My mother had been dead just a week when a moth flew into my room.
You’re wondering, what’s so special about a moth? I may as well talk about my chipped nails. My nails were black that night, because I was committed to my grief, and the polish was flaking away. I painted them the night after she died, sitting up at 4 a.m. listening to the sound of birds outside my window.
Anyway, my mother was a week dead, my nails were chipped, and a moth flew into my room.
I was sorting through my jewellery collection. By that I mean I was holding a charm bracelet my mother had given me for my thirteenth birthday, and I wasn’t looking at it. I was just holding it. The silver chain was cold when I picked it up, but it had warmed in my hand.
I nearly dropped the bracelet when the moth zinged into the lampshade overhead. It was a big one, and it flapped around like an energetic leaf. I don’t like moths usually, but this one was so big, I gripped the edge of my bedside table as I stared it down. It bumped repeatedly against the ceiling, oblivious.
Then I thought of my mother.
Well, I thought of my mother constantly. She had been alive a week ago, and then she wasn’t, and she’d become a flickering light bulb in my mind. By turns illuminating everything and plunging it all into darkness, and so fucking distracting. It made strange, shivering shadows of all my memories.
In that instance, I was thinking, specifically, of the time a moth landed on her back as we were walking to the columbarium where my grandmother’s ashes were kept. I saw it and reached to brush it off, but hesitated. “There’s something on your back. A moth.”
My mother stopped in the street and looked at me, smiling, creases around her eyes like a soft-worn blanket. “You know what they say about moths.”
I know what they say about moths, mother.
So my mother was dead, and there was a moth in my room, and I thought, that’s my mother.
I ignored that thought. Of course it wasn’t my mother. It was a moth. Those two things might only differ by two letters in English, but in Chinese they weren’t the slightest bit similar.
I slipped the bracelet back into its velvet pouch and put it down. The moth was getting all up in that lampshade. Then it zipped out and flung itself around the room, and it was going to be a racket all night if I didn’t do something about it, but I just stood there.
The window was wide open, and the damp summer air smelled green and deep. The moth didn’t leave. I considered turning the light off.
I sat down on my bed, and the moth landed on the covers. My purple covers, stitched with stars, so that I could sleep in the embrace of the galaxy. My mother’s bed linen was always beige or cream, like cups of tea with varying amounts of milk stirred in. My mother didn’t drink tea.
The moth rested on one of the stars.
I gave in. “Mother?”
“Mother, I’m gay.”
I can’t believe that was the first thing I blurted out. I came out to a moth, because I couldn’t come out to my mother. It was so terrible that I slammed my face into one of my pillows, trying to suffocate myself in more embroidered stars. I wished someone could have ejected me into space—the tears would have frozen in my eyes before they could fall.
As it was, I wiped my eyes with my pillowcase. “There’s this girl… We’ve been seeing each other for a few months.”
The moth leapt from the bed and swooped frantically into a wall. I thought that my mother was just reacting really badly to her daughter being a lesbian, but after playing bumper cars all by itself for a minute, it dived down again, this time onto my laptop, which was open next to me.
It hopped around on the keyboard. I gaped at it—it was talking to me! It had to do it over a few times before I calmed enough to read what it was saying as it fluttered from key to key.
So yeah, it turned out the moth wasn’t my mother. You’re thinking duh, you knew that.
“Shit. I thought… Who are you?”
You see, it was a dead person. It just wasn’t the dead person I was looking for. “What’s your name?”
My heart pitched in my chest, more desperate than any moth. “I’m Jessica. How long have you been dead?”
“I’m sorry.” Did the dead forget their own names as soon as they exhaled their last breath? I couldn’t bear the idea.
I’ve never liked moths, but I had a whole conversation with this one. She’d forgotten her own name, but over the course of an hour, she spelled out a careful poem about her girlfriend’s brown eyes and freckled nose, and the sweet smell of tamagoyaki and fresh-steamed rice in their flat in the mornings.
I touched the moth before she left; she soothed her powdery wing along my thumb, and then she was gone, leaving only the dust of her scales on my skin.
Every time I’ve seen a moth since, I’ve tried talking to it. It’s stupid, I know. None of them have ever replied. It’s been months. But last night, a moth flew into my room. It wasn’t huge. It was dainty, almost.
“Mother?” I asked.
It didn’t head for my laptop, it didn’t hurl itself around like a ferry in a storm; it just flew around me in gentle circles.
It was quiet, but when I woke up today it was still there, perched on top of the velvet pouch on my bedside table.
My mother and I never did talk much.
© 2018 Cynthia So