The Girl Who Drank the Moon

Tony Cartlidge

Elise works quickly, gutting and filleting the fish, throwing heads and spines into a pile on her left. She places slabs of red flesh into the cart that she has pushed down the beach to meet the boat. A grey tabby watches patiently from the shade of an old, overturned skiff that straddles two rocks. Its eyes follow the dancing light reflected by the knife in Elise’s efficient hands. Gulls squawl overhead, wanting the fish but wary of the cat. Elise spits salt air from the back of her throat and then grinds the darkening glob into the sand with her bare heel. Delmar, Elise’s brother, pays no attention. Delmar fishes alone but Elise has lately taken to meeting his return to help pull the boat up the beach. The boat is getting to be more than he can handle although he would never admit it. She climbs in at the bow while Delmar sits next to the outboard, working on the fish around his feet. The paddle lies on top of the dwindling pile of silver fish. Delmar has rowed the skiff home again. His arms and chest are still muscular under curls of grey hair and his face is drawn. His hands, knotted with thick veins and etched with dark scars, are beginning to twist. He’ll work on fixing the engine before he allows himself to sleep. With the last of the fillets done, Delmar scoops water into the boat to wash the boards. Elise has noticed that Delmar has started repairing the smaller skiff, the one that he built with their father and used until their father died. A fresh board has been clamped in place, training for its new shape. The cat sits in sunlight filtered through the gaps in the planking. Elise tosses a handful of guts to the cat and puts her shoulder to the cart to push it toward the drying racks. As the first gulls land, Delmar has unscrewed the pitted, faded cover from the motor and is scrutinizing the failing engine.

When she was a girl, before Delmar came, Mama taught Elise how to hang the fish. The best way is to strip out the bones and guts and split the fish down to the tail so the meat can be draped over the racks. Kingfish and mackerel work best, but it’s been a while since Delmar netted fish large enough to hang. Instead, Elise ties the tails with strips of cloth and scraps of old nylon net and pegs the flesh up to dry in the salt winds. Before Delmar, Elise would go out in the boat with Papa, watching him set his nets, haul them in, and gut the fish on the way home. The twitching fish around her feet would make her giggle and Papa would pretend to be angry when she picked out the smallest and slid them back into the water. When the wriggling stopped, the iridescence on their flanks faded and their red eyes dimmed like a thousand tiny sunsets. By the time they got home, trailing gulls, the fish would be ready to hang.

***

Elise is awake before dawn, filling the cart from the drying racks. Pale moonlight washes down the ridge that guards the beach, flooding gullies and illuminating the narrow path that winds from the village, through the dunes, and evaporates at the cabin that Elise and Delmar share. Elise doesn’t need the moon to find her way. She has pushed the cart to market ever since Mama died giving birth to Delmar. Sunrise is an hour away but her brother is already pushing the skiff out into the swell. He looks frail. She wants him to rest but they must buy a new outboard. Elise leans her weight into the cart, her nose close to the fish that she no longer smells, and dislodges the wheels from the overnight accumulation of drifting sand. The wind has changed direction and now smells of sage and panicum grass and rosemary. A storm is building beyond the horizon but the sky above is clear and the stars flicker like anchovy scales.

The market gets smaller every year and Elise wonders if it will even exist when the new hotel is finished. The church was once the tallest building in the village but now the hotel steals the sun and throws shadow over the shoulders of the bell tower and into the square. Elise pushes her cart to the end of the small market square, to the statue of a fisherman whose name and features have long since eroded. Groundwater percolates up through the limestone to collect in a rough-cut depression around the statue’s feet. It used to be that Elise needed to get to the market early to find a place here, where market-goers congregated to talk while dipping hands and neckerchiefs in the tepid water. Often the market would be thrumming even before first light and Elise would have to settle for a cooler space under one of the arches of the government building opposite the church. But the arches now house money exchanges and tourist shops, restaurants, and outdoor cafés where people smoke pungent cigarettes and drink coffee from tiny cups.

Near the statue, Elise lifts the canvas cover from the cart and hooks it over the ends of the handles, which she raises until they drop into worn grooves that hold them upright and form a canopy. Elise is aware of the two boys near the statue, nudging each other, holding stifled giggles and whispered words in hands lifted to their mouths. She has ignored the taunts since she was young and beautiful. The local boys would come to the market just to watch her working at the cart. She’d hear a whistle or a catcall and when she looked up they’d be staring elsewhere, practiced innocence and barely concealed smirks. But not Hector, who worked at his father’s stall selling fruit and flowers. Hector would not look away. Hector had light grey eyes and dark curly hair, and looked like a gathering storm. One glare from Hector silenced the boys, and then he would smile at Elise before returning to his work.

A woman in a blue halter-top and tailored shorts has stopped at Elise’s cart. She has a tattoo of a rose on her shoulder blade. Her skin is pale but beginning to redden despite the wide brimmed hat, which droops in the sun. The lenses of her sunglasses conceal much of her face. She doesn’t remove them when she leans in to get a closer look at Elise’s cart. Empty herring eyes stare back and she jumps and flaps at her face when a bottle-green fly crawls out of a fish’s mouth and buzzes past her nose.

“Come on, John,” she says, laughing and without looking to see where he is.

John wanders over from the statue where he has been tossing copper coins into the water. He slides his hands around her waist and laces his slender fingers over her stomach. He peers around her to see what has caught her attention and wrinkles his nose at the fish. The woman twists around in his grip and lifts one arm over his shoulder. In her other hand, held at arms length, is a phone. She makes open and closed movements with her mouth, imitating the fish on Elise’s cart. John glances at Elise before allowing the woman to maneuver him to her side. He looks a bit like Hector, or like Hector used to before he lost his hair and grew his belly. John is leaner and taller, like everyone is taller now, but he has the same oyster-grey eyes. Eyes like the giggling boys in the square. The couple crouches in front of the fish. Elise sees herself in the small screen. She looks like her mother but much older. The couple shuffles sideways to change the angle until Elise disappears from the picture.

“Smile,” says the woman.

John says something that Elise doesn’t hear and the woman laughs. The smiles vanish when the couple straightens up. She slips the phone into her pocket, takes John’s hand and gently tugs, indicating she is ready to leave. John doesn’t move so she disentangles her fingers and wanders away. Elise watches John as he reaches into his pocket and brings out a twenty-dollar bill. He nods for permission before taking Elise’s hand and scrunching the money into it. He mouths “Sorry,” as he folds her fingers over the bill. Elise is puzzled by his soft hands. By the time she can refuse or ask what the money is for John has caught up to the woman and draped his arm across her shoulders.

By mid-afternoon the heat hovers over the pale stones that pave the deserted market square. The other stalls are empty. The flowers and fruit are packed and gone. The bread that Lucía bakes each day has either been sold or taken home for her horde of grandchildren. She has known Lucía since they were girls and they have a nodding acquaintance that passes for friendship. Lucía has told her that Hector has an outboard for sale and that she might be able to negotiate for Elise. Elise suspects she will take a profit but she also knows she would never take anything from Hector, even if Delmar allowed it. She packs up the cart and guides it home. Her brother will be back and there will be work to do.

The boat is not there when Elise arrives at the cabin. The waves are swollen and on the horizon is a dark wall of clouds. Delmar will take longer in the growing turbulence. The cat emerges from a gap in the rocks and circles her legs, its tail curling under her skirts. The cat seems fatter and she wonders if it is pregnant. There’s not enough food for a litter and they’ll have to feed themselves, but for now she lifts the canvas from the cart and throws a dried herring into the sand. The cat snatches it and disappears under the skiff. Elise peels back the netting that protects the drying racks from gulls and cats and re-pegs the unsold fish. Delmar’s boat appears and she steps into the surf to meet him. His shirt is wrapped around his arm and one shoulder hangs low. She peels the cloth away and sees he is bleeding from a deep gash on his forearm. He is drained of color and trembling.

“Barracuda,” he says.

Barracuda will sometimes attack a net full of fish although it is rare. They feed violently and at speed, thrashing at schools with razor teeth, slicing mackerel and herring in half or tearing strips of flesh from larger fish. Papa had a scar on his wrist that looped into his hand and deep into the flesh of his thumb. He used wave it as he warned Elise about the barracuda waiting under the boat to take the next little fish from her. He’d wear a severe expression but his eyes glistened.

Delmar’s eyes are glassy and his face is grim. Elise helps him from the boat, which has his blood on the deck but is empty of fish. He leans heavily on her as far as the cabin where he lies down on the bed. He is asleep almost immediately. She lights a fire in the stone hearth, around which the wooden cabin is built, and boils rags to clean the wound. She mixes goldenseal and honey and he moans in his sleep when she pushes it deep into the gash. She holds the wound together and wraps it tight before lying down next to him. It is dawn when she wakes up. Delmar is still lying next to her, shivering and sweating. He doesn’t wake when she peels back the cotton strips to inspect his arm. Though the wound still oozes, it is not bleeding and is starting to knit. He wakes quickly, pulling his arm away, his eyes wild and bloodshot.

“Barracuda,” she says.

He nods once, relaxing, and offers his arm again. She applies more of the mixture, and rebinds it.

“I’m late for market,” she says. “I can stay. If you need me to.”

Delmar shakes his head and says, “No. Go.” Then he adds, “Thank you.”

Elise leans over and kisses his burning forehead. The cat appears at the open cabin door. It mewls but does not enter.

“You have company,” she says.

Delmar lifts himself from the bed to wave the cat away but winces and falls back.

“You shouldn’t feed it,” he says, “if it can’t feed itself.”

Delmar closes his eyes and Elise places a wooden bucket near the bed. He looks so much like Papa. She leaves when his breathing deepens.

***

It is mid-morning when Elise reaches the village. The bell is ringing and she pauses near the steps to cross herself. The church disgorges a newlywed couple, followed by a small entourage. It is John and the pale woman. They pose on the steps for photographs, smiling at their friends who are holding phones out for pictures. Confetti and flowers are tossed into the air. Rose petals land like butterflies on the bride’s shoulders. The groom scans the crowd and stops when he sees Elise. He does look like Hector. He smiles like him, the same way Hector had smiled at her when he came out of the church with his bride, freezing for a second before turning to kiss his wife. Hector had wanted to marry Elise first. He’d spoken to Elise’s Papa who had given his consent but with one condition. Delmar was almost grown but Papa asked Hector to wait for another year while Elise mothered him. Hector reluctantly agreed but urged Elise to give him her virginity. Papa got sick shortly after Elise became pregnant. Hector said they should marry anyway and scheduled the wedding, but then Elise lost the baby and instead of a marriage there was a funeral. Hector didn’t attend. The ugly rumors about Elise and Delmar started soon after. By the time Papa died, Hector was engaged to another girl. He married her a month after Papa’s funeral. Elise was in the market with her cart when Hector emerged with his bride, smiling to the crowd. Hector saw her, barely hesitating before kissing his wife. This was the kiss Elise saw every time one of Hector’s grey-eyed grandsons giggled behind cupped hands and whispered the rumors that had ostracized her and Delmar.

***

When Elise gets home, the cabin is empty and the skiff is gone. She shields her eyes to look at where the horizon should be. Steel waves are breaking on the beach, clawing great gouges of sand as they retreat. Elise unpegs the dried fish from the racks, and carries them inside in her skirts. The wind is beginning to howl around the cabin. The boards are weather-pocked and pale, the sea has stolen their color, but the cabin has stood since before Papa was born and she is not worried about it withstanding the storm. Her father built boats and cabins in much the same way. Caribbean pine was sawn to length before being shaped to size with an adze scraped slowly along the grain and then shaved smooth with a hand plane. Planks were nailed in place, leaving just a sliver of light between them. Loose loops of cotton were then gathered and hammered inch by inch into the gaps with a mallet and the flat blade of a caulking iron. When the caulking was complete, the seams were then sealed with pine tar.

The best way to collect pine sap is to slash a diagonal into the bark and let the sticky amber liquid ooze out of the wound and into an old tin can. Failing that, knots of crystallized sap can often be found on felled trunks. These are sliced from the bark and heated in a can. The liquid is then drained of its impurities using another can with pinholes punched into it. Wood ash or sawdust stiffens the mix, and a thumb of wax is added to maintain malleability. The mixture is reheated and stirred. As it cools, it is wound onto a stick and left to dry. To use, hold the pine tar over a flame until it smolders and begins to melt. Rotate the stick for an even burn and drip the resin into the seam. The tar will soak into the cotton and seep into the wood to make a watertight, flexible seal.

Elise is not worried about the cabin withstanding the storm, but she wonders if Delmar has the strength to paddle home if the outboard won’t start. The cat is mewling at the doorway again and this time, when she motions to it, it comes in and pulls itself into her lap. Close up, she can see the grey around the cat’s muzzle. Beneath its thick fur the skin is loose. Elise curls up on the bed with the cat beside her and waits for the storm to bring Delmar home.

In the morning the cat wakes her up, wanting to go out. Delmar is still gone. The wind has dropped but the sky and sea are leaden. The beach seems to have sunk and the high-water line has stolen inland and left behind a knee-high sand-berm. The drying racks are splintered against the rocks. Elise wants to run to the surf but she knows Delmar will not be there. Storms chase the fish into the reefs and she knows Delmar can fill the skiff in one trip. Instead, Elise picks through the shattered racks to salvage what she can. She then takes her cart up the beach, gathering branches, and rope, and any debris that she can use to build new racks. She unloads her cargo in a pile between the cabin and the rocks, hoping that if the winds picks up again the structure will stop it being scattered. She scans the horizon again before returning to the cabin. The cat is sitting at the door when she gets back. She steps inside and offers it food but it hesitates.

“He’s out fishing,” she says. “He won’t be back for a while.”

She laughs at the sound of her voice. The cat seems to take this as a signal to come in. When she gathers it up into her lap, it doesn’t protest.

Delmar is still not home the following morning and Elise feels his absence like a rock in her stomach. She busies herself, combing the beach beyond the headland for anything useful that has washed up. The beach is littered with palms and storm blown debris. An uprooted pine lays stretched across the sand, reaching for the water. The sea is gentle and blue again and there are just a handful of clouds feathering the sky. At midday, Elise sees a boat beached near the cabin. She quickens her stride but when she gets closer she realizes it is a tourist boat and it is about to leave. It is rare that tourists find their beach, hidden as it is by the ridge and the dunes. When they do arrive, they usually see Elise or the drying racks and leave. This one pulls out just as Elise gets close enough to see the bottles and plastic wrappers dumped onto the sand. There are deep imprints of footsteps around the cabin and footprints inside. They have taken nothing and left only cigarette ends near the bed. She pictures Papa on the cot, and Delmar, just a teenager, getting angry with himself and damning the gathering tears. She wonders what Delmar would do without her and remembers the teenage boy going out in his new boat for the first time, smooth skinned, thin, but sinewy strong. Later, when their father was gone, he started taking the bigger boat. She’d helped him push it into the water the first time but after that he’d snap at her if she tried to help. He hadn’t complained when she’d lately started helping drag the boat up the beach.

Elise sweeps the sand and cigarettes and footprints out of the cabin, looking up to the horizon when she finishes the last stroke out of the door. She only realizes that the cat had been missing when it returns, meowing at the door. The cat refuses the offered fish but drinks a little water before Elise lifts it onto the cot. She reached under the cot for the crate containing father’s tools. If she cannot help Delmar with the fishing, she knows she can help him repair the smaller boat. In the crate among the planes, chisels, mallets, and clamps, oiled and wrapped in cloth to prevent rust, there is a corroded coffee can with a tin lid. She uses a screwdriver to pry it open and empties the money onto the bed to count it again. She has decided to allow Lucía to negotiate for Hector’s outboard and she will need just a little more. She must return to the market. Maybe there is work for her at the new hotel. “But first,” she tells the cat, “I need a little rest.”

Elise wakes about an hour before sunset. Delmar is still not there but she sees something drifting in on the waves. The cat refuses to leave the cot when she leaves. She sees a board from Delmar’s skiff on the wet sand. There are more drifting in. It could be another one, she thinks, but she already knows this is Delmar’s boat. Her father’s boat. The boat she sat in as a child, trailing her hands in the water as she released another fish, steadying herself in the bow as it moved beneath her. She hugs a shattered plank to her chest to keep her balance, shrouding it with her skirt, wiping it clean, patting it dry. Equilibrium regained, she places the wood in the dry sand and returns to fetch another piece. When she finally retreats from the water, the moon is climbing and the stars are beginning to shimmer. The flotsam boat is stacked like a puzzle.

At the cabin, the cat is unable to walk and has wet the bed. The pungent odor should be overpowering but Elise has lived among fish guts and ocean waves and wicked lies and church bells. The cat winces when she picks it up and places it in her lap, but she keeps stroking it, stroking her tears into its fur, until it falls asleep and cannot sense Elise reaching for the filleting knife. Its breathing is shallow and hesitant and sometimes it seems as though the next breath won’t come. Such a small life. Too small for one little room but so big it could fill an ocean. When the breathing hesitates Elise moves quickly with the blade. She combs her fingers through the fur, continuing long after the blood has soaked through her skirts and dried against her skin.

The moon is full and high and lights her way to the horizon, a brilliant, broad, level road to forever. She carries the body of the cat with her to the sea. She holds her breath and walks out until the water reaches her waist, her chest, and farther, stopping when her head dips beneath the waves and her feet drift from the seabed. Above her, above the waves, the moon seems so close. She lets the cat drift from her arms. The saltwater washes the blood from her skirts and smoothes the wrinkles from her cheeks, and for a moment she is a young girl again, watching her father and her brother fillet fish, mend nets, and exchange silences as they repair their boats. She can see them sanding boards, clamping and nailing them into place, caulking them with raw cotton. She can smell the pine pitch as it melts into the seams. There is enough of Papa’s old boat to repair the smaller. Elise emerges from the water and returns to the cabin where she strips off her clothes and wraps herself in a blanket. She kneels to unpack the crate of tools from under the bed. The sun will rise in just a few hours and she must be ready to start work on the boat.

#

Tony Cartlidge was born in Liverpool, England, but now lives in Texas with his wife, KD. He studies English and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. His creative nonfiction has appeared in The Guardian newspaper.