The fragile tenacity of house moths and other creatures

My mother once asked about my worst fear. Ten-year-old me told her roaches. The giant flying type of tree roaches that were all over my small Mississippi town almost year-round. But she was surprised. Said she thought it’d be her dying. 

My apartment has moths. Some days I count as many as thirty on the ceiling. I grab the broom and smash them one at a time. The death count, rolling. Day by day I find more. They live long enough to multiply—the meaning of their lives before I step in. One second flying or crawling or mating, and then the next— 

I once dreamed about my mother. She was in a coma. I never saw her, but I saw the word, Coma. Asked if she would make it—Unlikely. And so I broke. Panicked and sobbed and gasped until I lurched upward, in the darkness, crying, unsure of where I was until my then-husband pulled me down, rubbed my back. He said, It wasn’t real. But for the briefest moment, I knew what it would be like to lose her. 

I feel worst when I hit two moths mating. Killing even the potential life. 

When I was in the third grade, we had an outside cat who contracted feline AIDS. At the vet, he scratched deep into the top fleshy part of my mother’s forearm. No one was entirely sure back then whether the virus could infect humans, so they advised her to get tested. I was in school the day everything happened. I remember she checked me out sometime before lunch. When asked why, she only said we were getting ice cream. Vanilla with Oreos mixed in. She then drove us to the beach, parked by our favorite pier, and tried to explain to me that she might be sick and might even die. She’d given blood, but it would take a while for the results. 

My mother was never very good at hiding her emotions from me. Even at that young age, I was the one she confessed everything to, the one she would lean on. As I grew older, a small part of me resented this about her. That I had to carry both my baggage and hers. I had to be the strong one. The positive one.  

In a sense, that still rings true. Even now, I’m the one she’ll confide in. Don’t tell your sisters. It’s a preface to more conversations than I’d sometimes like. But I see things a bit differently now. Why suffer alone when you have someone right there to cry into your ice cream with? 

Sometimes the moths fight back. They charge. They fly right toward me. Right into my hand. I crush them between my fingers. 

I know something is wrong with her, but she won’t tell me what. And while I’m used to being miles away, it makes me wonder and worry about time. The number of days / years / times I have left to see her. Talking on the phone isn’t the same as actually seeing her twenty / twelve / two times more.

I’m not sure at first of the specific brand of my house moths, but research and visual identification suggest they are the common brown house moth, which are known to lay up to 660 eggs in a mating cycle. They like to lay them on open surfaces, but I find them everywhere. In the crease where wall meets ceiling. Buried deep inside my bird’s seed. In the corners of living room windows. Behind pantry cabinets, between pages of books. My moths know no boundaries. And their eggs can take anywhere from 8 to 110 days to hatch. One day I think I’ve killed them all. The next, another thirty settle on the kitchen ceiling.  

I’ve only seen my mother in the hospital once, the year before I moved miles away for grad school. I got the call at work and rushed straight there. She’d had chest pain and was fine but they wanted to keep her overnight. I stayed with her, stretched out on the small bench against the window, The Golden Girls playing on the old television screwed into the wall. I remember us laughing, not at the show but at whatever stories—if only I could remember them—we told each other to distract from where we were and why. I remember that nervous excitement, that giddy relief, making it hard to fall asleep. 

Sixty to 120 days. The adult lifespan range of my moths. Some of mine are quite resilient. Determined. They manage to get away even when struck. They fly between my fingers. They settle in ceiling grooves deep enough to escape the flattening from the broom. Sometimes I admire their flight instincts. I let them live another moment, knowing they have only so many to start with and surely so few left. 

I love old photos of my mother. She looks like Doris Day. Doris Day from Pillow Talk and Move Over, Darling, and Lover Come Back. Her first name was actually Doris, but she refuses to tell people that. She even legally changed her name. But I find it so fitting—Doris. Even now, she looks like a Doris. 

Once my house moths lay eggs, and those eggs hatch, milky-white larvae—tiny caterpillars with tiny tan heads—emerge and climb up and down walls or squeeze between towel folds or float in pet bowls of water. This is the feeding stage. I have 75 to 145 days to find and kill them before they hide away, pupate. Their bodies are fragile in this stage. Slow. They’re creamy, they smear. The smallest bit of resistance before a soft pop.

For the longest time, my mother refused to have her picture taken anymore. And so I worried I would be left with only Doris—young Doris, the Doris before she was my mother. The Doris I didn’t quite know. Perhaps even just Doris from the movies. I worried I would one day forget what she looked like at my graduation or the night before I left for grad school or the nights we’d sneak off to the movies. She must have finally picked up on this. My worry. Because now she doesn’t fight so much. Now she leans in and sometimes forces a smile.

At some point, I really need to scrub my walls.  

My mother recently gave me her ring. The first thing to be passed down from her to me to ensure I get it after, an after of which we don’t speak, but when she hands me the ring, it certainly carries the weight of an after.

Before my moths can fly, their tiny worm bodies must spin and wrap wispy threads until they’ve created little casings for themselves. Some may use scraps of fibers and hairs to perfect their traveling homes until finally they’re ready to settle down. They attach their cocoons in snug spaces or ceiling edges and spin and spin and spin until they’re sealed away, safe.  

But this safety is too easily assumed. Sleeping moths lie in wait, after all. Although dying in one’s sleep, it’s said, is the most ideal way to go. Perhaps, even for moths.

The ring was custom designed. A gold band with a gold rose and a diamond placed in the center. I later learned the diamond was from her first wedding ring. I’m not sure how I went almost thirty years without knowing this about my mother, but I’m also not surprised when I hear the story. It’s too much to tell now, but it ends with regret—as many things with diamonds do.  

I wore the ring at first. But the mind plays funny tricks. When I was young and held her hand, I would rub the band and tap tap the gold rose petals. She’d said one day the ring would be mine. But now that it is, how strange a sight to see the ring on my hand. The skin too smooth, the finger too small to carry the weight of it all.  

The weight of after, and of the stories I haven’t heard and the ones I probably never will. Later she will ask during a visit why I’m not wearing the ring, and I’ll lie and say it’s because I don’t like traveling with jewelry. 

Months will go by with no sign of my moths. But then I’ll see a flutter out of the corner of my eye. When I catch and crush her, I almost feel bad, but the fear of another existing elsewhere leads to the fear of another and another and another . . .  

I call and she doesn’t answer. I call and she doesn’t call back. Sometimes I get messy texts that tell me she loves me, she’s tired, we’ll talk tomorrow. Then more days go by. Sometimes I find myself wondering if this is how it will feel after. And sometimes that comforts me. Then I feel guilt for thinking it could really be so easy.

Day by day, I notice more of my moths. Slowly they’re regaining the upper hand. I return to old tactics. I leave the broom out for quick-kill access. I clean the bird’s cage every other day to prevent seed buildup. I check favorite hiding places—dusty corners, books, linens. I don’t find the worms. I don’t find cocoons—moth-filled or hollowed homes. I don’t even notice them until one has suddenly turned to ten, twelve, and so on. A slow, ever trickling so on.  

When I see her for Thanksgiving, she is changed. She looks smaller. Older. I used to say she never looked her age. I can’t say that anymore. I’m not sure if it’s just time and distance distorting memory or if life has suddenly caught up with her. Either way, I’m somehow unreasonably blindsided.  

When we’re in bed watching a movie, she gets a pain in her arm, her hand. I ask if she’s all right. She nods in the way that says, This is normal. She still won’t tell me exactly what’s wrong, but when I ask if it’s going to kill her, she says, Not yet

I’ve killed so many. It’s been a year since I saw that first tiny worm body crawling. She perhaps only lived no more than a day or two—as long as it took to free herself from the seed bag and work her way up only about a quarter of the wall. Her goal to spin threads, to grow and change and fly and mate, all erased with the swipe of a piece of paper ripped from the corner of a book. 

And when she says Not yet, I realize this may be the chance to push. To finally get her to tell me what’s wrong. Up to this point, she had dismissed the issue. I knew there was pain and they were running tests, it was nothing to worry about until there was something to worry about. It seems it’s come to something.  

This may be the moment to better understand, to let her let it all out like she did that day by the beach. But this time there is no ice cream and no gloss of naivete that comes with being eight years old and no possible phone call to tell us it could really be nothing at all. And so I say nothing. When my skin warms and my eyes burn, I say only that I am getting up to get a glass of water.  

And then one day they were gone again. No flutters in the distance, in the corner of my eye. No wispy silk-scatterings on shelves. No tiny worm bodies or winged moths mating—stillness. 

My mother needs a wheelchair to help her get through security and to and from the plane. She laughs and jokes with the often young men who wheel her away. She likes people, and people like her. The last time she visited me in Ohio, it was the first Christmas we had spent together in seven years. When it was time for her to fly home to Mississippi, we checked her in and waited for assistance. The agents were busy, but we were given a wheelchair and asked to wait.  

I didn’t hug her before she sat down. I thought we’d have more time. But then the person came and said we didn’t. I leaned over and we hugged, quick kisses to the cheek, but it was awkward because of space and time, and it was clear we both realized we’d done this all wrong. We said we loved each other. She cried while I tried not to. And then she was wheeled away.  

I returned to my car and cried so long it cost double to leave the garage. I feared that could have been the last time we embraced. Even now, it’s still the last time I saw her.

Month after month after month of stillness, after having killed hundreds, surely thousands, of moths, I thought maybe they were gone. I moved to a new apartment. The stillness continued month after month after month because they were certainly, without a doubt, gone. But then one day, a flutter. A small tan-and-brown body floating across the room, into the hall. Despite my best efforts, there was a single sole survivor of the long line descended from that first tiny worm, whose mission was to escape the bag, to crawl and eat and mate and make babies and continue to live through those babies and then their babies and so on and on and on. I consider moving / chasing / killing. 

But I just watch her float away. 

About the Author

Amber Taliancich

Amber Taliancich is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and earned her MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Cleveland, Ohio. She’s the winner of the Leonard Trawick prize for fiction, as well as a two-time recipient of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.

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