2020 Open Division: 2nd Place

Mottephobia

Renee Boyer

I’m about to turn off the light and go to sleep when a huge moth flies into my room. It’s one of those dark brown ones with splodges on its wings and long feathery feelers: completely camouflaged on the bark of a tree or the forest floor, but a vivid stain against the stark white of the ceiling. And I think of you.

I’d wanted a softer ceiling colour. But there were so many different whites on the paint card — we laughed about it, remember? Fifty shades, you murmured, and gave me a wink I felt reverberate through my body. You held the swatch against the inside of my wrist and pronounced me “half tea”, and I could hardly concentrate on the colour because your fingertips brushing my skin demanded all my attention. Your hand, a vivid contrast against the off-white of mine.

We’d had so many long discussions about so many insignificant things; by the time we got to ceiling paint I couldn’t face another one. So I let you pick. The coldest, brightest white on the card. Even the paint shop assistant was cautious about your choice, but you were adamant. And now I sit alone in darkened rooms, bathed in your luminous white.

The moth shivers, as if it’s absorbing cold from the ceiling.

You hated moths, but you hated yourself for hating them. A hangover from your childhood. One of your brothers, Rangi I think, told you they were venomous. There were always moths in your bathroom at night – tiny ones that danced along the walls leaving dust trails behind. Or drowned themselves in the toilet; sad little drooping shapes that stuck to the sides of the bowl. You couldn’t ‘go’ when they were in the room.

You told me about the first time your mother came to remove one for you, muttering but kind. She cupped her hands against the wall to make a moth cave, then scooped the insect into the hollow of her bare hands. You imagined the tickle of the trapped wings. You imagined the poison from its fangs or stinger (you weren’t sure which). And you cried because you thought your mother would die. You peed yourself, hot liquid puddling in the mottled beige of the hallway carpet.

Your mother used a cup to remove the moths after that. But years later, even after you’d learned never to trust anything Rangi told you, the moth fear lingered.

It stutters across the ceiling now, sending light skittering in bright bursts with the movement of its wings. I can almost feel your gasp, the graze of your eyelashes against my arm as you press your face into me, pleading wordlessly. The weight and warmth of you.

I lie still, watching the moth mapping out the room like a lepidopteran explorer; feeling its way across the length and breadth of this alien environment. I imagine it in a moth-sized khaki explorer’s hat and rucksack, with secret pockets tucked beneath its wings. I smile, and turn to tell you. But the cold from your side of the bed seeps into me, biting me back to reality.

We were explorers too, remember? We paced out rooms on the empty concrete pad, and prowled through the skeletal wooden jungle once the framing was up. We marvelled at the shape of it as it grew, mapping out where we would put the bed, where the couch would go, where we would stand to wash dishes. You put your hands in an imaginary sink and pretended to scrub, gazing out the imaginary glass of the window. When I came up behind you and wrapped my arms around you, you leaned back into me with a sigh, and for the first time the fledgling building felt like home.

Watching the house grow from a paper fantasy to real floors and walls and ceilings made us feel like kids playing dress-up. Playing at being adult and doing adult things. Leafing through catalogues of taps and door handles always made you giggle, and I understood why, although I couldn’t have explained it.

I drag myself out of bed, wishing you were there to slide into the indent of my body and keep my side warm the way you always did. The moth is flinging itself against the lightbulb now and I’m not sure if I’m just imagining a sizzling sound every time it hits, but it makes me wince. I reach up towards it, hoping to coax it onto my finger, but my touch sends it into a wild panic, swooping around the room. It makes a sharp turn and dives towards me. A fizz of fear zips through me and I understand yours a little better as I fall to my knees on the dark carpet. You chose that as well.

There are a million reminders of you in this house. I sometimes wonder if perhaps I’ve gotten lost. Stepped through a mirror without realising, and you’re there, waiting for me, in the reverse twin house on the other side. This looks like the house we built together but without you, it’s different somehow.

Adrenaline has taken over now, and I’m weaving like a boxer, advancing and retreating as the moth and I perform our silent ballet around the room. It finally alights on a wall for a moment, and it’s enough. I leap, cupping my hands and smacking them onto the wall, surrounding my foe.

There’s a small, dreadful sound. My heart jitters. I inch my hands away from the wall, just a little, to take a peek. The moth falls to the floor, limp and still, leaving a smudge of brown dust behind on the paint.

You hated them, but you never wanted them dead. I didn’t either.

I swallow, scoop up the tiny body and take it outside, hoping that the night air might revive it. But it just lies there, lifeless.

And I wonder if that isn’t a kind of freedom anyway.