The Moth Garden
There was something about Peter’s clothes that attracted the moths. It was his scent, he thought. It had changed: there was some new chemical he released into the air. His most recent bedmates had com-mented on the aroma of his skin.
“Like Sweet Tarts,” one had said.
“Like dill,” said another.
He noted that certain of his clothes -- his cashmere cardigan, originally his father’s, and his red cotton shirt -- were especially popular among the insects. His shirt had been wearable until holes began to proliferate around the nipple area; Peter quartered the shirt and added the pieces to his pile of cleaning rags under the kitchen sink. Others evinced signs of life: a collar, burrowed-through, an opening in the armpit, a bundle of loosening threads. Peter did not mind much. He liked the way the moth-holes made him look worn, old, professorial. (He was only, in fact, a young lecturer in English.) At night, as he read by lamplight, pen in hand and cold stout on a coaster next to him, he would be pleasantly distracted by a moth beating about his head, wedging itself in the gutter of his book, landing on his shoulder to lay, he presumed without feeling the need to discover, many eggs. Looking down the bridge of his nose through his wire-rimmed glasses, Peter would continue to read, stopping once or twice to shoo the moth away from his pages.
He lived with the Colonel, a grey and black tabby he had adopted from his last lover. Gerard was from Arles, where the Colonel had fed on live mice, fish bones, and goat’s milk. He had stalked birds in the street and meandered among Roman ruins, which bore graffiti by teenagers tired of their city’s age value. In Peter’s small apartment crammed with books, the Colonel paced back and forth in the living room, bored and angry. He expressed his frustration by refusing to use the litter box to defecate, unburdening himself, instead, on the sheets of paper strewn across the floor near Peter’s writing desk. In the mornings, the Colonel would leap onto the kitchen counter and snatch the bread that popped out of the toaster. Peter usually left the toast to the cat, but had taken to guarding his breakfast cereal with a butter knife as he ate and read the paper.
The moths were the Colonel’s only entertainment and solace. He began to sit in front of the television whenever Peter turned it on; he knew the insects were attracted to the light. When the moths neared the bright screen, he would jump and deftly pluck them out of the air, his fur standing on end from the television’s static. He also spent more time around Peter, who could be trusted to have at least two moths circling his body at any moment. Peter, however, misinterpreted the Colonel’s proximity as an indication of their budding friendship.
For the most part, they lived together peaceably -- Peter, the Colonel, and the moths. Man and cat both missed Gerard, who had left suddenly after having lived with Peter in his apartment for almost a year. He had left with very little: one suitcase which, inconveniently, did not roll, for that was the retrograde style of the day; and his straw hat, which was recognizable by its broad brim and thin black ribbon. Everything had been packed before breakfast, before Peter woke.
The moths arrived with the warm weather several days after Gerard departed, and they increased in number over the weeks that followed. Peter, convinced that Gerard would return, restricted his relationships to one- or two-time affairs. The men he slept with understood this, and were not all that reluctant to leave Peter’s apartment, considering there were insects of considerable size circling his lamps, hiding in his closet. Half of them mistook the moths for butterflies, as many were very colorful: red and black, yellow and blue, with strange eyes painted on their wings and patterns like koans, demanding and refusing meditation with a soundless flutter. The thought of these insects kept them awake at night. They were all perplexed, and slightly unsettled, by Peter’s nonchalance about the moths. When an insect landed on his shoulder or hand, he did not care to bat it away. One man, a graduate student whom Peter had met at a reading, offered to brush his clothing down to get rid of any soon-to-be larvae, but Peter declined.
“I’m quite used to it,” he said, poking his finger through a hole in his sweater. “Besides, they’ll only come back.”
The men all decided, independent of each other, that being with Peter had been an uncanny experience they did not wish to repeat. If they missed anything in that apartment, it was the Colonel, whose imperiousness -- bloated now, as he was visibly gaining weight -- never failed to charm. Furthermore, the Colonel was the only one in the apartment who seemed to take the proper stance toward the moths: the men felt an alliance with the tabby, who understood the habits of the enemy.
Several of Peter’s close friends had heard, from Peter himself or from each other, of Gerard’s abrupt exit, and they interpreted Peter’s disheveled state as one of despair. It had been two months since anyone had seen Gerard. All of them had called him at one time or another, to no avail. When they visited his apartment, they insisted on helping him tidy up, but Peter maintained that things were tidy, that the moths did not bother him in the slightest, and if they disliked his apartment they could go out for drinks. Indeed, the apartment was clean, but for the occasional droppings the Colonel left by the writing desk, and Peter promptly swept those into the litter box. It was just that the moths were gathering momentum. They were not only proliferating rapidly, but were also increasing in size. Moths the size of a thumbnail had been replaced by ones as big as a whole thumb. There were aberrations: Peter had noted one moth that could have spanned his palm.
All things considered, Peter felt that he was faring rather well. It had been difficult, initially, to handle his academic responsibilities: he had trouble focusing during seminars and individual meetings with undergraduates. He also neglected to grade papers for two weeks, although he had colleagues who taught this way on a regular basis. But as the spring semester ended, Peter settled into his usual stride and looked forward to the open month of June, before summer courses began, when he could study and write. His students, who all acknowledged Peter as an above-average pedagogue, overlooked his unusual lapse of attention and energy. The more urgent discussion among them was about the suite of moths that accompanied their teacher to each of his three classes and around campus. Nobody pointed this out to Peter in class, perhaps because no one wanted to embarrass him, but everyone in the English department had heard of, if not witnessed, the phenomenon.
Images of Peter and his cadre, taken surreptitiously during seminars or through his office window, circulated among the students over e-mail and Facebook. Several tried to take videos, but it was impossible to pinpoint the airborne insects. One afternoon, two intrepid students followed Peter home. They watched him enter the apartment building, and then waited on the other side of the street, cell phones in hand. A picture taken by one of the students shows the facade of the building. From the third floor, Peter opens his bedroom window. His face is obscured by the reflection of leaves on glass, but the sun-faded chinos and emerald sweater are clearly his. When zoomed in, the photograph pixelates, but a strange shimmer is visible around him, composed of dozens of colorful specks in midair: minute squares of illumination that to the knowing viewer are intelligible as wings.
Toward the middle of May, the Colonel grew lazy. His lethargy concerned Peter; the cat no longer chased and caught moths around the apartment, nor did he pace the living room like the aspiring generalissimo he was. Instead, he sat, bored, moved only by the spirit of toast that Peter waved in front of his face. A visit to the veterinarian revealed that the Colonel had developed diabetes. He would not need insulin shots, but would have to transition from dry foods to a low-carb diet: canned foods like Purina that contained chicken liver and fish meal, high levels of protein. Peter and the Colonel returned home, one frowning, the other asleep in his carrier. Later, at the dinner table, the veterinarian told his wife and wide-eyed daughter of the strange encounter he had had at the office with a bright young man named Peter Long, no more than thirty years old, whose hair was a colorful nest of moths.
In late May, Peter stopped buying bread for the household. If the Colonel could not eat whole or refined grains, he decided, then no one could. It pained him to watch the cat suffer this treatment. Breakfast became a melancholy ritual for the Colonel; every morning, he would spend half an hour gazing forlornly at the unplugged toaster, pawing at the spring. As was expected, his mood became volatile. The Colonel was subject to long stretches of torpor punctuated by bouts of feverish anger, which could be traced by the trail of powdery wings left in his wake. Unable to subdue the cat, Peter waited for these episodes to end, and then swept up what remained of the ragged insects.
June arrived. Peter spent most of his time in the apartment, and took it upon himself to improve the Colonel’s health by encouraging exercise. He crafted a primitive toy: a long stick from a park nearby, tipped with beads and feathers, which he hung from the stick using leather string. He bought balls of yarn, which attracted the moths as well as the cat; when Peter tossed yarn across the room, the Colonel pounced, an attack that could be more accurately described as a fast stumble, rather than a true, feline lunge. With these tools, he could entertain the Colonel for up to an hour every day, and when the cat would let Peter pick him up, he would measure their progress on the bathroom scale. He considered it a victory to see the Colonel chasing moths once again, though he could only catch the big ones, and was even happier upon reading a popular-science article that declared moths to be the new “superfood.”
Peter received his last apartment guest in June. Although he frequented nightclubs, and men were attracted to his distinctive scent, which had only grown stronger over the months, they were all put off by the moths that encircled him. The moths created networks of light traffic between his head and the dim red bulbs hanging over the bar; this occurrence enchanted from afar, but disturbed upon closer inspection.
His friends, too, no longer visited Peter at home. Instead, they spent most of their time with him outdoors, in plein-air cafes, or at picnics, where the insects around his head seemed less conspicuous. They gathered that there were fewer moths before sunset, so several brunches and afternoon teas were had. Some of them sensed Peter withdrawing from their social circle, and upon discussing the situation among themselves, realized that most of the conversations any of them had had with him in the past month were about his obese grey cat. They no longer asked Peter about Gerard, although they talked about the ex-lovers among themselves. Had any of them heard from the Frenchman? They surmised he was out of the country or had changed his phone, as they had been unable to get through to his voicemail.
He was an early riser. When they lived together, Peter got the sense that Gerard had lived an entire secret day before he opened his eyes. The morning he left, he woke Peter up and handed him a cup of coffee with cream.
“I have to go,” he said. “Please don’t ask why.”
They had an ordinary breakfast, each man reading a different section of the paper, while the Colonel wove paths around and through their legs. Each reached down instinctively to pet the cat’s grey head, or to feed him a crust, which would occupy him for several minutes. When Gerard finished his coffee, he folded his paper neatly, stood, and picked up his bag and hat.
“When are you coming back?” Peter said. “Take good care of the Colonel,” Gerard said. “The bread is making him fat.” It was the kind of joyous day that put winter behind it once and for all. Peter looked out the third-story window and waited to see Gerard exit the apartment. He followed the tall form down the street and saw him switch his suitcase to the other hand. Then he shook his head, thinking how stupid it was to carry luggage without wheels, and what a cliché it was: the lover, from high above, watching the beloved disappear from view.
Peter’s last guest was his landlady, Leslie, an easy-going woman in her forties. She had been hearing strange rumors from other tenants since the beginning of June, and had come to investigate for herself. It was a Friday afternoon. Peter answered the door, and Leslie blinked several times, as if she had been roused from a deep sleep.
The apartment was still recognizable as an apartment. On the right side of the living room, Leslie saw the couch that had been left by a former tenant. On the left, there was the small television, and in the middle, the glass coffee table. It was dark. The windows were open, but the venetian blinds were closed; they moved silently in the slow air. The errant light that fell through the slats illuminated the light blue couch and the dust and pollen that filled the room, moved across it in big spirals. Leslie could see where it settled: on the window ledge, and the bookshelves next to the television, and on the glass table, where it glimmered like a white beach. If Peter had not been standing in front of her, Leslie would have thought that the apartment had had been uninhabited for fifty years.
Then, of course, there were the moths. They were scattered over many surfaces, massed along the living room’s molding and the top of the couch. It was difficult to see all of their colors in the dim light, but the ones near the window shimmered like so many shifting jewels. Leslie saw them flying in all directions, casting fleeting and amorphous shadows on the carpet and the walls. She saw the largest insects she would ever see in person: monarchical things, big as model airplanes, clinging to the corners of the room. There was a large garbage bag next to the door, half-full, and not tied up. Inside it, Leslie saw a mound of dried forms: whisper-thin wings, legs, bodies like little rifle shells, smooth and blunt.
“How nice of you to visit,” Peter said, smiling.
She entered slowly and came up against a very sweet smell, a smell that drew up in her a memory of herself as a child, burrowing her face into her mother’s pillow. Peter dusted off a wooden chair and offered it to her. She sat, but declined a beverage.
“I’m sorry about the mess. I’ve been meaning to vacuum.”
“Yes,” she said, a little dizzy.
“Perhaps we should have some light,” he said, and pulled up the blinds. The afternoon sun made the living room glow. Peter and Leslie both looked around the room and saw it as a garden, time-worn, yet full of life. They sat this way for several minutes, as moths hung off of lampshades like small earrings and others made little waves in the particles that swirled around them.
“Peter, can you explain this situation?” she finally said, unsure of how to begin.
He shook his head. “They’re not my pets, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean, they’re quite dazzling, really. But, as I’m sure you can guess, I can’t allow them in this building.”
“Have they been a bother?” Peter said.
“No,” she said. “At least, not yet.”
The Colonel, who was more nervous among women than men, had emerged slowly from the apartment corridor. Leslie bent down and put her hand out; the Colonel sidled up to her and stood stiff, at attention, as she scratched behind his ears.
“He left in April,” Peter said.
“You remember the Colonel, our cat.” “Yes,” she said, as the cat buckled, let out a timid purr, then folded himself up in ecstasy.
She sat back up and looked at Peter. He was an earnest man, and she had always liked him. He was handsome, and she felt herself warm at the sight of him on his couch, surrounded by color. She counted the little holes in his thin, white shirt until she could not remember which holes she had already counted.
“There are issues I have to consider, you know,” she said. “Allergies. Structural damage. I’m sure you would agree that this constitutes an infestation.”
“I understand,” he said. “Are you asking me to leave?”
“Not at all. But you’d better contact an exterminator.”
Peter shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s like I’ve told all of my friends -- they’ll only come back.”
At night, after packing most of his things, Peter went out for ice cream. It was a cool evening, so he took a roundabout route, traversing the familiar streets, admiring the yellow moon from different vantage points between houses and trees. As he walked into and out of the street lamps’ warm lights, a tremulous cloud appeared around him, then disappeared. He spread his arms to feel a slight breeze brush past. He walked at a measured pace, slowing, sometimes, to look into windows and see what someone was watching on television.
As it was a Friday night, the square was crowded with people leaving restaurants, entering bars, skipping with children, embracing each other. Those who paid heed to Peter saw a man wearing a threadbare shirt, dark jeans, and running shoes. Later, most would describe the aura around him as a blanket of butterflies, while some correctly identified the insects as moths. Several children mistook the creatures for hummingbirds. But they were all confounded by the large form on his back, the size of his entire body, shining blue and yellow, folded flat like a silken tent.