Lagoon, sloshing and grunting hotly, we proceed. On occasion I get a panorama of damp and oddly hairy hills. A rolling rope-slung range is breaking the waves, vanishing again; three heads elegantly pulling; three folded and puckered ruminating heads. I am floating between a triangle of camels and a tangle of rope, knotted lines slung from my reed mat to their fat humps. Water flows all around me, my upturned face hot under sun, body swathed in a cotton sheet, mouth numb with the taste of sugar.
The camels are swimming through this warm lagoon, unless they are complaining. They are disgruntled boxers, sizing up the horizon before once more plunging into the water; and again the camels are swimming. I am hung, an attraction for fish silvering through the green murk. By rolling to port or pushing starboard I can put my head underwater. There is a hidden cool woven in long morning grey threads through this heated pool; and if I hold my breath for long enough my hair tangles, plays in these thin mountain lines.
Startled by the fat pads of gyrating camel feet, a terrapin skims the slow wet blossoms. Sunlight stripes the lake, caging this exotic silt, spearing the diamond girth of fish that slip free with quicksilver laugh. The sun is trapped in its own radiance for the duration of an entire bubble. Yet there is the sun above, when I breathe. It butters off the water’s surface in layer after layer, digging through the moisture, fascinated by turtle wisdom and garrulous fish.
We are led by a broad canoe with three sets of oars lifting, dipping, and pulling. Lifting, dipping, in perfect time; the boat trailing coloured ropes that tie around the camels’ mouths. Reeds advance, reeds recede. Swans unhook the air, their feathers a bouffant of wary courtship.
Gradually this water becomes gluey, vanishing beneath mist and reed. Fizzing black flies bump up against us and, in deference to the marsh, the camels quit their grumbling. The oars knock dully and are raised against this thick air. Our dromedarian shadows arise, squelching in amongst curling swamp gas, and the insects become infatuated by my jerks and lurches, attracted by fruit garlanded breath and the pappy stench of tooth cavity…
Camels are ruminants. They have three stomachs, sharp strong teeth and a very tough mouth. A crown of thorns will offer no hazard to a camel’s mouth. Dates, grass, wheat, oats, desert plants, dried leaves, seeds, and if they are hungry bones, fish, meat, leather, and tents. If thirsty the camel is capable of drinking ten litres in a matter of minutes.
I sleep for most of the journey.
Where there is the tangible taste of abundance, I was told; there one can recognize the divine. I gorged myself on the dates and balls of sugared hashish. It seems I am moving into the ruminating grave and I will be passing through three stomachs; each night is another belly. I am dissolved and then resolved, swallowed and made night once more. To leave was to surrender, a disaster, the sundering of lineage.
Now the caravan is climbing into the mountains. Earth is a bare yellow rock which crumbles and trickles downwards whenever it is stood upon. My hammock beneath the camels swings violently, knocking first one animal and then the next so that eventually they complain. One turns and bites at me, taking a chunk out of the bedding. The handlers, who have been silently walking ahead of us, turn and shout hauhauhau and prod at the animals with their walking staffs. The camels kneel down and my head is bumped inelegantly onto the sandy rock.
It seems I may have been kidnapped. Two differing branches of the family are to be reunited. The war is not about to stop until the marriage is complete, and thus the urgency of this journey.
Where is my liberation in this? A weapon of peace in a war I have no part in; my body as diplomatic bait. Yet I was, I was told long ago, a child to mark the freedom of my people. And here I am trussed up and draped between the flatulence of pack animals. The handlers are sitting a little aside and they talk at length about how to proceed. My impression is that they are more concerned about the good temper of their animals. Eventually the men stop talking and in the silence I roll to one side, noticing how all three men, and the camels, look at me. Their gaze is full of contempt.
One shouts: ‘We are meant to partake of this land for a world without participation is stagnant.’ I do not know what he means. His comrade stands and unsheathes his sword, stepping between the camels and leaning over me.
‘I am to be married.’ I remind him.‘You should carry your dowry like a girl,’ he says, cutting me out of the swaddling bands.
‘I have nothing to carry.’
Peeling me out of the stinking sheets, he did not look at me and would not meet my confused gaze. ‘There is no turning back now,’ he said. ‘You follow or die.’
And he lifted me from beneath my armpits. I become dizzy and can barely breathe, struggling to find strength enough in my legs so as to stand. The three men climb upon a camel each, and those foul tempered beasts now spring up with a distinct air of enthusiasm. A sack of water is left for me, and a trail of camel tracks to follow.
I stood and turned around and around. Truly the view was desolate in every direction. I could not see the lake, although in the distance of the valley there was an elusive shimmer, a hallucination of mud. I turned and wove my steps between camel stride. By the time I had reached the rise I saw the track continue over another rise. The ascent rippled upwards into jagged teeth, as if walking toward the snarl of a fortress.
I turned away from the height and away from the descent and walked my own path. The walking immediately became difficult and confusing; several times I slipped. Rocks crumbled, ridges dissolved beneath my weight. I realised how little I had eaten over the previous days, and I was not at all sure as to how many days I had been travelling; my weight seemed to be as nothing, and yet still the earth failed beneath my feet.
‘No,’ I repeated, smiling at the sound, for this was the first independent decision I had made since telling my wet nurse that I would no longer suckle. It was thereabouts, whilst unwittingly recalling her generous breasts that my walk came to an abrupt halt. The mountain sank into nothingness before me. A dusty void with rocks far below, and beyond this impossible chasm there was another mountain. I watched its peak whipped and torn at by the winds, its disgorged rubble a flaying cloud that tumbled into oblivion. Disheartened, I retraced my steps only to find them eradicated, along with any indication of camel tracks.
My proud ‘no’ withered and tasted foul. It was a ‘no’ of nothing and a ‘no’ of despair. I wandered, struggling upwards and downwards, never able to follow either direction as the ground continually betrayed itself, falling away beneath me. The little strength I had found via defiance fast vanished, as did the water. I was shrinking, evaporating in the cruel, hot, rubble strewn winds. Smaller and smaller, so that I struggled over pebbles and was soon in danger of slipping in between the grains of sand. As the sun fell the increasing coolness offered no comfort; the earth was hardening so quickly that it threatened to freeze my feet into its grit.
I noticed a patch of deeper shadow. At first I saw as a bear and I thought it would be relief to be eaten, only as I moved toward it then it became something resembling a camel. And I was made happy by the thought of been dragged off to a brute tribal wedding. But as I stumbled toward this darkness then it again resolved itself and this time into nothing living. I had found a cave. I fell inwards, relieved to be at least out of the lacerating wind. Stumbling a little further into the dimness I realised that once this place had been occupied. On the ground there was a long-extinguished fire; in the dark I kicked things, bones perhaps, stones dragged forward for seating, and then a box rattled. I fumbled and felt it all over with my hands, for eyes offered me nothing. It opened and inside my fingers recognised a sparking tool and a jar. The jar smelt of roughly refined oil, and I near sobbed when I rubbed a wick which protruded from the jar’s narrow neck. Soon I had light, and I began scouring around in the hope of finding sufficient wood for kindling a fire. Instead I found the steps.
The steps led down, I did not hesitate for a safe passage downwards struck me as pleasing, albeit down inside the mountain. The steps turned and turned and kept on doing so until my mind numbed and my legs warned me of their exhaustion; yet still there was but one route, so down and down I continued. The lamp burning in my hand was smoking dangerously and it stank. With a start I contemplated the prospect of being plunged into a night so utter that it brooked no escape. My wobbling legs pushed on until with an immediate shock all the walls fell away. I stood, overwhelmed and strangely bloated. My flesh was numb and this numbness ran out into an uncertain void. The poor flame in my hand was sputtering and coughing but, as I instinctively moved to my right, my head caught on a lamp. It lit up straight away when I proffered up the burning jar. With the light of this lamp I saw another fixed to the wall, and so I moved in a great circle, lighting lamp after lamp after lamp. The space was tall, its vaulting running up into darkness, yet the cast light clearly showed up seven divans. On each divan, apart from one, there was a reclining figure. They were, I thought, asleep. Over their bodies were lain great mounds of rug and animal pelts. They looked wonderfully peaceful. Within reach of each of the divans there was a low table and on the table a book with pen and ink set in readiness. Cautiously I opened a book. The pages were scrawled over with an impenetrable mess. Although I screwed my eyes up and brought my face close to the parchment in scrutiny, not a single word made any sense to me. Someone coughed.
At first I saw no one. The sleepers slept, as far as I could tell. Then I recognised the horrible and intimate stench of camel. The three men had come into the cave. Their weapons were unsheathed. One pointed me toward the empty divan.
‘True wedding,’ said one.
‘We are tasked with replacing a dreamer every hundred years or so.’
‘If you’d care to lie down this will be so much easier.’
I thought that to lie down would indeed be a blessing, yet the appearance of blades unnerved me, as did the prospect of being left in so deep a place. But they pushed me, and I had not strength enough to resist. And then, held face down, one gouged into my thighs, puncturing first left leg and then the right, cutting through my hamstrings. I screamed but the men disavowed my agony and chastised me for disturbing the dreamers. They dressed my wounds and drugged my pain. I could not move. Blankets and rugs and animal skins were piled on top of me. They offered food, and I fed myself and then they brought more food, and drink, they tended to my wounds and kept the pain as a distant phantasm, and although I determined to stay awake I slept and I began to sleep more and when I awoke the men who fed me, whose beards were previously black, now wore grey in their hair. A young boy came in and they whispered instructions and pointed out things. A book with blank pages was placed beside me. I picked up the pen and began to describe how I was trapped; I wrote about swimming camels, but my lines unreeled and words slid off the page and when I awoke the young boy seemed to be a man. I had a new dream and I wanted to note it down but then I decided I would remember it, for now sleep was filling everything. A great newness of rest. An immense and fathomless slumber moved into me. An overwhelming fullness; a dream of certainty, a great continuum poured from sleeping skulls. And three diligent workers drained this subterranean vault, decanting silence. Jars of this liquid are strapped onto camels. The camels haul their load away, knowing their paths even without a guide. As long as there were buyers who bought, as long as the marriage feasts stimulated the appetite, so was my secret sustenance fed into the veins of a people who ever wanted more of this, a superbly refined secret, which they themselves already possessed completely.
Nick Norton‘s recent prose can be found in Bird’s Thumb, Fictive Dream, Shooter, The Happy Hypocrite, The Cabinet of Heed, Epoque Press, Zeno Press, The Adjacent Pineapple, and elsewhere. His 2016 book AKA: A Genealogy of the Saddle, commissioned by Book Works, is described by Patrick Keiller: “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.“