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"Death of a Moth"
by Annie Dillard

 

     I live alone with two cats, who sleep on my legs. There is a yellow one, and a black one whose name is Small. In the morning, I joke to the black one, Do you remember last night? Do you remember? I throw them both out before breakfast, so I can eat. 
     There is a spider, too, in the bathroom, of uncertain
lineage, bulbous at the abdomen and drab, whose six-inch mess of web works, works somehow, works miraculously, to keep her alive and me amazed. The web is in a corner behind the toilet, connecting tile wall to tile wall. The house is new, the bathroom is immaculate, save for the spider, her web, and the sixteen or so corpses tossed on the floor. 
     Today the earwig shines darkly, and gleams what there is
of him: a dorsal curve of thorax and abdomen, and a smooth pair of pincers by which I knew his name. Next week, if the other bodies are my indication, he'll be shrunk and gray, webbed to the floor with dust. The sow bugs beside him are curled and empty, fragile, a breath away from brute fluff. The spiders lie on their sides, translucent and ragged, their legs drying in knots. The moths stagger against each other, headless, in a confusion of arcing strips of chitin like peeling varnish, like a jumble of buttresses for cathedral vaults, like nothing resembling moths, so that I would hesitate to call them moths, except that I have had some experience with the figure Moth reduced to a nub. 
     Two summers ago, I was camped alone in the Blue Ridge
Mountains of Virginia. I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, The Day on Fire, by James Ullman, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read every day sitting by a tree, while warblers sang in the leaves overhead and beside worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet, and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths seeking mates massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring. 
     Moths kept flying into the candle. They would hiss and
recoil, reeling upside down in the shadows among my cooking pans. Or they would singe their wings and fall, and their hot wings, as if melted, would stick to the first thing they touched- a pan, a lid, a spoon-so that the snagged moths could struggle only in tiny arcs, unable to flutter free. These I could release by a quick flip with a stick; in the morning I would find my cooking stuff decorated with torn flecks of moth wings, ghostly triangles of shiny dust here and there on the aluminum. So I read the book, and boiled water, and replenished candles, and read on. 
     One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt
dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when the shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspread, flapped into the fire, drooped abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, and frazzled in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, like angels' wings, enlarging the circle of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine; at once the light contracted again and the moth's wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Her head was a hole lost to time. All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax-a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle's round pool. 
     And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton,
began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth's body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the shattered hole where her head should have been, and widened into a flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like an immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two winding flames of identical light, side by side. The moth's head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out. 
     She burned for two hours without changing, without
swaying or kneeling-only glowing within, like a boiling fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brain in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet. 
     So. That is why I think those hollow shreds on the bathroom
floor are moths. I believe I know what moths look like, in any state.
     I have three candles here on the table which I
disentangle from the plants and light when visitors come. The cats avoid them, though Small's tail caught fire once. I rubbed it out before she noticed. I don't mind living alone. I like eating alone and reading, I don't mind sleeping alone. The only time I mind being alone is when something is funny, when I am laughing at something funny, I wish someone were around. Sometimes I think it is pretty funny that I sleep alone. 

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was a French poet, adventurer, and merchant-trader. -Eds.

Harper's Magazine, May 1976.