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Beast

I stood in the river up to my knees and the river was cold. The water filled my boots and made its way up through the fabric of my trousers towards my groin. Soon I couldn’t feel my feet, and soon after that I couldn’t feel my legs. The river sang and kept sing­ing. I wanted to clamber out, but I stood still. Pain rose and tried to encircle me, but I stood in the winter tor­rent and watched the pain and after a while it fell back again, back down into the singing water.

 

Water came down from the clouds and sank through the black peat and passed over the granite and then went down through its channel to the sea. The water that ran over my legs and feet would never be seen here again but the river never changed. I climbed into the river in the early morning and I stood there until the sun was highest in the sky. I let the water take my body away from me so that I could see what was beyond my body. I let the river numb me and I under­stood that I had always been numb. The sky opened a crack, but only a crack. There was still something beyond that I could not touch.

 

Water, thorns, rain, black soil. All of the pain is an incident, a detail soon forgotten. From the east I came, from the dead fens, because of everything that grew there, because of what was lodged in the dark waters. I walked the streets, I sat on the couches, I passed through the sliding doors, I talked but never listened, I sold but never gave away. Everywhere there were voices and I added my voice to them and we spoke out together and said nothing at all. I became entwined in wanting, and it took me away from the stillness that is everything. I say it here daily now like a prayer, like an offering: it is everything, it is everything, and sometimes I glimpse it and then I am every storm wind that has ever run itself clean across the black of the sea.

 

From the east I came, to this high place, to be bro­ken, to be torn apart, beaten, cut into pieces. I came here to measure myself against the great emptiness. I came here to touch the void, to leap naked into it with the shards of what I was falling around me, to have the void clean me of the smallness that I swam in. To come out white and empty with a small, sharp piece of that emptiness in me always, because it is all that can ever save me. To be open, to be in fear, to be aching with nothingness, to be lonely as the cold subsoil in winter, lonely as the last whale in the ocean, singing in bewilderment and no other to answer for all of time. This darkness.

 

This is the only life.

 

I haven’t been sleeping well. I see things when I close my eyes. Old things climb out through my mouth and set themselves free in the air. On the high moor there are patterns and in my small mind there are patterns, and my breath fogs on the windows here and when I leave a footprint in the yard it stays for weeks. There are movements at night and I don’t understand them. Strange things rise up when the cars full of tourists go home and the farm lights burn yellow on the far slopes. All the centuries drop away, and I am in the presence of something that does not know time.

 

Five seasons I’ve been here now. Five seasons, but I’ve never seen a storm like this. An hour or two back, I stood by the door and watched it rise over the shoulder of the moor. Winter here is one long storm, dark and roiling, the wind tearing at you, pulling you down. But this one is harder than usual, louder, stronger. It roars up the fields like a beast chasing the smell of blood. The rain is horizontal, it blows in from the west as if it has been arrowed in from the Atlan­tic. It forces itself through every crack, through every gap and space. It seeps through the walls, around the doors, around the windows, it runs down from the roof where the iron meets the stone, it comes through the openings where the plastic flails in the wind. It has been roaring now for an hour maybe, not much longer, but everything is getting wet. I’ve pushed towels and flannels and rags into every weeping cut and wound but still it comes.

 

I think that something is coming. I don’t know what. I wonder if it will thunder, if there will be lightning. Lightning is drawn to iron. There is iron on the roof, but there is iron too in the deep rocks of the moor. I am living on and under iron, there is metal everywhere, metal and flesh and wet, black trees. I look out of the window and I see sheets of water flowing across the yard, through the gate, down onto the track. The sky is a solid darkness. Last time there was a big storm, the track from this place, which leads along the combe about a mile down to the road, became so pitted and full of great gashes that I could barely even walk on it. It was as if something had attacked it. The wind here will throw you to the ground if it catches you, will tear the slates off the roof and make them fly. Rain like this will make the streams rise so fast that they foam brown and white and roar down the combes into the valleys where the people are. And here are the stone walls and stone floors turning darker with the water, as the rain comes through the roof, and here is the stove hissing as the rain drips upon it. I am surrounded.

 

Five seasons. Thirteen months. Thirteen months and eight days. I wonder what they are thinking now. I won­der what they think of me. All of the weight I threw down, my retreat from the encircling, from the furi­ous thoughts and opinions, the views and the positions soldered together with impatience and anger, enfold­ing the world in underwater cables and radio waves, singing in the air, darting from brain to brain, jumping from raindrop to thundercloud, glueing the world up, roaring like a storm wave. All of the energy, depleting itself in slow motion across the frozen void, running itself out for all time with nothing done, nothing even touched, everything swerved around. The sloughing entropy and nothing come from it, the wasted cells, the long dance that ends in silence. All of the fingers, the hands outstretched towards me, set to shape me.

 

To shape me, or to hold me?

 

I worry that the roof won’t hold out. When I walked here shoeless over the moor from the east, with no light in the sky, I found the old farmyard dark and empty, the house and the barn echoing and broken, wet and unheld. All that passed for a roof then was a couple of twisted sheets of corrugated iron, bent back by the force of years. The rest was woodwormed raf­ters opening onto the blackness inside. But there was still a stove in this wet, desolate room, with its stone flag floors and its years of accumulated rot and vegetation, and the stove looked like it could be made to work, though it was covered in birdshit and rust. I had not known what I was looking for when I came look­ing. This old place, clinging to the moorside in the thick night, felt like an invitation.

 

I worked hard to shape it and make it mine. I scraped the birdshit off the stove, cleaned the windows, filled the gaps in the glass with anything I could find, scrubbed the floor clean, repaired the door lock which I had broken getting in, patched up the chimney. Then I climbed gingerly up to the roof and I nailed the bent iron back onto the soft beams as best I could. In the roofless barn across the cobbled yard I found a pile of stiff, crusted fertiliser bags beneath a cake of rot­ten straw. I slit them open and laid them and a worn tarpaulin over the gaps, and tied them all down with blue nylon rope. I was proud of my work, back then. This was to be my home, it was to be the place where I would sit in the silence and wait for the presence. But it is not enough tonight. The gaps between the sheets are starting to leak. Fertiliser bags can’t hold up against this. The iron is rising and falling, clanging like a ham­mer on the black beams. Things are tearing. It sounds like some of the nails are coming loose. I’m sitting here by the stove, not looking up, willing the water not to land on the back of my neck.

 

Perhaps it will end soon.

 

I haven’t been sleeping well. I think I said that. Just recently, I haven’t been sleeping well. I don’t know why. I’ve been having strange dreams. Distant lights out in the sea, fleets of swans flying, trees underwater, old trees. Last night I dreamed that I was out collecting firewood on the ridge when I disturbed a hare under an ash tree. It was sandy brown, it had a white belly and black eartips, it was long­boned and sharp as the winter and there was something about its eyes that didn’t fit. They didn’t look like animal eyes, they seemed human, and this hare with its strange eyes it just stood there, it stood and looked into me as if it were about to speak, as if it had something to tell me, to promise, to warn me away from.

 

I’m used to this now. By day I walk the thin paths through the heather, I pace the farmyard, I sit cross­legged in this room for hours, I stand in thickets of thorn listening for the music on the wind. By night I dream. I wonder if home is calling me, if the flatlands want me back, or if this winter moor is just getting to me. Thirteen months is a long time to spend with only the wind to speak to. There are things out there at night that you don’t want to be in the company of. Stalking through the gully, muttering along the stone row, shifting and stammering in the woods. Perhaps I have been in this dreaming too long. Perhaps I am losing my mind.

 

I do hope so.

 

The walls are soaking now, the stone is weeping, the stain is spreading across the floor. There is a creeping blackness moving towards me. There is rain dripping on the stovetop, every drip hissing angrily as it lands. This storm, this storm. It’s ruining everything.

 

But the stove is still burning hard. A few drops of rain mean nothing to it. Often I have sat here star­ing through the cracked glass, watching the flames, unmoving. Daily I have sat cross­legged on the cold floor, silent, watching the unremarkable become transfigured. Stare at anything for long enough and it becomes fearful. To burn things, to burn so many things just to keep your body warm, to set this inferno raging across the world so that you can be warm and move fast, to churn the gases about, to shift the par­ticles in the air, to slice wood with metal, to tear into the ground, to blacken the soil, to make so much heat. If I could, if I was strong enough, I would not have fire here. If I was strong enough I would never eat, I would never speak, I would never think or move, I would only sit. I would sit for two hundred years in the light and then I would know.

 

There is steam rising from the tin kettle now, the iron frying pan is on the stovetop and a triangle of half-­frozen butter is starting to pool in it, which means that soon I can put the egg in. It’s Sunday, and every Sunday I allow myself an egg. Otherwise I live on bread, potatoes, beans, water and black tea. I allow myself one bar of chocolate a month, though sometimes I worry about that. St Anthony got by in the desert on salt, bread and water. But I have earned my indulgence, and I will have it, storm or no storm. I am hungry. I am so hungry.

 

I wonder if I should go back. Go back east, take them what I have found here. But what would they do with it? They would have nothing to say and I would not know how to tell them. They would draw round me in a ring, baring their teeth like apes on the savannah. Everything is prey to them, everything is clay for their hands to mould, they want to eat everything, chew it all up and then excuse themselves. Back there I was an item, an object, a collection of gears, a library of facts compiled by others, a spark plug in a universal engine, an opinion machine, I was made of plastic and bamboo canes and black bin bags, I walked like I was human and alive but I was neither. I could know anything in an instant and I knew nothing at all.

 

No. I need to be in the places where the light comes through, where people are thin on the ground, where the old spirits still mutter in the hedges and the stone rows. But how long do I stay, and when do I know? When do I go back? Do I ever go back, and if I don’t, what does that make me? What does that make this?

 

They grow fast. Everyone says that. You turn around one day and they’re gone.

 

But there was no staying. I know that. There was no staying and there is no returning, not until it is done. I will know when it is done. There will be some kind of sign, some kind of feeling. Things will become clear. And when I go back, when I tell them, when I show them, they will forgive me. The things I have seen. Every saint walked away. Every holy man, every prophet, they all walked away. That’s the bit they don’t tell you. They never tell you about what was left behind, about who was left behind, about what had to be broken. That part of the story is always swept under, but it’s the most important part of all. It’s the clean break that begins everything.

 

I liberated them, too. I gave them their freedom. One day, they will thank me.

 

There it goes! There goes the tarp. It looks like one end of it is still tied down, but the rest is flapping like some giant prehistoric bird up there, lashing against the roof, and the iron sheets are even looser. There’s a bloody great gap up there now, opening and closing with the wind and the rain is crashing down, sheeting in. I can’t stand the rain anymore, I can’t stand it, I can’t. I’ve had it with the storm, with all the storms, with all the roaring up there, with all the noise, with everything coming down on me.

 

I have to do something. I will do something, I will do it if this storm doesn’t slow down. I’ll give it five minutes, I’ll wait another five minutes, just to see if it dies back or the rain slows. I don’t want to go up there. But if I wait too long the whole thing is going to come off, and then I’m right back where I started.

 

Perhaps it will never die back. Why should it? Why should it make this thing easy? I wanted it to be hard. It was why I came, why I was sent here. A day comes, a time is presented to each one of us, once only in our lives, and we know when it has arrived, whether we acknowledge it to ourselves or not. Something settles into us from the sky on that day or rises into us from the ground, a great stillness, a huge colour, a bottomless well of nothing and everything, a balancing, extended moment in which there is no longing at all, no past and no future, nothing that will be or has ever been. Everything in the world has been leading up to this moment but you will never have any hope of grasping it, of following its lead, if you stay here walking these paving stones and slouching in these office cubicles and buying cans in these corner shops and standing in line in these supermarkets and waiting at these bus stops in the rain.

 

What is this? Is it a tiny piece of the great mystery? Is this what some people call God? Does it turn out that God is not a spirit, a lord, a king, an expression of the human ego, an instructor, a giver of rewards and punishments, a fixer, a maker of rules? Does it turn out that God is not like you and me and never has been, does it turn out that God is an emptiness, a space into which life is poured and from which life re­emerges, fecund and scrabbling in the void? And does it turn out that this thing, this mystery, this void, this truth, this God – that this can only be seen when everything else, including our minds, especially our minds, has dropped or been sheared away?

 

You don’t know. You don’t know anything at all, only that you have been shown this, though you never expected to be. What will you do with it?

 

You know then that you have to go. There is no ques­tion of choice. You have to leave it all, find yourself a silent place, a wild place, away from the paving stones and street lamps and away from all of the people, even the ones who love you, especially them. They are the dangerous ones. Then you must sit, empty yourself, open yourself and wait for it to find you again. This is the search, it is what they have always said, all over the world, all of the seekers. These are the rules.

 

Once, everybody knew this, and they respected it. The hermits and the saints would arm themselves for battle and they would head out into the wild to meet the foe, and anything of themselves that they needed to strip away, they would do it to ensure vic­tory. No­one believes that stuff anymore. They’re all filling their pockets and their mouths, they’re all nam­ing the parts, they’re all frantic with their unhappiness and their opinions, there is nothing you can tell them. They won’t let you leave, now. And if you leave, they won’t let you come back.

 

I never asked for any of this, so I cannot be held responsible. It is not my fault, I just followed it. I knew there would be damage. I remember what she said when she realised that this time, so late, I was finally going through with it. Are you looking for God or looking for yourself? she said. Can you even tell the difference anymore? She was clever like that. It’s easy to be clever when you’ve always had everything, easy to be clever when it’s all been laid out for you. Nothing was ever laid out for me, nobody ever showed me any­thing and I told her that. Six years, she said, it’s been six years, and you leave now, at the worst time there could be, and for nothing. It’s not for nothing, I said, I have tried to tell you. You are a child, she said, you always have been, and now I have two children. Yes, I said, I am a child, I can still see the world afresh, look at it, look! My whole life I have been sitting in silence, I have been sitting in the corner for thirty years and not speaking, now something has been shown to me, now it has all fallen away and look at me here, at last I am standing up, at last I have the guts to walk away, to walk towards what I could be. Would you stop me from being what I could be?

 

You do know, she said, that it is not all about you anymore? You do know that? What about her? She is barely born, she’s too young to know anything, she gets no kind of say, she doesn’t even get a memory. Just to walk out on her. Is this the kind of man you are?

 

What kind of man am I? I wonder what I think about that now that I have spent a year here, watching the layers peel off, stripping myself back. You peel and peel and peel but there is always another one under­neath. Does the work ever end, is there a centre, and if so what do you find down there? Some promise, some jewel, some answer? When I came, I thought that if I could spend enough years away from all of it and all of them, then the thing that was in me, the colour that had descended, the song that was singing, the thing that I could still become might emerge like a butterfly in summer, testing its dusty wings and dreaming of the sun.

 

That was what I thought then. I wonder what I think now. I used to know everything when I was young. Now that I’m older, I don’t know anything at all. Now the mystery is the thing. There are sadhus in the tem­ples and mendicants in the mountains, all of them struggling through in search of the mystery, in search of the white light in the grey. There are fires burning on distant hills, men standing on the prows of small boats roaring across the Java Sea, tiny people in giant canopy forests hacking through to unseen clearings while the monkeys hoot around them. We built a world of altars because we could never put the mystery into words. We tried to make the mystery human, we tried to lock it into shape, we made sacrifices to it, we sang its poetry and then we left the buildings empty and walked away. We don’t talk about the mystery any­ more, not where I come from, but nothing has changed in the world except us.

 

Come to a place like this, though, and you can still hear it sing. I can tell you that from experience. Come to a place like this, far from the estates and the ringroads and the car parks and the black fields of beet and the screen­dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West around the pedestrianised precincts. Come to a place like this, shut your mouth and your mind and walk on the moor, walk in the wind and the sun, and you will understand soon enough that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing, that we walk through it, we breathe with it, we are its breath, that when we stand on a mountain overcome by the sunset and all that it brings, or fall to our knees in front of an altar in the presence of something greater than ourselves, then we are sensing the animal shift and turn beneath our feet. Then it is calling us home.

 

Or perhaps it is hungry.

 

St Cuthbert was called to be a hermit on Lindis­farne. This was more than a thousand years ago. There were only small wooden huts there then, and the wind and the wild sea and everything that lived in the wild sea. Cuthbert went out there to the mon­astery, but the monastery was not far enough and he was called out further. He rowed to an empty island, where he ate onions and the eggs of seabirds and stood in the sea and prayed while sea otters played around his ankles. He lived there alone for years, but then he was called back. The King of Northumbria came to him with some churchmen, and they told him he had been elected Bishop of Lindisfarne and they asked him to come back and serve.

 

There’s a Victorian painting of the king and the her­mit. Cuthbert wears a dirty brown robe and has one calloused hand on a spade. The king is offering him a bishop’s crosier. Behind him, monks kneel on the sands and pray he will accept it. Behind them are the beached sailboats that brought them to the island. The air is filled with swallows. Cuthbert’s head is turned away from the king, he looks down at the ground and his left hand is held up in a gesture of refusal. But he didn’t refuse, in the end. He didn’t refuse the call. He went back.

 

We head out because the emptiness negates us. We leave the cities and we go to the wild high places to be dissolved and to be small. We live and die at once, the topsoil is washed away and the rock is exposed and it is not possible to play the games anymore. Now I am exposed rock. Like Cuthbert, I have been washed clean. What do I see?

 

I wonder if she misses me. I wonder if she remem­bers me. I wonder if she can walk yet, or speak. Has there been a first word? Perhaps she needs me. Per­haps I should go to her. Would that be the right thing? How do I know what the right thing would be? I look at it now, I have a year’s distance, I look at it now and I see myself illuminated from behind, walking away from light and into light. I was the questing hero and the treasure would be mine, and when I came back with it, when I came back changed, they would see that change even in the way I carried myself as I approached over the hill. Everything about me was different now, they would see this and a great joy would rise up in them, and when I reached them they would welcome me back, wiser and better, a bet­ter person, and they would forgive everything. They would forgive everything and everything would be better, and I would be better. That was how it would work. That is how it will work, when I see them again. Yes. I am sure of it.

 

The storm isn’t abating. If anything, it’s getting worse. The gap is getting bigger, it’s crashing around up there now, it’s coming apart, it’s all going to come apart and then what, then what? I’m going to have to go up there. It’s dangerous, I don’t know what might happen if this keeps up. It’s not safe in here. I’m going to have to go up there. If I don’t do something now, the whole roof is going to co

 

***

Cover Image: Blood of the Earth (ink and pastel on paper) by Andrew Phillips, published in Dark Mountain Issue 9. andrewvphillips.co.uk



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


's debut novel, The Wake, won the 2014 Gordon Burn Prize, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Folio Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize, and was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. He is also the author of two non-fiction books, One No, Many Yeses and Real England, and a poetry collection, Kidland. He co-founded the Dark Mountain Project, a global network of writers, artists and thinkers in search of new stories for a world on the brink. This is an extract from his second novel, Beast, published in July by Faber & Faber.



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