Tim Saunders

Catching the Light

“Do you think the moon has any memory of who we are?” you ask as we walk slowly through puddled paddocks. Mud sticks to my gumboots, building up in big chunks on the soles until my legs feel too heavy to lift. “Or do you think it is more like a goldfish, and forgets us every time it turns around?”

That’s the way it is with you, the way it has always been. Asking stupid questions that never really seem stupid to me. The other girls think you’re weird, and even Mr Knowles thinks you’re just dumb and pretty. He’s a teacher, and teachers aren’t meant to think of us as dumb or pretty. But I sometimes catch him staring at you, a curve of dribble at the corner of his mouth and his hands hidden by his desk.

We follow the path to the lake, and I watch you from the corner of my eye. I don’t think you’re dumb. Yeah, sometimes the things you say take me off-guard, but they always make me think. I do think you’re pretty, though. Prettier than me. We’re exactly the same age, the same height. But you hold yourself straighter. Your skin is softer, untouched. You’re what I wish I still was.

“The moon could never forget you, girlfriend,” I say as my breath fogs the air.

“Bloody moon,” you whisper. “He was there when it happened. He didn’t even raise a finger to stop it. We’ll teach him a bloody lesson.”

The sun dips behind macrocarpas, casting gnarled shadows against a fading horizon. We follow a pugged track. Two tūī alight on stretching harakeke flowers for a quick evening meal. Fronds bend under their weight, reminding me of the curved bill of some extinct bird. Cabbage trees shake their leaves at the stars as they flicker to life.

“Tī Kōuka are crazy trees,” you say. Your voice startles the tūī. They flutter into the darkening sky, staccato wing beats followed by impossible glides before disappearing to wherever it is tūī go at night.

“More a kid’s drawing of a tree than a tree itself,” you continue. “All limbs and wild hair.”

The estuary lies low and flat before us. Ducks huddle under raupō, suspicious of our clumsy approach. The sleek black shadow of a shag claims a rotting stump that thrusts upwards from the water, while a breeze huffs gentle ridges across the surface. That’s when I see the slightest movement out in the deep. I point at the shimmer of light.

“That’s him. He’s just rising.”

The water glows white and cold as the moon’s domed head reflects in the estuary. Within moments a sliver has turned to an arc, before fleshing out into a full silver orb.

“He’ll pay for just sitting back and letting everything happen,” you say. In your hand is a coil of thin fishing line. Nylon catches the light as it plays through your fingers.

I study the moon’s reflection out in the estuary. His face, round and full, is wrinkled with the same soft ripples that caress the water. They distort him slightly, warp him into a disfigured disc. But he is the same moon that was there that night. An echo of him, anyway. The same moon that flamed over the dunes as the others partied on the beach. The same moon that highlighted the blonde hair of Cam Chisholm as he kicked a rugby ball to his mates and held his beer bottle nonchalantly by its slender neck, jeans slung low on his hips like the sunset over Kapiti. The same pale glow that lit Cam’s face with a wide crescent smile when he saw me, took my hand, asked me to go for a walk.

“Bloody moon,” you say again. “We’ll need some bait. That bastard isn’t going to be easy to catch.”

I watch as you tie a single hook to the line, sickle-shaped and glinting. You press the tip to your thumb. A single globe of blood bubbles from your skin.

“Sharp enough,” you say. And then you look in my eyes. “We’ll take from him what was taken from you.”

I remember the moon’s expression, fat and gloating, goading us forward as Cam led me through the dunes, hand-in-hand, past the wooden picnic tables scattered over the grassy area beside the kids’ playground. To the wind-chiselled macrocarpas, twisted and blue in the night. The moon’s swollen face as he peeked through the branches, salivating speculative fingers of light that dappled the bare ground.

“We need bait,” you say again, and your voice jolts me from my thoughts. “What does the moon feed on?”

I look across the water at his vibrating shape. The moon doesn’t look back. He’s too busy checking out his reflection in the sky.

“Himself,” I reply. “He feeds his own ego.”

You nod and take the hook between your thumb and finger.

“You’re right. So, we need every poem ever written about the moon. Every song composed about him and his grand image. Every Moon River, Moonshadow, every Moondance and Harvest Moon. Every Bad Moon Rising. Every ode and sonnet and hymn to the moon. Every Chin of Gold. Every yew tree, every cat and fiddle and Moonrise at Sea.”

You take your hair, lustrous and long, and wrap it around the hook as you speak. It flows from your head, spinning like a loom.

“We need every lover who has ever looked up at the moon and made a wish.”

I watch as you plunge your hand into your chest and pull out your heart, beating and warm. You pierce it with the hook, slide the barbed point into its taut chambers. Blood splatters the mud, pools at your feet.

“Every god that has ever been attributed to his fraudulent face.”

You take your breasts and skin, hang them from the hook. You stand gibbous, diminished as the light catches the gossamer line.

“We need every journey ever taken under moonlight, every endeavour and bloody battle.”

You place the smooth curve of your legs on the hook, and your perfect arms. For the first time I notice the moon turn away from himself, his curiosity aroused.

“Every painting and photograph, every image that tries to capture his grandeur.”

Your eyes slip from their sockets, spike themselves. The moon moves in the water, backwards and forwards, excited at the attention. I hear a wet slap as the wind puffs ripples over his face.

“We will take every whisper and promise, bark and howl hurled at his arrogant immensity.”

The hook perforates your full red lips, and the moon’s momentum whips the water to foam.

“And we will give him every cycle and rhythm, ritual and phase.”

You pour your blood on the hook, and the moon churns the water to a furious cauldron. He lashes waves into the flaxes, startling the ducks and causing the black-shadowed shag to spread his wings and rise into the night.

All that is left is your tears, and they reflect his seething light on my cheek.

I grasp the nylon string, with its hook and bait, and cast it as far as I can into the estuary. And I remember.

I remember how we sat under the gnarled macrocarpas for a while. How Cam told me he liked me, he’d always liked me. He just hadn’t known how to tell me. He told me I was pretty. He slid his hand down my hips, his finger across my leg. I liked it. I felt his body rise like the gloaming, and I heard the giggling of stars. It was nice, swaddled in his arms. I could stay there forever.

And then I couldn’t breathe. His hands became solid stones, cold and heavy. Hot air from his mouth was the thrust of an unstoppable tide lapping the beach. I tried pushing him away, but he entombed me with his weight. I felt I was underground. The laughter, I’m sure it came from the trees. I remember the pressure. The smothering.

His final crushing eclipse.

And the moon’s blank stare.

Cam lay next to me for a few minutes afterwards, his breath crashing and churning, and then he was gone. I wondered what I had done wrong. I stumbled after him into the clearing, a cold glare reflecting off thin sheets of water spread over picnic tables from that morning’s rain. The tall white flames of toetoe bent in reverence to the moon’s smirk, swaying in complete devotion. Music and the warm glow of the bonfire seeped over the dunes, a beacon to follow. I saw boys huddle by the water, orbiting Cam as he stood at the low tide mark. He had his back to me, his shoulder blades chiselled crescents.

I walked towards him, sinking into the sand.

“Cam? I wondered where you’d gone. Cam? What’s happening?”

Cam turned, his shadow stretched across the shallows, a demilune sneer on his face. Phones sparkled, scattered across the darkness as the others pointed and snickered. I looked down into the water as it lapped my feet, my shape rippled in the waves, and I saw you step away.

The moon watched it all, towering over both of us.

I remember this as the hook and line arc through the air, your hair trailing like a comet. It sploshes and spreads on the surface in a billowing mat of everything you used to be. The moon splashes towards it, spattering droplets of water across the estuary like a sudden shower. I hold the line tightly in both hands, watch as the moon sloshes towards you. Ruru, nestled somewhere nearby, announces his scything presence as spur-winged plovers scream circuits around Tī Kōuka’s wild hair.

The moon sniffs you, nuzzles you as you flower across the taut surface. Sequesters you in his glow. You dance and he dances with you, caressing, exploring. A cloud crosses the sky and the moon dives out of sight. I wonder where he has gone. Perhaps he has grown bored, gone to stare at himself again, to laugh and clink with the stars. Maybe it is us, we have disappointed him. From across the estuary I hear the cry of pūtangitangi, the boom of a plump matuku.

The water erupts as he comes up under you, froth and foam whipped to a creamy ebullition. You, smeared across his wide face. He takes you in his craterous mouth and swallows you whole.

The string pulls tight in my hand as the hook punctures his lip, and I haul on the line. I heave with everything I have. He fights me, of course, puts his weight and strength into the struggle.

“Do you remember me?!” I scream. “Do you know who I am?”

The moon flails and flaccidly smacks the water, cries for help in the night. His flagellations weaken as I drag him into the shallows and onto the muddy shore. We lie, side-by-side, and I think of the smoke from the bonfire on the beach, how it rose into the sky and slowly dissipated. I think of Cam’s face, dispersing in the dawn.

“Do you remember me now?” I gasp. But there is only cold indifference as the moon withers and fades.

An orange glow warms the stretched ridges of distant ranges as I watch the moon dissolve to a place where it no longer matters and holds no dominance. Two tūī flutter, fold and climb above Tī Kōuka, and the sun glints quietly over the estuary.

Tim Saunders

Tim Saunders farms sheep and beef near Palmerston North in New Zealand. He has had poetry and short stories published in Turbine|Kapohau, takahē, Landfall, Poetry NZ Yearbook and Flash Frontier. He won the 2018 Mindfood Magazine Short Story Competition, placed third in the 2019 and 2020 New Zealand National Flash Fiction Day Awards, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2021. His book, This Farming Life, was published by Allen & Unwin in August, 2020.