TOM HIRONS

Writer and storyteller

Nettle-Eater

Nettle-Eater, published March 2018
Nettle-Eater, published March 2018

 

This piece first appeared in a previous version in Dark Mountain III, along with Sometimes a Wild God. Ever since, it's nagged at me to make it into something more. Winter 2017-18 and I've finally done it.

The book of Nettle-Eater is out on 11th March 2018 from Hedgespoken Press. If you'd like to be kept informed about this kind of thing, do sign up to my very occasional newsletter by clicking on the bar over on the left.

On the Hedgespoken Shop page, it says this:

Nettle-Eater is a short, sharp prose-howl in the direction of genuine and magical wildness and an uncompromising love-letter to the wild places of Dartmoor.

I couldn’t disagre.

You can buy Nettle-Eater using the buttons below the piece, or by going straight to the Hedgespoken Shop here.


Nettle-Eater

 

In my youth I committed black deeds.

In maturity I practised innocence.

To say more than this would only cause weeping and laughter.

What good would it do to tell you?

I am an old man.

Leave me in peace.

 

From the life of milarepa by Tsangnyön Heruka.

 

You know the call.

All your books speak of it.

If I differ from you, it is only in this: When the call came, I heeded it. What the call commanded, I fulfilled.

 

The call said:

Go to the moor.

Live wild there.

Eat only nettles for one year.

 

This is what I did.


 

The first season saw me weak as straw. My limbs shook; my vision shimmered, rollicked and rolled. The world was made of water and I was a ship, tall on the waves, easily blown. This was my youth in the world of nettles, their taste still unfamiliar, waking in the night wearing fire-gloves. My hands were stung to red rags, pierced with pins; they buzzed like ferocious bees. I bucked and retched and buckled, thought I would probably die soon enough, another skeleton in a gully to be found by walkers in the Spring.

I was seeking something unknown, unknowable. I knew the names of it; I had read a thousand books describing it. But the beast itself roamed out beyond the edge and in the deep centre of things. Yes, in the Fire of fire and the Water of water. Eventually, I knew. I had to let myself become so mad that to be in civilisation would destroy me, fall into a state so feral and lost and essential that only the wildest places of the moor could tolerate and sustain me. I walked up the long hill from Town into the wild of nettles and ignored the screaming animals of my addictions and dreams and desires. Civilisation fell off my back like dust and lies. I felt as if I’d been hunched against a wind all my life, my fists clenched, my eyes screwed tight. Now, the moor and the nettles and my madness told me:

Enough!


For weeks at a time in those first months of my madness, I was prey to delusions of great drama and little consequence, fixations of previously-closeted insanity that ripened in the fertile conditions of my moorland unmooring.

For three weeks, I stalked a panther, knowing all the while that it didn’t exist, but powerless to exert my will upon my imagination and rein it in. When, at last, I gave up the stalking, I awoke to find black feline fur scattered about my head where I lay, smug in my re-found sanity.

I became immersed in forgotten initiations; I enticed them from the skins of secret roots and the peculiar angles of the stars. I constantly became something other than that which I had thought myself to be. I perplexed myself until I could no longer remember what I had been.

I was as ragged as a bear and as flighty as a finch. I grew thin as a rake, delighting in forcing my body into impossible slivers of space between rocks. I crouched in the silver, bubbling streams, bent double with the agony of life and the intensity of joy. I wept for the child I had once been and the fool I was now.

I kissed silver birches and held long conversations with hawthorn trees, until we reached a philosophical impasse and parted ways. The heart is not, finally, enough, I still maintain, though the true and substantial learning of the fact was hard won in the chambers of the heart itself. I tried to persuade the plantation conifers to defect with tawny-tongued sermons, but I was not entirely successful. I like to think, though, that a few straight larches twisted their trunks and kinked themselves towards the wild side beneath the silvery moon on nights of particular eloquence on my part.


Once, I had been able only to watch my self and my life and the distance between them, aghast. Now, the gap was as thin as a granite splinter or the sheerest shred of a salmon’s hide. I was immersed in my life, at last. Fully, terribly, irrevocably.

I remember, one day in Spring, looking at my hand and being startled to find nothing there. I looked and looked, but could no longer see myself. My bodily wastes appeared real and vivid enough, but the substance of me appeared to have become lost somewhere. It (or, rather, I) re-appeared after a week and I was left neither wiser nor more foolish. My body and I reacquainted ourselves with dancing and continued where we had left off. The hardy, wild horses only ever laughed at me and ran off, whether I was visible or not, unimpressed with whatever wisdom or folly I was engaged in.


At first, dull as i was to the workings of anything beyond the grossest cog-wheel-mechanics of this world, I feared Winter. When the snows came – heralded long before by a Siberian bite in the teeth of the wind, full of the muttered syllables of shamans and tulkus and high-crowned queens of deer-tribes – I sat in the blizzard, laughing. I had not been aware how funny snow is. Hitherto, I had extolled its sword-like clarity, its lack of mercy or vendetta, its great wild grip on the land. Now I saw the grandiosity of my own blindness.

I sat in the snow, weeping with laughter, having discovered and honed the warming secret of vase-breathing some months before. Upon the creation and application of the inner fire, Winter reveals itself to be the most perfect jester of all the seasons, winking as it declaims: How cold it is! How very dangerous!

I spent one splendid week sitting naked on a rocky outcrop and laughed, then cried for the pompous certainty with which I had previously described and defined my world.

Eventually, I recovered my composure sufficiently to emulate the early-spawning salmon, but bruised my body terribly whilst leaping at the high waterfalls of slender and excoriating streams in the heart of the moor.


It was on one such occasion that I was disturbed to find myself observed by a shy woman who hid in the trees while I sang my salmon song and administered my daily nettle-flogging. I wanted to help her, but she had skeletons in the air around her and she was elf-shot through and through and — though I stared hard at her — I was not able to reach her through the fog. I could offer her nothing but the blessing of the salmon and a few fragments of otter. It was, at most, a small comfort to her.

“I thought you were a wise man,” she said. I had been practising for wisdom all my life, in secret moments of grandeur inside my skull and in occasional and regrettable utterances out loud, and I knew less of it now than ever.

I told her she was elf-shot and that there were skeletons where there should have been only gold light. I gave her the name of a plant that might help.

If wisdom has something of saying the right thing at the right time, I am more foolish than the robin, the blackbird or the shrike. She raised her eyebrow at the word elf and laughed at skeletons.

As she left, I told the skeletons to leave her. They shrugged and laughed and tapped cigar-ash on the riverbank. Whether they left or not, I’ll not ever know. I suspect she was one who will be elf-shot again. She had that way of misery about her and sadness stalked her, slave as she was to the cruelty of beings she could neither see nor believe in.

 

Some sadnesses are too great to be borne in a life built upon sanity.

I gave thanks to my own madness and the thousand grievings in which I had swum deeply thanks to it. My tears in those seasons of grief were the tears of a wretch, torn from all knowing and adrift in all my losses, incalculable as they are. I had thought the tears would never cease, and, upon remembering those tears, I judged the woman less sharply.

I spoke sternly with a number of lords and ladies of the moorland fairer folk shortly after and believe that I sent a clear and forceful message to the ones who had unleashed their arrows at her. It was the most and least that I could do.


I spent some time in a heavily-haunted wood, sitting in the crown of a stunted oak. The air was so clear I could feel my breath shimmer in my body. I watched spectral hounds pour across the landscape, unimpeded by rock or tree. They paid me not a jot of notice and I watched, without comment, except to nod to the masked figure who rode behind them with a whip.

There are folk both fair and foul abroad on the moor who are older than all my dreams, old as the jagged stones and those curious people who raised them; from them I learned a little humility, at times, although the lessons were mostly quickly forgotten.

The Old Fellow in the middle-moor kept me straight once or twice, when my grandiosity billowed and blossomed too greatly.

I still have some of those scars; they were fully-deserved and painful to receive. I was honoured by their making and I shall not write a word more about them here.


Summer scorched me like the furnace-fire of a lover’s love, but no shelter was ever as dark or cool as the caves on the moor at the height of the day. Until mid-morning, I basked like a lizard and let my roaming spirit fly while my body melted into the rock. I learned to soar as swift and strong as a buzzard. The land below me was as perfect as a wren, crisp as lichen or ice. I don’t know what the high birds made of me; the hawks and gulls and ravens went about their own business and I about mine. We were of different species, though we shared an element and a delight.

I never expected to fly outside a dream. It was not why I went to the moor. I, a crook, as bent as a coat-hook, as rough as a builder’s boot. Arrogant as a lord, as self-pitying as a priest. Me, my very self indeed! I flew!

I never saw a sight as sweet as that first sustained view of my land from above. This is where I am! This is where I roam! I, nettle-eater. Fork-leaver! I, whose determination shines white like a cut to the bone. Ignorant as ever; so broken that wisdom could never wear my clothes. I, the incongruous vagabond, so tawny that the owls themselves came to me for common sense at dusk and went away enlightened with the dawn, or so I like to think.


In time, I did grow wings. They were magnificent and painful, invisible and real as me or you and until you grow your own you will not believe me, although it is, on this occasion, the absolute and literal truth.

I can no longer maintain certain facts to be symbolic, you see; there are spirits and skeletons and elf-arrows and lightning horses, and there are wings and yes, more things hereabouts and beyond than my peewit-brain can comprehend. I wave my wings like a ragged iris in the fierce wind and no belief or lack of it alters the pace or perfection of my thermal-climb above the craggy tors.

Wings! I barely believed it myself and do not expect you to, for all that I might insist and bang my insubstantial hand on this rain-soaked granite like an ageing patriarch at his homestead dinner-table, his family silent around him.


I tell you one lie, though. It was not only one year: the moor has me still. This is my message, my testament, sent back while words have not yet become total strangers to me.

I have gone to a marriage with the owls and the buzzards and the oak-trees and the rocks and I’ll not return, though some echo of my body walks among you.

I have become a stranger to the world of fork and knife, but have been accepted as an intimate friend by the great, belovèd moor.

The owls know me; the buzzards know me; the oak-trees know me and the rocks know me. I lean towards them and know them back. I, nettle-eater, wasted, crooked bastard of the wild.


And you, sitting there?

Do you know these things?

Look at that world beyond your door.

Your life is on fire.

Run!

Dive in, though it surely means death. Taste the streams, the heather and the gorse and the broom. Hold the river stones. Sleep with the waterfall as your pillow. Braid yourself to the horse’s mane. Sing the great lament of your own lost life.

In time, scar yourself with fire and stone. Immerse yourself in such immovable darkness that the lightning cracks you in two.

You were never more lost than you are now, if you cannot reach out, touch the wild earth and weep.

Run!

It is not yet too late, but soon it will be.

Run!

Do not sit there, wondering.

I have told you the truth.

 

 

 

“To say more than this would only cause weeping and laughter.

What good would it do to tell you?”

 

 

© Tom Hirons
All rights reserved.

Tom's work available from Hedgespoken Press