She was a marvel of deformity: bones thin and brittle, organs misshapen, skin with an odd cast of gray. Most shocking, of course, were her wings. Not real wings, the newspaper said, but wing-like abnormalities—things that looked like wings but weren’t. Alongside the newspaper article, a small, grainy photo in which you could just make out two bumps on a newborn’s back.
She’d been born 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 tried various operations and procedures, but these led to new complications, daisy-chaining her from one hospital bed to the next.
I knew all this from the newspapers my mother read. When the regular paper got boring, my mother turned to the tabloid, 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 had once walked into her daughter’s bedroom and found the girl flapping above her crib, banging her head into a ceiling lamp.
“She could fly outside and right onto the state 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.
My mother and I hadn’t always lived next-door to the Doughers. In the years after my father left, when I was two years old, we’d moved into smaller and smaller houses, while my mother’s body grew larger and larger. Her midsection pressed out against the limits of her dresses, and we moved from a tall Victorian in the center of town to a squat one-story around the corner. Mom started wearing looser clothes, swelling under wide blouses and sweatpants, and we moved to a small tract house on the outskirts of town, on a street that ended in forest. I was eight years old, and the Moth-Child would have been five. This new house was damp, thin-walled, and small-roomed, but we lived next-door to something strange and important. The Moth-Child, my mother was determined, would be our consolation.
From the time we moved in, Mom kept her eye on the Doughers’ house. It was often dark and empty, with the family away at the Seattle hospital. My mother had always followed local news on the Moth-Child with interest, and now her fascination grew. Every morning she scanned the paper, and when she discovered the occasional article about the Moth-Child, she carefully cut it out and placed it in a photo album. She went to the county library to find old articles, too—the ones from the Moth-Child’s newborn days—and made copies to add to her collection.
Once, when she saw a car in the driveway, she forayed to the Doughers’ door with a plate of brownies, and I watched from our yard, crouched and peeking through the blackberry bushes. The door opened, my mother stood there a moment, handed over the plate, but then back she plodded again, her step heavier, as if she’d gained several pounds on their stoop. “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, until she managed to stretch their conversations into several minutes, and at last developed a sort of friendship.
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, the Moth-Child was a full three years younger than me.
About a year after our move to the new street, my mother read an article in the paper: the doctors would not remove the Moth-Child’s wings. They’d always planned to remove them, but issues with her internal organs had been more urgent, and now, after so many procedures, her health was too fragile for another surgery. “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 force her to use her normal 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 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 a 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, odd medical contraptions, and as she took a small step backward, they clinked. Her eyes, set in dark circles almost like bruises, were not big insect eyes like the tabloid had claimed, but the irises were dark pools, steady and staring at the floor.
“This is Josephine,” my mother said, but I didn’t need to be told. My mother held her hand behind the girl’s shoulder, but her fingers, I saw, did not quite touch her skin.
Safe inside my bedroom again, I leaned my back against the door and breathed. One breath, then another. I had just, for the first time, seen the Moth-Child.
I pressed my ear against the bedroom door. Soon, I heard the rumble of my mother in the hall. The door swung open, and I fell backwards. She grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me up. “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 didn’t do anything.
Mom reached out and 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 and deep. “Naaa-aaa-aaaa.” But then she stopped, as if she’d run out of voice, and whispered, “Nah, nah, nah.”
I watched her lying there, struggling to get up (her braces made it difficult), and I saw that 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 frizzy black 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 as I stood there, she pulled the hair back with such a quick gesture that it seemed like magic. I opened my mouth, but I had no idea what to say, even what name to use. “Moth-Child” would be rude, but “Josephine” seemed too formal for the small, raging creature I’d left in the kitchen. “She fell,” I managed to get out, and Mrs. Dougher nodded and walked past me. She walked right up to our front door and opened it without knocking.
The Moth-Child had gotten up and 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 softly against her daughter’s cheek, and whispered, “Shh.” The Moth-Child stopped and came away from the window.
“I’m so sorry,” my mother said again.
“Not your fault.” Mrs. Dougher looked down at her daughter, pressed against her side. “She’ll get used to you.”
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 and won’t pay attention to you.” 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 like a normal child, 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, Mrs. Dougher in a straight-backed dining chair, and my mother and I sharing a floral-patterned sofa. Already, I was growing embarrassed of Mom, the way she took up too much of the couch and sank down so the seat leaned, and I had to fight to keep from tumbling into her. 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 a 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.
“In bed,” Mrs. Dougher said. She nodded down the hall to a door slightly ajar. From behind it came the sound of mechanical whirs and groans, some sort of medical machine.
“She’s not well today,” Mr. Dougher said.
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 other medical accoutrements, and if we saw that she was trying to take them off, we should stop her. “We’ve had to lock them in place,” Mr. Dougher said, “so now 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.
Mrs. Dougher asked if we knew other kids who could come play. A therapist had suggested the Moth-Child be surrounded by children: watch us play, hear our shouts.
My mother hesitated. “Maybe we should wait, let her ease in”—she nodded at me—“get her used to Anna first.”
Mrs. Dougher shook her head. “The sooner the better.” She made a face like she was swallowing something bitter.
It was a sunny day, and we gathered in our front yard, waiting for the Moth-Child. Mom had invited kids from our old neighborhood. After months on our quiet street, the noise of these children surprised me. I felt awkward, and picked at the dirt under my fingernails. Soon, Mrs. Dougher appeared with the Moth-Child in tow, and everyone was silent. We watched her slow, strange walk. Her braces glinted in a shaft of sunlight that had found its way through the tall trees. We waited for Mrs. Dougher to leave. We watched her go back to her own house and close the door.
A boy stepped closer, and the Moth-Child jerked her head up and looked him in the eye. He stepped back, startled. Someone else ran up and poked her. The Moth-Child 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. “She can be Ricky’s retarded sister,” said one of the older boys, and everyone felt uncomfortable, because Ricky really did have a disabled sister, and now he looked like he was about to cry. But when we tried to play, 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, the Moth-Child 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. I could hear some noise of sawing coming from their backyard—her father must have been there, building something. 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 the Moth-Child 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.
When it was our turn to hide, 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 “Maa,” and the Moth-Child emerged. Her clothes were damp from condensation, and her hair was wet and full of pine needles.
We turned back, and Mrs. Dougher was standing in their front yard. The Moth-Child broke away from us and hobbled up to her mother, saying “Maa, maa”—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 played with the Moth-Child, but she was easily exhausted and prone to illness, and could not often come play. She caught colds and flus, which sometimes became serious. For all of August, she was off at the hospital in Seattle, for what exactly we didn’t know.
The week before school started, my mother came home with news. She worked in the office of my elementary school, and as she was typing up class lists, she saw “Josephine Dougher” on the list for the kindergarten class. The Doughers hadn’t mentioned anything about the Moth-Child starting school.
When the bell rang on the first day, and I lined up with the others on the blacktop, and I looked around trying to catch sight of the Moth-Child. But I didn’t see her until mid-morning, when our teacher walked us to the art room. In the hallway, my classmates giggled and whispered, but then a sudden hush fell over them. 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.”
We learned that the new teacher was a special education instructor from out of town. Twice a week, the Moth-Child 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 proud and 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. When it appeared in the paper the next day, the caption read, “Josephine Dougher and two friends on the playground at George Washington Elementary.” The other girl had her arm around the Moth-Child, but you could see that the arm hovered in the air, just above the Moth-Child’s shoulder. She didn’t want to touch her.
My mother clipped the article and hung it above her desk in the school office. I felt good, seeing it hanging there—I had never been in the paper before. But 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 the Moth-Child 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 special education teacher tried to teach her to speak, but the Moth-Child didn’t manage more than a few isolated words. 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 smarter than that, but still 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 the Moth-Child 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 and played hide-and-seek. Clouds hovered overhead, and though it wasn’t much past midday, the sky was dark and gloomy. The weather threatened an early fall. I couldn’t decide where to hide, so I headed off in the direction I’d seen the Moth-Child 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 inner bark, and then up, wondering if the fire had burned a hole to the sky. 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 would be caught.
We listened. Wind rustled the trees, and then it started to rain. We could hear water hit the leaves, and watched through the hole in the tree as it hit the earth. We heard the others finish the game—the distant sounds of laughter and screaming that meant that someone had been found—but we waited. The Moth-Child slipped to the ground with a slight clacking of braces.
Pine needles and little pieces of bark and dirt had gotten stuck in her hair. I reached out toward her, afraid she would flinch or swing out at me, but she stood perfectly still. When I touched her hair, it was so light and soft, so unlike any other hair I had 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. The Moth-Child reached out an arm and grabbed my shirt, held it tightly in her fist. I listened to the other children’s voices as they retreated, listened to the rain hitting the leaves in the forest around me. I could hear the Moth-Child 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. She walked behind me. As we walked out of the forest, her hand grasped at my wrist, and then slipped down to meet my hand.
When the Moth-Child’s brother was born, he was brought to the doctors and specialists for testing, and they 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 the Moth-Child, serious, seeming to be in another photograph.
Mrs. Dougher, focused on the new baby, often sent the Moth-Child to us. She’d appear at our front door wrapped in a dripping coat and layers of sweaters, which my mother and I peeled off her in the living room. The two of us, the Moth-Child and I, 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 where she was and not see her. I’d yell out that I’d given up, but she wouldn’t come out. She shouted back to me, and I followed her muffled sounds until I found her.
But we could not always play games: the Moth-Child was often tired, and sometimes 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 to the sound of my voice. I tried to get her to speak back to me. Sometimes, I could pick out individual words in what she said: “Mom,” “home.” Once, I thought I heard her say “Anna.” But more often, she spoke only short whispers in which I could decipher nothing.
As winter dissolved into spring, she started to endure strange medical contraptions: a collar of thin metal pipes, and then a small box with various knobs and levers strapped to her back. When I held my ear to it, I heard it ticking. She was away at the hospital more and more and for weeks at a time. I imagined the doctors poking her and hooking her up to machines. I worried that the doctors would remove her wings, or even an arm or leg. (I’d seen a Civil War movie: a soldier’s leg amputated with a saw.)
While the Moth-Child 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. Her name was Jennifer. She had moved here 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 the boy she had made out with 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,” Jennifer 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 and sad 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 started working 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 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, and she sifted through a jewelry box and the bedside table drawer, and then she opened the closet. In a box on the top shelf, we found a photograph in a broken frame. My mother was still thin. She 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. “Your mom got fat,” Jennifer said.
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 the Moth-Child 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, but when half an hour had passed, I started to worry. When I went back in the living room, the Moth-Child’s hands and face were pressed against the screen.
That summer my mother learned that the Doughers were planning a camping trip. We’d never known them to travel anywhere besides Seattle. Was it wise, Mom wondered aloud, to bring the Moth-Child out in the woods, when her health was so fragile? Then again, her little brother shouldn’t miss out on camping trips, just because his sister was ill.
When my mother saw Mr. or Mrs. Dougher in their front yard, she peppered them with questions about the trip’s smallest details. Eventually, they invited us to come along.
The next day, my mother came home with a tent from a secondhand store. 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 National Forest 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, and my mom and Mrs. Dougher set up camp chairs. “Hike around the campground,” my mother suggested. I grabbed my backpack, and filled a water bottle at the spigot. I figured I could leave the campground road and explore, or see if there were boys at any of the other campsites, so I’d have a story to tell Jennifer. I started to leave, and Mom said, “Take Josephine with you.”
The Moth-Child and I looked at each other. I knew she’d be slow. I wouldn’t want boys to see me with her. 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. The Moth-Child fell behind. I heard her yell, “Naa!”
“Hurry up,” I called. A woman at a campsite looked up from a steaming camp stove. I walked faster.
I didn’t look back until I got to a bend in the road. The Moth-Child 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 at 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, and instead hit my chin. Her brace thunked against my jawbone, and my hands flew to my face. For a moment I was sure she’d broken a bone, but then the pain calmed: it would just be a bruise. I sat back and hid my face behind my knees.
The Moth-Child watched me. I wouldn’t look at her. Her hand touched my knee. “Anna,” she said—this time I was sure she’d said my name. But still I didn’t look up.
I stood. “Let’s go back.”
By the time we were back at the campsite, it had started raining. Mr. Dougher was hanging a tarp over the picnic table, and our mothers were busy gathering up things they’d left around the campsite. They hardly looked at us.
We crowded around the picnic table under the 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.
The Moth-Child sat across from me, silent. Now, instead of refusing to look at her, I stared, daring her to look at me, but her eyes stayed 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. They were small and full of bones, and I couldn’t stop thinking about their insides. “This is so fun,” my mom 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 it was dark at last and each family went off to its own tent, I was relieved, but I didn’t sleep well. My mother took up too much of the tent and woke 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, I thought: go to Yellowstone or Yosemite, places I’d heard of but never seen.
I rubbed my hand over where the Moth-Child had hit me. It hardly hurt now, and this annoyed me. I wanted the pain to justify anger. She hadn’t meant to do it—I knew this. But hating the Moth-Child would make things easy. I could spend more time with Jennifer and other kids my age. I could be normal.
I pressed down on the bruise, and felt a satisfying ache.
I almost stumbled into our campsite without seeing that the kerosene lantern was lit. I stopped short.
It was the Moth-Child and her mother, outside their tent. There must have been some late-night problem with the braces, because Mrs. Dougher was pulling and adjusting large leather straps around Josephine’s chest. She had slung her daughter’s nightgown over her shoulder, and aside from the leather and metal of her braces and a pair of white underwear, the Moth-Child 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, and her torso was crooked and thin. As Mrs. Dougher pulled, the straps cut into the Moth-Child’s skin, and the girl wheezed, and still she struggled to reach her arms out toward the lit lantern. She turned just enough that I could see the shadowy lump on her back that were her wings. “Stop,” Mrs. Dougher whispered. I could see 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.
I stepped back and snapped a twig, and Mrs. Dougher looked up. I walked into the light of the lantern. I looked at them—or rather, I felt Mrs. Dougher’s eyes on me, but I could only look at the Moth-Child. Her eyes seemed to grab me and not let go.
At least for the moment, my anger was gone. In its place was something else. I guess you could call it pity, but I like to think of it as love.
On Labor Day weekend, just before the school year started, my mother hosted a barbeque. Jennifer and other kids stood in a corner of the yard and made jokes that I didn’t understand, but I laughed and sipped a can of pop through a straw. I was wearing a cheap metal ring with a peace sign—Jennifer and I had bought them from a vending machine at the supermarket—and I tapped it against my can, enjoying the flat, metallic hum.
“Uh oh,” Jennifer said, and I turned. My mother was walking the Moth-Child 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 the Moth-Child’s 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 to the place, afraid of what I’d see. I worried that the Moth-Child would have removed her dress to let her wings out, and I didn’t want to see her without her clothes. 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 county 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 two-bedroom apartment, and then a one-bedroom where I slept on a daybed in the living room. Years passed. I live alone now, in a small apartment of my own. At 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.
So often, I think through the day the Moth-Child disappeared, my mind carving ruts in the memory. I watch my twelve-year-old self take the key, turn it, walk away. I can see what happened, but not why. Did I want to help her, or did I want her gone? I think of the camping trip: how angry I was about my bruised jaw, but also the pity and love I felt. I want to believe I acted out of love, but I can’t be sure.
That day in the forest, I helped the Moth-Child 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.
Of course, 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 newspaper interviewed a doctor—one of the Seattle specialists. I remember 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 doctors 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.
I stared down at my cereal bowl. I didn’t believe she’d be gone forever. She’d vanished before: to the hospital, in so many hide-and-seek games. We had only to wait for her to return, or to look harder.
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 a 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 distant 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.