She was a marvel: bones thin and brittle, organs misshapen, skin with a cast of gray. Most shocking, of course, were her wings. Not real wings, the local newspaper said, but wing-like protrusions—things that looked like wings but weren’t. Alongside the newspaper article, a grainy photo in which you could just make out two bumps on a newborn’s back.
She’d been born right in our little town, but no one we knew had seen her in person. She spent most of her young days at a hospital in Seattle, a two-hour drive away. The doctors had tried various operations and procedures, but these had led to new complications, daisy-chaining her from one hospital bed to the next.
My mother read all about it in the local paper. She read the tabloid, too, which told the more interesting stories. How the child was attracted to flame, how her eyes were bug-like, divided into hundreds of tiny partitions. How Mrs. Dougher once walked into her daughter’s bedroom and found the girl flapping above her crib, banging her head into the ceiling lamp.
“She could fly outside and right onto the highway,” my mother said with concern. “Smack into the windshield of a lumber truck.”
The girl’s name was Josephine Annemarie Dougher, but that seemed too long for such a small thing. We followed the tabloid’s lead: we called her the Moth-Child.
We hadn’t always lived next-door to the Doughers. In the years after my father left, when I was almost too young to remember, we’d moved into smaller and smaller houses: from a tall Victorian in the center of town to a squat one-story around the corner, and then, when I was eight years old, to a small house on the outskirts of town, on a street that dead-ended in forest. This new house was damp, thin-walled, and small-roomed, but here we lived next-door to something strange and important. The Moth-Child, my mother was determined, was to be our consolation.
Mom had always followed the Moth-Child story with interest, and when we moved next-door, her fascination grew. Every morning she scanned the paper, and when she discovered the occasional article, she carefully cut it out and placed it in a box.
She kept her eye on the Doughers’ house. It was often dark and empty, with the family away in Seattle. When she saw a car in the driveway, she forayed to their door with a plate of cookies, and I watched from our yard, peeking through blackberry bushes. The door opened, my mother handed over the plate, but then back she plodded back again. “Didn’t see her,” she said. “Met the mother, but didn’t see the girl.”
Mom carried on, yelling “Hello!” to Mr. Dougher in the driveway, chasing Mrs. Dougher down the aisles of the grocery store. She offered to babysit. At last, she managed to stretch their conversations to several minutes.
Our previous neighborhood had been alive with children’s shouts—ball games and packs of roving bicycles—but the new street was quiet, as if muffled by the surrounding woods. There were no children close to my age. Mom hinted that the Moth-Child and I might become friends, but I scoffed. Besides being a freak, she was a full three years younger than me.
We’d lived on the new street a year when Mom read in the local newspaper that the doctors were pulling back on the Moth-Child’s treatment. They hadn’t removed her wings: other operations had been more urgent, and now her health was too fragile. “She’ll be spending more time at home,” my mother said, eyes flicking over the newsprint.
The doctors locked the wings down with straps and braces. To minimize appearance and encourage use of her other limbs, the newspaper explained. To keep her from flying, the tabloid countered.
It was a summer day but foggy when the doorbell rang, and my mother called to me. I’d been lying on the floor of my bedroom, reading a book about girls who rode horses. I walked down the hall, still holding the paperback, a finger slipped between the pages to mark my spot. When I saw the small person standing with my mother in the living room, I dropped the book to the floor.
She was pale. Her hair was short, wispy, and not gray exactly, but grayish brown. She was shorter than most children her age, and thin. Her arms and legs were covered in scars. She wore braces of painted-white metal. Her eyes were not bug-like, as the tabloid had claimed, but dark pools, steady and staring at the floor.
“This is Josephine,” my mother said, with her hand behind—but not quite touching—the girl’s shoulder. And just then, the girl’s eyes flicked up to meet mine.
Safe inside my bedroom again, I took one breath, then another. I had just, for the first time, seen the Moth-Child.
Soon, I heard my mother in the hall, and the door opened. “Rude,” she said. “Rude, rude.”
She took me to the kitchen, where she’d set up a checkers board at the table. The Moth-Child sat there perfectly still, her eyes fixed on the red and black pieces. She was so tiny, the chair she perched in seemed enormous.
I slipped into my own chair as quietly as I could. My mother leaned toward the Moth-Child. “Have you played this before?” she asked, words clear and slow. The girl quivered a little, but her eyes remained on the board. I moved my piece, and my mother said, “Now you do the same,” but the Moth-Child just sat there.
Mom took Josephine’s hand in her own, but when she tried to guide it to the red checker piece, the girl’s eyes widened and she pulled away and leapt back. She knocked over her chair and then, trying to run, tripped over it and fell flat on the ground. She screamed. I hadn’t thought she could make any noise, let alone one so loud. But then she seemed to run out of voice and whispered, “Nah, nah, nah.”
I watched her lying there, struggling to get up—her braces made it difficult. Something on her back was writhing and pushing against her dress. Her wings.
“Quick,” Mom said. “Run next-door and get help,” but I just stood there. I’d never been to the Doughers’ house before, and I was nervous. “Hurry,” she said, and I ran. Their door was painted blue but was peeling, and when I knocked I got a splinter in my knuckle. Mrs. Dougher answered. She had dark, frizzy hair that she pulled back from her face with tortoiseshell combs, but now she wore only one comb, and the hair on the other side poofed out, making her look off-center. She had the other comb in her hand, and now she pulled the hair back with such a quick gesture that it seemed like magic.
“She fell,” I managed to get out, and Mrs. Dougher walked past me, cut across the grass, and opened our front door without knocking.
The Moth-Child was now in the living room, beating her head and hands softly against the front window. “I’m sorry,” my mother said, “I don’t know how to stop her. I didn’t want to touch her. It made her so angry––”
But Mrs. Dougher just shook her head. She wrapped her arms around the girl, put her hand against her daughter’s cheek, and whispered, “Shh.”
The Doughers gave us guidelines to follow. “I have to leave you alone with her,” Mrs. Dougher said. “Otherwise, she’ll just cling to me.” We could touch Josephine, but not too much. We had to be gentle. She bruised easily, and sometimes touch made her nervous. She could be in the rain, but not too much, because it would rust her leg braces. She liked dark, shady places, but we should encourage her to play in the sun, only not too much, not enough that it burned her skin. If she seemed startled or nervous, we should move slowly around her.
We were sitting in their living room. The Doughers’ home was crowded with old newspapers and ripped envelopes, chipped teapots and figurines. On the floor in front of the fireplace was a dead plant, leaves dry and pale. The shades were drawn, and the room was dark, even in the middle of the day.
We heard movement in the hall, and my mother turned, but it was only Mr. Dougher, walking in and buttoning a flannel over his undershirt.
“Where’s Josephine?” my mother asked brightly.
“In bed,” Mrs. Dougher said. She nodded down the hall to a door slightly ajar. From behind it came mechanical whirs and groans, some sort of medical machine.
“She’s not well today,” Mr. Dougher explained.
We should try to keep her away from bright lights and certainly flames. She was not allowed to watch television. We should not tamper with her braces, and if she tried to take them off, we should stop her. “We’ve had to lock them in place,” Mr. Dougher said, “so there’s not much she can do.” He walked to the mantle and picked up a key, which glittered in the weak light of the room.
The next time the Moth-Child came to us, my mother invited kids from our old neighborhood. A therapist had said that she should be around more children for proper socialization. The kids gathered in our front yard, and when Mrs. Dougher brought the Moth-Child over, with her halting walk, they stared. Her braces glinted in a shaft of sunlight that found its way through the tall trees. I felt awkward, and picked at the dirt under my fingernails. Mrs. Dougher went back to her house, and my mother sat on the porch with a magazine and left us mostly to ourselves.
A boy stepped closer, and Josephine jerked her head up and looked him in the eye. He stepped back, startled. Someone else ran up and poked her. Josephine swung her hand out and shouted.
The kids laughed. “What kind of moth makes a noise like that?”
“She’s not a moth, not really,” I said.
We spent the afternoon trying to learn what we could do with the Moth-Child. If a game involved too much running, she lagged behind or fell down, and she couldn’t follow too many rules. A girl suggested playing house, but the Moth-Child just stood there, and when a girl gave her a gentle push to show her the place she was supposed to sit, she screamed and swung out her arm and hit the girl on the forehead, leaving a red welt.
Someone thought of hide-and-seek. We stood at the edge of the woods, just past the Doughers’ house. As the seeker began to count, we gave the Moth-Child a head start so she wouldn’t have to run, and she stalked off ahead of us. She moved in spurts, her gait a series of starts and stops, like moths, which fly up and down and in all different directions as if they don’t know where they want to go. But Josephine seemed to have planned her direction in advance. We watched from the edge of the trees as she moved around ferns and pines, and nearly tripped over a fallen branch but kept on. Soon she was past enough trees that we couldn’t see her anymore.
Now we all ran into the woods, laughing and stomping but trying to be quiet, and I thought I would find the Moth-Child out in the open, not understanding the game, but she was gone.
I crouched in some thick ferns. Now that everyone was hidden, the forest was quiet again, except for an occasional drip of water or a scuffling noise that might have been the seeker walking nearby, or other hiders readjusting themselves, or perhaps some animal. I wondered where the Moth-Child was, somewhere in these woods, and the hair on my arms stood up. I peeked out, and from where I sat I could just barely see through the trees to our neighborhood, where the light was brighter.
When I looked in the other direction, deeper into the woods, it became very dark. I knew that from the center of town, where our old house was, you could see bare, open spots on the hills where the lumber company had stripped the land. But here, in among the trees, I couldn’t imagine such patches existed. It seemed the forest went on forever, getting darker and darker, and that if I stayed too long, I’d get sucked into it.
There was laughter: someone had been found and the game was over.
When we walked out of the trees, the Moth-Child did not come with us. I called her name. The rest of the kids called with me, yelled “Josephine” so loud the whole neighborhood must have heard. We yelled over and over, until we heard a responding “Mah,” and she emerged. Her clothes were damp, and her hair was wet and full of pine needles.
We turned back, and Mrs. Dougher was standing in their front yard. Josephine broke away from us and walked up to her mother, saying “Mah, mah”—“Mom” was what she meant, I understood—and Mrs. Dougher led her daughter inside, picking the pine needles from her hair.
From then on, hide-and-seek was what we always played with the Moth-Child, but she was easily exhausted and prone to illness, and often could not come play. She caught colds and flus, which sometimes became serious. For all of August, she was back at the hospital in Seattle, for what exactly we didn’t know.
That fall, the Moth-Child started school. My mother found out when she was typing up class rosters—she worked in the office of the elementary school—and saw “Josephine Dougher” on the list for the kindergarten class.
Mid-morning the first day, my class was walking to P.E. when a sudden hush fell. There in front of us, crossing the hall with a new teacher I hadn’t seen before, was the Moth-Child. It was odd to see her in this public and ordinary place. It had seemed she could only exist on our little street—our dark place on the edge of the woods.
“Keep walking,” our teacher whispered. “Don’t stare.”
The new teacher was a special education instructor from out of town. Twice a week, Josephine left the kindergarten class and followed this woman into her office, a small storage room converted for this purpose.
“What do you think they do in there?” my classmates wondered. Could the Moth-Child read? Could she draw? “Ask Anna,” someone said. “Anna is her friend.” For a second, I felt important. But then someone laughed, and my face reddened.
Once, I was called out of class to take a picture for the newspaper, along with a pale-haired five-year-old. The caption read, “Josephine Dougher and two friends on the playground.” The other girl had her arm around the Moth-Child, but you could see that the arm hovered in the air, just above Josephine’s shoulder. The girl didn’t want to touch her.
My mother clipped the article and hung it above her desk in the school office. When classmates went for a Band Aid or a scolding from the principal, they saw it and came back teasing. “Anna is friends with the freak!”
In October Josephine tripped and broke her arm on the playground blacktop. She missed a month of school. She returned, her arm in a cast, but problems continued. She hit other children, and the metal cuffs of her arm braces twice gave kids nosebleeds. The teachers made little progress. The kindergarten teacher, in a newspaper article that ran when the Moth-Child left school for good in March, said that Josephine was unlike any student she’d ever had.
“She’s too stupid,” the kids said. “The IQ of a moth.” I thought she was smart, but I imagined a tiny moth brain inside her human head. What held the miniature brain in place? What filled up the rest of the space?
When summer came again, we learned that Mrs. Dougher was pregnant. What would the baby be this time, the tabloid speculated. A toad? A wasp? It was strange to me, the bump on Mrs. Dougher’s thin body. I tried to imagine a person in there, tried to picture how the baby was sitting, how it fit. One day in late August, when Josephine came to our house, my mother asked if she was excited for the new brother or sister, but Josephine just looked at her and squinted.
We got together some kids to play hide-and-seek. Clouds hovered overhead, and though it wasn’t much past midday, the sky was dark and gloomy. I couldn’t decide where to hide, so I headed off in the direction I’d seen Josephine go. I stumbled through ferns and brush, and found myself in a place I hadn’t seen before. Several trees held the black burns of some old fire, and there was one burned out evergreen, large enough to crawl inside. If it had been closer to the houses, it would have been too obvious, but it was just far enough away that I didn’t think anyone would look for me here. The ground inside was clean and packed down. I clutched my arms to stay warm.
There was a long silence. Bored, I looked around the tree, at the worm-eaten wood. I looked up. I saw the Moth-Child.
My chest tightened, and I swallowed back a shout. She had somehow climbed inside the tree and was pressed to the side, her small hands tensed and clutching the wood.
I stayed there, crouched with her above me. I wondered if this broke the rules of hide-and-seek, to hide where someone else had already hidden, but it was too late to venture out. I’d be caught.
We listened. Wind rustled the trees, and then it started to rain. Drops hit the leaves and earth. We heard the others finish the game—the distant laughter and screaming that meant that someone had been found—but we waited. Josephine slipped to the ground with a slight clacking of braces.
Pine needles and bark and dirt were stuck in her hair. I reached out, afraid she’d flinch or hit me, but she stood perfectly still. When I touched her hair, it was so light and soft, so unlike any other hair I’d touched, that it made me shiver. I picked out the needles and bark, being careful because each hair was so delicate that I was afraid I would break it. She grabbed my shirt, held it tight in her fist. I listened to the other children’s voices retreating, to the rain hitting the leaves in the forest around us, to Josephine breathing. I finished taking the bark from her hair, and then she let go of my shirt.
I left the tree first, and she followed. As we walked, her hand grasped my wrist, and then slipped down to meet my hand.
When the Moth-Child’s brother was born, the doctors confirmed that he lacked any moth-like symptoms. A family portrait appeared in the newspaper: the smiling father, exhausted but smiling mother, and sleeping newborn. To the side stood Josephine, serious, seeming to be in another photograph.
Mrs. Dougher, focused on the new baby, often sent Josephine to us. She’d appear at our front door wrapped in a dripping coat and layers of sweaters, which we peeled off her in the living room. We played hide-and-seek in the house. She picked ordinary spots––under the bed, at the back of the closet, slipped between my mother’s old dresses—but she was so good at concealing herself that I could look right at her and not see her. I’d yell out that I’d given up, and she’d shout back to me, and I followed her muffled sounds until I found her.
Sometimes Josephine was tired, and the slightest activity—even the short walk between our houses—made her wheeze. On these days, we sat and I talked, and she closed her eyes and listened. She’d talk too—short bursts of whisper and voice. Sometimes, I could pick out words: “Mom,” “home.”
As winter dissolved into spring, she endured strange medical contraptions: a collar of thin metal pipes, and then a small box with knobs and levers strapped to her back. When I held my ear to it, I heard ticking. She was away at the hospital more and more, for weeks at a time. I imagined the doctors poking her and hooking her up to machines. I worried they’d remove her wings, or even an arm or leg.
While Josephine was away, a new girl, just a year older than me, moved onto our street. She called out from her stoop as I was walking home from the library. Jennifer had moved from another part of the state—her father had gotten a job at the lumbermill. We sat on her front lawn, and she told me about a boy she’d French-kissed in the town where she’d lived before, and her older sister who’d left home for Seattle. She twisted her straight hair and frowned at it. I reached for a strand of my own hair, falling out of its ponytail. I wanted to impress her, so I told her about the most interesting thing I knew: the Moth-Child. “Gross,” she said. She watched me and waited.
“Gross,” I agreed.
That fall I started middle school. I had a sex education class and stared at posters of male and female anatomy. I struggled to imagine those strange organs inside me, and I wondered what the Moth-Child had inside her. It was horrible to think of her possessing these things, not red and vibrant like the picture, but gray like the rest of her. And even worse, what if she didn’t have the same organs I did? What would be there instead?
My mother worked longer hours, doing the school’s bookkeeping and other work after the children had gone home, and I spent afternoons alone in the house. The new girl Jennifer had found other friends at school, but sometimes she came over in the afternoons. We read her teen magazines, and painted our toenails while watching soap operas. She asked about my father, and when I said I could hardly remember him, she suggested we look through my mom’s things. Maybe we’d find clues.
I followed her into my mother’s bedroom. In a box on the top shelf of the closet, we found a photograph in a broken frame. My mother sat on my father’s lap with her face pressed against his cheek. He had a mustache and held a beer in one hand, with his other hand on my mother’s leg.
When the Moth-Child came home from the hospital, she and I played hide-and-seek, but now I felt too old for the game. Jennifer wouldn’t stay if the Moth-Child was there. “She gives me the creeps,” she said. I sat at the kitchen table to do my homework, but Josephine stared at me and reached for my hand while I was trying to write. It was against her rules to watch TV, but once I turned it on anyway. She sat there, spellbound, the light flickering over her face. I went in the other room to finish my homework. When I came back, her hands and face were pressed against the screen.
That summer my mother learned that the Doughers were planning a camping trip. She peppered them with questions until they invited us to come along. Mom bought a tent from a secondhand store, and we practiced setting it up in the backyard. It was orange, with a big stain on one side.
I’d read books about summer camp and stories of young people surviving in the wilderness. I imagined campfires, waterfalls, and hikes to the tops of mountains. When the trip came at last, it was only one night, at a small campground just an hour down the highway. After we’d set up our tent, I wanted to hike, but Mr. Dougher pulled out his fishing rod and walked down to the edge of the lake, while my mom fumbled with camp chairs and Mrs. Dougher tried to soothe the Moth-Child’s crying brother.
“Hike around the campground,” my mother suggested. I grabbed my backpack and filled a water bottle at the spigot. As I started to leave, Mom said, “Take Josephine with you.”
Josephine and I looked at each other. I knew she’d be slow. But I sighed and said, “Come on.”
We plodded around the campground. When we were out of sight of our parents, I started walking faster. Josephine fell behind. I heard her yell, “Nah!”
“Hurry up,” I called. A woman at a campsite looked up from a steaming stove. I walked faster.
At a bend in the road, I looked back. Josephine was gone.
I found her sitting on the ground of an empty campsite. She was pulling at her leg braces, but she couldn’t get them off.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” I said.
But she kept pulling them and twisting her leg. I knelt down and grabbed for her hand.
“Stop it!” I grabbed again, and she swung her arm to swat my hand away. She missed and hit my chin. Her brace thunked against my jawbone, and my hands flew to my face.
Josephine watched me. I wouldn’t look at her.
“Anna,” she said. My name. It was a gift, I knew—an apology—but I was still too angry to acknowledge it
I stood. “Let’s go.”
By the time we were back at the campsite, it had started raining. We crowded around the picnic table under a tarp. Mr. Dougher worked at the fish he’d caught, slitting and gutting them. “Oof,” my mother said and turned away, but Mr. Dougher said if you ate fish you should know what it looked like. I made myself watch.
Josephine sat across from me, silent, her eyes fixed on the table in front of her. Her brother squirmed and cried in his mother’s lap.
When the cleaning was done, Mr. Dougher took the guts away and washed the table down with a bucket of water, and then he lit a little gas stove and fried his fish. He served them proudly on paper plates, but they were small and full of bones, and I couldn’t stop thinking about their insides.
“This is so fun,” my mother said, but even she sounded unconvinced. I imagined how Jennifer would roll her eyes.
When the sky grew dusky, the rain cleared, but we had no campfire, out of fear that the Moth-Child would walk right into it. This was the most disappointing of all.
When at last each family went off to its own tent, I was relieved, but I didn’t sleep well. My mother kept waking me with her snores. At one point––it must have been one or two in the morning––I woke up needing to use the bathroom.
I walked quickly to the pit-toilet, but on the way back, I took my time. I turned off my flashlight and let my eyes adjust to the moonlight. I listened to the sounds: water dripping from trees, the occasional cough or rustle from the tents of other campers. I imagined that I was alone in the middle of the forest, and then I imagined that I met my father and he took me camping. We would do everything right: go to Yellowstone or Yosemite, places I’d heard of but never seen.
I rubbed my hand over the bump the Moth-Child had left on my jaw. It hardly hurt now, and this annoyed me. I wanted enough pain to justify anger. She hadn’t meant to do it—I knew that. But hating the Moth-Child would make things easy. If she and I weren’t friends, maybe I could be normal.
I pressed on the bruise, and it answered with a satisfying ache.
I almost stumbled into our campsite without noticing that the kerosene lantern was lit. Just in time, I stopped short.
It was Josephine and her mother, outside their tent. There must have been some late-night problem with the braces, because Mrs. Dougher was pulling and adjusting leather straps around Josephine’s chest. She’d slung her daughter’s pajamas over her shoulder, and aside from the leather and metal of her braces and a pair of white underwear, Josephine was naked. As she moved in and out of the flickering light, I caught sight of her two gray nipples. Her body was gray and streaked with purple scars. She was so thin. As Mrs. Dougher pulled, the straps cut into her skin, and the girl wheezed, and still she struggled to reach her arms out toward the lantern. She turned just enough that I could see the shadowy lump on her back that were her wings. “Stop,” Mrs. Dougher whispered. She was tired, and the Moth-Child was tired too but couldn’t help herself—she pulled and pulled toward the lantern, and her eyes wouldn’t break from the flicker of its flame.
At least for the moment, my anger was gone. In its place was something else. I hope you could call it love.
On Labor Day, just before the school year started, we went to a neighborhood barbeque. Jennifer and other kids stood in a corner of the yard and made jokes that I didn’t understand, but I laughed along. I was wearing a cheap metal ring with a peace sign, and I tapped it against my pop can, enjoying the flat, metallic hum.
“Uh oh,” Jennifer said, and I turned. Mom was walking Josephine toward us.
“Sure,” one of the older kids said, “we’ll watch her.”
Someone got the idea to play hide-and-seek. We walked away from the party, toward the forest. Now that we were older, the game had grown faster and rough. We didn’t give the Moth-Child a head start, but it didn’t matter that she was still stalking off toward the woods when the counting was done. The kids ran right past her. We ignored her.
I was slow and was tagged. A boy knocked me down, and I scraped my knee.
When the sun started setting and the game was over, the Moth-Child didn’t come back. “Go find her,” the others said to me.
I walked in the direction of the burned-out tree. Just in front of it, I found her. She was lying on the ground, invisible among the ferns, but I could hear her rustling and clinking her braces. When I got closer, I saw what she was doing. Her leg braces lay on the ground, and she’d unhinged the latches of her arm braces, which hung stiffly from her shoulders. Her arms snaked out, thin and weak, and she was grappling toward some unreachable place on her back.
In her left hand was a key––the key I’d seen three years before in the Doughers’ living room. She had unbuttoned the back of her dress and from just below the last button poked a little brass padlock. I saw her wings. They were hard to see at first because they lay flat against her back, locked down, and were the same grayish color as the rest of her. But when I got closer, I saw that they were covered in the finest hairs. They appeared to cover her entire back.
I took the key from her hand. I worked it roughly and quickly in the lock. My fingers brushed her wings, surprisingly warm. The hairs tickled my fingers. The key clicked, I unhooked the lock, and the braces fell away. Her wings beat out against the thin cotton of her dress, and I was afraid.
I turned and walked quickly out of the forest. I told the others I’d been unable to find her.
“You can’t leave her,” Jennifer said. “Go back.”
I went back into the forest, afraid of what I’d see. The Moth-Child with wings bared seemed too powerful to face. But when I found where she’d been lying, I saw nothing but the discarded braces, tangled in the ferns.
In the years after the Moth-Child disappeared, everything in our town seemed to follow. The Doughers moved away, and never answered my mother’s letters. The lumbermill cut back so much that it all but closed. Jennifer’s family moved on, the local newspaper shut down, and the Doughers’ house stood vacant. Someone painted “No Trespassing” on the wood siding. The school closed, combined with another district, and my mother lost her job. We moved to a suburb of Seattle, where we lived in a cramped two-bedroom apartment, and then a one-bedroom where I slept on a futon in the living room. Years passed. I live alone now, hundreds of miles south, in a small apartment of my own. Nights when I can’t sleep, I listen to the whir of the refrigerator, the skitter of small dogs in the apartment above me, and distant ambulance sirens winding their way to other people’s tragedies.
I’ve thought through the day the Moth-Child disappeared so many times that my mind has carved ruts in the memory. I watch my twelve-year-old self take the key, turn it, walk away. I can see it happen, but not why, and not what might have happened after.
That day in the forest, I helped Josephine remove her braces, and then we never saw her again. My mother collected articles. “Moth-Child Takes Flight,” the tabloid blared, with a blurry photo of something hovering over the hills.
The newspaper said she could not have flown—her wings were not real wings. She’d been kidnapped, or she’d fallen down some ditch or old well, where the search crews never found her. I was mentioned very little in the articles, though one noted that I “emerged from the woods carrying Josephine Dougher’s medical equipment.”
Three months after the disappearance, the local newspaper interviewed a doctor—one of the Seattle specialists. The day the article appeared, it was raining, a school morning, and a bowl of raisin bran sat half-eaten on the table in front of me. My mother cried as she read the story aloud.
“Even with constant monitoring by physicians like myself,” the doctor said, “her health has always been fragile.” If there was any possibility that she was still alive, it was an extremely small one.
But there had always been a gap between the doctors’ and newspaper’s version of the Moth-Child and how I saw her—a crack just wide enough to fit what I need to believe. And so, even now, I find myself searching. I check between the sweaters in my closet, and if I’m reaching for a shoe under the bed, I pause to look into the shadows. At supermarket checkout lines, I scan the tabloids, looking for stories of a flying girl, or woman as she’d now be. Perhaps, wherever she is, they don’t call her a moth, but rather a fly or bird. I look for all the possibilities.
Some days, I drive out of the city to where the redwoods grow, and I walk among them. The forest is quiet, heavy with fog, but sometimes I hear the laughter of children, families on a weekend outing. If I should come across a tree that has burned, blackened and hollowed, I crawl inside. I breathe in the scent of bark and damp earth. And then, ever hopeful, I look up.
Heather Monley‘s fiction has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, NPR’s Selected Shorts, ZYZZYVA, Crazyhorse, and the Kenyon Review, where it was the winner of their short fiction contest. She has an MFA from Columbia University and received a scholarship from Bread Loaf and a fellowship from The Lighthouse Works. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, daughter, and two small, noisy mutts.