We are very pleased to welcome Heidi Bell back to the Weekend Fiction section. Click here to read her previous contribution, “Paradise Is a Place with Plenty of Music.” I think you will find “Moths” just as full of longing and language, another gem of a story from this author to watch. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
I. How Funny
The porch light isolates the two of them, separates them from the night and the other people in it—the drab, serious people inside who watch television with the lights out and the ones outside who pass by, shadows on the sidewalk in the washed-out dusk. Cicadas like rattlesnakes in the trees, and on the porch, in the spotlight, in Technicolor, Daria laughs up at Jeff, the man she will marry, even though she’s not pregnant.
He likes her big laugh, she can tell. He likes that he has made it roll out of her. Mouth wide open.
That’s when the little white moth enters, quick as a flash. Her impulse when she feels it fly into her mouth is to close her lips, and it bumps against her tongue, her soft palate, her molars. It’s all the things she never should have said flying back in, covering everything with a bitter dust. She spits it, raggedy, onto the flaking porch boards, and then she continues to laugh—high and strangled now with hilarity and shame—to convince both of them that she can laugh at herself.
It was the porch light that attracted it, of course. The light and her sweet, milky breath from the ice cream she’s just eaten. Stupid to be standing under the porch light. Stupid to have just eaten the ice cream and then to go around with her mouth open. However it happened, she is somehow to blame for it.
II. Shut Your Mouth
She hears car tires and goes to the door again, one hand on top of her pregnant belly, one beneath, holding it like a football. The car passes without slowing, and the air hisses out of her lungs. Then she sees it hanging from the screen door: A moth like a miniature kite with green translucent wings, the two ends of its divided tail entwined like a ballerina’s legs, tucked behind the white ridiculously furred body. Nature at its most indulgent. Nature playing a joke by etching on each wing the image of a heavy-lidded human eye.
Daria crouches to examine it and then sits, staring into those eyes and falls asleep propped against the wall, waking when the breeze through the screen turns suddenly cold. She opens her eyes, shivering, and finds two moths there now, moving together. They touch each other gently, positioning, repositioning. She cannot stand to watch the care they take with one another. She closes the front door.
In a box in the basement, she finds the Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths, many of its pages dog-eared. She bought it years before to identify the moth that had flown into her mouth—probably a Corn Earworm Moth, Helicoverpa zea, but it was hard to tell from the mangled thing she’d finally spit out. She noticed moths after that, and butterflies, and looked them up in her book—Tiger, Leopard, Black Witch, Monarch, Skipper, Glassywing. For months, maybe even the entire first year she and Jeff were dating, whenever she saw one, she would look it up and fold down the page. Ten years have passed since she and Jeff met. She waited for the right time to have the baby, waited until they’d had their fun, waited to feel more sure of him, for him to grow up a little. Finally she got tired of waiting.
She finds a picture of the moths on the door screen: Luna, Actias luna. Mating takes place after midnight. The female’s scent attracts males across great distances—first-come, first-served. Lives on larval fat just long enough to mate and lay eggs. Adult does not feed. Has no mouth in adult state. Has no mouth. Does not feed.
The words invoke a panic that makes her want to gorge, talk, kiss—but her reflex for fight or flight is faulty, trained away. When in danger, she freezes, is mauled and eaten by predators. She drags herself up the stairs to bed.
At three a.m., the buzz of the telephone on the pillow next to her catapults her from a dream of a fat green caterpillar-baby she can’t stop feeding, although she knows that feeding it will only facilitate the change and that after the metamorphosis she will be powerless to help her mouthless child.
III. Nature At Its Most Indulgent
He is mostly unconscious—tanked, lit—when he leaves the bar, and he barely remembers getting into the car at all. He will never recall missing the curve or leaving the road. The car only makes a sound when it lands, nose-first in a hillock of field grass, sending up a flurry of white moths like confetti.
Jeff has launched through the windshield and flipped completely, gracefully, in the air before landing sprawled on his back on a sandy rise. Mere seconds later, another car approaches the scene. The driver slows, her passenger window down. She saw Jeff’s car leave the road, and now there is no sound from the crash site. The male crickets in the field have been shocked into silence by the impact of the car, but as Marta idles there, she hears them click back on like an appliance. They start out tentatively, as if warming up, and then go all-out, competing for the only audience that matters.
She calls 911 from the gas station up the road, and then hasta luego. It’s not that she doesn’t recognize the car or the man—she was at the same bar, and she knows Jeff—or that she doesn’t care. She just has to look out for numero uno.
When she sees him again, months later, his first night back at the bar, she doesn’t tell him she was the one who called for help but didn’t stop. Jeff is telling the story to the bartender, loud enough that all of them can hear, and as he talks, he rubs his thigh, probably the one he broke. Marta thinks it probably still itches where the cast came off, where the dead skin is probably still flaking away.
He flew from the car, he says, and landed on a hive of ground bees, who were drawn to the warmth of his body on that unseasonably cool night and so clustered around him, became attached to him—literally, figuratively. When the paramedics arrived and lifted him onto the gurney, the bees defended their newfound territory. One of the EMTs was a history teacher he’d hated in high school. Now she was rescuing him, and in doing so, was stung several times. Enough that she had a reaction and ended up in the hospital herself.
Jeff can tell that no one else thinks the story is as funny as he does; he’s laughing way harder than anyone else. He looks sideways down the bar and sees that Marta is laughing but that her heart isn’t really in it. His wife didn’t laugh at all, standing there with her pregnant belly pressed against the safety rail of his hospital bed.
He decides again not to describe the other thing, what he hasn’t told anyone: How in the darkness before the rescue, hanging there in stasis, he’d became gradually aware of a tingling energy nested in the small of his back that soon began a slow buzzing crawl out to his extremities, to the middle of his forehead. He was alive, strung and lit up with a network of bulbs like a junior-high-science experiment. And when the paramedics arrived and took him, he felt the separation as though someone had pulled a plug.
IV. Number One
“You’re better off without her,” Daria says.
She’s leaning in the doorway of Miguel’s office at the recreation center, where she works at the front desk and he works on the maintenance crew. She has curly black hair and a slender waist, around which she often wears a thick, shiny belt. Miguel often wishes he could love her instead of his wife, wishes she could love him instead of her husband, who likes to drink and yells too much at the solemn dark-eyed boy Miguel has watched grow up in photos on the bulletin board next to Daria’s desk. But Miguel knows he and Daria cannot love one another that way: they’re too much alike. God has put them on Earth to do whatever they can for others, whenever they can, until there’s nothing left.
Miguel’s wife is gone again, and all day he prays to God that she’s okay, praying still as he locks the rec center at the end of his shift and stands underneath the flickering light over the door, soon realizing that the flickering is caused not by a faulty bulb but by a moth that has somehow gotten trapped inside the light fixture.
There’s a way out, Miguel tries to tell the moth. It’s the same way you got in. He cannot bear to watch the moth’s frantic orbit around the bulb, cannot bear the chance that it might be burned to death by its own lack of perspective. He takes his keys from his pocket again. He’ll just get the stepladder. But as he’s turning back to the door, the flickering stops, and the moth is flying free into the night, and joy surges in Miguel’s heart.
And then the joy is gone, and he is plunging even deeper into despair. You again, he thinks. Hope—you bitch.
He walks through a cloud of gnats to the curb, where he waits in the humid night for his cousin. Marta’s taken the car this time and run off with her ex-boyfriend, an ex-con who appeared out of nowhere at their door last night. Marta opened the door, saw him standing there, and then just pulled her jean jacket from the back of the rocking chair, grabbed her shoes, and left without even putting them on.
Miguel has no tears left to cry. He rubs his swollen, itching eyes with the heels of his hands. When he takes them away, something has appeared in the middle of the half-circle drive in front of him, like a magic trick, something bright green against the black asphalt. He allows the little boy in him to become enchanted by it. He steps toward it. As in a fairy tale, perhaps a magical creature has come to grant him a wish. But he stops as he nears it, disturbed by its appearance—bright green and at least six inches long, with spiny legs like medical instruments. He remembers insect anatomy from grade school: they don’t have noses or lungs but breathe through holes in their abdomens called spiracles. No wonder so many movie aliens look like bugs.
Surely his cousin will run over it when he pulls up. Miguel will pluck it from the drive and put it in one of the flowerbeds. Two more steps toward it, shaking off his discomfort. Its compound eyes are huge, iridescent. Is it watching him? He bends toward it, speaking softly to it, making a wish, just in case. Te echo de menos, Marta. Wish you were here. He swings his head side to side in what he hopes is a calming manner. Ésta bien, bicho. The mantis’s eyes move side to side, too, tracking him. Is he remembering right that they eat their mates?
Suddenly the bug springs at him, and Miguel cries out and lifts his arms to cover his face. He feels the mantis tap the back of his hand, and when he turns it over, it’s still there, stuck to his skin with some sort of insect glue. He reaches to pull it off, but the instant he grasps the insect’s body, it pinches the skin of his hand hard between its spiny forelegs.
When Miguel’s cousin arrives, Miguel is on his knees weeping next to a bed of zinnias where he has buried the mantis’s body.
“Vamanos,” his cousin says, hauling him to his feet. He pats him hard on the back. “Let’s go home.”
V. Once Upon a Time
The solemn dark-eyed boy crouches in the corner of the garage to get a better look. The spider is brown with elegant striped legs and an egg-shaped body many times the size of her head. She is busy wrapping a small colorless moth in gleaming thread.
The boy’s mother has two stories about moths: Once upon a time, a moth flew into her mouth. She showed him how she’d looked when it happened, how she snapped her mouth closed and clapped her hand over it, and he laughed. Once upon another time, when he was still living inside her belly, she saw moths with eyes on their wings. She showed him pictures in a book, their bodies furry, their wings brilliant green.
His moth is duller, he knows, but the spider part of the story will make it worth telling. It’s a large web, and there are several other insects suspended in it already, wrapped so thoroughly in white gossamer he can’t tell what they were when they were alive. He blows on the web and then notices that one of the wrapped orbs is shimmering, its edges soft. He leans closer and discovers that it’s not food at all but the spider’s egg sac, which has burst and is now teeming with miniscule, transparent babies, some already casting webs and rappelling away. The flesh on his whole body crawls. He feels them the way he felt it when his mother read him the library book that said millions of mites and bacteria live on the human body, that they live in his mouth, under his fingernails, at the roots of his eyelashes.
The door between the garage and the kitchen bursts open, and Tanner flinches. His father’s head appears. A good, warm smell comes out from the kitchen.
“Boy, you want that five dollars or not?”
Tanner stands, nods mutely, but he knows it is already too late. He knew the minute his father opened the door.
As if he hasn’t answered at all, his father yanks the push broom from his hands and uses it to smash the spider web and its occupants, to sweep them out of the garage and into the driveway. Tanner wonders how many of them are dead. The mother could be dead and it wouldn’t matter, since the babies only need her until they hatch. Once they’re out of the egg sac, they don’t need their mother ever again. Still, it makes him feel sad, until he thinks about how the mother spiders sometimes eat the fathers. There is some satisfaction in thinking she might have eaten him already.
Tanner watches his father move down the driveway with short, angry bursts of the broom. He’s not going to give Tanner the five dollars, even though it was Tanner who cleaned out the entire garage and then swept the floor, except for this corner. He could tell his mother, and she would stand up for him, but then the fight would be his fault.
He thinks of thousands of tiny spiders crawling up the handle of the broom, up his father’s arms, covering his body as he screams like a little girl, something he’s accused Tanner of doing. Tanner thinks of all the spiders in all the webs all over the world, how they multiply by the hundreds every minute, maybe even every second of the day.
Was it a story or a dream his father had told him about the bees? It was a night when Tanner woke up frightened and crying, and then he cried harder when he remembered that his mother had gone out that night with his aunt and left him alone with his father. His father came in and held him against his chest and shushed him and patted his hair too hard.
After he calmed down, Tanner asked, “Do you have a story for me?” It was something he often asked his mother but had never asked him.
“Uh,” his father said, a sound like when a football came in too hard against your stomach. Tanner lay back sleepily as his father hesitated on the edge of the bed.
It was very dark, his father said, out there in the middle of nowhere, and he missed the curve in the road. He flew through the windshield and landed on a hive of bees—special bees that lived in the ground. The rest of the story Tanner doesn’t know as words, only an image of his father’s body covered in glowing bees that lifted him in the dark and carried him to Heaven.
But now his father is muttering to himself in the driveway, brushing the spiders and the debris from the garage into the gutter.
Tanner has read in a book that there are so many arthropods on Earth that people can’t even count them. Even a small patch of forest ground contains thousands of insects and arachnids. He imagines his father lying on the ground, surrounded by trees. He isn’t wearing any clothes. His body shimmers, covered with spider babies and iridescent bees with transparent wings. From the layers of damp leaves beneath him, blue-black beetles emerge to crawl over his bare feet and through the hair on his hairy calves. Yet he does not move or even open his eyes, even when centipedes undulate over the webs between his fingers. Silver flies with spiky legs and red pinhead eyes alight on his lips, as though kissing him, and then fly away. When tiny yellow maggots appear at the corners of his mouth, as if by magic, Tanner knows they’ve come from the eggs the flies have laid there. He knows that flies lay their eggs on dead things so that when they hatch, the young will have something to eat. And he watches in his mind’s eye with satisfaction as the insects writhe over his father’s body until there have been so many tiny bites taken from him that no one would recognize him. This could happen, Tanner thinks. His father could pay for what he’s done, but his spirit could still go to Heaven.
“What are you looking at?” his father asks, shoving the broom handle at Tanner’s chest as he walks by.
Piece of shit are the words that come into Tanner’s mind. He hangs the broom on a nail that sticks out of the wall of the garage. That’s one of the things the decomposers eat: shit.
And then his mother’s beautiful face appears in the doorway, and he files away his complaints about the five dollars, his sorrow for the spider and her babies, the image of his father disappearing little by little until there’s nothing left.
“Come on, son,” his mother says, smiling in a way that almost always makes almost everything okay. “It’s time to eat.”
“I have to tell you something,” he says breathlessly. “Spiders aren’t even insects.”
He can tell she’s pretending not to know, but he doesn’t care.
“No, because all insects have six legs, and spiders have eight legs. They’re arachnids.”
She pretends to be surprised, too, and it makes him laugh as he walks past her into the kitchen. She follows him and turns on the water in the sink for him to wash his hands.
“And guess what?”
“I saw a really big spider in the garage. A mother spider.”
“I can’t wait to hear about it.”
As Tanner washes his hands, taking care to clean out under each one of his fingernails, he sees his father out of the corner of his eye, sitting at the table in front of his empty plate, his mouth twisted into the shape it takes when he’s sure he’s waited long enough.
–photo Flickr/With all due respect, Sam