Monday, 16 July 2007


There was a brown-striped snail on the window frame beside my bed this morning. She had climbed--and what a slow laborious work of slithering that must have been! all the way up from the tangle of weeds and flowers outside my high Georgian window to the open louvre at the very top, and then over the rim and down the long stretch of wall to my bed. My new window is enormous and framed with green vines and wild garden, but it does not open. The square at the top that does open must be worked with a long iron rod with a special grip for twisting open the metal handles of the window. You can't just step from my room to the green world outside. So finding the snail seemed like a good omen, one journeyer greeting another. Not that I was kind--I opened the French doors in the kitchen and tossed her back into the rain, sat down and had my toast.

My belongings are now all stored in their new home; all that remains is for my heart to arrive. I do not own any sheets yet and am sleeping on a bare mattress under a duvet--but the mattress is good. I unpacked on Saturday, and spent three hours cleaning a wretchedly neglected kitchen. The two guys who live in the flat seemed bemused--they live on the surfaces of the flat, never throwing away any of the detrita of past tenants and lives. I even took apart and reassembled a peppermill. For no reason at all. I have a pepper mill. Looking back on it, it seems clear that the peppermill was a manageable artefact, unlike the rest of my unruly life.

I reassembled it Sunday morning sitting in the French doors. The weather was allowing a few hours of sunshine, hot on my legs, bare for the occasion, and I ate breakfast and permitted myself a few imagined moments of summer.

Then the clouds returned and the wind started to blow. And the peppermill still doesn't work very well.

I went out to a dinner party Saturday night and had my first walk home in the hours after midnight to my new flat. I now live on the corner of a large lovely park lined with trees, which I will never cross at night. So I walked along the roads, past gently swaying couples stumbling home, around construction sites, under the orange street lights, taxis flying past, testing the waters of the night. It felt pretty safe. I suppose you're wondering what I would have done if it wasn't. The usual panoply of responses, I suppose--bluff, run, rage, scream, fight, weep. Whatever is called for or possible at the time. But it seems that these will not be required, for which I am grateful.

And then there was Sunday. And now it is Monday, cold wet fog trolling the streets, the high hills and Arthur's Seat wiped from view, and I am sitting in my office, scowling at the draft of my thesis, longing for its completion.

The end is near--two days from now I will fly away to Italy, leaving the completed draft in the hands of my advisor, and then on to Bristol to meet my cousin's baby, little Lisa. All I need is to travel the pages of this manuscript one last slow laborious time, mending it as I go. Snailwork. My reward is a few days somewhere warm. With new birds. I will be back in August.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

saints and rain

I have returned from Oslo to Edinburgh.
I didn’t see much of Norway, but
it was as I had imagined—
a few million tall blonde people,
(some largely ignored immigrants)
flush with oil wealth in a land filled
with fjords and mountains and deep
green forests and tunnels, where the trolls
wait for the unwary traveler. A land whose
denizens consume vast lots of sour
cream and berries and sausages and waffles.

We went to a park, which is full of human
statues by Gustav Vigeland. He worked on them
for twenty years between the two world wars.
They became his life’s work, and as I gazed upon
the hundreds of human figures, some in trees,
some fighting mythical monsters, most just
living, I remember Kierkegaard, writing on

The saint, Kierkegaard wrote, wills the one thing.
The saint does not bemoan the weakness of the body,
the wickedness of the heart. The saint does not heed
a frail stomach or a fragile soul. The saint pursues the
gleaming fish of truth through the passages of her mind
and soul until she hooks it, reels it in, and guts it. The silvery
scales of captured truths lie in great mounds round her
olive-skinned feet; she wipes her blade clean upon her robe
and never chokes on the bones of her emotions.
I am no saint. I float on my back in an ocean of feeling,
my sodden robes billowing, pulled this way and that, raising
the level of the sea with my endless tears.

It was raining the second day I came to his cold people
frozen in bronze and granite
they did not heed the rain
but it dressed them anyway
in watery clothing.
The rain too, does one thing,
and does it well.

O to be rain, a saint,
to do one thing well,
to do it utterly

Saturday, 7 July 2007

A conservation NGO recently flew over a great swamp in southeast Sudan on an aerial survey, to ascertain if there were any animals left after the long years of war. To their delight, there were. Thousands upon thousands of white-eared kob and many other antelope. And elephants. There is great excitement, there is talk of a national park. But these animals do not live an uninhabited swamp. They are in Murle territory, and that is where the story of my life begins, or very nearly. Soon after the civil war unfurled, the Murle struck a deal with the government of Sudan—arms for their allegiance. Once armed, they maintained their “borders” from their traditional enemies. Their land, in the middle of the southern forces, was officially aligned with the north. So there was little fighting in Murleland, all through the long years of the war. And its swamp became a haven. It could be possible to have a park and a Murle homeland smack dab on top of each other. I tell this story more for its sheer incongruence—that old enmities and modern weapons somehow were of benefit to the most innocent creatures among us. And I tell it with a wish—that both the Murle and the animals and all their enemies may finally have lasting peace.

Below is an excerpt from my long-unfinished novel, but the story of the moon and the sun does indeed belong to the Murle.

The stories of our beginnings matter. The myths of origin shape the world. But stories are notoriously untidy. The anthropologists have had to take matters into their own hands. They have netted the nebulous creatures. They have trussed their waving limbs, peered at them from various angles, and taken samples. They have classified them into types and set them free. We are an advanced race. We have parables and folk tales, legends and myths, epics and oral histories. Some are theoretically more factual than others. These categorizations mean nothing to the Murle people, who do not apply any standardization of belief to their tales. They do not differentiate between a folk tale, a history, or a myth. One such classification of story is the aetiological tale. These are the tales that explain how things have become what they currently are. The reason, for example, that the woodland kingfisher throws back its beak whenever it swallows. The reason the gazelle’s tail never stops wagging. The reason the leopard has spots, the ostrich a long neck, the elephant a trunk, the crow a white bib. I am telling you the reason things are as they are. I am telling you the story that comes before Eve is left alone in the floodplain. I am telling you what happens to girls without mothers.

This is the Murle tale of why the moon and the sun never meet. A long time ago the moon and the sun were both wives of the same man. They lived together in one homestead. The man was not around much. Not that it matters. Not that it would have made any difference. This is an aetiological tale. Its ending is set in stone. The moon and the sun lived together in one homestead. They didn’t get on very well. One day the sun went to collect dung from the cattle bier. The Murle people use this dung to make fires in the center of the homestead. Dung fires create lots of smoke, and this smokes helps keep the mosquitoes away from the people and their cattle. The sun went to the bier to collect dung with a cow’s rib. The moon was sitting outside her hut, stirring clotted blood with a stirring stick. The blood would have been cow’s blood. It is collected, carefully, from the jugular vein in a living cow’s neck, not more than once every six weeks. The people eat it. It gives them strength. The moon was stirring this blood in a hollow gourd with a stirring stick. The sun was collecting dung in the cattle bier. They were close enough to converse, and they began to argue. On and on they continued arguing, exchanging heated words, until it became a bitter quarrel and they ran outside of their compound and faced off. The sun took the cow’s rib and began to beat the moon. The moon staggered but hauled off and hit the sun across the head with her stirring stick in retaliation. The people ran to them and separated them. This is why the moon, struck with a rib, is white and the sun, struck with a blood-stirring stick, is red. This is why they travel on different paths and never meet. This is why the moon has great craters scattered across its body, marks from the blows of the sun.

When I first heard this tale I wept, for even the moon bears scars.