Like the donkey in the Aesop fable, the US Scottish writer Deborah Moffatt speaks a language ‘sharp and barbed’. She knows it is ‘better to eat thistles’ than ‘to survive in a nation born of vanity.’ And that those who close borders, soon turn against their own. Drawing on Scottish and Irish Gaelic poetry and other literary and folk traditions, Eating Thistles re-imagines contemporary and historical events – Syria, St Kilda, the Sudan, Latin American dictadura and the mass-executions of Soviet Jews, Roma and prisoners of war by the SS – through Aesopian language, slipping between history, myth and memory. A powerful and original study of guilt, denial, innocence and complicity.
Cover image: Francis Barlow, The Ass Eating Thistles, 1749.
Author photo: Caroline Trotter
We ate thistles, and spoke a language as sharp and barbed as the wire on their walls. We slept on stone, bathed in snow, made combs from thorns, clothes from nettles. Words froze on our tongues and fell in frozen lumps on barren land. In their cities and in their towns they gloried in victory, a nation once again. We heard their pipes and their drums, gunshot, fireworks, songs of celebration. Maddened by power, powered by madness, they closed their borders, then turned against their own. Better to sleep on stone, however hard, better to eat thistles, though we choke, better our frozen silence than their fiery rhetoric, better thorns and nettles than pomp and glory, better to die in a barren wilderness than to survive in a nation born of vanity.
1 Revenge is sweet, it is said, and although we lost what little we had once won, the Roman garrisons at Elephantine Island, and Syene and Philae with their great temples and their slaves, at least we kept our pride, and gained later an advantageous peace, and if only I had not seen that magnificent head and those bright staring eyes, I could take delight in the daily humiliation of the great Caesar, his head wrested from his statue and buried here beneath my feet, our fleeting victory enduring, even in defeat. Yet that same head, that image of the handsome Augustus as he was when young, his thick curls licking at his brow, his bronze skin tinged with an olive hue, his tender lips set for a kiss, his radiant eyes turned contemptuously aside, as if my dark Nubian skin or my own blighted eye offended him, or as if I were not worthy of his gaze, how that image now haunts my dreams and burdens my heart, and I regret that I did not think to make my enemy my friend, and that rather than parade my vanity over his severed head I might instead have lain beneath him in my bed, his soft lips pressed against mine, his kisses so much sweeter than revenge. 2 Kitchener was there, standing hand on hip in the midst of it all, imperious, distant, his smile a grimace, his eyes straying, his patience tried, or spent, unless it was something else: regret, unease, at the sight of the severed head, an unwelcome reminder of the Mahdi’s skull taken from the desecrated tomb at Omdurman, or was it the aspect of that handsome young face, the skin pickled by time to a sickly green, the penetrating eyes turned to the side as if to avoid Kitchener’s wayward gaze? Those squinting British eyes that would soon raise an army, those piercing Roman eyes that forged an empire, the unforgiving eyes of a callous youth, the weary eyes of a tired old man; through clenched teeth, Kitchener sighs and silently grieves for the young lives of men, his band of boys, lost to the passage of time. 3 It is too late. The cloud of tobacco smoke drifting through the cab, the terrible choke of diesel fumes, the driver’s manic laughter, the squalling radio: it all belongs to another time. Like rotten teeth on an old jawbone, truncated pyramids stud the horizon. The driver is ranting, the guide suspicious. Your companions talk in code, trusting no one. The road to Meroe was built by Bin Laden, your hotel by Gaddafi: everything here is history. The guide eyes your wedding rings with contempt; even your marriage belongs to the past. The one-eyed warrior Queen, the severed head of an emperor, a nation divided, its heritage endangered: there is a story here, but it isn’t the one you’ve come to find. Your companions tap at their phones, waiting for news to break. You scan the desert sky, looking for a change in the weather, an avatar, the emperor’s head, suspended in time. There is something stubborn, implacable, about those lips, as if it were all your fault, not his, and a sadness in those eyes, avoiding yours every time he lied. You shouldn’t have come, but it’s too late now, for regrets. One after another they were lost: colleagues, friends, lovers. Nobody ever said, enough is enough. The truck rumbles over Bin Laden’s road. Revenge is impossible. There was never anyone to blame. A moment of carelessness, and you die. At least he didn’t lie when he said goodbye.
A child dangles from a twisted rope, spins himself stupid as the rope unwinds, staggers with a gaping grin down the sloping grass. At a window in a house near-by a woman stands and watches the child, while at a piano inside the house someone practices Bach with careless diligence, playing the same few notes over and over again. The woman remembers the dizzy oblivion of childhood, the hours spent in a mindless daze at the piano, the countless nights when she danced until dawn, the days when only alcohol could deaden the pain, a time when she had been better left for dead. The child’s gaping grin thins to a sickly grimace. The rope swings idly in a gentle breeze. The Bach is abandoned; a radio blares. The woman paces the floor from window to door. Survival brought a terrible clarity, real life in all its intensity: everything now matters; not a thing can be forgotten, or ignored.
One day, the past saunters into the garden, bringing memories of all those old difficulties, the nettles we thought we had eradicated years ago, the terrifying calls at midnight, the random falling stars. Now you’ve come back, ten years late, a vision of the future even before the present has passed, prematurely aged, your wild beauty gone, ravaged by illness, not time, by an inability to live today before tomorrow. It was Iraq, back then, now Syria, shadow fighting shadow, layer upon layer of unfathomable darkness, a drifting haze of chemicals and dust rising from rubble and ash, the nettles still burning our backs, the future returning to haunt the past.
On the terrace of a cafe, they sit in weary silence, sipping strong coffee in the warm afternoon sun, lulled by the dull hum of the constant traffic, the busy street half-hidden by a veil of reek glistening with an insidious iridescence. In a secluded corner of a tree-lined park a young woman idly minds a quiet child, the child lost in play, the woman lost in a dream, the rustling leaves whispering promises in her ear, the child’s sudden screams unheeded. At the centre of it all a tall young man with a wild eye dominates a crowded pavement, marching to the drum of his own band, an army of one, sensing victory, he the soul of this land, its future and its past, an avatar forever fighting a war with no beginning and no end. Not even he is prepared for what happens next, the sudden eruption of violence, death in a public place, on the steps of a museum, bullets and bodies and blood, innocents inexplicably gunned down in broad daylight. The sirens scream. He runs for his life, hides in a park where the young woman squats beside a gurgling fountain, rocking her terrified child in her arms, the babbling water whispering in a strange language she can’t understand, her confusion promising a future of anger and resentment, a baptism of fear raining down over the child’s head. On the terrace of the city cafe there is an exhalation of relief, colour returning to pale cheeks, ‘nothing to do with us,’ The word goes round, ‘just Israelis and Arabs, spies, Juifs.’ They sit in silence, his hand concealing her Antwerp diamond. It is never, they know, nothing to do with them.
We meet in a hotel of convenience: an inconspicuous entrance, money paid at the door, a small dark room, a bed and little else, enough, for us, these few hours together all we have left. The city is deserted, stripped bare. Not even a shadow darkens the empty streets, nothing but the unwavering glare of repression in a nation paralysed by fear. Pale men in elegant suits slip invisibly through city streets, hide inside dark cafes, drink strong coffee and weak whisky, and argue, theatrically, impotently, for hours, about nothing. In the barrios, beautiful women hardened by poverty march with grim determination to the weekly market, intent on buying what they know will not be there. At night in the boliches there are only fools and old men: those who are above the law or beneath contempt, the innocent, the corrupt, the survivors, the damned. In that drab little room we come alive, lips meeting lips, the soft stroke of a finger-tip eliciting salt-sweet secretions, the intimacy of penetration, the tenderness of skin on skin. In a prison called Libertad, the living are left for dead, alone in windowless cells, a solitary light-bulb overhead burning all meaning from their minds. We tear each other apart, rub every membrane raw, stumble and flail, fall and crawl, the room a battlefield, our memories our enemy, until we are certain: nothing can hurt us now. Everyone is leaving this beautiful country, this Switzerland of the south. He holds a cigarette between his broken fingers, studies the smoke as if it were a map, as if it were a rope. Out on the street we say good-bye, and go our separate ways. Broken hands, broken hearts, live or die, it hardly matters; the damage is done. For the last time, we say good-bye.
‘A deft and fascinating weaving of narratives, and of voices. It recalls the work of George Mackay Brown in how it opens itself to the myth and reality of island living and how easily a sense of sanctuary can turn into a sense of exile.’
Kevin MacNeil and Chris Powici
‘Carefully crafted and pleasingly musical.’
‘insistent, powerful. The language is vibrant and rich… Moffatt makes us eye-witnesses, and with knowledge comes responsibility.’