Writer and storyteller

Bear by Rima Staines


‘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 Thaye Dorje.


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:

Go to the moor. Eat only nettles for one year.



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. My youth in the world of nettles, their taste still unfamiliar and my hands stung to red rags and waking in the night wearing fire-gloves, pierced with pins, boiled in oil. 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, so feral and lost and essential that only the wildest places of moor could sustain me. I walked up the long hill 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, I was prey to spectacular delusions of little or no consequence, paranoid daydreams and fixations that were like eager bubbles of previously-closeted insanity rising up to burst in the ripe conditions of my unconstrained imagination. 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, hidden in the skin 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 through the chambers of the heart itself. I tried to persuade the plantation conifers to defect, but was not entirely successful. Still, I like to think that a few straight larches twisted their trunks and kinked themselves towards the wild side beneath the moon.

Once, I had only been able to watch myself and my life and the distance between them, aghast. Now, I was immersed. 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 myself 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 our business. The hardy, wild horses only ever laughed at me and ran off, whether I was visible or not, unimpressed with whatever mystery or folly I was immersed 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 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 salmon, but bruised my body terribly whilst leaping at the high waterfalls in the edge 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 couldn’t 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 knew less of it now than I had 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, sadness stalking her and never faced fully in the underworld of learning.

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.

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 as perfect as a wren. 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 was 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.

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.

In time, I grew wings. They were magnificent, painful, invisible and real as me or you and until you grow your own you will not believe me, though it is the literal truth.

I tell you one lie, though. It was not a year and the moor has me still. This is my message, my testament. 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.

The owls know me; the buzzards know me; the oak-trees know me; 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. Your own folly will become the death of us all.

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

What good would it do to tell you?”

Tom's work available from Hedgespoken Press

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