Caught by the River

Magpie Moth

12th April 2012

An extract from Sightlines

by Kathleen Jamie.

THE LOCHAN, one of the numberless lochans on the moor, was kidney-shaped, and the breeze had formed ripples at its eastern end. It held no reeds or water lilies; it was just a blank pool formed in a complex bit of land.

I was eating breakfast by its side, and in due course I made my way down to the water to rinse the bowl. There were three large rocks in the water, big enough to crouch on. The residue of the milk swilled away; I dabbled the spoon.

Then I saw a moth. It caught my eye, because it was floating captive in the triangle of water held between the three rocks. An attractive moth, its white wings patterned with brown and orangey dabs. It was pinned down, without the pin, held flat by the surface tensions of the water.

Maybe I should just have left it be – why intervene, after all? It only leads to trouble, but I was crouched above a stricken moth with a spoon in my hand. Deliverance, in the middle of nowhere, in the form of the Great Teaspoon. What were the chances of that?

As soon as the spoon took up the moth’s infinitesimal weight, the creature jerked its legs, but it was so waterlogged that its wings clamped to the spoon and wrapped around the spoon’s rim onto its convex side. I didn’t fancy scraping its wings with my fingernail, so lowered the spoon back into the water. The moth floated free and relaxed into its shape of open helplessness. This time I lifted the spoon more carefully, trying to ensure the moth was centred in the spoon’s concavity. The trick, I reckoned, was to bring a little water, too, enough to slide the moth from the spoon onto the rock the right way up.

Partial success. The moth lay on the rock. The wings on the left were unfurled, but those on the right were all scrunched up. The rocks were covered in thin dabs of yeasty lichens, and against those colours the moth, so open and flagrant on the water, was immediately lost.

Though the morning sun was warm enough to dry the moth’s wings, I doubted now they would function; some sort of coating, their back-of-the-cupboard mothy dustiness, looked like it had been ruined. Besides, there was something about the balance of the moth which was awry.

Awry, but it was moving. With some apprehension, I looked more closely. With one antenna the moth was testing the minute facets of rock, a back-and-forth movement like a blind man’s stick. But something was certainly lopsided, and I didn’t like it. Perhaps I should just have left it alone. A fish would have got it soon enough.

Then I remembered my magnifying glass. It had been my birthday, and a friend had given me a foldaway magnifying glass. The moth, having been rescued for good or ill, would now suffer itself to be scrutinised. But not without dread: I feared I’d done it damage. I was in there, implicated now.

The glass showed me its two black lightless moth eyes, and a tuft of fur at the back of its head. There was the rolled spotted rag of its body, not three quarters of an inch long. A magpie moth. Why magpie? There was nothing pied about it. Moth eyes. What do they see with their moth eyes?

But now, as I angled the glass, the cause of its lopsidedness became apparent. The tip of the moth’s left front leg was hooked round and glued to its left eye by a tiny droplet of water. A water-drop – what strength is there in that? Too much for a moth to break, apparently. It was stuck in a grotesque posture, but also a bit comic: it looked like a gentleman holding up a monocle, the better to inspect me, as I peered at it through my own lens.

The monocled moth. The loop formed by the bent leg would accept something very small. A reed, perhaps, but there were none. The nib of a pen. Half lying on the rock, magnifying glass in one hand, I fumbled to open the pen in my pocket. Then, with the moth’s black eye in my sights, I made one tiny tweak; the moth’s leg was free.

Like one released from a spell, the moth began a frantic crawling over the rock. God, I thought, it’s in pain. I’ve wounded it. With its good wings open, as pretty as ever, the right wings still furled up, the moth dragged itself over the rock-edge and walked headfirst down the sheer side, straight back toward the water. A few inches down, however, it stopped. It was in the shade, all four legs like guy ropes, holding it to the rock. An instinct, maybe, to get out of the sight of birds.

Enough. The bubble of my attention popped. I stood too quickly, swooned a little, because there was the wide moor, the loch and breezy grasses reaching for miles, all scaling up to meet me. I’d been absorbed in the minuscule: a moth’s eye, a dab of lichen; been granted a glimpse into the countless millions of tiny processes and events that form the moor. Millions! Tiny creatures, flowers, bacteria, opening, growing, dividing, creeping about their business. It’s all happening out there, and all you have to do, girl, is get your foot out of your eye.

Ach, perhaps I should have left the moth alone; I’d probably done it more harm than good. After all, laid on the water, its patterned wings unfolded and perfect, it looked to be in a state of bliss, but what do we know?
I shook myself, went back up to the car.

Sightlines, is now on sale from the Caught by the River shop, priced £8.99

Read Melissa Harrison’s review of Sightlines here.