Salt: A Desert.


Here is something like a short story, a love story, in the grand tradition of African colonial love stories (Out of Africa, The English Patient) which now lie broken like old cart wheels, and yet flowers grow between the spokes.


Salt: A Desert.

ES, for MJWB. March-November 2009

“No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry , however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have a yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”  Wilfred Thesiger

Scorpions: the black ones are not so bad, but the yellow ones can kill you stone dead.

the sahara is bigger than the united states

{“and further and further, all the birds//of oxfordshire and gloucestershire”}


1. Lucian


Went down: a ship on a wave of bile that went down and then up into his throat, and down. Where it lodged. He couldn’t do it. He did up his flies. He leaned against the half-open flap of goatskin, and blocked out the stars. And had no words of apology. When all you have is a sorry little pidgin cupped in your dirty hands, there’s no use expecting it to get strong and fly.

He couldn’t /scorpions/ do it with/to this one, because he’d already watched her, because he’d already (the yellow ones) done this with her in his mind, and caught his excitement in a fuckingtissue. Or maybe he actually felt guilt, creeping up his urethra like syphilis. Madeleine slept in Cairo.

The woman on the bed had crept from the house in the village on cunning bare feet. She was a good thief and so she knew about the impossible. She looked at the sick man, and then down at her tight black skin and it seemed full of milk and stars and good luck.


They met. She was a magician. “A magician?” he said. “No, a musician.” Later when she was laughing and talking, it was mainly with friends but a little with him. Madeleine Madeleine, a cheery little puff of cream, with a glacė cherry for a nose, with a curled in a ruffle of like wings paper cups.

Well Herodotus went to the desert, and Lawrence of Arabia went to the desert, and Roald Dahl went to the desert, and Michael Benanav went to the desert, and Lucian Burkhardt almost didn’t go to the desert because he waited to get married.

Lucian’s eyes were flint grey and he walked like he was wounded by his – she used the word “idiolect”.

All the prepositions rattling out wrong like they’d been shook up in a bag.

And if faced by an RAF or USAF officer, on the quiet roads of Devonshire, he’d have failed their night-time shibboleth and collapsed in the road with an accident lodged in his neck.

But despite and because of her revulsion at this metallic man, she had him around once or twice. He sunk his hands into her under her over the canopy of nylons and satin and feather and baubles. A pulse flitted in her little-girl neck, a red star in a milky sky. Under her skin there were black bats coursing along the aquaducts, upside down.

You know it’s all just a matter of degrees. Electro-static washerwomen, June bugs coming down from heaven. Took his hand and put it down on her kitten and squeezed and said don’t be afraid, and fingers took hold of the fade button, tigers in the long grass. Well it’s all just a matter of degrees. Any good kiss sprouts horns.

The scimitars carved all possible curves. The dunes rested against and dipped in the sky, in negatives ghostliness – blue against the red blood and she went cold. Desert ductus of a knife run though butter. There was a camel between her legs. Nauseous creature which spat because he couldn’t vomit. Lucian went ahead straight, as a rod as a die. The back of his neck a boiled ham, the skin by his nose flaking. Oh Lucian she (stroked as) wished he’d lay his head in her lap like a unicorn, so that she could whisper him. The lead camel went off hundreds of years into the future.


In Finchley, there was a small church.

In the churchyard, yewtrees lilactrees dandelion

finchmoss wortmoss mosswort mossfinch.

And the ledger had it:-

Those interred therein and thereabouts buried were:-

three generations of Blakers the Butchers


six generations of Smiths the Washerwomen


nine generations of Allwrights the Grocers


12 generations of Cokers the Dandies


under the

earth-wet coats of loam, morphology wrapped in a morphology of chemical characteristics of humus subjected to the long- term deposition of alkaline and acid air pollutants/ a fibrous rime of moulds/

green gutter slime and the spreading feathers of the white fungus

Lucian coughed all the way through the service.

When they came out into the twilight the rain was still falling, a dim cloak over the gathered streetlings. The couple waited a moment in the porch, until a huge mallard-green great-coat was found to cover Madeleine’s silk. Then he watched her hoist the heavy swathe of ridiculous lustre and tweed over her knees and run over the mud to the waiting Ford.


He kissed her goodbye at Kings Cross, Platform Eleven. Vera Lyn singing outside the platform cafe, a tiny faux bluebird pinned on her veil, wooden stack shoes arranged to sculpt the little body like a soft blade of lead. Her hair blinding whitegold underneath the bluebird.

He hit her in the face with the heel of his hand at King’s Cross, andforblood ran from her sinuses and shetostumbled backwards into the carriage, clutching a tissue toher broken nose and miscarrying hypothetic children and growing toothless old alone, scared in a lonely house where the damp seeping, mallow pink ceiling across and down the exquisite and seeping Chinese silk-screened walls she sat in wet blood mobbed by sugar & wasps.

He carried her onto the train and arranged her limbs on the seat, set her feet on the trunkful of muddy silk, lit a cigarette and placed it tenderly between her wax fingers, and the orchestra

(of wolves)

(the orchestra of st antony by the sea

the orchestra of the southern crescent lakes

the chamber players of the empress )

of dipping flames played apocalypse as it burnt down.

He just dropped her off outside and she was so furious she slammed his cock in the volvo door, marched into Sainsbury’s and smashed 36 jars of mustard. She retched like a dog in the fumes while they restrained her.


She had a lot of time to think about salt. It seemed a trick, to cross all that desert for salt. As though the men would arrive at the salt mines (if they’d ever arrive at the salt mines) and take the salt in their hands, and frown, saying, no no, this is not what I bargained for! Fourteen days of my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth! The privations of camels! Sandstorms and blindness and my skin blasted off my bones by the heat, and you want to sell me more of the same?

salt’s important. the animals need it to combat dehydration.




2. Madeleine

In Cairo

The sun, going down and coming up, was behind the buildings. Out on the Nile it was over the reeds, perhaps over the desert where Lucian Burkhardt slept in a tent. Pink hieroglyph. Cairo a balcony of dead ficus, grit in the drapes and in the pongee silk pyjamas. Hamza the bowab forgot the watering.

His eyebrows were meathooks of perpetual surprise. He wasn’t afraid to stare at her. She went upstairs and spoke to her mother on the black telephone,

“The old bowab died. A new one’s come.”


“Ought I take some small gift down to his family?”

“The new one?”

“No, the old one.”

“Your father’s just come in, darling. Do you want to speak to him?”

The windows stood open day and night. Carpets from the souk, a beaten silver tea service.

Took in Groppis with the elegant Cairenes. Chipped the wing of a plaster cherub with her ticking heel. Had a plate of tiny sugared crocodiles that she wanted to set swimming in the wide-rimmed tea-cup. The band played polkas, sarabands, loudly the hawkers who circled the grand entrance with crooked toothful mouths of arabic words promised. Barbs. Darling, love, sugar, dove, I promise you won’t be lonely there.

She heard a voice – it was him !singing him it was she was sure of it was him so out onto the cracker balustrades she went with milkflowsilk but feeling like a lumpfishcaesarina to where they kept the motor car she drove it away.


this journey to the golden hills the masaii hunt the buffalo they run after them until they’re dead

seventhousand vote of the buffalo

hunchbackedbridge bakelite buzz

all of the callers

rang an empty doorbell

damn oh well never

even took their hats off

blisters on an old slick of paint

she tracked him:-

the other from elm. horns don’t spring from nowhere.

by now, she though, his heart is more tired

more goslow

i’ll catch him.

blaue, blaue, caught on the crux of the tumours of the land

This is my house that was built out of sand,

This is my house that I built out of nothing.

This is my house that is melting.

This is what dust where swept lost cloud into the desert. You remember darling.


At night, little rooms. At night, houses made of dust. fishnet tent rent and tatters. she had a dirty song she made about faces following on the drumof her belly. inside her cheek the curled tongue against the skin, the little fingers clutched at her clay.

her lap sang as he dipped his face.

the bloody snout of love

the bloody moment of love

heaped on his head.

At night, hot little rooms. At night, baking houses beyond nowhere. Not even a leaf. The bon mot forgotten and to-blast, the creases’ aches, her bile and the swelling. The ships of the desert. And cried it was so hot. And did not remember what was said just before he bit her.

“Shush, lieb. The night is talking to us.”

Tied to his wrist.


In her dreams under a rime of mould,

a quiet earth chamber. A gentlewoman and a

man uponthe edge of the gentleland, the

gentlesea where the chamber choir of orchards, the

wishbones of Cornwall came again and again &

would not ever seem but anything

where endless waves were broken.

The sheet anchor bellied with cormorants.

Milk, moths, nightjars bell-

wavering northwards to Kinderscout.

You, orchard of my apples.

You wishbone lodged in my chest.


3. Black luck of the indigent postwoman and the last stop.


Take himself to bed last monday week well i never see anything like it – do you see it in the market saltfish for 6 francs not like the old days – but he say he is sick i believe, you know!! i don’t i mean i don’t always think he’s a good man – no no dear, you take it, tell her she’s welcome but as i am saying, no no dear, the top box, the top, yes, that, well he an alien creature – they all are – all the men are aliens – but we must make them welcome. he’s not like the others. no take it, she say she walk there yesterday. take the lot, no, we have plenty. Nobody come lift you in helicopter and put you on the top of the mountain. You have to climb yourself.

He got the falling sickness.

the large wooden writing desk where no one wrote. piled with breviaries and forgeries… and lay her hand on an old box of stamps to go abroad, she would never more again, old crocodile, slump her lumber out anywhere past the racks of green-dyed blue-dyed red-dyed rotting cotton shrouds at the edge of town.

Well no one know and the manager, the one in charge, he say he got a sickness.

Doctor, ain’t there nothin i can take

I say doctor, to relieve this belly ache? you put the

lime in the coconut

and mix it all together — put the

lime in the coconut and then you feel better.

And a woman come in at the swing door and she’s got the long peel of an orange dangling from her hand and my floating house anchor is ripped out like a tooth. she my death woman and now i never get up again under the sun, but lie down and wait for my badluck scorpion.


4. Madeleine Burkhart’s Latter Day Romanticon.

since we’ve said we’re doomed

we might as well pay our money anyway

and have someone to take our coats while we watch

another idyllic romantic comedy

boxes of air

chorus of asps

bottle of unguent

numb in lung

since we’ve said we’re doomed

we’ve settled in for the long haul

we’ve bought ourselves the whistles,

the objective household appliances

packed up the paintbrushes, the

aspirate lavabread

baked on the rocks

in the golden landscape of ideas

since we’ve said

This is what dust where swept lost cloud into the desert. You remember darling.

Madeleine sad&scented, unpacked her dresses, dust in the creases. We spoke about Cairo and our plans for a long time. I hulked under the blanket. Sharp-beak the cloudburst, a silver pheasant, snake stones.

The calling didn’t cease from the post-office all night, the black bearshapes shifted the scorpions coming out of the wall in arcane formation, the night a falling drop. the arch of heaven. the horns of the six million stars. a goat’s blood. and the wind creeping through all the way from god to the end.

They say a woman birthed a serpent. The other from elm.

When she slept i photographed the soles of her dirty feet the smoke rose bags of lavender undereach eye you lay deadheavy on the mattress, weeping, taking down the trophy heads from the study walls, deer, boar, stuffed duck, perch when daddy passed on. all because i love you! The smell of smouldering thatch, satisfied, cruel, rushing fearfully fast towards a brute collision, bone cruncher, whirlpool. Perhaps Marrakesh, Algiers. The rising of one bitter anti-west military dictatorship or another.

Ululations. And there will come a great wind out of the east. Praisegod Barebone.

My wife then shook and ate at that time only green leaves. I mumbling poisoning knife. Horseriding and green fields. A leather pouch of arrows, my heart. And latterly I hung my head – the same as my own. The same as my own.

And there came a clean wind out of the east.


These things don’t last forever. Wrecked chariots, no kissing, no leaning on each other. path of miracles stopped at the undone agreement bridge.

cover the radio. love. speak. fuck in arabic in the older buildings.

hear sardinians at port rub the edges of the lovesongs between lonely fingers. desire purchase desecrate.

Our hands are forced by history.

Who knows what the love of a good woman can do. It’s the only worthwhile mystery. The only worthwhile mystery.

She had gritted her teeth and promised. She had said, I’ll bring you back.

Wrecked chariots, no kissing, perhaps.

Cut neither hair nor nails at sea.

The poor man sails by memory.

She made the sign of the teaspoon,

he made the sign of the wave. //


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