The Moth Catcher
The summer Camille’s mother drowned the kittens, the grass around the bucket browned and died. That patch of earth beat up at the sky like raw skin and left a dark stain on the back lawn all summer, so Camille covered it with a flower pot and hoped the guests wouldn’t notice.
The wedding would be a small affair. That was her compromise with her fiancé. They’d have the ceremony in the garden. The reception would follow in and around the house, the place she was raised among chickens and the few goats her mother used to keep in the yard, and in return she would no longer delay the ceremony. It wasn’t that she didn’t want a marriage; it was more so the tiredness that sudded her every time she tried to think past the drapey white fixings of the wedding.
White as bone inside and out, the house was an old, clumbering thing that seemed to breathe and heave with the wind in bad storms. Each room held a wavering light between the walls, and years of treading had hammered the floors thin.
Camille and her mother would be the only ones in the house the day before the wedding, and only the two of them would clean and prepare it for the flood of guests. This was one of her mother’s conditions if Camille was to get her way about having the wedding at home. Her mother couldn’t stomach the idea of strangers teaming through her things, photographs and diaries of thoughts long dead. So, just the two of them cleaning the empty house. They passed thoughts back to one another in the thick August heat.
The wedding seemed to scare her mother. Camille noticed the whiteness of her lips whenever she brought it up. Camille herself kept pushing the wedding back, but only because things as they were now were fine. It was not the wedding but what came after that left Camille spiraling, a white pain scorching through her skull as she thought it over. The quiet, the waiting, the wonder when something new would happen. She wondered if she would have a child of her own. She wondered when it would happen. She wondered if she would hold onto them too tightly until her own skin grew over the child’s nose and mouth and they became one, inseparable, mother and child, love of the suffocating kind. What kind of knife would it take to cut that?
Camille met Larry at school, the university she went to only a few miles from home. He did everything right. He brought her flowers. He cooked dinners and took her out. He bought her dresses to wear for their trips to France and Italy. He had a smile like burning magnesium, bright and white and too much to take in at once without burning.
The sun pulsed above the house like a gas lamp. Camille and her mother started with the baseboards, knees pressed to the floor as they pelted the dirt from the corners. As she cleaned, she traced her history through the walls. There was the nick in the drywall from the time she tipped her chair too far back, the scratch on the floor from when she dragged her heavy suitcase with its broken wheel to the door, threatening to run away at seventeen because her mother refused to let her go on the school trip to upstate New York, the worn path on floorboards from years of walking the same path up the stairs, the freshest coat of white paint in the living room her mother had hastily splashed across the deep blue Camille chose when she was sixteen after Camille finally moved out at twenty-five. The house carried each mark like a wound.
Camille coaxed spiders into cups and set them loose near the shed. When they finished the floors, her mother strung nets around the veranda. “To keep out moths,” she said, glancing at her daughter. “And mosquitoes,” Camille added as she took the bleach and a bucket of cloths upstairs to the bathroom.
The moths had always been a problem in this house. They were fat, pale things that bred in the garden and crept into the house at night. They ate through sweaters and beat themselves against the lights. She hated the rattle of their papery wings. A moth in the house is bad luck, a sign of death, something that eats at the precious knits stored carefully in the closets. Her mother kept dried orange peels between the folds of clothing to ward them off, but she sometimes still found the dry white bodies nestled in the cashmeres and wool. Do they die where they are born, Camille wondered, or did some moths make it out of the soothing darkness?
Grout near the clawfoot tub was thick with mold. The porcelain would need to be scoured with bleach powder and the mirror wiped with vinegar. Camille's mother's things spread like an empire across the vanity, her hair dead on the teeth of the comb like chewed gold.
Camille thought of kittens as she scrubbed. She had one, once, when she was fourteen. A pale white thing both blind and deaf, it lived only one summer. Camille kept it alive despite her mother’s tongue clicking. “That thing will die. The world is too hard for it. Don’t give it a name,” she warned as she washed her meat-slick hands after cooking.
Camille had found the kittens that morning, their cries quivering up from beneath the front porch. She waited, then searched for their mother, and found a dead black and white cat on the side of the road at the end of the driveway. The kittens must have been only a week old. They would not survive without her. As Camille pressed herself against the port and reached into the cool cob-webbed darkness below to pluck them out one by one, she did not name them, not even the milk-white one. She put them in a box and called her mother over.
When Camille used to come home from after school orchestra rehearsal, her mother would be upstairs in the bath, and she would call out, her voice drifting through the steam, “Come talk to me.” Camille would close the toilet lid and sit on top while her mother sank beneath the frothing bubbles and try to make conversation. Her mother would say, “Tell me about your day,” and Camille would say it was “Fine, how was yours,” and her mother would say “Tired.”
“Have you always been tired?” Camille asked once, and her mother smiled and rubbed her ring finger as she sank lower in the bathwater. “Not always. The world is just hard.” When her mother eventually climbed out of the water, her skin pink and wrinkled, Camille would use the water after her and try to hold her breath underwater for as long as she could so just in case it came to drowning, she would be prepared.
Back then, Camille felt like a delicate thing her mother could cup in her palms, pale silvery dust leaving streaks on her mother’s skin. It was in these moments that Camille felt safe, penned in by the steam of the bath and warmth and quiet of that tight little room. Just her and her mother. A long time ago, it was all either of them ever needed.
Downstairs, her mother beat the rugs and vacuumed the drapes, a raw kind of music that travelled up to Camille as her own hands grew cracked and irritated, red from the harsh chemicals she used to clear the limescale from the bathroom. It was so much cleaner when she was a child, but the tiredness her mother always spoke of must have been like water, a drowning thing.
Camille remembered the bathroom being brighter. She checked the bulbs, and they were all lit, but the light fixtures were coated in dust. She unscrewed the milky-white globe that encased the bulbs, and bright fluorescence spilled across the tile. Dust and dead things rattled in the glass. She turned the globe over to empty it out, and the dried husks of moths fell like leaves into the sink. They must have crawled in there and died, she thought. To be so desperate for warmth and light that one is willing to die. Though they didn’t know that, she thought. The moths didn’t know they’d be trapped.
When she finished in the bathroom, Camille found her mother crumpled into the living room sofa. “I did the living room. We can finish the kitchen tomorrow.” Camille watched her. Her mother was older, yes. Fine lines threaded her face and hands, pink as they were from cleaning. That tiredness was beginning to fill her.
They had barely spoken at all since Camille arrived yesterday. She had set up her dress and her suitcases in her old childhood bedroom, shaking dust from the blankets and sweeping dead moths from the windowsills. She did not know what to say to her mother, and her mother did not ask any questions. She only answered them in short quips, answering “How are you?” with a sunken smile: “Tired.”
Camille could feel it, too. The tiredness chrysalized in her, especially now as the wedding grew close. She folded a throw blanket and laid it across the sofa’s armrest, within her mother’s reach. “I’ll finish the kitchen now. Then we can be done and enjoy tomorrow.” Her mother nodded, and Camille went to the kitchen.
Leaving this house seemed impossible when she was young. She stayed through college and up until Larry’s job offers came from across the country. It broke her mother’s heart as much as it broke her own, like they were splitting the roof of the house like an egg and letting all the scouring sunlight in. The truth was simple. Camille had never wanted to leave, and her mother never wanted her to go, but this was how things go. They were supposed to learn to need other people. Now, her mother lived alone, and she did not keep goats or chickens. Instead, she put up nets and drowned a litter of strays so they wouldn’t become cats that killed birds. When Camille had asked her mother about it, “How could you do that? Why?” her mother only shrugged and said “I guess I just knew it was better coming from me than from something else. It’s a hard world.”
Camille had watched her mother’s face as she submerged each mewling body. Her eyes were hard and filmy as pearls. She stared past the bottom of the bucket as if she could see something deeper than the ground.
In the kitchen, Camille packed away chipped cups to make room for the caterers and scraped grease from the stovetop. She mopped the floors and cleaned the windows while afternoon sun crept through the lace curtains, projecting floral shadows on the butcher block. She stored mismatched pots and pans under the sink and shoved the refrigerator aside to clear away the coins and dust collected there. The sun slowly set. She arranged the cut peonies on the kitchen island and lit a candle. An open window sipped fresh air into the house as if taking a deep breath. “I’m done, Mom,” she called out, and she waited.
Her mother stirred on the sofa as if she was waking from a nap. “Good,” she said. “Good. Then come talk to me.”
Those same words scrub Camille raw; she grew pink and new again as she entered the living room and sat beside her mother. The velvety sofa sagged under her weight. “That was a lot. At least it’s done,” she said.
Her mother smiled at her. “It looks great. It will look great for tomorrow,” she said, but there was a heaviness in her voice. “I need a bath.”
It was a cool evening. Moonlight cast shadows long like nets across the summer-heavy greenery of August. She thought back to the kittens. Pink, mewling things. Just scraps of fur shaved from their mother. Camille had filled the bucket with water, but she could not bring herself to do the drowning. That, her mother took care of with practiced ease, submerging her arms past the elbows and holding the kittens there while she watched the birds in the trees. They were quiet fixtures on their branches, like a fixed audience attending a hanging. Camille always wondered if they watched back and thanked her for this, if in some creature's universe this act of drowning made her a hero.
While it happened, Camille was struck by the silence from the kittens. Did they know it was coming? Did they hate her for filling the bucket in the kitchen sink? Once it was done and her mother collected the small bodies in a cardboard box and buried them where they were found beneath the porch, Camille doused the peony bush with the water from the bucket and hoped the flowers would not wilt with the taste of death.
“Tell me about this man,” Camille’s mother said after a moment.
Camille waited a moment and thought of Larry. “He’s good.” It was true. He was bright and warm as lamplight.
Her mother accepted this with a solemn nod.
“What, Mom?” Camille shifted so she could look into her mother's green-flecked eyes. Her brow twitched. “It’s not going to be awful. There is such a thing as a happy marriage.”
“I know,” her mother replied, but Camille did not believe her. “But--” she stopped. “I wish I could save you if it isn’t.”
Eyes closed, Camille sank into the cushions. “You’ll meet him tomorrow,” she said. “You’ll see.” She had offered to bring Larry by once before they moved, but as usual, she had some excuse. That time, it was her weariness. “I’m too tired to talk to strangers,” she had said. “Can’t you see that?” Having the wedding here was the only way she would get her mother to meet this man and make her see that he wasn’t the same as hers. If only her mother didn’t see her as some weak thing in need of culling; that is always a reason to leave. At least with Larry she can make the choice herself.
Her mother took her hand and squeezed it. “I’m sure I will.” She watched her daughter, and she recognized herself in the slight creep of weariness in her eyes.
Camille nodded. Outside, moths clouded the porchlights and rested against the nets across the veranda. Tiredness sloshed between them. Sometimes Camille felt like she’d never never left the house at all, that this was the place she still lived.
Her mother patted her thigh and released her hand. She did not look at her daughter as she spoke. “I always knew you were special,” she said. “Of all the others. There were others, you know. A girl, then a boy.”
“What are you talking about?” Camille asked.
“Oh, they died,” her mother answered. “It all happened years before you. The girl lived for three days. The boy didn’t even make it that far. You know. This place is just too hard.” She gestured around her, at the house, at the sky. “But then, there was you. My darling Camille. When you came into this world, I knew I could never let you go. I knew you needed me. This time I felt like I could actually protect you from it.”
Camille’s breath moved against the walls of her throat like something trapped. “I’m sorry, Mom. I had no idea.”
She shook her head. “You don’t understand what I’m saying.” This time she looked in her daughter’s eyes. “I didn’t want them. but I knew you were different. I’m glad it was you who stayed.”
For a moment, Camille couldn’t speak. Her mind carried through the garden and wondered where they were. Beneath the roses or behind the blackberry bushes. Camille forced a breath, then spoke. “Of course, Mom. You’ll always have me.”
Her mother smiled like this was the right answer. “You can always stay here, Camille. If you change your mind. It’s safe here.”
Camille pressed her lips together. “I know,” she said, the words like the dry rub of bitterness on the tongue. It is safe here like an egg is safe until the shell is pierced. It is safe until the drowning. There is always the leaving and coming back. Leaving like casting off a great weight, and coming back like muscle memory. The body knows how to carry it.
Moths beat against the lights and nets until a small one felt its way around a hole and slipped in through a broken window screen. Immediately, it pushed for the ceiling light. Camille grabbed a heavy book and stood abruptly.
“Leave it,” her mother said, and Camille froze. “I’ll get it,” her mother said. “You just go to bed.”
Slowly, Camille nodded, and she rose up the stairs, past the bathroom and into her bedroom. She shut the door behind her. Her dress hung on the wardrobe, wide and smooth like wings. The bed creaked with her weight, and for a while, all she did was stare at the dress and wonder what her mother felt like on this day all those years ago.
“Camille.” Her mother stuck her head into the bedroom. She kept the door open to a narrow slit, nearly clamping her own neck. “Rest well.”
“I know, Mom.” Camille smoothed her bedspread. Her mother shut the door. Then, down the hall, she heard running water begin to fill the bath.
In her mind, the sound became that of water slapping the bottom of a bucket as it filled. Then, the tap shut off, the bath filled, the steam clinging to the porcelain. Standing with her eyes shut, she waited for her mother’s call: “Come talk to me.”