"The Moth Lights Her Own Way" by Alex Duensing

“The Moth Lights Her Own Way” by Alex Duensing

One Fat Toad and Many Moths

by Ryan McDonald

In a car packed to its stiches, my family of five drove four hours from Massachusetts to northern Vermont with no reservation at any of the region’s campgrounds. My mom refused the first campground, as it was too close to a highway. The second had no vacancy. With dinnertime past and the sun setting, we settled for the third campground with one remaining site by the campground’s maintenance building. As it was just twilight, my mother and father didn’t notice the floodlight as we rushed to pitch our tent and cook dinner. My mother noticed glimpses of blue behind the next row of campsites and some trees. “We’re right on Lake Champlain!” She squeaked in joy, trying to justify our fraught journey north. She was satisfied for the hour.

Two hours later as we all faced our campfire away from the floodlight, my mother was not so happy. Moths fluttered through our campsite towards the beacon like a pilgrimage. I was eleven and enduring family vacation. I begged for a voice of reason.

Here’s one: In a NPR interview, Dr. May Berenbaum, a professor in Entomology, said that she believed moths used celestial lights, usually the moon, to navigate by sustaining a constant angle with the light. She said of her research, “They had to keep kind of moving closer and closer and adjusting their relative position. And ultimately they end up kind of at the light itself.” As these moths arrived at the floodlight, they butted against it, sporadically flew from point to point within a few feet, or settled below on the white garage door.

Enter Einstein. Not Albert, but an enormous toad that showed up to the door around nine o’clock and began slurping down low-flying moths. He seemed to be our silver lining. “Genius!” my father addressed him using a precursor to the toad’s official name. I remember feeling reluctant to laugh as the toad slumped on his hind legs and feasted on the moths like a fat medieval king. I was well aware of my family’s financial and emotional state. Two years before, my mother had abandoned following her father’s footsteps to a lifelong career in law—the disposition proved to be hollow for her—and returned to school to become an elementary school teacher.

There were moments of excitement like when my dad instructed me and my siblings to not “break any bones or get a crazy disease or die on us” because we temporarily didn’t have health insurance. There were moments of realization like when my mom nodded and leaked a nervous chuckle instead of accosting my dad for bringing up the thought of bad things happening to their children. And moments of droning distress like when my dad often came home after dinner fragranced with oil, exhausted from delivering mail in the morning, working his full time job, and then delivering oil at night. He would ask us about our days, if we did our homework, and then immediately fall asleep. Or when my mom’s dad passed away a year before, never to see her become a teacher. Our family needed a win. My mom needed a job—and with it being August and the school year just about to begin—quick. But, a laugh was nice.

In the early morning, I woke up and watched the last of the moths fly off the garage door up into the air. In the same NPR interview, Dr. Henry Hsiao, a biomedical engineering professor, was cited saying that moths fly towards the sun during early morning to seek out better hiding spots for their camouflaged wings. The obvious limited light in nighttime makes it harder to hide and survive. He based his theory on his observations of how moths go straight towards sources of light instead of spiraling around it as Dr. May Berenbaum suggests.

My dad, who woke up hours before the rest of us by instinct, grilled us bacon and stated we would be going on a canoe trip. The stories my parents told me of their family vacations told me that they didn’t learn their lesson. My dad spoke of having to sit for six hours surrounded by luggage behind the back seat to accommodate space for his five siblings. His dad’s car had no AC and couldn’t drive above 50 miles per hour. My mom often spoke of her dad’s do-or-die attitude towards creating fun family vacations like when their car broke down in New York City during the late ‘70s and he got out, pushed the car to get it started, and her mother drove away to the first mechanic shop she could find. “I watched him get smaller and smaller and being a kid I had no idea how we would ever see him again!” my mom said, laughing.

And yet, my dad tried to join the military like his dad and older siblings, but got denied because he dislocated both shoulders playing sports in high school. He completed a year of college and then started blue-collar jobs like his dad eventually did. And my mother, the first of five, mistakenly became a lawyer after struggling to find a major that appealed to her in her undergrad. And they still went on family vacations, eliciting a canoe trip with my dad in the bow seat, my older brother in the stern, my younger sister and myself sitting on opposite sides of the yoke, and my mother waving from the shore getting smaller and smaller.

I was agitated, having no choice in participating. We had heard of a bird sanctuary a little ways away and my dad was determined to reach it. He and my older brother paddled out into the vast body of water. My little sister, nine years old, gazed over the side of the canoe into the water. She was terrified of Champy—Vermont’s answer to Scotland’s Loch Ness monster—whom was said to roam these waters. “I dunno, honey! Champy could be right under us!” My dad yelled over the winds. “Dad!” she cried. The further we got out, the choppier the waters became. The canoe galloped the waves like someone hammering nail, each wave lifting us up and them slamming us back down on the water. The island, a nucleus of red rock and cytoplasm of birds, appeared in sight. The canoe inclined up one wave so high that the front suspended in the air and then smacked the water causing the stern deck to briefly plunge underwater. I coughed up a laugh. Our canoe was taking on water!

“Onwards!” our captain ordered and we reached the island, with signs prohibiting people from walking on it. It seemed pretty magnificent. Back on shore, we jabbered about our adventure to my mom, repeating descriptions of the chop until once again we found ourselves at a campfire with our backs to the floodlight. My sister reported no sights of Champy. We smiled and made s’mores. The moths returned.

In the same line of thought as Dr. Hsiao, some theorize that moths fly towards light because an unobstructed light signifies a clear path while others think it’s UV frequencies that attract moths. They follow their senses and do what seems practical. But our lovable toad returned again around 9 o’clock that second night, following more than what had to be just primal senses. “Einstein!” my dad said as if he were greeting an old friend.

We marveled at the toad that consumed moths at a gluttonous rate of one moth per two seconds. The moths reminded me of a social studies class in which I learned how some Native Americans hunted buffalo by leading packs of them over canyon cliffs. Each moth mindlessly tried and tried at the light. Some plummeted to ground, killed by the heat of the light bulb. Some got away to try again, while some became complacent on the garage door. Einstein capitalized. He seemed to prefer the living moths, but still scooped up the dead ones. I struggled to fall asleep again.

The next day, exactly one year from the day my mom’s dad died, my mom got a phone call. An interview to teach 5th grade at Winchendon Elementary School. I watched her look up at her father in the sky and thank him. Suddenly, I didn’t feel guilty about the family vacation. We celebrated all day with swimming, more daring canoe trips, and a campfire. My parents got the bright idea to find the campground manager and ask him to turn off the floodlight at night. But with a request to keep it on until ten o’clock. We didn’t want to ruin Einstein’s routine. We were fortunate, though my mom did pay for her undergraduate degree with student loans and then did the same for her law degree and her Master’s in education. At least, she and my family had some choice and things were getting better. And so, we slept soundly when the light turned off. The toad was still fat. The moths released to their moon.


About Ryan McDonald

Ryan McDonald is a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at George Mason University and the Nonfiction Editor of Phoebe. He currently lives in Northern Virginia.