again? I’d give my left bollock for a fresh pineapple. Hell, even an apple-apple.”

Drake smiled into the stew. “I wasn’t aware you had any left to barter.”

“Har har har. I’m not the one moaning after cantaloupe in my sleep. Good thing we don’t have a micro, mate.”

Drake reddened and covered his embarrassment by turning to one of the chests that served as their pantry. He pried the lid off a tin of butter.

It was empty. Not a speck, as if it had been licked clean.

Drake frowned and reached for another tin. It was empty too. Only on the third try did he find anything. Had one of the others gotten confused and put empties back into the trunk? That had to be it.

He stirred half the tin into the stew and tried to remember who had been on kitchen duty last.

“Understood, Fossil Bluff. Cryogenia Station over and out.” Roberts threw his headset against his radio. “God damn it!”

Everyone turned toward Roberts. Foster finished his sentence in his log and laid down his pen. “What is it?”

“They’re calling us back to base! McMurdo is showing a Condition One blow heading our way. BAS want us out ahead of it.”

The only sign of Foster’s anger was the way his fingers whitened against the logbook. “You told them about the results we’ve been getting. The possibility of a new species.”

“Of course. How did the pompous arse at Fossil put it?” He cleared his throat and affected a more poncey voice than usual. “‘No amount of abstract data is worth the cost of a human life. Mark the GPS coordinates, and a team will return to the site after the storm has passed. Or next season.’”

Drake exchanged glances with Mills. The higher ups had decreed that this was to be Foster’s last season in Antarctica’s interior. Someone might return to drill out more core samples, but it wouldn’t be him.

Foster rubbed at his temples. Drake felt the beginnings of a headache too.

“Any chance we could just hunker down? Wait the storm out?”

Roberts shook his head. “Not if it’s as big as Fossil says. We could cut rations and stay here longer, but if the winds don’t rip our tent to shred and wreck the skidoos, we wouldn’t have enough calories to dig out and get back to base. Or even to wait for rescue.”

A word formed on Foster’s lips that might have been “fuck,” but Drake couldn’t have sworn to it.

“Okay. This is cow dung, and we all know it. But we have our orders. Eat up. Sledding rations. Take eight hours, and then we’ll break camp and be on our way.”

The wind howled outside their shelter, conjuring images of wolves rushing at them in the vanguard of the storm.

—–

Dussala held her breath and counted to ten. The cold of the stainless steel pressed into her back. No one was coming. She had to do this now.

She passed rows of windows and ignored the lowing of cows beyond them. Young women attached and unattached milking machines to rows of udders. They paid no attention to Dussala. The thrumming suction muffled her footfalls. The music of all of her shifts. She even heard the pumps in her sleep.

No one was at the holding tank for her section. She looked around anyway. Her hands shook as she withdrew the flask from the folds of her sari. She opened it and positioned it under the spigot from which the techs drew their test samples. She willed the flask to hurry.

“What’s going on here?”

Dussala whirled around, flask behind her back. Before her loomed the army green fatigues of one of the plant’s guards. His black baton was in his hand, but his knife was still in its sheath. She just caught sight of the guard’s Party armband before she cast her eyes to the ground.

The guard raised her head with his baton. His eyes were as cold as the stainless steel all around them. “I asked you a question.”

“I… I brought you a gift, sahib…”

She thumbed off the spigot and secreted the flask back into her clothing while with the same motions bringing out a pack of cigarettes. She presented them to the guard with both hands.

The guard looked around to make sure that they were alone. He smiled at Dussala. His teeth were chipped and stained with nicotine. “You’re all the same.” He took the pack from her and stroked her cheek with a calloused palm. “Filthy whores.”

She forced herself not to react to his filthy touch, but she couldn’t help but gasp as he slapped her.

“Get back to work.” He tucked the cigarettes into an inner pocket of his jacket. “I’ll find you later.”

Dussala looked down at his manure-spattered boots. “Yes, sahib.”

As she hurried back to her station, hoping that she hadn’t stayed past the limits of her break, an amber light flashed on top of the holding tank. With a sound like the flap of thunderous wings, the milk was sucked into a clear pipe and pulled away. Off to the Fortification Room.

—–

The news of their forced departure put a damper on any dinner conversation. While cleaning up after, Drake kept himself busy by inventorying the rest of their food.

Almost half of the butter tins in the pantry trunks were empty.

He approached Mills where the Australian was sorting his things for packing.

“Hey, have you been taking more than your usual butter ration?”

“Piss off. I’m not gaga over the stuff like you are.” When Drake didn’t move away, he looked up. “What’s wrong?”

He explained the situation.

“Maybe someone’s just putting the empties in the trunk instead of crushing them for recycling.”

“That might explain one or two times, but a dozen?”

Mills turned to face the room. “Oy! Roberts. Foster. Which one of you knobs been nicking the butter?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me, wowser. Drake says we’re down to half of what we should have. I didn’t eat it. He says he didn’t, and I believe him. That leaves you two.”

Foster stood and placed a hand on Mills’ arm. “There’s no call for that.” He turned to Drake. “What do you think’s going on?”

Drake explained it again. Foster worried at his lower lip, thinking through the implications of the news. Roberts ran to the pantry trunks and started pulling out tins of butter.

“It’s gone, just like Drake said.”

“I may be green, but I know how to count.”

Roberts’ face reddened. Foster cut off anything he might have said with a gesture. “Stow it. Do we still have enough calories to get back?”

Roberts surveyed the remaining contents of the trunks. “It appears so.” He glared at Mills and Drake. “Barely.”

“I don’t want anyone throwing around accusations. We’ll sort this when we get back to base. Until then…” He retrieved several combination padlocks from his personal gear. “Stow the food and no one can get into it but me.”

Mills grumbled a bit but helped Drake get all of the food in place. When they were done, Foster latched the trunks and locked them.

“Get what sleep you can. We pack up and leave in eight hours.”

Drake could feel the dirty looks around the habitat as he packed his things and unrolled his sleeping bag. Foster turned down the lights, the dark walls of the shelter reducing the sunshine outside to a dim twilight.

It wasn’t a mistake. The butter really was gone. But why? Why antagonize your teammates over something as ridiculous as butter?

A susurration, like rustling plastic. Drake turned to see a man-sized shape among the food trunks. Someone turned up the lights.

“Damn thief!”

Before he could be stopped, Mills was up anoppod throttling Roberts. Drake shouted and tried to pull the Australian off. A backhand sent the world spinning.

“Enough!” Foster’s shout was like a gunshot. Mills finally pulled away and Roberts staggered to his feet. He rubbed at his throat and glared daggers at Mills.

“Bloody lunatic.”

Foster cleared his throat. Though his voice was soft, it carried clearly over the wind. “Roberts. What were you doing in the pantry?”

The man’s face reddened and he looked at the ground. “I saw something among the trunks. So I got up to investigate.”

“Movement. In a tent hundreds of kilometers from any known fauna.”

“I know what I saw!”

In spite of the chill, Drake could feel the heat in the room. “We’re all on edge right now. It might put everyone more at ease, well, if we set a guard on the food.”

“First sensible suggestion since this foolishness started.” Foster pointed at Mills. “I want you and Roberts on opposite ends of the room. As far apart from each other as you can. Drake’ll take the first watch. I’ll relieve him.”

The men grumbled but moved their sleeping bags and settled in. Foster rested a hand on Drake’s shoulder.

“Good lad. I’ll see you in four hours.”

Drake sat on one of the trunks and unwrapped a chocolate bar from his coat pocket. The rest of the team quieted while he sucked at the chocolate.”

—–

On the bus ride after her shift, Dussala could still feel the touch of the guard’s hand and the sting of his slap. At work she had concentrated on the repetitive action of guiding the cows to their places, putting on the milking machines, taking them off. But now she saw the man’s leering smile every time she closed her eyes.

She shivered. Her hands sought out the hidden flask. Her trembling subsided. It would be worth it. It had to be.

The bus driver laid into his horn and then slammed on the brakes. Dussal jostled against her neighbors. As the driver and the pedestrians traded insults, the bus’s tinny speaker flared louder.

“This hour of productive music brought to you by National Milk Company. Only the National brand bears the Party’s seal of approval. And it’s Fortified. National Milk. You know it’s good for you.”

Dussal suppressed another shudder. She signaled the driver for a stop. He opened the doors without pausing in his stream of insults. Dussala stepped off the bus into the herd of pedestrians, trying to make her way through the flow.

She wanted to shake them. Wanted to take them by the ears and scream into each face. Wake up! You don’t have to be cattle!

She made sure the flask still rested against her stomach. Her son had been one of the herd. He had gone with the flow and went where the Party had ordered him. Then he died. Dussala was the only one who remembered that he had ever lived. And the Gods, if they still existed.

She turned a corner. A National Milk poster loomed in front of her, a happy boy and a happy girl mocking her with their bright smiles and glassy eyes. National Milk. Fortified with everything that’s good for you.

She would have spit on the poster if she had dared. Instead, she hurried to her destination. She grasped the handrail to climb to the third floor of the gray concrete government-built housing unit. She counted her way to the correct apartment and knocked on the plain gray door.

The peephole flashed open.

“The tongue of the Gods.”

“And the navel of immortality.”

The woman opened the door, looking to both sides to see if anyone noted Dussala’s entrance, and then closed and locked the door behind her.

—–

Something touched Drake’s arm. He started awake to look into Foster’s smiling face.

“Don’t worry. I won’t tell. My turn. You’ll be more comfortable in your bag.”

Drake nodded and headed for his spot on the floor, while Foster settled in on one of the food trunks. As Drake pulled his sleeping bag around him, he heard Mills snoring softly on his left. He was glad the man had simmered down enough to get some rest.

Drake drifted off to sleep again faster than he thought he might. Unlike the past fortnight, he did not dream of food. No pears or pomegranates or even cantaloupes. No sizzling steaks.

Instead, he dreamt of war.

Sound thunders in his head. A smell hits the back of his throat. He swallows hard. It takes him a moment to realize what the stink is. Mud, mixed with the iron tang of blood.

The sun dawns in an ash-gray sky. Large smouldering piles line the horizon, belching great clouds of soot into the air. He sees at last what makes the constant thunder. Thousands upon thousands of men march in step, green fatigues, black boots, black armbands. Dust or soot dirties their uniforms.

He turns to run and finds one of the soldiers behind him. In addition to a black armband, the man wears a black band over his eyes. He opens his mouth and emits a screech. Not a human sound, but a cry composed of the scraping of a million insectile wings.

The army pivots without breaking step. It heads straight for Drake. He ducks under the grasping arms of the blindfolded man and starts to run. He slips in the blood-soaked earth but scrambles up. He wipes maggots off his body as he runs.

He has a lead on the army, but pain throbs against his ribs. He cannot run forever and they do not tire, will not stop. He runs further than he has ever run before. Takes in great gasps of ash-clogged air. Bile rises in his throat. He swallows it down and keeps running.

He runs into the burning hills and sees that they are not hills at all but smouldering mounds of corpses. One seems comprised just of children, another of women in brightly-colored saris.

He realizes what the ash in his lungs is and collapses. He empties the contents of his stomach into the mud.

A boot forces him to turn around. The blindfolded soldier smiles down at him. He has no teeth. A black tongue extends from his mouth, glossy and slick. It lengthens and lengthens, until it licks Drake’s chin, leaving only an oily smear.

“Bloody hell!”

Drake sat straight up in his sleeping bag. Mills stood at the entrance to the habitat, still in his heavy coat. His face mottled with rage. He turned toward Roberts.

“Someone has cut the fuel lines on the skidoos.”

“What?”

“I said, someone. Has. Cut. The. Bloody. Lines. All the petrol’s drained out. Dumped the stores too. We ain’t going anywhere.”

“And you think I did it.” Roberts pulled off his gloves. “I’ve had enough of your insinuations, you puffed up burke.”

“Say that again. I dare you.”

Foster stepped between the two men. “No more of this. No more!” He turned to Mills.

“Is there any chance of repairing the machines?”

“Even if I could, there’s no. Bloody. Petrol.”

“Then you need to pull the tarps and see if you can use them to strengthen the walls of the habitat. Now.”

Mills muttered something under his breath but turned and went back out into the wind.

“Roberts, radio Fossil Bluff. Explain the situation. Request an immediate evac.”

Roberts made a rude gesture at the habitat entrance and turned to the radio. He flipped the power switch.

Nothing happened.

—–

Dussala looked at the eager faces around her.

“You brought it?”

She produced the flask from her sari.

“Before it was Fortified?”

Dussala frowned at the thin-faced woman who had asked the question. She did not dignify it with a response. Instead, she proffered the flask to their leader.

The woman took the flask from her and went to the small refrigerator in the corner of the room. They did not know each other’s names. They did not want to. But in her mind, Dussala thought of their leader as Nandini, the mother of all cows, who arose from the churning of the great world-ocean.

“It is enough.”

Something eased in the tense atmosphere of the room. Nandini produced a propane-powered cook stove and set it in the center of the room. She placed a pot on the burner and filled the pot from the refrigerator and Dussala’s flask. Pure milk, almost two liters, collected drop by drop over several weeks.

Nandini lit the burner and began to stir the milk. Dussala and the seven other women seated themselves in a circle around the stove. As the milk heated, the women clapped their hands in time with the soft song they sang:

In hills unknown to our foes a sacred river flows

Gathering into a mighty river, the river of the Gods.

Blessed the cattle that feed on those sacred banks,

But more blessed still is the milk that they bear.

As the milk just began to boil, Nandini turned off the flame. The song continued as their leader checked the temperature of the milk, first with the back of her hand and then with the tip of her finger.

“It is ready.”

Nandini went to the refrigerator and retrieved a pot of yoghurt. The song fell silent as she stirred a large spoonful into the warm milk. Then she poured the milk into the clay base of an old-fashioned churn.

Nandini looked at the face of each woman in the circle. “Sleep, if you are able. We finish our work tomorrow.”

—–

Foster rushed to Roberts’ side. “What’s going on?”

Roberts tried the switch a few more times and then started shifting the apparatus. “Someone’s cut the leads to the battery.”

Drake stood close enough that he could see the clean break in the wires. Foster whirled on him. “Do something useful, man, like fixing breakfast.”

Drake was halfway to the trunks when he remembered. Foster was in urgent conversation with Roberts.

“Do you think you can splice the leads?”

“Yes, but it’ll take time.”

Drake cleared his throat. The other two looked up.

“I, uh, don’t know the combinations.”

Foster’s fingers whitened in his fists. “Have to do every bloody little thing myself.” He pushed away from Roberts, twirled the locks open, and hurried back to the radio.

Drake took a deep breath to calm his own nerves, and then set one pot on the stove for porridge, another for hot cocoa. He gathered the ingredients for both from the trunks.

The rest of the butter was gone.

He looked again, pulling out each of the tins. He shook them, opened each one. Over two dozen empty tins.

Who had done this? And how had they gotten the butter out without breaking the seal on several of the tins? Drake piled up the empty tins as if he could divine the answer from them. A pyramid shape reminded him too much of the burning corpses in his dreams, and he rearranged the stack.

“Got it.”

Drake turned to see Roberts flick on the radio. The red power light glowed, but they couldn’t get the apparatus to transmit. Roberts and Foster made short work of removing the front panel.

Drake didn’t have to be an electronics expert to know that the insides of the device were hopelessly mangled.

“Damn fool Australian!”

Foster rested a hand on Roberts’ shoulder. “See what you can do anyway. Drake, I need you to inventory our stores. See what we can do to wait out a long blow. When we don’t report in, Fossil Bluff will send someone to check on us, but it won’t be until after the storm.”

He stood and began to put on his heavy gear. “I need to have a word with Mills.”

Drake started sorting their remaining foodstuffs into piles, trying not to think of the implications of all that had happened. One of them didn’t want them to get back to Fossil Bluff. One of them had cut the fuel lines on the skidoos. One of them had wrecked the radio.

And they had done it while Drake and Foster had stood watch. He flushed, thinking of how he had fallen asleep. But surely the sounds of someone gearing up and opening up the cloak room would have woken him. Wouldn’t it have?

Of course, they only had Mills’ word that the fuel lines were cut. Drake banished the thought the instant it came. Mills wasn’t like that.

And the butter. How the bloody hell did the butter fit into all of this?

A scream rang out above the howling of the wind.

Drake and Roberts almost had their heavy gear completely on when Foster came back in. His face was white.

“Mills… Mills is dead.”

—–

Dussala did not remember the journey home. She could not fall asleep, and when she did sleep at last, she dreamt of black boots marching over the bloodied head of cows and of a world frozen in ice.

She forced herself through her shift at the dairy. One of her charges lowed in pain as Dussala removed the cups. She rested her hand on the beast’s udder.

“Soon,” she whispered the words into the cow’s side. “Soon He will come and save us all.”

She dared not speak to any of her co-workers. By the end of the day, she hardly dared breathe. At last the whistle sounded the shift change. Dussala’s heart hammered as she left the dairy and headed for the bus stop.

The striking of a match drew her attention to her left. The face of the guard from the other day glowed red as he lit his cigarette.

“Evening, whore.”

Dussala rushed away from him, but he caught up to her in two steps. The man spun her around and pinned her against the tree with his body. He mashed his lips against hers. She coughed as cigarette smoke and the stench of rotten food filled her lungs.

Her hands beat against the man’s sides, but it was like punching one of the steel walls of the dairy. The guard laughed.

“I’m going to enjoy this.”

He kissed her again. Dussala’s hands found their way to the man’s belt. As he ground against her, she pulled the guard’s combat knife from its sheath and stabbed up into his belly. Again and again she stabbed.

The man pulled away, the surprise in his eyes already dimming. She slit his throat across the larynx so he could not cry out. He crumpled to his knees, blood gushing out through the fingers where his hands pressed against his abdomen.

Dussala looked around quickly and dragged the man behind the tree. She looked at the knife in her hands and wiped the handle on her sari. She adjusted the cloth so the folds covered the worst of the blood spatters.

If she hurried, she could still make the last bus into the city. A cold trembling overtook her limbs, but she forced herself along the path to the bus stop.

—–

Drake and Roberts followed Foster out into the biting wind. Mills lay behind the half-dismantled tarps for the skidoos, his blood staining the ice from a long wound in his stomach. The man clearly was dead.

They couldn’t speak out here in the wind but Foster indicated what they should do through gestures. Drake and Roberts took Mills’ head, and Foster his feet. They positioned him between the two skidoos. It was no comfort to Drake to see that Mills had been telling the truth. The pool of petrol on the ice mocked the pool of blood a few meters away.

In unspoken agreement, they did what they could to shore up the wall of their habitat with materials from the skidoo tarps. Drake’s limbs trembled by the time they went back inside.

No one spoke as they took off their heavy gear. At last Robert made one of his barking, seal-like laughs.

“At least if we run out of food, there’s always Mills.”

“Bloody cunt!”

“What? It’s not like he needs those muscles any more. Custom of the Sea and all that.”

Drake lunged for Roberts, Foster stepping between them.

“Stop it. Don’t you see, lad? He’s just one inch from cracking.”

Over Foster’s shoulder, Drake finally noticed the crazed look in Roberts’ eyes. Damn him. In a soft voice, he pushed the man over the ledge, “The butter’s gone. All of it.”

Foster pushed Drake back and turned to Roberts. “The radio. See what you can do.”

Roberts nodded and turned to the mess of the radio. He giggled and parroted Drake’s words, “All gone…”

Foster pushed Drake into a corner of the room. “You did that on purpose,” he hissed the words through his teeth.

“Damn right. He killed Mills and then had the balls to suggest we eat him.”

“How? How did he kill Mills? He was with us in the habitat the whole time.”

Drake blinked. Foster was right. Roberts couldn’t have done it. He had been as shocked as Drake was to see Mills’ guts spilled out over the ice. Like he had wanted to vomit. Like his mind had already snapped.

Roberts couldn’t have done it. But Foster could have.

“Sorry. Sorry. Let me finish with breakfast.”

Foster squeezed his shoulder. “Good lad.” He went to the back of the tent where Roberts worked.

Drake sorted through the pantry, trying to find something he could use as a weapon. He secreted up his sleeve the screwdriver he used to prise open the butter tins.

It all fit. Foster could have killed Mills. Maybe the scream they had heard hadn’t been Foster’s scream of discovery but Mills’ death scream. Foster had been on watch after Drake. He could have sabotaged the radio and then gone out and dumped the petrol.

No. Someone would have heard him gearing up. Unless he had gone out without his heavy gear? That didn’t make any sense.

And the butter. Why the hell would he eat all the butter?

Outside, wind-driven ice pelted the walls like gunfire. Whatever was going on, he and Roberts were trapped inside the habitat with a madman.

He added the remaining ingredients to the porridge and set it to simmer. Foster and Roberts talked in low tones over the innards of the radio. Before the plan had fully formed in his mind, Drake had inched his way toward Foster’s sleeping bag and had opened up the expedition logbook.

The entries were pretty much as Drake had expected them, until he reached the point a few days ago when they had hit the strange pockets. Foster’s writing became more cramped, more erratic. As if he were suppressing a barely contained excitement. Drake turned a page.

The image of a black slug greeted him, a slug or maybe a blood-filled leech. The strokes of the pen gave the creature a glossy sheen. Drake couldn’t help but think of the impossibly long tongue from his dream.

He turned the next page. He flipped another and another. All of the remaining pages of the logbook were filled with sketches of the slugs or leeches or whatever. Dozens of them.

Drake swallowed hard and looked up. Foster smiled at him from by the radio.

“Have you figured it out yet, lad?”

He reached for Roberts as if to embrace him and, with a quick twist, snapped the man’s neck.

—–

It took longer for someone to answer the door at Nandini’s apartment. The thin-faced woman gave Dussala a disapproving look as she let her in.

The other women sat around the old-fashioned churn, its clay heart resting on a wooden support. Nandini spun the paddle of the churn by pulling two chords wrapped around a wooden shaft.

Dussala locked the door behind herself and joined the circle of women around the churn. They again clapped their soft rhythm to help Nandini keep time, and again they sang:

As butter forms within the covered churn

So forms the child within his mother’s womb.

All we are is fire, fire and purest light;

From light we come and to the light return.

As Nandini tired, one of the other women took her place at the pulls until every woman in the circle had operated the churn twice. Never during that time did the song die. Its rhythm found its way into every beat of the paddles. Its words permeated the butter forming within the clay vessel.

During Dussala’s time operating the churn, she thought of her son. How he had formed within her like the butter taking form in the churn. The pain and the joy of his birth. The radiance of his face as he nursed from her breasts. Her dreams for his future.

She had wept bringing him to school the first day. School had changed him, school and whatever the Party put into National Milk and the other food to make people more complacent, more biddable. He had volunteered to be one of the Party’s child soldiers…

She exchanged places with the next woman. As she brushed tears from her eyes, she felt someone watching her. She looked to her right to see Nandini smiling at her. She took one of Dussala’s hands and squeezed it.

When the churn moved stiffly, Nandini opened it. The scent of the butter filled the room, rich and fresh, like the sun of a previous era shining on a peaceful meadow. Nandini set up the cook stove again and spooned the butter into an iron skillet. The circle of women leaned forward. They hardly breathed. Nandini melted the butter, stirring constantly as the water boiled away and the butter fats caramelized.

The fire worked its magic, changing butter into the purest ghee.

—–

Drake stared at the twisted body of Roberts on the floor, still not admitting to himself what he knew had to be true.

“You killed him.”

“You saw me do it, lad.”

“You killed Mills too.”

“Of course.”

You wrecked the radio.”

“Yes.”

“You must have dumped the petrol and cut the fuel lines too.”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t hear you gear up.”

“I didn’t.”

Drake processed those words for a moment.

“Why? In God’s name, why?”

Foster rose and took a step toward Drake. Drake backed up until he could back up no more. Foster laughed.

“God has nothing to do with it. Or at least, not any sort of god worshipped today.”

Foster opened his mouth and from it oozed one of the creatures he had drawn. Slimy, blacker than an oil slick. More extruded from his nostrils, his tear ducts, his ear canals, until perhaps a dozen helf-meter…things danced over Foster’s body like oily tentacles.

“Neither you nor Roberts noticed the most striking thing about Mills’ wounds.”

Drake forced himself to remember the scene. It wasn’t that the abdomen had been cut. More like… “Something burst out of him. From the inside.”

Foster laughed. “They told me not to kill the clever one. I thought they had meant Roberts. You have no idea, lad, how pleased I am to be wrong.”

“The butter. They ate it.” The image came to Drake of those things sliding under the lids of the trunks, making their way into the tins without breaking the seals.

He didn’t know whether that thought came from his own imagination, or had been somehow…projected by the creatures into his mind.

Foster’s smile widened. He stroked one of the creatures as a man might pet a cat. “Nutritionists are only now starting to appreciate the value of butyric acid. Can reset a person’s metabolism. Maybe even treat diabetes. Certainly perked these little dears right up. Oh, the plans they have for this tired old world of ours.”

“Plans?”

“Of course. This is an invasion, after all.”

“I’ll stop you.”

Foster laughed again. Drake loathed the sound. “Millions of years and hundreds of meters of Antarctic ice didn’t stop them. What do you think you can do?”

“This.”

With a shout, Drake lunged forward. He drove the screwdriver in his hand deep into the soft flesh under Foster’s chin until the tip penetrated the brain. The other man collapsed to the floor.

The creatures moved sluggishly on the ground, like remote control devices that had lost their signal. Fire ought to sort them out. Drake just needed to sit down a moment and catch his breath.

Foster sat up on the floor. With a wet, sucking sound, he pulled out the screwdriver. The head of one of the creatures appeared in the hole.

“That would have been a nice try, lad. If only I weren’t already dead.”

Drake felt his legs give way. He sat down hard on one of the pantry trunks.

“They don’t want a lot. Now that their physical manifestations have stabilized, they feed off negative emotions. Fear, paranoia, hatred, despair. Things humanity has in great abundance. They just want to pull the strings a little. Keep the bad vibes flowing, as it were.”

Drake thought of his dream again and the endless rows of marching men.

“Why am I still alive?”

“Well, unfortunately, they still need a human vessel. A willing human vessel. This one is about all used up.”

“I’ll starve first!”

“We’ll see. We shall certainly see. If not you, perhaps one of the rescue team from Fossil Bluff.”

One of the creatures stroked Drake’s leg. He kicked it away.

“They have all the time in the world…”

—–

Nandini poured the ghee into a jar. Dussala swallowed. The power of the sun, of Agni, the primordial flame, contained within a small glass jar. Perhaps the only container of ghee made in the traditional manner within the entire country. Perhaps the world. The only ghee not contaminated by the Party and its ideology and drugs.

Rebellion in a jar. A symbol that, in their hearts at least, the women in this room were free.

A fist hammered at the door. “Open up! Police!”

The thin-faced woman screamed and fell to the floor in a faint. Two of the others ran to Nandini’s bedroom, looking for another way out.

Nandini rose to her feet. “It is time, sisters.”

Dussala nodded. She and the remaining women braced the door with their bodies. From her blouse, Nandini withdrew a folded piece of glossy paper. She unfolded it. The front side bore an image of the blue-skinned child Krishna, depicted as Makhan Khor. The Butter Thief.

“We know you are harboring the criminal Dussala Gopi. Turn her over, and the rest of you will not be harmed.”

Nandini dipped her thumb into the ghee and anointed the face of Krishna in His paper image. She anointed each of His limbs and fixed the image to the wall with a tack. At His feet, the woman set two clay lamps.

Dussala knew the woman prayed as she performed the devotion, even though she could not hear the words over the noise the police made. The door shook dust from its frame as they drove a steel ram against it again and again. The women pressed back as hard as they could, but the force of the men on the other side overwhelmed them.

Nandini filled the lamps with the remaining ghee and struck a match to light them. A young officer started at the flame and fired his weapon at Nandini. She collapsed onto the floor.

Dussala shouted and struggled out from under the door. Men barked orders. Several people shouted. The clamor around her grew more and more distant. Hands tugged at her. She shook them off. All to reach the box of matches Nandini had dropped.

Something hit the back of her head. She fell to the floor, but the match did not go out. She stretched her arm out and lit the lamps. The flames grew brighter and brighter, filling the room with their radiance.

With glory and blessings, Lord Krishna came for His faithful ones.

 

 

 

 

 


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Donald Jacob Uitvlugt hardly needs an introduction. He has long been a part of the arena as one of its weekly judges. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).

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7 Comments

  1. I liked this one, although I don’t entirely understand how the two pieces of the story are supposed to link together. I guess I’ll give my thoughts on both individually.
    The story in the arctic was a kind of riff on The Thing with a little bit of The Martian’s calorie counting survival mixed in. It worked well enough, but the ending seemed slightly obvious, and I was really hoping for something more. I would have liked to see more “man against nature” action mixed in with the mystery of who was stealing the butter.
    The other other tale was the stronger of the two. I could feel the desperation of Dussala at her plight and the plight of her nation. I didn’t quite understand the spiritual significance of the ritual with the ghee, but it was written in such a way that I believed the author understood what was supposed to be happening and for me at least that was good enough.
    But overall I was really disappointed that there wasn’t a stronger link between the stories. From the moment the narrative shifted from one story to the other I was excited to see how they were going to tie together and the fact that they didn’t (at least as far as I could see) was a real disappointment.

  2. I liked the mystery of the butter tins. It was a good way to mix in the prompt and…well…also call up an entire lineage of gods that I’m not sure anyone at the arena was aware of when we came up with this prompt.

    So.

    It turns out that butter is possibly a key part of the Hindu religion and, in some versions, buttery goodness calls out some not so desirable things. This was impressive. I love the research put into the prompt and to use it in such a way to mix an arctic horror story in with a butter cult was…it was something. I’m not sure I understand the Hindu stories quite yet though, and I thought things faltered a bit for me because of that. A bit more of a bridge built for the reader might have helped.

    That said, the butter thievery was truly well written and Dussala’s story, as well as the strange thought-controlling regime she lived under, were tense and terrible in the best ways. And that bridge is almost there…the dream that Drake had was one of my favorite arena sequences ever and drove home a lot of awful feelings and it clearly mirrored the world of Dussala. But I’m not sure I quite was able to connect all the dots on my own on this one.

  3. The first time I read this, I got so caught up in the arctic story that I scrolled through reading those bits first. Then I went back for the other part of the story.

    What Donald gives us here is a standard Base Under Siege story in the frozen wastes, which I’ve been a sucker for since The Thing and Ice Station Zebra. Then we also get a rich and textured Hindu tale, something in stark contrast to the other part of the story.

    I wondered if Donald was going for a yin/yang thing here, but I can’t be certain.

    Donald is very good at evoking other cultures. He’s well traveled or well read, maybe both. The result is an ability to bring different perspectives and different settings to life with an apparent effortlessness. In this case it genuinely adds a new dimension to the tale; where most writers (me included) would have stuck to one narrative track, Donald weaves two together. I wanted more points of contact between them, but I suspect they are meant to stand apart and we are supposed to think about what that might mean.

    The other disturbing thought I had was this: The first time I read the whole thing, I sat back and wondered aloud how we’d come to write essentially the same tale. If you read his story and mine sequentially, they almost become a continuation of one another. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe it’s the butter talking.

  4. I’m thinking that the connection between the two stories is after the aliens have taken over, that seems to be the primary link to the story. As for Dussala’s story, I thought it was strong, though her enemies had no personality or flavor. Maybe that was intentional, but having a guard be evil for no reason sometimes doesn’t feel right to me.

    I liked the frozen wastes setting, but it felt so abrupt that it could have been placed anywhere. They were isolated, but the main thing the beings wanted was to escape, so I’m not sure why they would sabotage so much.

    It’s a very interesting story, but lacks some cohesion. It’s always hard to weave two entirely different tales, and you nailed parts of it. I think just a bit more connection would have made this really strong.

  5. To me, Tony’s comment is pretty spot on: the unseen force in Dussala’s story that controls the milk, the menace in the adverts, the regulated work were all fascinating and I’d’ve maybe liked 5000 words of expansion – I knew Dussala and her connected group were rebelling, I just wasn’t exactly sure against what, which made the motivation a little harder to understand.

    I loved how you researched into both stories – that much is obvious in the technical as well as…cultural details, and how you linked both stories clearly to the theme. I’m also concerned Dussala’s story is the follow up to David’s – maybe the butter has got to you both and the mind control is working 😛

  6. Reading each of the two stories as separate entities, I really enjoyed them. Dussala’s story has quite a bit of suspense as I was constantly trying to think ahead and try to figure out where this was going. As other readers pointed out, the Antarctic story really reminded me of The Thing.

    What I struggled with, was connecting the two stories together. I’d really like to hear/read your commentary on this story and get a little bit more insight. Overall, a very solid story(s)!

  7. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    I enjoyed this one a great deal – but felt essentially that I was reading two very different stories for which I struggled to find a solid anchor of symbiosis, other than perhaps the first death in the arctic story basically coinciding with the killing of the attacking guard in Dussala’s story.

    Independent of one another I also felt that each story flowed well, and I was very immersed in each tale as their circumstances became more fully realized with each subsequent scene.

    The prompt was strongly evident in each of the two narratives, and both in unique and interesting ways. In the arctic tale it was a creative element that seemed well grounded and thought out, though that story itself felt overall a bit derivative and predictable.

    I enjoyed the contrast between how the butter thief was central to each story, yet were almost polar (pun) opposite in terms of not only the characters and settings, but circumstances and motivations. In one tale the theft was indicative of an invasive malevolent presence, while in the other it was sympathetic rebellion against a malevolent cultural governance.

    In Dussala’s tale the butter element (though quite beautifully featured) seemed a bit vague overall, as was the oppressive social construct in which the drama plays out. Yet both were enough to draw me in to what felt like a rich tapestry of history, culture and emotions that I wanted to explore more deeply. I loved what the story offered, and I wanted more of it.

    The prompt was probably the most challenging one I’ve seen in the Arena, and reading Mr. Uitvlugt’s approach to the topic was fun, creative, and rewarding. I enjoyed it very much.

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