OF A MOTH
"One's sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life."
For some months now, my apartment has been infested. Not with bed bugs or cockroaches or silverfish—those slick, sickly creatures that have plagued apartments of my past, and the apartments of so many in this huge, sprawling city by the sea—but with moths. Small, crawling, fluttering things, whose full-grown bodies look strikingly like butterflies, and whose larvae look devastatingly like maggots. The moths live not in my linen closets or dresser drawers, where one might expect them to live, nor in my curtains or clothes-hamper. I do find them in these places sometimes: when I draw my curtains back on a rainy morning or when I pick through a pile of sweaters on my bedroom floor, they'll flutter out in a billow of dust, frenetic and wild, their wings flapping frantically as they attempt to figure out where they are.
But the moths do not make their home in these places. Instead, they live in my pantry—in the dark, narrow hallway connecting my bedroom and kitchen, its long row of cabinetry housing foods deemed "non-perishable." The tile of the pantry floor is cracked; the old cupboard doors creak when they close and fall open on their own; some hang askew from rusted hinges, all are painted white but chipped down to wood. For months now, the moths have made this dark passage their home.
For a while, I tried everything I could to get rid of the pests: I cleaned obsessively with a cocktail of industrial-strength poisons; I purged opened food, some months or years old. Upon discovering a commune of tiny, writhing larvae that had somehow made their way into a tin of almonds, I flung each of the eight pantry doors open, took every edible out of its cardboard or plastic packaging, dumped out and sealed its contents up tightly in glass jars, cookie tins, and the few remaining Tupperware containers whose warped lids still fit snugly. Pasta in mason jars, cereal in large plastic bins, rows of new, shiny, sarcophagus-like storage for my food. I was convinced that the moths, and the worm-like creatures that precede them, would be unable to chew through these tightly sealed tombs. I thought that they would starve and die, and I would be left alone in peace again.
When the moths first arrived, I had been living on my own for a little over a year, after having lived with a partner—by all accounts a man I eventually would have married—for five. I'd decided, rather suddenly, to leave him, and my family, and the community I'd built for myself over the previous ten years—the only life and home I'd ever known—to move across the country. I gave or threw away most of my things, packed a few boxes and bags into a car, and drove from my small Midwestern town to New York City, that hallowed, glittering metropolis on the coast, in no small part with the goal of starting over.
I moved into a crumbling apartment, in a crumbling neighborhood, with a set of strangers. They were nice enough, my new roommates, but I kept mostly to myself: I worked, cooked, and ate alone, typically shutting myself inside my bedroom, eating bowls of canned soup on my bed, reading by lamplight, and eventually putting myself to sleep with a glass or two of whiskey each night. For the first time in years, I knew solitude. And I wanted nothing more. A year later, when I moved into a second apartment with a new set of roommates, we tried at first to be friends. But just a month or two after we'd moved in together, our interactions became increasingly diminished. It seemed those days, by early fall, that we existed only in one another's peripheries, living under the same roof, ostensibly together, but in reality floating in and out of an empty house, utterly alone.
Anyone who has lived for some time with a lover and then suddenly did not will understand what the transition to living with roommates, be they strangers or friends, is like. They will understand that regardless of how much in common you may have with your new housemates, how closely you begin to co-exist with them, or how genuinely you might want to be friends—however many people with whom a bathroom is shared, or around whom you must dance to brew coffee in the mornings; despite the dinner parties that are thrown or the spontaneous houseguests who arrive at the door to crash on the futon you found for cheap on Craigslist (crossing fingers and closing eyes and saying silent prayers for protection from bed bugs); when you come home at night after a long day to the warm smell of New Mexican red chili simmering in the kitchen, and even when you're asked to sit down and share a bowl—even then, you still feel entirely alone.
I felt this. Fully, inescapably, and nearly every day. The waves of loss surged and pitched and fell upon me like the swell of Midwestern lakes during a summer storm, and I liked the weight. I just barely kept my head above the water, treading most days only enough to stay afloat, but often letting my arms and legs go limp long enough to be pulled under. I liked the murky darkness under those waves, and I wanted to stay there. I realized, floating beneath the surface, that after years of being so intimately connected to one other human being, and after having that connection severed, I no longer had the desire to interact with anyone other than myself. These were the darkest of days, the nights even darker. And in my darkest moments, which typically occurred in my unlit bedroom at night, I was convinced that I would never want to form an intimate connection with anyone, ever again. I was alone, I was designed to be alone, and I wanted to stay that way.
The moths first arrived in late October, in the form of small, whitish worms that had somehow, impossibly, made their blind and crawling way into one of my roommates' unopened bags of Japanese rice noodles. After much shrieking and waving of arms, fearing our apartment was infested with maggots, the first of many cleaning binges began. But it was too late: the worms—what we would shortly thereafter discover to be larvae—had hatched, and dozens of small, winged creatures began crawling up the dark, interior walls of the pantry, flying out and circling our heads every morning when we reached for a box of cereal, and every evening when we pulled out the pasta. We discovered that, like some kind of nightmare, the slick things were able to squeeze themselves inside even the most tightly sealed Tupperware containers, and sometimes even mason jars. The moths and their larvae, it seemed, were unstoppable. And so, one dark Tuesday night, the brisk October wind setting bare branches of maples against the windows and bringing the promise of a cold, barren winter soon to come, the killing rampages began.
As I tore through the cabinets that night, my arms beating wildly like wings, I thought of Virginia Woolf's essay "The Death of the Moth," which I'd read years before and hadn't considered since. I thought of the author, sitting at her desk one warm afternoon in mid-September, watching a moth flutter and buzz and eventually fall to its death on the windowpane. And as I thought of that moth, slowing and struggling and finally succumbing, I felt my mind separate from my body—something it seemed to do with increasing frequency those days—extracting itself from what was occurring on the ground and floating up into the dusty air above me. It drifted high above the cabinets to a quiet corner where wall met ceiling, where a colony of larvae had spun a vast and intricate web. From my dissociated state, high in that corner—my mind wrapping itself inside that fragile white mesh, wanting only to sleep for weeks inside the thick, sticky walls of my own homespun cocoon—I watched myself kill the moths below. I watched as my hands smashed bodies both winged and wormlike against the wood. I watched as I wiped the remains away, leaving streaks of brown and red on dirty white paint; I watched as my body moved, fast and frenetic, like the moths themselves. I thought of the pity that Woolf had felt, watching the moth die before her. And as I watched myself crush one last small, frantic body beneath the weight of my hand, leaving a bloom of blood upon the wall, I felt the same pity. After all, I thought, these tiny, fluttering, struggling creatures were, as the author said, little or nothing but life.
The moths that live in my pantry are called Plodia Interpunctella, or, commonly, Indian Meal Moths. They are also known interchangeably as the pantry moth, the flour moth, and the North American High-Flyer. Their larvae, which are sometimes referred to as waxworms, are grain-feeding pests found worldwide that feast on various foods of vegetable origin. They are most commonly found in breads, cereals, rice, spices, dried fruits and nuts, coffee, chocolate, and flour. The food they infest, I discovered when pulling out a box of crackers one day and nearly throwing a handful of larvae into mouth, often becomes webbed together, the worms having spun cocoons for themselves inside their new, grainy homes.
Despite their name, the moths in my apartment do not actually originate in India. The common name for the species was coined in the mid-nineteenth century by New York entomologist Asa Fitch, who, in a report published in 1856, noted that the larvae primarily infested cornmeal, which was first introduced by Native Americans and often referred to as "Indian meal." Meal moths look from a distance like most moths: they are small, about the size of a pinky fingernail, and light brown in color. On close inspection, though, the tiny fluttering things are nothing short of extraordinary. A fully-grown adult meal moth is approximately eight to ten millimeters in length, with a sixteen to twenty millimeter wingspan.Its forewings are sturdy and brilliant in color, speckled with various shades of brown, bronze, and copper; the lower wings are thin, fragile and light, an almost pale yellow in parts and grey in others, with small, dark lines like veins running along their perimeter. When the wings are open, stretched wide, the intricate pattern on each appears to be perfectly symmetrical.
One day, while sweeping up the remains of a dead moth carcass from beneath the hem of my bedroom curtain, I picked up the body and held it in the light of the window. I studied his body—his angles, his shape, his design. He was compact and smooth; a light layer of fur covered his wings. He had six legs, long and sinewy and tucked tightly beneath him. On either side of his head were the dark circles of his eyes, and from above them shot two short antennae. As I turned him over in the warm glow of the afternoon sun, I ran the tip of my pinky over the length of his wings. When a moth is at rest, one cannot actually see its body. One can only see its wings, which come together upon the moth's back and encase its small frame. If you were to pry open a moth's closed wings, you would see the moth's torso beneath, which is lean and narrow, built for flight, light-brown with thin, black bands running horizontally down its length. But with the wings closed tightly together, covering and protecting the body like a sheath, the pattern of each separate wing comes together to create a pattern entirely different than its individual design—something complete, something whole. These insects, I realized, these pests, were carefully and beautifully built. They were strong, lithe, and lovely. My dead moth seemed to me, that day in my bedroom, the colors of his body burning bright in the sun, nothing short of perfect.
I set my dead moth on the windowsill, the late-afternoon light filtering in through the glass and pooling around his body. I looked at his wings—which were stiff by then with death. How long my small friend had been dead—days, weeks?—I didn't know, but as I picked him up again, his body resting weightlessly in my hand, it was as if his once resilient frame had become a fragile shell overnight. One frail and paper-thin wing, once strong enough to hold his body in the air, began to crumble in my fingers. This tiny creature, this once robust little thing, who had been busy proliferating in my pantry just days before, was gone now, and quite literally falling apart in my hands. But in that bright afternoon sunlight, the browns and coppers of his wings looked golden.
Moths and butterflies belong to the order Lepidoptera. Moths make up the majority of this order, with around 200,000 different species—about ten times the number of butterfly species—with thousands more having yet to be named. Etymologically, the word "moth" comes from the Old English moððe, a word that shares a root with the word for "maggot." The word in English and other Germanic languages—motti in Old Norse, Mot in Dutch, and Motte in German—all share the same root as the word mother. While the scientific study of moths and butterflies is known as lepidoptery, the common name for a moth enthusiast or watcher is a "mother."
The entire life cycle of the moth may take anywhere from thirty to three hundred days. Female moths lay anywhere between sixty and four hundred eggs on the surface of food, which will hatch and spawn larvae in up to two weeks' time.Up close, the moth larvae are off-white with brown heads; from afar, and in certain lights, they sometimes appear reddish-brown. Usually, though, they just resemble the vague color of grain, which makes them tremendously difficult to identify among granules of rice or bowls of cereal. When moth larvae mature, they are typically about twelve millimeters long. Depending on the temperature, the larval stage can last from two to forty-one weeks. A moth larva will then build a cocoon, most often in the darkest place it can find, out of which will emerge a fully-grown and winged moth. Some moth larvae, rather than spin a cocoon, will instead burrow holes in the ground, where they will live in darkness until their metamorphosis.
Most moths are nocturnal, but those in my house seem, for the most part, to follow a pattern more human. They fly by day and sleep at night; they buzz around my bedroom as long as the lights are on, and fall silent almost as soon as I turn them off. But when I can't sleep at night—as happens often, particularly when I am alone—and I turn on my bedside lamp, the moths wake up with me, and resume their overhead flight for as long as I lie awake in the light. Despite the nocturnal tendencies of most species, moths are attracted to light, particularly the artificial kind, though the reason for this remains mysterious. One hypothesis deals with a concept called celestial navigation, a rather dubious idea involving moths' use of the moon to navigate their way through the world, substituting artificial light when their celestial guide is lost in the clouds. Another theory deals with darkness, suggesting that, paradoxically, while a moth is naturally attracted to darkness, it seeks out the light for protection from its prey.
The theory I like, though, is one that addresses male moths' attraction to candlelight. The hypothesis asserts that the infrared spectra of a candle's flame gives off emissions that are similar to the vibrational frequencies of female moth pheromones. The male moth smells the fire and is powerfully and uncontrollably attracted to—and sometimes, it would seem, as if possessed by—the flame. One night in the dark silence of mid-November, while lying alone in bed, I witnessed this. I noticed a moth fluttering wildly from across the room toward my bedside table, upon which a single candle burned. His flight seemed erratic, alight perhaps with madness, as he rushed toward the flame. When he reached the candle, he spun in fast, wild circles above the glowing light for just a few seconds, then quickly and simply plummeted headlong into the fire. His body crackled like newspaper; his wings sizzled instantly into nothing. And within seconds, what remained of his small, wingless torso was belly-up, floating in the pool of wax below the still-burning flame.
A month or two after the moths first arrived, I started sleeping with someone new. This was a surprise to me, as I'd grown so accustomed to—and so fond of—being alone. I was convinced that a life of interiority and solitude was the path I was on, and I certainly wasn't looking for romance. The new lover was young—about ten years younger than my last, and just a few years older than me, and what I noticed about him first was his body: thin but healthy, his muscles sinewy and defined; his angles sharp, his skin tight. We began spending the nights together almost instantly. And suddenly, without warning, I remembered how to share my bed and my body with someone else. This realization was disconcerting, but also—surprisingly, bewilderingly—welcome. I soon forgot about my plight to be lonely, and while those old familiar feelings of darkness continued to creep in every so often, I began to think again about sharing my life with another human being.
By the time the new man—I'll call him Jonah—came into my life, then by late November, I had grown so accustomed to the company of the moths that I often forgot they were there. The cleaning frenzies of my roommates and I had by then proven useless, and the killing sprees had ended altogether. My skin no longer crawled when I opened a pantry door to find one there, crouched in the dark corner of the cupboard, then dashing out toward the ceiling light above my head. I'd stopped checking my cereal for larvae; I'd stopped repackaging my food when I brought it home from the store. I'd begun leaving my bedroom door open more often, allowing them to fly outside of their pantry den and inside the room where I slept and worked. In the mornings, they would perch next to me on my desk while I wrote. At night, while I read in bed, I could hear their clamor inside the glowing yellow shade of my bedside lamp. I'd gotten used to their fluttering about my head, their darting into the small bathroom connected to my room, squeezing in through the crack beneath the door to join me while I brushed my teeth. I'd started keeping the bedside lamp on at night while I slept, letting the hum of their buzzing harmonize with the dull bulb, lulling me to sleep. One might even say that, by then, I had begun to enjoy the low din they produced in the soft light of my room. I suppose that the moths, in some strange way, had become my companions. They were almost always around, buzzing about the room and occupying my space, lingering, circling, eating my food and keeping me up at night. But over time, I not only got used to these annoyances, I came to expect them—when I went to bed at night, and when I woke up in the morning. Somehow, at some point over the course of those months, the moths had begun to feel like home.
When Jonah began spending the nights with me, I realized that the presence of the moths—or, perhaps more directly, my assimilation to their presence—might be disturbing to my new bedfellow. Despite this, I did not renew my efforts to kill them. I considered it, made half-hearted attempts, but only briefly. I did begin closing my door more often, barring the masses to their pantry dwelling, but this was mostly in the effort of privacy rather than an attempt to keep the moths at bay. I began lighting more candles, but this was more in the effort of mood-setting rather than moth extermination. Sometimes, as those candles flickered at my bedside, I would hear that quick, familiar zap and the long, slow sizzle to follow, and I would once again feel pity, maybe even regret. And sometimes, when the moon was full and its light illuminated my room at night, I would catch Jonah swatting at the moths in his sleep as they circled his head. I found myself on those nights, watching his sleepy hands in the darkness, half-waving in the air above his gently rising and falling chest, uncertain as to where my regret belonged.
When I turned eighteen and left home, as so many teenaged girls do, I got a butterfly tattoo. It's located on my right hip, and the blacks and reds of the ink have long since faded. It's embarrassing now, but I'm sure it meant something then. In common lore that spans cultures and centuries, the butterfly has most often represented things like beauty, growth, and eternal life. In Ancient Greek, the word psyche, like the goddess so named,was often used to mean both "butterfly" and "soul." The moth, however, despite its similarities to the butterfly, has often represented the grotesque, its symbolism given to ideas of darkness and death—consider the old Japanese horror film Mothra, or the iconic Death's Head Moth from Silence of the Lambs—and, perhaps most commonly, destruction: "How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay," asks the book of Job, "whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth?"
In the world of lepidoptery, the actual difference between butterflies and moths is uncertain. So far, it would seem, the only biological distinction concerns the shape of their antennae: while the butterfly belongs to the sub-order Rhopalocera, or "clubbed horn," the moth, who lacks the club, belongs to Heterocera, or "varied horn." Other than that, most lepidopterists contend, the differences remain unknown. What is certain, though, is this: both butterflies and moths begin as eggs and hatch to larvae—a stage during which they are young and thriving, eating their way through life; they then enter a period of darkness, weaving thick cocoons around themselves, sleeping in the dark for days or weeks or even months; and then, eventually, whenever they or perhaps other, external forces determine it's time—when the afternoon sun of a late fall day shines a certain way, maybe, or when the moon hangs in the night sky at just the right degree—they break forth from the darkness they created and back out into the light of the world, as intricate, winged creatures.
Sometimes, in the pale light of early morning, our bodies pressed together upon the bed in which I slept alone for so long, Jonah runs his finger along the faded edges of my tattoo. I told him, like I've told all my lovers, that I regret having gotten it. But sometimes, maybe when fingers like his run along those lines, causing tiny follicles beneath the ink to stand on end, making the wings seem almost to break forth from my skin, I think that maybe the thing I regret no longer exists. That perhaps, instead, there's been a metamorphosis, and the small, winged thing on my hip is no longer a butterfly—that it disappeared for a time into darkness, and emerged again as a moth.
The moths in my house are still around. It seemed, for a while, in the depths of winter, as though they'd begun to diminish. But now, as winter has slowly begun to press on to spring, the warm rains of April just around the corner, they seem to have returned. Their presence comes in waves—at times they are many; at others I rarely see them at all. But even when they seem at their weakest, I will still see a stray, all brown and blurred in flight, sail out from behind a cabinet door. I'll still see one, solitarily perched—sometimes so still that I can't tell whether it's alive or dead—atop a box of oats. One might still flutter out from behind my bedroom curtains when I pull them open in the morning to let in the light. And sometimes, at night, one fated, frantic thing will still spiral headlong into the candle I keep burning by my bed. I'm sure that eventually they'll be gone entirely; their time under the warmth of my roof will have passed, and they will pick up and move on. Or perhaps they'll stay here in this house and I'll be the one who goes first. Either way, when their constant fluttering about my head has ceased, when the buzz of their flight has gone, I'm sure I'll remember again how much I loved the quiet. But sometimes, mostly on the rare nights when I'm alone, I still hear that old familiar hum of wings beating fast inside the soft yellow lampshade by my bed. On those nights, I'll leave the light on.
This piece was inspired by, and written somewhat in response to, Virginia Woolf's essay "The Death of the Moth" [here]. It is part of a collection of essays about, among other things, destruction, memory, and loneliness.