Separated by the Wingspan of a Moth
by Pia Ghosh-Roy
The moth is blackish-brown, as nondescript as a Tuesday. But it is not a Tuesday, it is a Friday. I see the moth on the windowpane as I’m about to leave for work. I consider opening the window and brushing it out, but we’re running late for school. We pick up our bags, and leave. Outside, the pavements and roads are separated by gutters of gold, leaves that the trees have squandered. My daughter jumps on them, but they don’t crunch. The night’s dew has left them limp. I tug her hand, and we hurry on.
It’s dark by the time I pick her up from the after-school club, a long day. The leaves, now light and crisp, rustle in the wind, lift off the pavement and whirl around our ankles like autumnal dervishes. We chase each other through it, glad our week is dusted off. At home, the moth is still there, in exactly the same spot. I put my bag down, walk towards the window and reach for the latch. My other hand lifts, ready to flap the insect out into the evening. But as the latch loosens and lifts, I see that the moth is not blackish-brown, nor nondescript.
The light of day behind the windowpane has quietened. It reveals details I had not seen before—the moth is charcoal grey, with linen wings. Delicate and strong. Its edges feather out like lace. A moth in mourning clothes, about to attend a funeral. Funerals, which offer their own kind of beauty, dark silhouettes moving with a slow and sad grace, gestures of kindness and condolences bathed in stained-glass light, eulogies echoing under domed ceilings.
Virginia Woolf wrote an essay called ‘The Death of the Moth’. She too found a moth on her windowpane in a long-ago autumn. Her moth was not calm and still like mine, but in frantic motion, flying from one corner to another. As if driven delirious by the vigour beyond the window—the countryside, the farmers with their ploughs, the horses, the rooks soaring up to the treetops in joyous clamour.
Woolf finds the creature both marvellous and pathetic: its small downy body “a tiny bead of pure life”, yet its existence so insignificant. This is how the essay begins. But then, there is a slowing down, a shift. The moth grows tired, and its flutters begin to hint at something more final. Woolf realises that the creature’s excitement had, in fact, been a restless death-dance. Before long, the moth falls to the window sill, and lies with its legs clawing the air.
Woolf picks up a pencil to help it upright, but stops herself. One must let life and death take their natural course, she thinks. So, she sits by the window and attends to the moth’s last moments. “One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing I knew, had any chance against death.”
I don’t brush my moth out. I put the kettle on, and wonder why moths make us walk into the darker crevices of our mind, and if that is why they are often flicked off our bodies in fear. Why do we flinch away from moths but not from butterflies? It’s not an instinct we’re born with; toddlers approach both with excitement. But that changes. Why does it change? When does it change? Is it around the same time we stop jumping on autumn leaves?
The kettle boils, I make my tea and walk back to the window with my cup, and my questions. I think of how instead of a flick or a flinch, a butterfly flies in to soft sounds of pleasure. Oh, look! we say as we lift our faces to the pale breeze of its wings. We hold up a curved forefinger, hoping it will sit, if only for a second. We’d feel like a flower.
Flower, fire. Wings gently opening and closing on one, wings scorching and igniting in the other. Writers are drawn to the beautiful violence of the latter like moth to a flame. Annie Dillard also wrote an essay called ‘Death of a Moth’. Almost the same title as that of Virginia Woolf’s, except for its choice of article—Woolf writes about the moth, Dillard about a moth. Small difference. Or maybe not.
Dillard is less concerned with death, and more with ‘the after’. What does one leave behind? She is alone in a tent in the Blue Ridge Mountains rereading James Ramsey Ullman’s ‘The Day on Fire’, a novel on Rimbaud that had, years ago, made her want to become a writer. She’s hoping that the book will bring out the words again. That in its pages she would, perhaps, find the passion and purpose she’d found when she was sixteen.
It is while reading this book, in her tent, that she sees a moth fly into her candle. Death, in this case, is instantaneous; the moth is “caught, burned dry, and held”. Her words are like explosions on the page. Like axe falling and falling on a stump and splitting open the flesh of wood. When her moth dies, it is “flamed, frazzled, and fried”. Its wings are “ignited like tissue paper”. Its legs “clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased”. But it is not the end of it. The burned skeleton of the moth sticks to the wax, and becomes a second wick. It creates a thicker flame that burns for hours, lighting up things in the forest Annie Dillard had not noticed before. She sits there in mothlight, with Rimbaud’s poetry, all fire, all burning.
A Saturday evening in London: we were on our way to see Matilda the Musical, my daughter, my husband and I, it was my daughter’s birthday. This memory comes unbidden as I sip my tea, it slides in between my erratic flutterings of thought. Us getting off at King’s Cross, heading towards the Underground, falling into the push of people. Then, the escalator, Piccadilly Line to Covent Garden. The escalator on which we would pupate. On which we would push our way out, into a new kind of awareness, and turn into moths.
This is a unique and awkward awareness, one that is missing in those who grow up in countries where everyone wears the same skin. An awareness of being an Other. Of colour as Identity. You never quite forget your initiation into this awareness—because for the first time, something happens to make you walk out of yourself for a fraction of a second, turn around, and see what others see. You see that your body is the border of a country, and that its particular shade of Pantone predefines your person. Once this initiation is over, your blessed and naive blindness never really returns.
I notice my face reflected on the glass of the window now. The thought of a reflection reflecting on things makes me smile. My face on the window-pane is a mosaic of trees and buildings, the moth sits on my left cheekbone, which is filled with the naked branches of a birch running on my skin like exposed veins. I blink, my eye readjusts and sharpens, and the outline of my face disappears. I’m all trees and buildings now.
Human eyesight is prone to illusions. Our sight stops us from seeing clearly. It shrouds our mind. We’re fooled by it, limited by it, led astray by it. Our eyes invariably label things in haste: normal, weird, gross, gorgeous. It divides our world into moths and butterflies.
Moth. A dull, heavy word. Even without ever seeing the creature, you could guess that the world saw little beauty in it. Moth, goth, sloth. My daughter looks up from the picture she’s drawing, and I realise I’ve said the words out loud. Moth, goth, sloth, she repeats. They are words that end abruptly, like a tiresome book slammed shut. Unlike ‘butterfly’, which is a word to linger on. Butterfly. Feel it unfurl softly in your mouth before it fades on the tongue. It is made up of all the things we love: the smooth warmth of butter, the weightless freedom of flight.
That evening in London, as we headed towards the Piccadilly Line to take the Underground to Covent Garden, a group of women walked past us talking and laughing. We stepped onto the escalator after them. They were probably in their forties, white, British. It was Saturday, they were dressed for a night out, in high heels and high spirits.
As we started to descend, one of the women turned around, leaned in very close to us, and shouted. You having a good time tonight? Her friends turned around too, they all laughed.
My daughter inched closer to us. She knew there were different kinds of laughs, she knew this was not a friendly one. Sitting here with my tea, I can see them now, I can hear the words that would follow.
Our sight is chiselled slowly over many years. Chiselled into a point-of-view. Through inherited opinions and overheard conversations, through movies and the media. They’re then embellished with conveniently chosen details, details on which we focus to the exclusion of all other details: butterflies drink nectar, moths eat up our clothes. The poor moths know nothing of this narrow narrative, they go about doing what moths do (including drinking nectar). This narrative is our own. Yet, we don’t own it, it owns us. We are slaves to the stories in our heads, we are slaves to our seeing.
Before I could answer the woman’s question, one of her friends spoke up. She spoke with a flick of her wrist, a brush of her hand. ‘Don’t bother with these people, they don’t know any English!’ It made her friends laugh louder.
I sensed my husband stiffen next to me, about to say something. Chhere dao, I said, let it go. I was not going to spoil our daughter’s birthday. The women started threading their way down the escalator. When they reached the bottom, one of them turned back. ‘Speak English. Eng. Lish. Hear? Or get out of our country!’ Then they all disappeared.
Their words stayed behind. People next to us looked ahead, their necks stiff with embarrassment. I was not embarrassed. An earlier version of me, a younger version of me, might have been, but not this one. We were not the ones laid exposed.
‘Why were they not nice to us, Ma?’ my daughter asked. Her voice was small, she clutched my hand. We’d had occasion to talk about racism before, but this did not come to her mind. Their school had just finished an Anti-Bullying Week, and to her, the women’s behaviour looked like bullying. To recognise the cause of this particular kind of bullying as ‘race’ would require her to see herself as an Other, which she did not do yet. It would require her to question why they’d said ‘our country’, when she too was born here, lived here, went to school here. It would require her to accept that people could look at your skin-colour and think they could sum you up.
When we see someone and reject them based on race, that rejection becomes a part of their history. Just like this little incident, and others like it, would be part of my daughter’s. Part of her Othering.
We walked into the relative privacy of the tunnelled platform, and found an empty bench. My husband and I sat down, pulled her in between us, we spoke in turns, we let three trains pass.
‘Grown-ups don’t always know right from wrong.’
‘Sometimes they’re uncomfortable with people who look or sound different.’
‘Maybe they didn’t grow up with friends from other countries, other cultures.’
She listened to us.‘Is that why Brexit’s happening?’
‘One of the reasons, yes.’
We could see her thinking. ‘If they had friends like us would they change their minds?’ she asked.
‘Absolutely. They might not know much about India, or the languages we speak there.’
‘But the British lived in India for a very long time,’ she said.
‘Three hundred years. Yes.’
‘Then why don’t they want us to live here now?’ she asked.
‘Not everyone here knows that part of British history well. The schools teach you all about Britain in the world wars, but not about its colonial past…’
‘You mean how Britain ruled other countries?’
‘That’s right. Have you had lessons on that?’
‘So, you see…children often don’t know. And many of them grow up into adults who don’t know.’
‘But you know what we know?’
‘What?’ she asked.
‘We know…that a very special little girl has turned eight today! Eight, imagine! So, we have to get on a train right now to go watch Matilda, and not waste another minute of this evening! What do you say?’ We smiled, danced our eyebrows, jumped up from the bench, and pulled her up with us.
She smiled back, and nodded.‘Matilda!’ she said.
Thankfully, it was still easy to set her world to rights. And by the time we reached Covent Garden Station, I found my sense of humour coming back. The whole thing had been like a parody.
The irony of it was not lost on me either—on that escalator our knowledge of English wouldn’t have been questioned had we been, say, a white French family who spoke not a word of English. The women had not been talking to us at all, they’d been talking to the caricatures of brown people who lived in their heads.
Caricaturists must work quickly. It is easier to reduce a face down to its nose with short, rapid glances than with long, slow study. Looking at the subject too closely and too long does not serve the task of oversimplification and exaggeration. It’s a difficult art to master, it requires you to train your eye to a single-minded seeing. But, use those eyes to see the world, and you run the risk of becoming a caricature yourself.
The longer I study my moth on the windowpane, the more I feel like I’ve never truly seen a moth before—the tiny flecks on its body shine gloss on matt, its wings end like the deckled pages of a book. It has a story to tell. The closer I look, the farther I am from brushing it away.
So much depends on the force with which a wrist is flicked, a hand is brushed. It is what decides whether a moth will simply fly out of the way and into the shadows, or break its wings and never fly again. In these times of fake news, there are so many I wish were fake. The aftermath of Brexit. Of Trump. The collective loss of sense. Refugees left rootless, immigrants made unwanted. Children stripped off their parents. The far-right scratching at doors all over Europe.
The light in the window has changed now, the sun has almost set. The sky, all ink except for a streak of amber, looks like I feel. Under this vast and beautiful sky, some will continue to flinch away from each other. Some will continue to think and mutter and shout Go back, go back, go back! And every time they think this and say this, we will all go back. We will regress together. In this, no race will be spared.
That Saturday, when we finally emerged from the Underground and onto the street in Covent Garden, the sky was as dark as it is now, the streetlights were on. We breathed in the cool air, waited for the crowd to ease off the pavement and into their evenings. Then, we beat the air with our moth-wings, and flew towards a patch of light. We reclaimed our day, gave our daughter the birthday she’d waited for.
My tea is cold now, my back is stiff. Sitting by the window these memories flit in and out, yet the moth stays in its place. I can barely see the texture of its wings anymore, they blend into the black outside.
I’ve heard that when a moth is about to die, it chooses a spot—a tree, a wall, a window—and sits still, very still, for days, waiting for death to come. When its end arrives, the body of the moth is simply blown away by the breeze. Or by the moist breath of a person exhaling on a windowpane. And that is all. It cares little for what others think. It lives its life, does its work, and leaves in grace.
My husband comes home, we make dinner together, we chop and stir and talk, the three of us vote for what to watch on Friday Movie Night, I forget all about the moth. The next morning, when we come downstairs, it is gone. And there is no mark on the windowpane.
My moth, Woolf’s moth, Dillard’s moth, they’re all separated by a wingspan. They placed themselves within the aperture of our sights, and opened themselves up to interpretation. An interpretation that fit our concerns and questions. These are not questions that always need answering, but they need to be asked. And sometimes, the asking is answer enough. It is a clearing of cobwebs.
Annie Dillard was trying to make sense of her work and its purpose. What a writer could/should/must do, and why. She’d once asked her students, “Which of you want to give your life and be writers?”. So, when her moth flew into the flame, she sees what she needs to see—how one can keep burning after they’re gone, how they can widen a flame so others might see old things in new light. This is Annie Dillard’s seeing. This is her.
Virginia Woolf’s Moth was written close to her death, published after it. Knowing that she chose to end her own life gives hers a parallel narrative, unsaid and invisible, yet loud and profoundly poignant. She too was trying to make sense of something larger than herself, and she too saw what she needed to see. The moth’s struggles, its wish to live, its inability to carry on, its final acquiescence, and its restful end. All we need to know is laid bare in her last sentence: “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.” This is Virginia Woolf’s seeing. This is her.
In my moth, I saw colour. Or a lack of it. In my moth, I saw a butterfly. Or the lack of it. Lack of. What? A sense of belonging, perhaps. A lack of tolerance. A lack of meaningful inclusion. There, on that escalator, I stood with my awareness of how fragile and fluid our identity can be when exposed to the subjective sight of strangers. I saw us as some others might, and in the days that followed, I tried to make sense of the future my daughter would inhabit. So, when my moth came, I saw what I needed to see. This is my seeing. This is me.
We all find our own moths. We slip into their bodies. We speak through them, question our world through them. Do I have the answers to my questions? No. But I’ll keep asking them, I’ll keep putting thoughts on the page. Because what else can you do but fly towards a flickering flame?
About the Author:
Pia Ghosh-Roy grew up in India. Her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies in the UK, US, India and New Zealand. She is the winner of the Hamlin Garland Award for the Short Story, and has been short- and longlisted for other prizes including the Aestas Fabula Press Award, Brighton Prize, Bath Short Story Award, Berlin Writing Prize and Fish Short Story Prize. Pia is currently working on her first novel and a collection of short stories.
‘Separated by the Wingspan of a Moth’ won the 2019 Cagibi Macaron Prize for Non Fiction, and was first published in their prize anthology. It has been republished here with permission of the author.
Image: Pétalographie de papillon de nuit, Bernard Schal, 2013 via Wikimedia Commons (cc)