Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting previews from the 17 stories in my new short story collection, Before and Afterlives. If you like what you read, take a hop over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase either the print book or the e-book, and leave a review when you’re finished reading. It helps other people figure out if they’d like to read the book (and strokes my ego, at least when they’re good reviews).
Today’s preview is the opening to my novelette, “The Language of Moths”, which was a Nebula finalist in 2006. It’s a story about a family from Boston who travel to the Allegheny Mountains, where the father, an entomologist, is seeking out a moth he remembers seeing as a young person when his family camped there, one that he knows has not been identified before. What they find, however, are the fault lines in all of their relationships as a family. And in the case of some characters, they find a new language to speak when they encounter a deeply magical place.
The Language of Moths
1. Swallowing Bubbles
The four of them had been traveling for what seemed like forever, the two in the front seat rattling maps like they did newspapers on Sunday mornings. They rode in the wagon, her favorite car, the one with the wood paneling on its doors. The wagon wound through the twisty backroads of the mountains, leaving behind it clouds of dust through which sunlight passed, making the air shimmer like liquid gold. The girl wanted the wagon to stop so she could jump out and run through the golden light behind her. She climbed halfway over the back seat and pushed her face against the rear window, trying to get a better look.
The little old man beside her shouted, “No! No! No! Sit down, you’re slobbering all over the glass. Sit down this instant!” He grabbed her around her waist and pulled her back into a sitting position. He pulled a strap across her chest, locking it with a decisive click. The little old man narrowed his eyes; he waved a finger in the girl’s face. He said things at her. But as his words left his lips, they became bubbles. Large silver bubbles that shimmied and wobbled in the air. The bubbles filled the car in mere moments. So many words all at once! The girl laughed delightedly. She popped some of the bubbles between her fingers. Others she plucked from the air and swallowed like grapes. She let them sit sweetly on her tongue for a while, before taking them all the way in for good. When the bubbles reached her stomach, they burst into music. The sound of them echoed through her body, reverberating. She rang like a bell. One day, when she swallowed enough bubbles, she might understand what the little old man beside her was saying. All of the time, not just now and then. Maybe she’d even be able to say things back to him. She wondered if her own words would taste as sweet. Like honey, maybe. Or like flowers.
2. Being Selfish
Eliot is watching his mother hang bed sheets from a cord of clothesline she’s tied off at two walls facing opposite of each other in their cabin. “To give us all a sense of personal space,” she explains. Eliot tells his mother that this cabin is so small, hanging up bed sheets to section off rooms is a futile activity. “Where did you learn that word,” his mother asks. “Futile. Who taught you that?”
“At school,” Eliot says, paging through an X-Men comic book, not bothering to look up.
His mother makes a face that looks impressed. “Maybe public school isn’t so bad after all,” she says. “Your father was right, as usual.”
Eliot doesn’t know if his father is right, or even if his father is usually right, as his mother seems to imagine. After all, here they are in the Allegheny Mountains, in Pennsylvania, for God’s sake, hundreds of miles away from home. Away from Boston. And for what? For a figment of his father’s imagination. For a so-called undiscovered moth his father claims to have seen when he was Eliot’s age, fourteen, camping right here in this very cabin. Eliot doesn’t believe his father could remember anything that far back, and even if he could, his memory of the event could be completely fictional at this point, an indulgence in nostalgia for a time when his life still seemed open in all directions, flat as a map, unexplored and waiting for him.
Eliot’s father is an entomologist. His specialty is lepidoptera, moths and butterflies and what Eliot thinks of as creepy-crawlies, things that spin cocoons around themselves when they’re unhappy with their present circumstances and wait inside their shells until either they’ve changed or the world has, before coming out. Eliot’s father is forty-three years old, a once-celebrated researcher on the mating habits of moths found in the Appalachian Mountains. He is also a liar. He lied to his grant committee at the college, telling them in his proposal that he required the funds for this expedition to research the habits of a certain species of moth with which they were all familiar. He didn’t mention his undiscovered moth, the one that glowed orange and pink, as he once told Eliot during a reverie, with his eyes looking at something unimaginably distant while he spoke of it. Maybe, Eliot thinks, an absurd adventure like this one is a scientist’s version of a mid-life crisis. Instead of chasing after other women, Eliot’s father is chasing after a moth that, let’s face it, he probably imagined.
“There now, isn’t that better?” Eliot’s mother stands in the center of the cabin, which she has finished sectioning into four rooms. The cabin is a perfect square with clothesline bisecting the center in both directions, like a plus sign. Eliot owns one corner, and Dawn, his sister, has the one next to his: That makes up one half of the cabin. The other half has been divided into the kitchen and his parents’ space. The sheet separating Eliot’s corner from his sister’s is patterned with blue flowers and tiny teacups. These sheets are Dawn’s favorites, and secretly, Eliot’s too.
Eliot’s mother glances around, smiling vaguely, wiping sweat off of her brow. She’s obviously happy with her achievement. After all, she’s an academic, a philosopher, unaccustomed to cleaning house and rigging up clotheslines and bed linen. The maid back in Boston–back home, Eliot thinks–Marcy, she helps around the house with domestic things like that. Usually Eliot’s mother uses her mind to speculate on how the mind works; not just her own mind–but the mind–the idea of what a mind is. Now she finds herself using her mental prowess to tidy up a ramshackle cabin. Who would have guessed she’d be so capable? So practical? Not Eliot. Certainly not herself.
The door to the cabin swings open, flooding the room with bright sunlight that makes Eliot squint. He shields his eyes with one hand, like an officer saluting, to witness the shadowy figure of his father’s body filling the doorframe, and his sister Dawn trailing behind.
Dawn is more excited than usual, which has made this trip something less than a vacation. For Eliot’s father, Dr. Carroll, it was never a vacation; that was a well-known fact. For Dr. Carroll, this was an expedition, possibly his last chance to inscribe his name in History. But the rest of the family was supposed to “take things easy and enjoy themselves.” When Dr. Carroll said that, Eliot had snorted. Dr. Carroll had placed his hands on his hips and glowered. “Why the attitude, Eliot?” he’d asked.
“Take it easy?” Eliot repeated in a squeaky-scratchy voice that never failed to surface when he most needed to appear justified and righteous. “How can you expect us to do that with Dawn around?”
Dr. Carroll had stalked away, not answering, which didn’t surprise Eliot at all. For most of his life, this is what Eliot has seen whenever he questions his father: his father’s back, walking away, leaving a room full of silence.
Dawn pushes past Dr. Carroll and runs over to Eliot’s cot. She jumps on the mattress, which squeals on old coils, and throws her arms across the moth-eaten pink quilt. The quilt smells of mold and mildew and something a little like mothballs, as if it had been stored in a cedar chest for a long time. Dawn turns to Eliot, her wide blue eyes set in a face as white and smooth as porcelain, and smiles at him, her blonde hair fanning out on the pillow. Eliot considers her over the top of his comic book, pretending not to have noticed her.
Dawn is autistic. She’s seventeen years old, three years older than Eliot. But when she’s around, Eliot feels as if he’s already an old man, forced into an early maturity, responsible for things no fourteen year old boy should have to think about. He blames this all on his parents, who often encourage him when he pays attention to Dawn, who often scold him when he wants something for himself. “Being selfish,” is what his mother calls that, leaving Eliot dashed to pieces on the rocks of guilt. He feels guilty even now, trying to read the last page of his comic book instead of paying attention to Dawn.
“I’m leaving,” Dr. Carroll announces. He’s wearing khaki pants with pockets all over them, and a wide-brimmed hat with mosquito netting pulled down over his face. A backpack and sleeping bag are slung on his back. He lifts the mosquito netting and kisses Eliot’s mother on her cheek and calls her Dr. Carroll affectionately, then looks at Eliot and says, “You take care of Dawn while I’m away, Eliot. Stay out of trouble.”
He walks outside, and all of them–Eliot, Dawn and their mother–move to the doorway. As if magnetized by Dr. Carroll’s absence, they try to fill the space he’s left. They watch him become smaller and smaller, a shadow, until he reaches the trail that will take him farther into the graying mountains, where his moth awaits.
“Good luck,” Eliot’s mother whispers, waving goodbye to his back, his nets and pockets. She closes her eyes and says, “Please,” to something she cannot name, even though she no longer believes in higher powers, ghosts or gods of any sort.