Monday, April 23, 2012

Annie Dillard and the Polyphemus Moth

“The mason jar sat on the teacher’s desk; the big moth emerged inside it. The moth had clawed a hole in its hot cocoon and crawled out, as if agonizingly, over the course of an hour, one leg at a time; we children watched around the desk, transfixed. After it emerged, the wet, mashed thing turned around walking on the green jar’s bottom, then painstakingly climbed the twig with which the jar was furnished.

There, at the twig’s top, the moth shook its sodden clumps of wings. 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 tough 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. A smaller moth could have spread its wings to their utmost in that mason jar, but the Polyphemus moth was big. Its gold furred body was almost as big as a mouse. Its 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 big as a wren.

The teacher let the deformed creature go. We all left the classroom and paraded outside behind the teacher with pomp and circumstance. She bounced the moth from its jar and set it on the school’s asphalt driveway. The moth set out walking. It could only heave the golden wrinkly clumps where its wings should have been; it could only crawl down the school driveway on its six frail legs. The moth crawled down the driveway toward the rest of Shadyside, an area of fine houses, expensive apartments, and fashionable shops. It crawled down the driveway because its shriveled wings were glued shut. It crawled down the driveway toward Shadyside, one of the several sections of town where people like me were expected to settle after college, renting an apartment until they married one of the boys and bought a house. I watched it go.

I knew that this particular moth, the big walking moth, could not travel more than a few more yards before a bird or a cat began to eat it, or a car ran over it. Nevertheless, it was crawling with what seemed wonderful vigor, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born. I watched it go till the bell rang and I had to go in. I have told this story before, and may yet tell it again, to lay the moth’s ghost, for I still see it crawl down the broad black driveway, and I still see its golden wing clumps heave.”

from An American Childhood


LKD said...

That photo of Annie is just a wee bit eerie. She looks like the ghost of Emily Dickinson.

The poem (?) (prose poem?) kinda bummed me out. And for some reason, reminded me of The Colonel by Forche.

Maybe it was those shriveled wings that evoked the shriveled ears.

I really just stopped by to say that your garden is ridiculous.

RiDICulous, I say.

Ridiculously beautiful.

Do you have a Koi pond? You should.

My god, does your garden grow. And grow. And grow.

You should give tours.

Maggie said...

This is a passage from one of her books. It bums me out, too, but makes me think so much about what stays with us throughout our lives. I would never forget that moth (and never will since reading that passage).

Thanks for loving my feeble attempts at making some loveliness happen in my corner of the world! The garden is so pretty, but what you don't see is all of the neglect. Lots and lots of weeds and things that need to be cut back, but those things don't detract from the beauty.

I am looking out my back window now and can see all of those beautiful colors. I just hope I can muster the energy to get out there and take care of everything!