From: Ghost Moth by Michèle Forbes. Copyright © Michèle Forbes, 2013. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Canada Books Inc.
By eight o’clock, Stephen is settled and Maureen and Elizabeth have their faces washed, their teeth brushed, and are clambering willingly into bed. The paper blind in their bedroom is pulled closed, but the curtains are left open so they can still see in the
milky evening light without having to turn on their bedside lamp.
Unusually, no decade of the Rosary is said that evening. Katherine has seen clearly, despite the curtailment of the picnic, how tired the day has made them all. She herself feels curiously emptied.
Before she goes in to say good night to the girls, Katherine slips into her own bedroom, taking care not to wake Stephen, who is fast asleep in his cot in the corner of the room. She tidies away the towels and her white swimsuit, which she had left on the floor (she had had to find her warmest clothes to wear, so chilly had she felt since her swim). She kneels and picks up the broken pieces of the statuette, which are still lying by the wardrobe, and wraps them in the paper that has the lyrics from Carmen written on it. She places the paper parcel back inside the box and she covers the box with the cloth. She places it deep in at the back of the wardrobe and closes the wardrobe door. But this time, the statuette doesn’t feel hidden enough. It still feels visible. Present. If she had a key for the wardrobe door, she would lock it. Keeping everything in. Layer upon layer. Skin upon skin.
Katherine goes in to kiss Maureen and Elizabeth good night, their bodies heavy now with approaching sleep. Then she turns to Elsa.
After George had left for the station, Katherine had found Elsa lying on top of her blankets in bed like a small sea animal exposed by a departing tide. Elsa had said she felt nauseous and dizzy. Katherine had placed a glass of water by Elsa’s bedside table.
Now she sits Elsa up in the bed and brings the glass of water to her lips.
Elsa wants to sleep, but the heat of her body is keeping her awake. Her own skin has hidden it from her until now, and now it is sheer intensity. The delay of sunburn, how it fools us. Katherine cannot believe how burned Elsa’s body is. The back of her limbs and torso are still white, but the front of her body is an increasing red. Katherine helps Elsa stretch back out on top of the blankets, a rubric in her white cotton vest and pants,
as though she is an offering to the gods. Elsa’s arms and legs are splayed in her effort to avoid them making contact. She feels her skin might split and crack in the bends of her arms and around her knees. Nothing is turning down the temperature of her veins. Even the air above and around her body is rippling and eddying like a mirage, shimmering purls of hot air. She is a road on a hot day, giving it all back. Make it stop, Mummy, Please, make it stop.
But all Katherine can do for Elsa is to give her skin a momentary
distraction. Katherine dabs clumps of cotton wool soaked in calamine lotion along the length of Elsa’s arms and legs and across her throat and chest. The cotton wool has drunk the lotion in and is loath to share. Elsa’s red skin is becoming patchy. She looks like an Indian fakir, her body caked in chalky paint.
Elsa does not say too much; her voice has lost its pace. And so the bedroom is quiet, as though it is the quietness that heals, and maybe it is. The delicacy of the child’s downward gaze, the glassiness of her stare, her body preoccupied with her burning
skin. The sun has altered her, making her a peculiar child, and now, as it dips in the pearly evening sky, her skin has ignited in its absence. Poor Elsa, Katherine thinks. It’s her fair skin; it’s her golden hair. Maureen, Elizabeth, and Stephen—none of them
got burned by the sun.
“How did you get so burned, pet?” asks Katherine.
“When you went swimming, I pretended I was a starfish. I lay in the sand, waiting for you to come back. I wanted you to see me.”
“But you were ages—Daddy was worried.”
“I’m so sorry, love.”
Katherine sits beside Elsa, as she does not sleep. They are quiet and still together again. Elsa gradually calms as Katherine gently strokes her hair.
“Mummy? . . . Mummy?” Elsa’s voice croaks.
“What is it, love?” Katherine replies, slowly turning her head to Elsa.
“Can I have some more lotion?”
“Of course . . . here, pet.” Katherine pours the calamine lotion onto a fresh clump of cotton wool and presses it gently against Elsa’s skin. The simple action brings Elsa relief. Katherine looks at her daughter and smiles at her. Elsa’s face is immobile, as though it is a fake face and she is just looking out of it, and she does not smile back. Perhaps, Katherine thinks, she could distract Elsa a little more with some easy conversation. Perhaps she could even distract herself after the strange day she’s had.
“Do you know what you remind me of, Elsa?”
“What?” Elsa replies.
“You remind me of the way, when I was little, I used to wait and watch for moths in the garden of our old house.”
Elsa casts her eyes up to look at her mother. Katherine continues to dab the wet lotion-soaked cotton wool against Elsa’s skin.
“Well—it was a patch of grass beyond the garden of the old house, the one we had before we lived over the chip shop. I would sneak out there at night in the summertime when everyone else had gone to bed. I don’t know how I heard about the
moths, how I knew they might be there. I think I remember my mother telling me that they were attracted to the plants that grew among the grasses there—the nicotiana, honeysuckle, the night-scented stock. . . .”
Katherine’s voice, though tender, has a settled, dark quality to it. She places her hand gently on Elsa’s forehead. “Anyway, I remember the first time I saw them, I couldn’t believe it. . . .” Katherine takes a deep breath. “Oh, they were beautiful, so they
were, Elsa. Pure-white moths rising and falling above the grass, as if they were dancing, moving toward me, hovering over me. I remember lying down in the grass on my back in my white nightdress— just like you are now, just in the same shape that you’re making. I somehow believed I would be irresistible to them, that I could trap them, as though I were a light in the dusk.”
Katherine brushes her hand over Elsa’s hair.
“And sometimes, believe it or not, they would actually settle on me; one or two of them, maybe more, they would settle on me if I kept really still. And then I would tilt my head up to look at them, but their white wings would blend into the white of my nightdress, so that it looked as though we were all the same. Then suddenly they would fly away from me, up above me again.”
“We learned at school that moths are moths because they shed their old skin.” Elsa’s voice sounds gravelly. “That there’s a new them hiding inside a little case that comes out when it’s ready. Meta-mor-phosis is what it’s called. We learned that from
Sister Marion.” Elsa seems pleased with herself for remembering what she had learned in biology class.
“Yes, love, yes, that’s right,” Katherine says gently.
“Maybe I’m having meta-mor-phosis right now, Mummy. Maybe I’ll get a new skin.” Elsa attempts a little smile, but it hurts.
“I’ve no doubts, Elsa. Your sunburn will be sore for a little while, but then it’ll get better.” Katherine strokes Elsa’s hair again. She can now feel a dark swell rising within her. “And d’ye know, pet, one night a whole swarm of moths came; a whole swarm of pure-white moths covered me from head to toe. I couldn’t believe it. I remember thinking, This must be what it feels like to be in Heaven.” Katherine’s voice falls almost to a whisper. She turns and dips her head to look at Elsa. “My mother scolded me for lying in the damp grass in my nightdress . . . but my father said I must be very special for
that to have happened, for me to have seen so many of them, for them to have covered me like that. He called them ‘ghost moths.’ He said that some people believed that ghost moths were the souls of the dead waiting to be caught, and some people believed that they were only moths.”
“And what did you believe?” Elsa stares at her mother, eager to hear what she has to say.
But Katherine does not answer. Ever since her encounter in the cold sea that day, the thoughts of him have continued to grow with every hour. Memories flooding through her veins like an electric river. Something she cannot seem to stop. A searing, biddable tide flowing through every part of her, gathering force and pushing her to the edge of a precipice.
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