Moths by Ella Jeffery
Ella Jeffery was born in northern New South Wales and currently lives in Shanghai, China. She writes poetry and short fiction, some of which has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2013, Cordite, Voiceworks and elsewhere. She will commence her PhD in creative writing at Queensland University of Technology in mid-2015.
It’s always late when I come here. It’s always cold outside. I can see her through the glass-panelled door. She thinks she’s keeping me waiting but I’m watching the patterns of the moths around the glass. Sometimes there’s so many of them I can barely see through it. They probably stay there all night, moving around and around the same ring of light.
She always opens the door with a lit cigarette in her mouth. But this part has happened only since I told her I was quitting. She lets me in without looking at me. The chatter of bats in the mango trees is snapped off when she pulls the door closed.
Here she is: bare feet and white legs. Black underwear and a white singlet with a red bra underneath, showing through like a blush on a pale cheek.
“You didn’t call,” she says, drifting back to the couch. “I might’ve been out.”
“So where would you go on a Tuesday?”
She laughs. She’s watching one of her crazy subtitled films. The directors are European, the women all have faces like crumpled paper and go insane about halfway through. The men are psychologists. The children die early on. Usually that’s the way it goes. She watches to the end.
I make myself a coffee while the psychologist wrestles with his screaming wife. The fluorescent in the kitchen buzzes with moths. More are on the windows, or skittering up in the corners of the high ceilings. There are always so many in here, though the only window I’ve ever seen her open is the one over her bed. Their movement is soundless, sightless. They’re not aiming for anything, except perhaps a higher part of the moulding wall. They just keep switching places and switching back, flickering around quietly, leap-frogging over each other with their chalky wings. I wonder if this is their home. A cramped space; the cupboards like tall men squished in an elevator, stretching up. The moths settle on the tops of them for a moment, and leave again. Hundreds of them bang against the light fitting. They must do this every night.
She lives just off the highway. I listen to the cars while I move over her. She never makes much sound but it didn’t take long to learn what she likes. She’s not a talker. She doesn’t get on top. I use my stubble against her, raking over her neck and cheeks. I hold her hands down. The only noises are the jolting of the bed, and under that is her quiet breathing, and under that is the sound of the moths, which gather in her bedroom more than anywhere else in the house.
I’ve never known a house to be more full of them than hers is tonight. The cars roar by. Where do people go on Tuesday nights?
A moth brushes over my hair as I finish and replace myself on the other side of the bed. She lights a cigarette, smokes from the flat of her back. She doesn’t offer me one, but I’d have taken it. The burning end shows her face in shaking light. When it’s done she ducks off to the shower and flicks on the light as she goes. Her room is never dark enough.
As she leaves I look up at the ceiling from the same place she laid a moment ago and see so many moths up there, more than I could count, and there is so much movement I feel almost dizzy. And more moths come in, and more and still more, so many moths that the light is now dimming, now blacked out, except the colour’s not black, it’s dusty brown and grey. Soon the room is filled with moths. They’re covering my skin and hair, and my mouth is shut as tight as it can go and I’m worrying about my ears and my nose, whether they’ll try to nudge their way inside me with their bulging alien faces and chalky wings. There’s only the sound of dull ruffling wings. Their antennae move noiselessly, listening or tasting, I can’t remember which. They’re on my face. I can see their tiny mouths, the tiniest mouths I have ever seen. And more are coming, stuffing themselves in through the door, and I can see them pressing their little furred bodies up against the windows, skittering over the walls.
I close my eyes. Moths land on the lids. The imprints of their feet. They don’t go anywhere. They don’t have anywhere to go.
“Hey,” I call out to her. “Come in here.” I keep my eyes closed and press my lips shut again and keep perfectly still under the movement of so many moths.
A second later she’s back and there are moths on the towel around her neck, landing in her wet hair. She shrugs and says “They’re just moths. They won’t hurt you.”
I get up anyway, shake them from my clothes and walk out of the door where they’re still crowded like mystics around the circle of light spilling out. I walk down to the highway and hope the last bus is running late. I look at the bone-coloured moon and I don’t imagine her in that old house, sleeping under blankets of moths.