Women by Victoria Holt, 2017
It is unlikely that you’d have missed the baffling case of the Burgundy Lake that hit headlines in the eastern part of the globe. The case was curious. It was the evidence of three pairs of eyes, who happened to present their account to me, against the School of Ichthyology, and the might of documented work and exhaustive taxonomy. That was—well, at best, extremely insufficient. Yet it did generate a storm as all good controversies do, and in the light of the subsequent events, deserves to be further investigated.
Truth, however well reported, can sometimes be stranger than fiction.
When a hundred and ten girls, some as young as eleven years old, disappeared from their school in Dapchi, Nigeria, the narrative was worse than a poor fiction. The school was only 275 kilometers from Chibok, where Boko Haram militants had kidnapped nearly three hundred girls from their school just four years earlier. The evidence of the kidnapping was, at best, glaring. It was broad daylight, pupils and their teachers milled about, life was usual. Yet it happened. The world shook in outrage and disbelief. You wouldn’t have missed it either.
Living in disbelief in a dysfunctional world is a true commonality. When a loved one goes missing, entwined lives gasp for answers. The world, of family and friends, crumble. Is it not baffling? According to reports, each year more than 25,000 people disappear in the United Kingdom alone. Somebody I knew was one of them. Somewhere in the squirming ocean of humans, another person fell off the grid of relationships he was lovingly weaved in. There was no evidence.
Missing people are lost people—lost to the world and in lost to themselves. Authorities, often handicapped by resources and practicality, act as if it is a loss wished under the carpet.
When he or she chooses to disappear, all that are left behind, people like Sandra Flintoff, mother of Craig who went missing fifteen years ago, become bodies without souls—it means nothing to live or die.
When the trio set foot on Quattor Island on a shiftless evening, a steady twilight brooded over the jetty. Quattor means four-sided in Latin. It was never inhabited by any permanent residents; only six square kilometers of flat white sandy beaches, wild forests within which nestles the Burgundy Lake, and infinite serenity.
The regular holidayers religiously avoid it. One takes a forty-five minute ride in the lone steamer from Fraserganz, which pulls ashore first at Alpha Island— the larger one, then takes the scant remainder of passengers, to Quattor Island.
Most enthusiasts rent shacks on the beach where the sea recedes during tides. The rest move inland towards the Burgundy Lake and wait for its enchanting lore.
Is lore a true account? Or was it falsehood disbursed by unsuspecting people down the ages? By the mere repetition of that lore, the fiction transforms into an engrossing truth.
But what happens to evidence? And when there are none? What of the account of the owners of those three pairs of eyes?
Boko Haram, roughly translated from the Hausa language, means ‘Western Education is forbidden’. Dapchi residents like Ba’ana Musa live in the wilderness of anonymity. In the midst of a punitive land, the essence of a better life lies in education. Musa wouldn’t want to send his daughters to school again. The merchants of terror have succeeded.
Over the skies of Yobe State, Nigeria, Air Force planes had flown for over two hundred hours searching for the missing girls. It is not easy to reconcile with disappearances, where the fist of a recalcitrant tiny band is mightier than the collective strength of a nation.
The Nigerian government had released the names of all girls, reconfirmed from registers by the School authorities. Their identities—-contrary to all ethics relating to victim identities and conventions—weren’t kept anonymous.
Missing people are statistics on registers. Not all of them willed to be anonymous. Not the Nepali girls who ended up in brothels in Mumbai.
When a devastating earthquake hit the Himalayan kingdom, they were herded across the border into India with promises of a livelihood. The starving girls were made to disappear, silently, by design. The outrage of their families never shook the world.
Let’s keep the three Ichthyology students anonymous as they have requested; and call them by names of fishes they would have liked to be called by— Anchovy, Pilchard and Menhaden, given their deep love for all things fishy!
On the left was the broad stretch of the ocean bathed in ephemeral light and half invisible fishing trawlers in the distant grayness. To the right, between the dark mass of the low dunes and the white sands, dominating the whole view, were colossal trees, which stood heavy and dense, full of the brutal force of Nature left to itself, swaying to the irregular bursts of squalid air.
A dull golden dust hung over the calm bay. Leaving the rest of the group at the beach, the three carefully tread the mud path between the trees towards Burgundy Lake.
A monotonous hollow whisper of the crashing waves sounded feebler as they walked inland. And then— Burgundy Lake was in front of them.
Pitching their puny tents in the clearing, the friends worked towards making a meal on the tiny stove they had remembered to carry along. Beyond them, on the short patch of soft mud, were dirt footmarks of unknown people just visible in the fading dimness. Menhaden lit the portable light, which began to burn condescendingly. Near at hand were ghostly, stunted wild bushes, huddled together in ignominy.
It would be hard to convey the stillness of the place. The wind had stopped, the leaves did not move, not a living soul stirred, like the world had fallen silent, lifeless. Trees were frozen, the waters dense in anticipation, like holding the weight of an enormous secret in their bosom….it was the quiet that struck the trio, calmness—not of peace but of death!
Five girls from the Dapchi School were reported to have met death. Khadija Grema, one of the girls released later, revealed a secret burdening her soul—the thin line between life and death was demarcated by belongingness to a certain faith. It is intriguing how erroneous interpretation of religion can be.
Serenity in death, I believe, is a rare blessing—the finality of death in the contentment of a life well lived. But what of the families that live in limbo for decades in search of closure? About one per cent of missing people never return. The Police files remain open, the families are stranded in a morass of uncertainty, where the news of death would, against the grain of attachments, be hoped for, even welcomed.
The families of persons missing do not cry, instead they question—what went wrong? Through a thousand doors they rummage, through the postcards, flipping through images, through the snippets of memories…they seek answers.
I tried to reason too. I studied philosophy, read the cycle of inevitable repetitions, and prayed for the spell to be broken.
A blue haze, half-sand, half-mist, began to shroud the Lake, like the curtain had been drawn to begin the enchanting lore of the Burgundy Lake. The friends were under its spell.
In the pallid light, the Lake seemed to come to life, its banks outlined thinly by intriguing rare dots of burgundy light, bunched together in twos and threes, and then melting away, holding the friends in a mesmerizing trance. This was it! The dots sharpened into lasers streaming through the inky black darkness until the strange rays hovered over the entire lake in a halo of fantastical burgundy.
Next day, a gap in the dense circle of green marked the expanse of the slowly enlivening skies. The eastern corner burst into majestic carmine, in the faint light of which, the friends found, to their perturbation, that the waters were no longer of the vibrant shade of last night; it was in fact an intriguing grey-green, like frozen algae!
Humid air blew in from the sea side, creating alluring ripples on the surface of water; the feeling of mystery lurking, of a story not yet unraveled, hung over the discussions like an apparition.
One mother of a missing child I met, says, would she not know by instinct if her child was dead, taken away to the Heavens? It must have been terrifying to even imagine that, but she believes it is better than living like an apparition, dying a thousand deaths every day. But then, she also hoped her child would perhaps be spotted at a park in another country, perhaps forgetting all about her and happy, living with a kind family in another continent….
Oscillating every waking minute between hope and hopelessness, she said, she might be staring at insanity.
For the parents of the Nigerian girls, hope itself is luxury. So perhaps is insanity. In a world oscillating between starvation and jihadist militancy, life is resigned to destiny.
Menhaden suggested a dip in the Lake. They descended the shallow waters, knee deep in the opaque grey-green fluid, almost like mucus in texture but stone-cold like the depths of the deep sea. The smooth pebbles weathered by immeasurable time felt smooth.
In the other-worldly silence, the little aperture of azure sky was stoic, and the wind from the bay stunned into silence.
Something stirred, black against the weltering waters; then the shriek of a man— deafening— like a life on the edge. All happened in a matter of seconds—lesser than the time it would take to read about it. There was a rattling sound as the snout of a Strange being peeped above the waters for less than a second, flashing a red light from its organ at the end of the long barbel that hang down from its chin revealing its teeth-filled mouth. In a moment it brought the six-foot tall Pilchard below the opaque surface of water with its long swaying tail and pinned him down. As the other two panicked, its stalked eyes gleamed, measuring the adversaries. Its back was corrugated, the rough scales standing on ends in the excitement of the battle. Pilchard got up and the managed a punch at its wavering mouth causing it to duck; but it raised again and the two wrestled once more. It was about two meters, an uneasy grey-blue on its skin, the lines of which were shiny in the mucus that it exuded. For once, it opened its mouth on the hinge at the back of its skull. It could easily swallow the man whole within that deep opening. In a swift giant stride Pilchard withdrew to the shoal dragging himself, but the fish hit the man with its diphycercal tail a second time, making him fall. Its barbel wagged languidly through the water, flickering on and off, to set off a trail of luminescent burgundy dots on the surface. In a frightful qualm, Pilchard turned. The evil eyes of the aquatic monster were wriggling on their stalks; its mouth was alive with the algal slime. Presently it descended on the man and sunk its fangs on his right leg as it tried to pull him deeper. Pilchard tried pushing its corrugated back with his free leg but it exuded such oil that it merely slid over its body. The anterior portion of its cranium swung upwards; the gape of its mouth was now large enough to pull a prey inside worth twice its size!
At this juncture, the other two returned to their senses. The man felt a massive surge upwards; his free foot being dragged over the cold pebbles and no sensation of the other foot. At the instant he fainted, one of his saviors hit the fish’s eyes with a dry log, repeating the effort countless times….
When the fish retired from the battlefield, an abominable desolation hung over the place. The injured man lay about on the sand; his mangled leg displaying a gashing wound with the ruthless imprints of the fish’s fangs.
It was, quite unambiguously, related to the Indiana Chalumnae, with its hinged skull and slippery body; a fish thought to have lived only in the deep seas where light cannot penetrate, and which last existed, back in the Cretaceous Period some sixty million years ago!
A year after he had gone missing, someone I thought I knew, returned.
None in the family, none of his friends asked any questions. He offered no explanations. We asked ourselves—who had let him down? Could things have been mended before they broke? The feelings rose, a gathering storm threatening to blow us all. We found ourselves breaking down often. It made us distraught. The fact that he offered no answers and remained in an impregnable bubble, made us wonder why he did not think it worthwhile to love us back? Why he did not care?
On the eighth day after the encounter, Pilchard called up his friend, Agatha, curator at the Museum of Natural History, to see if she had any answer to the description they could provide. For one, they now had a solution to the baffling lore of the Lake, and its curious burgundy color. The Chalumnae was known to have emitted a strange laser-like burgundy light from under its eyes to locate its prey in the dimness of the Deep Seas.
Agatha sounded convinced; whether as a friend or as a professional is another matter. But the problem began when Agatha, failing to find reasonable evidence from similar fossils collected from around the world, contacted the Professor Emeritus at the very School of Ichthyology where the three were students. The enormous anomalies—the fact that a creature of very Deep Seas was found in a Lake, whose burgundy color may, after all, be part of some spectacular imagination; the fact that it preyed on human when it was known to have survived in residual organic detritus; and finally, it was thought to have been dead millions of years ago— dismissed the case.
The International Journal of Fish Sciences published the finding, seeming to endorse the students’ views. The School of Ichthyology accused the Journal of ignoring the lack of any scientific evidence. Caught in the middle, the students themselves had to go undercover and have been nameless since.
Months later, buoyed by pressures created as a result of all the public debating, the School of Ichthyology decided to send a team for exploration. The team, a fairly competent one in my view, did not find anything amiss.
Do we publicly debate the growing statistics of people who go missing? Is it not a notion that somehow the family itself was responsible?
Between cursory references and total denial, we all live in limbo.
We are not used to uncomfortable truths.
Most of the Nigerian schoolgirls have been released. Some, it is said, have refused to reunite with the families that brought them up; instead, bearing children for their abductors.
Sometimes the extremes of truth are hard to believe.
Suffice it to say that the case of the Burgundy Lake was buried. At the peril of sounding alarmist, I shall only unfold the series of events occurring subsequently, ones that I have already alluded to. Three people disappeared at the Burgundy Lake— a young boy camping with his parents; another man, roughly the age and height of Pilchard, caught in a mysterious whirlpool and never surfaced. One British biologist, Jeremy Wade, who volunteered to capture the perpetrator after learning of the news, discounted the possibility of turbulence as the Burgundy Lake waters were infinitely dull. Instead, he theorized that a creature matching the description of the three friends, a coelacanth, could be responsible. With a hollow oil-filled notochord and hinged skull, one that had developed a taste for human flesh….
The final attack happened when a Nepalese man was swallowed whole by something his girlfriend described as an “aquatic giraffe”.
In each case, not even their bones were ever found.
Truth meanders; sometimes is trapped forever, gasping for a last breath.
About the Author:
Mandira Pattnaik is an Indian writer who lets her Economics degree gather dust while she word-weaves. Her writings have made their way into places like The Times of India, Bombay Literary Magazine, Gasher Journal, Commuterlit, Cabinet of Heed, Spelk, Star82, Lunate and (Mac)ro(mic), among others. She tweets @MandiraPattnaik