“Lessons from A Dead Moth”
Between the ages of 8 and 14, I spent part of each summer with relatives who lived in East Meadow, Long Island; my escape from a small three room apartment in Brooklyn and its pressures of disappointment and rumble of subway cars heading to Manhattan and Brighton Beach. During those summers, I joined my slightly older cousin in his then passion of butterfly catching...or, more often, the stalking and pursuit of butterflies in suburban fields, wood and undeveloped lot.
In early morning and near dusk, we would wait patiently, breathe slowly, watch 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 breeze accompanying the opening and closing of a long day.
When I was older and described those moments in the blossoming years of Earth Day and Marvin Gaye singing of the ecology, I was advised that when my earthly days were over, my soul will be captured by a million sticky feet as it seeks final release; the beating of millions of wings, mocking me as their rainbow dust covers my mouth and eyes so my cries will not be heard, carrying me to an expanse of cracked and forgotten earth, my soul lowered to a place of species redress 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.
Such may be my fate in the mystery to come, but maybe a bit of confession may offer redemption.
I am walking in Prospect Park when Spring is beginning to outpace the chilling 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 perhaps escape disturbance from prey, human or other.
However, my intent is clear and I find the chrysalis. It is heavy and fat from metamorphosis and building desire to be free.
But I have other plans.
I break the branch to which the life transforming case is bound by once wet but now hardened filaments spun from a mouth now changed and ready for a new life.
But I have other plans.
In my apartment, I have taken 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 gaze eyes to get in.
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 being I could control.
I placed the branch inside the box and waited. Within two days the chrysalis began to rock back and forth, evidence of pushing from within appearing at several points. When I returned from a brief errand outside, I saw the Cecropia Moth emerging.
Smiling, I ran outside and across the street to the park. I gathered what plants, flowers and stems I thought useful and necessary. I returned home and placed them inside the box. The moth was sitting on the branch, still flexing its wet and discovered wings, large and lush with color.
Watching, as the moth fully opened its wings and was motionless, I had 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 rumbling 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.
And then, 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.
But then 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 like to think it was this egg laying that moved me, but I can't really be sure. What I do know is that I decided to take the moth out of the box and let it be free within the apartment. Whatever impulse 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.
Instead, much to my mother's consternation, 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 comply, but always seek that moment when I could free it; but never 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 creature 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 keep saying "it"; I never offered a name. 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 down the building hallway to the door that opened to the incinerator chute. I pulled down the chute, placed the bag at the lip and gently pushed it forward. I watched it slide down and into the sooty warm shaft, down into the smoldering mass of garbage in the basement.
Later when I went outside and looked up, I saw gray smoke coming from the vent on the building 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.
Because I never went butterfly catching again.