by Nick Norton
A lake in The Original Land was filled by the weeping of a thousand thousand Enlightened Ones who spent the first half of eternity lamenting the world’s suffering. One day deity came along and saw an elegant expanse, this beautiful lake that yearned for a sacred touch. Without a moment’s hesitation She took off all her clothes and dived in. Of course deity is not small, although it may be discovered in the smallest element. Deity is huge, although it is always bigger than the largest; too big even for this vast mountaintop lake, too big for a lake as deep as a mountain. First the ripples went out infinitely, making stars sizzle and hiss and spark, and then waves bounced back (although from where?) and so now the water rushed to form rivers, waterfalls, floods cascading down the mountainside. And when She had joyfully splashed the Enlightened Ones (who were scandalised) all the southern slope of The Original Land collapsed and the lake flooded everything, sluicing the deity down amongst the rubble in the process.
‘And to this day,’ our guide concluded, ‘you can still see that mountain reflected in any puddle.’
‘Then it’s a good job there are so many puddles!’ moaned my wet travelling companion.
Our pale bodies had just had enough time to painfully redden beneath the sun; the rain began, half way through our three week stay, and it had not yet let up.
Sliding a fruit this way and that in a damp palm, my eye is drawn closer and closer to the pitted, imperfect surface… The sound of rain is hypnotic. We have retreated to a bar in order to contemplate the mystic history of The Original Land.
‘Imagine this line. Here…’ With the sharp of my thumbnail I draw an arc, just a centimetre or so on the skin of an orange. ‘This is not our journey. Imagine all that has evolved and grown and died and the planet’s erosion, the creation of minerals, great sacs of bitumen stored underneath like fatty tissues encysted in flesh. Imagine an atmosphere was born, the blossoming of oceans, the drifting of slime fields, and see it all drifting away from the planet like a mistake, blown away in volcanic dismissal. The gasses crumple against the dark edges of gravity. Gradually another ripple of gas, it mixes, it explodes, it is gone, and then the whole process begins.’
‘That’s the line? This little slit represents all that.’
‘It could do.’
He drank beer: ‘Okay.’
‘An atmosphere is born. The tide drags back and returns, smacking the rock so that it trembles, a resounding drum deaf to its pounding. But what is heard? An ear is drilled into possibility, curlicue traced in the coils of this booming ocean, rock calling to rock. A call that needs to be recognised.’
‘As it is said: She swims in the lake.’
‘And the cliff face surrenders, falls before the water’s wild folds. The tide rakes back, dragging a mineral booty. It pulls back and flashes forward; kneading, grinding, reducing to silt, weaving the silts, protean possible, breaking it against shuddering cliffs, tenderly gathering once more and drawing something new into the deep. From a rich, muddied bubble a burst of life escapes, swimming. And when the ocean runs to its own deepest nest, leaving the earth naked and steaming, so a comb full of life is left. It is unable to swim but rolls around in the soil’s munificent canker, gradually carving of its self a seed. A seed begins breath, an ancestral memory of the tide. It is growing, respiration is bringing forth fruit.’
‘Yes, even this fruit. You hold it now.’
‘I’m going to eat it.’
‘Look closer. You; all the fruit in your hand now, and you are rolling it back and forth before your cross–eyed vision as you try to trace a flight path: From there, to here.’
My friend puts his nose right against the dimpled skin and begins giggling. Soon we are both laughing so that tears stream down our cheeks and we slip from our stools.
The bartender solicitously provides fresh beer and marks it on our tab. We crawl back to the cooling drink. It is really, despite rain, still too hot for giggling fits. My sunburn hurts every time my shoulders move. So we drink and the piece of fruit, an orange with a thumb line etched into it, sits between us on the bar. The bartender passes every now and again, smiling broadly at all three of us.
I point at it: ‘This line is not a flight path.’
‘Give it another go,’ nods my friend.
‘The planet is small, quivering in an orbit around the sun, the sun boiling up from ether into brilliance and gathering a glamorously wide slung necklace to itself. Call this the solar system, a small ball of breath, a pearly magnetic pulse, a gem stone twink rolled into the night.’
‘Too right,’ says my friend.
‘This line does not represent even a curl of the solar system or the shadow of a curious line cast out to fish into oblivion’s broil. Imagine it all starts here…’ I point again. ‘What if all that is started is here? This is now here, exactly where we are, the beginning.’
‘So this is our journey. It is our journey now. Perhaps if we bent really, really close we could see ourselves reflected in these puddles?
‘Yes, of course. But the funny thing is that, for all the enormity of the journey, the fruit remains inside its skin. The universe is supported by matter wholly outside of its comprehension, just as the skin is drawn over a fruit it can but barely intuit, and likewise the journey, this shaky little line, has only just begun to see the texture below.’
‘The texture below…’ mused my friend, waving for the ever endearing attention of the bar attendant.
‘The line is not the journey.’
‘For sure, we know that.’
‘The journey is not the skin, the skin is neither the fruit, nor fruit the seed, and yet the whole persists in each and to each. And for all of this there must be a tree; a tree with roots that spread and limbs risen with the sun, turning over years and decades in gradual heliotropism.’
Slowly I pull my hand in tight around the object of our contemplation, squeezing, nails cutting a sharp citrus shower, pulped flesh drooling, and my fist is lost in an orange slaver as a dizzying orchard aroma fills the space.
While comatose on the balcony of a beach hut I saw a glittering citadel descend, a vast wonderment resting just above the surf. A sapphire grouted heavenly palace filled the sky, my puffy eyelids struggling to widen and allow room for this treasure miraculously carved of a single gem. From roads beaten to glass–like translucency there sprang the desiring splendour of adornment, an austere wildness of ornamentation in intricate lapidarian precision. From here, bolder than mountain, walks the barefoot Melchizedek carrying a swollen skin of effervescent wine and a broad sun coloured disk of bread. Here dwelleth the Great Soul, the One line that is to be infused into the troubled knot of humanity. Here the gates, the gates always open that triple open on four sides to triple cross and form a music of ascending and descending silence that cancels the sea, the storm, the heart, and cascades in measureless pulse.
Two Australian women in the neighbouring hut saw my shabby form sprawled across the boards. I could hear them discussing my predicament.
‘Is he dead?’
‘D’ya think his mates’ will help him?’
In preference to the possibility of touching a corpse they alerted my friend and the company we had fallen in with. They came and stood on the balcony and looked at me and laughed.
‘Is he dead?’
I really did not feel any need to be rescued but I could not say anything or move. My rescue consisted of more laughter and me being dragged onto bed, my view of heaven thus casually obscured by a torn mosquito net.
We travel inland, hoping to avoid the rain. We find blue skies with scattering white clouds. We find several flows within this old avocado lake, cold deep currents pulling down from the mountain and warm waters resting.
I am swimming. Monkeys sit on an island that I never reach. A small gold sided boat floats on the sun pooled surface. We are tourists with pockets stuffed with snail shell and cigarettes, sitting on shore in a cornucopia of butterfly, colour smothered and gently pecked. Butterflies kiss us, for the minerals.
Swans hiss at the boatman and the boatman, in amongst the sun’s tumbled shavings, sleeps. We wave our opulent tobacco smoke around as if shaman conjuring up hope. Small boys, who seem older than the volcano which made this lake, ask for cigarettes. An iridescent butterfly wind pulls at my peeling flesh on the beach, an inland volcano shore with a tangle of weeds and the fire cooked shell of snail. Night is sudden, folding away the village behind a few strings of gaudy light bulb. The restaurant hangs by these coloured strands, its terrace ending in a shallow pool log jammed with alligator, and the lake beyond is black, a thunder brewing hollow. My friend and I have begun to a ridiculous argument about British town planning.
Travelling cheaply and vulnerably, miscomprehending or plainly deaf to the languages used in this land, tensions between friends arise all too easily. Each carries an independent cosmology that refuses to co-exist. We each fail to translate and are made irritable when slaked in alcohol. We find we are most certainly not ready to be pushed against one another on fourteen hour bus journeys nor do we enjoy small hotel rooms augmented by exotic insect life. Most of our money is a pay out for post-traumatic stress. A cash disavowal from authority that said nothing except, perhaps, go away. And so my friend poetically insisted he would spunk up his wad as soon as he could. Exposed, raw in the heat and drunkenness, and whirling in delight of newness, we rolled our historical moment to an archaeological end and visited ancient monuments.
After another bus journey high into the jungle, riding tarmac that sat precariously across the soft red earth, we split up so as to explore the temple site. Climbing these huge limestone steps in the great heat is arduous and not a little spellbinding, as doubtless the intention when first they were constructed. The stone is an uncanny white, pockmarked, a reel of hot bone. There is a welcome moment of chilled air whereupon ascent turns to descent at the pinnacle.
Inside the temple the incline is steeper than its exterior ascent; my curiosity submits to this mysterious building’s ongoing wilfulness. It is now undergoing the subtle transformation from monument to burial site. I step into the shadow and my whole fleshy self is delighted, even as that delight is a call from the underworld. There is in fact no separation between jungle, the stars, death, and stone. Each revelation speaks simultaneously to this single architectural pivot. The white stone becomes slick, muddy, and red. Those coming up the steps and those going down must breathe in and squeeze by each other chest to chest. And down into stone I go, the soil bloody on my clothing. Corners lurch forward, other tourists are abrupt spectres looming from out loosely hung lamplight. At the end of the tunnel there is an enormous stone lid, centre of the world, the very cusp of our two incompatible existences, life and death, thrust together. I press my face against a grill and gaze at a seed of eternity. Then I turn around and carefully climb the steps. Soon I am in the light. It is hot. I am alone.
For the rest of the day I search for my friend, firstly wanting to share the experience but soon fearing and eventually becoming lost to a maelstrom of projected disaster and calamitous consequence. The bus journey down the treacherous hill is a poisonous cawing, a melody of miscomprehension, and a sweaty, needy series of desperate negotiations with a God I do not know.
The hill slid away to town, bus stop peeled aside for hotel and there, in the hotel room, reading, was my friend. My relief was murderous, wordless spitting rage. I sat on my bed, shakily pouring myself tequila.
‘Well I was sick,’ he said, ‘and so turned around and caught the same bus back, just after we parted.’ No, he had not seen any of the site, nothing at all.
As we moved into the last days of this troubled pilgrimage my friend’s stomach complaint grew worse. He put himself on bed rest and I was left alone for long stretches, mute and overawed in an unknown city. I kept seeing star symbols, a multiplicity of stars to which I began to entrust my wanderings. If I needed to be sure of a direction I would look around for a star and invariably find one. In this manner I found a museum stacked high with votive offerings; a room full of carved wooden legs, a room packed with representations of hands, and two rooms each for eyes and genitalia. Following the stars I never got lost and never came to harm. At the end of the trip I gave my friend a carton of cigarettes as a thank you and really, in their burning, the extinguishing of that friendship.
Other prose by Nick Norton may be found in The Honest Ulsterman, Brittle Star, Vignette Review, The Periodical, Coil, Inventory, em, Glossy. His poems are in Ink, Sweat, & Tears, Anima, Octavius Magazine, Obsessed with Pipework, The Interpreters House, Iota, Other Poetry, Envoi, and elsewhere. Of his book, A Genealogy of the Saddle, Patrick Keiller wrote, “A joy to read, Nick Norton’s wonderful book brings a headlong, associative sensibility to the literature of landscape. I wish there were more books like it.”