The Moth's Songbydr_mabeuse©
It was a big old gothic farmhouse, and it stood there well back from the road looking uncomfortable in its suit of new wood siding-- new windows, new gutters and shingles on the roof, the porch rebuilt and still unpainted. Most of the renovation was done, but there was a dumpster out in back, and some stacks of building material still stood in the overgrown yard. The house gave the impression of a grandmother tricked out in girl's clothes for a night on the town. It didn't look right.
I pulled up in front of it under a sweltering late summer sky the color of a dirty mirror, and before I even cut the engine the front door banged open and Faith came running out. She was wearing jeans and a cotton work shirt and she looked great, tanned and tightened up, and with that elusive gloss that engagement to a guy with money can give a girl, and I saw that all the jokes I'd prepared about her becoming an Earth Mother wouldn't work at all. She wasn't the neurotic and edgy wreck of a girl I'd known from our days in the city anymore, and I felt something strange in my chest when I saw her, something like what you must feel when you see an animal you've nursed back to health running free again. She reminded me of the pain we'd shared during that time, but there was something else too. She was over it now. I really hadn't realized till then that I wasn't.
"Davey! You made it! Oh God! Look at you! You look great!"
She ran across the yard and threw her arms around me and held me tight, and above the smoky scent of the fallen leaves and the sweetness of the crushed autumn grass I smelled the soft musk of her soap and shampoo. It immediately took me back to those terrible days we spend in the city nursing each other over our broken hearts and shattered lives; desperate days, days I thought would never end.
"So you found it okay? Did you have much trouble? Was my map okay?"
"Your map was great, Faith. I just had some trouble finding County H, the sign was down."
"That's from the harvesters," she laughed. "They knock everything down this time of year. God, Davey! Look at you! I can't believe it. I am so glad to see you! Come inside, come on."
I let her drag me across the yard towards the house. Clouds of grasshoppers and little moths exploded from the weeds with every step we took. The sound of the cicadas was loud in the trees out behind the house, so loud you couldn't hear the sounds of the diesel engines in the big harvester that crawled around in the fields half a mile away, looking like a kid's toys in that expanse of emerald green.
"Todd's still at work but he promised he'd be back for dinner: he's really dying to meet you. Meanwhile I've got so much to tell you, and I want to hear everything you've been up to."
"Listen, Faith," I began. "I've been thinking about this. I passed a motel back on I-90 and I think maybe it would be better if I stayed there. Less awkward and all."
She stopped on the stairs and looked back at me. Her gray eyes, which I remembered so well red-rimmed and filled with tears, were clear now and even mischievous. She was alarmingly beautiful.
"Todd knows all about us, Davey. I've told him everything. He understands. In fact, that's why he wants to meet you. He wants to thank you for saving my life."
"I didn't save your life," I said. "You would have been fine."
She gave me a look that said we both knew better.
"Have you heard anything from her lately?"
"Not since the time I told you about on the phone. It's just as well. You were right: there's really nothing between us anymore. I still had her grandmother's table cloth and some crap she wanted, so I sent it to her, and that was it."
She examined me, peering into my face with sisterly concern and said, "It's not laughing time yet, is it? Not for you, I mean."
"No. Not quite yet it isn't."
She was referring to something we used to tell each other back then, when we clung to each other like survivors of some horrible disaster amidst the stormy wreckage of our lives: that someday we'd look back on it all and laugh. It became a private joke, asking each other whether we were there yet, whether it was time to laugh.
"Poor Davey," she said.
"And you? Gainfully employed and happily engaged. I guess it's time for you?"
The smile stayed on her lips but her eyes lost their shine. "I think so. I seem to be disgustingly happy. I mean, I should be. That's what I need you to tell me, Davey. But I know this: seeing you makes me happy. You'll be able to tell me. No one knows me like you do."
She was right. I could always tell how she was feeling even if she couldn't tell herself, and that's why I was here, only this time it was fairly obvious that something wasn't quite right. She'd admitted as much to me during our phone calls, calls that had become more frequent since her engagement to Todd. She should have been supremely happy—a good job, an engagement, the newly renovated house--and instead there was a cloying feeling of something being not quite right, something she couldn't quite put her finger on.
She showed me the house: the huge plasma TV and sound system in the living room, the expensive furniture and Peshawar carpets on the polished hardwood floors. The new kitchen with the industrial range and fridge, the huge bathrooms and multi-head showers, the Seth Thomas clocks and expensive antiques. She showed me the master bedroom, rather austere, with an antique shaker bed and armoire, and she showed me the room they had made up for me down the hall, a former child's room, overlooking the vast fields behind the house. I was going to mention the motel again, but I knew Faith wouldn't hear of it.
Todd did very well for himself. He was in biotech, and had worked for a big agri-business for some years doing genetic research and gene-splicing before he'd quit and gone off to found his own private research and consulting company in the same area. He worked ferocious hours, but it had paid off for him, and he'd hit it big in cut-worm protection, finding a way to sterilize male cutworm moths so the females would lay infertile eggs. Sterilized cutworm moths had paid for the farmhouse, had paid for his BMW, and had paid for the rock on Faith's finger.
Noctuidae moths had been very good to Todd Burrows. He was an expert on their genetics and they seemed to repay his interest, for as the sun went down and the clouds parted, they began to rise in nebulous clouds from the misty fields, getting ready for their night of activity. They began to flit across the porch and even land on us, forcing Faith to cover her wine glass with her hand. She shuddered
"Come on," she said. "Let's go inside. I can't stand these things. They're everywhere and they'll only get worse as the sun goes down. They wake up to feed."
"Why are there so many?" I asked, because already there were twenty or more crawling around the porch light.
"Todd thinks he somehow got some pheromone on his clothes at the lab and brought it home. It's on the house now somewhere, and we don't know where. It brings them from miles around and totally freaks me out. I can't stand them. Every night it's like this. I can't wait for winter."
I worked in chemistry, and part of the reason that Todd and I were supposed to get along so well was because we could talk science to each other, even though the areas of overlap between his field and mine were tenuous at best. I worked with drugs for humans; he worked with insect and plant genetics. Faith knew the difference, but she was hoping we'd connect. She wanted us to get along.
We went inside and Faith closed the door and put on the air conditioner. We'd been talking about nothing personal, just mutual friends and changes to our old neighborhood. Faith had been living with a musician named Eric when Jean and I moved in on the first floor on their building. Jean went to visit her mother in Greece a few weeks after we'd moved in, and then had decided that maybe it would be best if she stayed on for a while, maybe the whole winter, maybe more. There was so much to see and do in Greece and after all, what was she going to do in Chicago with me except watch me flop from one crappy job to another, coming home pissed off and surly on those nights when I didn't come home flat-out stoned? We both knew it had been a mistake for her to move out from California to be with me, though neither of us would admit it. When she first told me of her plans to stay in Greece I was actually glad to be free of the responsibility for her happiness. It wasn't until three days later that it hit me and I fell apart.
It was Faith who got me through the heartbreak and total wreck of my life in the months that followed, who actually took me back down to the U to register for the classes I needed to finish my degree, laterally dragging me along by the hand. But whatever had come between Jean and me, it seemed to be contagious because a month after Jean left me, Eric moved out on Faith. They hadn't been together that long, but still for me, who'd lost everything, they seemed like a rock of commitment, and I used to envy their relationship when Faith would invite me up for dinner. Eric would sit in the living room and watch the game or listen to music, and Faith and I would sit in the kitchen and talk. Neither of us had any idea that he was seeing someone else.
No matter how many times Faith denied it, I felt as though Jean's leaving me had given Eric the idea, and I felt responsible. Faith took it hard and her life fell apart, just as mine had: the same deep depression, the same thoughts of suicide. It was remarkable how little we had other than our shaky relationships: no jobs, no social life, no other friends. We clung to each other like drowning people, and there'd been times when we were honestly afraid to let the other one out of our sight, not knowing what they might do. Not knowing what we ourselves might do if left alone. We became inseparable. Our doors were always open.
We tried sex, but it was really no good. It wasn't what we needed at the time, and so I was limp and she was dry and besides, you can't make love and cry at the same time, so it was just no good, but it was a sign of how close we were that we could actually laugh about it. We lay naked in bed together holding each other and laughing and crying, and that's pretty much how we spent that horrible winter.
And now it was all coming back, but without the tears. She'd graduated from Columbia with a degree in broadcast journalism and taken a job in the tiny market of Bartlett Wisconsin producing a local cable news show, met Todd Burrows and gotten engaged, and now as we sat in her kitchen and talked, the kitchen Todd had bought her, I realized that I was really in love with her. I'd never opened myself up to another human being the way I'd opened myself up to Faith, and she'd seen the very worst of me and hadn't pulled away. She'd accepted me and loved me in spite of it--or maybe loved me because of it, I don't know--and I knew now that I'd loved her all along. My grief over losing Jean had blinded me to it. I'd been standing too close to Faith to see.
She loved me too. I could tell in the way she handled her wine glass, the way she held her head and the look of complete understanding in her eyes, the sweet reluctant sadness that always broke through when she started to talk about Todd and the way she quickly steered the conversation back to us, to things we'd done and things we'd said. She wasn't ready to marry this guy. She just couldn't yet tell herself that.
It had been a big mistake for me to come see her like this. I knew that now. It could only cause trouble.
"I don't know," she said when I finally cornered her about her lack of happiness and the things she'd hinted about on the phone. "I think I might have picked up something. Some bug or something, like Lyme disease or West Nile virus. I've got these funny marks."
I didn't think her problem was physical.
"Yeah. And I have spells, just like an old form wife. Not dizzy spells really, but the kind of thing where you feel like you can't quite wake up, or tell if something was a dream or not."
"What kind of marks?"
Faith looked at me for a moment, making up her mind, then she stood up and leaned over the table, pulling down her collar to show me the swell of her breast. There was a reddish ring on her skin about an inch in diameter, an oval really, almost like a bite mark but not as big. I thought at first it might be a love bite but it was too evenly round, with no tooth marks. Besides, Faith would have known what a bite mark was and wouldn't have shown me something like that. As it was, I felt a disconcerting twinge in my stomach when I saw the swell of flesh above her fetching, lacey bra and thought of another man biting her like that. That breast had been mine for the taking once, and I still remember what it felt like in my hand, the way she cradled my head and sniffed back her tears as I kissed her nipples, trying to make her pain go away. I think it was the best I was ever able to make her feel, and when nothing else would work, I would just kiss and play with her breasts, and it gave us both some peace.
"There are more," she said. Then her mouth curled in a naughty grin and she said, "Maybe I can show you later?"
The lift to her eyebrows told me she was teasing, but only just. I was shocked by the surge of excitement I felt.
Headlights suddenly swept over the front of the house and there was the crunch of tires on gravel. Through the living room windows I could see clouds of moths and grasshoppers in the headlights of Todd's Beemer as it rolled up the driveway like an alligator climbing up on a sunny bank. I also saw a sudden tightness take over Faith's features, and anxiety in her eyes. She knew I saw it, and she gave me a quick, pleading look, not to say anything.
She met him at the back door with a wifely kiss that for all its cool domesticity still made my heart sink, and Todd came over with a big smile and shook my hand, but it was already too late. I tried to like him for Faith's sake, but the damage had been done. Maybe it was simple jealousy, or maybe it was the expensive suit or the fashionable glasses so out of place in this old farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere, or maybe it was just the smugness of a man who had something I suddenly wanted, but I just couldn't. Faith's old life and her future collided there in that kitchen, and I took the brunt of it. I felt strangely shabby and out of place, some hobo from the past that Faith was feeding for old time's sake. I decided I'd really better stay in that motel.
Todd wouldn't hear of it though. He'd stopped and bought aged New York strips from a specialty purveyor in town, and Faith had apparently told him the name of some rare single-malt scotch that I'd mentioned once when I was trying to impress her, because Todd had bought two bottles. One he opened right away, and the other was for me to take home with me: a kind of souvenir of my visit.
We sat in the living room sipping the scotch and trying to find something to talk about that didn't involve Faith
He wasn't a bad guy, he just wasn't for Faith. I'd known her wild side, her desperate, dope-smoking, excesses, and I knew that there was no way she could ever put her arms around him and lean her head against his and cry like she did with me when she needed to. I just couldn't see her arranging his arms around her so that he held her just the way she wanted to be held, and find shelter and comfort in his embrace, and there was no way she would ever turn those gray eyes to him and ask him if she really truly was beautiful and if he wasn't just saying that. It was just all wrong.
At one point I was looking out the living room window at the scene outside illuminated by the overhead yard light. There really were way too many bugs out there: clouds of them, and the sealed and air-conditioned house had the feel of a place under siege. I turned back from the window to say something about it, and caught Todd as he was taking a sip of his drink. It was just an instant, and his head was down and to the side so I couldn't quite see, but I had the impression that he had both his lips over the surface of the drink, as if he were sucking it up directly from the surface like a bug.
~ ~ ~
They both went upstairs--he to change, and Faith for some other reason--though I know they were up there talking about me. I began to get kind of sick, sitting in his house, drinking his whiskey, knowing now what I'd lost. I got up and turned off the stereo, and in the silence I heard a soft puttering sound, coming from the windows in the side of the house. I pulled back the curtain and looked out and saw hundreds of fluttering shapes bouncing and knocking against the windows: the moths, attracted to the lights of the house, attracted to whatever kind of contaminant Todd had brought back from work, throwing their soft furry bodies against the screens, walking up and down and fluttering their wings in agitation. There was something nauseating about it.
"Come on," Todd said, as he trotted down the stairs in his jeans, "I'll show you my green house. Faith calls it the bug house. This should interest you."
We went out the back door and across the yard. The moths were attracted to the lights from the yard and the house and left us pretty much alone, although every so often one would catch in my hair or stumble across the back of my neck. The soft, furry, fairy kiss of their wings made my skin crawl, but Todd didn't seem to mind, even when they landed in his hair.
The tables of plants in the greenhouse were all covered in nets of cheesecloth, and as soon as he switched the lights on things began to flutter beneath them like little ghostly shadows. For the first time I became aware of a sound, a very soft, sputtery sound, like the soft cooing sound of doves, only drier and darker somehow: a very nocturnal sound. It was the sound of the moths.
"Yes, they sing," Todd said. "Some of the Noctuidae have tympanum membranes on their thorax, and they make that little putter sound when they're looking for mates. They're fascinating, really. And under-appreciated. There's over ten thousand species of moths, way more than there are butterflies, but because almost all of them are nocturnal we never even see them."
On one table stood a supply of bottles and chemicals, and I walked over. Mostly nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers, but I also noticed some smaller bottle from a pharmaceutical supplier. Ibogaine and yohimbine. Both of them are naturally occurring hallucinogenic compounds, but they're also involved in plant metabolism, so I didn't think twice about them. There was also gamma-amino butyric acid: GABA, tightly controlled now because it was the premiere date-rape drug, used for rendering its victims senseless. It registered briefly, but then Todd called me over and I forgot about it. My mind was on other things.
"Moths are nocturnal," Todd said. "They're really just waking up about now. That's why most people don't pay them much attention: they do all their business at night. Moths pollinate more flowers than bees do. Any flower that's open at night is probably pollinated more by moths than by bees: evening primrose, lycanthus, hollyhocks. Look. Here's who I'm working with now."
He pulled back the cloth over a frame and stuck in his hand and came out holding a moth about an inch and a half across: bigger than a moth had a right to be. Todd held it by a leg as the moth vibrated its wings wildly, then settled down and folded them across its back and began to crawl over his hand. Its wings were marked with brown circles and lines on a tan background; its body was fat and covered with rust-colored fur.
"This is Escherigea etops. Those circles on his wings are called eyespots. The moth spreads its wings when it's threatened and predators think they're eyes of some bigger animal. Those lines on his wings look like teeth. Scares off the birds. I know this little guy inside and out. Have the entire genome worked out, know what everything does. We've been doing some gene swapping, etops and me, haven't we buddy?"