Almost two weeks ago now, I noticed the first small green caterpillar crawling up the white wall above the kitchen trash can. I watched it for a moment and then pinched him off the wall with a paper towel; but in doing so, I squished him. Or at least thought I had. Instead of looking again to be sure, I squeezed my fingers together and felt the soft burst of death. I felt bad. I should’ve knocked him off with my fingers.
And then the next morning, a green caterpillar was crawling up the same white wall. I knew it couldn’t be the same one–the soft pop between my fingers still fresh–but I still couldn’t understand where it’d come from. So without a paper towel, I brushed it into my palm, popped open the trash can, and dropped it in–out of laziness and because I wanted to move on to my next task, not walk it downstairs to a bush.
The next day, it appeared again, but further up the wall, too high. So I let it stay there and wondered when I would see it again. But when I returned home that evening, it looked like a curled leaf dangling from the ceiling. And beside it, tucked into the edge between corner and wall, another little brown leaf. Two chrysalises that, of course, I could no longer remove. And so they remained, and I called them our “children.” We waited the week and then Friday evening, spotted a flutter of creamy yellow against the kitchen’s fluorescent tube lights. A colander for a net, we pressed it around the moth and used a cutting mat to hold it in on its way out the front door. The other moth hung upside down across the kitchen from its chrysalis, drying its wings.
And then I realized where they’d come from–the bouquet of flowers Donnie had purchased for me a little over two weeks before from the farmer’s market. One of those flowers’ leaves was food for the little caterpillars. This explained the steady appearance and the march up the kitchen wall. I’ve never grown moths before; only Monarchs with their luminscient green chrysalises that my dad would pluck from the milkweed in the backyard and close up in glass jars. But these moths grew free on our ceiling. And it ended well for them, better than I expected.
As I walked the second moth down the rough stairs–barefoot and cold–I remembered Virginia Woolf’s brief essay “The Death of the Moth” I’d read five years ago in a nonfiction creative writing class. So after encouraging the moth onto a leaf, I came back upstairs, pulled out the anthology, and reread the piece. Here’s the opening:
“Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadows of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species. Nevertheless, the present specimen, with his narrow hay-coloured wings, fringed with a tassel of the same colour, seemed to be content with life” (434).
And another excerpt:
“Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life” (435).
Woolf, Virginia. “The Death of the Moth.” Eds. Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.