Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: August

5th August 2023

We hope you’ll excuse that we’ve been a bit slack on Books of the Month this year. That said, Michael Malay’s ‘Late Light’, published in July by Manilla Press, and very warmly reviewed by Abi Andrews soon after, should always have been awarded the title. So, somewhat tardily, here’s its moment in the sun (or perhaps, more appropriately, lamplight). Read an extract, on the subject of moth-trapping, below.

It is already dusk by the time I reach the woods. I find my friends at the end of a small road, where we have agreed to meet, and after exchanging our hellos we unlatch a wooden gate and step into the woodland. It is a warm autumn evening, a few months after that week in the Quantock Hills, and the clearing we are looking for is two miles away, at the end of a long narrow track.

At first, we walk side by side, talking as we go along. Later, the path forces us into single file, and the conversation trails off. Trees float towards us in the dusk light, sudden trunks that rise upwards and thin out into branches, and above the canopy we can see a sliver of moon, emanating a cold blue light. We walk deeper into the woods, as though putting out to sea.

Gradually we turn on our headlamps. Now four beams radiate from the path, sweeping across the gloom, and for a moment, after watching my light slip off a tree into the space beyond, the thought occurs that some of the trees are moving, only stopping when our lights touch them. We keep going, hardly speaking now, and after a mile or so, when I look back at the path, I find that it has dwindled into a strip of unreality, a thin rope slung across the darkness. I stand there for a moment, turning my light on and off, so that the path vanishes and reappears again. Then my companions call out my name, ‘Michael, why have you stopped?’, and the world hardens into being again.

After another mile we finally come to a large clearing. We unpack our things – Thermoses, a bedsheet, a portable light – and set to work. First, we string up the sheet, using twine to fasten it between two trees. Then we place the lamp beneath it, angle the bulb upwards, and turn on the light. It burns weakly at first, a faint yellow pulse, but within minutes it has worked itself into a brilliant flare, too vivid to look at. We return to our rucksacks and sit in a circle, sharing cans of beer. Twenty feet away, a white sheet hovers between two trees, a ghost sail in the woods.

I glance at the trees beside us. While we were setting up our trap, the clearing had felt spacious to me, but now that we are idle again, it seems to have shrunk, as though the treeline has moved towards us. We begin to talk, thinning the silence with our voices, and then, as if some kind of complication had entered the woods, the space around the clearing begins to change. The night stretches and bends.

The moths come in twos and threes, and from all directions; and they come like dreams, like visions, like snow. Some fly in frenzied circles around the light, while others move towards the bedsheet in a curving line; and as scores of moths begin to land, more continue to appear at the edges of the woods. We watch as they come, their eyes shining in the dark, and although some emerge only to vanish again, many more are drawn towards the light. These fly with a strange determination, their whole beings thrown into the effort, and yet, as soon as they land on the sheet, they become immediately subdued, as if some great thirst in them has been quenched.

A voice speaks, announcing the names of the moths on the sheet – a Dark Arches, a Heart and Dart, a Common Wave – and the spell of the night is broken. Discussions ensue, identification keys are consulted, and we begin to speculate about another moth: Copper Underwing or Svensson’s Copper Underwing? I pick up my book and leaf through the colour plates. No good: the illustrations of the two moths seem identical.

We glance at the most experienced lepidopterist of our group, who walks up to the sheet, cajoles the moth onto his finger, and considers it with a frown. ‘Svensson’s,’ he says, with a note of finality. ‘The palps are slightly darker.’

The matter settled, we take more cans of Red Stripe from our rucksacks and sit with our backs to the light. Then we begin to talk about the football match we are missing, the Liverpool vs Everton derby, although it is not long before our conversation drifts to other topics: austerity, the problems of the Labour Party, Brexit. As we sit there more moths enter our island of light, to join their neighbours on the sheet.

The night passes, our chatter mingling with the mysteriousness of the moths’ arrivals; and at one point, after walking into the woods to relieve my bladder, I catch a glimpse of the stars, which, rather than being static, seem to be spinning towards the edge of the sky. And as the stars swirl, and as more moths float into the clearing, it is as though the woods have come alive, as if everything were alive and moving and part of a swirling whole. The moment passes, the sky becomes still again, but for the rest of that evening a residue of that world-drunkenness remains, that sense of things being multiple and strange and more than we knew. In the clearing, the bedsheet continues to ripple in the wind, a rectangle of suspended light.

We drink more beer, occasionally inspecting the sheet to see what new moths have arrived. Then, towards the end of the evening, a sudden surge of moths materialises, so many that we cannot count them. They appear like the outriders of some great detonation, a silent explosion in the woods, and as we stand by the sheet, it is as though we have walked into the centre of a storm. The moths continue surging towards the light, a summer blizzard in the clearing, and then, just as quickly as they had appeared, the flurries subside and the creatures enter as they did before, in intermittent waves of ones and twos.

We put away our field guides and finish our last cans. Then we shake the moths from the sheet, turn off the lamp and retrace our steps through the woods. We part ways after reaching the main road and, later that night, as I lie in bed, my mind is filled with the powdery wings of moths. Thousands upon thousands of them, riding the night-winds beneath the stars.


‘Late Light’ is out now and available here (£18.04).