“I’ll pull yer fuckin head off!” a man shouts at the bus driver. The driver manfully shrugs, braced in the passive. The driver is powerful by reason of his seat’s height above the crowded tarmac and yet he is vulnerable, exposed to the bus stop’s swilling frustration. People push against the bus and unreason and reason push into need and we all wait under a thick sky of warm drizzle.
I need to get on that bus, is this the bus?
Cannot you not get more people on the bus?
I’ll pull yer fuckin head off.
If light should relate to shadow, and will my bicycle fit in the luggage hold?
Tide tugging at the flow, pulling at the river so that it can barely keep pace with itself, a band of salty mud gradually exposing itself on the far shore. Here there is a thick rampart for the town to sit behind; I lean over the wall and watch the river, waiting for a bus connection.
The cloud is tall and intermittently white, reflected on the broad surface. Reflections push against the billowing silt cumulus which swirls up from below. The water provides a thin film by which to separate these two weather systems, a tense expanse that rides the river’s body, occasionally sending cracks shearing across its surface. Vortices pull up into presence, folding surface and depth one into another, turning and turning and then releasing. Sky and churning river have mixed and separated in an instant and it would be hard to gauge their degree of intimacy. The twirling runs on like colliding galaxies, the silt a pulsing red plasma. As the cosmos mixes, so do these waters. The breathing of an ocean lung, river comes and river goes. Giant constant pull of water, and there is rain.
Of course there is rain. After discovering where I had come from, a fellow wayfarer said:
“O, where we get all our weather from.”
“O,” I said, “but I thought we got it all from you.” After that the conversation faltered.
On the last loop of road, nearing my first campsite, I saw in the field a crow crucified on an upright plank. Grim scarecrow to darken the evening. My tent poles snapped. The site owner was not much help apart from suggesting a hostel in town. Worrying at the budget, I cycled by the crow once more, bags of useless heavy in the panniers, and in due befuddlement I found the hostel. On the windowsill a manic toy clown grinned at me, threatening and possessive.
I showered, stowed my luggage, and walked out to inspect the late evening town. The main thoroughfare looked peculiarly one-dimensional beneath brightly painted frontages. Boys were crowding around their malicious boredom, flat shadows against the square expanses of primary colour. To one side I spotted a sports shop and thought of my broken tent. Everything was closed, apart from the pubs, and the shops would stay shut all tomorrow as it was a Sunday. When looking in the window, foolishly hopeful, I found no true interest in the goods but feigned it while desperately reciting the few lines that I could recall of the psalm:
I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even so, I shall not fear. You are with me though I walk in the shadow of death. You are with me. I shall not fear. I am in the shadow of death.
Turning aside from my exhausted-looking reflection, I walk by the snarly huddle of boys. And one boy does, it seems, snarl. Like an ill dog, his face white and contorted, a twisted and hissing grimace. Face angry, feral gnarl of mouth contorted as a submissive wolf in resentful abeyance. I blink: What had I seen? I keep walking.
Was he alright?
Cautiously I turn around, and yet now I see only listless, bored teenagers.
In the pub I find fellow cyclists, other travelers, and we all cling to pints; we all roll out a few tales. I do not tell of the crow, or the snarling boy, and I return to the hostel early where, beneath cruel joviality of the clown sculpture, I plot a route for tomorrow’s hike.
On my hood I can hear its intimate percussive pat, so it must be raining, but mostly there is an appearance of mist. I can see my boots, bright and shiny in the wet, stealing light from somewhere, and my soggy waterproofs also, as if gathering up all available light from the thick wrap of cloud. Their artificial hues dominate a fuzzy perimeter of four squelches in any one direction. Only fifteen minutes ago I was holding up a map by way of assurance and hurrying away from town; seeking out a sign for the footpath. Only that quick march across lumpy pasture and already noise is dimmed almost to nothing. I breathe. No rain now. This is silence then. A nearness to silence. A relationship to silence, an enabling of an inaudible something
inside a pause,
inside studied grey.
Gradually moving out from the sheen of clothing there is a close by astonishment: the chrome yellow of buttercup and purple clover bowing to each other. A stone wall is draped in lichen clumps, dressed in the archaic greens of antler and far distant tree line. From somewhere a snuffled baa, a sheep querying its fogged pasture.
Every sound is rolled toward me in large soft scoops of its own distance. My breath, heartbeat; even the whirl of my own listening becomes audible, and the body is delirious at meeting itself. I stump on up the muddy slope. Up is all that is required until one gets to the top. The sheep begin to notice me and I them. Some pound out of the way in a skittered bang of panic, whites of eyes whiter than their fleeces, the wool greyer than the mist. Other sheep raise their bog-stained muzzles and look. One animal trots in my direction. I say hello. Another sheep follows; I hesitate to be polite. Then, out of the invisible a tumbling of baas and bleating, an entire flock emerges. Sheep are running around me in a thickening and tightening spiral. They move as one as if grass touched by wind. The earth is reverberating to the drum of hoof. I move faster, they run closer. I change direction, they split, reform, hurry at me. A now large flock has formed, and also a horse, chestnut with a star streaking down its nose, another, dappled as if carved from the weather. And I am running amongst a hot-breathing tide of lowing cattle, bullocks pushing at a trot, sheep bouncing off one another, and horses throwing the water from their manes and strange guttural sounds. The herding clank of bells, an occasional shepherd whistle, dog barking, and shouts of huppa hup hup and then out of this bovine cascade I see camels. Tall dromedary lopes, their jowls hung with amulet, red bridles of knotted rope. They pass so close I can see the wet pearling hanging jewel–like on their showgirl eyelashes. To one side I see a flash of wall and I push through clattering goats, urging the beasts to move ahead of a trundling squad of black oxen, and making the wall, I jump.
Tufts of strong, waxy grass hold me just off the earth; breath geysers, subsides, and the grass gradually lowers me down. No other sound but a curlew’s piping lament.
As a gate goes bang squawk bang squawk at some strangely luminous point in amongst this hung grey, I stand amongst a steaming row of bloody spatchcock creatures and stare into the thrumming banks of smoke. Every moment of consciousness contains the whole of consciousness. A hacked open unconsciousness releases a hiss of awareness. It is all consciousness. Spit curdles on hot rock. For the completeness of my lostness I could get no more lost and this finally convinced me that I was not lost.
Then the path again, a pink ribbon of sand between black boulders. I stood on the rock to free myself from the heather and fern. Rocks stacked up into this grey, motile weather, a path trickling in between. The ascent had caught me by surprise and I was warm now, pulling open my jacket to let the cold palm my chest. An entire bank of cloud pushed against me, tricking me into stillness despite the laboured hike. At any moment the route may once again vanish, the fern’s prehistoric curls sinking beneath a graceful drowning skirt as the tide finally comes in. I remain standing on this stone, swaying, bones groaning demurely, an ark waiting to be tipped over by a returning dove.
Shepherds find the ark one day. They are surprised at how tiny it is. A few of them are certain that this cannot be true, for how could such a small tub, smeared over in hard uneven tar, have ever contained all the world? All the seeds of the world, say another. Look, one points out, I can pick it up. It fits beneath my arm. He can indeed pick up the entire ark; it does fit underneath his arm. He spreads his blue cloak over, instinctively sheltering it from the cold. But it is the ark, explains one, all of the world came from it. We, our animals, our pasture, and it witnessed the end of the world also. It rode on the back of oblivion; it is creativity buoyed up by death. I had better put it down, says the shepherd, gently replacing it amongst the heather. Only, how did they get in there? God sealed them in. Are they still in there then, because I cannot see a break in that seal? Yes they are still in there, how could anyone break open something sealed by God? Yet they came forth to be fruitful, look, the cairn over there; that is the first altar, where the rainbow rests. There’s a hole here. That is where the spirit blew, like a radiator bursting, after a year of incubation the pressure was too much. The dove shot out like a rocket, phnnnnew! The breaking of wind, they laughed. But it is said that sealed in the centre of the ark there is the Garden of Eden and the tree. With the bitten apple? No, that was fed to the pigs during the storm. What tree then? The God tree, the one with Him nailed up. That’s in Eden? Inside, inside. And on this hill, here? Aye. When the sheep bite down to the turf you can see the bone. And stamp on it, it sounds hollow, like my head, and it snores at night an’ all. It’s the caverns below filling with torrents. It’s said that the whole flood did not really go, it only got lost in Golgotha’s teeth and that’s what the dragon is. They reckon George was not meant to kill the dragon. He was only to pull it out so that Beauty could get close to it, for dragons are of course very shy creatures, but the benefits of them and Beauty getting close, you know, that is worth several lifetimes of questing. So George was only meant to winkle it out, as if pulling a mollusc from its shell. Whelks die like that, get eaten. To the dragon it would certainly seem like death. All transformation is a dying. The dragon keeps its free dragon nature of course, just as Beauty does not lose beauty by sharing it, so dragon meat bestows… all the weather and a thousand other transfigurations. George scoffed the dragon? He may have eaten some, he probably helped with the cooking, but the meal itself goes to his sponsors. Who? The town elders, the town, you and me. We don’t live in the town, and the elders don’t speak to us. But I don’t recall dragon, you’d hope to notice a menu like that. It hides in the lamb and in the mountain stream. And they nod and are silent. And silent they pick up a stone. They walk to the rock pile leaning over to place their stone, with familiar clunk, atop of the cairn’s risen breast.
I step over a stream and hesitate to watch the turbulence, listening to the all telling foam. In one whirl a large bubble sustains, twirling with certain elegance and taking in all of the sky as it opens and all that stands below the sky and then, the bubble rests, taking me in, absorbing me, it and I balanced in a deeply observant pause. All the river to come and all the river past; all the sea and the full community of cloud, and the delight of rain and the rushing through of streams stand in this moment’s rest. I look closer; all slides across the sphere’s knowing surface, and I can see myself reflected, stood astride it, one boot on the bank, another wobbling on a partially submerged stone. The stream is reflected in my eye. The bubble is in the reflection, I am reflected in the reflection in my eye and this myriad cluster can be spotted swirling on this water’s surface. It is all gone.
I am not sure who blinked first.
Having spent most of the morning looking for the mountain, I now realise I am on top of it. The mist has rolled away like a bald patch. Short trees reach up from the valley lip, ripping the cloud, dragging loose fistfuls that they let trail as ragged banners. I hear the gate, it is below me now and going creak clung! Creak clung! I think there must be other walkers nearby and squat down on a stone, eat sandwiches, and anticipate the cheery reassurance of a nod and a hello. But no one passes and the silence sustains its own ongoing quiet. The sounds of my mastication become unbearable.
I stand and get view of the summit and head upwards as fast as possible. There is now not even a hint of pathway and the ground beneath each footfall sinks into black, peaty abandon. Dirty rivulets of water seeping from the peak force brown cuts through the ground. Precarious tufts of heather are handholds and balancing points between leaps. Bog. Thick deep squelch. The sky fills with a storm rash of hailstone. Lightning bashes across, electricity seeded at nose level. The summit has vanished once more. My face becomes a cold, raw, sodden mask. I hide in a cracked rock, hunching into a ball to peek out at this sluicing wilderness. Each strike lights up the guts of the cloud so that the entire mountain is roiled up into a strangely internal space. The hail turns to snow and the aqua green air sizzles.
The madness of this mountain. I unfold my body and begin leaping, bog slithering in search of a route. A stream wriggled through, rubbing open a rib of brilliant white rock. Water and quartz dance a ladder down the hillside. I hop and scramble and laugh off the mask. The storm goes away after a few steps. Descending further my coat begins to steam as sun hotly breaks through. A whirl of small sandy birds flicking and chatting from the bustling turf: and my glee flings me from rock to rock to rock with preternatural surety of foot. The clouds are utterly stripped away, sharpening the landscape and showing me the little town. I spot my hostel. Full of admiration I pause to take in the wonderful distances, and I see now a tiny cluster of boys. Even on this teetering mountain edge I can hear their laughter as my bicycle is unhooked from its d-lock and ridden away. One boy rests on the handlebars, one is riding croggy, and he–the feral one–is pedaling, saying to the lad on the handlebars:
“Keep still now or I’ll pull yer fuckin head off.”
Recent prose by Nick found in Zeno Press, The Fiction Pool, Storgy, The Happy Hypocrite, Shooter, Epoque Press, and elsewhere. nicknorton.org.uk