Martin Edmond

Melesigenes to Palamedes

I was born by the river, the old man said and then he paused. A cloud passed in front of the sun. A white cloud crossing the blue heavens unseen. He made an odd, crabbed gesture, somewhere between a shrug and a wave, putting all that behind him now. Over there, where the day begins. A long time ago. They said the river was my father but how can such a thing be? Are we living in the time of the gods? They said the river gave me my voice; yes, it may be so: in the hexameter rises the fountain's silvery column. My father the river. They meant something else: not that I lacked a father but that my mother had no husband. Which is a different thing. My mother, this story goes, was a nymph, a water nymph, dancing and singing with the other nymphs around the springs out of which my father the river rose. A daughter of the muses perhaps, or of old Ocean himself. Before the river cupped her concupiscent beneath his blue-green wave. Well. I cannot tell you anything real about my father, whether he was some visiting merchant or trader, some divinity in disguise, some seducer of young girls, some handsome itinerant—because, whoever he was, by the time I was old enough to look for him, he had gone. When I asked my mother she would not say. Or not in so many words. I think the thought of him caused her to feel pain. But my mother. Yes, I knew my mother, I remember her and, if she had once been a nymph and danced by the river, which is possible, she was no longer that when I knew her. My mother was I believe a slave, or the daughter of a slave, kidnapped on some raid into the west and brought into the land where I was born, thence to serve in the house of a rich man; who was not unkind but gave her no special treatment either. Perhaps he was my father, you are thinking, but that is not what she told me. On the other hand, would she have wanted me to think I was the child of a concubine, a rich man’s bastard, conceived in slavery? In the scullery of his house or on the kitchen floor? Nor did she ever say she was a slave. She said her parents, colonists from the west, died when she was still too young to marry and that, knowing their time was coming, bequeathed her into the care of this rich man, a friend of theirs, in whose house she lived; but when the rich man saw that she was pregnant, to avoid shame or to avoid suspicion falling upon him, sent her away, to another man’s house in another city. Another wealthy man. And it was while she lived there, in that other man’s house, at a festival down by the river, which she attended with her fellow serving women, that she came to term; and so I was born.

In her eyes the green of the swift water and in my ears the sound of its rushing motion over stones; its murmur among the quiet reeds along the bank. The clean river smell and the blood and amniotic fluid leaking out into the stream as the women washed her, and washed the caul from my face, if there was a caul, imprinting it onto a sheet of paper or piece of cloth, to be kept for later or for luck; and the vernix, too, which there must have been; and the afterbirth; and then she put me to her breast. The milk of which they say there is nothing sweeter. Something we can never remember, never forget. The taste of our mother’s milk, the feel of that smooth white globe, veined with blue, beneath our hand; the way the nipple fills the mouth. The repletion. I do not know the circumstances under which she left the house of this other man, her second benefactor; whether he insisted she take the child and go or whether it was otherwise, a decision of her own, a bid for freedom perhaps, to escape the importunities that men sometimes direct towards a woman who has no husband. Perhaps this second wealthy man wanted to take her to his bed and, when she refused, turned her out. Or maybe he did not want to raise the child, a boy, some other man’s son, in his own house. Or there was another reason that has never yet been spoken: she did it for me. But when I asked her she just said she had no choice; and so we went. Thus my earliest memory is of the road I have spent my life upon. The road that has led me here, to this colloquy with you; and which will in time no doubt lead me hence again. Over land and sea alike. But not before I have given you what I promised. These words and those others you have already written down. And those too which are yet to be written: as many as the unnumbered grains of sand upon a shore, as many as when a flock of birds, starlings perhaps, wheeling, obscures the sun; and their noise drowns out the speech of men and clouds our thoughts with darkness. Such is this writing and so may be its consequence: an end to memory, an end to thought itself. Or it may be otherwise: the beginning of something else, so marvellous and so new, we do not yet know what to call it.

Where are they, these two men, the old one talking, the younger one writing down, on paper made from Egyptian sedge, with his reed pen and the sooty, gummy ink, the words he speaks? Some liminal space, some placeless place, outside, under the sky? In a grove of trees perhaps, or in the forecourt of a temple dedicated to the worship one of the forgetful gods? Do I see a herm? Is there a boy who brings a tray of olives and cheese and bread, a jug of watered wine? A girl. She lingers a while, listening to the murmur of old men’s voices and tracing, with her toe in the dust, shapes like those the younger one scratches with his stylus into the papyrus. Those letters themselves like cranes in flight, black across the white sky of the page. The old man drinks and smacks his lips and casts the lees on the ground, making a lemniscate; and continues with his tale.

In the dust of the road I saw how the footsteps of men and women pass and re-pass and yet leave nothing behind but their imprint; I saw it from within my mother’s arms, or else from the sling she slung across her back, to carry me. She took work where she could, preparing food, carrying water, carding and spinning wool to make yarn for weaving into cloth. If I was not in her arms or upon her back, I was at her side, watching the slow way she worked, the orderly, unhurried movements of her hands, the sense she had of time, not as something which passes and is gone but as a thing you could be inside, a membrane, a container, a vehicle: to be inhabited, to be lived within, as a fish lives in water or a bird the air. That is what she was like. In the next place we lived the man gave her a loom. He bought wool and made it into cloth, for sale. Or rather, the women made it for him. Not many women, four or five. My mother sang as she wove. Old slavery songs she had learned somewhere. Thread she spun herself from the fleece and then she dyed. It was no small thing. The distaff and the spindle, the pots of colour in which the fibres were immersed and took on the purple, the vermilion, the yellow. And as she wove and sang, sang and wove, the warp and weft came together with the tunes and the words. I mean the songs were woven with the cloth. One and another then neither one nor the other; but something else, a fifth thing. And what she wove were pictures made in her mind; which were themselves out of old stories.

There was a blind singer who sat in the street outside the courtyard where she worked and I listened to him too. It was different and the same; instead of a loom he had beneath his fingers the strings of a lyre. An old tortoise shell sounding board, skin-covered, with seven gut strings stretched up to the cross-piece between the arms. Splintery wooden bridge that reverberated in the thrum he made as he strummed; when he picked out a melody, it made a weave with his words. It was the same thing—weft and warp, words and music. He played hard and fast and his words were chanted in a high-pitched strenuous stream that made it difficult to distinguish one from the other or parts from the whole. In time I learned that the way to hear him was to listen to the lines, for the shape of the lines. What happened then is that the lines entering my ears came to my mind like things entire unto themselves. The whisper of the shuttle, the hand upon the strings, the dyed threads unthreading from their spools above the loom, my mother’s singing, the voice in the street outside that court of dusty feet—all these disparate things came together in the lines. And with the lines, or really by means of the lines, the hexameters, the stories began to tell themselves. They were the old stories too: but what stories were these? Kings and queens, battles and feasts, loves and deaths. The gods and their betrayals, men and women in their fidelity and their infidelity, their grandeur and their shame, their splendour and their spite. The accidents of fate, which are not accidents at all. And the ordinary: caring for animals, the growing of crops; olive and vine, barley and wheat; food and drink, music and dance. The natural world, all about us, like a shroud.

Fantasia of an Afternoon

At 6.39 pm on the afternoon of 23 February, 2014, the lemony yellow light of the setting sun shone through a gap in the foliage of the gum tree outside, through the half-open window and into the full length mirror on the other side of the room. I was sitting on the couch, looking at a book on Matisse, when the reflected beams caught me, unexpectedly, on the right hand side of my face. I glanced across the room and into the mirror. It was a complex image: a square of dusty light lay on the surface of the glass itself then, past the twin hanging loops of the artificial red hibiscus lei and the shell necklace I picked up in Fiji years ago now, I saw the pollen-stained oblong window with its dark wooden surround framing a rectangle of leaves and branches on the tree outside and, beyond that, in the far depths it seemed, the yellow sun. Something strange was happening: it seemed that, for the duration of that conjunction, which must happen annually—and therefore, depending upon the growth and disposition of the tree’s foliage, might have happened before and may again—both time and space were held, not in suspension, but in abeyance. I could, apparently, in those few minutes, go anywhere and do anything. It took a moment for the implications of this chance of unparalleled freedom to reach my mind; by the time I realised what was before me, some part of that precious opportunity had already gone, not perhaps forever but certainly for another year. Nevertheless, as soon as I grasped what was happening, I drew some air into my lungs, left the couch, crossed the room and plunged head-first into the mirror: which opened the way yellow-brown river water does when you dive off an earthy bank into its golden depths. It was the bottomless lake that always scared us so much when we were very young. It was our old swimming hole in the bend of the Mangateitei just below the pa and before the river bridge. It was the pool at Akatarawa that afternoon when the dog, in an excess of enthusiasm, nearly drowned my sister. It was the dark promise of a green river I walked beside one leafy afternoon, beneath willows, when I was free and travelling on foot between two forgotten South Island towns. Further down the water turned a deep, amber-flecked, tawny brown that was almost black and then I felt a fine silt beneath my fingers and, like some lost monotreme, burrowed into the mud. Rocks and stones, flints and bones, ancestral voices muttering in my clogged ears. What was this? Zircon? Or Apatite? If you go deep enough into the past you come out in the future, the same way that lake, we knew, took you all the way to China. I crawl out onto the shore. In the future the air is sharp and clear. The razor grass cuts like knives at my armoured skin. In the surrounding forest, rain falls constantly from the canopy but up above the sky is blue as forever and the sun an orange, rolling through high sweet meadows of beautiful light. Elsewhere, the seas belong to medusae but the land is home to whatever you want to call the latest mutation of that clade of endothermic amniotes we used to be. Gleaming silver cities exist, but only in the minds of the dead, who must patrol, endlessly, the limits of imagination; we remain sentient in the synapses between what we were and what we never quite became. I am the next amphibian, crawling into the cutty grass on the shores of the mirror lake. My mind is a jellyfish. I hear my limbs articulate as if they have been engineered by arthropods. There are buds of feathers breaking through my punctuate, goose-fleshed skin. But the yellow light is fading and now, on the verge of taking wing, I realise, almost too late, where I am. It takes an enormous effort of will to go back into the water again; then I have to turn wings into fins, fins into limbs, flippers to feet. On the way back I see the cities of the red night. I see the place of dead roads. I see the western lands: each apocalypse is a dream and every dream a nightmare. And yet this interval of chaos and destruction is just a blip on the time-screen, what else could it have been? A momentary interruption in the Gaia Transmission. The meniscus of the mirror is impossible to pierce with any instrument, sharp or blunt; the only viable strategy is to try to kiss your way out. I do. I look at the clock. 6.43 and some; 4 minutes and 33 seconds have silently elapsed. Matisse is lying open on the couch right where I left him, at a colour plate of Bathers with a Turtle (1908), purchased by Joseph Pulitzer jnr. at a Nazi auction in 1939 and now in St Louis, Missouri. The turtle looks at me, I look at the turtle. We have a perfect understanding; but will have to wait a calendar year—or an eternity—before enlarging upon what that means.

Le bateau ivre
     in the Timor Sea

The boat they gave me was a small wooden shell, a coracle, without a sail or oars: half a coconut lacking the meat. There was just enough room in it to recline. I didn’t care. I drifted down the estuary, indifferent to my fate as to the world around me. The current took us out into the fuming tides where, lighter than a cork, we danced upon the waves. I ate, I drank. I slept. I tried not to think. Days passed, and nights, and I saw nothing but the waves rolling eternally over the graves of the dead. After not so many days my food ran out and I began to hunger; lying sick in the bottom of the boat. Sometimes it rained and then I drank from the sky. I must have fallen into a delirium. When the sea rose and salt water washed over the edges of the hull I counted it a blessing: a douche of blue wine washing us clean. I was spattered with shit and vomit, on the outside, and on the inside gathered the grimy accretions of thought and all that it produces. Regrets, second guesses, ifs and buts, all the rest of that contaminated crew. So the sea’s blue wine washed over us and then it seemed I bathed in some oceanic unauthored poem, azure, lactescent, infused with stars that I sometimes glimpsed, like promises, far above; a pale scrap of flotsam, a dreaming, drowning man, sinking towards death; yet voyaging on. Sometimes I saw the bitter scarlets of love ferment, stronger than alcohol, in the blood that started from my eyes; sometimes I watched the sky break open with lightning. The slow rhythm of the dying light pulsing along the horizon line at day’s end: another intoxication. Then the charcoal evenings, mute catastrophes of sense, followed by night watches so long it seemed that they would never end; until dawn crept like a thief across the water and then, its robbery accomplished, erupted with birds, incarnadined upon the sky: they might have been, but were not, flamingos. Then I saw what men have thought they saw. The low sun, spotted, plague-infected, illuminating, with violet rays, clouds like actors from an ancient play; heard the waves, rolling far off, weaving shuttles of air as if on an antique loom. Those green dreams dazzled by white-capped snows; the phosphorescence of the sea, lined with fires of yellow and purple when I trailed my arm in the water. The swells, herds of ruminants big with young, passed incessantly beneath us. Even on the quietest of nights there was a whisper, slaps and sighs, murmurings. Sometimes I saw my beloved, elevated upon luminous feet, walk across the water towards me; but before her hand could touch mine, before I could reach out to her, she dissolved into the ecstasies of light and air. And then the greenish herd of waves rolled on, all the way to the horizon. Sometimes, desiring relief, I hallucinated swamps, belching putrid bubbles of glittering gas; or a whale drifting, belly-up, torn by the beaks of screaming gulls; once an unknown monster of the deep, big enough to swallow both my boat and me, surfaced beside us; turned one glaucous eye to the heavens then sank again. During those endless nights I scried glaciers of the waterless moon, nacreous crescents of mineral planets, deader than tomorrow, skies full of flaming embers. Were they really there, those orange beaches where giant serpents, devoured by vermin, black-scented, fell from gnarled trees into the scum? And then there were sunfish, fish of gold, singing fish; marvels from a child’s story book. Foam and flowers of foam. Breezes sending aureate rumours past my ulcerated ears. Such wonders: I knew they were illusions. Something my mind, escaping the incontrovertible misery of the senses, made. The miseries of memory. While the sea, that agglomeration of tears, rolled on, bringing forth from her dark recesses the occasional miracle: the albacore, or flocks of flying fish with iridescent wings. When one fell into the scuppers I tore its flesh raw and open with my teeth. We are mistaken in our inclination to ascribe wisdom to the sea. The sea forgets everything: unless that is wisdom. I remember crouching in that boat, upon my knees, for hours; or days. I remember myself, an island of blood tossed upon a bed of recrudescent flesh. I remember the cries of sea birds, their cacophony the revenge of time upon history. I drifted and in my wake drowned men, newly risen, sank back again into the deep. I entered forests of caves, if such a thing can be. My boat entangled in the foliage dangling from some green island. I clawed helpless at its tendrils then, when the tide turned, went on. Another storm blew up and I was thrown into the birdless air; in a violet fog I shot through a reddening sky, its cauterizing light, spotted with contagions of satellites. I fell back. My drunken boat was gone. I clung to a weedy log; escorted by black seahorses, under the cudgels of the sun, burning in the ultramarine. I heard, trembling, leagues away, the moans of rutting behemoths; and smelt the thick aphrodisiac of the maelstrom, eternal spinner of blue immobilities. I remembered Isinglass of the Ancient Parapets: as if it were a legend long ago. I thought of the goddess. I, who had seen sidereal archipelagos, islands where delirious skies opened to the gaze of the sea-farer—I longed for home. It must be there, in ageless nights and days, that the birds of ecstasy are exiled. It must be where the vigour of the ancients lives. But it was too late for me. I had been gone too long. Dawns are heartbreaking. Every moon is atrocious, each sun bitter. Acrid love swelled in me, breeding a torpor like decay. I wanted my body to burst. I wanted to leak my fluids into the sea. My last memory: twilight in a land far from ocean where, in the lime scented evening air, a small child, full of sadness, releases upon the waters of a pond a boat as delicate as a moth. A child innocent of the palace. The inheritor of the ages. Myself. Forgetting plumes and wakes, flags and flames, the blank eyes of prison ships, I let go my hold upon that weedy log and sank at last beneath the waves.

Martin Edmond was born in Ohakune, New Zealand and now lives in Sydney, Australia. His most recent books are, with Maggie Hall, Histories of the Future (Walleah Press, Hobart, 2015) and The Dreaming Land (Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2015).
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