by Siena Oristaglio
I’m in a butterfly garden at night.
It’s early September.
The air is cool.
Crickets chirp in harmony
with the drone of street lamps
that line a concrete path.
I kneel in a patch of grass,
holding a book called Moth.
I read it earlier tonight.
In it, Alice Pettway delivers
short, searing poems that
detail the illness and
eventual death of her father.
All kinds of insects flutter
and crawl through Moth’s
pages, appearing as symbols
of fragility, persistence, pain,
and frenzied trails of mourning.
In the book’s first poem, Pettway writes:
“Home / is a blue lure,/
a soft crackle at the edge of hearing. /
It is / singed wings flashing /
in a halo of lethal light.”
Absorbing these words earlier tonight
as I unwound at home after
my weekly grief group,
I grew rapidly entranced.
Each successive poem flickered
into a new corner of my chest
shaded by my own loss.
As I watched small flitting creatures
appear again and again in the poems,
I was struck with a sudden desire to witness
some such small creatures in person.
This is how I find myself, now,
in Central Park after dark.
I’ve come here to hunt moths.
My friend Casey has accompanied
me on my mission, which is based
entirely on an unsubstantiated
guess that butterfly gardens
turn into moth gardens at night.
Huddling on dewy grass, we whisper
to one another though the thin air,
our eyes darting to assess the occasional
dark figure or unexpected noise.
We’ve been searching for moths
for twenty minutes to no avail.
Two small gardens along the
concrete path proved fruitless.
Standing under a street lamp
for what felt like an hour but was
probably three or four minutes,
we did catch a flashing glimpse
of a solitary moth. As quickly as it
arrived, though, the insect darted
away in the direction of a tall
figure reclining against a tree.
We didn’t chase it, fearful of the figure,
but opted to climb a hill towards
the larger, more secluded garden patch.
Crouching now near an array of flowers,
I try to remain hopeful.
Let’s check this one, I whisper,
shuffling towards a swaying plant.
Casey sweeps the flashlight across
rows of petals until it reaches the bush
I’m next to, which glows a pinkish purple
as it becomes drenched in light.
There! She exclaims.
A silver moth pierces the lilac curtain.
Look! She says.
More moths flutter in the bush,
a few burrowing in blossoms,
some remaining airborne.
Oh my god, I gasp.
We found the moth palace!
Casey steadies the light on a
moth that has settled upside down.
It looks like a ghost, she mutters.
Check out its eyes.
They glow, red and unblinking.
I recall a description of the insect
by entomologist Moses Harris:
“The very shining of its eyes
is thought to represent the fiery
element whence it is supposed to
have proceeded,” he wrote in 1840.
Its eyes do look evil, I whisper.
As silvery blurs weave through the lit column,
I clasp Pettway’s book tighter in my palm.
I recall her own description of moths
illuminated by beams of light:
The white moths fell
glowing in my headlights
pale and more constant
than fireflies. Furred bodies
danced on the road,
clung to the curb.
The salt truck would come
in a few hours, melting
their wings into puddles,
but at that moment, I believed
them capable of flight, of escape
from the path leading me
to a sick bed, and then
I shudder, staring at these insects,
imagining them as harbingers of death.
My friend Alejandro once told me
that in the weeks prior to the deaths
of four significant people in his life,
his family home filled to the brim
with moths. Not surprisingly, any sight
of the creatures now fills him with dread.
This feeling is not an uncommon:
the death’s-head hawkmoth has been
believed for thousands of years and
across many cultures to symbolize an
impending fatality, the skull-shaped imprint
on its thorax an omen to those it visits.
I open Moth to another of Pettway’s poems:
In your absence,
I wear bugle beads, pale
as the bones strung
down my spine,
a gown of pendulums
undulating against the black
background of my grief—
with heels and clutch
to keep the casual reality
of loss at bay.
Each step showers
my legs with sound
to my thoughts—
clicks, rain, insect
wings catching outside
locked panes. A song
for your return.
In this piece, every sonic detail,
including the tiny sound of wings
against windows, transforms into
a song about a loved one’s absence.
This experience is familiar to me:
in grief group this evening,
I described how in the early days
after sudden loss, everything
around me seemed to circle
towards the gaping absence of
the person I loved.
One theory about why moths get
trapped by lamplights:
the creatures evolved to navigate
by positioning the light of the moon
at a stable point in their vision.
For millions of years, the fixed distance
of the moon enabled them to fly in
straight lines. The relatively recent
invention of artificial lights, however,
has confused the insects’ visual apparatus.
Due to how they evolved, when flying close
to a source of light, they are doomed
to careen in tight, flustered circles around it.
Studying the creatures now,
I imagine a human vanished as a
lamplight around which grievers
orbit, attempting to adjust to the
bewildering coordinates created by the loss.
The new absence looms close and bright,
a moon on fire, too large to escape.
With such an enormous aftermath,
sometimes death itself comes more
quietly than one would expect.
In Moth’s penultimate poem, Pettway writes:
I wanted violence, lids flung open,
clam shells pried from their rest,
a whirlpool of sheets drawing us in
to the great tide of your death.
But you retreated, a tide from a steep bank,
close lines of pain marking your exit.
While her father’s death itself may not have
transpired as a rushing whirlpool,
the poems in Moth reveal themselves
as a forceful vortex around his absence.
I close Pettway’s book.
Casey and I take a few photographs
and sit, observing and chatting
until the chill gets to us.
As we retrace our steps out of the park,
I tell her about the many species
of moths known to feed on the tears of
crocodiles, deer, and even sleeping birds.
They do this to supplement their diet of
sweet nectar with salt. I turn to her:
It’s strange to think that every night
as we go about our lives in this city,
thousands of moths also go about theirs,
hunting for nectar and tears.
It is strange, she agrees.
I let my gaze settle on a red streetlight
that moves closer with each step.
Nearing the park exit, I bend to
pick up a white honeysuckle.
Its petals are subtly scented and paper-thin.
I step onto the sidewalk and tuck
the honeysuckle into my hair.
It lifts almost instantly on the breeze.
A taxi races past, its headlights
sweeping the road.
The tiny flower darts into the
bright beams, flaps its wings,
Siena Oristaglio (all pronouns) is an artist and educator. She co-runs The Void Academy, an organization that helps independent artists thrive. She lives in New York City.