There must have been hundreds of pieces in that exhibition. Paintings, sculptures, drawings. A Great Auk knitted by Margaret Atwood. I could have chosen anything to write about.
Luckily for me, Rebecca chose for me. She sent me these images of a table turned artwork:
I wrote back, not quite understanding – am I meant to write about Vitus Bering? She replied – no, that’s just a detail from the table. Up to you what it inspires you to write…
The artist, Anna Kirk-Smith, had created a piece based around her chosen bird, the Spectacled Cormorant. I looked it up, and found it had been first described by a naturalist called Georg Steller in 1741, whilst taking part in an expedition led by Vitus Bering.
I did some more digging. The bird was found and described by Steller on a tiny, uninhabited island, where Bering and his crew had been shipwrecked on their journey home. They spent nearly a year there, fighting scurvy and a brutal winter, while Steller tried to balance keeping them alive with doing his own research.
What struck me most was the image of Vitus Bering, burying himself in sand in an effort to keep warm, slowly dying, the climax of an expedition which seemed as breathtaking for its ineptitude as its scale. He had left his wife and two young children in Siberia. As Bering lay there, they were making their way back to St Petersburg, a journey of thousands of miles, without him.
I wrote an 650 word piece in the voice of Vitus Bering, writing a letter to his wife, Anna.
After the reading, I kept thinking about that story. It seemed incredible I had never heard anything about before. It would make such a great novel, I kept thinking. Surely someone’s going to write it some day.
I didn’t want to do it myself. At first, I didn’t even consider it. I’d never intended to write historical fiction, or fiction based on true events. I knew nothing about boats, the eighteenth century, the history of navigation. I had never been to Russia, let alone Kamchatka. But gradually, that feeling that someone should write the book turned into anxiety that someone else would do it first.
I remember the exact moment I decided to do it. I was on the phone to my mum, feeling down about various crappy things which had happened that year. I could tell she was tiring of my sadness, wondering what else she could say to help. It popped into my head, that idea, and I felt instantly lighter as I said it. ‘I think I’ll turn that Bering thing into a novel.’ I could hear the excitement, the relief, in her voice as well as mine.
Since then, I’ve spent two years researching Vitus Bering’s story, and those of his crew. Everything about that first piece has changed. (It was a bit of a blow, for example, to find out that the spectacled cormorant didn’t fly, and then a relief to read Steller’s opinion that this was probably more from disinclination than physical impossibility).
It’s now found a home in a lovely anthology of the project Bloomsbury published last year.
It’s strange to read it again, knowing how much has changed. But it’s nice to remember where my book started – and I’m so grateful to Rebecca and Anna for, however unintentionally, giving me my story.
We have found land. After dreaming of your feet next to mine when I stand on dry rock again, there was no joy as our broken vessel brought us safely in.
This is a lifeless place. The twenty nine of us left feel always that we are intruding on its silence. Even the birds are quiet; they circle above our heads, wings to the sun, and I envy their view. They cannot know what it is, to be unmapped in this great sea. All we know is that we came from the west, and we must return that way.
Some of the men are trying to rebuild our ship, dragging pillars of rotting wood along the sand and piling them high as if they could make a raft to heaven. Always, as they work, the cormorants are circling.
A few weeks ago, the first shot was fired. A sound this place has never heard before, and the bird came spinning through the air towards us, its wings arched out behind it.
It landed far along the beach. We went to meet it; some of the men were cheering, they have not tasted meat for days. It lay on its side in a hollow of sand, one black wing still moving, as if to feel the air through its feathers again. Its belly was rising and falling like a fish on land. I could see into its unlidded eye, black and glassy.
Then a great wind came – the weather here is filthy – and lifted its feathers into the air, and I thought of you on the shore as we said goodbye, and whether you found somewhere warm to spend the winter.
One of the men stepped forward and prodded it with the butt of a rifle, and then it was just meat, its feathers ripe for plucking, and our mouths hung dryly open at the thought of a fresh meal.
We wrap them in clay and bury them, a sombre rite; then they are baked in the hollow of the earth and resurrected, each one feeding three men with ease. I wish I could describe to you their sour flesh, but we have tasted nothing but salt meat and biscuits for so long, our tongues have lost their senses.
We brought down many more that day, and in the weeks which followed, and still the skies are full, and we can eat without rations.
I have begun to dream of them at night, in my wooded shelter, as the storms break through the timber. Their shadows crossing ours, their lidless eyes which see everything I want to see; the places where the continents meet, or fail to meet, how far we are from home, the unmapped parts of you.
I dream of your hand anchored in mine, then letting go, raised above your head as I diminish into the east, the green land shrinks into an envelope of sea and sky, and you are taking off, rushing into air and clouds.
They brought me cormorant meat today and I could not eat it. I cannot even watch them fall. Steller is already talking of the notes he will send back to the Academy, the papers he will read. He has been cataloguing every creature he can find, sketching its anatomy, observing its behaviour, then storing the carcasses and skeletons for more research – which the crew are reluctant to allow. They are more than meat, then; they are a piece of nature to be mapped and understood, to be brought down. Steller’s cormorant, he would have them be called.
You told me on the shore that you were mine,that you would wait. I hope that you will not. I hope the cormorants will stay in the sky, that the two continents do not and will not ever meet, and that every trace of us, the shadows we have brought here, will diminish.