Sunday, September 03, 2006

Excerpt From "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"

" Once when I was ten or eleven years old, my friend Judy brought in [ to school ] a Polyphemus moth cocoon... In a book, we found what the adult moth would look like; it would be beautiful. With a wingspread of up to six inches, the Polyphemus moth is one of the few huge American silk moths, much larger than say a giant or tiger swallowtail butterfly. The moth's enormous wings are velveted in a rich, warm brown and edged in bands of blue and pink, delicate as a watercolor wash. A startling eyespot, immense, and deep blue melding to an almost translucent yellow, luxuriates in the center of each hind wing. The effect is one of a masculine splendor foreign to the butterflies, a fragility unfurled to strength. The Polyphemus moth in the picture looked like a mighty wraith, a beating essence of the hardwood forest, alien-skinned and brown, with spread, blind eyes.

We closed the book and turned to the cocoon...As we held it in our hands the creature within it warmed and squirmed.

We were delighted and wrapped it tighter in our fists. The pupa began to jerk violently, in heart-stopping knocks. Who's there? I can still feel those thumps, urgent through a muffling of spun silk and leaf, urgent through the swaddling of many years, against the curve of my palm. We kept passing it around. When it came to me again, it was as hot as a bun; it jumped half out of my hand. The teacher intervened. She put it, still heaving and banging, in the ubiquitous Mason jar.

It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classmates fade, I fade: I don't remember anything but that thing's struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple. It was a male; his long antennae were thickly plumed, as wide as his fat abdomen. His body was very thick, over an inch long and deeply furred. A gray, fur-like plush covered his head; a long tan fur-like hair hung from his wide thorax over his brown-furred, segmented abdomen. His multijointed legs, pale and powerful, were shaggy as a bear's. He stood still, but he breathed.

He couldn't spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a Mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsions.

The next thing I remember, it was recess...Everyone was playing dodgeball in the fenced playground or racing around the concrete schoolyard by the swings. Someone- it must have been the teacher-had let the moth out. I was standing in the driveway, alone, stock still, but shivering. Someone had given the Polyphemus moth his freedom and he was walking away.

He heaved himself down the asphalt driveway by infinite degrees, unwavering. His hideous, crumpled wings lay glued and rucked on his back, perfectly still now, like a collapsed tent. The bell rang twice; I had to go. The moth was receding down the driveway, dragging on. I went; I ran inside. The Polyphemus moth is still crawling down that driveway; crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever." ~Annie Dillard "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" ~


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