The Moth — Toti O’Brien



I couldn’t believe it let me come close, push the corner of its wing against the concrete, momentarily pinning it to the wall. Catching it under my cupped hand wasn’t possible: it was huge. I had never seen one that size. Of course I was afraid of scraping pigment with my finger, as for butterflies. But it didn’t happen, or the dusty gray was too delicate to be seen. Maybe it scattered in the air as soon as it was lifted, disintegrating itself.

Truly its beauty didn’t need color—on the contrary, the strict monochrome highlighted the fine textures. Wings and body were carved with different patterns—webs of delicate hieroglyphs… here spirals, there figure eights, here a beehive. Most amazing of all were two round reliefs, like huge buttons hand-sewn by a fancy seamstress. They looked like giant eyes—that of course they weren’t, being placed on the upper wings. Were they mere decoration? A mimetic device? Perhaps.

Finger frozen in place, eyes riveted upon the thing, I reached over to the bed stand with my left hand. I wanted to grab something, not sure what. My glass for the night was too narrow, so was any container I could think of. Crouching down, arms fully extended, without losing my grip I managed to get hold of my shoe. Perfect! I applied it against the wall as a sucker. And I heard the slightest of noises—a leaf falling, a page furtively turned.

I sighed. I had been holding my breath for the last few minutes. Because of a moth? An exceptional one. A rarity, or so I thought… Grandfather would know. Grandpa later would tell. I tried cautiously sliding under the shoe a piece of cardboard. (That was easy to find, books were always at hand. Blindly, I took it from my bed stand, utilizing of course its hard cover while the rest hung limply on the side. It was an old edition of Andersen’s fairy tales mom had given to me. She had owned it as a child, long before).

The operation succeeded. With Hans Christian lidding my shoe I could finally move. Thus I carried my snare to the kitchen, and I left it on the table while I searched the cupboard. Substituting a salad bowl for my shoe was quick… Satisfied I contemplated my prey, slightly enlarged under the transparent dome. Then I thought of Grandpa’s magnifying glass. I could borrow it from his desk. No one was home at the moment. I was all by myself—the house dim and quiet.

Playing around with the magnifier I focused on one of the buttons… it was furry, made of minuscule stems packed against each other like velvet. While I moved the glass towards the other one, an eye came into sight. I was stunned. I remembered I could turn the lens, get a larger close up.

Round, a miniature globe, pea green—or was it emerald? A dark dot in the center, the moth’s eye looked human, though its sphericalness made it mechanical. I kept staring at it till I felt it stared back… I felt watched, and uneasy. I forgot I was the one holding the lens, looming over the captured insect. I was the one in charge… yet the eye iced me in place, as if it had caught me at fault, witnessing some embarrassing truth.

Yes! Its sheerness suggested perfect awareness, and no mercy. ‘I have seen you,’ it said, posing as god the omnipresent. Truly the moth’s eye resembled Mom’s eyes, also green and uncannily beautiful. But Mom’s weren’t that pure. Hers were mossy, opalescent, with a slight hint of earthiness, while the moth’s green eye looked celestial—if it makes sense.

Not sure leaving the upturned bowl on the table—with my humongous find underneath— was the best idea. But I left it, feeling suddenly short of resources. Very tired, as if… Had I been hypnotized? The thought brushed my mind only briefly. I was tired, for I was heading to bed when I spotted my visitor, and went hunting instead. It was time to resume my trajectory. I picked up my lone Mary Jane and rescued my book, realizing I had lost my page mark. No big deal.


The glass salad bowl had smooth, even edges—Grandpa stated, when he found my trophy in the morning. The rim had neatly adhered to the table, sealing the moth into a tiny death chamber. I watched unconvinced, though I never doubted Grandpa’s words. But there wasn’t much difference between a dead moth and a live one. All I had got from it was a minimal rustling sound (when it let itself into my shoe) and a mesmerizing gaze.

Grandpa lifted the bowl without hesitation. “A magnificent sample,” he said. “It would be worth keeping.” I would put it inside a box in my drawer, I said with excitement. Then I’d show it to Mom whenever I’d see her. I would show her the amazing green eye through the magnifying glass… The dead moth must have closed it. I preferred not to verify.

“Ultimately it will disintegrate,” Grandpa glossed. He had turned around. He was at the door, headed to the television room. He had mumbled to himself… I didn’t immediately register his words, preoccupied of finding the nicest container. Then the sentence came through. “What will disintegrate?” “The moth. You will find little pieces, then a fine dust. You should put it in formaldehyde to preserve it. It is fairly complex. Maybe you’ll be an entomologist when you’ll grow up.”

A slight twinge squeezed my throat (it happened, sometimes). I hadn’t fully understood Grandpa’s statement—it contained too many unknown data, such as entomologist, formaldehyde, ultimately. This last sounded interesting in its vagueness. It sounded wide, open-ended—one could wish of escaping its margins. Mom would certainly come before ‘ultimately’ occurred. ‘Ultimately’ everything would disintegrate, but that didn’t concern my present, or a future I could reasonably conceive. I put the jewel box I had found (it had formerly hosted a chain and a cross, gifts for my first communion) in my bed stand drawer.

*

Mom and Dad had solemnly presented me with the thing, minutes before we left. It was winter and a drizzle came down. I was hurriedly pushed on the back seat of the car, out of caution for my immaculate dress.

Not that I cared for it. Momma did—it was her idea I should wear it. It had been hers, but she had received first communion in wartime… the austerity of her attire had made perfect sense. Grandma had had it cut out of a bed sheet—a good piece from her trousseau she willingly sacrificed. Mom kept praising the excellence of the fabric, that to me felt just like a kitchen towel—thick, dull, quintessentially opaque.

The style was disappointingly simple, monastic. Only garb an embroidered tassel—white on white, on the chest, minute and geometric. Classic, as if for a Greek amphora, Mother kept repeating with pride. A Greek vase? That wasn’t how I had wished to look on communion day.

I had wished… I had waited for the occasion since kindergarten, year by year, anticipating the fourth Sunday of May. When all roses in the nunnery courtyards—where I attended elementary—burst with color and scent, the annual ritual was celebrated. Second grade girls and boys, after weeks of frantic excitement, single filed from the classrooms to the chapel, shining in their stunning outfits. Boys wore mini tuxes with candid bowties, girls wore satin and gowns loaded with lace, ribbons, tulle by the mile. Year by year I had spied the procession, my gaze riveted to the long trains of the girls’ dresses, most of all to the veils pinned on top of their nicely combed little heads, pouring out of neat flower garlands.

My sharp longing was dulled by the certainty (was it faith?) also my turn would come. But it didn’t. In the spring of my second grade the teacher took me aside, carefully breaking the news—I would skip communion. Mom later explained she and Dad had different plans than to have me mixed up with a bunch of schoolmates. Why—I didn’t inquire.

I received the Holy Wafer in winter, on a Sunday, in the company of Mom, Dad, my brothers and sisters, Grandmother. Grandpa didn’t attend. Mass was celebrated for us only, in a private chapel. While I was getting dressed I managed to feel happy, as elated as Mom expected me to be. I was thrilled by a small purse she put in my gloved hands, filling it with a silver rosary, a handkerchief, and a missal bound in white leather, filigreed with goldthread. Those three items were given like talismans, or thus I received them. I was also presented with the chain and cross in their box, but I shouldn’t wear them. Mom would keep them for later. Sheer simplicity was required at the moment.

I avoided glancing into the mirror when my hair was pulled back, then hidden under a bonnet. That medieval contraption, edged with a modest zigzag, was my headgear. No veil and no garlands.
I was kneeling in the front row of the chapel (dimly lit, snug and tight like a boat, with dark benches and ceiling) when someone from behind pushed a small bouquet in my hand. I had never seen those flowers before. They looked like little stars—their smell so penetrating I felt dizzy. But I loved it. I inhaled while I squeezed the stems in my fist. I inhaled over and over while the ceremony, slowly, unspooled.

For the entire day I didn’t let go of the flowers. Breathing them down and deep.

*

I have another treasure in my bed stand drawer. I am thinking of it while rearranging my stuff, to allow the moth in. I have a number of things… but the one I’m mentioning is precious, relatively new, kept for a special purpose. I will give it to Dad as a present.

I have found it while wandering alone in the forest—Grandpa and Grandma believe I’ll never get lost, always showing up for dinner on time, my hands thoroughly washed. They are right. I never get lost. I have a compass with me and I take note of landmarks. I have learned at an early age. Please, don’t worry on my account.

I have found this thing in the forest, sticking out of the trunk of a tall pine. I couldn’t believe its proportions, so uncanny I decided to detach it and save it for Father—he’d be amazed.

Dad adores antique and strange. He is a total fanatic of estate sales. He comes home with furniture, frames, various oddities Mom does not approve of—you can tell. But Dad doesn’t care for approval. I have noticed, over the years, he has a bent towards bulgy, golden, curled, and curved. Baroque—Mother says. It’s her favorite comment when he lands his burden on the dining room carpet. She exhales the word with a sigh every single time… I don’t think he notices, lost in contemplation of whatever he found.

Well, this thing I have discovered is curved, curled, swell, and golden. It is sap, Grandpa said, but somehow fossilized, petrified. It looks like a humongous drop of honey. It is also translucent, like stained glass, and inside it you can figure little things… veins, dots, cracks—a sort of geography.

Grandpa said it will disintegrate. He means crumble. I can’t truly believe it—it looks healthy at the moment. I still check it now and then, just in case. Ultimately, I know, everything falls apart, but I’m sure Dad will visit earlier than that. Well, of course.

*

Staying here for so long—what an unexpected vacation—has advantages. One of them is the liberty I enjoy after dinner. I am allowed to linger till late in the television room—at home I couldn’t dream about it. I am sure Mom and Dad do not know, or they wouldn’t approve.

I’m doing nothing wrong anyway—only following the rules of the house. It is known grandparents relax when left in charge of grandchildren. They know better than…

I remember the moth’s eye. That color. Do dead insects close their eyes? Do they have eyelids? I should take the magnifying glass, and I’d know. Later. Now the movie has started.

I sit on the rattan coach—Grandpa and Grandma on both sides, on separate rattan armchairs. Furniture is fragile and small in the TV room, which looks fake. It looks like a dollhouse. Tiny and snug like a boat. Grandma and Grandpa, though, have grown small and bony, and I don’t take much place. All is dark, so we can see the screen. It is magic.
I have arrived after the movie had started—fumbling with my belongings sidetracked me. Well, it happens. I don’t really care. If I’ve missed something important Grandpa or Grandma will let me know. There is a gorgeous lady, dark haired, in the middle of a busy street. She looks lost and astonished at the moment. Then there is a shrieking of brakes, and white flashes repeatedly crossing the screen. This occurs at various moments while the movie progresses.

A bit patchy, bit enigmatic. I like it. The doll—woman I mean, but she looks like an automaton—tries to reconstruct something from her past, but her memory is obstinately impeded… by the flashes, the shrieking sounds. I have got that. I have got most of it in the end. But I have missed the title.

“Amnesia,” Grandpa says with a yawn. He’s already on the door and heading to bed. I have to ask Grandma what the word means—hopefully she will know. A condition wiping your memory away, she says. You forget very important things, such as your name or where you were born, because of a trauma. In the movie, that blast on the screen—a car accident. I put two and two together. The dark lady had forgot some, because of an accident. She remembered thanks to another car crash… correct?

Grandmother confirms. She is extremely good with movies, novels, stories in general. She remembers details—I am sure she never experienced amnesia. Does it often occur? Grandma is vague about it. Now a line in the film comes to mind, ripened to its full meaning. When I entered the room the lady on the screen looked stunned—her gaze glassy—and a passerby (neatly attired, double breasted, fedora on his head) asked, “have you lost something?” “Yes—she said— ten years of my life.”

This all vaguely scares me. I sure wish nothing similar would ever befall me. But, to tell the truth, I am enthralled by the name. Amnesia… I wish it were the protagonist’s name. I keep murmuring it in bed, in the dark. Amnesia. I could give it to my daughter, as soon as I’ll have one. I wish I were called Amnesia. I would love it.

*

Most movies we have watched, this summer, kind of looked alike. Do they all? Women are consistently brown haired, kind of statuary. Intense, and unhappy.

In tonight’s script she waits for her husband who went to war. When he comes back he is hurt, a bit crazy, and forgetful. I mean almost amnesiac, like in yesterday’s movie. He can’t quite glue before and after in place. Then and now. So he wakes up in the night and runs to the forest. Not sure he’ll make it home. That is hard for the lady, who in this case remembers it all, crystal clear. I like her—she is patient and strong.

The last line she speaks sticks into my mind. “Winter,” she says, then she stops. “Winter, winter will make him return.” I guess she is still hopeful, but again there’s a glassy look on her face. Now “Gone with the wind” comes to mind. They have transmitted it last week. This is how it ended: “Tara! I’ll go home and think of some way to get him back. After all…”

All the movies we are watching, this summer, are one and the same.

I have noticed Grandma’s taking a kerchief out of her pocket. Sliding it under her glasses, she blots a few tears. She’s so easily moved, these days.


***


Toti O’Brien was born in Italy and lives in Los Angeles. Her work has most recently appeared in Ink In Thirds, Sediments, The Write Place at the Write Time, and Lingerpost.