Message From the Moths

by Matt Briggs

The moth stuck in the orbital spider’s web had been something before and would soon be something else. I had just taken a new job. Already the patterns of my previous work faded. I didn’t remember the name of the receptionist who greeted me each morning, “A fine morning,” she said or asked. I don’t know if she wanted to know or she was telling me. No matter the quality of morning, a fine morning. It was a fine morning, one where the sun had already risen and brushed off the fog. I could hear the birds trill in the swamp next to the parking lot. Was a fine morning one where the sun had yet to rise, a frost had formed on the car windshields, and as soon as I was inside, I could feel the warm office air laced with the odor of coffee on hot plates on my cool cheeks?

The orbital spiders began to go to work in late August. The mornings still held the warmth of the previous night. The moths came out of the marshland across the street. They hit the deck lamp at the back of the house. When I walked the dog to the elementary playground and back at dusk, I could see the moths arrive like a snowfall in reverse. Their bodies white in the glare, drifted from the swampy ground into lamp light. An orbital spider had set her snare. From her prime location, she’d grown much larger than the competition. A spider must have logical limits of growth, and yet this spider’s size seemed determined by how many moths she ate. There was no logical limit to that. I have looked for her in the daylight to remove her so as not to make her angry. I don’t want to run into her golf ball sized abdomen in the dark. She has eat moths by the pound. At her current size she could consume sparrows, bats, stray chihuahuas.

The moths carry marks in their wings drawn by the people who live beyond the trees, beyond the cattails, beyond the highway where no one ever gets out of their cars. They live in huts on stilts made from stray two-by-fours stripped from the foreclosed houses in the subdivisions. The men carefully construct the house platforms to keep their sleeping bags dry in the winter floods. The houses lean and pitch in the wind. They sway over the flow of muck and storm drain runoff. The occupants keep wind chimes made from lost spare keys, the tines of lost dinner forks, and the spokes of broken bike tires. No one has counted the men or the houses. Perhaps some houses collapse, and their occupants are swallowed in the murky brown water laced with foam and bits of litter from the highway.

These men write messages on the surface of the moth wings. They draw them in their black lights, write their messages, and then let the moths go. Writing itself has become a lost art. I can read, but there is no need to write. I talk and the machine understands my words and puts them on the screen for me. My mother told me that she used to write by hand in blank books. “It was slow, but it gave me time to think about what I was going to say,” she said. “I didn’t know what I had said until I’d written it.” It seemed like one of those things that old people recall fondly as if it was a good thing: cooking their own food, walking vast distances to get from one place to another, getting sick, risking death. Old people’s stories always ended, “I almost died.” And yet, there they were, telling their story.

I have been collecting the moths. I’m careful to draw them into the killing jar where I seal them in. I fill the jar with CO2 from a compressed can. The moths drop to the curved jar floor. I remove the lid to let the gas dissipate. Then I spend my day gathering the soft folds with tongs. Dust covers their wings. The wild man prophecies and the moth antenna are lifeless. The jar is furry with their limbs and wings. The bottom looks like the wreckage of a library. Each wing is a page with messages from the men who live beyond the forest. I place the wings onto a fixing sheet and then apply the aerosol fixative and then use a scanner to scan the sheet. I collect a single sheet of these messages. The calligraphy and marks are no longer used by settled humans who live in their automatic houses.

When I was a child, and I am an old man now, but when I was a child, we had books. In school, they threatened us all the time that a time would come when books would be made illegal and they would be pulped. That never happened. Books merely became outmoded. Our books could read to us, and then our books could talk to us, and then soon the idea of carrying around something as inert as a block of individual pages with an antique code seemed exotically fusty like making your own fabric, or planting food in the soil, or sitting around a camp fire. When I noticed the moths had these marks at first, I thought they were natural markings. I gradually discovered that in fact this was not the case at all. Different species of moths had the same markings on them, and then as I gathered them, I had the machine analyze them. The machine said they were messages. It attempted to translate them and then the translations were at first amusing but gradually I learned that in fact they were being written by a tribe of wild men who had left society years ago to live in the swamp. They lived illegally. For a time, the authorities attempted to roust them from their hiding places, but gradually as fewer and fewer people went into the forest and the swamp, their existence was forgotten.

One day my machine experienced a glitch and shut down. I was alone in my house without a way of getting food or entertainment. I was unsure of what to do. After a few hours, a man arrived in a pod. The pod was like a case for the man to stand and it unfurled in the front lawn and then the lawn bots scurried back to their charging stations. He came to the door. “Edsel, can I came in?”

His saying “Can I come in” as a question was a formality, a nicety, because he came in without waiting for my answer.

He came into the house and said he had to check my machine. He sat down and plugged in his own machine and then after about fifteen minutes he got up and said his machine had some work to do. The man from the state had a box with food and he asked if I would like to eat. So we ate. He smiled and talked to me about the glacier that formed near Mount Rainier. I had been there a few times, but he said that the hiking was increasingly amazing and they now had grizzly bears. “No one knows where they came from,” he said. “The world is just growing and changing and becoming better all the time.”

He removed his shirt, and he had living tattoos. I had heard of them. They shifted and moved like his skin was made of water or the clouds. He sang to me a beautiful song that he had learned from Kalico. Kalico is the greatest bard since Wandax5. I had heard of her. And I forgot that the people from the city didn’t play recorded music, but rather performed the music they liked. His performance wasn’t good, but the point of the tradition was the variability and expressiveness of the song itself. Each iteration of the song interpreted the context of the performance. It has never become popular in the suburbs. In the suburbs we still listen to music that has been produced, polished, and offers up the same sequence of sound every time it is rendered.

After he performed, we sat in silence for a very long time. He said, “You have a quiet home.”

“Thank you.”

“I would like to see the pages that you have been collecting.”

“You mean the moths?”


“I don’t think I would like to share them.”

He handed me a metal rod, and the metal rod began to speak.

“I am the warrant for your data. You have violated the terms of service for the State of Washington.”

“That isn’t my data,” I said. “It is a personal belonging.”

“The warrant covers that,” he said. “I won’t take them.”

“You have them already,” I said. “You took copies of my pictures.”

“I want to see the real ones,” he said. “I want to see them.”

I brought out the fixed pages. He paged through them. “Such a curious document,” he said. “So many of these things. Can I collect them with you?”

“I would rather you didn’t.”

“That sounds like a yes to me.”

“How does that sound like a yes?”

“You didn’t say no.”

“If I say no, I think that would break the law.”

“You won’t know until you do,” he said. “Do you want to take that risk?”

I woke before dawn to collect the messages in the bug zapper. I placed the moths on a sheet of paper and then assembled the messages like reassembling the shards that had come from an old document shredder. I returned to the back of the house. The sky was livid with ultraviolet light. I could barely perceive it. It was more a light that I could feel. It was an agitation. There was the pulse in the air from the birds that had begun to sing with the promise of light.

“Tell me you didn’t do it that way,” a male voice said.

“Get off,” a female voice said.

“What? What the hell?”

I went back inside and looked outside. Two figures walked down the street, visible under the circle of a streetlamp light and then were gone into the darkness until they came out again under a light further down the street. They yelled the entire distance.

I purchased a new light to attract more moths from the darkness. At dawn, the light began to wane. Soon it would be daylight, and the moths would remain in the darkness.

I had decided to accept my possible oblivion. I did nothing then. Soon I would be nothing. I didn’t need to go running. I didn’t need to think. I didn’t need to know I was thinking to think. My thoughts raced even though I just wanted to be at rest, still, thoughtless.

The moths carried messages from the swamp. I wanted to know who was writing them. I decided to follow the moths out into the swamp in the middle of the night when I could follow them. They were not in motion during the day. I woke while the house slept and then took a light and walked toward the wall of trees at the edge of the swamp.

I passed from the light of the city lamps at the edge of the streetlights and highway. Few people walked along the overgrown sidewalks then. It was more comfortable to take a free car. At one time people walked from one place to another. They waited at stations for busses..

The carpet of vines and tiny flowers had covered the sidewalk. The flowers smelled like citrus and herbal tea, chamomile, and I realized this was in fact the plant itself. The sidewalk was edged with a fence made of rusted rails. One had been bent, and a trail had been worn through it. Trails like this had formed from the passage of people and animals over the same place. Each trip left a tiny amount of wear and damage. A sneaker might have crushed a flower. A raccoon might have broken a branch. Gradually a trail had worn into the ground. The earth had become packed. This must have been the passage the wild men took to the drug store on the highway. The trail had gone into the darkness at the edge of the swamp. I climbed down the steep bank. The street lamps glowed above the fence. In front of me had stood the green belt of cottonwood and the vast, gloomy swamp that wasn’t as dark as it had seemed now that I stood in the darkness. Street light had reflected on the oily surface of the ponds. The light had caught in the clouds and fog. The marsh had its own ambient light.

I followed the trail as best I could around wells and through fields of cattails. My foot passed through the ground. There was nothing solid under the layer of soil and reeds. I slipped through the level of the ferns and leaves into a bottomless murk. A current pulled me down. My flashlight slipped free and turned end over end into the water illuminating mosquito larvae, tiny fish, eels, before it shorted out and left me in the mix of darkness and reflected light. Bubbles swirled around me. A glow emanated from the hole my body punched through the reeds. I was able to swim to the surface and push my nose through the silver skin of the swamp water under the reeds. Millipedes and night crawlers fell into my hair. The ground was dark and mixed with tubers and roots. It smelled like nursery potting soil. I pulled my head through the surface into a subterranean pocket of air. I drew in a lungful of fecund air. I swam down and then tried to shoot through the hole back into the air like a penguin through a seasonal ice flow. I broke through and took in more air. The ground scattered. It wasn’t ground at all but just loose twigs and leaves on the marsh surface. I kept thrashing and then found soft earth and pulled myself up onto the wetland bed. I had seen then the trail that had taken me out onto the raft of weeds. As I regained my breath, I gingerly stood on the surface. I had seen the stilt houses in the gloom some distance away. Maybe it was a mile away? I couldn’t measure distance there. There must have been a passage to them. But I couldn’t risk it. I found a heavy stick and then proved the solidity of my next step and took it, prod and validate, a pattern back to solid ground. I climbed onto the abandoned sidewalk. Automatic cars sped by with their engines whirring, and their head lamps catching insects in the light. The robots didn’t need to see, but the lamps were there to indicate where the car was. When the highway was clear, I ran across the road. In the early morning light, I walked up my driveway. I showered. I sat in the living room to dry. I drank a cup of steaming coffee. I wanted to get there somehow, through those patches of land that had given way to water, out beyond the light and machines to the place where the moths had been let loose and where wild people scribbled messages to the future.

Matt Briggs grew up in the Snoqualmie Valley in the 1970s. He is the author of eight books, including The Remains of River Names. His novel Shoot the Buffalo was awarded an American Book Award in 2007. Recent work has appeared in Moss Lit and The Raven Chronicles.