The Dark Mountain Project’s call for ‘uncivilised’ writing and art that spoke to the crises of our time — that suggested we admit that everything might not be OK, that it was time to look down — put into words something that I had been feeling for a long time but did not have the words to say. All I had was my stories: strange, mishaped, ill-fitting things that I had tried and failed to publish in more mainstream magazines. They did not have beginnings, middles and ends, like creative writing classes taught; they did not have proper characters with satisfying narrative arcs; they were not conventionally ‘good’. But they had something, I hoped, that got under the skin of our times; they felt troubling in the right ways, and did not present easy answers. I saw them less as short stories than unknowable artefacts I’d found, smoothed the roughest edges of but mostly left as they were, and did not know what to do with.
I sent Paul and Dougald two: ‘To the Bone’, about a Welsh lake monster being brutally clubbed to death; and ‘Loss Soup’, large parts of which consisted of lists of extinct species, languages and obscure megafauna. To my surprise, both were accepted for Dark Mountain: Issue 1, published in 2010. Over the years I sent them more, and some of these were published too: a story about a nihilistic sea captain deliberatly becalming himself in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; another about a cabin in the woods haunted by the ghosts of extinct hominid ancestors; another about a man compelled to hunt his wife’s homemade beasts through a snowy pine forest. I didn’t really know what these stories ‘meant’; I wasn’t sure they meant anything. But they seemed to come from a similar place to the one that underlay Dark Mountain, and from a similar place to the growing numbers of writers, artists, thinkers, musicians and performers who were responding to the call with the same excitement that I had.
Twelve years later Paul and Dougald have moved on, and — sometimes still to my suprise — I find myself a co-director of the Dark Mountain Project. As an author, my career has led not to fiction but to literary travel, non-fiction books about walking and landscape, but the short stories I’ve written — stories about monsters, pirates, conquistadors and imaginary futures — often feel more honest, coming from a deeper place of truth. Fiction is like that. Made-up worlds can contain more reality than reportage. As we wrote in the submissions call for Dark Mountain: Issue 18 — FABULA:
‘The best fiction we’ve published in the past has not called itself “nature writing”, “eco-fiction”, “cli-fi” or anything else that is neatly categorisable. It has not necessarily been “about” any of the pressing issues piling up in the news; it has never been polemical. The stories that have affected us most … have not approached the hopes and fears of our times directly but obliquely, slantwise and widdershins. They have performed subconscious magic that reasonably argued essays have not, catching us unawares and moving us in strange, savage ways.’
This month, Greenbank Books is publishing my debut short fiction collection, Loss Soup and Other Stories, in association with the Dark Mountain Project. Versions of many of the stories have appeared in issues of Dark Mountain, while others have been published elsewhere, and a few nowhere at all. Each story (or each mishaped artefact) revolves around the theme of loss; though often the tone is lighter than that subject matter might suggest.
To mark this publication, below is an excerpt from one of the longer stories in the book: ‘Cow’s Head’, based on the real-life travails of the conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, which has never been published before. But first I’d like to share some words of endorsement from Dark Mountain’s founders, who accepted my stories all those years ago and helped me on the winding path that led to this collection.
‘Nick Hunt’s short stories are two increasingly rare things – original, and uncategorisable. Once read, they are not forgotten.’
— Paul Kingsnorth
‘With their eerie dream logic, Nick Hunt’s stories get closer to the heart of what it is to live in a time of endings than a forest of dystopian novels. They hold a dark mirror to our predicament, allowing us to approach it without being turned to stone.’
— Dougald Hine
I hope you enjoy. If you want to find out what happens to Cow’s Head next — and read the other stories in the collection — you are very welcome to buy a copy here (for UK) or here (US and Canada).
‘Cabeza de Vaca,’ I said again – partly in my native Castilian and partly in the few words I had learned of their unlovely tongue, composed of xs, qs and ks – ‘a title bestowed on an illustrious ancestor on my mother’s side, referring to his brave actions during the struggle against the Moors…’ Over exclamations of amusement I tried to explain about the skull, and the Cliff of Plunging Dogs, and the honour that was won on the bloody field of battle. But the Karankawa did not listen. They wiped tears from their eyes.
‘Cow’s Head!’ they cried, delighted.
Attempting a spirit of forbearance, as befits a Christian, I did my best to ignore their rudeness and focus on higher things. I gazed past the mocking savages who had enslaved and belittled me, past their slovenly huts of sticks and their racks of stinking fish, past my companions in misfortune – the noblemen Andres Dorantes de Carranza and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado and the former slave, himself a Moor, whom we only knew as Estevanico – to the shore that lay beyond. My eyes absorbed the grey sand flats, the snake-infested brackish pools, the labyrinthine tidal channels down which our unfortunate raft had come, the malarial swamps and the sea beyond, whose waves were the colour of chicken fat that has congealed in the sun. The horizon shuddered in the heat and I shuddered with it. Biting flies hung off my arms. That morning I had had to remove a leech from my left testicle.
‘Cow’s Head!’ yelled an insolent girl whose cheeks were pierced with a bone. ‘Cow’s Head!’ laughed an old man, slapping his alligator-oil-smeared thighs.
What slighted me more than anything else was to see Estevanico smile too. He hid his mouth with his hand but I could see it in his eyes. One more humiliation in a lifetime of humiliations.
I took a deep breath, walked away down the beach, and went back to shucking oysters.
He hid his mouth with his hand but I could see it in his eyes. One more humiliation in a lifetime of humiliations.
The technique was to push a blade into the oyster’s gritty hinge and turn it like a key, prising the carapace apart to reveal the wetly gleaming flesh. Push, twist, push, twist. How I loathed the task. At first I had kept count, maintaining a tally in my head, thinking the numbers would come in useful when I wrote my chronicles – along with heights, depths, distances and the other important statistics I was storing in my memory for when the occasion might arise – but somewhere in the low ten thousands I had given up. Push, twist, push, twist. The harvest was unending. The Karankawa had trekked along this coast for weeks to reach this place, at which, I gathered, they enjoyed some ancient ancestral right to gorge themselves on the slimy meat until their bodies reeked. From dawn till dusk they waded in the shallow sea up to their necks and prowled the wetlands in small boats, dredging up sack after sack, and from dawn to dusk we toiled, through the wet heat of the day, in a glistening midden of snapped and shattered shells. It was drudging, thankless work. The men made the women do it and the women made us do it. The only variation came in the form of other types of shellfish – with which the Lord, for reasons of His own, had prodigiously stocked this coast – in the forms of mussels, scallops, clams, conches, limpets, snails, innumerable spiked and plated crabs, shrimps, lobsters, crayfish and other horrid sea-lice. We wrenched off legs, cracked open claws, ripped off smelly brown beards and thumbed out pulsing flesh, almost glad of the diversion until the next appalling sack of oysters crashed at our feet. Push, twist, push, twist. Soon our fingers were as calloused as the shells they handled.
The Karankawa’s attitude to slaves was somewhat different from our own. We were not shackled or restrained, and neither were we confined at night. Ostensibly we were free to roam about as we pleased and pass the time in whatever manner we saw fit. But we were weak and feverish, demoralised, absolutely lost, and those members of our party who had attempted an escape had either perished in the swamps – their flyblown bodies sometimes drifting back on the brackish tide, their faces bloated, sad and green – or been killed by the spears and poisoned arrows of neighbouring tribes, with whom the Karankawa maintained a lazy warfare. In this way, and through disease, our numbers had been reduced from almost forty men to four in the six months since we’d arrived, and none of us possessed the will to try to change things now. If we refused to work we received no punishment – no beatings, whippings, brandings or torments of any kind – but seeing as our only food was the shellfish that we shucked, inevitably we toiled on. We did not know what else to do. Perhaps we were not slaves at all; it was never made explicit.
Clammy oysters filled my dreams. Sometimes I was inside the shell, a globule of pale flesh listening in mute terror as someone tapped and scraped my walls, probing for an entrance point. My exposed parts were cruelly scooped into scalding sunlight. At other times I prised apart a shell to reveal, instead of meat, a tiny, perfect cow’s head nested like a foetus.
I first arrived in this New World in the year 1527 in the service of Panfilo de Narvaez, a veteran of the conquests of Cuba and Jamaica. We were six hundred men, drawn from every part of Spain, some of whom had fought against the Moors in their younger days, or – as I had myself – participated in the conquest of the Guanches of the Canary Islands, a heathen folk with matted hair who dressed in shaggy sheepskins. Staggered by the wealth that was pouring out of Mexico, which had fallen to Cortes only six years previously, His Majesty King Carlos V had sent us far along the coast to penetrate the unknown interior of La Florida, the mysterious Land of Flowers, in the hope that even greater treasures lay within. We went with God in our hearts and gold and glory in our minds. Our swords were sharp, our armour bright, and our moustaches waxed and curled. Of course I dreamed, like all the rest, of undiscovered empires and cities paved with precious stones, of men who clothed themselves in gold, of emperors throwing wide their gates and falling in supplication at our iron-booted feet. I would return to Spain a wealthy and distinguished man, the banner of my noble family fluttering in the sea-wind.
It did not turn out like that. Those things did not happen.
It took the best part of a month to make the crossing from Cuba, a distance of little more than a hundred miles, because of a ferocious current pushing back against us. Our ships kept being blown off course and going round in circles. By the time we made landfall many of our men were sick, and my favourite horse had died and been thrown in the sea. We came ashore at the edge of a vast and sultry jungle – a tangle of buzzing green prowled by naked Indians who stared in blank incomprehension when we asked them about gold – and set up camp in the rain, tormented by mosquitoes. Narvaez, inexplicably, decided to divide our force, leaving three hundred men with the ships and leading the other three hundred inland. I advised against this course, but no one listened to me.
Once the coast was out of sight the heat closed on us like a wall. We could hardly draw breath, let alone march in armour. Nevertheless we ventured on, our horses wading up to their bellies in grey stinking mud, hacking back the greenery with our blades of Toledo steel. Based on the interrogation of some natives he had caught – never mind the minor fact that no one understood their tongue – Narvaez was convinced that a city lay ahead of us, a fabulous place called Apalachee, where we might be fed and feted as guests of its emperor while we planned to conquer it, as Cortes had in Mexico. We reached that place after a month. It consisted of forty houses. We took its ruler prisoner and ransacked its stores of maize – our food supplies were much depleted, having spoiled in the humid air – but almost immediately we found ourselves under siege from a large force of Indians attacking from the forest. They came in alternating shifts, never giving us a moment’s peace. In the time it took to load and fire an arquebus they could unleash a dozen arrows and vanish back into the trees. Our corpses looked like pin-cushions. After several days we left, burning down the houses. We fought our way from one godforsaken village to the next, persecuted and pursued, our horses shot from under us, men falling in their droves. Narvaez promoted me to captain but I contracted diarrhoea, which was a great indignity. It is hard to maintain composure, or give sensible commands, when hot shit is bubbling down your inside legs like gravy. All I could do was soldier on and trust in the mercy of the Lord. The cities of gold were out there somewhere; we just had to find them.
After our ill-fated force had lost fully a third of its men, without having found an ounce of gold, Narvaez decided we should go back to the coast. We could not find our original route so wandered vaguely southwards. When at last we staggered from the steaming mass of greenery and saw the white sand, and the surf, there was no sign of our ships. We did not know whether they had left, or whether – as seemed more likely – this was a different stretch of coast, perhaps hundreds of miles off course. Either way: disaster. For a week we despaired, straining our eyes in vain for a glimpse of distant sails, dreading the anticipated hiss and thump of arrows. Then I had an idea. I presented it to Narvaez, who had spent the last few days pacing round and round the beach in a figure-of-eight pattern muttering viciously to himself and occasionally weeping. He immediately pulled himself together and claimed the idea as his own, which angered but did not surprise me. There was no time to dwell on it. He was shouting orders.
The idea was this: we would slaughter our horses, salt their meat, build a furnace out of clay, construct a bellows from deer skin, melt down all the iron we had – horseshoes, stirrups, bridal bits, spurs, the buckles from our belts – forge the iron into nails, use the horsehair to make ropes, and construct five large rafts, each capable of carrying fifty men. Then we would flee that dreadful land by following the coastline west to the safety of His Majesty’s imperial province of New Spain, otherwise known as Mexico.
The plan went well, at first.
It saddened us to cut the throats of our faithful, wretched steeds and watch them bleed out on the sand. We named that place the Bay of Horses in their honour. We stoked the fire and watched the iron melt in the crucible, hammered the hot lumps into points, lashed the planks with horsehair ropes. The rafts looked strong and seaworthy. The sky was blue and clear. As we boldly launched ourselves and cleared the surging surf some of us gave thanks to God and others bellowed out sea-songs – in Castilian, Catalan, Basque and all the dialects of Spain – accompanied by obscene gestures at the shrinking coastline.
For weeks we paddled west, chewing horsemeat and watching the land slide past.
At last things were going well. Then came the hurricane.
It raged for days and nights on end. The waves were foaming mountains. One by one the rafts broke apart and their men were lost, scattering out across the sea, thrashing their limbs desperately. Very few of them could swim, and it wouldn’t have done them any good. Narvaez sunk like a rock, weighed down by his armour. In the fury of the storm I found myself clinging to Estevanico and heard him scream in Arabic, calling out to his Allah. This might be blasphemous to say, but perhaps it did some good. Our raft remained intact and was carried towards the shore. There were forty of us left. The hurricane abated.
Crawling on the grey sand, too weak to stagger to my feet, I found that my path was blocked by a palisade of slender poles. Then I realised it was not a palisade, but legs. I looked up to find myself surrounded by men and women with intricate, dark tattoos and piercings in their lips and cheeks, their long hair thickly smeared with a kind of pungent grease. They did not look impressed. ‘Karankawa,’ they said.
Over the next several days they nursed us back to health, feeding us and letting us sleep, dressing our wounds with leaves and a poultice made from boiled frogs. Thirteen of our number died, but I was not among them. Some of the men became convinced that the savages were fattening us up to eat, and made their way one moonless night into the swampland to escape, but – we learned soon enough – they did not get very far. Their bodies were brought back to camp and unceremoniously buried. When we had regained our strength a group of women came for us. They looked rather pleased with themselves. They led myself and the other survivors down the beach to a new location, where, we dimly saw ahead, enormous piles of black stones lay scattered all around. They pointed at the stones and grinned.
Then we saw they were not stones. They were piles of oysters.
Several tens of thousands of shucked shells later, here we were.
‘Estevanico,’ I said that night, ‘I would like to ask you something.’
Andres Dorantes de Carranza and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado were snoring on the sand nearby, twitching with troubled dreams. Myself and the Moor were still awake, burning seaweed to keep the flies away, soaking our hands in salt water to sterilise the lacerations they had received that day in the course of their endless duty.
Estevanico turned to me, his face orange in the firelight.
‘Do you think my name comical?’ I asked.
His mouth twitched very slightly. He cleared his throat.
I do not know why it was that I sought his opinion in this matter, but the laughter of the Karankawa had strangely wounded me. Painstakingly I had begun to learn their language in order to communicate in something other than gestures and grunts – against the recommendations of my fellow noblemen, who said that a Christian tongue should not so debase itself – until finally I was ready to attempt a formal introduction. Explaining a cow had not been easy. The closest animal of which they had any knowledge was the horse, reports of which had reached them from the very distant west – where Mexican refugees fleeing the destruction of their city had brought word of four-legged beasts that bore men upon their backs – but they had never laid eyes on one. Once I had established ‘something in the manner of a horse’ I mimed horns and udders, to the protests of my companions. ‘This animal is called the cow,’ I had said. ‘From its head I take my name. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, at your service.’
First one smile, then another.
‘Cow’s Head!’ they had roared.
Now it seemed that Estevanico was laughing at me as well. A former slave. An infidel. I addressed him sternly.
‘Your attitude discredits you,’ I said in a stiff voice. ‘Lowly as your station is, I have always respected you. You fought valiantly in La Florida, more so than some Christians, and bore the hardships of that march with fortitude and aplomb. You come from a noble lineage, the Moors who once ruled over Spain; your ancestors probably killed mine, and mine killed yours. It is not fashionable to admit, but sometimes, in those complex wars, they might have fought on the same side. Who can say? It is possible. In any case, we share a bond of history and of blood. I think it a shame that a man like you, a descendent of the armies of the caliphs of al-Andalus, should display the same vulgar humour as a bunch of heathens. It grieves me. It does not become you. I expected better.’
Having said my piece, I removed my hands from their saline bath and took a stubby iron nail from the pocket of my breeches. It was a memento from the raft, forged from melted spurs. I used it to push the dirt from under my fingernails.
Estevanico was silent for a time; I sensed that he was moved. When at last he spoke, his face was long and mournful.
‘What can I say?’ he said. ‘Your name has always made me smile. Where I come from, the idea of adopting one’s title from an animal is strange, even ridiculous. But who am I to judge? I do not even have a name. My parents called me Mustafa, which means Chosen One, but that name was taken from me when I became a slave. My master called me Estevan, after the Christian saint who was stoned to death by Jews, and then – because he was fond of me – he called me Estevanico. It means Little Estevan. It makes a child out of me. So I am known by a diminutive of a Christian name that is not even mine. What right do I have to find your name amusing?’
I considered this information for a while, delving with the nail. ‘Do you wish me to call you Mustafa?’ I asked.
He sighed and shook his head.
It was my turn to be silent then. Something tugged inside me that I did not understand. I suddenly felt that I might weep. In order to distract myself I jabbed the nail too deep and felt a stab of pain. I flung it to one side.
‘It is not right, it is not right,’ I said, ‘to laugh at a person’s name. The title Cabeza de Vaca has a long and noble past. It was bestowed on Martin Alhaja, my maternal ancestor, for his clever actions at the Cliff of Plunging Dogs. Alfonso VIII, King of Castile, was lost in the mountains with his knights…’ I took a breath and found myself unable to continue with the story. I was savagely upset.
‘What does it matter?’ asked the Moor. ‘The Indians who laughed at you are heathens and idolators. They worship fish and rocks and rain. The men wear rings through their penises. Allah only knows what the women do. Why should you care what they think of your name? Their own names sound like the squawks of mating monkeys.’
I could not explain to him. I rose from the fire and walked away, leaving him with the slumbering forms of Carranza and Maldonado, which, wrapped up in their blankets, more resembled corpses. My bare feet squelched in sucking sand as I wandered down the beach, wiping insects off my face, my heart strangely trembling. I walked until I could not see the light of the fire or the camp, until I reached the torrid swamp. Crabs scuttled in the dark. There were plops and croaks and whistles. I waded out a little way and waited there, up to my knees, for something to occur to me. I felt naked, empty.
‘I have been stripped of everything,’ I heard my voice say, small and weak. Tears dribbled down my cheeks. ‘My dreams of gold. My dignity. My strength. The mercy of the Lord. It has all been taken from me. My name is all I have.’
‘I have been stripped of everything. My dreams of gold. My dignity. My strength. The mercy of the Lord. It has all been taken from me. My name is all I have.’
They heard the howling back at camp, I was informed the following day. My cries of rage and my weird sobs echoed down the coastline. The noises poured out of me with violence I could not control. Carranza and Maldonado thought it the work of demons.
As I walked back up the beach – minutes or hours later, I had lost all sense of time – there was nothing left of me. I was something new.
The ceremony was performed with a cactus thorn, the nib of which was dipped in ink made from crushed-up sea-worms. At first two Karankawa men held me down, pressing my back upon the sand, but when they saw I did not struggle they relaxed their grip. A third man – some manner of priest – straddled me with his strong legs and worked away with the implement, jabbing it into my skin. The pain was constant and acute. It felt as if thousands of bees were stinging me in one place all at the same time. I would like to say that I bore the ordeal manfully, but I did not. I whimpered like a child.
When it was over they pulled me to my feet, my chest a sheet of blood. There were shouted accolades. Women slapped me on the back.
Carranza and Maldonado, who had obstinately refused to watch, now stared in disbelief. ‘Mother of God,’ said Carranza, ‘what have you done to yourself?’
Maldonado quietly crossed himself and did not speak a word.
From my nipples to my neck my pale skin had been tattooed with a pattern of dark stripes. Looking down at the livid flesh, I did not recognise myself.
I washed the blood off in the sea, practically drunk with pain. It swirled in a muddy red cloud about my body.
Loss Soup and Other Stories is published by Greenbank Books, an imprint of Sumeru Books, in association with the Dark Mountain Project. To order a copy, please visit the Dark Mountain Online Shop.
The cover of the book is a detail from Herd (not seen) by Daro Montag, featuring charred wooden animals purchased from charity shops, as published in Dark Mountain: Issue 11. To find out more about Daro’s process and the making of this piece, see here.
Please join me along with fellow Dark Mountain co-director Charlotte Du Cann for a joint online launch of our two books on 26th May at 7.30pm BST.
A beautiful story in which one senses the terrible contrast between the conqueror and all he encounters on his way, a world unknown, mysterious and full of dangers.
This stage of Cabeza de Vaca’s life is little known, but it was decisive in building a space for relations between human beings and between them and the world around them.
Thank you for taking on this challenge and for the way in which you have successfully and suggestively navigated the course of the story. A hug.