MY MOTHER CAPTURED the first one by accident. She had left sheets on the clothesline overnight, and the two of us went out to gather them in. I was new to the world that fall, still small enough to be swaddled against her body, to move with her through her day, soothed by her smell and taste, her longings made permeable as sunlight through August branches. My mother, Margaret, would have assumed it was a leaf at first—those walnut trees were ever vexing, the last to bud in the spring and the first to drop leaves in the fall. Their fruit thunked the metal roof with an intensity that left her feeling under siege. But when she slid her hand into the gathered pocket of the fitted sheet, instead of a serrated crackle, she felt something feathery. She bent, sending her hair to cascade over my sleeping form, and pulled the creature from the folds of cotton.
It was the color of dried leaves, something she might easily have swept off the porch with the clumps of grass and caked mud. But it unfolded itself, and, like a long-held secret, its wings swelled wide enough to span her palm. Then she saw the color it had been keeping close: hind wings emblazoned with what shone like blue eyes, rimmed with gold and mounted on a concentric field of black. Carefully, my mother carried the moth toward the house, leaving the sheet crumpled in the grass.
She took an empty Ball jar from the mud room and slid the thing inside. Did she hesitate before screwing the ring in place? I don’t think so. Her heart was tender, my mother’s, but her aesthetic was sharp. There was always an artist trapped inside her. Her years of stripping and varnishing and refitting out in the barn studio were a practical means of unleashing that part of her that craved not just beauty, but meaning. Such a force was that craving that it was always threatening to overtake her. And it had been almost a year since she’d been able to do her woodwork. The fumes from the chemicals and the dust the sander raised out of the wood—she had willingly avoided them during the months I grew within her.
It was difficult, this time around, for Margaret to set me, her new baby, down. Every milestone I reached was shrouded by the memory of what she’d let happen to my sister, Wren. For my mother, every joy was tethered to that morning she had lingered a moment too long by the clothesline. She had been struggling for months through a depression, a darkness. Surely it was what we would now call postpartum depression, but it had set in late, months after my sister’s first birthday. She was always fighting it in those days, trying to shrug off that darkness like a damp blanket.
My mother had left Wren stacking blocks beneath the kitchen table. She had taken her time pinning the clothes on the line—the sturdy canvas pants her husband wore for field work, the cotton bibs my sister daily plastered with mashed banana. And once she finished, she paused next to the empty laundry basket, willing the stillness of the morning—that sunlit moment—to bloom a little behind her ribs. She stood in the crab grass—how long?—five, maybe ten minutes, smoking a cigarette, watching a red hawk circle above the south pasture.
She heard the shrieking as she stepped back into the mudroom, but the sound failed to register fully. It was, after all, a sound she’d never heard. Hearing it was not unlike shifting the antenna on top of the Zenith in the den, stepping into that scene and trying to make sense.
The strangeness of it. The shock.
She thought for an instant that she was hearing the kettle whistling on stove. What she saw first were Wren’s toys strewn across the linoleum. Then the kitchen chair pushed against the deep farmhouse sink where she bathed my sister most evenings. The water streaming from the spout, the steam rising from where the water pooled around that slow drain, and Wren standing there, arms raised, face twisted into a hurt my mother could not have imagined. As she reached for my sister, Margaret finally understood what she was hearing. She’d never heard her child cry in real pain, though she would hear it again and again in the coming weeks—the clawing baby hands and animal howl as the dressing was removed and Wren’s burnt feet were lowered into the swirling pool of Phosoex.
Nothing rewires us quite like guilt.
From the beginning, my mother knew I was a different sort of baby. I hardly moved inside her. Some days, she would stop what she was doing and pour a glass of orange juice, hoping the sudden rush of sweetness would stir the press of a limb against her ribcage. Yet I grew.
Her doctor worried she’d never be able to deliver me. “That baby is liable to weigh ten pounds,” he warned. I topped out at 9 pounds, 11 ounces, and the umbilical cord was wrapped so tightly around my neck that her two hours of pushing nearly killed me. In the end they rushed my mother to surgery, and she didn’t meet me until many hours later, when my father wheeled her into the NICU.
Given that start, it was only natural that she wanted to keep me close, at least in the beginning. And I was a quiet sort of baby, always wanting a cuddle. I melted into a swaddle. Even during my toddler years, I would insist that she and my father tuck the sheet beneath the mattress so that I was cocooned by fabric.
Wren, on the other hand, was never one to be held. She ran strong, like creek water, pooling for a moment only after the white rush of falling.
When my sister started kindergarten, Margaret walked her down the lane to wait for the bus. That first morning, my mother held her breath, tracking my sister’s progress down the aisle through the open windows, Wren’s pigtails appearing momentarily in each frame as she made her way past the many vacant seats to slide, finally, into one near the back. Margaret could see her perched there, clutching her Peanuts lunchbox. My mother waved and waved as the bus stirred the gravel and pulled away, but my sister looked straight ahead.
So, my mother clung to me.
This particular morning in September, I was still snuggled close to her breast as she set the jar on the desk in my father’s office. He was in Vermont for the month, tagging flying squirrels. He’d been granted sabbatical a year early after receiving an invitation from a wildlife center in the Green Mountains. There had been talk of the entire family going, and Margaret had felt the pull of being in that part of the country again, together, in those cool woods where she and Jim had met. But Wren had school, and I was only months old. It simply wouldn’t be practical caring for a baby in a cabin where water had to be brought in from a springhouse and heated on the stovetop.
To my mother, the moth seemed a portent that these weeks apart would serve her and her girls in a meaningful way. She missed my father, but she felt more capable in his absence. She remembered reading somewhere that moths were omens. Her own mother, Georgia, had staged elaborate war against them, folding winter quilts into a cedar chest and tucking lavender sachets into the corners of sweater drawers. Margaret knew Georgia would laugh at the idea of prophecy feathering in wing rustle. And what was she seeking, anyway? Some sign that she was a readier mother this time around? Some glimmer of how my own living would unfurl?
Margaret pulled several books from the shelves before she found the right one, William Jacob Holland’s The Moth Book: A Guide to the Moths of North America. She flipped through the pages, pausing to look up at the creature that twitched every so often behind the glass.
“Here we go,” she muttered. “Antheraea polyphemus. Family Saturniidae.” Only, her words would not have been muttering to me, tied close to her body where I could feel the vibration of language where it began deep within her chest. They would have been a kind of music.
She set the jar on the windowsill when she washed the breakfast dishes and later brought it upstairs to a shelf in the nursery where it remained through the afternoon, the creature fluttering occasionally like a wind-stirred leaf. Until—when? sometime during my nap? or was it much later that night?—it finally stilled and sank against the glass.
Jim called every other day from a pay phone in Grafton. Long distance was expensive then, and he always had to fish for extra change to feed the machine. Margaret suspected he was worried, not about the girls as much as her—he wanted to be certain the depression that had plagued her last time was still at bay. Wren always shrieked with delight when the phone rang. She loved to stretch the cord out of the kitchen and into the hallway, where she could sit on the bottom stair and listen to our father’s voice crackle through the receiver. Afterwards, Margaret would take the phone again and update her husband about what had happened since they last talked.
“Another chicken’s gone,” she told him. “I found some blood and feathers on the side of the barn, but that’s it. I could see where something had been digging along the run, and the wire was bent. It wasn’t even dark yet.”
“Probably a raccoon,” he said. “I thought I had that coop tight.”
“I brought some rocks up from the creek yesterday, piled them along the wire.”
“Honey, you should have just let it go—you’re not supposed to be lifting anything that heavy yet.” And then, a beat later, “That’s a long haul. Was Sylvie napping?”
She tried, my mother did, to fight the surge of provocation. “Of course not. I swaddled her to me. We used Wren’s wagon.” She could have reminded him that the tire was still busted on the wheelbarrow, even though he’d promised to fix it back in the spring, but she thought better of it.
She could have told him about the moth.
After she had hung up the phone and settled us into bed, she stepped out back to feed the tabby that had been hanging around since April. He had the most amazing tail, feathery soft once she picked the burs out of it, and so expressive. She’d taken to calling him Ostrich. She called his name into the dark barnyard now. Farm cats feed themselves, her husband said, but Margaret bought Meow Mix every week anyway. Ostrich answered her, a trill unlike any cat’s she’d known, and came loping from the dark recesses beneath the walnut trees. He pounced at the sheet, still crumpled in the damp grass. She gathered the fabric as the cat wound himself around her ankles. Another moth, greenish brown and mottled like velvety bits of torn leaves, clung to a fold in the fabric. The sheet was cool in her hands and glowed surreally in the moonlight. That must be what’s drawing them, she thought, the brightness. Carefully, she plucked the creature from the sheet.
She started toward the house but then turned and looked up at the sky where the rising moon hung, almost full, above the roof of the barn. Quickly, she went back to the line and clipped the sheet there again.
The next morning, Margaret thought about the sheet as she rose for my dawn feeding. The jar was still on the shelf, and now there was another one. Her eyes settled there as I nursed. Now she could see the deep gold, almost orange, splash of this new creature’s hindwings. “Darapsa myron,” she whispered. The name she had found in Jim’s moth book. “Virginia creeper sphinx.” She liked the names, both the sound of them—the musicality of the Latin—and the satisfaction of knowing them. She didn’t venture out back to the barnyard just yet, not even after she settled me down, milk-drunk, to sleep a few more hours. Instead, she made herself move through her morning chores, spreading peanut butter and jelly on bread, cutting carrots into sticks. She buttoned Wren into a dress.
Already my sister was exerting her autonomy. Two weeks into kindergarten, and she refused to wear the playsets my mother suggested, cotton pants with matching T-shirts featuring smiling suns or festive ice-cream cones. Wren wanted to wear a dress every day, starched gingham with a ruffled petticoat underneath. Instead of a knapsack, she carried one of my grandmother’s hand-me-down purses. The bag, made of woven rattan with a sturdy wooden handle, sat next to Wren on the Formica table as she shoveled cornflakes into her mouth. Her legs swung beneath her seat.
She no longer wanted Margaret to walk her down to the road to wait for the bus. Margaret stood in the parlor and pushed the curtains aside, watching my sister march down the lane, her lunchbox in one hand, that purse in the other. She watched her girl stand—so small!—with her back to her, kicking the gravel. The trauma of those weeks after the accident was reduced now to ropey scar tissue hidden beneath her Keds. But my mother felt it like a raw wound, the throb of worry as a farm truck shuddered by, stirring the ditch weeds. Still, Wren stared straight ahead until the bus lumbered up the road.
Margaret made herself can tomatoes while I slept. Two colanders of them were waiting by the sink. September, and the garden was still producing so much that some of it was rotting on the vine. The windows were steamed, and seven more quarts were cooling along the counter, by the time she ventured out to the line. She had a basket of laundry on her hip, and nested there with the damp T-shirts and socks were two empty jars. A few tiny moths clung to the outside of the sheet, and she could see more winged shadows inside the fold. She set the basket in the grass and lifted the sheet, leaning close. Most of them were small and pale, unremarkable, but even those held her interest. They had faces, she found, and antenna that quivered, honing in on some frequency she couldn’t detect. She chose the two most beautiful, which she later identified as a rosy maple and a waved sphinx. By the time I awoke again midmorning, they were there on the nursery shelf next to the others. I would have seen them as she lifted me from the crib, a menagerie of shape and color behind a growing wall of glass.
My mother took us to Saturday evening mass. It might have been that she was lonely, that with my father so far away she was yearning for adult conversation as soon as the weekend bloomed.
But we went other places, my mother and I. We perused the stacks at the public library where the air was heavy and silent, tinged with the scent of almond rising from the moldering pages. We ambled along the open freezer bins at the IGA, where my mother weighed the shrink-wrapped ham hocks in her hand and held them up to the fluorescent lights before choosing one with which to make soup beans. And she talked to people, laughed even, with the checkout girl or the older woman who stamped our books from her perch on a stool behind the circulation desk. She let strangers in the parking lot draw her into long conversations about the weather.
It could just as easily have been her desire to see the Eucharist up close.
Catholicism was my father’s childhood religion, but his own father had abandoned it about the time his wife left. My father had returned to the faith only after his first tenure review. In this part of the country, he told Margaret, belonging to a church community was yet another hoop to jump through. So they had begun attending Saint Clare. “You don’t have to convert or anything,” he assured my mother. Our family name in the directory would be enough. He could not have anticipated how much she would like it, how she would be drawn by the pageantry—the cassock’s color shifting with the liturgical season, the Stations of the Cross depicted in oil on wood like a series of windows into suffering, the holy water’s smooth surface trembling suddenly as she reached into the font. She had arranged for Wren’s baptism within weeks of their registering and then converted later in the spring. She had shown up with pages of notes for her first sacrament of reconciliation. “You don’t have to get it all out today,” Father Landon assured her. She liked that he didn’t try to assuage her guilt over Wren’s accident. He just listened, nodding as she twisted damp tissues in her lap. But even more, she liked what he said when she confessed that she might love her family, her husband and her little girl, more than God. “Your family is the face of God.” Isn’t that what she had always known?
Fewer parishioners attended mass on Saturday night, so we could sit in the front pew, watching Father Landon raise the host and the chalice. His palm hovered a moment over my sister’s hair and my own before he lifted the wafer and set it on my mother’s outstretched tongue. In the late summer evening, the light was different. The sun hung lower, shining through the rose window in the back of the chapel, casting light over the shoulders of my mother and sister when we returned to the pew and they kneeled for private prayers.
There was something of the entombed moths in that evening light. Something, too, in the drive home through the gloaming. The campus was surprisingly quiet on a Saturday evening, long shadows stretching out from the base of the trees on the empty quad.
Even once she stopped trying to trap the moths, they still came to my mother that fall. Ornately spotted with bright orange bands, the bella moth was beneath the doormat when she lifted it to sweep. Late one night, as she stood at the sink drinking a glass of water, the luna moth threw itself against the windowpane with a sound like knocking. She collected them, sealed them in glass. She noticed moths during the day when she never had before, hovering over late squash blossoms, recessed in the shadows beneath the bean plants. They seemed to be sacrificing themselves. Soon jars lined the nursery shelves, the kitchen windowsill, the edge of the desk in the study. My sister would press her palms to the glass and rotate a jar, watching the dead moth tumble inside. She would gather jars and stack them like blocks, leave these structures on the landing as strange totems.
At first, my mother had assumed she was trying to encapsulate beauty. She harbored vague plans of a series of moth-inspired watercolors. Or of somehow mounting the creatures themselves on painted canvas, creating a shadowbox for Jim’s office. But as the days passed, she understood she would never be able to siphon the allure of the insects. That wasn’t the point after all.
If anything, the inverse was true. There was a dreadful disquiet that she was keeping contained. Always the darkness. That old anxiety still simmered. She knew this. It was always there, even as the three of us moved through that autumn in our own version of the holy trinity: my mother anchored at the center, my sister stepping out into the tangible world, me barely tethered to this place, my breath still apparent in the soft crown of my skull. Sealing the fluttering creatures behind glass allowed the feeling to seep out like mere air leaking slowly from a worn tire. What strange sacrifice was she courting? Eventually, she might have been able to explain this to her husband, but she decided not to try. She made the decision as she hung up the phone one night, days before his return.
The next afternoon, my mother walked through the house as I slept on her shoulder. She let her fingers glaze the surface of the glass jars lining the windowsill. She held the luna up to sunlight, turning it, considering the thing inside like an elegant hieroglyph. Eventually, she set the jar down and sank back into the present. She lifted her eyes, drawing the barnyard beyond the window into focus.
Ostrich was crouched low where the bean plants were starting to yellow and crumple on the edge of the garden. His haunches twitched before he shot across the yard, sending a squirrel scrambling up the walnut tree. In a few hours, the bus would deliver Wren back home. By that time, the shelves and windowsills would be empty, the jars cleaned and stacked in the basement pantry. What would she think of such transience, my sister? It would, perhaps, be her first lesson in how the world can change. And then change again. How something magical can suddenly cease to exist.
I knew different, because I was soldered tight to my mother as she tore newspaper and cracked kindling into the barrel behind the barn. I knew change would always be someone’s choice. We stood amid the smoke as she emptied the jars, one after another, into the leaping flames. We stood until the wood became bone, watching bits of ash rise and float for a moment on the blue screen of the midday sky.
Julie Hensley is the author of two books of poetry, The Language of Horses (Finishing Line) and Viable (Five Oaks), as well as a collection of fiction, Landfall: A Ring of Stories (Ohio State). She is a professor of English at the Bluegrass Writers Studio, Eastern Kentucky University’s low-residency MFA program.