“Then what happened?”
“Little bear looked into the creek…”
“Did she find the maple leaf?”
“She did. But first she looked over the stones, which were gold and green, brown, red and silver. Water flowed over them, casting them in light, and between two of the stones there was a tiny brown fish. Little bear watched as it shimmied side to side, swimming against the current, then wiggled her own butt…”
The girls laughed. It had been a long and funny day. One bare bulb draped the walls of the room, powder blue, in a soft yellow glaze. Turquoise curtains rose above our heads with the breeze, then settled back in place. It was hot. Burning hot, in fact, which is why we had been evacuated from our campsite earlier that evening. A forest fire was on its way.
A good friend and I had planned a three-night camping trip at a nearby alpine lake, bringing our two kids along plus a third. Dudes and kids, my kind of weekend. But after being evacuated at 5PM, we had taken several too long drives to try and find another campsite, only to give up and head home a little after ten. He and his son had gone to his house, promising to meet up with me and the girls in the morning. I was exhausted. It must have been ninety degrees in that room. Outside, no moon.
“Where was the maple leaf?”
“Well, that’s what I’m getting at. Under the fish, at the bottom of the creek, little bear began to notice something. At first it looked like a spider web, a golden lattice of intricate threads. But as she looked closer, the web had the shape of a maple leaf. She was curious…”
It is hard to describe the events of the next moment, because they occurred before you can finish this sentence. We had spent the day stomping through mud and marsh, paddling in canoes, then escaping fire and eating pizza. At one point, in a nowhere place at which we had stopped for the briefest of moments, we had seen lightning bugs. I have never seen lightning bugs west of the Mississippi, but we had no time to capture that precious moment. We moved on. Again. Now, in that familiar blue room, with a bare mattress on the floor and sweat still beading on my forehead, the curtain lifted.
Turquoise, cornflower blue, incandescent bulb. A moth the size of an airplane, black on black on black, glided into the room.
“Dad! What is it?!”
“Well, it’s a…” I was a bit nervous. It was so sudden, so close and so large. I could feel my limbs pulsing, my skin pucker. We were finally in bed, fully recumbent, spines flat against the earth. The moth turned two or three graceful arcs above our heads, then made for the bulb. Its paper-thin wings were the size of dinner plates, soft, slow, hovering with impossibility.
But it was possible, and the moth, one that none of us had ever seen before, simply floated across the room, our island of light which had set sail only moments ago for the land of slumber. Such a long day. And here, this giant moth.
The girls went berserk. They giggled and screamed, then hid like ostriches under the bedsheet. Heads in, heads out, more laughter. It was the kind of fear that, when shared, is absolutely joyful and hilarious.
“Well, guys…” I began, still lying down.
“What about little bear?” I snickered.
I stood up, my bare chest and undies not quite manly enough for this graceful creature. I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t want to hurt it. I didn’t want to, you know, be icky with it. Friend, what brings you here, and tonight of all nights?
I looked at the bulb and considered turning it off.
“Don’t turn it off!” the girls shouted.
“Okay, okay… Guys, hold the curtains open. I’m going to try to shuffle this dude outside.”
“What if it’s a girl?”
“Does it…?” I rolled my eyes. “What if you’re a girl?”
I grabbed a pillow and a floppy paperback from the shelf. Air control to moth – this way.
The black dinner plate fluttered around the light bulb, dodging my pillowful caresses and – what was this, anyway? The Grumpy Easter Bunny?
You might say that I’m exaggerating, and you’d be right, but even still I can’t overemphasize the size of this moth. It was larger than Jupiter. Bigger than a whale. Exceeding my ego by several degrees of magnitude. Yet paper thin and pulsing at a rhythm slower than my heart.
“Maybe I should turn out the…”
You can’t see air, but this moth had a way of moving that made the currents within it visible. Suddenly, the whole room was as thick as cream, and the air was a flurry of movements. I couldn’t touch the moth, but I could sit motionless and watch my arm pushing the pillow pushing the air pushing the moth… Time slowed. I smiled.
I tried to escort it towards the window, but it dodged me like an expert oarsman avoiding river rocks. I didn’t want to smash it.
I dropped my arms for a moment. The girls were at the foot of the bed, heads peeping from beneath the sheet. I cannot remember the color of that sheet, which strikes me as curious and important. Maybe it was some sort of protective layer of nothingness which shielded them from the warping of time and space currently assaulting me from the night sky, and it was only secondary, or a sort of side effect, that my brain was incapable of recording it as a color. Hard to know.
“Dad, the moth!”
I girthed myself in weaponry. Still circling, the moth hovered over that nameless sheet, unable to penetrate the cloak of ignorance which removes all non-essential qualities from the space of remembrance.
One stroke. On thrust of my mighty pillow, and that furry jabberwock was slayed (in a metaphoric sense). Back, beyond the threshold of night, the swirling darkness, the eternal blackness, the nothing, the everything that was not me or us. Our island and swords of light.
You should glance over the mesa at this point. There are houses here, a handful, with occasional porch lights or brake lights. But the darkness is consuming. No moon. No nothing. Blue walls and turquoise curtains. A bare bulb of yellow lamplight. Never again have I seen such a moth. Never before.
Stories linger. Little bears visit. Wet rocks gold and green, brown, red and silver. Everything is real. Rhinoceroses are perfectly true, and so are giant squids. There are zebras and catamarans and Teslas in outer space. All of it real. But there are mysteries right outside our windows. Black movement in a moonless sky. Moments just waiting to make an impression on the soft tissues of imagination.
I cannot wait to hear this story as retold by two grown women, whose heat, whose day, whose fun and frustration and wet, marshy feet somehow dangled into that hilarious moment of fear. What a privilege. And me, this dude right here, I got to be a part of it. I won’t forget. I won’t forget you. I won’t forget a single one of you. Reality is nothing. The emotion, the entanglement, the weaving of time and space and chemistry into our bodies, this is what’s real. This is what makes us human. Those girls have me forever. That moth is my breakfast. And the night.
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