Simon McBurney makes theatre and films.

To kill a caribou (and feast on its guts)

"All philosophy is really home sickness. It is the desire to be at home everywhere." Novalis

I have just moved. But I have rarely felt "home" anywhere.

The rotor blades began to turn and the roar in that silent world was overwhelming. Soon it was hovering two yards above the tundra and then the Vietnamese pilot tipped it on its side, the tactic, he had informed me, that was essential for a quick getaway in jungle warfare, and became a dot on the horizon. It began to rain. For the first time in my life I felt agoraphobic. Deposited on an inhospitable island in the Arctic Ocean, there was nowhere to shelter. Not even a tree on this pebble-strewn land beside the ice-packed sea. So we put up the tent. And sat in it around the tiny gas hob. And heated powdered soup. Then when the rain stopped put up another tent where we were to sleep. It was as far from home as I had ever been.

Home. That was then. When I was six. That house. It was dark. Big. Forty-watt bulbs, no central heating, no television, a garden that had apples, plums and pears in the autumn, a bedroom where all us children would sleep with windows always open at night. Once, my parents woke to find something hard lying on them. It was their quilt, which had frozen solid in the night and had a covering of white hoar frost on it.

But that was then. Now when I go back to Cambridge, I can only remember my father's description of going back to America. He was born in Massachusetts. His home there took on a mythical dimension when I was a child. I knew every room. And every story my father told me about every room. His home. But I can still see the despair on his face when he came back from seeing it again. "It is not what I remember," he said.

At six that worried me. So where is his home if it is not there or not here? I wondered.

They came in the night. Except there was no night. It is light 24 hours a day in June when you are four hundred miles from the North Pole. They came in their metal boats. First Gedes Woolkie. The best-known trapper from Sachs Harbour fifty miles to the north of where we were. With his son Elvis and his wife who spoke only Inuit. The next night the boys arrived. My age. All eighteen.

We sat in silence. Until Roger spoke. "So can you show us the trout lake?" Roger was what I had imagined an Inuit to look like. Don't ask me where I got this image. National Geographic probably. Chuck and his wife Diane looked dismayed. It was already midnight and we had been sitting, drinking tea and soup and not talking for some time.

"I'll go," I said, "I'll show you."

"Don't wake us when you get back," said Chuck.

Carrying .22 rifles, we made the lake in half an hour. Roger was not happy. He had bought a new set of waders. Inuit do not like walking, he told me. But soon we had trout in our hands. "Open your mouth," said Roger. I did as I was told and a cold fishy object the size of a smartie landed on my tongue. "Swallow it," he said, "it's full of oil." It was a raw trout eye.

The wind in East Anglia is especially cold. Coming back from school when I was six, my tricycle broke. The pain of barked shins was more painful in that cold than any other. It is an icy wet. The land is flat and I can remember the voices of eccentric Cambridge dons saying that the winds blow from Siberia without interruption. And I can remember the complicit laughter from around the table. As if they all knew this was not really home, because they came from somewhere else. Somewhere the wind did not blow uninterrupted from Siberia. My father was American. My mother Irish. And does that make me an East Anglian? I used to wonder.

The caribou was very young. And had not anticipated the hail of bullets from the collection of our dubious-looking rifles. No one was a great shot. So when the poor creature was hit in the back leg, we ran round the lake pursuing it as it tried to hobble away. We put it out of its misery. But then we saw the huge one. Silhouetted against the horizon. The biggest caribou they had ever seen. We ran. At the top of the hill we arrived to see it disappearing into the distance down a huge semi-circular corrie. Roger was far behind the others. "I'll wait for him," I said. And the rest took off after their beast. When he arrived he flung himself down. We talked. He asked about Britain. And I asked about the Arctic.

"So," he said, "do they still have those phones in England?"

"What phones?"

"The ones you wind up and put your ear to. I saw them in a film about London, England."

"What film was that?"

"It was a Sherlock Holmes thing. We get films from the barges that come up here to trade. We give them furs, they give us money. Then they sell us videos. There was one that had this woman who could put things as big as that trout... in her vagina."

His eyes widened and he roared with laughter. And then the caribou came back.

My father, an archaeologist, loved food. He would tell me sometimes: "All culture begins with the sharing of food. Human beings and wild dogs are the only creatures that will share their food with those beyond their immediate family. Where we eat, that is our home."

My mother did not move from our house for six years after my father died. Then one day she called me: "As I walked up the drive a weight dropped from my shoulders and I knew it was time to sell the house." I felt sick.

"But do you really need to sell it? Why? It's my home."

My mother's voice hardened: "You don't have to live in it. I am alone in it. Alone. And now I am telling you it is no longer my home. It is just somewhere I am living. And you are 28 for goodness sake, you live in London. In Limehouse. Your brother in Highbury, your sister in Windsor. Where is my home?"

The caribou saw us. It had doubled back. The others had missed it.

"Holy God it's big," said Roger.

"Where's your gun?" I whispered.

"I left it back down the hill. Too heavy."

"I'll get it."

And I ran. By the time I was on my way up again I could see Roger. Waving. I felt sick from the effort. I flung him the gun. We crawled to the edge of the corrie. The beast was still there. It suddenly felt us and started to move away. Roger yelled violently, stood up and waved his arms like a madman. Gone for sure now, I thought. But then it stopped. And looked back up the hill. Roger flung himself to the ground. One shot. The caribou reared up and collapsed. And then we were dancing and singing and shouting and screaming and hugging. Down the hill we ran. Dead with one shot. The tiny .22 bullet had gone right up its nostril and into the brain.

"The biggest one I've ever seen. Wait till my father sees this."

"Why did it stop when you yelled?"

"They are crazy curious. If you want them to stop you just yell. Watch..."

Roger took out his knife and cut from anus to throat. The guts spilled out. "The others will be so jealous," he chortled.

As the others returned, hot, red and sweaty from their fruitless pursuit, Roger sat like a king behind the carcass holding his gun. They looked at the huge beast in silence. "It's big," said the youngest. The others grunted their assent. "One shot," said Roger. And with a gesture he included me in the act. They nodded at me.


"Up the nostril."

He lifted the head and showed the dribble of blood. Then with one slice he removed the huge steaming liver. Cleaned it perfunctorily with his knife, and quickly sliced it in strips. The boys lifted the liver and sucked it down noisily. I tried not to taste as I swallowed but bitterness registers on the tongue as well as the nose. When I opened my eyes, they were all arguing.

"And what next?"

"My father never did that."

"Well this is what mine does."

The speaker took his knife and cut just after the first stomach of the caribou. The smell of fresh half-digested grass was as sickly-sweet as shit. He split the intestine and scooped out a finger full. The eyes of the others were on him. He ate it with as much enthusiasm as I had the liver. "Not bad," he lied. "Not me," said Roger.

And then we set to. And by the time the sun was at its lowest point the whole animal was quartered and we were loaded. The head was left to the wolves, the eagles and hawks. "We have to leave them something," said Roger.

My mother left me her recipe books when she died. When she moved into her new house, her new home, she said: "I feel I can die here." She died in her bedroom. In her bed. Facing a particular direction. She wanted to look at the walnut tree. Concentrate on it. That was when she felt at home.

We were far from the sea. We had to climb before we went down. Dead caribou is heavy. At the top I waited for Roger. Roger with the hind legs joined and held round his neck like some monstrous furry scarf. The others who moved faster started on ahead. One had the ribs clutched to him. Others took the legs from the first we had shot. The blood running down their backs dripped on to their trousers. And then turned black.

To our right the sun was at its lowest point. Soon it would rise again. As I walked behind Roger the figures in front of me became silhouettes. Their bodies crouched under the weight of the meat. I could not see even what clothes they were wearing. We were exhausted. I suddenly wondered what time it was. Two, three, four in the morning? The thought disappeared as fast as it had come. There was no time. It had dissolved. What I was looking at was the same as it had always been. Roger stopped and looked back at me.

"I feel at home," I told him.

"Of course. You are," he said, "It is you and me. Here. Now."

And we walked down the hill. Back home. Home. To the ice-scattered sea.



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