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Bight, Tomcat and the Moon

by Carmen Marcus

I’m me, Bight, I’m wearing my Dad’s old smock flecked with fish scales and white with salt lines. I’m barefoot on road dust. I’m thirteen and a girl, double bad luck if you’re a fisherman but I’m not. I’m the keeper of the Last Sea on the road and it’s time to rock the boat.

Moon’s as full as she’ll get since the Big Ebb – just a fish scale sliver – since humans went walking all over her face in their fat white boots, then probes to study her plumes. Enough’s enough, so she cut her ties and drifted taking the sea with her. My Father, a fisherman, caught the last of the sea, scooped her up, fish and all into the Seahouse.

‘Stick to the roads,’ he said, ‘and steer clear of ghost currents’. So now I’m the moon to my finny friends, the tidal pull of my tiny sea until I find the true blue.

The Seahouse is two boats stuck together, one on top of the other like pursed wooden lips. The bottom-house is where the last of the fishes live. The top-house is where I live. I sleep over water so I always dream of floods. The Seahouse balances on an A-frame pulled by the tractor. Tonight I’m hanging from the starboard side shucking the Seahouse so it bounces on its big rubber tyres. Fish love moon-rock nights. The whelks tuck their spiny legs inside their shells and let themselves roll. The big monkfish totters on his tiny pectorals across the beam. The mackerels, well they’re the first to go moon-mad, flashing their forked tails at the sky. I can hear the water slapping up the insides of the boat like a crowd going wild. As I swing up over the gunwale I see the anemones spurt their firework colours. Ha ha. Little punks.

I don’t show the Sink folks this bit; moon-rock nights are just for us. But they are for show – my scaly, spiny underwater friends. Maybe I shuck too much tonight. I got a belly full of broken glass ache and three red blood spots drop onto the road dust between my feet. I can’t get sick like my Dad. I got promises to keep. So I stick to the old black roads like he said.

There it is – the smoking stack of a Sink. A wheezing twist of humans squatting round underground pools. Sinks don’t have names or signposts. Proper names are for things that will last or be remembered. I roll up.

‘Remember the days when there were still fish in the oceans and cars on the road?’

I give it a good lung-holler over the tractor engine and clang the mast bell.

‘Come see, come see – the one, the only, the wet, the weird, the Last Sea on the road.’

They used to pay – when it still stung that the moon pulled away and the whole ocean buggered off down a crack in the Earth. But tonight, when I let them climb up the big treads of the wheels; they peer through the portholes and what they mostly feel is disappointment. They rub their coins in the red dust of their pockets and keep the water pots they promised for a look. Fish is fish, scales and gills. What more do they want? Mussels click. Urchins sting. ‘So ugly,’ they say, ‘don’t even make us hungry’. Well screw you. My friends aren’t for eating.

The Sinkers like the saltwater battery best. It’s just an old plastic box I use to test the water salinity like my dad showed me. Seawater is alive because of the salt. All the coloured bulbs light up like a birthday cake. ‘Awww,’ they go. But tonight only seven light. My water’s dying and I don’t know what I’m going to tell the fish. They flutter their gills at me just the same. I dunk my head under and I tell them so the Sinkers can’t hear.

‘I’m just a thirteen-year-old kid. I don’t know shit about how to read the stars or get you home.’

Mickey Fin puffs his cool, blue lips on my fingertip. Kiss. Kiss. There’s a ripping inside of me, way past guilt. If this is it – current-struck – I’ve had it. Can’t be, ‘cos I never even seen so much as a dust twitch of a real ghost current. I pick Mickey up and get the battery and I push my way into the shouts and reaching hands wanting to touch the silver fish. They think this is some new show.

Inside the Sink reeks. Water’s too precious for washing bodies in here. I swim daily . I must smell like every summer holiday they ever had. Makes them go funny, ‘specially the men. But I’m thirteen, pale and titless as the moon. I’ve tested Sink water before but there’s very little life in it even though it’s been through so many people. There’s a wall of big blokes round the pool, ghouls mirrored in its wet eye. Clonks we call ‘em; their blades are made from old garden spades and you don’t want a clonk from one of them.

‘Wait your turn.’

There’s a mucky sort of order in the Sinks.

‘Don’t want to drink, I want to test. I’ve got fish. They could live in your Sink.’

‘Don’t want fish piss in my pool.’

Here’s the Sink King. So I show him Mickey Fin, who’s got a wriggle on now he’s sussed the air’s too light to push through his gills. Sorry Mickey. The Sink King nods, curious and I dip my battery in. All the lights light up and of course I get an ‘awww’ from the crowd. Their dust raw eyes prick up at the pretty lights. Idiots. Then it’s little Mickey’s turn. I seen him grow from egg into the squiggles on his back, like I wrote my name on him. I seen him tickle his way out of Dora Crab’s black claw. He’s a survivor. He’s straight in, I don’t see him just the ripple he leaves behind. No one’s breathed for a whole minute now. Then his silver half moon belly tips up in the black water. I wade in, slipping past the Clonks. He’s not moving. Sorry sorry sorry Mickey. The Sink King’s laughing and stoking his brazier for a fish supper. He tries to take Mickey right out of my hand. No way am I letting go. I kick the fire and the dust in the air sparks. The Clonks are busy trying to put out their King and I’m off.

I’m almost at the Seahouse, when these red fast hands snatch Mickey right out of mine.

‘Give me back my fish.’

Mickey’s so small, curled nose to tail on the pink pad of a paw. This bloke is a real ginger scruff, a cheeky Tomcat. I heard of Purrmen but never seen one close. I heard after the Big Ebb folk would eat anything, their own pets and worse. But the problem with cats is they got nine lives and at least seven come bursting back through the skins of those what ate them. Purrmen – whiskers and claws and triangles for ears.

‘Where you heading in that?’ he says whistling at the Seahouse through a smile full of pins.

‘The sea,’ I say.

‘You won’t get there by road. You know your stars?’

This is a bone of contention as my Dad was supposed to show me how to sail by the stars. He said he’d teach me when I was older. I got older. He didn’t. He got taken by a ghost current, struck so bad he looped a knot around his own neck just to keep his water still.

There’s a loud angry noise coming from the Sink. I rev up the tractor.

‘Take me with you,’ he mewls, a cool rumble that hushes my bellyache. ‘And I’ll teach you your stars.’

He climbs up, Mickey still coiled on his palm, and I don’t stop him, but I make sure this cat knows.

‘Mickey’s not for eating.’

***

Inside the bottom-house the Purrman looks less ginger. He’s got poor little Mickey by the tail, dunking him in the water but Mickey’s silver’s coming back. Mickey pulls himself free and sulks, hiding in the dead-man’s-fingers.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Tomcat.’ I have to laugh. ‘What’s yours?’

‘Bight.’

‘What? Bite like bit?’, he snaps his teeth closed, a perfect fit. ‘What kind of name is that for a girl?’

‘It’s my name. It’s the bend in a rope before you make the knot. It’s the beginning.’ That’s what my Dad told me. It’s still a rubbish name for a girl. My Mum didn’t get a say as she died having me. Dad kept her magazines so’s I’d learn how to be a proper lady but how’s a girl called Bight supposed to cascade? Tomcat looks in my sea just to see himself, checking out his ginger whiskers. Dora Crab’s a soft-shelled tart, she blows him love bubbles but he don’t even blink.

‘What d’you know about the sea?’

‘You don’t do much small talk do you?’

I keep quiet long enough to prove his point. He takes off his shirt. I get my knife.

‘Steady,’ he says ‘cos he wants me to see his scars. ‘You heard of ghost currents? That’s where I got these.’

‘Heard enough to steer clear.’

‘Well we won’t find the Lost Sea on the road. Look up.’

He tilts my head to the sky.

‘That’s the North Star. The stillest point in the sky. Stick out your arms.’

He gets behind me, resting his chin on my neck and I can feel the rolling instrument of his purr under his fur.

‘Your right hand is east, your left west. Keep watching the star.’

He spins me round so his words fill the tickle cup under my chin.

‘We’re going south.’

I daren’t look down; the star is the only part of me that’s still.

***

My bellyache’s gone. Moon’s as round and black as Tomcat’s eyes. He’s cleaning his whiskers like he’s ready to eat, grinning at the old magazine pictures of women on my walls.

‘What you got these for? You like girls?’

I punch his arm. I can’t explain these women – their quiet lips, the heavy swells of their woman’s bits under silk. I look for them in my hurting body certain they will never come. I seen this world curling up in knots to die and me – I’ll be stuck at bad-luck thirteen forever. I draw my mother’s empty make up brush across my cheek and my eyes light up like the saltwater battery. I always wanted a ginger Tom to curl up on my lap and to rub the red velvet of his ears.

***

I find Dora Crab’s lonely black claw in Tomcat’s bed. I throw it at him and he catches it and slowly blinks his eyes leaning into a kiss.

‘It’s my nature,’ he says.

‘It’s my boat,’ I say and lose my fingers in his fur to push him over board.

Then we hit something – the big old bones of a wreck. I pull on my Mother’s old silk skirt up over the bare angles of my hips and it shines like I’m walking in water. For the first time I feel the soft pinch and sink of sand under my feet, between my toes. A stray wind rasps it against my bare legs like a cat’s tongue. I take a handful in my pocket for the fish. There’s no sign of Tomcat.

The wreck is nothing like the Seahouse; dried up Mermaid’s purses still cling to her, clams guard her crumbling belly. I see she’s got a name. ‘Queenie’, like a girl-cat. The sand bed swirls and lifts me off my feet – ghost current. Up I go and then it throws me against the wreck. Tomcat’s there, he catches me tearing my mother’s skirt. His fingers curl around my ribs.

‘I’ve got you kid.’ But the current’s got us both, spinning us in the muscle of its memory. I take Tomcat’s shoulder and we could be dancing in the roll of the ghost sea. Death. That’s what I’m thinking as I tipple topple into Tomcat’s blue eyes. There’s the sea and he’s had it all this time, locked up frozen in the ice flecks of his eyes.

‘Let me go.’ I tell him as he topples me and I hook my heel around his foot, forgetting how easy it is to hold onto something that doesn’t have scales. But the current rips me – ‘Aiyee’ – and lickety-splits me to pieces.

‘You got properly current struck kid.’ I’m shucked up all right; my head is empty, dark and tumbling, not a twitch of a still star in my head. I can feel the ghost of his long claw on my ribs, bruising. It’s a good deep-down grown-up kind of hurt that I need cool water to fix. I drop into the bottom-house and they scatter, like they can taste it on me. The memory of their water. They nip at the bruises blooming on my ribs with questions I can’t answer and I wonder how Tomcat really got his scars.

‘Throw him overboard,’ they say, Dora tapping her one good claw. I can’t tell that them we need him because I’ve lost my still-north.

I dream of floods and wake up with sand in the creases of my sheets.

***

We roll further south and still no sign of sea, just the abyssal plain stretched out like a warm cat. The moon spins, turning her face round, fuller than I’ve ever seen her. My bellyache’s back and wakes me up. Rock the boat time no matter what. I hold onto the gunwale and shuck until my knuckles are white. Only Mickey Fin’s riding the sweep ‘cos no one else feels like bouncing. I slip into the bottom-house while the waves are still pulsing.

‘Come on,’ I say but the mussels don’t click and I can taste their quiet death. Monkfish sulks at the bottom and Dora looks like she’s ready to be eaten. They float so still, so unlike the red current running through me.

‘Dad,’ I say, like he wasn’t dust, and I picture his big hands looping the first knot in the rope. ‘You shouldn’t never have called me Bight’, and now I know it I cut my own red rope and jump in mixing my water up with the Last Sea, salt-water filling up my nose.

Tomcat’s face floats above me, a second moon. He has me by my silk skirt. His white teeth flash and he pushes his own breath into me, whiskery prickles around my lips. He tips me over his knee and slaps my back. I’m so mad he’s made me begin again I push him in the deep end and he yowls. He can’t swim. His eyes – blue, black – flicker as his lungs panic and gulp wingfuls of water. So I haul him up and punch his ribs for Dora as he coughs up.

‘Trust me,’ he says.

‘Ha,’ I say, then shut up ‘cos I hear this ‘shush shush’. I’ve never heard it before it’s like the earth breathing.

On the horizon the red head of the sun crests, setting fire to an impossible blue line. I put on my Mother’s silk dress for this ready to meet the sea, the red sun pressing on our backs. But the sea is trapped, a steep canyon lies between us. There are a thousand lights moving up towards us from the drop. A tusky Purrman is the first to arrive, grey as dust, he slaps his paw around Tomcat and meows his hellos. The big old grey-stripe thumps his paw on my boat. Dora Crab keeps quiet. Grey-stripe wears a coat of mackerel skin and a crown of mussel shells. He shines like the sea on the horizon. My finned friends know the moon is full but they are still as they have ever been. They must taste their dead even through the wood.

‘Good work Tomcat, I’ll give you five hundred for the boat.’

‘Five? You haven’t seen the fish yet, that’s the Last Sea you’re looking at there, there’s whelk and …’

‘And three hundred for the girl.’

My lips pop pop at the air like I’m still drowning, drawing at the nothing where water should be. Tomcat nods and smiles, triangles for ears and a kiss full of pins. It is his nature. But I’m Bight, I’m the bend, I’m the beginning, I’m double bad luck. I am the bloody moon. I shuck, running from one side of the bottom-house to the other. Those with legs run with me. The water lapping up and over the sides shouting ‘shush’ to the other water sitting quiet at the horizon. I can feel the pull right under my ribs where my dreams of floods come from. The fist of the returning sea smashes the bottom-house open. Wraps its wet paw around Tomcat who is blowing kisses, his last, to me. I see my ocean come and pull him by his ginger tail.

***

The fish keep me alive and well in the upside down top-house wrapped in a pocket of air. They promise me one day they will find land. I dream of cat’s claws and my father’s hands. These live currents wash away the memory of dust. Mickey asks me if I remember.

‘The days long ago when there were still fish on the roads and dust for sea, there lived a young woman who would rock the boat.’

He calls his friends to come and see the show. Clown fish bring him pearls to swim in my white hair. But he cannot make the water still on dark moon nights for me.