Moth Seeks the Light

Moth was waiting. She had been dancing the ritual dance all evening, perfuming the air with her intoxicating fragrance, but there had been no response. The summer woods stood still and silent as darkness stole out from under the trees.

It had been a long road for Moth, and much of her journey was obscure to her now. Last Winter she had been just a glutinous egg, one of many her mother had deposited in the fizzured bark of a great oak. Moth vaguely remembered hatching out in the Spring and ravenously feeding on the fresh greengrowth. Months of the crawling life, up the trees at night to gorge, down again in the morning to hide, seemed like a story from another age. Moth had outgrown her childhood garments three times, swelling up until she split her clothes, and had to hide her nakedness until new ones grew to cover her.

Moth did remember the terror of hearing shrews snuffling for her in the forest litter, or the approaching buzz of a killer wasp. Her whole caterpillarhood seemed to have been about gluttony and terror. Even now the sound of bat wings made her think about burying herself in some hidey hole. But Moth had endured enough hiding. She had been wrapped in claustrophobic silk in a big rolled oak leaf for the last month or more, and that was hiding enough for a lifetime.

Not that being a pupa wasn’t informative. Like all young Polyphemus, Moth had been expected to use her time in the cocoon for introspection and vision quest. It is the tradition among moths that a pupa undergoing metamorphosis must formulate one question, and meditate on it until a visionary being comes to answer it.

Moth had tried hard to focus, but she wasn’t even sure what she wanted to ask. And it had been excruciatingly boring at first. Nothing to eat or drink. Her fat swollen belly aching and grumbling. The sounds of the World muted. Nothing but pale intimations of light. There were moments when Moth would have ripped her way out of her silken solitude, and given up the whole metamorphosis thing, if she could. But, to her dismay, when she tried to move she discovered her familiar caterpillar parts had all turned to mush. She was helplessly trapped in transformation.

Eventually Moth grew calm, and relaxed, dozing to the gentle swaying of the leaf she was wrapped in. Only then did her vision quest begin.

In her cocooned dream Moth was crawling up the King Oak as a shining green caterpillar. She climbed higher and higher up the massive tree, until it broke free of the canopy, rising into a brilliant blue Sky. It was daytime in Moth’s vision, and she could see the whole landscape surrounding the tree laid out beneath her. Moth looked out over the leafy green canopy, cut here and there by fields, and roads, and the serpentine river. Moth spiraled higher up the King Oak and saw the roofs of houses and town buildings and the shining onion dome on the top of Town Hall.

Multicolored birds circled the great tree, singing enchanting songs, and Moth was unafraid. Somehow she knew that in her vision no birds could harm her. Ever higher she climbed, and as she did her color changed from lime green to lemon to orange to red to an electric purple. Her bright yellow caterpillar hairs quivered in waves to the music of the birds.

Up and up Moth crawled, until she could see the open sky above her, through the very top of the tree. But now the sky was turning an ominous shade of blue-black, and a chilling wind stirred the leaves around her. Moth began to tremble in anxiety. There was an eerie red brightness glowing in the top of the tree above Moth. The ruddy light grew stronger, and Moth wanted to crawl back down to safety, to escape this radiant thing, but some power held her there. Impelled her to creep higher, as though hypnotized.

When Moth crawled out onto the utmost limb of the King Oak of the wood, she saw, at the very top, a huge fiery caterpillar curled into a circle of flame. The Caterpillar had one incandescent eye, and this was fixed on Moth. Moth felt drawn to the fire.

“You have come,” the caterpillar hissed.

Moth was mute with awe.

“I am Polyphemus,” the flaming worm declared softly. “And you are named for me.”

Part of Moth was shaking under the burning gaze of the caterpillar, but part of her felt a rising excitement, a craving to leap into the flaming circle.

“Because you have come so far to find me, I will answer your question,” Polyphemus said.
Moth didn’t even know she had a question, but what blurted out of her mouth was what she desired most to know.

“Why is your fire so desirable?” Moth asked.

Polyphemus stared right into Moth, then slowly closed his eye. In the instant, the spell was broken, and Moth felt nothing but fright at being so high and so close to this blazing being. But before Moth could turn to escape, the caterpillar opened his eye again – and Moth was transfixed.

“I am the fire within you,” Polyphemus spoke slowly, and his voice sounded like flames licking at dry kindling.

“Some are afraid to face me.” His gaze reached even deeper into Moth. “And others hurl themselves into me and are no more. Those who take the Middle Way find themselves,” Polyphemus whispered.

Then the circle of flames uncoiled itself, the worm winked, and a tongue of fire leaped out toward Moth. In her dream Moth burst into flames, and she passed out.

When Moth came to, she was still wrapped in her shroud of silk. At first she didn’t know where or what she was. She felt completely different. But she was alive. There were long legs attached to her chest, surrounded by scaly fur. She had big eyes and strange antennae on her head. And there were curious protuberances on her back. All these new appliances were soft and mushy, but they were full of promise. Moth was delighted.

A few days later, on a hot summer afternoon, Moth found she was able to move. Slowly and carefully she untangled herself from the cocoon, and stepped out into the daylight. Even in the summer heat the slightest breeze felt chilling to Moth, and she shivered. But her heart pumped strongly, invigorating all of her, and filling the things on her back until they opened out into four glistening wings. Her new wings began to dry and harden in the air. Moth twiddled her antennae.

It was a New World. Moth was no longer a crawling worm – a creature of compelling hungers and overwhelming fears. She was a glorious and beautiful creature of the air. A gigantic Polyphemus moth. She wanted to sing for joy. But when she went to open her mouth – she didn’t have one. Instead, all she could do to proclaim her delight was to perfume the air. Moth twiddled her antennae.

And she could fly! The Sun was going down as Moth’s wings dried. As soon as she could use them she leaped into the sultry evening air and began the ritual dance every Polyphemus knows in their soul. Moth danced the Sun down, and cast her aroma on the air as the night closed in. She waited for a response, but none came. Moth twiddled her antennae.

It was the dark of the moon, and the sky overcast. The woods were hot and humid, rank with the scents of Summer, and now the night noises began. Moth could hear the whistling of bats and the hoots of Little Old Man Owl – great night hunters who might sweep in and eat her. Still she danced in fearless joy. Moth twiddled her antennae.

Moth was in the clutches of a ritual self-enchantment. She had danced herself into a state of euphoria. Now she longed for a partner to join her in the dance. But no dancer came out of the gloom. Only the sound of Mother Coyote calling to her children, and the distant rumble of the interstate. Moth twiddled her antennae.

Moth set off into the woods. If a mate wouldn’t come to her, perhaps she might find him. And it was all so strange and wonderful. Flying through the air, in and out of the trees. Moth felt no craving to eat, and no fear of predators. Tonight she was on a mission to find her fate, or her mate – or herself. Moth twiddled her antennae.

It was then Moth saw the glimmer of a light through the trees, and she remembered her dream. The fiery caterpillar arose in her mind’s eye, beckoning. Moth flew toward the light. But it was a long way through the woods, and some of Moth’s euphoria had faded by the time she came into the clearing where the light shone. It was coming from a house set by itself in an opening in the woods. Moth flutter-danced across the dooryard, drawn by the brilliance in the night. Moth twiddled her antennae.

Two people were sitting in the dark on the porch beside the house. Moth could hear them talking and laughing, but the tales of men held no interest for her. There were fireflies signaling one another across the dooryard, but their pale phosphorescence had no allure for Moth. She could hear bats hunting the fireflies, but she ignored the danger. It was a lighted window that fascinated her. Moth flew straight up to the window and hovered there, beating her great wings. Moth twiddled her antennae.

And there was the image of herself, staring back out of the window. wiggling its antennae, matching her wingbeat for wingbeat. Moth did the ritual dance and her partner in the glass did it too, to perfection. Moth’s excitement returned. She beat at the window with her wings in wild abandon. Moth twiddled her antennae.

But she got no closer to the light, and her partner in the dance refused to meet her advances. The hubbub of the summer night diminished. The highway noise quieted. The couple on the porch went inside, slamming the screen door. Even the bats seemed to lose interest in the lightening bugs. Moth danced on. Moth twiddled her antennae.

Moth continued the pas de deux with her partner in the lighted glass, but more slowly now. Moth’s hope was fading. Then the light went out. Moth was shocked. She was dizzy with exhaustion, and now both the light and her partner were gone. She clutched the window frame and stopped beating her wings. Very slowly Moth twiddled her antennae.

That was where the male Polyphemus found her in the wee hours. He had crossed Moth’s scent trail in the deep woods and followed it to her. He wasn’t sure she was alive when he first saw her. She was absolutely still, hanging onto the window frame. But when her antennae sensed the beating of his wings, she awoke, and turned to him in amazement. Moth twiddled her antennae.

And he twiddled his back. Moth fluttered into the air, half in a dream. Slowly, majestically, they danced the ritual duet across the late night dooryard, and into the sheltering trees. He knew all the steps, and where the moth in the glass had simply mirrored her, this partner made new moves she was inspired to follow. Deeper and deeper into the dark woods they flew. And they twiddled their antennae together.

Which is why moths are drawn to the light. And why we sometimes find ourselves reflected in others.