We are delighted to present Yunong Guo's story "Moth," winner of the David Hamilton Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize. This prize is sponsored by anonymous donors who wish to honor the mentorship and support they and other students at the University of Iowa received from Emeritus Professor of English David Hamilton. In addition to publication online, Guo will will be awarded a $500 scholarship.
Eventually Jean decided to go out and buy some flowers for her dead grandmother. There were too many moths that had died at home. She didn’t want to take the debris belonging to moths to the beautiful stone steps and delicate florist’s store. So, when the store owner laughed and told her to come in quickly, Jean realized that her shoes had rubbed on the "Welcome" mat in front of the store for too long.
“Actually, you don’t have to spend so long. I’m sure there won’t be any dirt on your soles,” the store owner said. He held a huge blue and white porcelain vase and tried to lift it to the top of the wooden flower shelf. There was a rope near the ceiling, from this side of the room. The bouquets faced down. It looked like people hanging themselves in line.
“I’m sorry . . . I . . . I mean, I’m still a little upset. After all, too many moths died in my house. I’m a little nervous.” Jean unnaturally rubbed the ground with her soles. She seemed to feel that there were still pieces of moth body or juice on her feet.
“Your house must be covered with wooden floors. Thanks for the moths. Those who have laid the floors have saved a lot of money. My grandmother’s house has carpets. I swear you don’t want to see moths and their debris sticking on the carpet.” The store owner went on. He got off the ladder and changed the water of the Rudbeckia hirta in the iron bucket.
“The floor is easy to clean, but . . . well. When will all those moths totally disappear?” Jean said and played with the Mimosa pudica on the front desk, watched its leaves close and open.
“So, what are you going to buy this time, same as last time? Don’t you wanna try the daisies we picked in the morning?” The owner asked.
“Maybe next time. My grandfather will be enraged if I bring back other kinds of flower. He will repeat the love story between he and my grandma again. How he used an unnamed purple flower to pursue my grandma.” Jean said.
The owner skillfully wrapped the flowers and put them in front of Jean, but she was looking around at the store’s layout, although she had seen it thousands of times.
“I’ve already wrapped your flowers,” the owner said.
“Thank you,” Jean said. “I just wonder why there is no moth in your store.”
The owner said that if she came two minutes earlier, she wouldn’t have been able to see, the ground was carpeted with moths. “And I don’t think moths are bad,” the owner said. “They are nourishing for the flowers. You see, especially the body. All we have to do is cut off their wings and crush the moths into a moth paste.”
As he said, he made a demonstration with his hands, and Jean looked at those two flexible and flying hands. She thought that they were butterflies.
Her feet began to rub again.
She released her hand and let the exact number of coins fall on the table then left. On the way home, Jean felt that her neck was burning through by the sun in the sky. The glowing ball was pushing everyone to their wits’ end. The sun didn’t set for two days. And the night was so precious. But people were still afraid and felt sadness about it. Moths would appear on a large scale at night. People cursed the sun when it rose and waited painfully in the night because they didn’t dream anymore.
Compared with humans, the life of moths was too short. They lived, and then flew desperately to death, to fire, to any other light. Someone has compared butterflies with moths. Jean didn’t remember who it was. She only remembered that people would praise the butterfly for breaking out of its cocoon and transforming from a meat worm. But no one will pity the death of a moth, even though they grow up in the same way as butterflies, even though they are similar.
Jean pushed the door open. Her grandmother still dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer after she died. Grandma wore the ballet skirt and white stockings while she still breathed and hung herself upside down from the ceiling of the living room next to the dusty chandelier. No one could imagine that gentle old lady could shrink so much in a few days. The fitted ballet skirt became flabby on her body. The stockings couldn’t hide the growing green spots on her legs.
Jean went to the kitchen, cut off the stalk of the flowers with a kitchen knife, and inserted them into her grandmother’s open mouth. This behavior apparently caused her grandfather’s discontent, he said: “In a few days the woman’s body will stink! Stop inserting and get her out.”
“Damn it,” Jean and Grandpa scolded at the same time. As she saw the bouquet loosen, she had to go back to the kitchen garbage can and take out a proper stalk to replace the missing flower. Her grandfather, who had lost both legs and an arm, flipped his wheelchair to the telephone. Now he was back from the war field, but his loosing parts were still covered by the sand or decomposing. Jean wanted to help him, but he shouted at her. The old man was addicted to making phone calls. The voice on the other side of the receiver was always so interesting that even the telephone service prompt excited him.
“Don’t work all day and all night on these useless things! There’s plenty of time . . .” Jean closed the door before he finished his sentence. Now her grandfather’s voice could no longer be heard in her room. In the room there were only dead moths, Jean, and her brother, who was locked in the wardrobe. She held the door and slowly took off her socks as she stepped on the floor covered with moths’ bodies. She didn’t care about the scales floating in the air and sunshine, so she stood on the body of the moth and danced. She could feel the moths’ flesh adhere to her toes. She lay on the floor, although the moths made her cough and teared her eyes. Her feet were itchy. However, she was still very excited. And her brother, Dalton, could only peep through a crack in the wardrobe door with one eye.
When moths began to overflow, there was only one wardrobe in this family. Jean’s parents put their six-foot son in this small wardrobe and left her to take care of her brother. The locks were fastened on the wardrobe door. But the dumb parents obviously forgot their son’s diet and excretion problems and they went out in a hurry. Before leaving, they put the key in the wardrobe and told their son, "Dalton, we’ll be back when all the moths are dead, so you can come back when we come back."
"Where are you going? Where are you hiding?" Dalton asked.
"This is a matter for adults. Don't ask children."
"Do you love us? Me, Jean, and our grandparents."
"Oh, my baby, what are you talking about?"
They also told Jean, “Take care of him. We didn’t want his mood to be affected by those moths.” Then the voice of Grandmother came. She told Jean to stop meddling. After all, the parents were willing to lock their son in the wardrobe.
“Father, Mother. Where are you going? What are you going to do?”
"We are going to meet God." Father folded his hands and said to Jean, "If there is anyone who can save this, it will be God."
“Can we join you on the journey?”
“You cannot, you are too weak. It will fall in the blazing sun alive and dark. And what will we do then? Continue on our journey or take care of you?”
"We are bound to see God," Mother said. “God loves each and every one of us. If there is ever a day when this fuckup is over, it will be when we meet God.”
Then, they left.
Both parents didn’t realize that there wasn’t enough space between the wardrobe doors. Dalton couldn’t stretch out his hands to unlock the lock. But moths were all pervasive.
Jean refused to sleep in her bedroom on days when the sun would still set. She couldn’t sleep because of the screams and cries from Dalton. She considered many times to see if the sound could wake the dead. She also planned to move the wardrobe to the cemetery. Anyway, everyone was going to die!
Jean’s grandfather was also enraged, scolding parents as a pair of fools. Dalton told Jean what life in the wardrobe with moths was like. He howled that the moth had emerged on his eyeballs, copulated on his face, and the antennae of the moth shook on his cheek.
But fortunately, he was unable to say anything later.
Jean asked him if he wanted to come out and she could help to open the lock. He refused and thought there might be more moths outside. In the first few days he would say that he was hungry, he wanted to go to the toilet and so on. At last he could not say anything. He couldn’t help it anymore. When he broke down and cried, he touched through the wardrobe his messy and greasy hair, stinky excrement, and every moths’ cocoon, but he couldn’t find the key.
After dancing, Jean saw another crack in the wardrobe. She figured out when she would go out and buy a few rolls of tape to seal the door, and at least keep the stench in the closet. After all, Grandma’s death is also due to the smell. Just before she died, Grandma sat on the living room sofa and put on her ballet shoes, complained that the smell took the place of oxygen under her nose and she could not breathe. And she also explained that after she died, Jean must buy some flowers and put them in her mouth, so she could smell the flowers and live on. She asked not to be buried underground. She didn’t want to be decomposed into the ground to feed moths. Then Grandma went up to the ladder that had been laid long ago, put her foot into the rope sheath and tightened it. And died.
Suddenly, Jean shouted because she saw several moths with feces crawl out.
“I don’t want to step on your shit when I step on a moth!” Jean cried. Dalton was frightened. He began to whine in a hoarse voice. Jean shut the wardrobe door tightly. Why he was still alive? Jean asked herself over and over again. Why was her annoying brother still alive? Why didn’t this disgusting monster die? She couldn’t get the answer. So, she hammered the closet with her fists. Asked loudly why his brother didn’t die.
There was only a low voice like the cry of a wild animal caught in a trap.
Jean brushed the moth off her feet, put on her socks again, collected all the dead bodies on the floor with a broom and poured them out of the window. Jean opened the door. Her grandfather was cheering. Because the sky got slightly darker, it means they’re going to have a night today. Flowers and plants outside grew quite fast at night, as if they didn’t need photosynthesis. They looked so weak in the sun. Grandfather was so delight and he asked Jean to boil an egg, peeled it off, and put it in his mouth. Then he began to trim his nose hair with a pair of scissors in front of the mirror. Jean knows that if her grandfather trimmed his nose, it proves that he is extremely happy.
But Jean was not enjoying in it at all. There were a lot of moths going out at night, and more moths might come into her house. And those moths would go crazy to look for light, even the light of candles would attract them. No one could guarantee that moths would not get into their doors in groups. Grandpa finished trimming his nose hair and sat back next to the phone. But this time, instead of dialing the number as usual, he called his former comrades in arms. They laughed and congratulated each other on ushering in the night or the day.
When it’s completely dark, Jean didn’t want to sleep, and others didn’t want to sleep either. The dark would cover this land for a long time. “If your grandmother is still alive, she must be asleep now.” Grandfather hummed, “She's the one who goes to bed when it's dark.” Then he told himself the story of meeting with Grandma, falling in love, and living together again. He coaxed himself from crying to laughing, from laughing to sleeping.
After putting Grandpa on the bed, Jean looked out of the window. The flower store that she had visited this morning set off a fire without warning. Jean watched the fire grow. She woke up her sleeping grandfather, and then she wondered for a moment whether she would find a way to move her brother out while he was in the wardrobe. After giving up thinking, she quickly put her clothes on and ran to the delicate florist store. Behind her were countless moths whistling from behind, spiraling forward. Jean felt their wings were flapping in her ears, and the fluff that ran across her cheeks felt the same as what her brother described to her. In the fire, their wings were burnt down, and moth flesh became new fuel to make the fire more vigorous. Flames had devoured the florists store which Jean visited thousands of times. It had been too long since people had seen a burning flame. Jean shouted: Get up and see the fire. People looked at the familiar and unfamiliar flames. Some are happy, some want to roast marshmallows. Jean knocked on the doors of nearby residents to prevent their dreams from being ignited by the flames. This peaceful night has become even more memorable. The alarm of the fire engine come from afar. But there are no flashing lights. People are so scared of moths; they don’t want to leave any light on for them.
Yunong Guo is a writer from China. She is working on a collection of short stories about nature and human beings. In this work she tries to express the existence of life through an absurd way. She holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa and is currently working on her MA at the University of Chicago.