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Lessons from A Dead Moth

by Glenn Moss

In early morning and near dusk, I would wait patiently, breathing slowly, watching for the flutter and glimpse of movement and color. Purple against a deepening green, a splash of yellow-orange on a thinnest hint of white, a mauve prayer of opening and closing wings as a flower sways with more than a morning breeze.

Mystics and seers have told me the endgame: When my earthly time is over, my soul will be captured by a million sticky feet as it seeks final release. The silent beating of millions of wings will mock me as their rainbow dust covers my mouth and eyes, so my cries will not be hard and I will be denied even the briefest glimpse of what I have lost, carrying me to a cracked expanse of dry and forgotten earth. With the slow pleasure of eternal balance, my soul will be lowered to a waiting space where the antennae of all my former recipients of pinched death pin me forever, so that I may ever know the fate I so willingly dispensed with formaldehyde.


I am walking in Prospect Park where spring has begun to outpace the tiring plod of winter. I know what I seek and where to look: There, in that copse to the left, just enough away from the path to escape disturbance.

I find the chrysalis. It is heavy and fat from metamorphosis and building desire to be free. I break the branch to which the case is bound by hardened, once-wet lines spun from a mouth now changed and ready for life again. But I have other plans.

In my apartment, I open a cardboard box given to me by Mr. Clifford, who owned the small toy store on Flatbush Avenue around the corner from Lincoln Road. I placed a green mesh net over the top to allow air and a captor’s eyes to get in. I placed the branch inside the box and wait.

Whether this effort was made for a school project or simply for me, I can’t remember. I don’t have a recollection of any academic purpose. My guess is, understanding me then as I have come to know myself more, living as I did in my own meshed box of fears and isolation, I may have been seeking comfort from bringing a shared existence to a creature I could control.

Within two days the chrysalis begins to rock back and forth, evidence of pushing from within appearing at several points. When I return from a brief errand outside, I see the Cecropia Moth emerging. Smiling, I run outside and across the street to the park. I gather what plants, flowers and stems I think useful and necessary. I return home and place them inside the box. The moth is sitting on the branch, still flexing its newly discovered wings, large and lush with color. Watching as the moth fully opened its wings and was motionless, I have a vision of what this moment would be had I not taken the chrysalis. The moth would sense its place, its time, its purpose. Here, except for the uprooted plants and flowers, it received only the passing of the subway and my heated breath.

Over the next few days, I would come home and see if it had eaten any of the new plants and flowers I brought in from the park. I thought it was feeding; at least that is what I told myself. I noticed a change in behavior. The moth attached itself to the side of the box and its fat brown body began to pulse. I didn’t know what was happening. Maybe it was dying and I had served only to hasten a death.

I saw something beginning to emerge: small pinkish masses. Eggs. First in one part of the box, then it moved and over half the box was covered with small pools of pink. I had to allow the moth to live more than its boxed existence, I didn’t go so far as to take it to the park and release it. I would take the moth from the box and let it fly about when I was home. It would land on my bed, on my books. And, more and more, on me. Often on my shoulder, like some trained bird. I would walk around the apartment with the moth on my shoulder and my parents would look at me as they too often did, as if I was something too perplexing to communicate with. They asked me to put the moth back in the box. I would but always sought the moment when I could free it, if not completely.

Over the next three weeks, I would bring back new plants and flowers and take the moth out. I convinced myself it was happy and was living longer than it might in the park where birds or some other thing would kill it.

One day, I came back and looked into the box. The moth was lying motionless on the bottom. I reached in and touched it. Moved it. It was dead. I kept saying “it”; I never named it. I took the moth out and brought it in to my mother, in the kitchen. She looked at the moth in my hand and quickly suggested the incinerator. The handy crucible offering a swift ride to cremation.

I had no other ideas; burying it in the park did not occur to me. So I found a brown paper bag, put the moth inside and walked to the incinerator room and opened up the door. I placed the bag at the lip of the chute and gently pushed it forward. I watched it slide down and into the sooty shaft down into the smoldering mass of garbage in the basement.

Later, when I went outside and looked up at my building, I saw gray smoke coming from the vent on the roof. The smoke spread, mostly drifting over to Eastern Parkway. A few wisps though, maybe pushed by a wind I couldn’t feel on the street, moved over my head and to the park. I tell myself now that I believed the burned remains of the moth were in those wisps. Maybe I did. I never went butterfly catching again.

About Glenn Moss

Glenn Moss is a media lawyer and writer in New York City. He has published in Ithaca Lit, West Trade Review, Oddville Press, Oberon, Foliate Oak Magazine, Illuminations, Qu, and 34th Parallel.