Nick Norton

A Discerning Confession

Nick Norton

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I have eaten the brain of live monkey and consumed the yolk of a two thousand year old egg. In the mountains I smoked opium and fired a large mounted machine gun across the valley. My aim was completely random. The golden arcs of tracer bullets, like some magical piss fountain, streaming into the purple dusk with graceful left to right, right to left undulations. And when the bell of the night air again stilled, the laughter of the gun crew and I seemed mad enough and loud enough to fill the entire sky.

We travelled with a retinue of yaks who carried our supplies somewhat grudgingly. The sturdy horses we rode were bred from those used by Genghis. A day after descending from the mountain range, riding out onto a high plateau, we came upon an encampment and were here entertained by a large family of nomads. Their tent was immense, ours small and fastidiously functional, poverty struck by comparison. Warm furs and ornate rugs, full of blood red and cobalt blue, were hung around thick felt walls and piled high on the floor. We sat on low, hard cushions of horsehair and were served salted tea. Outside a singing competition began.

I wrote in my journal: "The exterior/interior. More than two miles above sea level. Expanding..." Memory as a thing in itself is recalled in these wilder lands. This is due to the impossibility of facing such vastness. At least one supposes so, for beyond the unutterable scale of things, what distraction but wolves retreating from the horizon, an occasional raptor poised on a thermal? These birds are the polite punctuation marks of death. With no other interruption the mind eventually swings around on its own thermal. First one is staring over a vista of tough, seemingly endless scrub, next the eyes have sunk inside themselves. You gaze at a scene that occurred years ago, lifetimes ago.

It was dawn and, unable to sleep, I made coffee and went onto the balcony to drink it. Naked apart from my tee shirt, my bare behind sank into the nylon cross weave of the camp chair, the terracotta tiles cool beneath my feet. I put the coffee down, lent back and waited for the rising sun to warm my closed eyelids. You yelled out from your sleep that I should close the door.

When we reached Ulaanbaator we sold our animals and continued by slow train. An extremely slow train that would eventually deliver us to within striking distance of a Russian airport. We whiled away the hours and usefully supplemented our diet by bartering with the locals who, despite the guards' vigorous efforts to the contrary, would jog alongside the carriages to proffer up all manner of foodstuff and beverage. This at least made it possible to wean one's stomach away from a diet of yak's milk butter and dry biscuit. Travelling second class on a two class train, one soon recalled with a fondness such sophisticated toilet facilities as shallow holes, freezing winds, and the disdainful flatulence of pack animals.

After such a singular journey, one might go so far as to say, after the purity of such an experience, it is difficult if not impossible to stop that world travelled through from continuing into the world returned to. That is, we presume it is the same world. It looks similar. We seem to remember it. Still we hope that our adventure will somehow penetrate and transform this familiarity.

You were cross. I quietly closed the glass door behind me, drew the curtain against the dawn and tiptoed around to my side of the bed. I am smiling, I recall. I reach out, rest my fingers on your shoulder: Oiwu, you're cold, you say, get off! Turning your back to me and tucking the duvet tight around yourself.

Nauseated by yak's butter, gagging on salted tea, doubled up with stomach cramps, irritated beyond sense by the body's sheer exhaustion. How little these things matter now! When one scoops up a spoonful of brain from the trepanned skull of a monkey, do they look back with reproach or resentment? The taste? I cannot remember the taste. Did they die immediately? I think not. Rather, it seems now, we ate out their ability to scream. Do they manifest themselves within? Some would have us believe that digestion can lead to a discrete transmigration. What knowledge then? What of the monkey soul I swallowed? Have I gained agility and joie de vivre or just a flea bitten horror of the treachery available in this world?

By the time repugnant foodstuffs have been taught to stay down one has concluded that, there, living and mere survival are united in a frankly dizzying whirl. Perhaps it was this that excited me to write in one of my stiff backed books: "From this gigantic place there arises no false promise. No promise at all. Only you, yourself, make mistakes. Here, my skull shot to the four corners by these piercing winds! Here it is possible to recall how the land is generous but never forgiving. Moving under this sky, I am made whole."

It is dawn. I tear up my notebooks while boiling the kettle. With a bowl of coffee and a reheated croissant I step out onto the cold, earth coloured tiles, and lower my naked behind into the sagging grip of the old camp chair. Beaten rose gold is spreading around a spray of thin cloud. It's cold this time of day but the air does not yet carry the heavy dust of rush hour and I like that. A breeze stirs me in a bemused, offhand manner, the last whispers of a wind that has followed me from Ulaanbaator; it blows into our bedroom, lifting the yellowed curtains. You have not been in the flat for months. A year. I do not shut the window. I finish my coffee and sit, staying put till well into the rush hour. The day turns overcast and I shiver without pause. My neighbours have threatened often to complain about my nudity, so ill matched with our urbane surroundings do they consider it. I have not told them that their threats count for nothing. The landlord has already served me with notice to quit. Anyway, I am searching for my next wind and must get used to the cold.

"To the nomadic mind," I wrote, "travel is a form of stillness. They do not try to move, as such. Rather, they stay calm so that the world does not fall from beneath them."

I am on a train again, recalling the small bonfire and how the camp chair got caught up in the flame. A fast train heading north, landscape reduced to slatted pattern. As I have lost my apartment, so I wish to lose all desire, all expectation. If I concentrated on the patterns I might discover my personality transcended, the universe unfolding like a lotus blossom. Doubtlessly so, if only my travelling companions would shut up. I cannot complain though. I am as enthralled as they by this continual re-telling of the excitements of our last night in town. A chaotic night. As fine and as happy a send-off as one might wish for. We are growing our beards in anticipation of month long dawns, the never-never land of white nights.

By the time we board a light aeroplane, too light to push through the Arctic Circle, or so I imagine, we have told and re-told the tale so many times that I can no longer tease apart my memory of the night from that of the groups’ collective recall. One of my friends writes in his journal: "If you keep going North you find South." I am certain that I am being plagiarised.

The sponsors of this so-called impossible adventure had for our send-off hired acres of table linen and laboured to match the mismatched at table settings too grand for some and little more than quaint for others. Arguments started before the first course. An Alpine Aristocrat accused the expedition of criminal ineptitude. He said money was been squandered on shallow spectacle. Furthermore, the back-up organisation was a media circus, it would end up killing more people than it saved if ever a rescue operation were needed. In retrospect, to swing from chandeliers with one's feet entangled in the lobsters was no more than what was expected of us. We, the young heroes of exotic exploration, were ejected from our own party convinced that if we were to risk our lives for the truth we had better be lunatics. I think the sponsors were happy enough.

The night air was gelatine. Cars disappeared into a sticky, green smog. Reality was firmly locked out. It was after midnight. There was no chance of a cab. We were all very drunk and in awe of a storm that hung in the fibres of one's flesh and promised and promised yet would not break. I marched down the street singing garbled versions of songs I recalled from the steppes. Bars hid behind a fuzz of electric light. We used these blurred stars to navigate by. One bartender after the next struggled to prise us from their zinc counters. They managed only to push us on deeper into our adventure and this eventually brought us to stand in the shadow of a leathery dildo, the sign of Priapus bulging out of the mist. Here we were welcomed as if inevitable, as if invited many years ago, our drinks already chilled.

Sometimes after our sex had lasted through too many different positions and I still had not come because my mind was snared in the abstractions of travel I would go to the toilet and, holding my breath, finish off myself. It never took very long. Maybe you knew this, although you never said, not even after our hostilities broke cover.

In the white, I forget everything. In the white, we have been walking blind forever. We are dying. The tractors froze, our dogs also, like bookends. I have eaten dog. The next man to drop will nourish the remainder through one or two more of these impossible white miles. I do not feel my feet. My feet have been eaten. This place has no hunger and thus nothing we give or anything it takes can ever satisfy. It will take or not take in arbitrary and absolute measure and no one should expect anything in return. My fingers have turned black, my face is raw liver, my eyeballs are frozen and they will not shut. Shut or open, nothing to see but white. White everything. So white it looks black. There was wind. No wind now. I have forgotten. To say sorry. And now we are falling. All of us. Men, sledges, equipment. Falling at different rates. Someone plummets by and then it as if, while still falling, they land on cushions. As they slow, so my rate of descent increases. The air is warm as we swing through this gate.

Nick Norton

His book AKA: A Genealogy of the Saddle, commissioned by Book Works, is described by the filmmaker 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

He has prose just published in Fictive Dream; previous prose published in The Honest Ulsterman, Brittle Star, Vignette Review, The Periodical, Coil, Inventory, em, Glossy. His poems are found in Ink, Sweat, & Tears, Anima, Octavius Magazine, Obsessed with Pipework, The Interpreters House, Iota, Other Poetry, Envoi, and elsewhere. 

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