by Siena Oristaglio
What is history to a sheep?
I’m in a Scottish family’s living room drinking black tea
and listening to sheep bleat in the yard.
My partner and I brought a bottle of scotch to the
neighbors and they invited us in for tea and a chat.
We sit in floral-printed armchairs and ask the four of them
about their lives. Kitsch lines the mantle: a porcelain shepherd,
a bouquet of fake thistles. A television plays cartoons
in the far corner of the room. Alec, a fisherman and shepherd,
describes a problem they’ve been having recently.
“Ravens are violent creatures,” he informs us. “They murder
newborn lambs by attacking and tearing out their tongues.
The lambs can’t suckle so they die.” My partner and I are
surprised. “Sometimes, these attacks thin out the herd significantly,”
Alec continues. “When that happens, the government gives us
permission to shoot them — but we can only kill two ravens per shepherd.”
I say that this seems like an ineffective solution to the problem.
“Good thing the government isn’t counting — I am, ” Alec laughs.
We discuss lighter topics, too: pranks the brothers have
played on one another, sights my partner and I have seen
in our travels. Mid-conversation, I glance up and notice a portrait
of a large deer stag on the wall. I’m stunned.
I have the same image hanging in my room at home.
I tell the family as much. Ian, Alec’s son, grins.
“Oh, yeah, The Monarch of the Glen? It’s a classic.”
I didn’t know the image was famous. My dad gifted me
the etching a decade ago. He had it, as far as I know,
simply because it was a portrait of a stag and our last name,
Oristaglio, is sometimes shortened by friends to Stags.
For years, I imagined the creature guarding me as I slept,
its hefty body and sturdy antlers warding off my nightmares.
How strange to have a ten-year relationship with an artwork
and be completely unaware of its history, I think, scanning the exact
likeness of my guardian stag in a room 3,000 miles from my own.
I think of a comment my partner made this morning as we
made our way across a grassy field: “There’s so much history
here,” she said. “You walk past a rock pile and it turns out
to be the ruins of an Iron-Age fortress. But unless you know
that, it’s just a bunch of rocks to you. And to the sheep,
it’s all rocks, anyway.” On the television, a muscled character
shoots a laser beam at a cliff. An avalanche tumbles. I sip
more tea. Minutes later, we excuse ourselves for dinner.
“You two seem adventurous,” Alec remarks as we leave.
“Do you want directions to the viking graveyard?”
Can a set of antlers predict the future?
In bed that night, I google The Monarch of the Glen.
I learn that the work was painted by an English artist,
Edwin Landseer, in 1851. I learn that it was a commission
for Queen Victoria, who loved the Scottish Highlands.
I learn that the image has been used as a symbol of
Scottish national identity for over 150 years.
I learn that Landseer is one of the few artists to see his
work become popular during his time. I learn that the stag
who has watched me sleep for a decade has also graced
whiskey bottles, soap labels, and butter tubs. I learn
the artwork was slated to be auctioned privately for £8 million
in 2017 but was instead acquired by Scotland’s National
Gallery for £4 million. I realize that my partner and I leave
for Edinburgh in two days and that means we can see
the original painting in person. I read about the painting’s
subject: the Scottish red deer stag. I learn that antlers,
unlike horns, are made entirely of bone and are covered
with something called velvet — a unique skin-like coating
containing blood vessels and nerves that provide the
antlers with nutrients. I learn stags use their antlers
to establish dominance and fight over prospective mates,
sometimes to the death. I learn that stags shed their
antlers every year and regrow new ones, rarely
in the same formation.
Shed, fight, regrow,
shed, fight, regrow,
shed, fight, regrow.
I learn that I can fall asleep to the sound of
sheep calling for their young in a nearby field.
How like a lamb’s tongue is a frame made of gold?
On the seven-hour drive to Edinburgh, I stumble across a
video of a performance that took place in the Scottish
National Portrait Gallery in 2017 — the same year
The Monarch was acquired. It features a black man,
Alloysious Massaquoi, alone in the gallery at night.
He removes his shirt and begins to shadowbox with the
paintings of Scottish national figures. A voiceover plays:
This picture confirms, you were a man, that you existed.
Your family bore fruit, burst from the tree and here's the proof.
Does this mean I don't exist?
That I'm not a man?
Because I don't see a face like mine, framed in gold, hanging on the wall?
Have you taken all the space?
I imagine the gold frames as the velvet on the antlers of a red
deer stag. I imagine the gold frames as the tongue of a lamb,
providing those framed (and those who look like them)
with nutrition. How like a raven is the absence Massaquoi describes.
The voiceover continues at a hypnotic pace.
Massaquoi spins and ducks and throws punch after punch. My hairs
stand on end. I ignore the Scottish hillside flashing past the car window.
Shadows shift across the gallery; the paintings on the walls look ready
to collapse into dust. When the video fades, I look up from my phone.
The hills have been rearranged. They glow a fresh hue of green.
A highway sign flits by, warning us to keep an eye out
for deer in the road. I lower my window and inhale
a gust of wind that surges from a blurred row of trees.
I can almost glimpse a pair of stags just beyond the
branches, locking antlers, refusing to back down.
Would a stag choose to keep its antlers?
A day later, I’m standing in front of the original
Monarch of the Glen. It lords over me in full color,
unlike my guardian stag, who is etched in black and white.
I’m struck by how dramatically color alters the image:
the creature feels both more alive and more goofy, somehow.
A cartoon of itself. It’s hung high on the crimson wall and
visitors are forced to crane their necks to take it in.
A gift shop in the center of the room sells scarves,
notebooks, and coasters displaying the Monarch print.
The gallery lights are bright and white-hued.
Sweating under them, I imagine the air dwindling to a
shade of dusky blue as Massaquoi enters to square up with
figures flanked in gold. I absorb the enormous painting
above me. This stag doesn’t feel like a guardian. It looks
alone and uncomfortable, its thick eyelashes shining with
fear. Maybe it is preparing to shed its antlers and begin the
process of reformation. How does its body know when it’s time
to do so? I wonder. If it had a choice, would it try to undo the
shedding, to keep its mighty tangle of bones? Would it refuse
to grow a new formation? The stag stares at me blankly,
offering no answers, though I suspect one. I exit the gallery.
Can a stag leap from a page?
I’ve arrived home. My housemate’s birthday was yesterday.
We greet one another and I ask him about his party.
“It was wonderful,” he says. “My grandmother sang to me.”
He opens a video on his phone. His grandmother stands
in the center of the room wearing a bright orange button-down.
She stretches her arms out in front of her and my housemate wraps
his arm around her shoulders. The song is Angelitos Negros:
♫ Siempre que pintas iglesias
Pintas angelitos bellos
Pero nunca te acordaste
De pintar un ángel negro ♫
Her voice soars. When it’s over, I can hardly speak.
“She can really sing,” I finally say. My housemate smiles.
“She can.” I head upstairs and enter my room.
The stag on the wall regards me.
In this moment, it appears
ready to shed its antlers and leap off the page,
ready to show me whose
national borders it respects,
ready to show me
what it knows.
Siena Oristaglio (all pronouns) is an artist and educator. She co-runs The Void Academy, an organization that helps independent artists thrive. She lives in New York City.