Read the Devon Prize Winner 2024 - Trevithick's Miniature Menagerie by Rebecca Shapland

 Trevithick's Miniature Menagerie 
Rebecca Shapland

Jeremiah took pride in making sure his father's shop was smart and presentable. The mahogany countertop was always polished, the brass doorknobs shining, the glass buffed into transparency, and the animal enclosures regularly cleaned. No one knew the shop as well as Jeremiah, and although he was barely in long trousers, the townspeople knew him as a respectable salesman. His father infrequently ventured from his workshop to check on the animals, and offer a nod of approval, but mostly he let Jeremiah organise things how he pleased. 

The sign in front of the shop read ‘Trevithick Miniature Menagerie’ in gold lettering that was crusting over with salt. If someone were to walk down the cobbled path opposite the shop, between the bakers and the butchers, they would find themselves at the water’s edge, with the harbour curving to their right, and the sea which bubbled and broiled in bad weather sprawled out in front of them. 

Jeremiah treated every animal with due respect and concern. The tigers, lions and elephants were closest to the counter and the open fire which would be used from October through to February or March. The snow bears and white foxes were closest to the door. Under every enclosure, Jeremiah drew a globe on parchment, copied meticulously from Eddington's Encyclopedia, and marked with where in the world the animal could be found, in their original size, in the wild. He would colour in the land with black ink, and wash the seas with qualified blue. Many commented on the beauty of his drawings, and several who bought animals also paid an extra penny for a drawing to take home.  

For the most part, running the shop was a straightforward affair. Trade was steady, with occasional peaks of interest when a merchant would visit and then tell stories at inns of long-necked yellow dogs two inches tall, and round-faced rabbits that sit upright like babes, drawing in new custom from further away in the county. They cling to your finger, these rabbits, so you can wear them as a ring, they’d say. The Redruth Flea Circus stopped passing through, for the people of Zealmouth had already seen greater curiosities than a flea pulling a cart. More than once, they'd had visitors from London. They had even had a Lord, who wanted three tigers. He had asked Jeremiah's father if he could make them bigger: six or seven inches tall. Jeremiah's father had said “they come as they come, jus’ as yuh came as yuh came from yer muvver, ‘er Ladyship.” He'd gone back to his workshop, grumbling, as Jeremiah settled the bill with the dumb-struck aristocrat.  



Jeremiah was not one to be easily distracted from his work, but for one Morwen Penna. Morwen was a little older than Jeremiah, or at least they reasoned, based on her being at least four inches taller than him: no one seemed to know Jeremiah’s age. Morwen had been taught to read, write and do sums by her governess, who was Doctor Jago’s daughter, Elisabeth. The governess had bought two elephants with her first week’s pay, Jeremiah recalled. The Pennas lived in the big house, Pennelly, on the edge of town. Her father was the Reverend of the Methodist Church on the hill, a heavy-footed man with a serious face, and her mother a known eccentric from a very rich family indeed. Morwen would visit the shop on Tuesdays and Fridays while her governess ran errands, visited her family, or – as Jeremiah and Morwen learned to suspect – the butcher’s son.

Morwen’s hair, dark as jet but already with flyaway silvers, was usually bound in blue ribbons, apart from Sundays when she wore her starched bonnet. Her eyes were dark and heavy, and her upper lip plump. She was not beautiful, but she was, in her own way, enchanting to look at, mostly for the way she would stare at you directly for a little longer than strictly comfortable. Jermiah watched Morwen intently, because she moved in reckless ways about the shop, and he feared her upending the snake pit or flipping the lid from the aviary with the sharp elbows that protruded from beneath her bright shawls. He was not certain why she chose to spend her time there, but he supposed she did not have friends nor siblings and decided his companionship would do. And he did grow to tolerate, and eventually enjoy her company. After a while, he had her helping him, changing sand and making hay beds. She never bought an animal for herself, but she did take a keen interest in Nicholas, which was Jeremiah's monkey.  

Nicholas was a special gift from his father, barely an inch tall, and could always be found on Jeremiah's person: in his coarse hair or clinging to his stiff, white collar like a brooch, or in his pockets eating crumbs. Morwen liked to hold Nicholas in her hands and carry him about the shop to show him the other animals: “look here at the parrots, Nicholas. And here are the bears and the wolves.” She never showed him the other monkeys, he noticed. 



It was Morwen’s idea to run tours on Saturday afternoons. For a halfpenny, Jeremiah would show a customer around the shop, giving the name of each creature and pointing out their habitat on the maps. Sometimes, they would ask a question, such as “how big are the wild ones? In the Orient?” and Jeremiah would concoct an answer: “a whole chain, madam” or “so big it would fit three horses in its belly”. At the end of the tour, Jeremiah would take the customer behind the counter, and crack open the heavy door to the workshop. The customer would crane their neck, edge onto the tips of their toes, and peer in. They may see the dark fabric of Trevithick’s shirt, straining across his curved shoulders, they may see the candlelight reddening the rough grain of the workbench, and catch a glimpse of a set of queer iron tools hanging on the wall, but before their eyes could focus properly, in a final flourish, Jeremiah would close the door, and conclude the tour.  

The tours came about as a means to generate some more money after the terrible incident with Captain O’Hare. He was the landlord of the property, including Trevithick’s Miniature Menagerie and the rooms above the shop where Jeremiah and his father slept, broke bread, and washed. O’Hare had a temper to rival the West Wind, and was usually to be found in one of the inns by the water, potting pints with fishermen. He smashed his way through the door one miserable October eve, just as Jeremiah had established the ‘closed’ sign and demanded the rent money. The rent money had already been paid in full, Jeremiah had assured him, in a voice that shames him even now to remember, with its high and whiny timbre. But O’Hare thrashed his arms in his old Navy coat so wildly he knocked over two of the African planes enclosures: “‘Old yer wab, you! Bleedin’ cheel talkin’ t’me like I don’ own the roof ‘bove ‘is ‘ed!” O’Hare grabbed Jeremiah by the throat and thrust him into the air; Jeremiah’s legs spun comedically, so it looked as though he were riding an invisible dandy-horse, before O’Hare dropped him so that he crumpled onto the floor. Animals skittered and hopped in anxious twitches across the floorboards. The shame of it, the indignity, overshadowed the pain. The brute had stormed out, and three tiny elephants, two desert deer and a hippopotamus met their ruin on the soles of O’Hare’s black leather boots. Jeremiah had sat there on the floor, too aghast to cry, stroking the flattened spines of the miniature creatures, which had become colourful bruises on the wooden planks.  

Trevithick’s Miniature Menagerie was raising the funds to purchase their own premises, or perhaps even buy out O’Hare, who, rumour had it, had accumulated a significant debt. The butcher’s boy mentioned to Elisabeth that O’Hare was being chased down by a Portuguese sailor with a Merrymaid tattoo on his arm and a pistol in his pocket. And so, Morwen had the idea about the shop tours, and over the course of the next four months, the Menagerie made more money than it had in the previous dozen. 



One night, there was a cracking at the window, which roused Jeremiah from sleep. His father, who’d spent decades sleeping on trading ships battling the Mediterranean, did not wake. Nervously, and with Nicholas still dozing in his hair, Jeremiah padded across the floorboards and peered between the curtains to find a cold and damp-looking Morwen Penna on the street below. Her hand was curled around another stone, ready to throw. After checking his father was still snoring, Jeremiah slipped down the stairs to let her in, and added more wood to the fire which was down to its embers. She was shivering and her skin looked waxy like a candle that hadn't seen fire yet. He drew a stool to the hearth which she sat on, obligingly. 

“What happened to you?” he asked, because something had surely happened. 

Morwen just shook her head.  

“Well, why did you come here? Should I walk back to Pennelly with you?”  

She just shook her head again. Jeremiah sighed. It was a couple of hours before sunrise and he wanted to clean out the monkeys in the morning, which would require him to be alert. They sat together for a while, in silence, while the fire worked its way up. Shortly before dawn, Morwen left the shop, and walked back to Pennelly to go to bed and pretend to rise. 

It was a few weeks before Morwen returned, for one of her nighttime excursions to the shop, but they soon became a regular affair. Jeremiah would hear the tapping on the window, he’d let her in, stoke the fire, and give her a blanket for her shoulders. He’d plead with her to tell him what had driven her through the town in such a condition, but not a word left her lips. She’d just stare at him, face white and round as the moon herself. She’d leave silently, and return for her usual afternoon visits, when she’d be right as rain and back to her usual mischief. 



April month arrived in all her pretty dresses, and the weather slackened his grip on the town. On a mild afternoon, when Jeremiah was finishing a drawing at the counter, and Morwen was sweeping the floor, she first mentioned the ship.

 “Have you seen any of the sailors from the ship?” she said.


“The Minerva, they call her. Docked last night. Headed for the Americas, they say”. 

“No, I haven’t heard.” 

“I hear they’re the handsomest sailors in the Atlantic.” 

“Elisabeth should spend more time teaching you your reading and writing and less time chattering about sailors,” Jeremiah muttered, washing the ink from his brush.

At this point, Morwen came up to him briskly, so that her face was close to his. With this alarming proximity, Jeremiah could see every freckle on her nose. One, two and three orangey freckles and two darker brown ones. He held his breath. Slowly, her lips parted like a flower in blossom, and her tongue emerged from her mouth. Nicholas, damp and confused, was perched on her tongue, having been held captive between her glistening teeth. Jeremiah reached out and collected Nicholas on his finger. 

“That is a foul magic trick, Morwen,” Jeremiah said. He could feel the wetness of her saliva on Nicholas’ fur and frowned.

Indeed, over the next week or so, Jeremiah did hear about the ship. “A magnificent vessel”, said Mrs Enys, who came in to enquire about her buffalo’s diet, “golden and red”, this ship, “with carvings so beautiful, the angels cry to look at them”. Mr Stark remarked that he had met three sailors from The Minerva playing devilish card games and had swindled him out of two months’ pay. Mrs Berriman said that The Minerva was carrying diamonds from Africa, and that the Captain had a belief that he must throw a gemstone over his left shoulder “into a big-sea if the moon is full” as an offering, to ensure safe passage. One evening, Jeremiah and his father walked along the headland and saw the ship down below in the harbour. It was a mighty looking ship, the colours were too vivid and the mast too pointed. Jeremiah couldn’t make sense of it, but the ship looked out of place, somehow, like oil mixing with water. 



It was a Sunday night, and Morwen had made one of her Witching Hour visits to the shop. Despite her insistence that he should go back to bed, and that she’d be alright by the fire on her own until she was ready to depart, Jeremiah had stayed downstairs. He must have fallen asleep in a chair though, as a shift in the air about his face fetched him from sleep and he opened his eyes to see Morwen slipping, sly as a cat, through the doorframe from Trevithick’s workshop. For reasons unclear to him, he shut his eyes again quick, while she made her way back to her stool. It was at this moment that Reverend John Penna arrived all at once. He stumbled into the shop, sending the bell clattering, and ushering in a terrible coldness, grimacing with a sweaty face and eyes rolling in his head like a bullock. His shirt was unbuttoned so that his curly reddish chest hair could be seen. Jeremiah, who had attended the Reverend’s weekly sermons without fail, and always admired his handsome appearance, was shaken to be presented with the man so unkempt and reeking of whiskey. Morwen, however, seemed unsurprised. Her face was perfectly placid, her hands resting on her knees. The Reverend snatched Morwen by the arm and heaved her through the shop. “Wait,” Jeremiah said, but it was too late, the Pennas had left, and the door was slammed behind them, which drew a draught that sent sheaths of paper swirling from the counter to the floor.



Three mornings later, Jeremiah woke up to find a bumblebee resting on his pillowslip. He sat up sleepily, and rubbed the dreams from his thick, black lashes. “Dydh da, litte one,” Jeremiah said softly, and reached out his hand toward the creature. Nicholas skipped down Jeremiah’s arm, hopped off his linen nightshirt and onto the pillow. The bumblebee was just as long as Nicholas, and much plumper, with fine hair covering his bright, quivering body. Nicholas, on all fours, his tail curled up in curious anticipation, leaped toward the bee, and it took flight, humming around the room and then through the doorway and down the stairs. Laughing, and with Nicholas hanging from his little finger, Jeremiah bounded down the stairs, following his morning visitor. 

            He opened the door to the shop and took two and then three steps into the room before his legs jolted, as if stung. The tiger enclosure was empty. The African planes display, too. He spun, taking in one after the other: American West, the aviary, the rainforest, the Antarctic. All of them, void of life. The glass enclosures were there, and the landscapes, crafted by Jeremiah, each one, with care. But the animals, the animals had gone. Jeremiah stood there, his heart like a fist grabbing at his ribcage, as the bumblebee landed for a second on his left shoulder, before humming away through the door which was still ajar and open to the world outside which would soon wake up to the news of the Minerva’s embarkation.



Some people say that when Trevithick entered his shop that Thursday morn, then into his workshop to find it cleared out too, without missing a step, he walked straight out of the door, across the street, down the cobbled path between the bakers and the butchers and marched right out into the sea. Like a stone, his body made its descent into the black waters and stayed put, down there, with the crabs and the barnacles and the purple seaweeds. Some people say that Morwen Penna was seen at the harbour, cloaked as a boy, speaking in whispers with two handsome sailors outside The Crown Inn. Surely there was a high price to pay for passage across the Atlantic, people said, when everyone knows it’s awfully bad luck to have a maid on a ship; the Captain, so superstitious-sounding, must have needed some persuading. It must have been a very special bargain indeed. 

Stories of Trevithick’s Miniature Menagerie were told from uncle to niece and grandmother to grandson from Penzance to Plymouth. After a while, no one could quite remember which animals you could find there, and quite how small they were, and whether they moved on their own, or whether they were warm to the touch. Occasionally, a curious traveller would find themselves in Zealmouth and venture into the greengrocer, opposite the cobbled path between the bakers and the butchers, where the fruit and vegetables were arranged so beautifully, in wooden crates. Diagrams showing where each product was sourced could be found on each box, intricate and washed in inks of black and blue. The shop owner, a curiously short man with curly black hair and a neat apron, always pressed to perfection, would be waiting by the counter to weigh your produce and take your payment. “This is where Trevithick’s Miniature Menagerie was once”, the traveller might say, and the greengrocer would smile. As the traveller leaves the shop, they might notice, from the corner of their eye, a tiny creature poking its head out from the greengrocer’s apron, but they’d blink, the apparition would disappear, and they’d step out onto the street, and perhaps wonder up onto the headland, from which they’d get a brilliant view of the town and the ships in the harbour, waiting patiently for their release into the sea.