Fiction by L.M. Davenport
In this instar, I have no mouth. My wings are roseate, immense, covered in scales fine as down. I don’t miss eating, or at least not as much as I thought I would; I ate for so long in my life before this, before my guts turned to soup within silk walls and then reformed as bone, that really I am just glad to be finished with the whole business. No, what I miss is speech, knowing that the things built up behind my mouth could have some form of egress. I believe I am expected to signal with my wings, but this is not the same.
Nobody at work seems to have noticed my condition. All I can conclude is that they are exceptionally unobservant, or trying to be polite. I had a decent education; I have read my Kafka. Now I read it again, searching for clues as to how, besides a certain absurd despair, Gregor Samsa got to be that way. If anything could have been done for him. I write the words MONSTROUS VERMIN on a sticky note in my new, clumsy script, put it on my computer where I can see it every day. I hunt and peck on the keyboard with my clawed forelimbs: what to do if you turn into a moth. help i am an insect. how to ask for help when your mouthparts slipped off in metamorphosis.
After work, I go home and move my pots and pans around for a while, because even if I don’t miss food I hanker for the sounds and steps of cooking, the noise a copper-bottomed saucepan makes when you set it down. I do this standing on my hindlegs; my midlegs are still strange to me, and I think I am not yet using them to their full advantage. I remember that, when I was a woman and not a ladymoth, I thought often about how nice it would be to have an extra set of hands. I thought maybe they could knit while my ordinary hands typed, or that they would usher in a paradise in which I’d never have to put down my cup of coffee.
Or, I think I thought about these things. It is difficult to remember exactly what I was like and what I wanted, in the time before I became a moth.
About a week after the instar’s onset, I decide to watch The Fly. Not the new one, with Jeff Goldblum crouching; the first one, which has Vincent Price as the shocked and grieving brother, flush with unrequited love. Poor Andre, who types with one hand and slurps milk from a bowl—still, I can’t help envying him his proboscis, and his loving wife. After a while I can’t watch any more, because there are no answers here, only an increasing clarity that the human world is no place for an insect. I shut my laptop in the middle of the wife’s crying jag, go into the bathroom, and watch myself grooming my antennae in the mirror.
They are frondlike, feathered, softer than they look; cleaning them with my forelegs feels so much easier than typing or pen-holding or lifting pots. It feels like holding your human hands over a sphere sending out static electricity, a gentle crackle and hum that makes me a little sleepy.
I am not bad-looking, for a moth, I think there in front of the mirror. The first day I was a ladymoth instead of a lady, I looked up my new species on the internet and was pleased to discover that even my name was nice: rosy maple moth, dryocampa rubicunda, family saturniidae. People liked me, it seemed. There were listicles nominating my species for the cutest moth, photographs of my tiny sisters perched on fingertips or claw-gripped to screen doors. Strangers wrote about wanting to stroke the furred backs of moths like me, wishing they could hold us on their palms. The articles explained why I had memories now of eating green and swelling and shedding my skin, of a shell made out of thread. This knowledge should have made me feel better—I was a charismatic minifauna, not a destructive species but only an occasional defoliator—but it did not. I hoped I wasn’t putting out pheromones, like the moths on the internet. I didn’t want anything to come and find me.
I’m still standing in the bathroom, one antenna crooked, held down by my notched claw. Try as I might, I can’t remember what my face used to look like. My eyes are immense faceted jewels now, my former chin a riot of fluff that spills down onto my equally coated thorax. I was pretty as a woman, too, or at least people sometimes told me that I was. I open up the tiny cabinet next to the mirror, take out my eyeliner from its narrow shelf. Delicately and with great concentration, I remove the cap. But when I try to draw the lines I used to, I recoil and drop the pencil so the lead smashes flat in the sink. There is a brown, waxy substance in the corona of fur around my eyes now, clouding some of my lenses. I turn away and shut off the light, and flap-crawl across the apartment to my bed. (I no longer sleep under the covers but atop them on my stomach. It is not so much a sleep, even, as a lying still; this is the consequence of transforming into something nocturnal.) My rest is full of the moth-memories, which are overwriting what I lived in the before. Stems lush between jaws, jaws parting for sound.
When I go in to work the next day, wings folded down behind my back, one of my colleagues asks if I’m all right. I turn toward him, startled, sliding my upper wings across the topmost edges of my lower ones in a motion that has, in this instar, become my nervous tic.
“You have something on your face,” he says, looking slightly embarrassed.
I flare my wings to show him that I am now a moth, that this is not a costume. He does not appear to notice.
“Right here,” he says, drawing a circle around one of his own eyes with a pointer finger. I bring up one foreleg to investigate and discover the remnants of the eyeliner, caked in my fur. My colleague looks down. I leave him there straightening the collar of his polo shirt, cross the hall into my own office, and shut the door.
Part of my job is to read stories and mark down whether I think they should become our stories, ones we bind together and sell in bookstores for other people to read. On this morning I do this for several hours, sometimes reaching up to touch the heavy streaks of eyeliner on my face. Most of the stories I read will not become our stories, and this is true most days. Moths do not, as it turns out, need to shower or use makeup remover; I am not sure how I thought the marks would vanish on their own, but evidently I did.
Eventually the man who pointed out my eyeliner knocks on my office door.
“It’s time,” he says. “Are you coming? Are you sure you’re okay?”
I stand up, fanning my wings again, and follow him downstairs.
“This is a farce,” I would say if I were not a ladymoth with no mouth. “You know I can’t speak to you—I’m a moth, for fuck’s sake!”
Our meetings are held in a big, cold room with a whiteboard and an oval table. Against the far wall there is a couch, gold velvet with a low back and wide, rectangular arms. Everyone else is already here, ranged around the table; the boss sits alone on the couch, planted on its spine with his feet pressed into the cushions, legs wide as a flung door and elbows propped on his knees.
The man who brought me downstairs pulls out a chair for me, and our colleagues’ heads turn at the screech. He uncaps a dry-erase marker and stands at the board, ready to take dictation from the room. I attempt to settle myself comfortably in the chair, which is wooden with a high, laddered back, but chairs are not generally made with moths in mind. Out of one facet of my left eye, I catch another of my co-workers gazing away from me in studied avoidance. So I stop moving, even though my lower wings are crumpled against the seat, the edge of my upper left one interrupted and bent by the rim of the table. I do not like having my thorax exposed to the light.
There is a sheaf of papers in front of me; I pick up the stack and leaf through it awkwardly. These are the stories we are thinking about binding together and selling, stories those in this room have chosen to put forward for consideration. I pass by the story I chose earlier in the week, about an extra in a monster movie, and wish momentarily for a mouth again so I could smile at seeing it here. Then a string of memories begins to flicker inside me, of greenery and sweet sap and a self whose sole job is to expand. I am lost in these visions, which have progressively increased in power since the day I became a moth, so that I do not hear the squeak and scrape of the marker as my colleague writes out titles and yesses and nos. I do not hear a single thing about the first three or four stories in the pile.
When I come back to myself at the table, the first thing I see is that my own choice has already been talked about, already marked for rejection. We are now on a different story altogether, and the man at the whiteboard is saying how good and important it is.
“I thought this one was really powerful,” he is saying. “So honest. So raw.”
“It really expanded my own notions of how far empathy can go in fiction,” another man at the table adds, nodding vigorously. “I mean, the author is clearly human, but the—what would you call it, taxidermy scene—it was bold, real.”
The boss, too, is nodding. “I’d even go so far as to say it’s necessary,” he adds. “It’s a very timely piece. Frankly, if we don’t publish it, we’ll look like huge assholes when some other place realizes how good it is and grabs it.”
More heads bob. “If I could just read a passage,” my colleague at the whiteboard says, and the boss motions for him to go ahead.
I am perplexed. I do not remember any story from this packet that made me feel the way the others seem to feel. Actually I’m not sure I read the whole packet to begin with. This is what happens when you become a moth—you spend a lot of time thinking about being a moth and somewhat less time doing your actual job.
And then I hear what my colleague is reading. There is a pair of compound eyes in it, wings, a feathered abdomen. And there is a pin, a hand, a board. I sit frozen, transfixed.
Perhaps my mothness is not as obvious as I expect. I scratch one of my claws across the table’s surface to check: yes, it leaves a mark. My colleagues are all listening avidly, making intermittent noises of appreciation. I can feel my moth heart racing, faster than I think it was meant to go.
When the reading ends, there is a moment’s silence. Then the boss begins to clap.
“Bravo,” he says. “I think we can all agree, it’s in. I am a human, like the author—and, like him, I consider myself an advocate for insects. This story is doing the important work.” His expression is congratulatory, as though he has just handed us a gift.
If I still had a throat, I’d swallow. I settle for shifting in my chair so that my wings rustle lightly, a sound that is almost speech.
“Great,” he says into the silence, beaming, shoes scraping on the velvet. “It’s in.”
I no longer use words to speak, and so I am forgetting how to think with them. This is what it feels like.
When I get home at the end of this day, I do not move my pots and pans around. I do not try to watch a movie. I groom my antennae without looking in the mirror because I have had more practice by now, but the action does not lull me.
I am wondering whether I, like the tiny sister-moths I read about online, have an expiration date. Dryocampa rubicunda that do not start out as people do not generally live past a week. I have now lived far beyond that span. I do not feel empty on the inside, or even hungry; indeed, I feel so filled that I think sometimes my body will break the rules of this instar and burst once again at the seams.
When I no longer have any memory of what I was before, when I become all moth, will that be the end of it? Does the clock start ticking then?
Perhaps my life will have some less-natural, still-mothlike conclusion. I know about moths and lightbulbs, moths and flame. I have not gone out at night in some time because the vision of an open fire haunts me.
I think about the faces around the table, the press of shoes into cushions. I am so filled with things unnamable, thinking about this, that I can no longer sit still and groom. I go to the front door and open it, stand framed there, gazing out and waiting for the nothing to become a landscape I can see, can walk through if I choose.
I do not wish to speak of how I became a moth.
When I was a human, I knew that there were moths who had once been people. I knew this in the same way I was aware that the workers who picked my strawberries did not earn a living wage, and that the ocean was rising, inch by inch.
My former self hangs over me with all the weight of shame as I move through the dark that seems to me like day, flying for the first time on wings bleached to gray by the moon. Stupid, I berate myself as I swerve around the trunk of a pine. Unkind. Coward.
It was not always so, that I was the only non-man, non-moth sorting stories. There used to be another woman, too, a woman who turned into a moth. I am careening through the woods now, barely missing the sudden clasps of branches, remembering things I do not wish to, things heard from other mouths or seen in flashes from the corners of my then-human eyes. A hand, clasping the back of a neck that tensed and twisted away. Gold velvet. Whispers, soft and bloody as the kiss of a hammer.
Broad wings, a few days of furled silence, and then an empty desk. It was shortly after this that I myself became a moth.
My flight is too fast now for control, and one wing—the wing that pressed against the table in daylight—clips a young tree. I go somersaulting, hind end tipping over front and wings at flail, not carrying me anywhere now. My trajectory ends beside a coiling briar, and at first I do not move for fear of tearing myself.
I don’t know where I thought I was going, out here in the night. Not to run away for good, nor to throw myself all heedless against a light. I don’t know what I thought this would accomplish, what change I wanted to engender in myself, I who have seen so many changes. I have lost sight equally of the past and of the future, and in this moment I wish for nothing more than a flame to wick myself away in. I press my face into the earth.
And then I hear the sound. It is a gentle thrum, barely audible even to my newly sensitive organs, and it comes from just ahead. I lift my face and begin to crawl forward, wings folded back in case of reaching thorns.
After a few minutes, I come into an open space. I stretch my body gratefully and then survey the clearing I have reached. The noise is louder here, and at last I can discern its source.
At the center of the treeless ground hums a shuffling, fluttering mass. I see a wing, an abdomen heavy as my own with eggs, a flash of feathered antennae. This is what my new being sought, hurtling through the forest without my former self’s consent. This is the home of the moths.
I come closer, even more tentative now. What I am seeing is weird, even disturbing. I am not certain that I am ready to go inside—what if I am drowned, crushed, subsumed?
But then I draw near enough to notice that this motion is not simply the random seething of a hive. There is focus here, each moth flapping and crawling as in a dance. I put my head closer, and at last I hear it clearly: mouthless and in concert, they are birthing speech. The thrum, the tap and rub of leg on thorax on wing, holds words.
I slide into the press headlong, carried on a surge of what it takes me a moment to realize is joy. I will stay, and I will learn the making of this voice.