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If You Catch One And Eat Her Tail

In search of inexplicable truths


The Church in Wales was responsible for denying the couple a service of blessing with all their friends present. Close family only, insisted the vicar, at the last minute. The groom was a divorcé and the bride had not really wanted to do it. She was C of E-ish. All their London friends had to wait in the Farmers Arms until it was over.

When they had children and divorced, the husband told their children it was All Nonsense. The bride had a terrible falling out with God, loathed the vicar anyway, and said belief was up to them — to my brother and me. It was whatever we thought it was.

I thought it was All Nonsense the day my squirrel died. The school had made me put him in a cage in a basement. He killed himself the way animals do, by curling up and somehow inducing a coma.

I cannot remember when faith came near me again, but at the age of 30, I know, a friend became furious with me one night because I would not renounce belief in something. That same summer I published my first book and an essay of mine was included in an anthology about Marrakech. It was about the feeling of being a neophyte, ignorant of Islam, who found himself on a rooftop in that city before dawn, recording the call to prayer for a piece for BBC radio, and experiencing the extraordinary apprehension of a kind of empire of faith stretching from minaret to minaret around the globe.

I did not return to Britain as a convert to faith. But as a professional traveller – in northern Mozambique, on the Gray Hill in Gwent, in the Serengeti, in Tibet, the Congo, the eastern Pacific and in many other places – my job has given me glimpses, many times, of what I feel are inexplicable truths. By this I mean scraps and flashes of the signs, wonders and mysteries that the major religions either embrace as proof of their convictions or dismiss as pagan heresy. And the scepticism that journalism teaches, which I do practice and treasure, has wilted.

On the western shore of the Indian ocean there are beaches too far south for the Kenyan tourist trade and too far north for the surfers and explorers who drive up from South Africa. There is little there from the outside world. Portuguese relic churches and mansions. Some cultivation. There I walked with a man discussing mermaids.

‘Empua’, he called them. I thought I understood the metaphor: if you catch one and eat her tail it will grow back.

‘Ah! So she represents the sea?’

‘Empua’, he repeated, patiently. (I was taking notes.) ‘I saw one at…’

This was a real fisherman. Unlike sport fishermen and hobbyists such people never exaggerate. He saw what he saw. Quite recently, he said, and not far away. He named the place. We were standing near a sacred tree, an organism revered by his people over generations. For such a man to lie in such a place would have been an obscenity.

On islands in the Kavango river, which runs from the Caprivi strip down to the great Okavango delta, live the dikongoro. They are river dragons. If one sees you, you need not worry. But if you see a dikongoro someone close to you will die. If you could see the whites of the eyes of one of the local men as he tells you this you would know, immediately, that the multiple reports he can supply of people known to him to whom this has happened are not untrue.

In Brazzaville I met a witch. (Everyone who goes to Brazzaville meets a witch: it is one of the few facts all the literature about that city confirms.) Because I bought her a beer before I knew who or what she was, she gave me ‘the protection of God for all your travels in Africa’. A few days later, entering the rainforest, we passed fearsome signs warning of Ebola ahead. ‘DO NOT TOUCH ANY DEAD ANIMAL IN THIS FOREST’, they said, in French.

A day or so after that the vehicle in which I was travelling stopped. The driver and his mate dragged a very dead wild pig out from under a bush. They heaved it into the crammed back of the vehicle, where it rested on my feet, its hairs and cold flesh prickling my bare and scab-scratched shins. We stopped again at the next village where the pig was presented to a local butcher. He would not touch it. ‘Ebola’, he said, gesturing at the animal’s torso. And just then his little boy, gurgling with glee, dashed forward and grabbed the pig’s forelegs, stretching out the corpse for his father’s first incision.

Something like a look flashed between the driver, the butcher and all of us in the back of the vehicle. We in the Landcruiser all knew we had Ebola now. The father shrugged and went to work. I still cannot explain exactly what had just happened. You cannot banish Ebola with a child’s gurgle and a father’s shrug, but something which went between us all when we saw the boy grab the corpse felt like a mighty surge of shared and furiously defiant faith. They shall not pass. The boy has not caught it. It does not exist.

Near Tsumkwe in eastern Namibia I watched a healer at the height of the revels pluck a glowing coal from the fire. He rolled it in his hands slowly, thoughtfully, before rejecting it. He chose a second. This was molten-bright, still blazing at one end. He handled it the same way, apparently unaware that anyone was watching. Physics says it melted the flesh off his hands and scorched their bones. Nothing happened. After a while – I estimated two minutes – the Bushman replaced the ember, still very bright. Then he healed a girl who had a bad shoulder by squeezing it. The strange thing, she said afterwards, was not that the shoulder was cured: she had expected that. The strange thing was that she had not told anyone that it had been giving her pain.

I was professionally trained in UK law for journalists, the workings of UK local government and shorthand. I saw what I saw and took a contemporaneous note, valid in any UK court. I cannot explain what I saw.

Forgive one final anecdote. On the Gray Hill, in the Wentwood, as summer dusk congeals over the Welsh-English border, I lie alongside a BBC radio producer –Jeremy Grange, a zoologist and a man of faith – on the edge of a stone circle. I read in a low voice for the microphone from Arthur Machen’s story The Shining Pyramid. (To say Machen believed in fairies is to underserve Machen and fairies. He wrote about them with a transcendent passion.)

Two friends, one a sceptic, have come to the same stone circle at dusk to witness something. At this point in the The Shining Pyramid the sceptic is fed up. There are no fairies. ‘How much longer is this to last?’ he whispers.

The other hisses back at him, furiously, saying ‘Will. You. Listen?’

As I performed the line, quietly but emphatically, there was a beat such as an actor would take and then there was the most extraordinary noise, clearly caught on the tape. A churring, whirring, unearthly sound the like of which I had never heard shivered across the hillside.

Jeremy and I looked at each other open-mouthed. It was as eerie as hell. My breath came back and I just about remembered not to swear. ‘A nightjar!’ I gasped. ‘At the stone circle, right then! That — was — uncanny.’

It was only coincidence, of course. There are no fairies, no dragons, no witches, no mermaids, no miracles. The laws of physics are unbreakable; there are no thin spots in the veils between this world and the next. There are no veils; there is no next world. There are not more things in heaven and earth than there are in my philosophy, and my name is not the same as Hamlet’s friend. I do believe, though, that the line in John 14:2 seems to me to be open to grievous underestimation:

‘In my father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.’

Horatio Clare is the author of Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot and Down to the Sea in Ships, among other books.

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