Butterflied Chicken on my Vision Pro Grill

This was quite an experiment as I wanted to bake some rice in the grill to go with the chicken, so I decided to use the cast iron pan both as a weight on top of the chicken, and as the cooking utensil for the rice. Here’s how it went …
butterflied_chicken
A few hours before cooking I butterflied my chicken. Actually I did semi-butterfly because I took out the back bone only, and left the breast bone in. In hindsight I would take the breastbone out also because I think that would make it easier for the pan to stay level on top. The reasons why that would be important become apparent later. I decided to use east-Indian curry flavours for this meal. So I mixed some curry paste, curry powder, yogurt, salt and pepper, to make a fairly stiff paste. This I inserted under the skin of both breasts and legs. Then I turned the bird over and just seasoned the underside with salt and pepper. I covered the chicken and left it in the fridge to marinade.

water_tray

Closer to dinner time I made the fire in my Vision Pro grill using lumpwood charcoal. I put in place the lava stone heat diffuser. On top of that I put a tray of water with the back bone that I had cut out of the chicken. I did this in case the juice from the chicken would make a gravy later, but at the end they were a bit too concentrated and charred. As it turned out there was no real need for gravy anyway.

While that was getting up to temperature set out my ingredients for the rice. To make a portion for two I used 1/2 cup basmati rice, a few cardamon pods, some fennel seeds (about 1 tsp), a small diced onion, and a thinly sliced clove of garlic. For cooking liquid I warmed up 1 cup of chicken stock + 1/2 c water with a pinch of added salt (the stock already had some salt).

I rinsed the rice a couple of times and left it to one side.

Then I put some oil (approx 2 tbsp) in the cold cast iron pan and added all the dry ingredients except the rice, and stirred to make sure everything was coated with the oil.
onions_in_pan
I put this pan on the grill for about 10-15 mins with the lid closed. In hindsight I think that this stage could have been started at the same time as the chicken went on to avoid overcooking the rice.

chicken_under_pan
Next I removed the pan temporarily, placed my chicken skin side down on the hot grill, sprayed the bottom of the pan with PAM to stop it adhering to the chicken, and placed the pan on top. I added the rice to the pan and stirred in the liquids. This was when I wished that the chicken was fully butterflied which might have allowed for a more level pan. I covered the pan with foil as tightly as I could and closed the lid of the grill again.

bbq_chicken
I let it cook for 15 mins, and then flipped the chicken to skin side up, replacing the pan again. I cooked it for another 10 mins and then checked everything for doneness. The rice was fully cooked so I removed that. The chicken was still around 140 degree F internally, so I left it on for another 10-15 mins, at which point it was perfect.

I let the chicken rest for a few minutes. Then I cut it into 2 portions and served with the rice.

BBQ Chicken and Rice
The Finished Product

Everything turned out really well, although the rice was slightly overdone by this stage, hence why I would start the whole process at the same time as the chicken in future, and possibly pull it off sooner. I guess it would depend on the size of the chicken and the resulting cooking time. But the flavour of the rice was like nothing I’ve had before. It was really delicious. The chicken was extremely tender and flavourful. This was a winner.

BBQ Lamb and Potatoes on my Kamado Ceramic Grill

I had a boneless leg of lamb and some new potatoes. Of course there was no choice but to produce some BBQ lamb on the grill. This preparation really was very straightforward and turned out wonderfully.

Marinade for Lamb:

  • 1 tbsp whole coriander seeds
  • 2 tsp whole fennel seeds
  • 2 tbsp dried oregano
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/4c good olive oil
  • 1 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 1/8c white wine
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper

I crushed the coriander and fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar. They don’t have to be too finely crushed – just enough to release their flavours and aromas. Then I combined everything in a bowl big enough to accommodate the lamb. Using a whisk I mixed thoroughly. I added the lamb and turned a couple of time to coat with the marinade. Then I covered it and left it to marinade while I prepared the BBQ. (I imagine it would be fine to leave overnight as well, although I might hold off using the full amount of the lemon juice until shortly before cooking just to prevent the acidity from pre-cooking the meat too much).

I made a lumpwood charcoal fire in my Vision Pro Kamado grill, setting the heat diffusing lava stone in place. When everything was up to about 375 degrees F, I added some hickory wood chips to the coals and put the lamb on a rack over the lava stone. After about 20 mins I added some medium sized new potatoes just washed, oiled and seasoned. I checked internal temperature of the lamb after 45 mins and found that it was only about 120, so I left it for another 15 mins at which point it got to 135. I took it off to rest under a foil tent for about 10 mins before serving.

The BBQ lamb was excellent, as were the potatoes which needed absolutely no butter – they already tasted like butter.

The finished product
The finished product

Duck Breasts BBQ’ed on Charcoal

Having searched around for how to treat duck breast on a charcoal bbq I wasn’t really satisfied with any of the possibilities. I wanted to render off the skin fat like I would in cast iron, but also infuse the duck with good ol bbq smoke. I figured that slow smoking would not deal with the skin properly, but direct grilling would likely result in serious flare up as the fat was rendered. So here’s what I did …

Having searched around for how to treat duck breast on a charcoal bbq I wasn’t really satisfied with any of the possibilities. I wanted to render off the skin fat like I would in cast iron, but also infuse the duck with good ol bbq smoke. I figured that slow smoking would not deal with the skin properly, but direct grilling would likely result in serious flare up as the fat was rendered. So here’s what I did …

First I soaked some Jack Daniels smoking chips.

Then I made a marinade from: apple juice, splash of Canadian whiskey, smaller splash of cider vinegar, salt & pepper.

I scored the duck breast skins in diamonds, being very careful not to cut the flesh underneath. I injected each duck breast with the marinade lengthwise, and then allowed them to sit in the marinade in the fridge while I got the BBQ ready.

I got a lumpwood charcoal fire going in the Vision Pro with the lava stone heat diffuser in place. Once everything was up to a reasonable cooking temperature Ilifted the lava stone with a heavy duty oven glove and slid my drained wood chips inside. I then cooked some oiled and seasoned fennel in a veggie tray on the rack (approx 15 mins).

Once that was done I wrapped the fennel in some tin foil to keep it hot, and removed the rack, leaving just the hot lava stone in place. I drained my duck breasts and dried them with some paper towel, then placed them skin side down on the lava stone and shut the lid. The dome thermometer was about 400. Some great smelling smoke soon started coming from the exhaust, but I was confident that there would be no flare up inside as the stone was absorbing the fat.

In the meantime I began a simple cream peppercorn sauce on a gas ring. I first put some Canadian whiskey in a pan and reduced to about half. I added some 35% cream and allowed this to bubble and reduce a bit also. A couple of mins before serving I added a tbsp of cider vinegar, and about 2 tbsp green peppercorns (from a can of good quality French variety).

After around 8 mins I opened the BBQ lid and flipped the breasts. The skin was a beautiful golden brown. I shut the lid again and continued to cook for about 3-4 mins. I removed them to a plate and covered in foil and let them rest for approx 2-3 mins.

I served them uncut with the sauce poured over and the fennel on the side. My wife and I both agreed that this was by far the best duck breast we had ever experienced (and we’ve had a few).

P.S. Next time I will take pictures

The Voyagers Twins Competing Story Postscript

(Please read the original short story before reading this postscript)

…………………………

 

Postscript

Karachi’s geography makes it easy for heroin to be shipped all around the globe. Around 1 in 40 are addicted to heroin. As a hub for this trade, heroin in Karachi is easily obtained and cheaper than food. Poverty is rife and men without work or hope dive into heroin to try to find an escape. Just one fix of heroin can lead to a lifetime of dependency. For these people the experience of the brief voyage away from their life of misery leads them to forever chase further escapist voyages. Invariably along the way they lose those they loved along with any plans they may have had to shape their future. The drug renders most addicts completely powerless.

The Edhi Foundation is a nonprofit program supported entirely by voluntary donations. It has six centers in Karachi treating 4500 at any one time. They don’t have the funding for substitute medications or pain relief and the centers resemble something between a war time hospital and 18th Century Jail. Bodies writhing in pain from withdrawal are strewn across make shift beds and cold concrete floors. Their only pain relief is Paracetemol. Most of the patients are there against their own free will, they have been referred by their families, desperate for them to stop their addiction. They have no choice, as once admitted they are locked behind bars until the detox is completed. The Foundation was founded by Abdul Sattar Edhi in 1951.

Edhi is the head of the organization and his wife Bilquis a nurse, looks after the maternity and adoption services of the foundation. Its headquarters are in Karachi, Pakistan.

Edhi established his first welfare center and then the Edhi Trust with a mere Rs. 5000 {Approx. $55.56}. What started as one man operating from a single room in Karachi is now the Edhi Foundation, the largest welfare organization in Pakistan. The foundation has over 300 centers across the country, in big cities, small towns and remote rural areas, providing medical aid, family planning and emergency assistance. They own air ambulances, providing quick access to far-flung areas.

In Karachi alone, the Edhi Foundation runs 8 hospitals providing free medical care, eye hospitals, diabetic centers, surgical units, a 4- bed cancer hospital and mobile dispensaries. In addition to these the Foundation also manages two blood banks in Karachi.

20,000 abandoned babies have been saved.

40,000 qualified nurses have been trained

50,000 orphans are housed in Edhi Homes

4500 at any one time are being treated for heroin addiction

1 million babies have been delivered in Edhi Maternity Centre’s

Born in 1928 in Bantva, Gujarat, India, Edhi’s family belonged to the industrious Memon community. From a young age his mother taught Edhi to be kind towards others and to help the poor. In the partition of India in 1947 the family migrated to Pakistan and settled in Karachi. That was a time of great emotional trauma and social and political upheaval. Edhi became involved in social work and began working with welfare organizations and soon started his own dispensary, providing medical aid to the poor. He bought his first ambulance, an old van which he called the “poor man’s van” and went around the city providing medical help and burying unclaimed bodies. His van became his advertisement and soon he came to be known for his work with the poor. As a consequence, donations started pouring in and his operations expanded, employing additional nurses and staff. It was here that Edhi met his wife Bilquis who was a trainee nurse at the dispensary. They were married in 1966. Bilquis became an ideal partner in life and work for Edhi.

The Edhi Foundation grew as people began to recognize its humanitarian aims. In 1973 when an old apartment building collapsed in Karachi, Edhi’s ambulances and volunteers were the first to reach the scene and start rescue operations. From then, on, through the troubles in Karachi and all over the country, Edhi’s ambulances have been rescuing and taking the injured to hospitals and burying unclaimed bodies. They go to places where even government agencies hesitate to venture.

The Edhi Foundation is the first of its kind in South Asia that owns air ambulances, providing quick access to far-flung areas. Whether it is a train accident or a bomb blast, Edhi ambulances are the first to arrive. The foundation relies on the support of its 3,500 workers and thousands of volunteers who form the backbone of the organization.

Despite the growth of the foundation, Edhi remains a very down-to-earth person, dressed always in grey homespun cotton local clothes. He has a hands on approach to his work, sweeping his own room and even cleaning the gutter if need be. Apart from the one room, which he uses for his living quarters, the rest of the building serves as his workplace in Mithadar, a locality of old Karachi that is full of narrow streets and congested alleyways. Adjoining their living room is a small kitchen where Bilquees usually prepares the midday meal. Next to it is a washing area where bodies are bathed and prepared for burial.

When Edhi is not traveling to supervise his other centers, a typical day for him begins at five in the morning with morning Fajr prayers. His work starts thereafter answering any calls for help, organizing and meeting people in need while afternoons are spent at various centers and hospitals all over the city. In the evening he dines with hundreds of poor at his “free community meals common among South East Asia” at another Edhi centre in the city. His Fridays are invariably spent at homes for the destitute children where Edhi personally helps bathe the ones who are physically handicapped, before joining them for Friday prayers. Occasionally, when he is able to, he also takes them out for picnics.

In Karachi alone, the Edhi Foundation runs 8 hospitals providing free medical care, eye hospitals, diabetic centre’s, surgical units, a 4- bed cancer hospital and mobile dispensaries. In addition to these the Foundation also manages two blood banks in Karachi. As with other Edhi services, employed professionals and volunteers run these. The foundation has a Legal aid department, which provides free services and has secured the release of countless innocent prisoners. Commissioned doctors visit jails on a regular basis and also supply food and other essentials to the inmates. There are 15 ” Apna Ghar” [“Our Home”] homes for the destitute children, runaways, and psychotics and the Edhi Foundation states that over the years 3 million children have been rehabilitated and reunited with their families thorough the Edhi network.

The foundation also has an education scheme, which apart from teaching reading and writing covers various vocational activities such as driving, pharmacy and para-medical training. The emphasis is on self-sufficiency. The Edhi Foundation has branches in several countries where they provide relief to refugees in the USA, UK, Canada, Japan, and Bangladesh. In 1991 the Foundation provided aid to victims of the Gulf war and earthquake victims in Iran and Egypt.

Edhi plans mass campaigns against narcotics, illiteracy, population control and basic hygiene. Edhi’s wife Bilquees works in the areas of maternity centre management. She runs 6 nursing training schools in Karachi, which provide basic training courses. These centers have so far trained over 40,000 qualified nurses. Some 20,000 abandoned babies have been saved and about a million babies have been delivered in the Edhi maternity homes. Bilquees also supervises the food that is supplied to the Edhi hospitals in Karachi. The total number of orphans in Edhi housing is 50,000 and Edhi’s two daughters and one son assist in the running of the orphanages and the automation of these institutions.

Edhi’s vision is to create an institution that will carry on his life’s work and survive for a long time to come. His dream is that of a Pakistan as a modern welfare state, which provides a safety net for the poor and needy while providing basic health and education with vocational skills. A welfare state Edhi feels is the only way to tackle Pakistan’s myriad social problems. He hopes that one day, Pakistan will be a model for other developing countries.

The Voyagers Twins (competing story)

Danish felt as though he was in hell.  His blood had become molten lava flowing through swollen veins. The lava reached the tips of his toenails but at the same time managed to scorch the sockets behind his eyes.  Both arms were a constant blur of motion as they whipped around, seemingly with a life of their own. They clawed at his legs, his chest in fact any bare flesh they could reach. His skin seemed to be covered in a blanket of needles.  Danish kept opening and shutting his mouth trying to scream yet he could make no sound. For some reason his tongue seemed to be welded to the roof of his mouth.

Despite the tortuous pain, Danish could hear a guttural moaning. He twitched his head slightly to see where the sound was coming from and then realised the sounds were his. Just then his tongue detached itself from the roof of his mouth. “Allah” he whimpered, “please remove me from this torture”.

Danish heard a door open and felt cool air ripple over his burning skin.  “How’s the Voyager this morning?” boomed a deep gravelly voice.  He opened his eyes. It had been a long time since anybody had called him ‘The Voyager’.   Without warning, a piercing stomach cramp sent him into a violent convulsion. He fell from his bed, his head crashing onto the cold stone floor with a dull thud.

The owner of the deep gravelly voice was clad in a long white coat and wore a stethoscope around his neck. “I need medicine” Danish whispered. Doctor Kabir walked across the stone flagstone floor, his bare feet making no sound. He crouched down next to his patient. In his hand were two small white discs and a chipped white cup holding some tepid water.  Danish knew the drill and opened his mouth just enough for the doctor to put the tablets inside. Doctor Kabir held the cup so that Danish could take a sip. Almost immediately he could feel the lava in his veins turning back into blood.

Just then Danish felt a familiar feeling in his gut. It was like a gurgling hot spring coming to life. He knew what was coming and turning his head felt the vomit start its journey from his belly to the outside world. The acid started by burning his chest, then his throat and finally his mouth as it spilled out onto the floor.

Doctor Kabir was a heavily built man and Danish the weight of a young child, so to scoop him from the floor and place him back on the bed was an easy task. The doctor produced another tablet which Danish managed to swallow without reawakening the hot spring inside him.  The doctor padded across to the far corner of the room. Underneath the one small window in the room stood an old mop standing in a large rusty old paint pot. The pot was filled with a murky liquid long since drawn from the standpipe in the alley outside.  He took the mop and cleaned up Danish’s vomit before leaving the room.

As Danish lay quietly on his bed, the blanket of fiery needles slowly unwrapped itself from his slight frame.  The pain slowly left his body and as it did so, his eyes surveyed his prison. The room was small and cramped. The stone floor was bare apart from an old rug. Many years ago the rug had been brightly coloured and sumptuously thick. But now it was thin, old and tired, the once vibrant blue and red threads long since faded.  The only furniture apart from the bed was an old wooden chair sitting next to the door.  The walls of the room were whitewashed or at least they had been thirty years ago. The once proud white plaster was now stained and brown and as it slowly died, it crumbled and fell to the floor uncovering the humble brown bricks behind. Through the small window Danish could see the torrential rain beating against the panes. It was July and so the height of the monsoon season. But the rain gave no relief from the sweet sticky heat that was a part of life in Karachi.

Permeating through the walls and roof of his room crept the aroma of raw spices fighting against the smell of sewage and rotting fish.  Danish wondered why they hadn’t built the centre away from the slum, somewhere where it would be easier for people like him to mend. But Danish knew that wherever he was in Karachi, the smells would be the same. The sticky smell of humans and rats mixed together with tamarind chutney and dipped pakoras.

Danish’s eyes closed and he thought back to the birth of the Voyager and his journey to this small room in the slums of Karachi. It hadn’t always been like this.

His life had begun in a small mountain village called Jhansa. The village had been a perfect playground for a young boy, lush green meadows, thick forests of cedar, oak and pine.  Mysterious wreaths of fog wound through the forests in the late summer followed by blankets of pure white snow through the winter.

Danish’s parents had been poor hill farmers yet he remembered that his mother Somia had always put food on the table. He thought back to the burfi his mother used to make and remembered his mother standing by the fire, stirring the old black pot that held the milk and sugar. Once it had become solid, his mother always let the young boy cut it up into little shapes. He had loved the soft and velvety texture which perfectly complimented its sweetness.

Danish had some good friends back then, Boys he had gone to school with, played and fought with.  He remembered Yasin.  Yasin was the same age as Danish. They had been born and raised together as their families lived in the same village. They went to the same school, had adventures in the forest together and then on leaving school both began tending the family’s small herd of Sahiwal cows. Yasins job was to feed and milk them. Danish had to take the milk to Nathia Gali, a nearby town and sell it at market. Both boys had to collect the cow dung. This was sold for fuel and for feeding the fields.

When Danish reached 22, his parents arranged for him to marry Ahlam who was just 14.  She had always been pretty with hazel eyes and beautiful dark hair that fell onto her shoulders. Ahlam was forever laughing and smiling.  Thinking back, he couldn’t ever remember seeing her frown or lose that cheeky smile. He had always felt happy when he was with her, so he was pleased when his parents announced that they were to be married.

Although both sets of parents were poor, the wedding was very traditional for it was the weaving together of two families and so was an important event.

As part of the wedding ritual, he remembered seeing Ahlams mother Mumtaz putting dark paste onto Ahlams smooth young skin.  She had painted it on with a small brush and then covered the markings with mud. Once the mud had dried, he helped Ahlam pick it off after which Mumtaz put on a mixture of lemon juice and sugar before wrapping the skin in tissue.

The day of the wedding would always stick in his mind.  Ahlam looked the most beautiful he had ever seen her look. She wore a traditional purple gharara which was heavily embroidered and on which hung gold jewelry.  Although her makeup was light, her skin glowed and her eyes sparkled like the topaz stone they had uncovered together in the forest when they were children.  Danish remembered the sherwani his mother had made. His mother had also made him a turban which he had refused to wear. Thinking back, he wished he had worn it now. It would have pleased his mother.

The village Imam performed the wedding after which dinner was served. Danish remembered the dinner as being really special. It was so different from the plain food they would normally eat. The varied dishes included Naan bread and biryani which was a tasty mixture of rice and a spicy meaty sauce. There was roast fowl and roast lamb. Truly a feast and one that both families had saved for many years to make possible.

Shortly after the wedding Ahlam became pregnant and gave birth to twin boys. He recalled that night as being the most traumatic of his entire young life.

The day had started normally enough. Danish had returned from working with the herd. It had been a busy and long day at the market but he had sold all his milk so he was happy. It was a long walk from market back to Jhansa. After a day on his feet at the market, walking back the nearly ten miles home, along a steeply winding rock strewn path was not an easy task. He remembered walking through the doorway of their humble hut and seeing his beloved Ahlam on the bed surrounded by the females of the family. His mother Mumtaz had a bowl of hot water and towels. She had turned and looked at Danish and told him “Tonight will be the happiest night of your life my son. Tonight you will be a father. Go out and leave this to us. We will call you when your child enters the world” He wondered how his mother could have been so wrong. That night was not destined to be a happy one.

Danish thought back and recalled how he had sat down on an old log outside his little home. Even now he could hear the echo’s of Ahlams screams as she struggled to let a new life into the world. After what seemed like hours, Ahlam let out a tremendous scream which was followed shortly after by the sound of a baby crying. Danish rushed into the hut and saw his mother holding something that was squashed, wrinkled and scrunched up. Going over to his mother he recalled the feeling of utter astonishment when he saw she was actually holding two tiny bundles. “You are a father twice over Danish – you have twin boys. It is a proud day for our families”. Just then Ahlam cried out. It was an inhuman sound, one that Danish had never heard before. He tore his gaze from the twin bundles and dropped to his feet next to his wife.

Ahlam was obviously in distress. Her beautiful brown hair was soaked with sweat and the strands stuck to her forehead. . For the first time in a long time, Ahlam wasn’t smiling. Her eyes were closed and she seemed to be gasping.

Then came the moment Danish would never ever forget, a moment that would haunt him until the day his life on earth came to an end.  It was the moment Ahlam opened her eyes and looked straight at him. She tried to say something but then her jaw moved as though she was trying to eat the air. Her arm twitched and she let out a soft gurgling sound. Her arms went limp and Ahlams eyes although open glazed and became sightless. Giving two boys life and passage into the world had proved too much for Ahlams young body. As he bent over his wife, clutching her hands in his, he could hear screams and sobs. The cries sounded to Danish as though they were coming from the bottom of the valley and not from the woman surrounding his dead wife.

He felt then and still felt now an emptiness that went way beyond loneliness. All of the dreams that he and Ahlam had shared had evaporated in an instant, never to be realised. He felt incomplete, the better half of him having been cruelly torn away.

It was strange but Danish didn’t feel that he had lost Ahlam all at once. He felt as though he lost her in pieces over the first few months. For a while, he could still smell her scent on the pillow they shared and when he closed his eyes it seemed as though she was still there lying next to him. But after a few weeks that went and he felt he had lost a part of her. The day Ahlams mother cleared out her clothes was the day another part of Ahlam left him.  Each time something like this happened, Danish felt another part of his wife sliding away from him, leaving him with an emptiness that was impossible to fill.

But Danish had to learn to cope with his grief for he now had two boys. He named them Nafees and Rizwan. As they grew the boys father saw that although twins, they were very different. Nafees was kind and considerate and enjoyed spending time with his father whereas Rizwan was fiercely independent even when young. But Rizwan always wore a smile; a smile very like Ahlams and because of this, Danish always felt a special fondness for Rizwan.

He had some good times with his boys as they grew which although not dissipating the grief he felt, certainly helped him cope with it. The first day at school was a challenge. Despite his pain as he lay on his bed, the memory of his twins first day at school made him smile. He had tried to think what Ahlam would have done to prepare his two little boys for school and then did it himself. Danish sat Nafees and Rizwan down and explained to them where they would be going and for how long. Rizwan simply grinned and told his father that he couldn’t wait to go. Nafees on the other hand, took his father’s hand, looked up at him and said “Abu jaan, I will miss you”. He squeezed Nafees hand tightly and told him that it would only be for a few hours. That was the day his twins started to grow up. It was also the first day that Danish felt truly abandoned and companionless.

As weeks, months and years passed, the boys grew and he managed to snatch many moments of happiness. He remembered the street cricket that Rizwan loved to play.  Rizwan would play cricket with his street friends and sometimes he would join in, playing in old dried out riverbeds, deserted parking lots and sometimes in old apartment corridors. There was no rule book as such and they used to play with an old rubber ball that Nafees had found. They used old crates or broom sticks as the wickets. There was never an official umpire for the game but Nafees would often do the job inevitably frustrating his brother by playing too strictly by the rules.

The day came when both boys finished school and were old enough to start work. Danish expected both Nafees and Rizwan to tend the family herd just as he had done at their age. For a few days all went well but one day Rizwan didn’t come back with his brother. Danish asked Nafees where his brother was. Nafees told his father that Rizwan had left to find work in Karachi.

For Danish that was another defining moment in his life. Rizwan was his one of his two last remaining pieces of Ahlam. Danish remembered going to bed feeling an overwhelming sense of isolation. That was the night that the ‘Voyager; was born.

In the early hours of the morning while it was still dark, Danish left the warmth of his bed and the safety of his home and village. Although it was dark the stone paths toward Nathia Gali were familiar to him. Perhaps he could find Rizwan and persuade him to return. Eventually he reached Nathia Gali. It was still dark and shadowy creatures of the night flitted here and there. He sat down on the side of the dusty road and rested his head in his hands. Where was Rizwan?

Thinking back Danish remembered the moment he felt a soft touch on his shoulder. Looking up he could make out a dark figure. It crouched down next to him and whispered something. Danish couldn’t make out the words and so the stranger repeated himself “do you like to travel?” he said. The stranger stretched out his arm and in his open hand gently cradled a small syringe. Even in the darkness of the night, he could see that the metal was rusty and bloodstained. “This will help you travel and forget your troubles” whispered the stranger.”50 rupees and it’s yours”.

Danish knew what was in the syringe. It was heroin. Karachi was known for its poppy fields and therefore filled with men and woman who tried to escape their desperately sad lives by using the easily obtained heroin. Many times he had stepped over the bodies of addicts lying prone on the roadsides. He had sworn never to use the stuff no matter how bad things became. But this night had been different. The disappearance of his son Rizwan keenly amplified his feelings of loss for Ahlam and he felt he would do anything to escape.

So he had paid the 50 rupees and took the syringe. Danish rolled up the sleeve of his shirt and finding a vein he inserted the needle and pressed the plunger down slowly transferring the contents of the syringe into his body.

The first thing he noticed was that he could taste the smell of the drug. It seemed to come from the back of his throat and then into his nose. Within seconds Danish felt a warm tingle travel down his spine to the tips of his fingers and toes. Almost immediately after that, he felt himself taking his first voyage, travelling far away from his feelings for Ahlam and his boys. His body started to fall into a warm cloud where the only feelings were those of happiness so intense, it was simply indescribable. His grief and worries dissipated like an early morning mist when the sun finds its heat. The heroin fuelled voyage lasted just twenty minutes but it was twenty minutes of pure heaven.

To begin with Danish only took a voyage when his feelings grew so intense that he couldn’t cope. But after a while, he found himself using nearly every day.  One terrible day, he was sitting on the floor of his hut next to the bed he had once shared with Ahlam. As he slipped the now familiar needle into his arm, Nafees walked through the door. Danish looked up and saw the haunted expression on his son’s face, a look that he would never forget.

The months after that were spent promising Nafees, his family and friends that he would give up. In reality Danish was an addict and wanted to chase that indescribable feeling he had enjoyed when he had taken his first voyage and so forever found ways to obtain the drug and take his voyages. His habit became so well known that the villagers called him the Voyager.

Rizwan had never returned. Nobody had heard from him since the day he disappeared. Although Nafees cared for his father, he felt that if only Rizwan would return, he would stop taking his voyages.

A month ago, Nafees has come in from a day working with the herd and had found Danish lying unconscious on the floor of the hut. His weight was about the same as a small child and the dark skin on his arms was now a mass of scars.

Nafees took his father to one of the six centers run by the Edhi Foundation.  The Edhi Foundation was known for offering a free service to heroin addicts. The last month in the centre had been pure torture.

The centre could not afford heroin substitutes like methadone to ease withdrawal symptoms. Instead addicts like Danish went ‘cold turkey’ with only sedative injections and paracetemol for pain relief. He repeatedly begged his son to take him home. Each time Nafees visited, Danish told him that he was cured and could go home. Doctor Kabir however told Nafees the real story and that his father would have to stay at the centre for several more weeks.

Danish’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door in his room opening. He raised his head expecting to see Doctor Kabir. Instead he saw his son Nafees. He enjoyed his son’s visits. His son walked in, pulled up the old wooden chair and sat down next to his father. In a faint voice he greeted his son; “May peace be upon you Nafees”.

“Have you forgotten you have another son?” came the reply. Danish turned his head and looked, really looked at his son. “Can it be? Is it really you Rizwan?”

“It is I Father” replied Rizwan. “Can you forgive me for being away while you were so ill?”

Danish struggled to get himself sitting upright and with a great effort he turned to face his son. Lifting his arms, he placed them around his son’s shoulders and they both started to weep. Rizwan had been gone for five years. It was as though he had returned from the dead.

After a few minutes Danish emotions subsided and he felt able to talk. He asked Rizwan question after question. He had asked him where he had gone all those years ago. His son explained that he hadn’t wanted to spend his life in a small village and wanted to explore the big city so he travelled to Karachi and found work there. He asked Rizwan what he did for work. His son gave no answer and instead just looked at his father. “I am sorry my Father, so sorry, I cannot tell you what I do for work. I am too ashamed”

Danish gently stroked his sons face. “Rizwan, you have returned, that is all that matters. Will you stay with us now; can you leave your job and come back home?”

This was too much for Rizwan. Tears filled his eyes. “I don’t deserve to be called your son”.

“My son, you have returned, that is all that matters” repeated Danish.

Rizwan stood up and gently moved his father over to the far side of the bed before climbing onto the bed and laying down next to him. The two lay there with no need for any more words. Danish closed his eyes and for the first time for as long as he could remember he fell asleep without the need for the doctors potions.

Night had passed and the sun was up sending slivers of light into Danish’s room. He opened his eyes. His mind raced. His son had returned. What joy! He turned his head expecting to see his beloved Rizwan. But looking around Danish could see the room was empty. He thought hard, had it all been a dream? Had his son Rizwan really returned?

He sat himself up and as he did so, his hand touched something on the bed next to him. He looked down and there on his pillow was a solitary red poppy. Danish took it and lifted it up close to his face and as he did so his eyes filled with tears for he now knew what Rizwan had chosen to do for work and why the room was now empty.

EU Horsemeat Scandal

With the revelation that much of the horsemeat that has come onto the EU market originated in Ireland, it only seems reasonable to again speculate about the fate of Shergar in 1983. It is rumoured that certain fast-food joints have collaborated to create a secret breeding program over the last few decades, the aim of which is to create the finest genetic material to ever have been inserted into a bun for human consumption.

The so-called “Shergar burger” is the real deal. You will be able to find it at participating restaurants, but not furlong since many EU ministers feel it behooves us to treat horses with more respect. The French representatives were however oddly silent on the matter.

If your digestive system is not accustomed to the particular nature of equine delicacies you may wish to proceed with caution and just try an appetizer sized portion first of all. Some newcomers report that eating it as a mane has given them the trots.

 

P.S. Please don’t eq-whine about this article. I love horses along with all other animals – whether in buns or in their natural habitats.

The Voyager’s Twins – Part IV

Read Part I First

Read Part II

Read Part III

 

It was a clear day, in complete contrast to the gloom in which Thomas had arrived at the castle a full ten days earlier. After awaking he had eaten the remainder of the bread and curds that had been delivered by the guard the previous evening. Now he sat at the table. A shaft of early morning sunlight angled through the open door and cast long shadows of the pieces across the chequered squares. Picking up the white queen Thomas spun it thoughtfully between his thumb and forefinger before replacing it on the board.

He faintly heard the sound of the elevator being wound up from ground level.

“Are you ready for the show Thomas?” he heard Lord Vitan call, and moments later his form appeared at the entrance.

“I am, sire” he replied.

Once Thomas had joined him Vitan barked an order to the operators below. The platform began to climb once more.

It took Thomas some time to adjust to the bright morning light and to appreciate just how far it was possible to see from this elevation. The town, the forest, the river that snaked away towards the horizon, the distant mountains that bordered the district – they all took on a sharp clarity that was almost unreal. A cold wind blew, and became more pronounced as they ascended.

“Your machine looks the part,” said Vitan. “I believe you might just convince our king that his quest is over. ”

“At the cost of one of my sons,” said Thomas continuing to stare toward the horizon.

“There was no alternative. I am personally glad you came to appreciate that. To conceive of a device that would impress the king and take the matter from your hands and leave it in the lap of fate though – you have done all you could.”

“He will be impressed only if you follow the instructions I gave to the letter. The fire must be seen to create essence, and the sheet will be subject to the laws beyond our control. The dark portion will point to one of my sons, but only at the whims of nature.”

“Some might say the laws of the divine,” said Vitan. “The king must indeed believe so.”

They were reaching the top of the wall. Stepping between the crenulations they walked onto the large flat tower summit. The machine that Thomas had designed on parchment had been accurately built by the king’s engineers, and stood on one side of the roof. A large padded seat had been placed a distance away but facing it.

“The King of course desires to witness the method of these proceedings first hand,” said Vitan “So for all our sakes I hope it looks convincing.”

As he was speaking a second elevator could be heard ascending, and shortly thereafter the guard appeared above the wall with his beloved boys. They were unrestrained and Thomas rushed to meet them at the centre of the roof. As the three of them embraced Thomas knew that his opportunity to pass on any instructions would be limited. He quickly pulled them close and simply whispered softly and clearly “Trust me.”

“That is all for now,” barked Vitan. “We need to be ready for the King. He will not want to wait. Guards.”

They moved in and separated Thomas from the boys.

“You will stand here with us,” Vitan said to Thomas. Then to the guards “Place the boys in our machine.”

The third elevator arrived at that point carrying the king dressed in royal hunting livery. He strode onto the roof followed by the chief lieutenant, armed with a sheathed long sword at his side.

“We have a fine morning for our trial,” observed the king as he seated himself. “I trust the arrangements will be bear the fruit we seek, and thus shall our kingdom be quickly secured that we may once more enjoy our sleep.”

There was an edge to his voice intimating that there would consequences if things turned out otherwise.

Vitan and the guards began the proceedings just as Thomas had outlined. The boys were placed facing each other in the machine on two enclosed seats woven from wicker. Slightly above head height a large copper furnace was suspended securely by a framework of iron rods connected to the seating. The craftsmen had done a fine job in following the instructions.

“My lord the King,” began Vitan. “As you know this man has made the confession that one of his offspring is undoubtedly the boy you seek. It was revealed to him in a vision after the death of their mother. Although he knows not which boy is the one, he was informed that the answer could be divined by fire and spirit. My machine will collect the true essence of the parties on trial, and reveal itself. Let us proceed.”

He motioned to the operator who took the burning torch and touched the flame to the top of the copper bulb. The furnace instantly came to life, burning with a blue flame that was bright enough to be seen even against the clear sky.

“Now you must capture the essence,” said Thomas softly to Vitan.

“Pull the ropes and capture the essence” called Vitan to the operator, who did as he was bid. As the ropes were pulled a sheet like structure quickly extended over the top of the machine. Just as quickly it began to change form as the heat from the furnace pushed underneath, and the securing cords pulled the edges tighter together. One portion of the sheet had been dyed with a dark design which seemed to move of its own accord as both the heat and wind began to interact.

The king excitedly rose to his feet. “I see the essence – it’s taking form …”

As the center of the sheet rose the dark and light shades momentarily billowed above the seated boys, then suddenly the whole cloth became taut, standing tall like a large egg and the entire machine began to rise. The operator made a desperate but vain grab for it. Thomas’s design had ensured that there would be nothing to hold onto once the machine was even a man’s height in the air. Lord Vitan quickly paled, and began to run toward the ascending machine, but by the time he got there the basket and its passengers were safely airborne.

The king stood speechless. As the whole party watched the balloon float quickly away on the morning winds his face gradually turned a deep and angry colour.

_________________________________________

The guards had been ordered to secure both Vitan and Thomas, and for want of any specific instructions had escorted the pair back to Thomas’s quarters.

Vitan had an air of defeat about him. “You outplayed us,” he admitted bitterly. “And now we are both destined for the gallows.”

He stared at the chess board. One piece had moved from it’s original position. When Thomas had replaced the queen that morning he had positioned it to make it a third target for the black knight.

“Ah,” said Vitan “It seems that your rooks are safe after all. The sacrifice of the queen is a rare strategic move indeed.”

Thomas breathed a long sigh. It was relief. There was nothing to say to Vitan. The king would stop killing innocent twins now that he believed he knew the identity of the sage’s prediction. He would try to track the boys, but they were resourceful, they had Thomas’s blood. With the enemy fully revealed, their own voyages could keep them safe now.

 

— END —

The Voyager’s Twins – Part III

Read Part I

Read Part II

 

The persistent drizzle of rain was like a fog the day they arrived at the capital. The gates of the city rose as a dark mass from the gloom.

There were few people in the streets to acknowledge this passing band, and the glances of those present held little interest. Perhaps this was another woodland thief or political troublemaker. The gallows would present a more interesting spectacle, and time if not justice would most likely place this stranger there.

The castle was set on the most elevated site in the city. The central keep and its prominent tower was at least twice the height of any man-made structure that Thomas had previously encountered. On this day it simply disappeared into the mist.

As they approached the entrance arch Thomas scanned the castle walls for information. It was likely too early to observe anything that could tell him about his sons, but if there was any chance of escape later he would need to remember the distance of fall from the few narrow windows further up the wall, the potential handholds in the stone work – anything that might make the difference between escape and death in a pursuit.

They rode inside and the lieutenant signalled for Thomas to dismount. They were in a large courtyard area, with sufficient space to hold a town market. However it was readily apparent that petty trading was not the regular business of this area. The beamed, weathered structure of a hangman’s gallows stood tall and prominent to the west side of the yard.

To the north rose the sheer face of the castle tower, and Thomas noted a fenced platform at the base, large enough for perhaps a half-dozen men.

After a brief wait a door opened at the base of the tower, and a smallish man emerged dressed in woollen tunic, belted at the waist and embroidered around the hem and sleeves. A man of some import it would appear. Striding forward he stopped before Thomas and spoke in a somewhat cold tone.

“I am Lord Vitan,” the man introduced himself. “Chief advisor to the king.”

Thomas gave a respectful bow, suppressing the urge to demand information about his sons. He sensed that he would find out just as quickly by remaining passive.

“Follow me,” said Vitan, walking over to the fenced platform.

As they approached Thomas saw that there was more to the arrangement than was at first apparent. The poor visibility today had obscured the rig of ascending struts, the vertical rails that were secured against the tower walls, and the rope that ran upwards from an interconnected series of toothed wheels, the largest of which had two handles extending beyond the perimeter.

“Please step on,” said Vitan with an air of civility that Thomas observed with deep mistrust. “I think you will appreciate our ingenuity. I am given to understand that you have some skills in designing machines yourself.”

It was true that Thomas was something of an inventor. He had been well taught as a craftsman by his father, and had a mind for new concepts.

Once the two of them were on the platform Vitan gestured to the guards at the large wheel. Stepping forward they each grasped one of the handles and leaning forward began to push in opposite directions around the wheel.

As they pushed Thomas felt a shudder underfoot as the platform lifted laboriously from the ground. At the height of three arms length or so the pace began to quicken as the men gained momentum.

“I must inform you that I presently have control over the lives of your sons,” said Vitan.

It was clear that this platform was going to keep rising and that Vitan was making a simple insurance against any wild attempt by Thomas to throw him overboard. Perhaps it was possible that a man limited in forward thinking would in rage make such an error. Once the platform had been raised ten times the height of a man it would have been a simple matter to send this slighter man to his doom.

Thomas looked down and saw that the ground was now disappearing into the mist. He could hold the question no longer. “Where are my sons?” he asked.

“Above us,” said Vitan. “But for now we will not be going quite that high. ”

They were drawing level with a pair of doors set into the wall. Vitan pushed them open.

“This will be your quarters for now. Please step inside.” said Vitan.

Thomas did as he was bid and found himself in a room of moderate size with a bed, a basin and a commode. What mostly drew his attention however was the chess table with two chairs. The design was quite simple, and the pieces appeared to be made from a type of stone. It seemed that a game was already in progress.

“Do you play?” asked Lord Vitan, following Thomas into the room.

“I understand the game my Lord.” Thomas replied.

“That most certainly is not an answer to the question. Understanding the game might mean that you simply know the rules. That does not make you a player. On the other hand to say you understand the game might make you much more than just a player. It might indicate that you are an excellent strategist. Which of these are you Thomas?” he gestured Thomas to take a seat, and the two of them sat down and faced each other over the table.

“In truth my Lord I am at neither extreme. I attempt to calculate a few moves ahead. However I do not count on much beyond two moves.”

Vitan leaned back. “I pride myself on a depth of three or four moves.” Then after a pause he said “Of course you will be aware that some men have been said to master this game to a depth of ten or more moves. Such an ability seems almost unnatural perhaps.”

Thomas nodded his agreement, aware that the conversation was being led in certain direction, but unclear as to what that might be.

“If a man predicts the final result of a chess game from the outset that would be a different matter, no?”

“There are only two players sire, and therefore two choices. It does not seem so great a feat.”

“But if such a man told you where the pieces would lie at the conclusion. What then?”

“It would not appear to be possible.”

Lord Vitan nodded. “Such a man would have to be more than just a deep thinker. He would require powers beyond that.” He looked intently at Thomas. “The king believes in the existence of such powers.”

This last statement was a sharp turn – an indication that light was perhaps about to be shed on this mystery.

Now Lord Vitan stood up and gazed thoughtfully out of the open door. “Let me tell you a story … ” he began.

“There was an old sage who used to attend the king’s court. It happens he was the finest chess player I had ever seen. The king was fascinated by the old mans mind. The sage thrived on the royal attention he received and began to assume, shall we say, certain airs. He evidently sensed his own ability to influence the king and began to exploit it. He had no apparent desire for the kings coin, and so his counsel came to be treated by the king as pure knowledge – as if from the gods themselves. When a man begins to desire nothing but to see his own name heralded by royalty, where does he stop? He knew his years were almost exhausted. There is no legacy in just having been a fine counsellor. We are only preserved in words and thoughts once the gods see fit to take us. A legendary man must leave legendary words if something extraordinary is to remain of him.”

“We are preserved by our kin,” countered Thomas. “They bear our name and carry our reputation when we are gone.” He could not but help think of how in this sense the twins were custodians of his Racael, and his longing to see them was becoming unbearable.

“The old sage had no kin,” said Vitan. “Words were all he could leave. He convinced the king that he saw a future as one might picture it on a chess board. He said it was not determined in an absolute sense since the king himself was one of the players. It intrigued the king and he thirsted to know more.

“‘Two will come forth from the same stock’ said the Sage. ‘One is dangerous. If it is not captured and cut down, it will devastate this kingdom and destroy the kingship.'”

Thomas absorbed this information. Two from the same stock – twins. His sons lives rested in the balance on account of the ambitions of a pretentious old soothsayer, and the gullibility of the most powerful man in the land. “But why mine?” said Thomas asking the most obvious and burning question.

Vitan offered a weary smile. “There is no particular reason to identify your children with this prediction of the sage. In the king’s mind every twinned offspring in the land is a potential assassin. We have been rigorous in our mission to gather them all for the king for many years now.”

“And what has happened to them?” Thomas asked hesitantly.

“In every case so far the king has made vague attempts to positively identify his would-be enemy. There is always some sort of trial held on the roof of our tower here – the securest area of our castle for obvious reasons. He believes that by making such attempts – all of which have failed up until now – he is justified in exercising his only alternative.”

“Which is?” said Thomas, already fearing the worst.

“Removing both pieces from the board of play,” said Vitan, shifting his gaze to the chess board before Thomas.

Thomas noted the layout of the pieces for the first time. The black knight was positioned so that both white rooks were in its sights – a classic fork. It appeared that at least one of the two could not avoid capture on the next move.

“There is another option,” said Vitan. “If the king could be convinced that he has found his nemesis, this could all be over. Not only would the second child be spared, but twin children throughout the kingdom would once again be safe. The king could be convinced by a parent that he has knowledge of this matter. If we give the king what he wants great good could be accomplished and the nonsense will end.”

Thomas looked up wearily “You are asking me to sacrifice one of my children sire.”

“No Thomas, I am asking you to save one of your children, and many more.”

He rose and stepped out through the doorway onto the platform outside. “I will permit you to sleep on the matter,” he said, his form slowly descending.

 

Continue to Part IV …