polyphemus

I recently finished reading Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, a memoir that is beautiful and understated and honest in a way that, at times, makes me a little uncomfortable.

The Polyphemus moth story made me particularly uncomfortable. When Dillard was in elementary school, her teacher brought the class a Polyphemus moth cocoon, and the students watched while it broke free inside a mason jar.  But a Polyphemus moth must open its wings directly upon emerging from the cocoon—must fill its wings with blood—or they remain frozen and stiff half- or unopened, crippling the moth for life.

The jar in Dillard’s classroom was too small:

There, at the twig’s top, the moth shook its sodden clumps of wigs.  When it spread those wings — those beautiful wings — blood would fill their veins, and the birth fluids on the wings’ frail sheets would harden to make them rough as sails.  But the moth could not spread its wide wings at all; the jar was too small.  The wings could not fill, so they hardened while they were still crumpled from the cocoon . . . Its gold furred body was almost as big as a mouse.  It brown, yellow, pink and blue wings would have extended six inches from tip to tip, if there had been no mason jar.  It would have been as big as a wren.

The teacher let the deformed creature go.  We all left the classroom and paraded outside behind the teacher with pomp andcircumstance.  She bounced the moth from its jar and set it on the school’s asphalt driveway.  The moth set out walking.  It could only have the golden wrinkly clumps where its wings should have been; it could only crawl down the school driveway on its six frail legs.

(Annie Dillard, An American Childhood, 160-161)

The moth’s steady progress down the driveway makes my throat close a little, a sudden tightness that spreads throughout my body and returns every time I reconsider, even in the most fleeting moment, Dillard’s story. Stories like that of the Polyphemus moth are adhesive.  They stick to the inside of your skin, the bottom of your brain, long after you’ve closed the book.

My memory won’t let the moth die.  The inevitable stray cat or hungry bird never swoops in from the margins of Dillard’s book to take advantage of those calcified, unopened wings.  But that moth that is always walking, not flying, down the driveway is now part of a file of images in my mind that make me want to help when it’s too late.  Some seem minor. The ragged cat crouching under the 59 overpass.  Others are impossible  to consider for more than a moment.  The homeless woman near the Farragut North metro in DC, dazed and trying to negotiate December, unaware that a police officer is approaching.  Hopefully to help her find a shelter, maybe to tell her she can’t sit so close to the escalator.

Stories like that of Dillard’s moth not only leave such a permanent residue — reviving a series of images that are easier to let alone — but also make you want to share their twinging, aching insistence with an innocent person nearby: the stranger in the coffee shop, your husband nearly asleep next to you, a receptionist at the dentist’s office. Maybe if you hand it off to someone else, like a baton, it will leave you.

Maybe that’s why I’m sharing the story of the moth here, then. Maybe it will walk down your driveway for awhile.

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3 thoughts on “polyphemus

  1. I was delighted to discover another reader who felt the same discomfort as me about that darned moth, and I never had been particularly fond of moths – I felt either annoyed when they ate my clothes or bashed on my lampshade at night, or fascinated when I took the time to study their beautiful wings and bodies. It never occurred to me to feel morally responsible for a moth. Annie’s story shame me so now I am much more appreciative and mothy in my outlook.
    I really enjoyed your well written work. Thank you for that trip back to Annie’s wonderful novel.

    • Thanks! I feel a little ambivalent about moths myself. I certainly don’t enjoy their company — a moth with a body the size of a mouse… yikes! — but as my cats tortured one this morning I certainly felt guilty.

  2. Pingback: characterological « running with carrots

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