What I want more than anything is to find words to do justice to the taste of sweetness: honey, syrup, caramel, fruit, the nectar I tried to collect as a girl from the honeysuckle vines that grew along the chain-link fence bordering the yard of our Bronx apartment.
“It might take a little time,” my mother would say, finding me out on the deck again, a mason jar between my legs. I pulled the stamen out of the yellowed blossom to study the bead of nectar resting on the tiny ball. I wanted to collect the juice. I wanted it to drop like rain and fill the jar.
Instead I felt the stamen like a soft thread on the tongue as the flavor filled my mouth. How many lives were altered in the moment between the first time I tasted honeysuckle and swallowed? How much life can fit in the time it takes for the palate to register sweetness? Someone has given birth, teenagers are falling in love, strangers are fornicating in dark alleys, a child is cutting herself, another jumps from a ledge.
Not long ago, a friend called to tell me that the fruit stand on Houston Street is gone, and for a whole day all I could think about was a boy I once loved. We would stop to share a peach after a movie at the Angelika, wrinkle our noses at the prunes, give names to the kumquats, and see who could keep a date on our tongue the longest before biting and swallowing. All the while he told me stories about the fruit trees in Romania, where he was born. Somewhere, a man reaches into his pocket and slips a lemon drop between his grand-daughter’s lips, tells her it cures thirst in the desert and keeps the mind sharp. Somewhere else, another traces his wife’s lips with ice cubes as she takes her last breath, while the flowers by her bedside pulse. And I imagine that somewhere a jar is filling with every luster she has known.
Can we preserve the sense of taste? If these were canopic jars used during Egyptian rituals, perhaps it would be the tongue I might snip, wrap diligently in gauze, and place inside the jar, so I could look at it through the raised glass berries and the Ball name insignia. I’d add it to the specimens of eye, ear, nose, the rough pads of the fingers, and orient them each in a different direction. These specimens should be gathered in a capsule built sometime in the 1980s, when I stepped fully into my skin and began scavenging through the sharp-edged city for its soft corners and sweetness, most of which I found in my mother’s garden because “When you have a garden, you have a kingdom,” which is something I might have read somewhere on the cover of House & Home while standing in line at the grocery store, or on a bumper sticker somewhere in New England, but that nonetheless feels true.
If I had a kingdom, I would trade it for a light-filled house. If I had a house, I would trade it for a cozy apartment. And vice versa, and again—as long as there was a table set for two, and a jar full of honey. I would make dinner and invite Michel de Montaigne, shower him with bonbons and toffee, saccharine bourbon, a demi-glace, and see if he still claims that “we taste nothing pure.” And then I might digress into memory, tell him about my first lesson in indulgence: one part ouzo, which I stole from the neighbor’s pantry, one part Kahlúa, which my father kept beneath the kitchen sink—all floral anise and vanilla, syrupy coffee and sugarcane—how it made my body shake, made me swear off sweetness for years.
What I want more than anything is to find words to describe the scent of Sundays: wood polish, lemon juice, sunlight. The smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap after my mother wiped down the furnishings—crouching along the baseboards, kneeling before the cedar chest with the moth-riddled linens of dead ancestors who dined on scotch and soda, hosted a weekly bridge night, and retired each day with thin mints and a nightcap after the evening news.
By midday the apartment brimmed with sunlight. The rugs were draped and beaten outside. The vacuum cleaner caught its breath before being returned to the hall closet. I lay on the wood floor, feeling the cool flatness against my shoulder blades. If only I could melt into the surface, flatten into a slab of skin and bone and absorb the polish. And while I’m thinking of smells, I’m thinking, too, how they cling to the invisible cells of the body, the way a man might bring a glove or kerchief to his face and carry the scent of it there on the ledge of his mustache. Sundays: the smell of lemon, butterscotch, shoe polish, and resin, the faint whiff of the neighbor’s Kent cigarettes seeping through the pores of the parquet floor.
A German surrealist I met years ago in a Spanish village once sent me a matchbox filled with feathers. They were soft and gray. Phoebe? Titmouse? I was in college then, and he was too old to be sending me miniature boxes filled with nuanced charm—without instruction, without warning. I kept the box half open on the windowsill, and when the light rose like an incubator, the pale gray feathers looked oiled. Each day the image would hatch a new vision of spectacular sadness: a full-bodied Swedish cigarette girl from the 1920s who balances her tobacco tray while being groped beneath a table; a white-faced mime who counts his pocket change each evening in an invisible box and comes up short.
What I want more than anything is to soak everything in—the way the wood binges on the amber oil, swells with moisture, and wakes up dry by noon. Sunday. God’s day. In our house, the good books were the gospel of Whitman, Dickinson, Clifton, and Lowell. The polished floors made the hallway feel like the aisle of a chapel, the family chest the pew I would kneel before. Between the hours of ten and noon, the musty pages parted to scents of cedar and citrus, oysters and chamomile, a crushed pinot grape, a crisp chardonnay. Something more exotic than home: another borough; another city; port towns in Washington or Oregon; the British Isles; the Portuguese coast—which may have been where I first started to remember, a “grown-up” then, squeezing a lemon wedge over a lunch of fresh bacalhau and vinho verde.
One of those late spring days when the air wouldn’t still, I sat on the small deck outside our apartment, trying to place light in a jar. At dusk, my brother and I would escape outside to catch fireflies in the garden. They appeared, one by one, like pinholes in a construction-paper sky. As we peered into our cupped hands, their wings hid their light like an overcoat. The night air made electrons and neutrons and stars of the flying bugs, just long enough that they might greet each other, mingle for a while like strangers in a bar. And although my mason jar, whose tin lid I had pierced with nails, was ready nearby to make a bulb, somewhere my mother’s voice of reason must have warned, “Perhaps not the brightest idea.”
Fireflies were a lesson in white and black, the way my hair was once a chapter on gold, my skin a sermon on gray—the combined sum of my black father and white mother—and how nothing can be contained. The fireflies fell defiantly dim when I placed them in a jar, closing their wings like prudent schoolgirls until I let them go. The dark: only richer with the flickering beads of light. The light: nothing without the depth of the night around it.
In the years I worked in an art museum, I would often sit among the statues, brush against their smooth antiquity, and consider how odd it is that we study every detail of their forms except their color. That, the Greeks left up to us—all white marble and obsidian bronze, the spectrum in between open to our imagination. In which case, perhaps Persephone was a black girl. Maybe Athena had the full lips of a Dominican. And the goddesses depicted in fragments of the Great Eleusinian Relief? I always thought they could be Filipino, perhaps even Japanese. It’s similar to the way in old black-and-white films, no amount of set light or scenery can tell us what color dress a woman wears, the hue of her hair or the polish on her nails. If we pierce open the world and let all the color bleed through, would it be just as indiscernible? The titmouse or junco might hold steady, as would a crow or a swan, but would a canary still be a canary if captured in black and white?
Sometimes in memory no amount of light—even if all the insects in all the boroughs burned as one bulb—can make the truth clearer. Once, walking in Manhattan with a friend, we found a dead bird on a street near 5th Avenue. I watched my friend pick it up, his bare hands wrapping the small body in a strip of newspaper, and carry it to the nearest trash can, where he nestled it like a mummy in an empty coffee cup and muttered something in Spanish about the ugliness in the world. And maybe because he is Chilean and said the words just so, we ended up in Central Park necking like high schoolers on the bobbing carousel of horses, pretending we were wild and out west, pretending that we could, if we wanted to, make all of the meanness and unexplained loss disappear into the humid urban landfills.
I have read about the power of imagination, how it takes us beyond the sense of sight and may or may not be attributed to kings and saints—Augustine, Francis—with the gift of vision. Perhaps this might explain how I used to imagine myself as an invisible chorus girl in a classic film where, in the gray background, I wouldn’t have to show the other black girls how my knees got ashy like theirs, where I could avoid the white girls admiring my tan, their curious fingers drawn to the kinky roots of my hair. I might have just been Saint Clare of Assisi, Joan of Arc, Nefertiti, and if I wanted to sing, I’d be Nina Simone.
What I want is to find words to be a worthy suitor to touch, texture, and the granules of things: fossils, follicles, feathers, sand. My mother’s fingernails are secret messages. When she read to me as a girl, I would hold her hand and rub the face of her nails, trying to read the ridges in their surface, which I wanted desperately to decode like Braille or perforated parchment.
Some days I want more than anything to feel those ridges, to touch them with my lips, the way I might have put my mother’s fingers in my mouth as an infant—imagining the texture like a soapy washboard or the grooves in the highway when you’ve veered off course. A texture similar to the snow-covered steps that I fell down as a girl, the ice carving the skin beneath the sweater on my back, the same patch of skin once scarred by the teeth of a Dalmatian—the same dog whose name had something to do with sweetness (Honeybee, or Honeybun?) and whose bite made me fear the spotty nature of things, black, white, timid, wild, a pendulum between extremes.
There are days I remember the creased face of an old-fashioned lollipop that once sliced so deep it left a scar on my tongue, or the million paper cuts I’ve soothed in my mouth, like the faint line between a lover’s belly and the sex, or the trail left by tears. The seams of the body are like the lifelines of a hardwood tree.
That afternoon in Manhattan when we found the dead bird, I wanted to carry it with us, show it some kindness—a stroll through the park, a decent bottle of wine. I wanted to unwrap its dressing of newsprint and lay it on the stone footbridge under the moonlight so it would feel pretty for a night, before I let it blow off the ledge and fall. At least I could have plucked one feather and added it to my matchbox of feathers, pressed it between my fingers as if the pads of my thumb and the imprint of its down might exchange a secret.
We may never bind and shelve the wisdom of snow or the memory of feathers. They are the poets of another time. I may never know what happens to my falling hair when I comb my fingers through it or when a breeze takes it elsewhere. But I might follow this train of thought out back to the old garden, where a line of sunflowers once swayed in the wind.
Now I find strands of my hair lying like thread against the porcelain of the bathroom sink and I think how at every moment pieces of us are falling. My hair gathers in the shower drain and becomes the wet clump of a girl that used to be. My lover clips his fingernails in the bathroom, and I imagine shavings of my mother disappearing into the waste bin beneath the sink. I wish I could run inside and catch them in one of my old glass jars.
And why not consider the sound of flower stalks in the wind? In my mother’s garden, the sunflowers leaned like awkward tweens at their first school dance, all hormones and brightness. By summer’s end, their stalks grew thick like torch handles. I don’t have much to say about sunflowers except perhaps that when they reach a certain height they become immeasurable, the lankiness of their adolescence humbling. Even the breeze around them hums in applause.
Maybe the sound of sunflowers is superfluous, but there is something about their swaying that haunts me. What I want is to describe the sound of whispers and silence: a woman bending in reverence or submission, another in the child’s pose of a concubine, or the doomed mortal Clytie, who so loved Helios that she bowed to him daily.
Once in a Tarot reading I drew the card with a scene of two children in a walled garden. When I first saw the image, it wasn’t the warmth of the sun that registered in my memory. Instead, the sound of sunflower seeds cracking between my teeth, like the ghosts of Fibonacci, contained sounds of a distant past: my brother and I carrying on after one another, the shriek of bee stings, the slap and swell of mosquito bites. The secrets we learned to keep: sneaking cigarettes and booze, stealing caramels from the corner store (because my craving for sweets made me fearless) while my mother bought milk and a cup of Irish tea. The sounds that kept us quiet: subway cars screeching and moaning on the elevated tracks of Broadway, a car backfiring in the heat of the summer, a stranger in the building next door bowing a brand-new violin. Suzuki remixed against the boom box resting on the bony shoulder of a corner boy outside the pizzeria where a muffled recording of Pavarotti accompanied the owner as he bent to fill pepper shakers on checkered tables.
A block away, I knelt on skinned knees as my hair turned blonde beneath the sunflowers. I plucked their faces bare of seeds before the birds ever had a chance at them. I remember thinking how extracting each seed was like losing a tooth. And sometimes I would ache for them, cringe at the raw vacancy, remembering my own discomfort if my tongue might graze the bare tissue, wounded by loss—is that touch or taste? The lines blend; the senses bend.
Would we recognize the sound of swaying without the visual experience of seeing stalks move? Did van Gogh tongue the petals of his sunflowers in order to learn their true color? Did he press his teeth into their faces to read the pattern of their seeds? The ancients didn’t rely on color to chisel the marble torsos of the deities, but they must have known the touch of flesh, and the sight of muscle on bone. I like to think I would know my mother’s fingernails were I blind, that I could read them with my lips. I want to think that if I heard the call of a canary, I would think immediately of yellow. But who can be sure?
If truth is curated by memory, and memory administered by the body—all orifice and pulse—then I remember this: my brother and I cracking sunflower seeds between our teeth in the garden, listening for the ice cream truck, while I spit and rubbed clean the dirt on my knees, wondering why I didn’t remember being born. Why wouldn’t memory allow us that first specimen, that origin story?
What I want more than anything is to find the beginning of things, the roots and etymology of the senses, sentient myths, urban legends. What I want is to find the missing girl I have become, the face I once saw plastered on milk cartons in the 1980s that I now recognize in the bathroom mirror. Maybe she’s a little taller now, her body fully colored in, and maybe—though only slightly—she has aged.
My skin is no longer so porous, although pollen and sweetness still bring me to my knees. I still appreciate when classical meets cool. I hate substitute sugars and wall-to-wall carpeting. But what does it all mean? Yes, the poets are still the poets and bless them for surviving. And maybe because of them, some days I still wake up craving the taste of honey. I still insist on polishing the floors in my apartment, so I can lie down lazily on Sundays and listen to the church bells downtown, searching for scripture in the ridges that now mark my nails.
There on the hard wood, I’ll write my elegy. I want to be the world’s first lover, to trace its contours with my tongue, to stay for breakfast wrapped in bedsheets as it prepares coffee. I want it to tease me a little—Must you taste everything? Must you touch so much? Who will love you if you carry on in these ways?—and then in a whisper explain that we are not governed by instinct alone. We puzzle and question. We wonder and make meaning. When language fails, the formaldehyde of memory dispels our unraveling.
When the curators of the future find the time capsules of today, mine will be a mason jar. I want the world to nod indulgently as I confess this, to lick my earlobe and inhale the scent of my hair before clipping a curl into a glass jar and tightening the lid, and then to place it somewhere secret and safe—in a field, perhaps, underneath a canary in a haystack full of canaries.
1. I keep thinking about this girl I once knew who died from a fall, and the construction paper we folded and cut in the shape of wings on the evening of her memorial service. We fashioned pipe cleaners into antennae. We glued on glitter and sequins like iridescent powder on the wings of butterflies. We pinned them to a clothesline and raised the thin rope high into the rafters of the college chapel.
2. I am driving on an unpaved road toward the house I rent in the woods, home from errands and a stop at the bar. In the rutted lane ahead, a small cluster of wings appears, milk-white, black, and orange against the pale mud. I slow just before a handful of them flutter from the ground and scatter like rice tossed in the air. I swerve, cursing at the brambles scratching my passenger door, and then stop, engine idling, to watch.
3. In a 1967 interview with the Paris Review, Vladimir Nabokov claimed, “It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.” His family’s exile led to hunting trips in the Pyrenees, Berlin, Paris, and then on to North America, where his wife, Vera, drove on their epic journeys throughout the continent. Eventually Nabokov landed in the east, where his butterfly collections remain on view at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology—their wings pinned open in crucifixion, their names cataloged by species, by sex.
4. In town I meet a friend for drinks and listen to her inventory of woes, how she misses her college days, and I tell her that I’ve had it with the butterflies and country roads. But what I really mean is that I am terrified of running them over, terrified of adding to the losses I’ve collected between then and now. She laughs and orders another round and tells me about puddling—a phenomenon of lepidopteran species in which they collect on the ground, regurgitate into the dirt, and extract liquid nutrients, salts, and amino acids from the soil. Puddling is a supplement to flower nectar, she tells me, which lacks nutrients the butterflies need in order to reproduce. In most species, puddling is restricted to males and increases reproductive success.
5. I don’t remember the first time I made a list as a girl, but the obsessive tendency has been present ever since, which must have something to with my fondness for classification. In the same way the card catalog is a way to navigate the vastness of libraries, or as accession numbers give order to encyclopedic museum collections, we list things to honor them, or because noting things somehow makes them exist.
6. When I say, “a girl I once knew,” maybe I never really knew her at all. Maybe I’ve just filed away certain details, things I remember: her acute laugh, the dark waves of her hair, that she smoked Camel Lights and always left the filters wet, kept journals in high school, loved a good dirty joke and insects. And maybe I never really knew myself then either. Sometimes I can’t recall my own name, don’t recognize my handwriting when I find a scrap of paper, a sentence written on a bar coaster or a Post-it Note tucked in a book somewhere. Things I want to do before I die: Travel to Africa, Alaska, and Berlin. Spend a year in Kyoto. Fold a thousand paper cranes. Learn French. Bear children. Pilot a plane, and parachute out of it.
7. Nabokov caught his first butterfly as a boy, age seven, in the woods of his family’s country home, Vyra. Russia had been at war with Japan. In Speak, Memory he describes how he captured a swallowtail in his cap and stored it in a wardrobe only to watch it escape the next morning, dodging through the air with an intensity, he dramatically revealed, he would only find again years later in Colorado. When he found a set of dusty atlases and scientific periodicals, I imagine he might have looked up the creature’s name and written it down somewhere—that this was the start of his life list.
8. What I remember most are the petri dishes she stole from the biology lab and kept in her dorm room. Like a curator, she filled them with insect parts: cicada wings, beetle backs, and fly legs—dried appendages like cellophane or tissue-paper jewels. She had worked out a system, her own web of wisdom. Sealing our hand-rolled cigarettes with our tongues and pinching the tail end, we laughed when she told us about Nabokov’s cabinet of insect genitalia. We studied the specimens scattered around her dorm room as we experimented with a selection of pills and powders, which we wiped from our fingertips along our gums, hypothesizing the various effects: which would keep us from drying out, which would keep us up the longest with the gentle buzzing in our chests, which might let us fly.
9. Nabokov developed a particular passion for the Polyommatus blues found largely in South America. By sampling the male reproductive organs, he theorized that the Polyommatus icarus originated from ancestors in Southeast Asia, crossed the Bering Strait, and moved down to South America in a series of waves millions of years ago.
10. I don’t know when she caught her first butterfly, but at age twenty- two, her last might have been in the Colorado mesa during an expedition for the field class she was taking on Nabokov’s butterflies. She must have read about the Polyommatus blues, cracked jokes about courtship and mating behavior while admiring their majesty—that blue a shade she might brush over her eyelids or paint on her toes. At the memorial, a boy in her class with a soft crush in his voice described the sight of her: the wind-sweep of her hair, her laughter adding whimsy to the field as she hunted, bounding through the tall grass with her net.
11. Puddling is commonly observed post–monsoon season in India. During mud season in New England, too. So I keep my eyes open as I walk along the wooded roads when the light is high and the ruts in the ground swell erect and eager to dry. When I see the clustered wings in the open road, I stop. Some days up to twenty-something butterflies gather at once. When one sees another they must be reassured that the puddle is rich, and that beneath all the sludge lies nourishment. In the same way, each time I know someone who has died, not fearing death gets a little bit easier. The list has grown, and I am less afraid of the outcome than I am of the act of dying—the pain, the landing, the waiting.
12. On the night of her death, perched on her windowsill overlooking the athletic fields, she peered out too far. I imagine her there, craning her neck to see if the Frisbee that might have flown through the air below was a rare blessed blue. And when she fell four stories to the ground, having landed in the dirt and grass, she lay there as internal injuries began to kill her while the bells of Shove Chapel chimed.
13. Certain moth varieties found in Madagascar are known to puddle in tears. They hover over and probe the closed eyelids of roosting birds. I try to imagine that. Are we so different from the order of Lepidoptera? We classify them with their segmented bodies and jointed limbs, but what about this ability to drink away tears? Can such strange ritual soothe the heart? Can the single breath of a wing lull our obscure faith in chaos and disaster?
14. Nabokov died in 1977 surrounded by his family. Although fever and congestion were likely the cause, I have read that his health was further threatened after he experienced a fall during his last hunting trip to the Pyrenees. In Speak, Memory he wrote, “If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender.” I imagine his boyhood room filled with specimen boxes, and the way he might have placed his pins artfully through the thorax of his captures and into the corkboard, dabbing them with cotton, spreading open their wings. Or I picture him as an old hatless man in shorts, swinging his net, slipping and landing, taking a last sip from the ground before he went.
15. The morning after the fall, I cried into the armpit of a lover who let me grapple and pull at his skin, held me while I fought, flailing toward the stagnant and familiar pool of grief. Outside, the campus paths were tagged with graffiti—a colorful trail of stenciled wings stained the concrete. I was careful not to step on them, like cracks in a sidewalk I might have fallen through or puddles I dared not disturb.
16. If life were to consist of classified things—real or imagined, actualities or dreams—we might know ourselves by an index of correlatives, things I will try to learn and likely never get right: How to balance my checkbook. Hand-beaten egg whites. Punctuation. The difference between rhythm and rhyme, between lay and lie. The correct way to spell guarantee. Faith in a god. Faith in prayer. Patience. Stillness. Grace.
17. I think often about Nabokov’s search for butterflies and the joy they held, how difficult they are to catch, how quickly they fly before you can ever really see them—that is the shame of the living. After the freak falls and car crashes, gunshots and overdoses, it is the things themselves I’ve grown to hate: the car, the road, the windowsill, bullets and needles and pills, the trees, the ocean, the air.
18. In 2011, after years of doubt, genetic sequencing trials conducted by the Royal Society of London confirmed that Nabokov’s hypothesis concerning butterfly evolution was correct, restoring his scientific reputation. I wish it were that simple. I have no proof to validate the details of her fall, or to vindicate the butterflies that never flew that night. I can’t help but wonder that if one of them had flapped its wings somewhere across the world at that very moment, perhaps she wouldn’t have fallen, the breeze instead rustling the wings on her desk to bring her attention back inside. I’ve been trying not to blame them. I’ve been trying not to add them to a list of regrets: our carelessness, our bad behavior, how fast the world rotated in our inebriated spiral.
19. In the chapel we raised the butterflies high into the rafters. For a long time I would fear ledges, and then I would tempt them wherever I could, shuffling my feet to the cliff sides on the summit of Pikes Peak, standing on bridges and rooftops and peering below, trying not to believe that everything that had happened would happen all over again.
20. Soon after her death, I started seeing a new therapist. Through trial and error, a series of treatments, and a strange ritual of tapping lightly on my knees, she talked me through the raw tantrums and quiet moments of my childhood: the journals I kept in kindergarten when our class raised butterflies from larvae, tracking their pupal stages like the stages of grief, which may well be the stages of living—so much shedding of our past selves necessary to grow, so much morphing and eclosion necessary to live. This is not to say that it’s so immeasurably difficult being young, but it feels no less insurmountable than any other age. Again, my theory lacks proof. Perhaps this is no more probable than my notion of the culpable butterflies.
21. Now my lists, scrawled on lined pages, record mundane practicalities, things I don’t fear crossing out: Pick up groceries. Fold laundry. Pay bills. Catch up on correspondence. Research odd butterfly behavior. Wash windows. Call home. I strip the lists down to squares, tonguing the edge of a crease for an easy tear, and then fold them up again into origami birds, fortune-tellers, boats. Exacting each fold with my fingernail, I practice their Japanese names: tsuru for crane, sakana for fish, chocho for butterfly. I find them lying around my apartment stuck between books on the shelves, thrown in the kitchen drawer, some pinned above my desk.
22. Here, again, I am pulled over, standing in the dry caked road, watching the butterflies puddle in the dirt. Again, I am kneeling down with them. When we are young and too busy getting high, we don’t recognize we are falling. But it is also true that when we are too busy falling, it is hard to recognize anything—the world too cruel and too exquisite to know that we have flown. If only I had a straw I might probe into the ground that somewhere on earth holds the bodies of my friends. If only I might extract from the muck some leftover salt or tear and add it to my list of home remedies, so I can keep on living, keep writing down words and crossing them out.
And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee.
In the absence of external forces, a body at rest will remain at rest, just as a body in motion will remain in motion.
In August, we waited in the dark for the electricity to return, while a hurricane—by then classified as a tropical storm—made landfall throughout nearby towns. Rain curtained the windows as the storm, which had steadily made its way north from the Carolinas, reached inland Vermont. New York was practically shut down, and because Joshua and I still kept ties to our life in the city, journeying back and forth, I imagined the streets of Manhattan streaming like canals, cascading into curbside sewage drains, as Hurricane Irene crafted a thousand perfect waterfalls into the hollow subway tunnels. But the darkness of the woods orchestrated a harrowing symphony as wind and rain drummed against the windows, echoing through the rooms, empty but for unpacked boxes, rollers and paint cans, a list of renovations tacked by the door. We came here in order to leave the city, which had become routine and corrupt in our eyes; we needed a place to start again, to build something, a place we might one day call the beginning of us.
We sat entwined in the dark, two bodies at rest on our small couch adrift in this place that was new and hollow and waiting to be filled. Nearly still, we held each other’s wrists, fingers along the inner bend, and compared pulses as we drank from an endless bottle of wine, its cork keeping our place in an old copy of Neruda’s Sonnets. Outside, the trees rattled against one another like commuters on a crowded train. The winds whined with fury. The rain fell mightily, and all the high mountains receded as if phantoms in the dark.
“Where do you suppose all the birds go during a hurricane?” Joshua asked, the white of his eyes like pinpricks in the dark.
In the morning, the sky cleared to a piercing blue. The woods outside resembled something Andy Goldsworthy might have dreamt: felled birches and elms had caught one another through the night and, come morning, embraced like steeple beams or hands pressed in prayer.
By midday the governor had declared a state of emergency. Radio updates on road closures sounded as a litany of disaster. Helicopters filled the sky—the National Guard dropped food into isolated towns, as local officials hosting FEMA surveyed hundreds of washed-out roads—pavement crumpled as if asphalt weighed little more than construction paper. Cresting rivers had carved islands out of landlocked villages with the ease of a paring knife. Listening to the propellers flap high in the sky, I wondered how it all looked from above. How do they chronicle an infrastructure’s wounds: farmlands and storefronts submerged, houses swept entirely away? Everything upturned by the deluge, as if all the fountains of the great deep had burst.
And we, like others, flocked to the flood zones carrying muck boots and shovels, masks and morale, in an all-hands-on-deck recovery effort I hadn’t seen in years—ten years—since we cleaned firefighter boots at the Javits Center and delivered bagged lunches to Ground Zero.
“Maybe it’s just what we need,” a woman said as we stood on the silt bed of Main Street, our rubber soles leaving imprints in the mud. She paced. My feet stuck to the ground. She and her husband had spent a decade renovating their farmhouse in Northfield. When the storm waters flooded its foundation, the house was left unhinged, a structure warped and buckled and waiting to fall. Her neck craned as she said, “It’s not just our homes that need rebuilding.” A mask hung below her chin. Tears had left small streams in the dust on her face. As she spoke, I wanted to touch those lines, to record the pattern of her loss, the same way I wanted to draw a contour map of the state, to see how water banks and land had blurred.
Perhaps this is what Isaac Newton meant when he explained inertia as the resistance to change. Wasn’t that why we were driven to move? Fearing our own inaction—nothing to push us, nothing to pull—amid the routine hustle of the city?
But it was Aristotle who dominated scientific thinking before Newton. The world accepted Aristotle’s ideas because they seemed to support what everyone saw in nature: heavy objects like rocks and trees and buildings want to be at rest on the ground; light objects like smoke and fog want to be in motion in the air; the stars want to remain in the sky. It took years and a few brilliant minds—Newton, Galileo, Copernicus—to overturn Aristotle’s less foolproof ideas. How I wish to step into their brains (to say nothing of traveling back in time), to see, for an instant, how they saw the earth and its variables. And where would we be without them? Still accepting the notion that weight alone affects falling objects? Still assuming that the sun and moon and planets moved, but not the earth itself? Once, heliocentric cosmology revealed Aristotle’s vulnerability; perhaps now, natural or man-made disasters reveal our own.
Should an external force be applied to a body, the acceleration of that body is directly proportional to the mass of the body and the force applied (also known formulaically as F=ma).
In September, driving south toward the city, we waited to hear news from Wall Street, where activists—our friends among them—had gathered in Zuccotti Park. Joshua leaned forward to adjust the car radio. The northern stations were late in reporting the story. Instead of the call-and-response inventory of societal ills, income inequality, corporate corruption, and political influence being rallied against by protesters, a local station aired a story on the plight of two migratory shorebirds confirmed dead after being shot down by hunters.
Whimbrels, long-billed shorebirds known for distance flying, stand over one foot tall and can travel up to fifty miles per hour for more than three thousand miles without rest. The birds migrate each year from arctic breeding grounds in Canada to the tropics of Brazil. Scientists in Virginia used satellite transmitters to track a pair of whimbrels for nearly thirty thousand miles. The birds, which had not originally set out to fly together, each attempted to avoid different storm systems. But the force of the storms, like two armed and impassioned hijackers, diverted the birds off course over the West Indian Islands, where shorebird hunting is still legal. The first bird flew through the east side of Hurricane Irene, landed on Montserrat, and spent a week on Antigua. The second bird flew through Hurricane Maria, which had originated as a tropical wave over the central Atlantic and attained hurricane status while approaching Bermuda.
On the morning of September 12, researchers watched the whim-brels disappear from their monitors. When the first bird’s signal resurfaced, suddenly grounded, they thought it was an accident, a technical failure. But within minutes the second bird hit ground. One by one they had entered into the squinted view of a rifle-ready young hunter on Guadeloupe. Both shorebirds were shot down from the sky.
Joshua was angered by the story. I was too, but I couldn’t help envying the birds their endurance—or is it sheer bravado that impels them into the eye of a storm? If I were a bird in flight for thousands of miles and found no dry ground on which to set foot, I might throw up my wings, as it were, and turn back. Of course, the birds themselves don’t think this way. Migration is a force within that they cannot resist.
We were quiet the rest of the way. Joshua stroked his chin as if trying to smooth the knots of his beard, but it had just nearly grown out. Reaching over, I ran my fingers past his angled jaw to the warm pulse in his neck and tried to remember one of Neruda’s lines—something about the mouth and the moon and “extinguished constellations”—but I couldn’t quite summon the words. All I could think of was how the stars must fragment and burn before they fade into atmosphere. Ahead, through the windshield streaked with rain, I stared down the Merritt Parkway, spanned by historic stone bridges and lined with the dim silhouettes of trees.
As late as the mid-sixteenth century, it was commonly believed that heavy objects fell faster than lighter ones. Aristotle said so, after all. But Galileo’s folkloric experiment—dropping a cannonball and a musket ball from the Tower of Pisa—revealed that the more massive object didn’t hit the ground first but the objects hit more or less at the same time. Proof that nature, above human authority, was the final judge in matters of falling bodies. If only the whimbrels had shared such a fate, falling not alone but together. And if the birds didn’t fall in tandem, I can only hope they fell knowing how far they’d come, believing that we would mourn the loss. Again, birds have no such concerns. Still, had I known that they were out there during the night of the storm, I would have invited them inside with us. There was room enough for two more.
That night in Lower Manhattan, drums echoed as drenched demonstrators cheered in the streets. Some formed a human chain around their encampment, defying law enforcement as police tried to rid the park of protesters. Some raised their arms as if the sky had opened in defiance of order and restraint. And yes, rain was on the earth! Each acidic drop sating their limbs, baptizing their skin in the name of hope—not quite the self-disciplined bodies that lined the counters during southern sit-ins, nor the flailing bodies pumped with psychedelics in a spiraling mob at Woodstock, but their drum circles sounded nonetheless. Each day’s small triumph added momentum to a movement yet to be classified. Proof, perhaps, that in the presence of force, unseen or otherwise, bodies at rest will accelerate. How long had the impetus been building like a wave or a river swelling?
If one body exerts a force on another, that body will in turn exert an equivalent opposing force. Or, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
In October, the storm came without a name, unlike the mythic torrents of Irene, though equally blameless and humbling (Irene, from the Greek, meaning “peace,” after all). A nor’easter is named simply for its directional winds. When the storm arrived, Joshua and I were visiting my mother in New York, and from the cluttered vessel of her Bronx apartment, we watched the unexpected snowfall. The trees held tight to their leaves. Snow weighed heavy on their boughs: solemn, repentant, their limbs pinned down like captives.
Outside, falling branches echoed in an ensemble of splitting timber. “Isn’t there something we can do?” I appealed to my mother. She recalled the last time a storm arrived too early for the trees: 1979, when she and my father, at the time living in a seminary apartment outside Boston, ran outside to shake down the branches in an attempt to spare them. Perhaps it was, as she said, “too late for that.” But it was unclear to me if she meant it was too late in the evening, or if we were too late to make a difference.
Downtown, I imagined snow blowing through the city streets, collecting as slush piles along the narrowing avenues of the Financial District. How would the demonstrators fare in the snowstorm? How far had they traveled to huddle in twos under tarps until the skies cleared? How many were homesick? How many were falling in love?
Joshua stared out the window. I paced behind him. We were eager to return to Vermont, worried about the damage farther north. I realized then how the woods, which were still new to us, had become ours since the storm. How seeing roads crack and rivers spill through was like coming upon a wounded animal, stunned but still breathing—you cannot walk away.
“Relax,” my mother told us. “You are like birds in a cage, the two of you.”
In the morning, as we drive north again beneath a sinister blue sky, the radio issues updates: three million people are without power. Town after town along the parkway is deserted, stores sold out of generators, gas stations sold out of gas. All the way to Vermont’s southern border, trees litter the roads; some branches hang, each a delicate pendulum swinging. And here, driving beneath the dangling trees and wondering how long before they fall, I think of Aristotle again.
But this time I think of the way Newton became Aristotle’s most infamous successor, blessed with the simple happenstance of seeing an apple fall from a tree. Or so I have read. Maybe it wasn’t an apple but a leafy twig, or a strip of bark from an ancestor tree. Nonetheless, I like to imagine how it moved him to discover gravitational force and planetary movement, how it inspired his testament to the fundamental laws of motion, inertial movement, acceleration, deceleration, the motion of the moon, the patterns of comets and waves.
And maybe because we are still waiting to learn the effects of the hurricane, just as we are waiting to learn the effects of protests spreading from New York to Oakland, from Paris to Istanbul, or perhaps now it is because we are also mourning the loss of trees, it feels impossible to breathe. If every action elicits an equal and opposite reaction, what will it be? Joshua clears his throat, and I wonder if he feels the same mass lodged in his chest as I do—an iceberg, a bramble, a swelling and defiant mob.
Lord only knows! A sermon sounds through the car radio’s static. We are far from the city now, nearing the North.
I turn the dial, feeling the ribbed knob between my fingers, until I find a Canadian station broadcasting music. The woodwind melody sounds like a Paul Winter arrangement—a little bit backcountry, a little bit soul—like the slow cooing of a dove.
My eyes close. Just for a moment. But when I see the shorebirds abruptly falling, I startle awake. The car has accelerated beneath the weight of Joshua’s foot. The transmission groans. We are veering off the road, veering toward the guardrail of the interstate: silver and finite and smooth. I grab Joshua’s arm and feel his body jerk as mine had. He regains control and pulls onto the shoulder. Shaking his head, he says, “I’m sorry.” His voice is weighted, drained. And I say, “It’s all right,” and open the door to the cool air and set my feet on the ground.
Despite revolutions of light speed and quantum mechanics, Newton’s laws have held sound against nearly every discipline. But we are among those in rural and otherwise isolated corners, who know floodwaters to rise, just as I once lived among westerners who knew the fatal breath of canyon fires, among city dwellers who knew towers to fall. We have felt the earth shake, seen evidence of glaciers thawing and mountains eroding. What if mass alone can create movement, or sheer will can propel us forward? Couldn’t the laws of motion just as easily read as sermons against inaction, against inert generations? We cite science and channel scripture for a sense of equanimity amid the chaos. But sonnets reveal as much about sustainability as any lesson on evolution. The human heart keeps its own record of the wreckage.
I never saw the whimbrels that were shot down over Guadeloupe, but somehow those two birds have become my lasting image of the storm. The same way years ago so many recorded the image of two strangers leaping from the South Tower, hand in hand. And perhaps some will remember the young lovers who converted to Islam and knelt to wed amid the crowd in Zuccotti Park. We venture far and return home in order to learn; we topple and rebuild in order to live, sometimes en masse, sometimes in solitude, sometimes in pairs.
Along the barren shoulder of highway, we bend and stretch our legs. I watch Joshua breathe deeply, inhaling as I do, and though I cannot hear his breath, cannot feel his pulse, the rise and fall of his chest mirrors mine. In the sky, I catch sight of a hawk soaring above the trees. I take the keys, and I take the wheel, and we continue on.
Walking in the woods, I am trying to find a word for the sound of snow beneath my feet. It sounds nearly the same as always: a methodical crush, with the levity and chance of rolled dice landing with each step—but icier this time, more laden with winter’s end. The sun, just peeking over the eastern ridge, gleams along the ground’s fresh crystalline layer. Soon, the light will bathe the birches and cast itself longingly against the neighbor’s red barn, as if tossing a veil, as simple and secure as an afterthought. I want to think about all of the love stories in history. Instead, I am preoccupied with sights and sounds, trying to authenticate time and place, all our past discoveries and collective human failings.
Not long after moving to the country, I scrape together all that I am worth and buy a house. The house is old and charming and has too many rooms that need to be sanded, painted, brought back to life. The house once belonged to a family that is no longer a family; it has shifted and slanted, seen divorce and flooding, generations of life and death. With the soul of a farmhouse and the upgrades of a Cape, it has a sturdy frame. The property sits between a road and a river, between industry and sanctuary, which is a place I can bear. There is a room with eaves and windows facing both directions that once belonged to a girl. I decide to start there. I collect paint swatches at the hardware store and try to imagine the space anew. Stormy Monday, Ivory Tusk, Winter Gates.
Growing up in the city, I used to play the violin. Looking back, I still wonder if, had I learned to play the guitar instead, I might be closer to my father now. His six-string classical guitar was among his first loves. Just like my father, who, as a boy living dirt poor in rural Pennsylvania, was given his first instrument, I got my very own violin from a family friend. More than one hundred years old, its hollow body was made of rosewood, stained and perfectly aged. The violin soon became instrumental in my understanding of self. When I played, my heart rising to the top floor of my chest, I never knew if I was really happy or really sad. Years later, I felt a similar longing when I first read Frank O’Hara. Or when, in the dead of winter as the snow in Manhattan grew soiled and gray, I learned that O’Hara played piano and sold postcards at an art museum—which was my first job when I returned to the city after college.
I am here, but I am always a world away. Months ago I grew obsessed with a story in the newspaper about a Stradivarius that was stolen in Milwaukee. Known as the Lipinski, and over three hundred years old, the violin was on loan to a local concertmaster. Shortly after the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the final sequence of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” had silenced the audience and ended the concert, the maestro was followed to his car, shot with a Taser, and robbed of the rare instrument. What most compels me about the story is the profile of the alleged perpetrator. A slim-framed black man in his forties who, though he fancied himself a high-end art thief, was a low-level street dealer, a twice-convicted felon fighting to make ends meet and provide for his five kids.
I took violin lessons with a woman named Sally, and I always said, “I’m sorry,” even when the occasion didn’t call for it: if my bow needed rosin; if my E string screeched too high or my elbow dropped low, or because I never felt ready to begin. I remember walking home from my weekly lesson in winter, how the blackness of my violin case looked against the snow, and how when nearing home it grew heavy and knocked against my knees. I remember a lot of things in black and white, but I learned early on that nothing really is. So much depends on color these days. So much always has.
The paint chips are splayed on the kitchen table like a deck of cards. I tape them to the bathroom mirror and the humming refrigerator door. Mesa Verde Tan. Galveston Gray. I want a rich cream-ochre, something that feels warm and rooted in place. Kansas Grain. Durango Dust. Richmond Bisque. With the blank page of winter outside, I can see America taking shape and imagine how I could paint every state into these walls, place an entire nation in a room: Pewter Dust for the painter I fell for in the Carolinas, who quoted Ram Dass and placed dull powder between my eyes; Barren Plain for the woman in Seville who burned sage for my soul and then told me her plans to move to New Jersey; Mannequin Cream for mall windows left shattered in Houston, Newark, Baltimore; Cloud Cover for a thief in Wisconsin plotting a heist as he, a rare black man in the concert hall, attends the symphony.
When I was seven or eight I played my first recital, hosted by the family of another violin student who lived in a house across the parkway (our version of “the tracks”). The oversized Victorian sitting room made me feel like a prop in a movie set, or a doll in a dollhouse—everything from the grand piano to the paneled walls was pasty and pastel, like most of the girls who played that day. All short skirts and bony legs, we took our places with our sheet music and rosined bows, as a large swatch of sun came through the bay windows. My father, with his black turtleneck and neatly trimmed Afro, sat somewhere among the chintz-covered dining chairs next to my mother, her bare feet in Birkenstocks, who was noting the light before it crossed the Hudson and settled over the Palisades. That afternoon, glancing at our bows moving in sync, listening to our strings piercing through Suzuki variations, with only the occasional squeak out of tune, I realized that I can move inconspicuously between worlds: black and white, urban and rural, between privilege and lack thereof. I would spend many of the next formative years feeling out of place yet managing to belong. Passing with little impact on the ground beneath me, like an animal in the woods at night where the snow covers all tracks by morning. As much as I love the country, I fear love for the way it blankets everything it knows. Perhaps that is why I may never stay.
In the city I can lean out the window of my mother’s apartment and peer down over Manhattan: passing the South Bronx, I am the elderly woman watching the block; in Spanish Harlem, my arms are the twig arms of a boy manning the fire escapes of the barrio; on the East Side I am the park and its darkness that a million trees try to breathe away; on Broadway, I am a stagehand; in Times Square, I am the neon coil in a lighted sign; in Chelsea, my arms bulge and tighten, my hips slant; in the village, too. I am Stonewalled. I am waiting for the Supreme Court to strike again the way it did for Loving in Virginia, the way it did for my parents. And it won’t be long until Obergefell v. Hodges, until dignity in the eyes of the law “is so ordered” once again. I am stoned in Alphabet City; in the deep bowels of the Bowery, I am both artist and trick, perusing the changing sky before kneeling and crawling through the back door of the Chinese Arcade; I am Italian bakeries, Ukrainian church pews; at the Seaport, I am the anchorman hung over the bow; and then I’m crawling again onto the ferry docked on the island where so many began, where so many licked the shores of America, to write their own names for the first time. To have a name.
After days of uncertainty, staring at a spectrum of shades, I settle on Montgomery White, which feels fitting and elicits a warm familiar friction: Parks and King, boycotts and marches, lilies and handmade paper and fresh-fallen snow. For nights I have a dream in which I am wearing pajamas and crawling through a battlefield of cowry shells searching for black marbles. In the dream I can hear the crush of shells, as recognizable as that of snow beneath me. My knees are cut and bruised and someone is cupping them gently in his hands. There is a boy nearby holding a stone behind his back. When I wake I realize it is not a boy but my father—or rather, a drawing he made in the early 1970s of a boy staring up at a mounted police officer on a gigantic white horse. The next week, I travel back home to the city and spend an afternoon strolling through the discreet wing of musical instruments at the Metropolitan. I listen for the silent resonance within the wall cases.
In the newspaper I look for more news of the Stradivarius. Instead, I find an article in an online edition of Vanity Fair. The rare violin, one of only several hundred made by seventeenth-century master luthier Antonio Stradivari said to survive, is of “unquestioned provenance,” its worth in the range of $6 million. Yet no one seems to know exactly what makes Stradivarius violins so uniquely famed. The varnish? Indigenous wood from Cremona? Perhaps what led Stradivari to his genius was a sheer intuition for the nuances of acoustics and the minute alterations of body and space. The Stradivarius demands action. Its basic need for equal parts admiration and attention makes it all the more compelling: it must be played, handled, moved. Perhaps it is as restless as I am, filtering between the pristine grace of countryside and the necessary wear of the city. Maybe Stradivari understood this. If he was in fact a genius, he might have also been, as Aristotle would have us believe, a master of metaphor, able to perceive likeness in dissimilarity, the gray area inherent in matters of black and white. Ultimately, the stolen violin was recovered, intact and unharmed, by the Milwaukee Police Department. In every report, authorities take care to outline the various methods of confirming the authenticity of the rare violin. But how can we ever know for sure?
Here in the snow, a rabbit’s track. Here, the print of a deer. Is this really the deer, or has the rabbit become a master of disguise, bounding in zigzags on heart-shaped leaves? I want to shout out descriptions, look up their scientific names, give words to their shapes, classify their existence—but I already know these tracks. I learned them as a girl. Not only do they have names, but, by now, I think they hold their own notes. The three-pronged relief strums rabbit. The rounded heart chimes deer. If only I could remember the fingerhold for each sound—call all these creatures out from the tree line. Instead, I finger the strings of my scarf; I pluck at the toggles on my coat. I am still trying to find my pitch, trying to master cadence: one rhythm belonging to the city and the other to the remote woods. In the no-man’s-land in between, I am a petty thief, a master of the heist. I am a refined concertmaster, a common fiddle needing to be played.
By the time I reached high school, I played my violin when I was lonely, which seems so obvious now. Tacking sheet music to my wall, I practiced with persistence—a canon, Bach’s concertos, Mendelssohn. Reading notes came with ease—euphoria, even—as a language I understood and guarded like a secret crush, a rebellious obsession. If I left my bedroom window open, the sound echoed against the neighboring building, the same structure that caught and reflected the afternoon light. Often I repeated the same piece three or four times, as if rereading, as if seeing something new. My arm flowed back and forth, wrist loose, the bow weightless between my fingers. The closest I have come to such weightlessness was when I first saw Greek and Roman statues as a girl. The museum, the one place I can stare without feeling bashful, where, during a middle-school field trip I first felt aroused by the smooth perfection of form imperfectly preserved. And then again, years later, I would fall in love in those same galleries with a sweet-talking museum security guard, a painter, whom I would eventually take home, introduce to my mother, share a bed with—the one with whom I left the city and moved to the country and bought an old house. He knows I am mourning my violin days when I remind him, again, “You do know I used to play, don’t you?” and he nods, although I’m already at him with, “Or have you forgotten?” He humors my longing without missing a beat and puts on a record, something soulful like Etta James or Nina Simone. He knows that I cannot be satisfied with only one view, that my happiness is laced with unease, a chameleon longing. I am thankful for that. I’m thankful, too, that I can retreat to the country and the city, to live in the extremes of anonymity and silence. There, I cannot be evicted, can no longer be stunned by loss. There, I will paint the walls gray and practice being alive.
Before the paint there is the primer, and before the primer, there is the need to prep the walls. In the room that would become a small study I find generations of wallpaper, which I peel only to unveil new layers. The underside of the paper is the color of certain eggshells, a parcel, coffee with cream; it spans the spectrum of flesh. Like a snake-skin, like a sunburn, it peels in stripes and patches. The sheds blanket the floor. After hours of this I stand amid strewn strips wet with glue. The room looks as if a protest or a ticker-tape parade had taken place and left only a damp scattering of pamphlets and fliers—no trace of fleur-de-lis or blue-willow-patterned wallpaper—calling for a revision of history. The walls will be sanded smooth and painted gray and lined with simple shelves for books, which is the only thing we really own, so I can find O’Hara whenever I need to, so I can reference the language of others and grow strong again.
When I was young I thought that everything was just practice, a rehearsal for life, which at some point would simply begin. Some days I still want to believe this. There is no rehearsal for living, of course, but sometimes it does take practice: loving the fact that you were born, loving all the winters, the inevitable seduction of elsewhere or other that builds like a scale or refrain and can trail on and on like a sentence.
In just weeks the ground will thaw. The last licks of snow caught in the shaded wood will carry a new pitch beneath my steps: deep, wet—the coarse slush like rosin against an open string. And my boots will sink deeper into the muck of the coming mud season. But here, now—this is what it means to linger, before the call for “Last frost” when we all order big, steal a final glance, before any signs of warming. This recital is not nearly the last. No matter where you are, city or country, the sound of snow crunching underfoot is pretty much the same. But I still can’t figure out how to describe it.
Actias luna (Linnaeus, 1758)
To think I almost missed it—the small incongruity that lay on the sidewalk beneath the lamplight of Main Street. Though difficult to see, when I crouched down, the form of a luna moth at first appeared in its stunning wholeness as if it might merely be at rest. But when it didn’t rouse as I approached, nor budge when I drew a finger to its wing, I knew the moth was dead.
Nearby, lovers stumbled from the bar, clutching one another through the back pockets of their jeans. As their whispers receded down the street, I knelt, pinching carefully, and placed the moth in my hand. Yellow margins accentuated the hind wings’ curving tails. Purple lined the top of the forewings—a pale purple, like drowned lips or hypothermic skin. At four and a half inches, its pale green tissue- paper wings filled my palm, which grew clammy, a little smitten, in the summer night—and, indeed, it was summer again, and the air was swollen and my skin was lonely and I was wishing New England had fewer churches and more sky.
When I felt a sudden stir, I thought there might still be life in the moth, that she was not in fact dead, but dying. But it was just the wind stiffening her wings. I feared then, with the moth’s lightness, that the same wind might take those wings, that I might lose her. The late-night chill made it hard to tell if the warmth in the cradle of my hand sprang from the moth’s underbelly or my own budding grief.
Just then, I envied Woolf her day moth zigzagging against a window-pane; I envied Dillard the candlelight that singed her moth’s wings, its body burning like cinder through the night. I envied these women, each witness to the moment of their moth’s expiration, each in her expressive brevity embalming those dying wings.
The death of a moth is a common occurrence—consequence of destined wanderings and genetic attraction. Still, what cruel mystery is a luna, royal silk moth of the deciduous forest, found dead outside a small-town bar? And what justice could I offer but to notice the thin scratch just below the eye of her left wing, like a run in a stocking scarring the otherwise smooth, unblemished surface?
In the pool of night, the moth grew translucent, more blue-green than yellow-green, pearly under the moon. Six legs curled beneath the cotton-like abdomen; two feathery antennae vibrated in the air. We are entering rigor mortis, I thought. But again, it was the breeze cutting between us—between her drying form and my pulsing palm. Her wingtips bobbed in the air to form the letter V. I wanted to whisper into the shape of those wings—I feel certain that I am going mad again, or You have given me the greatest possible happiness—and then close them gently like a vintage coin purse I once inherited. But I wouldn’t trouble her with such things. Too many other questions surfaced as I studied her form: Had she died young? Did she mate and deposit her bounty of eggs? What led her here, now? The flickering glow of the drive-through ATM, the two-screen theater’s starlit marquee, the neon draft signs in the windows of the dimly lit bar? Had she tried this once before? How long did she lie there before being found?
What most lingers is the silence I associate with the moth’s death—or, rather, her afterdeath. I can’t attest to her body jerking in spasm like a flame-faced virgin. I can’t say she exhibited a superb last protest as if overpowered by a mean antagonist. I do imagine her body falling (because I have a thing about falling bodies), her wings flapping like pages of a book and then waving until they looked like wings again. Instead, for me she simply appeared, as if discarded, misplaced, dropped like a folded dollar bill that might have been tucked somewhere and then slipped away like a clue—a lead in a case gone cold—leaving mystery the sole widow of death.
Perhaps we are all insects of longing and luminous dreams: dusky sallow, common house moth, Actias luna—strong fliers seeking to mate at midnight, feeding on birch leaves, spinning silk into papery cocoons. Haven’t we all fed on the strange beauty of our findings, spun such strangeness into stories, secrets, silence, to insulate and cosset the great uncertainties that leave us stripped, bare? Don’t we live to glide along invisible currents, swearing we will find, somewhere on earth, some familiar beacon that knows us? Insisting on nocturnal promise, we are drawn to the spotlights that blind us just as surely as a glaring headlight might steer us off-course or the taillight of a lover driving steadily away can forever burn.
Ever since that night, that moth, that familiar bruised purple, that summer blue, I’ve been thinking about instinct and ardor. The way they lure and misguide us as eagerly as life and death collide. Wedded like Vegas lovers to the conniving bulb of light, to the forgiving kerosene of the heart, we go down dancing, or blazing, or in a moment unobserved, as if it never came to pass, as if it never even happened at all.