Phototaxis

Moths are not a vain species. The only beauty of which they are aware is light; and there has never, in the history of moth-kind, been a moth stupid and arrogant enough to wish for a luminous self, because all moths understand that beauty is to be followed, rather than embodied.

Matthew Ambrosio was a slightly below average-sized clothes moth. His colours were appropriately drab, and his flight was appropriately scattered and disorganized. He enjoyed his flannel dinners as much as anyone and was just as unafraid of the hands, boots, lizards, and newspapers waiting constantly and impatiently to decapitate him as the next moth. He understood his appearance only insofar as he had an innate sense of which things he could hide against and which he could not.

Matthew had spent most of the past week (which is to say his life) in graduate residence called Massey Hall, an old monolithic collection of buildings, with brick walls and impossibly heavy doors and austere, monastic beds in all the living quarters. Matthew loved the feel of a good, stiff, textured sheet and on that fateful day he’d been moving between rooms eating his small portion of fabric, and generally floating around touching things and flattening his wings against them, before settling into a fresh and equally confusing building for the day.

It is a deeply natural and reassuring irony that a species so enamored of light conducts their affairs almost exclusively at night, and it was one that Matthew did not regret. He’d seen the day, he wasn’t a timid moth, but was glad to go about his life in the enveloping context of darkness. That way he could always see the lights flick on and off, his favorite part. To see it shock on randomly while he was busy with something and disappear just as quickly whenever it wanted (he did not understand light-switches, or even really any switches at all, or even really thumbs, or even really any hands at all).

He knew other moths who hated light’s independence, who would have only been comfortable with complete dominion over the duration and intensity of their beloved, but Matthew understood that to love something one has any control over is merely to love one’s self. He loved light, for light’s sake, cruelty and kindness, steadiness and inconstancy included.

And so, he awoke around nine p.m. inside a dark closet and, after stretching his wings and getting halfway through his breakfast of bland red sweater, the door creaked open slightly and he felt once more the thunderous and confusing bolt of attraction rip through him, causing him to abandon his meal and float around, but never quite into, the light.

The bedrooms at Massey Hall all have hanging lights with heavy, oddly pleasing colored shades around them, and for Matthew these shades proved profitable. They were not opaque enough to block the light from his compound eyes, but they did ensure an extra degree of closeness and privacy with his beloved.

Matthew was not a particularly reflective or dark-minded moth, but he did often regret his extreme shyness around the light. Or, more accurately, he regretted his shyness combined as it was with instinctive, stalkery boldness. He would hustle towards the light anytime it was around, float around it and against it, but he never spoke to it, never rested his wings fully and flatly against it.

But these were thoughts for other times, and they were not even close to our hero’s tiny mind as he flitted joyfully around the object of his desire, secure from the wide world of blunt, heavy objects ready to crush him. He had no thoughts at all for several minutes, except brief, visceral frustrations when he bounced against the patterned glass shade. He did not notice the smoothness of the glass, or the hard, crafted wood of the frame, he saw only the light, and felt only the always sudden and bewildering storm of his own emotions. After Matthew had felt sharply and then forgotten the exact same kind of love a few times the light suddenly shut down, leaving only a vague twinge of residual heat.

Our hero had by now, once again, forgotten any notion he may have once had about how to exit the lampshade. There were large gaps at the bottom and top, sure, but what to make of them? As he tortuously considered his exit he flew around excitedly, slamming himself into both sides of the lampshade several times, until he hit it at a slight angle and was thrown off course through the bottom of the shade and was finally able to right himself in the open, and it must be said somewhat stark, space of the living room.

Matthew at this point felt the vague tickle of knowledge somewhere deep in his consciousness and, coupled as it was with a stern and abiding hunger, he intuited that there was fabric to be eaten in the room. He then undertook a long and repetitious search of the room, until finally finding himself drawn to the bedspread. After munching his fill Matthew took once more to the air and, after some time and very much to his surprise, he found the same gap in the front window’s bug-screen through which he had entered several hours prior.

As Matthew flew over the beautifully maintained patch of greenery in the centre of the College’s quadrangle he did not in any way, shape, or form remember the humble, wormlike existence he had spent there prior to his metamorphosis.

Moths begin their lives as simple, humble worms. They slither about the ground afraid of every kind of hoof, paw, and foot, terrified of every wheel and every falling acorn or pinecone. Certain only and always that they are the saddest, meanest, least worthwhile creatures that ever lived. And then, suddenly and as if by magic, they are transported, they shed their skin and sprout wings, and they use these wings to fly above the bottoms of everyone’s feet, into the air that they once considered valuable only insofar as it fed the grass that hid and imprisoned them. Because of this forgetting moths are doomed to repeat their worst errors, and to leave their truest feelings forever unexpressed.

After only a few seconds with wings, and only one short attention span of pure amazement, they forget their previous shell, the memory shedding itself as fully, but in a less unified manner, as the only skin they had known. And so a moth is rarely glad to be flying, when s/he is grateful it is for flying sake in the moment, never in the explicatory luminescence of the past, never in the cool, refreshing shade of resolved anxieties.

Humans, by nature, must see their changes step by step, one foot after the other, one book, one sincere conversation, one alternating step-up knee with a medicine ball after the other. While the moth must shake off the goo and slime and filth of the earth once, and forget it instantly, thereafter regretting the flight they once would have wished for above all else had they been able, at the time, to conceptualize it.

And so, as Matthew traveled mindlessly over and around his former loathsome home it did not once occur to him that he was lucky to be looking down at the grass instead of up from it. Our hero did not feel even the vaguest attraction or repulsion from the grass, and when a light suddenly appeared in a nearby window it was with only abject attraction to something pretty that he flew towards it.

Clear glass windows are the scourge of all species more capable of flight than reductive reasoning. For these species clear glass windows are a constant and perpetually transient annoyance. Matthew, for instance, had flown into most any window that had ever been in his path, but by the time he had rebounded off it, and saw once more the object of attraction behind it, the experience of impacting against the glass would be entirely forgotten, replaced instantly by excitement and desire.

Although he had been rebuffed by this particular window three times in five seconds Matthew felt the rejections only as fleeting, dissipating surprises. As our hero rebounded constantly and happily against the window he did not even remotely sense that the big, moving, breathing thing inside was feeling deeply sorry for him, and was using his thoughtless, mothly repetition as fuel for an intense session of late stage dissertation ennui. Truth be told, the momentary anxieties Matthew faced when being rebuffed by the window were nothing compared to the flickering, subconscious twinges of self-loathing he would have felt if he had been allowed to float near the object of his affection.

After a particularly forceful attempt to burst through the mysterious barrier Matthew rebounded far enough back out into the quad that he caught sight of another light as the door to the building was being opened. Matthew was somewhat surprised that his lover had changed places so quickly, but as was his way he did not reflect on it for more than a fraction of a second as he shifted his wings and raced towards his distant and unsympathetic Laura.

Flying, for moths, is a lot like running, some are naturally talented at it and some are naturally deficient. Not all moths enjoy flying, sad as it is to say, but most grow to at least appreciate its value in the pursuit of happiness and cloth fibers. And so, although Matthew had long since allowed the gravity that once oppressed his wiggling infancy to slip from his mind we should never allow it to fall out of whichever crease in our brains fancy and empathy tuck themselves into and cuddle.

Matthew, although mostly obtuse to gravity, had the sense that the giant wooden door should probably not be allowed to put its weight against him. And so he decided to forgo the stylish dips and swerves that characterized his flight and instead swooped directly through the shrinking crack of doorway. The danger, however, was only beginning.

A young man in a delicious looking tee shirt swiped maliciously at the winged adventurer, and actually succeeded in brushing against the thin, infinitely tearable surface of Matthew’s left wing. Although he was aware of the light’s presence, and he ached to hover around its direct source, his flight instinct (the running away one, not the flying one, although the two were naturally co-dependent for him) kicked in and caused him to flutter away, using the solid meeting point of the wall and ceiling as a guide while he recovered his deeply upset equilibrium.

After he had escaped into a stairwell he just couldn’t see the point of, Matthew did not catch his breath, because moths have no need of such a procedure, they simply fly away and seek out another object of sustenance or desire. And so, Matthew spent the better part of seven minutes (a not insignificant portion of his waking lifespan) moving gradually and feverishly up the four large light fixtures that illuminated the staircase.

As he fretfully orbited the top fixture the door to the stairway opened and Matthew, sensing an opportunity, dipped down and through the new passage. Following a large, moving, breathing, second year law thing into her room, passing stealthily over her shoulder and depositing himself once more into an enclosed space with a light bulb, and once more showing his affection only as a flighty, nervous proximity.

After only a few alternately joyful and tortured moments alone with the light bulb Matthew was plunged once more into hungry, oh so very hungry, darkness. The hungry fellow, this time without struggle, exited the lampshade and went to work on the khakis hanging blissfully unguarded on the chair below.

A moth in darkness is a far more reflective creature than a moth under the insistent duress of amour. And Matthew, having had enough beige summer wear, flew around the room at a relatively calm and leisurely pace. He found his way into the bedroom, and then suddenly and happily saw a streetlight through the window.

It had been several minutes since Matthew had seen a light, and so he had only the vaguest recollection of any of his previous encounters, but a notion grew in him, in the two seconds between his noticing the light and his almost reaching the window, that he would not, as he deeply wanted to, just fly around the light and content himself with quick, dry leg kisses against the light’s shell, but that he would fly to it directly, and express his love obviously and sincerely.

This plan for self-reform was made doubly amazing because it was not based on any direct, conscious recollection of prior experience. Matthew did not remember a single other instance of passively floating around a light, rather he felt the urge to do so and decided to better himself in the moment. In just this one instance, our hero resolved to correct mistakes he had not yet, to his recollection, made. Thus Matthew did something of which people are entirely incapable. In human terms he was able to perfectly correct his balance without remembering a single fall.

Matthew in his own unique way had subverted, for the only time in history, the true tragedy of moth-hood. And so it does not really matter that before he reached the window, which would have inevitably blocked his path and made his transcendent notion of self-improvement just another listless drop in the unending sea of passing moth thoughts, he was sliced neatly through by the blades of a fan he could never have imagined or understood.

It does not matter because the truth of tragedies is never found in the piles of bodies and blood, but rather on the long, lonely road of iterated mistakes and unvoiced feelings running through that most contorted and animating part of those bodies while they walked, one tired foot after the other, towards their seeping, inevitable conclusion.

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Andrew Battershill is the co-editor of Dragnet Magazine. His work has appeared in Untoward Magazine, Burner Magazine, Soliloquies, Glossolalia, and Headlight Anthology. He has poems (!) forthcoming in CV2.