Bright Sun, Moth Eater
by Justin Mulwee
On the outskirts of the Sahara there was a forgettable little nothing-town with a miserable old tavern called the White Rat which served intolerable food and pretty decent beer. The only thing worse than the food was the patronage, a rowdy bunch of drunk bastards with about as much class as a family of pigs in a mud hole. It was filled exclusively with middle-aged men with the exception of two employees: a gypsy dancer and an innocent-looking server girl with freckles and small hands. Luckily for the server girl, she had a plainish face and a chest flat as a plank which at least slightly reduced the volume of lewd sexual comments she received walking to and from the half-dozen tables in the room. Male attention was instead diverted to the gypsy, who was a recent hire.
No one knew the dancer's real name, and no one cared. She called herself “Tale the Graceful Monarch.”
“Tale” because, well, she said that was her given name. Pronounced 'tah-lee'. Egyptian, she said.
“Graceful” because she fancied herself a graceful dancer. In truth, she was rather clumsy—at least when she was drunk, which was always. Still, the excitement and apparent admiration garnered from the Usual Bunch was undeniable, though she owed this entirely to the fact that she was a woman with a slender figure on display, brightly clothed and prancing around for the amusement of characters who rarely got to see a woman outside of their wives, who they'd likely come here to forget, or the freckle-faced girl, who was barely old enough to be called a woman, and besides, was nothing to look at.
“Monarch” was part of her title because she wore a bright yellow and black cloak mimicking a monarch butterfly. She had once heard that one can get respect with a respectable name, so it was no accident that she chose a name with a double meaning. Perhaps she hoped the royalty of her name would rub off on her person, or at least on her coin purse.
And that was worse than a joke. A week prior the woman sauntered into the White Rat, sweaty and disheveled, and parched. “Beer.” she moaned, and held her stomach as if she was sick and could only be cured by alcohol. She downed the whole pitcher without paying for it, passed out on the front counter, and slept for twelve hours. When she awoke, disoriented and hung over in one of the tavern's beds, it turned out that she had no money on her. Confronted with the disgruntled tavern owner, Fredrick, she put her face on the table and her arms out, as if begging to be spared.
“I don't have anything!” She cried. “I was robbed.” Fredrick looked at her quizzically, and she took his hesitation as an opportunity to launch into a fantastic sob story.
“It all started in my homeland of Egypt.” She said. The woman's voice was tired, and sounded older than she looked, but her inflections had the energy of one who was used to storytelling. “I was part of a traveling circus, and I was a renowned dancer and fortune teller. I'm a gypsy, and like most gypsies, I can see the future. I was reading the fortune of a wealthy Duke from France when I saw something terrible. 'You will die a quick, horrible, ignoble death,' I said to him. The man gasped. 'When?' he asked. 'Soon,' I told him. 'No, I mustn't!' cried the Duke. 'you're lying! Take it back, devil-woman! You've cursed me!' I told him I had given him nothing but the truth; this I cannot take back. 'No!' he screamed. 'Noooo!!!' And with that, the Duke dashed into the street and was trampled by chariot horses.”
Around the tavern there were little sighs of release from the audience she had just created. Everyone was eager to know what happened next, even the ones who were skeptical that chariots still roamed the streets of Egypt. Before the discussion got out of hand, she continued. “Everyone thought my predictions had caused the Duke's death, and half of France wanted me dead. The rest of my circus troupe disowned me, so I ran away. Days later when I was sleeping on a beach far from home, I was awoken by pirates who abducted me. They had me confused with the daughter of some very rich man, and held me with the idea of collecting ransom. It was horrible. They took all my things and tied me to the mast and fed me nothing but boiled scarabs and warm ice cream. I thought I was going to die. But one pirate boy, the one who had been feeding me the scarabs, approached me in the middle of the night. 'You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen,' he said, 'I won't let you waste away tied to a mast.' And with that, he started cutting me loose. The captain, who was up for some unknown reason, saw us, yelled to his men, and gave chase. The boy led me to what seemed to be a shabby throw rug. When he tapped on it, it started to rise into the air—it was a magic carpet.”
“Alright,” said Fredrick. “I've heard enough, fortune teller. I hope you can see your own future: you're not leaving until you pay.” She laid on the table again and sighed, her story suddenly deflated.
Now, it just so happened that the tavern's usual entertainment, a lute-player from Italy, was currently laid up with a high fever after falling into a nest of scorpions. Fredrick finally agreed to hire the woman to dance in the evenings, partially out of pity, and also because he knew having her arrested wouldn't bring him any money. Content with the arrangement, Tale lounged around the tavern for the rest of the evening before retiring to her room.
The Freckle-Faced Girl followed her in, timidly. “Yes, child?” The gypsy asked.
“Could you... what happened next?” said the girl.
The gypsy tugged at her tangled hair.“Huh?”
“After the pirate boy took you up on his magic carpet.”
“Oh. Yes. Come here, child, sit down. So, he took me up on his magic carpet, and we rose high into the air and floated west, away from the ship. But then, it began to sink. In despair, the boy told me it wasn't meant to carry so much weight, and we would surely crash and drown in a minute or two. Seeing my distress, the boy suddenly stood up firmly. 'I love you.' he said to me, and before I could stop him he threw himself off, headlong into the ocean. With the weight gone, the carpet began to rise, and carried me all the way across the water, and across miles of land, until I crashed into the tree just outside your tavern.”
“But what about the boy?”
“I never saw him again.”
“That is so romantic!” The Freckle-Faced girl shouted, her lips stretching to a tragic smile appropriate for the epic story she had just heard.
That night while taking out garbage, Fredrick noticed a rug lodged awkwardly in the branches of the tree outside the door. ***
The next day, and many days after that, the gypsy woman danced for meager pay and then immediately spent all of her earnings on food, alcohol, and lodging in the tavern itself. In this way she entered into a cycle of hand-to-mouth earning and never left the tavern.
One day a traveling musician was in the tavern and asked about her. Fredrick told him, “she's a gypsy, came in on a flying carpet, or so she claims. She calls herself Tale the Graceful Monarch.” Her cloak had already grown faded and ratty by then, giving her a dull, dusty appearance. “Monarch?” the musician laughed. “She's more like a moth.” The Usual Bunch overheard this remark and found it quite hilarious (for drunk laughter needs little provocation) and henceforth the name stuck. Tale the Moth.
The Moth was generally unwanted, except by the Freckle-Faced Girl, who sometimes asked her for stories in the evenings. She would tell you her rejection was because she was a gypsy and that may have been part of it, but the largest part of it was her perpetual drunkenness and the fact that, except when she was telling stories, she was not very friendly. Also, several patrons of the tavern reported their coin purses or other small possessions missing since she started working there. Even The Usual Bunch began to turn against her. One man tripped and broke his nose right after walking by her, and a rumor instantaneously surfaced that she was bad luck.
The atmosphere of the tavern usually became cold and unwelcoming when she walked in. First it started with subtle rudeness: a shoulder bump here, a wisecrack there. Then, more obvious acts started to occur. A patron once stepped on her cloak as she walked by, causing her to trip. He maintained that it was an accident, but seemed too amused, she thought, to be in remorse. On top of her normal wages it was customary to drop small coins in the vicinity of the performer, but after a while people stopped dropping them and started chucking them at her with unprecedented vigor and sting.
Then, on one leisurely afternoon, came the birth of the organized creative torment of Tale the Moth. When sipping a fresh bowl of tomato soup, The Moth noticed a funky, bitter smell emanating from it, and when she looked it the soup she found three small, white puffballs floating on top. "Hey!" She cried, slightly drunk, "What kind of mushrooms are these?"
Actually, they were mothballs. It was part of a new practice to express the town's annoyance with her existence by harassing her with mothballs in various ways. Aside from other such food incidents, she often found them in her clothes, with no idea who had put them there. Spiteful old ladies even started chucking them at her openly in the street. When she began considering other taverns to which she could take her business, some put rings of mothballs on their doorknobs to ward her off, either out of pure humor or out of superstition.
It didn't help matters that, after so many involuntary exposures to mothballs, she developed an allergy to them. They made her quite sick when slipped into her food, they made rashes when they touched her skin, and she sneezed when near them. It soon became legend that she was actually a moth who had somehow turned into a human, and several scientists and scholars set out to research the proper method by which to turn her back into a moth so that they could be rid of her far more irritating human presence.
The more sensible townspeople doubted her supposed moth origins. They also doubted that she was a gypsy. She didn't seem to know any other gypsies, and aside from her dress and her rumored acts of thievery, nothing about her suggested she was anything but an ordinary alcoholic peasant.
* * *
One evening found her after the dancing had died down it a small tavern, reading a little boy's fortune. Flipping through a deck of cards, she placed four cards on the table and flipped them face-up one by one. "Oh," she said at the first, as if the boy's destiny startled her a little. It was the penciled image of an old man sticking a carrot in an ass's eye. "This means that you will be a great warrior."
"Really?" The child beamed, placing his hands on the table and examining them, as if imagining them equipped with a sword and shield. The Moth flipped the next two. The first depicted a field lilies, and the second showed a duck in a puddle full of tadpoles. "Do you know what this means?" She said with great seriousness. He shook his head, staring at the cards with grave interest. "It means you will marry the most beautiful woman in town, and you'll both be filthy rich."
The kid suddenly scooted back from the table a little, and gave the Moth a fishy look. "I don't believe you. You're making this up. I want my fifty pents back."
"You doubt your destiny?"
The kid closed his eyes, folded his arms and shook his head. He suddenly looked very adult. "I doubt your silly cards, moth-head!"
The Moth was taken aback by the child's insult. "Moth-head?" She repeated, with a touch of surprised indignation.
The boy nodded. "Everyone knows your brains are all moth-eaten. It's been like that for years. Everyone knows that's why you're so stupid. You don't even got your facts straight. Everyone knows the prettiest girl in town is Isabelle Brown, the mayor's niece. First, everyone knows a prissy girl like her'd never marry a sensitive free spirit like me. And second, she's been raised filthy rich, which means she'll be dirt poor as soon as daddy cuts the cord. She's part of the government, and everyone knows that everybody from the government is an expert at mismanagement. If I married her, we'd be be poor inside of a month." Tale the Moth raised a single eyebrow, and the child nodded in satisfaction at his own expert analysis. "That's the way it goes." He added.
After a second of stunned silence, Tale the Moth gathered the four cards in her hands, the last one still unrevealed. "Run along, child. This reading's over." She didn't look at him, and only made a shooing motion with her hand.
“But I want my fifty pents back. You're a fraud." He pointed with one short stubby finger and closed one eye so as to squint more menacingly.
"I SAID," the boy started with closed eyes and folded arms again, "I want my money back."
"Git!" The Moth suddenly burst out, causing several half-drunk heads to turn. The boy jumped up, startled, nearly knocked the chair over, and ran out of the tavern.
Years later, that boy would go on to marry a fat girl with no money who understood sensitive free spirits, who would turn out to be quite beautiful after she lost a lot of weight training her beloved pet squirrel, which would soon thereafter die of food poisoning from a bad walnut. When the young couple went to bury the beloved squirrel in their backyard, they would strike oil and become the richest people in town. During their days of wealth they would hire the mayor's niece as an incompetent tomato gardener, who at that time would be a raging alcoholic with missing teeth. One night, long after all this had come to pass, a moth would flutter into the boy's bedroom as he lay awake in bed, and he would remember that gypsy long ago with her cards, and say absently to his ceiling how sorry he was that he had called her Moth-head and demanded his fifty pents back. But Tale the moth would never hear that apology. And to be fair, it wouldn't be an apology she really deserved because those events were largely coincidence, and in reality Tale the Moth knew herself to be a shameless fraud.
Tale the Moth rubbed her temples tiredly, put the cards away, and put the boy's coin on the counter for another pitcher of beer.
"This one's on me, kid." An older man said out of nowhere as he took a seat across from her where the boy had just been sitting.
"Oh, hey, Fredrick." She said, as she slouched and lit a cigarette.
"Get us a pitcher, will you?" The man blurted to the Freckle-Faced Girl, without looking. "Swindling children again, Tale?" Fredrick said, fingering his mustache.
She shrugged her bony shoulders wearily. "A girl's gotta eat. I pay you for my stay. What's it to you?"
"It's nothing to me. Just making some conversation. Looked like you could use some."
"Well," she raised her arms dramatically, "what would I have done if Fredrick, the great humanitarian, hadn't come down to save me from my loneliness?" She did all this with a kind of frantic distress.
"You're pretty snobbish for someone with no friends. Or are those two facts related?" He watched her face for some reaction to this comment, but found none. Instead she looked randomly around the room in a disinterested fashion, seemingly in a completely different mood then when she had animatedly mocked his kindness five seconds earlier.
The freckle-faced girl came between them and set down a cold pitcher of beer. Fredrick poured two glasses.
Fredrick had once seen an Arab man emerge from the desert barely conscious riding a dying camel. The man weakly murmured that he needed water and had come halfway across the continent in search of some particular cistern. The man made some delirious comment about the "nose" of the cistern he was looking for, and instead of trying to understand what he was talking about, Fredrick simply drew water for the man. The traveler drank it in quick, sloppy, desperate gulps, and Fredrick stood in awe at how barbarically a human could drink. This is the picture Fredrick was reminded of as he watched Tale drain her glass in a very similar fashion, before he even touched his. “So where are you really from?” Fredrick asked.
“I'm a gypsy from Egypt.”
“Yeah? That's not what I heard. You hear a lot of things, working a place like this. A lot of interesting things.”
“Oh?” She said impatiently.
“I heard there's this prostitute that used to wander around the middle of town at night. Still does, in fact, though she's old. You may have seen her yourself. She's got these beady black eyes.” The Moth only fidgeted with her hands, giving no indication either way. Fredrick continued. “They say twenty years ago that pitiful whore left a baby in the dumpster behind a tavern. Why, it might be behind this very tavern, in fact.”
The Moth scratched her arm and fixed her beady black eyes on him, nervous, but reserved. “That's a tragic story, Fredrick.”
“Isn't it?” He gave a smug little smile and then leaned back nonchalantly and folded his arms behind his head. “That's just a story, though. Of course, being new to town I'm sure you've never heard it.”
“Just leave me alone.” She said, suddenly no longer nervous but tired instead. Disappointed in this reaction, Fredrick shrugged and left the table. Tale the Moth laid her chin against the table and stared through her empty beer glass. In this way she remained motionless for the next hour before retiring to bed in her usual back room. As Fredrick watched her walk away, he suddenly felt a subtle sinking sensation and turned away to clean the dishes alongside the freckle-faced girl.
“What's that lady so sad about?” She asked innocently. Fredrick could not be sure whether or not she had been listening to the conversation earlier. “I don't know,” he lied. “Some people are just depressed, kid.”
A bit later, a tall man walked into the Tavern. He carried a large pack on his back and his face was veiled in thick cloth. His skin was tanned and weathered, and he smelled of earth. “We're closed, sir,” Fredrick said, barely looking at him.
“Forgive me. I want only a bed.”
“I trust this will cover a night's stay.” The man approached the two employees, and the freckle-faced girl shrunk back a little from the intimidating man. The stranger pressed several pieces of gold into Fredrick's hand. Fredrick's eyes widened.
“Why yes, good sir, it certainly does. I apologize profusely for my rudeness.” He bowed deeply. “Beer?” he offered, and bade the man to sit down.
“Water.” He removed the cloth from his mouth and drank thoughtfully. At that moment, Fredrick thought the man looked familiar. He had a mild accent but was very understandable.
“Do I know you?” Fredrick asked. “I seem to remember seeing your face.” And just as he asked, the answer to his own question occurred to him. It was the very desert man he had met days ago, dehydrated on his camel.
“Yes,” the man said in surprise, for he had just recognized Fredrick also. “You drew water for me. My deepest gratitude.” He paused occasionally when searching for the right word.
“Well! What brings you here?” Fredrick burst out pleasantly as if they were old friends. “Did you ever find what you were looking for?”
“No, though I searched almost the whole area.”
“What were you trying to find again?”
“There's fresh water in the well where we met, you know. What's so special about this cistern of yours?”
“No, I'm looking for my cistern. Cistern? Cistern. A woman. I am her brother, she is my cistern.”
“Oh! Your sister. Your relative. That's different then. What does she look like?”
“That is the problem,” the big desert man said. “We have never met.” As the man drank his water, the freckle-faced girl approached Fredrick. “That man—he has the same nose as that lady who just went to sleep.” Fredrick noticed the truth of this statement at once, and was appalled that he hadn't noticed it himself.
The stranger suddenly stood up. “What lady? I must speak with her.” As he stood, it became again evident how tall he was. He towered over the other two.
“One moment,” said Fredrick quickly. “I shall fetch her straight away.”
Upon entering the room, Fredrick at once encountered the stench of vomit. To his horror, he found Tale the Moth asleep on her side with vomit oozing from her mouth and staining the bed. She had also gotten some in her curly, black hair. A bottle of whiskey lied on its side on the nightstand, nearly empty. Her cheeks were wet with salty streaks—she had been crying. Her limbs were sprawled awkwardly across the bed. Timidly, Fredrick put out a hand and gently touched her on the shoulder. She opened her eyes, which were tearful and glazed over.
“No, really...” she mumbled weakly, sounding like a little girl. “No, I'm a gypsy. From Egypt. I can read fortunes... I can dance... I'm talented...” Though her eyes were open, she was still asleep. Her breath reeked of alcohol. Suddenly, Fredrick felt a lump deep in his throat, and he felt sick.
“The lady is already asleep, my dear sir.” Fredrick said to the stranger as he returned to the bar. “But she is here. But if you are staying the night, I'm sure the two of you can talk in the morning.”
“Very well.” Said the man.
The following morning, business was slow, and Fredrick sipped sugarless coffee with pensive melancholy. He was alone. The child who had his fortune read the day before was usually around ordering a ginger ale around this time, but he was out catching squirrels with a chubby, impoverished girl he had just met at the riverbank the previous day. The rowdy group of drunkards never showed until evening, and the freckle-faced girl was not scheduled to work until late in the afternoon. Tale the moth came in, freshly changed, with wet hair still wet from bathing, gave a weary glance to Fredrick and sat in a lonesome corner and ordered a cup of black coffee. She looked a little pale, but otherwise alright.
“Hey, um, are you alright?” He managed. She only shrugged. “I'm sorry about what I said last night. I shouldn't have brought it up.”
She kept her eyes on the table and fidgeted with the teacup. “It's fine.” Her forgiveness seemed cold and numb. He felt that a wall had risen between them, one of his own construction, and he may not be able to tear it down again.
“A man came in last night,” he said, “I think he was looking for you.”
“He must have had the wrong person, then.”
“No, he had a nose just like yours. Said he was looking for his sister.”
“What?” She asked with sudden interest. “Where is he?”
As if on cue, the stranger stepped into the room. “It is you.” He said, and pointed to her face. “The nose. It is from our father. A dominant trait.”
“Our father? I don't understand. I don't have a family.”
The stranger proceeded to relate scandalous tale of his father's exploits. It seemed that his father was a man of some power and influence in Saudi Arabia, and he traveled the world for entertainment. In so doing, he once stopped in this very town on the edge of the desert, and giving into his base nature, sought the services of the local prostitute, who became pregnant with his child. Nine months later, when the child was born, she had the unmistakable nose of that traveler, which the mother immediately recognized and recalled despite the multitude of men she had slept with. She sent a messenger to the child's father, declaring that she could not care for the baby, and begging him to come and take it, and if she got no word from him she intended to dispose of the child somehow.
The messenger arrived at his destination a whole fourteen months later, explaining that he was delayed by sandstorms, wild beasts and dysentery, and though he nearly died exactly nine times on the way, he had finally come to deliver the message to the child's father, a message which he had never read (for he was illiterate). Because the contents of this message was shameful and it was much too late to respond (for the mother had probably already rid herself of the child) the man burned the letter and did his best to drive the whole affair from his mind. Three months ago, he took ill and became wracked with guilt over the subject. While burning with fever, he confessed to his two sons that they may have a sister, the child of a poor whore from a little town on the edge of the desert. The two sons went in different directions looking for this woman, if she indeed existed and was alive, that they may adopt her into their wealthy family. The stranger was overjoyed that he had finally found her, and could not wait to tell their brother who was still out wandering somewhere.
After the stranger finished with this long and passionate monologue, he stepped closer to the Moth. “Now that you are found, we should go home.” He offered.
“Home?” She repeated, as if she'd never heard the word. Just then, there was a violent crack as a man kicked the front door of the tavern in, which was quite unnecessary since it was already open.
“Brother!” The two men exclaimed at once, in almost exactly the same tone. The following dialog was in Arabic, and thus was understood by no one besides the speakers, though they were shouting.
“Did you find her?” Said the one who had just entered.
“Yes.” Said the other. “Just now. She's here.”
“Excellent. If you'll step out of the way, I will kill her.”
“If she lives, we must share our inheritance with her.”
“There's plenty to go around, brother. This isn't the time for one of your senseless slaughters. She's entitled to her share, as father will decide. You talk as if he is already dead.”
“On the contrary,” said the newcomer, who was shaping up to be more evil all the time, “this is a perfect time for a slaughter. And if you're going to defend that bitch, I'll kill both of you.”
“Nonsense.” Said the other. “We will probably all three of us split it evenly; that is what I predict father will decide.”
“Then you both must die!!” Shouted the murderous brother, at which point both brothers drew blades and engaged in an epic sword duel to the death.
The whole affair lasted about five minutes, during which, to everyone's horror, both men were hacked to pieces. No one had any idea what they were arguing about. When local officials arrived and questioned about the incident, Fredrick told them that no one knew anything about the two men; they were foreigners who came in separately and killed each other. By then Tale the Moth had already taken the liberty of taking the coin purses of both men.
“So, what are you going to do now?” Fredrick asked Tale.
She watched the authorities drag away the two bloody corpses of the only family she had ever seen or heard of. “I haven't decided.” The small fortune she lifted from her brothers' corpses was enough to feed her for quite some time, and she had no reason to remain in the tavern's cheap entertainment any longer. In the late traveler's bag, which was still in his room, she found a detailed map of his route to the region. With it, backtracking might be fairly simple.
"Well, it seems you may still have a father somewhere." Fredrick broke the silence, which was unusual for him. "Someone ought to tell him what happened to his sons."
"Let him wonder." She blurted, then moved her lips as if to say something more, then didn't. There was a moment of silence.
“Did you really come here on a magic carpet?” Fredrick asked while she was too tired to lie.
“No. I saw a rug caught in a tree when I came in, so I thought I'd tell a story about it. I don't know how it got there.”
"You should go," inserted the Freckle-Faced Girl who had been listening silently in the back. "He obviously wants to meet you." A single tear fell from Tale's cheek, which she quickly wiped away.
Tale the Moth left the tavern that very afternoon, though she walked about with a slowness that suggested indecision. Loaded up with gold and a few personal affects from one of the brothers, she stepped out the door into the rising sun, leaving a trail of dust behind her cloak as it fluttered away. Fredrick and the freckle-faced girl watched her silhouette until it was swallowed by the sun's bright rays.
The following morning, the two of them watched the door expectantly. A man walked in, the Italian flute player, now recovered and no worse for the wear. A little gray moth fluttered in with him and landed silently on the counter. “I guess she's not coming back, is she?” said the Freckle-Faced girl.