The Moth and Moon
Glenn Quigley © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Mr. Robin Shipp pulled his cap lower as he took a deep breath of salty morning air and watched the sun emerge from behind the headland. Stepping from the pier into his little boat, he ran his heavy hand across the prow, catching his coarse fingers on the loose, chipped paintwork. He picked a jagged flake off the wooden frame and held it up to the light, the vivid scarlet catching the pinks and oranges of daybreak. He let go and it drifted through the air, carried away on the gentle breeze, before settling on the soft, lapping tide. Most of the paintwork was in some state of distress. Deep cracks marbled the entire hull, belying the fisherman’s profound affection for his vessel. Bucca’s Call had seen better days.
“I’ll paint you tomorrow, Bucca, I promise,” he said.
He made this very same promise every morning, but every day, he found some reason to put it off. Before too long, he was humming to himself and hauling his well-worn oyster dredge over the stern of Bucca’s Call.
“Beautiful!” he said as he emptied the net into a nearby tub. The shells clattered against one another as they fell. The boat bobbed about gently on the waves while gulls screeched and circled overhead. Her nameplate was missing a couple of letters and her white sails were truthfully more of a grimy beige these days, but she was as reliable as ever.
He was close to the shore and could see the whole bay—from the headland to the east, down to the harbour, past the pale blue-and-white-striped lighthouse that sat out at sea on its desolate little clump of rocks and scrub, and over to the beautiful sandy beach curving around and out of sight to the west.
The little fishing village of Blashy Cove sloped up the hills beyond the harbour, and with his gaze, he traced the low, stone walls lining each cobbled road. It was the only significant settlement on the tiny island of Merryapple, the southernmost point of a little cluster of islands nestled off the Cornish coast. The village had everything one would expect to find, except a place of worship. No lofty cathedral had ever been built there, no church of granite and glass, not even the smallest wooden chapel. When the empire of the Romans had fallen a thousand years earlier, its church had fallen alongside it. The invaders hadn’t lingered long on the mainland, and had never set foot on these islands. Once they were gone, the people picked through the remains, seeing the value in certain aspects and thoroughly disregarding the rest, scouring the regime clean from the face the world and consigning it meekly to the tomes of scholars and students. In its absence, the old gods returned to their forests and deserts, their mountains and streams, their homes and hearths. Spirits of air and land and sea. Woden and Frig, The Wild Hunt and the Bucca, piskies and mermaids, the Green Man and the wights, all were changed, made kinder and gentler by their brief exile. On these islands, the old ways had been the only ways, but even these had mostly died out, sloping into traditions, superstitions, and habits. It was now August in the year 1780, and people believed in themselves.
At this time of morning, sunlight hit the brightly painted houses and sparkled on the gentle, rolling waves. The village’s livelihood mainly revolved around the sea, but there was more to life than just luggers and lines and lobster pots. The Cove had long been a haven to those of a more creative bent. Painters and sculptors, engineers and inventors, they all found their home there. Some of them had come from the nearby Blackrabbit Island, which wasn’t known for its love of the finer arts. This abundance of skill, and the nurturing of it, meant Blashy Cove had adopted some innovations not yet common in the rest of the world.
Robin had been out for some time by now and, as usual, had already eaten his packed lunch. Soon, his substantial belly rumbled and he decided it was time to head back to port. Packing away his nets, he heaved in his empty lobster pots, secured the tub filled with this morning’s catch, and sailed the small craft homeward. As he did, he noticed a thin, grey line on the horizon.
“Looks like some bad weather on the way, Bucca,” he muttered to the little boat.
The stern of the curious little craft sat low in the water, due equally to the weight of the morning’s catch and the significant heft of Robin himself. While at first it appeared to be a traditional lugger, the kind of boat used by most fishermen in this part of the world, Bucca’s Call was actually much smaller and faster, a one-of-a-kind built many years previously.
Huge ships from the mainland drifted past, their enormous sails billowing in the breeze. Merryapple was part of a small group of southerly islands, and the last sight of land some of the mighty vessels would see for weeks, or even months.
Merryapple Pier was the oldest one anybody knew of. The brainstorm of a local fisherman many years earlier and copied by many other villages since, it might well have been the first of its kind. This clever fisherman realised if there was a way for larger boats to offload their cargo directly, rather than having to put it onto smaller vessels to ferry back and forth between harbour and ship, it would increase the traffic through the little port. The pier stretched out past the shallower waters near the coastline. Little sailboats like Bucca’s Call could dock right up close to the beach or even on the sand, if need be, while bigger fishing vessels could use the far end, in deeper waters. The pier was constructed from huge boulders hewn from the island’s cliff face and supported by a framework of long wooden poles from the woodlands. In the evening, bigger boats from the village fleet usually dropped anchor in the bay, while smaller vessels stayed moored to the pier.
At the shore, some children were chasing each other around a pile of crab pots, hooting and hollering while May Bell finished her deliveries for the bakery. May was around the same age as the other children, but she was of a more industrious bent. She saw Bucca’s Call approaching and ran to help Robin secure his mooring line as he lugged the tub of oysters onto the pier. When he clambered up the weathered stone steps, he steadied himself with a hand against the wall. The steps were wet and slippery, with dark green mould threatening to envelope his heavy boots should he linger too long.
“Morning, Mr. Shipp,” the girl called as she finished tying the worn rope around an old, pitted stone bitt.
“Mornin’, May! Thanks for your ’elp,” he called back, waving to the girl as he lumbered past. Taller than any man on the island, he dwarfed the little girl, drowning her in his shadow.
“Time for food already?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” replied Robin, “an’ I know just the place to get some!”
His legs were stiff from sitting in the boat all morning. He knew he was supposed to get up and move around a bit every once in a while, but when he was out on the water, the chatter of the gulls, the lap of the waves, the smell of the sea air, it was all so relaxing he just didn’t notice the time going by. Only his stomach growls marked the hours.
Mrs. Greenaway, wife of the village doctor and a friend of May’s parents, happened to be passing by on her way home from the market. Seeing their exchange, she scrunched up her face, adjusted the bow on her bonnet, and seized the little girl by the arm, leading her away from the pier and avoiding Robin’s disappointed gaze. He knew May from the bakery, as the master baker was one of his very few friends, but it wasn’t uncommon for people to avoid him.
Robin heaved the awkward tub full of oysters up and marched towards the bustling market, which was a collection of simple wooden stalls selling everything from food to clothes to ornaments. He edged his way through the crowd, past various stallholders and shoppers as he struggled with the heavy container. Finally, he reached the largest stall, which sold all manner of fresh seafood, all caught in that very cove. Robin specialised in inshore fishing, whereas the other boats concentrated their efforts farther out to sea. He was one of only two oyster fishermen in the village. The other, Mr. Hirst, was ill and hadn’t been out in his craft for almost two weeks. He was married, with a young family to feed, and the village had rallied around to help and make sure they didn’t go hungry. The lack of competition, however, meant Robin was securing a bumper crop.
A tall, thin man in a white coat was scribbling notes onto a wad of yellow paper. In front of him lay a collection of various local fish, in everything from buckets to barrels to battered old copper pots.
“Got a nice batch for you this mornin’, Mr. Blackwall.” Robin beamed, holding up the tub so the fishmonger could get a good look.
“Yes, these will do fine, I suppose, Mr. Shipp. Put them down at the front.” Mr. Blackwall was notorious for not getting too hands-on with the product or with much of anything, really. He kept his distance from the beach and fairly resented having to be even this close. Wet sand upset him greatly, as it had a tendency to cling to his shiny boots and sometimes it even marked his pristine coat. He didn’t do any of the actual work with the fish, instead leaving it to his assistants. He’d often said he didn’t see the point of having a stall at all when he had a perfectly good shop on Hill Road. But the market was a tradition in Blashy Cove, and so he had no choice but to participate or lose out. He jotted some numbers down on his paper and then chewed the end of his pencil as he tried to add them up. He always did this, and he never did it quickly. Robin stooped and laid the tub on the ground as instructed, grunting as he straightened.
“Joints sore again?” the fishmonger asked out of sheer politeness, not looking up from his calculations.
“No more’n usual,” Robin replied, rubbing the small of his back and rotating his shoulder. Working the sea wasn’t easy, and it had taken its toll over the years.
Ben Blackwall reached into his inside pocket and produced a fistful of polished coins, which he delivered into Robin’s large, callused hands. Robin nodded appreciatively and stuffed them into the pockets of his calf-length, navy-coloured overcoat. Tipping his floppy, well-worn cap to his long-time buyer, he turned and headed away from the dock.
He passed by other villagers going about their morning routine and jumped out of the way of a horse and cart loaded with apples from the orchard over the hills as he headed straight for the immense building dead ahead. It was a massive, ungainly lump, set in the centre of a spacious courtyard, all crooked wooden beams and slanting lead-paned windows. Every now and then, a shabby bay window or wonky dormer jutted out at funny angles. It was hard to tell exactly how many floors it had. Five, at least, the topmost of which sat like a box that had been dropped from a great height onto the rest of the structure. Rumpled, uneven, and crooked, this odd addition had one large, circular window on each of its four walls. On the ground outside, wooden tables and chairs were arranged, and heavy planters overflowed with hardy, perennial shrubbery. A couple of fat seagulls noisily argued over a few crumbs dropped near the windbreakers. This pair were here so often, they seemed to be part of the building itself. The locals named them Captain Tom and the Admiral. Captain Tom was the leader of a particularly noisy and troublesome band of gulls, and the Admiral was his main rival. They would often fight over even the tiniest scraps left on the ground, and both were marked with more than one battle scar.
As he pulled on the heavy oak door, the sign hanging overhead creaked and groaned in the wind. Painted on chestnut from the nearby wood, the bulk of the sign was older than the village itself, but it had been modified many times. Formed of several expertly carved layers, it now looked more like a child’s pop-up book rather than the simple plank of wood it had once been. The overall effect was of peering through a forest, out over the cove at night. The outermost tier resembled a ring of tree branches, gently moving up and down. Behind that layer were the turbulent waves, which clicked from side to side. Finally, there was the static crescent moon with a single cerulean moth flying slowly around, completing one revolution every hour. The whole sign ticked and whirred endlessly as its springs and cogs went about their work, and had to be wound up twice a day using a long, metal key kept tucked behind the tavern’s main door. The name of the establishment was weaved around and through the artwork in gold.
This wasn’t simply a place to drink or gather with friends; it was a place to conduct business, a place where people married, and a place where people mourned. It was a refuge from bad weather and jilted lovers. This was the heart and soul of the little village.
This was the Moth & Moon.