An imaginary life, p.1
An Imaginary Life,
About the Author
Also by David Malouf
Afterword: A Note on Sources
About the Author
David Malouf is internationally recognised as one of Australia’s finest writers. His novels include Johnno, An Imaginary Life, Harland’s Half Acre, The Great World, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Prix Femina Etranger in 1991, and Remembering Babylon, which was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize and won the inaugural IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1996. He has also written five collections of poetry and three opera libretti. He lives in Sydney.
ALSO BY DAVID MALOUF
Fly Away Peter
Harland’s Half Acre
The Great World
The Conversations at Curlow Creek
Every Move You Make
12 Edmondstone Street
‘Interiors’ (in Four Poets)
Bicycle and Other Poems
Neighbours in a Thicket
The Year of the Foxes and Other Poems
First Things Last
Baa Baa Black Sheep
AN IMAGINARY LIFE
WHEN I FIRST saw the child I cannot say. I see myself – I might be three or four years old – playing under the olives at the edge of our farm, just within call of the goatherd, and I am talking to the child, whether for the first time or not I cannot tell at this distance. The goatherd is dozing against an olive bole, his head rolled back to show the dark line of his jaw and the sinews of his scraggy neck, the black mouth gaping. Bees shift amongst the herbs. The air glitters. It must be late summer. There are windblown poppies in the grass. A black he-goat is up on his hind legs reaching for vineshoots.
The child is there. I am three or four years old. It is late summer. It is spring. I am six. I am eight. The child is always the same age. We speak to one another, but in a tongue of our own devising. My brother, who is a year older, does not see him, even when he moves close between us.
He is a wild boy.
I have heard the goatherds speak of a wild boy, whether this one or another I do not know; and of course I do not admit to them, or to anyone that I know him. The wild boy they speak of lives among wolves, in the ravines to the east, beyond the cultivated farms and villas of our well-watered valley.
There really are wolves out there. I have heard stories of how they raid the outlying pastures, and once I think I heard one howling in the snow. Unless it was the child. And I have seen a wolf’s head that one of the hunters brought back to hang up as a warning in his fold. It was gray, and not very fierce looking, despite the curling back of the flesh over its fanged jaw. I thought of the child, and how wolves must have something in their nature which is kindly, and which connects with our kind, or how else could the child live amongst them? What was frightening was the way the head had been hacked off, with ropes of dark blood hanging from it and the fur at its throat matted with blood. Later I heard, again from the goatherds perhaps, that there is indeed some part of our nature that we share with wolves, and something of their nature that is in us, since there are men, at certain phases of the moon, who can transform themselves into wolves. They close their human mind like a fist and when they open it again it is a wolf’s paw. The skull bulges, the jaw pushes out to become a snout. Hair prickles down their spine, grows rough on their belly. The body slouches and is on all fours. The voice thickens. It is the moon draws them on. I believed such things in those days, and wondered. Was the child a wolf boy? Were those wolf men who lived secretly among us, changing themselves painfully at the moon’s bidding, children who had been captured from the wilds and brought in among us, to be adapted to the ways of men?
Sometime when my own body began to change and I discovered the first signs of manhood upon me, the child left and did not reappear, though I dreamt of it often enough in those early years, and have done so since. I have forgotten the language we used, and if he were to reappear, perhaps we could no longer communicate. Did he have some message for me then? If so, he failed to deliver it. Or did so and it has slipped my mind. Or the language he used on whatever occasion it was had already passed my understanding and could not be translated into daily speech. I believe (I think I have always believed) that he will come again. But in what guise? As a child still? As a man of my own age? As a wolf? Or has he the power to adopt other forms as well? Has he already returned to me, perhaps, in a form so humble, so ordinary, that I failed to perceive his presence?
I tell no one of this, as all those years ago I was careful to admit to no one that he was there – not even my brother who was the same age and would have understood. Under all my skepticism this grain of belief.
IT IS THE desolateness of this place that day after day fills my mind with its perspectives. A line of cliffs, oblique against the sky, and the sea leaden beyond. To the west and south, mountains, heaped under cloud. To the north, beyond the marshy river mouth, empty grasslands, rolling level to the pole.
For eight months of the year the world freezes. Some polar curse is breathed upon the land. It whitens overnight. Then when the ice loosens at last, and breaks up, the whole plain turns muddy and stinks, the insects swarm and plague us, hot mists steam amongst the tussocks. I have found no tree here that rises amongst the low, grayish brown scrub. No flower. No fruit. We are at the ends of the earth. Even the higher orders of the vegetable kingdom have not yet arrived among us. We are centuries from the notion of an orchard or a garden made simply to please. The country lies open on every side, walled in to the west and south, level to the north and to the northeast, with a view to infinity. The sharp incline of the cliffs leads to sky. The river flats, the wormwood scrubs, the grasslands beyond, all lead to a sky that hangs close above us, heavy with snow, or is empty as far as the eye can see or the mind imagine, cloudless, without wings.
But I am describing a state of mind, no place.
I am in exile here.
The village called Tomis consists of a hundred huts made of woven branches and mud, with roofs of thatch and floors of beaten mud covered with rushes. Each hut has a walled yard, and a byre where the animals can be brought in and stalled for the winter. Above the byre, in one large room, we sleep and eat in the winter, on wooden benches above a layer of snow-burning peat. In summer the rest of the house is opened up and I have a room of my own, with a low table for writing and a palliasse of clean straw.
My life here has been stripped to the simplest terms. I live with the headman of the village, who has been set to watch over me, and maybe, when the time comes, to finish me off. The household consists of the headman, his mother (an old woman of nearly eighty) and his daughter-in-law and her child. They are rough, kindly people, and the old man, for all that he is a barbarian, treats me with some regard for my former position. If anything, I am ignored, left to my own devices, to wander about the village or as far as it is safe to go into the fields. They have no need to fear my escape. In all the known world, where the emperor rules, I have no official existence. And beyond this last outpost is the unknown. Even supposing I had the energy for it in
I move around the muddy little fort, or I make excursions into the scrub, though never beyond sight of the walls, since at any season the village may be attacked by the savages who inhabit the open grasslands to the north and who periodically come howling in packs to steal our animals or fire the outlying fields. The whole village is an armed camp. And I am the least person here – a crazy, comic old man, grotesque, tearful, who understands nothing, can say nothing, and whose ways, so it must seem to these dour people, are absurdly out of keeping with the facts of our daily existence. They feed me. They provide a corner where I can sleep. They are not uncivil. But no one in Tomis speaks my tongue, and for nearly a year now I have heard no word of my own language; I am rendered dumb. I communicate like a child with grunts and signs, I point, I raise my eyebrows, questioning, I burst into tears of joy if someone – a child even – understands what I am trying to say. In the open I go about shouting, talking to myself simply to keep the words in my head, or to drive them out of it. My days in this place, my nights, are terrible beyond description. All day I wander in a dream, as isolated from the world of men as if I belonged to another species. At night I discover in sleep what the simple daylight blinds me to: that the dark side of every object here, and even more, the landscape itself when night shadows flow over it, is a vast page whose tongue I am unable to decipher, whose message to me I am unable to interpret. In dream after dream I venture out beyond the stubbled fields into the desolate plain beyond, into the grasslands beyond the edge of our world. The wind rolls over them. They heave like the sea, hissing, sighing, and the air is filled with the wings of cabbage moths. I fall to my knees and begin digging with my long nails in the earth. Sometimes wolves come, and they claw at the earth beside me. Howling. We dig together, and they pay no more attention to me than they would to a ghost. But I know that whatever it is they are scratching after, I must discover before them, or I am lost. So I dig harder, faster, sweating, with the moonlight greasy upon me. Unable to tell myself: this is a dream.
I know what it is we are looking for. It is the grave of the poet Ovid – Publius Ovidius Naso, Roman of the equestrian order, poet. In all this desolation, no one knows where he lies.
Called Naso because of the nose.
I speak to you, reader, as one who lives in another century, since this is the letter I will never send. It is addressed neither to my wife nor to my lawyer at Rome, nor even to the emperor; but to you, unknown friend, who do not exist at this time of my writing and whose face, whose form even, I cannot imagine. Can one imagine the face of a god? For that surely is what you must be at your great distance from us – the god who has begun to stir in our depths, to gather his being out of us, and will, at the other end of the great cycle that has already rocked our world with its quakings, have evolved at last and come into being.
I cast this letter upon the centuries, uncertain in what landscape of unfamiliar objects it may come to light, and with what eyes you will read it. Is Latin still known to you? I bury it deep in the ice, in one of the tumulus graves whose rocks are sealed with ice that never melts and where no one from our Roman world has ever ventured. Only after a thousand years, when the empire has fallen and no longer has the power of silence over us, will this letter come safely to your hands. I am the poet Ovid – born on the cusp between two houses of the zodiac, where the Fishes, tugging in their opposite directions, plunge below the horizon, and the Ram ascends; between two cycles of time, the millennium of the old gods, that shudders to its end, and a new era that will come to its crisis at some far point in the future I can barely conceive of, and where you, reader, sit in a lighted room whose furnishings I do not recognize, or in the late light of a garden whose blooms I do not know, translating this – with what difficulty? – into your own tongue.
Have you heard my name? Ovid? Am I still known? Has some line of my writing escaped the banning of my books from all the libraries and their public burning, my expulsion from the Latin tongue? Has some secret admirer kept one of my poems and so preserved it, or committed it to memory? Do my lines still pass secretly somewhere from mouth to mouth? Has some phrase of mine slipped through as a quotation, unnoticed by the authorities, in another man’s poem? Or in a letter? Or in a saying that has become part of common speech and cannot now be eradicated?
Have I survived?
I write this by candlelight. It is dark as night in this windowless room. Little spiders and other insects live in the thatched roofing and crawl about the floor, falling in your hair or in the bowl of soup you are eating, swarming in the folds of your garments. You get used to it after a while.
I had never had much contact with the creatures before this, not even with dogs or cats. Now I find something oddly companionable about them. Like me, they too cannot speak. They move about in the cracks, in the gaps in our lives, and are harmless. Even the spiders, poor creatures. Do they have a language of their own, I wonder? If so, I might try to learn it. As easy do that as master the barbarous guttural tongue my neighbors speak.
I have begun to recognize some sounds in it. But just to hear the old man shouting in the yard to his grandson, or muttering in the twilight to the young woman, comes close at times to maddening me; it is like trying to remember something you have forgotten, that glows at the very edge of your mind but refuses to reveal itself. I feel as cut off as one of those spiders. Or a rat balancing on a rafter and hearing the poets read. It is as if I had suddenly slipped back a step in the order of things, or been transformed, by a witch’s curse, into one of the lower species. But of course it is no witch who has done this. No magic has been practiced against me. All that has been evoked is the power of the law. I have, by the working of the highest known authority, been cast out into what is indeed another order of beings, those who have not yet climbed up through a hole in their head and become fully human, who have not yet entered what we call society and become Romans under the law.
But they are, even so, of our species, these Getae. I listen to them talk. The sounds are barbarous, and my soul aches for the refinements of our Latin tongue, that perfect tongue in which all things can be spoken, even pronouncements of exile. I listen, and what moves me most is that I recognize the tunes. This one, I know, is tenderness; this regret, this anger, this an old man’s tune for soothing a child who falls over, weeps, tells his ills, and must be led back to call the stone by names one might almost recognize out of one’s most distant childhood: ‘Naughty, naughty stone!’
Meanwhile, there are the spiders. Could I tune my ears to their speech also? Since they too must communicate with one another. I might begin to write again in the spiders’ language. The New Metamorphoses of the poet Ovid in his Exile, in the spiders’ tongue.
Sometimes, wandering aimlessly about, I stop to watch the women at work in the courtyard, sorting and grinding grain, and one of them will look up and scowl, or smile, out of some world of their own that I cannot touch. There are many seeds: gold, greenish yellow, brown, blue. I guess what some of them may be, but do not recall their names. I know the names of seeds, of course, from having used them for the beauty of the sound itself in poems I have written: coriander, cardamom. But I have no idea what any but the commonest of them look like. Once or twice I have taken one of the seeds on my forefinger and placed it on my palm, while the puzzled women looked on. On one occasion the youngest of them laughed and said a word: Korschka. I looked at the seed and she nodded, as if I were a child, and said again, rounding her lips in an exaggerated fashion, Korschka!, then took one of the seeds on her tongue and bit through it. I did the same, but failed to recognize the taste. In isolation, and without the hundred other herbs and spices that might have gone with it in our Roman cookery, it brought no shock of recognition to my palate and no name to my mind. So I know the word for this seed now, and its taste, and its shape and color, but cannot translate it back into my own experience.
Must it all be like this from now on? Will I have to learn eve
There is nothing to be said of our village except that it has a hundred or so huts. The narrow streets between them are of mud. A few pigs wallow in it, or a few dirty geese, and the mud is compounded of one part earth and nine parts the trodden mess of these creatures over what must be a thousand generations. Naked children come out after the rain to sit in pools with the geese, or they chase the pigs between the houses, their squeals and the squealing of the piglets, to my ears, indistinguishable. Beyond the walls of the stockade are a few patches of grain, which the women gather and pound, and among the stalks grow herbs and other plants whose seeds have to be separated by hand from the wheat, the wild oats and the barley. They have no other form of cultivation.
It is midsummer now. The river flats steam and hum with midges. But in a few weeks the first of the winter will be upon us. The north winds blow in across the river, out of the Scythian steppes, laying the reeds flat, whipping up the water. Already the men are out cutting slabs of peat, which they will lay up in piles against the cold. The women are stocking the garners with grain and smoking sides of pork they hang beneath the rafters. Once the river freezes we must stay in the stockade day and night, and day and night men will keep guard. The river now is our protection. But two months from now it will become a bridge of ice and the hordes from the north will come pouring across it, plundering, raping, burning. My people here are only relatively savage. The real barbarians I have yet to see. I have only dreamt of them.
I dreamt, one night lately, that I walked out in the moonlight, down the street between the huts, hearing the little pigs grunting behind me, singing of their sucked bones, and out into the strange light of the marshes. The moon rode high over the reeds, its face halved by a line of cloud like a lidded eye – my own eye, half-waking, and open like an owl’s eye, half-closed on the dark.