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The black threads of the tree cut into my mind like a knife; humming down over the freeway from whatever dimension they are in when they are dying – coming in to the world. This world, from its red blood pouring over the sky, saves me from the things I might otherwise write, for its terrible beauties describe the nightmares who inhabit the landscapes of the marshes around the town of Whitechurch, whose waters south of the river, where it splits, at the right hour of night, below the dying sun, pitch me darkly into the world, so that I might recover, from the burden of being alive.
There are four of them above the road, the trees, their knives etched against the red. Like murderers watching the motorists. There is a vicar here – where I am going – this man who has forgotten – or never knew to begin with – what we are doing here. What I am doing here.
Red. I am red, because it is easier than being other things, and because the locked metal bolts shift inside of my head on seeing it, like a bull, this landscape, covered in blood, and over my hands. Like a wailing woman confronting the death of all her loved ones, written into the landscape like a poem waiting to be read. No, that is not quite right. Too melodramatic. It is deeper than ghosts and dead women and loss and love and heartache. It is the colour of the landscape itself: the black against the red: like the shape of my mind against the car, a nightmarish colour reflected inside the prism of the world made to build these empires who keep my soul tethered to the earth.
I am being killed by England, like all of my brothers before me, marching into the iron staves of the night. The trees are our pall bearers, covering the staves with their teeth, so that we might be saved. Do not be afraid: I have been here before. It is the color of night, before it is night, and the color of death before you have died. The watchword of spirits is only your own language, turned inward: the firebolt from space inside your stomach and lungs and capillaries, working to burn better the loan of the punishment you have carried this far, in at least two parts: before, and during.
This also is not quite right, though perhaps closer: before is probably wrong. Rather it is that during – the now – is so immense that it cannot be properly described. And the person I become under its light bleeds over the edges of the moment into the man who writes these words – a necessary failure of description – and the man who is left behind, both there and then and now, like a kind of torture victim, his body twitching from the wires.
I twitch from the wires, but it is all right; these things are necessary when you have been touched. It is just par for the course. If I am a tour guide, then I must guide you, and I promise you I will show you everything that I have time for – and many things you would not have expected to have seen. I promise that bitterness itself – the beverage of my countrymen and yours – is here too celebrated as the fine winestuff to mark our meeting, and to remember us to our loved ones. That the world bound tight to the pelt of the earth, quiet and careful in its menacing intensity, this thing that is never familiar no matter how many times we see it, this palpable evil – a word I should not use, but I cannot yet think of another – is our home. My brother, I am home again, half dead, and I promise that everything I have is yours, if you want it. This is my legacy, cut from my staff, into your kingdom:
The road is not long. You can find the church just beyond the bend in the river, beyond the stretch of trees that stand like soldiers guarding a Neolithic burial site. The vicar – a word which means “a substitute,” takes my hand in the dark and smiles – this evil man (and here the word is fine) – my demon to invite me in.
The substitute for England is America, just as the substitute for America is England. This also is not quite right, but that is because I do not know what the substitute for America is. Perhaps it is the place which has no substitutes, even as it has no vicars. We have many preachers and apostles and wise men, charlatans and mad men and reverends and priests and slaves, but no vicars.
In standing under the dark of the English colour, the man is transformed out of his body and into the trees, for the trees are also men, and in their coloration I stand eager, tired and sad, a man against some black wall in Los Angeles, or a prisoner about to executed in some bog. Consider him in his churchyard, before the English dark becomes complete, and before my little car runs out of petrol, before we shake hands again (how many years has it been?), before I know entirely why I have come, and before the reason for the coming of the trees over the red whose knives meant I would I write this story.
“Did you find it all right?”
“No, not really,” I said. The car was still running. I leaned in to switch it off. “My phone ran out of juice. “
What are vicars substitutes for? Not God, surely. It is related to viking: some inlet of water, where the church stands.
Like God stands over us, in his deadly might, and I stand over the river a dead man, I embrace my brother to come home into the night where I had thought I could die at last…I say it like that but it is not so. I do not know what it is that happened. Or who this priest is. Not my brother in Christ or in any other capacity. A monster.
“A cup of tea for you? I’ll put the kettle on.”
“Yes all right.”
Vicar as Viking: an inlet into the water into the country. A vital slit into the vein.
Though I could be wrong I will say anyway: I am glad to be here. In the dead land of my brothers from beyond the sea.
There are always so many things to do before you leave. Lock behind your keys, or leave them behind. Choose the crockery to transport. Pick the winter clothes. Arrange for a bed at the other end, assuming they let you in over the border, across the ocean, before the clock runs out.
It’s been ticking for a while, have you noticed? That little background sound. Like a lover in bed, ready to get out:
Viking and vicarage come from an ancient word for clan: weik. The ocean is barely registered in clan histories, except as a god encountered and recorded. Just another being over the stretches of the human imagination. But the boundaries of the clan – that eternal question where one people ends and another begins – ultimately describe the nature of the evil of my brother the vicar in the village of Whitechurch, England. Not only what he decided to be, and didn’t (and the same for me), but what all of us decided to be and didn’t. And what, in preventing us from certain decisions about who to be and who not, the trees made possible. The trees are to blame, you see, absurd as it might sound to some of you. These old and quotidian gods of ours in all their stubbornness, made it possible for the madness to enter my brain, and that of my brother, and for the red to pour down out of the sky, in its blood-brain.
I had to catch my plane:
I’m running down the aisle (a dangerous thing to do after 9-11), and my brother is running through the marsh, and both of us, in our strange ways, are falling in love again, the way you do with brothers, mixed with a little hatred and grist for the milling of our dogmatic bread.
There is a red light behind the trees and I am driving to see the vicar. I found out later that the trees are actually men – or pictures of them – stretched over the freeway where they stand on the overpass, figures which in daylight appear mischievous and strangely joyous, leaping behind one another – stick figures.
There is an owl that stands in an ordinary Hampshire wood, next to an engraving of an Easter Island head, both inscribed to Elizabeth Regis, to mark her occult power. The men trees are like that, but deeper, and older, even though they cannot have been constructed much earlier than the owl itself. They remind me of the straw men – the wicker men. the burning of the children over the bright bridge of light that is the world. But still they speak to me also of escape: both outside of and into the world.
Like the Vikings with their wicks – their encampments – I am hanging like a stubborn piece of religious wool caught on a tree – tied on – encamped here to make war in the only way I know how – by writing.
The enemy – a word that means literally “not a friend” – is also not specially an enemy in the way that generals and presidents and kings use it. Probably Satan is the better word, though I would try to use it in some pre-Christian sense. His name means “adversary.” Friends too can cross your path, in this sense. Act against you. And certainly those who are neither friends, nor enemies in the English sense.
Like the Red King asleep in his magical kingdom the wicker men stand as trees over the freeway overpass, running north, freeing some adversary we cannot see, and invoking in their bright stance before the red sun in his sinking the chill of the mysterious powers of the world, something so bright and vast it sinks over my body like a medical tunic, or X-ray blanket, a leaden magnet charging my flesh with orders I cannot help but obey.
England does not really exist but Ing does, and I am his prisoner. Here in Ing’s land, I feel the necessity of my obeisances, whose artfulness is encoded into my genes, in some place I am unable to precisely locate. That is the religion of this island. Long before Rome arrived we have our religion encoded, as is the case in the rest of Europe, into our days of the week, as you know:
Tiu’s say, god of war and sky
Woden’s day, the skyfather
Thor’s day, his son
Freia’s day, the earth
Saturn’s day, the harvest, with his bright sickle
Well, the last of those gods is pretty Roman, isn’t it? And many claim that the religious bodies of this island are more accurately represented in geographical terms, as in other ancient parts of the world (which is to say, everywhere): mountains, streams, forests, paths and lakes and seas and coasts and hills and circles of flowers. Gods of clouds and grasses and caves and animals. All of the people of the earth and its neighbors in the sky and in the ground and in the fairies’ and other worlds next to our own.
My obeisance cannot be in writing but it is the truest way I can express it, though that is lying to you. I write to understand my obeisances, not to perform them. The performance of them is merely in walking on this island, under the gaze of these many gods, and under the guise of a visiting writer, a cloak no better and no worse than any other thousand wayfarers who came here before me, looking for all the same kinds of things: love, and shelter.
It should be all right – this is something I tell myself. The way you can remind yourself of how things went and hope for it again. A form of learning? Yet what happened beneath the color of the sky seems not to be something I can learn from in the same way. Rather it feels like a door I stumbled on inside of myself, the way they appear in nightmares, extending infinitely into a realm you can explore but which you have no guarantee of leaving. I did leave it, you see. The man who called himself the vicar and I had our meeting and I left … but that was later.
Rather it is the color red itself which concerns me. Has the color never bothered you? It is, for instance, the traditional color of all revolutionary movements. In the middle ages, when you wanted to kill your lord, what you hoisted on the pole to see if anyone might salute was the color red. Ditto, the communist revolution. But politics aside, blood color aside, it has further unsettling elements. That low spectrum at the edges of our visibility carries with it that suggestion of edge and all its meanings: abandon hope … or abandon knowledge … abandon sense … or justice … where we approach the edge of the color red.
It’s nothing, of course. We can tell ourselves it is nothing. I can tell you it was just a color in the sky. The same color you are used to seeing. But have you never felt quite this way about it? Have you ever told anyone? Some things do not kindly bear explanation…
It is a fixation of mine. A fixity like the flag itself, and the peasant who hoists it – even though he moves among his fellows he trusts to the fixity of the pole, the fixity of the tree. Perhaps that is all it is: this story I fell into is just one aspect of my love affair with trees. My last name is the color of trees: brown. And that is the color of my hair and eyes. But beneath a red sky we all tremble together, as our flesh before the flame:
They say darkness is a friend, and maybe they’re right. It’s a strange friend to have, though. The kind who shows up when you least expect it, with no explanation, or any warning, and who sometimes stays longer than is wanted.
The night who moves, in his ineluctable grace, should not be feared, yet he cannot be welcomed either. He arrives in his own time, in his long sleeves, naming all of the things you had dreamt and could not name yourself, the rivers of time and the starlit gaze of all the beings who dreamt you too.
We are traveling to China, as lovers, though the world has already ended. And its circumveillanced reality, however bright, is dark to me too, for I fled before I knew why it was I had come, to England. That is: we can see all the way around it, without trying too hard, but its nature is beyond control or reason, and if it is not beyond comprehension, that is only because we comprehend it through acting it out, my dark players on our stage of life, burying the truth inside of our bodies like a terrible food that brings no satiety.
My friend darkness knows me like no other, and his grip is soft and loose, like a panther or a character in a play, telling me which lines to say and reminding me of the timing, so that I might recompense him for his grace.
I have brought a woman with me to China. After it all fell out with the vicar. I felt I knew these reasons – as though I should know! As though I should know what it is I was, and am! Better am than was, but still. I am not aware of anything I do. I just find myself doing things, and then try to puzzle out why. Like a dog chewing on a bone, which he has brought into his favorite place, beneath the house and beyond any troubling noise, to gnaw.
Into the darkness we must go, where we can find no shelter, and where all the kingdoms of my life find silence and reason – a reason whose circumference shadows all light. A reason who I tremble to know, incapable, pilgrim characterized in the famous poem as never too urgent – though I am urgent – and never too sure – though I am that too often – and always slow on the right path, through the Slough of Despond and all the rest of it, on towards god and all of his terrible friends, in the world after this one.
Of course, I have said it wrong. Darkness is none of those things. Darkness is something you know, like you know the feeling of toothpaste in your mouth, and the feeling of the covers over your night skin. The sound of your mother’s voice.
She is coming to meet me in China, she says. She is worried about what I have become.
“What is that, mother?”
She will not say.
The vicar would not move; some attack from inside his body. I had summoned help and waited for it arrive outside in the dark, where I could see the sky.
They say the moon is reborn in every cycle; the moon is literally new. For the sun it takes longer: some period of millennia. The light in the garden is diffuse: a damp blanket cleaving last night from this prison. But the possibility of liberation: in whatever condition, and whatever place, on the sheer merits of the imagination, awaits. I wait with it, on my own, burying and unburying the hatchet.
That he is my blood, the vicar, is indisputable: perhaps this is what has enraged me. Some cousin sheared to my body like a tumor: that I am to carry as a child through some terrible pregnancy. A representative of the Queen: but not only a baby-eater. This tribal initiate: guardian however inadequate of these territories stubbornly bequeathed to our children.
He is at the hospital, attended by the deacon. The word has a terrifying root: “to hasten from all sides.” Surrounding the truth in order to quash it.
The older I get the more I respect the quality of Hamlet most subject to the criticism of readers and playgoers: his indecision. To me it seems that insistence on delay kept everyone alive – for a few more hours.
But the use of that indecision for me – the notion that I could make peace with England – the idea that Claudius and his adulteries and betrayals could be preserved in this life – that our findings despite their burning truth could be filed away for some more convenient hour – it has already passed. That is, I want to believe I could be Hamlet because of the preserving power of his indecision but I already decided long ago. Long before I came to England.
Perhaps the revolution of my ancestors – once on these shores and once on others – was never about kings of forms of government, or even land. Perhaps the religious war trumped all other concerns, and its fragmentary union of the disparate selves who inhabit these bodies we call human leashed and liberated us both at once: leashed to this conflict with the European monarchs, and liberated from the boxes into which they had thrown our peasant ancestors. Irrespective of parliamentarian debate or questions of landownership turned the fires of the night over which our dreams depended, strands of life descending over the waywardship of this life, bonded to and breeched from the earth. Tied again, re ligio.
Thomas Browne’s magnum opus, Religio Medici, from the period that spawned my absurd American warrior tribe, the Seventeenth Century, stands as a monument above other things to the Orwellian fear (300 years before his birth) of speaking your mind. To avoid being taken for a heretic, Browne delivers a tractatus on not delivering a tractatus. Another kind of Hamlet. These priests and their tribal fears writ into the logics of our hands and bones – the images we see in sleep.
I must go to the hospital.
Perhaps a vicar is a kingdom all his own: they say the religion is dead but it is not so. It is tied to so many things: even the shape of your breath. The names you have for the sky. Clothes and paths and boats. The relationship you have with birds. All the village conundrums and fealties spread out over the hill and field, numberless beyond the imagination.
If I am tied again let it be to the weik again, so I can know my place inside of the dreams of my ancestors, waiting for the word in the dark.
Here is my word to you, brother. I am dead, but I am whispering into your heart all the things we’ve yet to do together.