Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
-William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
And when the moths were on the wing,
And moth like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in the stream
And caught a little silver trout.
-William Butler Yeats, Song of the Wandering Aegnus
It is the night's high noon over Singapore. The moon is round and swollen as a full-grown pearl. It glistens, opalescent in the sky, and pours through the open windows and across the floor to the place where Una Meredith keeps vigil. All the city is awash in lights. A thousand thousand of them, little winking moth-like moons of their own. Una does not know, but she thinks, perhaps, that looking downward like a bird, it would be no effort to pick out the individual houses.
Here, for instance is Raffles University, where Carl goes to work. Here is his office, where he teaches his students their millipede feet from lizard spines, or whatever it is one teaches aspiring scientists. Here again, is Li Meredith's former home in Chinatown. There is the botanical gardens, where Carl met Li. And here, on Evelyn Road, here is Trinity house. Home of Una Meredith, of Carl, Li and little iris.
Certainly, Una has no trouble making out the aeroplanes as she surveys Singapore in its moon-shrouded glory. They flash in the moonlight, so many silver-sleek dragonflies in the night sky, distinctive for their blue bands. Zero-planes, one of Shirley's letters had called them. Or perhaps it was Faith's Christopher, or his cousin Iain. Perhaps again, it was Jims, or one of the ACS children, full of a passion for them that outweighed what they ought to have been giving Dictation. And perhaps again, Una had indulged them because all that talk of aeroplanes reminded her of a younger Shirley, of little Jims in Rilla's lap, brought to mind the nephews and almost-nephews she knew only by familial snapshot.
At any rate, they are zero-planes, and they aren't theirs. Theirs are the slow-climbing, molasses-sluggish Buffalos. This makes Una smile, notwithstanding how far the Buffalo-planes are below the Japanese zeros. It always makes her smile; such a funny name for an aeroplane. It makes them sound sweet and approachable, like Papatee, who is their buffalo, living in what should be the Merediths' garage but hasn't been in years. Tame, reliable, and slow as treacle. Graceful, though, in his way. There is a reason Li named him after the word for butterfly. Buffalo Brewster,Una thinks the technical name is for their aeroplanes, and whether this came from her ACS children, Shirley or one of the myriad nephews is anyone's guess. Wherever she learned it, she knows they will keep her safe; Li, Iris, Carl, Una, these in no particular order. The Americans entrusted them to Singapore by way of Britain years ago, against just this circumstance.
Una watches them climb higher, higher, while the zero-planes with their slim, blue-banded tails eclipse them utterly. She watches the Buffalo Busters fall heavily, watches them fail to catch the zeros up, and the first sliver of anxiety infiltrates her soul. More coruscations of light; They are bombing Singapore.
Li finds Una like that, there at the open window, bathed in moonlight, watching as the zero-planes arc, swoop and sweep overhead. They are tiger-moths, myna birds, swallows. This is what comes of living with Carl. There is no accounting for the psalm Una recites in her inmost heart, God is our help and our refuge, an ever-present help in trouble, because the British will protect them. They have been saying this for years. Una has been saying it for years, and not only saying it. She believes it, in the same way she believes God is her strong rock and protector. Her house and her castle and all those other things the psalms vouch for. But now she stands at the open window, beholding the glory of a lit-up Singapore skyline, and watching bombs fall on it. Bombs like moths, Una thinks, or perhaps moths like bombs, and in her mind's eye she sees again Walter, lounging under the tree lovers, Yeats in his hand, smiling not at her but at the poetry of it. Moths like bombs, though this is not what the poet said. Isn't it always easier to believe from the security and safety of the mundane?
The moonlight makes Li's hair glossier even than normal, and gives little Iris a nimbus. She is asleep in her mother's arms, utterly untroubled by the tiger-moth zero-planes with their blue-banded tails. The embodiment of British reassurance, little Iris with Li's dark eyes, Cecilia Meredith's almandine shape to them, and Carl's playful smile there at the corner of her mouth, even asleep.
'Nowhere else in the world,' says Li, perching with her daughter on the window seat, 'can look so lovely. Don't you agree?'
Una, who has seen the jewel-tones of the Canadian Atlantic, and the storm-tossed Glen harbour, even the sky bleeding red and orange over the Harbour light, acquiesces agreement. What could possibly equal this? It isn't just the lights, or even the spectacle of it. It is the togetherness of the moment; Li and Iris with their moon-glossed hair, the smell of coconut oil and orchids on their skin, the snuffling sound of little Iris asleep. Una manoeuvres her way next to them, so that she is opposite Li, knees brushing, and Iris enmeshed between them. Not even the magnificence of the zero-planes or the descending of their bombs can detract from this.
She is still murmuring the psalm, Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth be removed, and the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, a fact she does not fully appreciate until Li transfers Iris to her other shoulder and says, 'Which one is that?'
'Psalm 46,' says Una without thinking, and smiles at Li. Laughs a little, at the reflexivity of it.
Li returns the smile. Hers is a delicate thing, like a water-lily. She says again, to her daughter, to her sister or near enough, 'It will be alright.' Then, as she smooths Iris's hair, 'Carl is at the university?'
'Yes,' says Una. They do not dwell on the absurdity that is the professorial body deeming one eye not only good enough to watch bugs but scout for aeroplanes. Una watches the curve and swoop of the sleek-winged zero-planes and wonders idly what Carl makes of tonight. Does the city look as beautiful from the height of the Raffles rooftops? He must have heard the aeroplanes – seen them? Do they – and the sliver of anxiety is back again – have a plan for the unlikely event that bombs drop out of the sky and onto the city? Somewhere safe to go? Or will they stand there on the rooftops all night, watching the zero-planes rise, and the Buffalo Brewsters miss them by miles? Una thinks – trusts – they are safe on Evelyn Road, herself, Li, Iris, Papatee the benevolent buffalo, irascible Puck the monkey, Nenni the cat and Akela the dog. An odd assortment, to be sure, to the outsider looking in, but they are hers. She loves them, has always loved them, and will personally see to it that in Carl's absence not a hair on their heads is harmed. Because how could she look him in the eye if it did? More than that – how could she reckon with it herself?
Li steps through the window to the veranda, and Una follows her. So does Puck, who must have wakened when the bombs started. It could be midday, it's that bright, with the lights reflected in and across the water, through the sky, the bombs illuminating little pockets of city for the merest flashes of moments. It's like an especially beautiful, especially catastrophic fireworks display. Everyone is drawn to it. Drawn like moths. Una realises this when a chance glance across the veranda causes her to catch a neighbour's eye. Mrs Bowen, opposite, lifts her hand in salutation. Una raises an answering hand. Li waves at yet another. They stand there and watch the bombs fall, watching the Buffalo Brewsters plummet, trusting that Carl will be all right. And maybe moths like stars worry at Una's still, unquiet soul. But it is a vauge and nebulous worry. Undefined. Because, after all, the British will look after them. Nenni bristles at Una's feet, her fur puffed with indignation. Puck chatters. Iris opens her eyes and claps her hands at the spectacle. Eight years old and full of wonder. A beautiful sight. Higher and higher rise the little dragonfly zeros, and still the Buffalo aeroplanes lumber after them. One drops out of the sky. Una realises somnambulantly that they haven't a hope of catching up their sleeker, silvery targets.
'It will be all right,' she says as she scratches Nenni's ears. 'By tomorrow the ACS will be up and running. It will be life as usual, you'll see.'
Mrs Bowen clucks her affirmation. Says something about finalising the marks for yesterday's Dictation. Then, to Una, 'Yours are long done, of course.' And they are.