What Gretel Knows
Gretel is a six-year-old beagle and the keeper of my secrets. Sam, for instance. She smelled him on my hands and face, even after I’d washed up. Or maybe it was my step that tipped her off; maybe she heard the guilt in my gait. Or was the shame on my face?
A dog’s mind is too wide and pure for judgment. Gretel’s foremost concern is my happiness, which she endlessly encourages me to pursue. Still there are times when I walk in the house after being with Sam and she gives me a long, questioning look. Do you know what you’re doing, she telegraphs. Are you sure this won’t wreck our lives?
More than once she has found me in the kitchen helping myself to a juice glass of Chardonnay at two or three o’clock in the morning. There I am, sitting at the table in my robe, back lit by the stove light, then click, click, click, I hear her nails on the linoleum and she is standing in front of me, her brown eyes kind and searching.
Last month she caught me reading Hannah’s diary. I wasn’t looking for punishable offenses, I was only hunting for clues as to why my daughter despises me. By the time Gretel walked into the room and saw the green binder in my hands, I had read nearly half the entries.
These secrets must weigh on Gretel, which might be the reason she sighs like she does. All dogs sigh, but Gretel’s long groans seem to come from the depths of her being, as if she is trying to get free of herself, to utter the unutterable.
Even as a young woman I was not especially keen on sex. In this respect at least, Alan and I are a match. No more than twice a month we make good-natured, uncomplicated love; a ration that suits me just fine and seems to keep Alan satisfied. . Given this agreeable arrangement, I can’t explain what happened between Sam and me, or why it’s still happening. I love Alan. I do.
Sam is a lepidopterist. While he lectures on both butterflies and moths, he is especially devoted to moths. He has written three books about them, including a children’s guide. In search of exotic species, he travels all over the world; last winter, in Singapore, he came across a dozen or so giant Atlas moths. He said you could hear the whoosh of their wings as they cruised the cherry trees.
We met on a muggy, moonless night in August. Sam had run an ad in the local paper inviting anyone interested to join him in Turner’s Park for a moth hunt. I knew next to nothing about moths and had no idea what this excursion would entail, but it sounded more interesting than the book I was reading, certainly better than anything on television. It was indeed a night of surprises, the first one being the number of people who showed up—sixteen in all, half of them young boys, the other half adult women, my age or older.
Sam’s preparations amazed me. Earlier that day, he had painted a syrupy patch on three dozen trees along the trail, then marked each tree with an orange ribbon. Moth bait, he called it, a homemade elixir that contained stale beer, brown sugar and rotten watermelons. Guided by our flashlights, we walked quietly along the path, stopping to inspect each painted tree. Sam had covered the lens of his flashlight with red cellophane—less disturbing than white light, he said—and it was true that the moths didn’t stir when he aimed the beam on the trees. Some of the trees had nothing on them but slugs and carpenter ants, but many hosted some kind of moth, the names of which Sam whispered into the night:
“Glossy Black Idia….Copper Underwing….Cloaked Marvel.”
Captivated, we studied the creatures with budding reverence, as if in those deep woods we had all fallen under a spell. Why had I never noticed how exquisite they were, how intricate their markings? Why had I never seen their furry little faces?
“That’s an Oldwife Underwing,” murmured Sam, shining his light on a charcoal- colored moth that had opened its wings, revealing another set below, twin brown fans with bright orange stripes. Hidden jewelry.
“Do you think we’ll see any Luna moths?” I asked as we walked to the next tree.
“Too late for Lunas,” Sam said. He has a deep voice, almost mournful; his walk is slow and long-strided. He is, in fact, exactly what you might think of when you think: lepidopterist—lean, bespectacled, with a long narrow nose and deep lines running down his cheeks.
“And they wouldn’t be on these trees anyway,” he added. “They don’t eat.”
“They don’t eat!” blurted one of the boys.
“They can’t,” Sam replied. “They don’t have mouths.” His words hung in the darkness, allowing us to absorb them.
I couldn’t imagine the things he knew. At home in the dark, here was a man who was spending his time on earth learning the names and habits of moths; a man for whom these fluttery, powdery bugs were reason enough to be alive. Though months would pass before we mated, I was drawn to him that very first night.
There is no mention of me in Hannah’s diary. Evidently I am not worth comment. When I was pregnant with Hannah I used to imagine the two of us strolling hand-in-hand through meadows and forests; I saw us sharing sunsets, gazing at the Big Dipper. Even before she was out of her crib I knew this wasn’t likely. Hannah wanted action: talking toys, musical mobiles. Her favorite possession was a pink plastic phone which she babbled on for hours and dragged everywhere. Now she has a shiny red cell phone to which she is similarly attached.
Not long ago I was sitting at the kitchen table looking through a book I had borrowed from Sam. In front of me was a photograph of a Verdant Hawk moth, a species from Africa. I was admiring its powerful green wings and sturdy body when Hannah’s sudden voice startled me.
“You and your moths!” she said with a shudder. “Why don’t you study butterflies? They’re a lot prettier and you wouldn’t have to be outside in the middle of the night.”
“Actually,” I said, “there are lots of pretty moths.” I looked up from the book. Hannah was standing beside me, her dark hair hanging in her eyes. “And quite a few of them fly in the daytime.”
“Whatever,” she murmured, walking out of the room.
Maybe we’re like moths and butterflies, Hannah and I, sharing a few traits but living in separate domains. It helps to think so, at any rate. To know this divide is not our fault.
By day I manage a gift shop, a faux log cabin heavily scented with potpourri and filled with the sort of things tourists expect to find in a small New Hampshire town: maple syrup, hardwood bowls, pine-scented pillows, miniature birch bark canoes. Selling these quaint curios doesn’t require much effort and in the slower months I have ample time to write—not that I do much of that anymore. After college I did manage to publish a handful of poems in some decent journals, but at some point I lost momentum, then I lost heart.
Alan is a sales rep for a large organic fertilizer company. Nine months of the year he travels the byways of New England, stopping at nurseries and box stores. He doesn’t grouse about his job. I know the driving must get tiresome, if not hazardous, and how many times a day must he repeat himself, explaining the benefits of microorganisms and carbon-based compounds?
I’ve wondered if Alan, in his travels, ever has any dalliances—surely there’s plenty of opportunity. It’s not hard picturing that blue Sebring nosing in and out of seaside motels having trysts as trackless as windblown leaves. I have seen other women, friends even, look at him with a certain avidity. He still has a boyish smile and all his hair, and for someone who spends so much time behind a steering wheel, Alan is remarkably fit, thanks to those gadgets he takes with him: chin-up bars that fit in doorframes, stretchy bands that hook around his feet.
Sam and I were in his backyard, that first time, studying the moths that came to a sheet he had strung between two trees. In front of this sheet hung a bug zapper he had disabled—the black light inside was all he wanted. (Sam loathes bug zappers and refers to them as “indiscriminate killers.”)
What we were hoping to see, on the cool May night, was a Luna moth, though Sam said the chances were slim as the species was in danger.
“Why?” I asked. “Pesticides?”
He nodded. “The BT they’ve put in corn seed—the pollen goes everywhere.”
We sat in lawn chairs under the stars, blankets on our laps. Sam’s white sneakers shone in the grass. We could hear small frogs leaping into the pond at the edge of Sam’s property. The tree tops were black against the sky and the night smelled of pine and marsh.
We’d been sitting there for nearly an hour, watching the various moths and bats that flew through the night, when what we wanted to see came floating across the yard. The soft green glow of its wings was unmistakable. You could almost believe it had come by way of the moon. I caught my breath as it cruised over our heads, trailing those long tips, before deftly landing on the sheet. We both rose at the same instant and approached the creature slowly.
“A female,” Sam said. “The males have thicker antennae.”
“It’s amazing,” I whispered. I peered at the luminous wings, edged in maroon, the four transparent spots that resembled large eyes, a device to fool predators.
“I wonder if she’ll attract any males,” I said. I had read about moth pheromones and knew that the scent from a single female could draw males from several miles away.
“She’s already mated,” Sam said. “The females mate even before they make their first flight, then they find a tree and lay their eggs. This one has done all that.”
“And she doesn’t eat, right? How much time does she have left?”
Sam shrugged. “Not much. Maybe a day or two. Their life span is about a week.”
I smiled at him. “What a tidy life. You’re born, you mate, you fly, you lay eggs, and then you’re just a lovely thing. Free to be. And you don’t even know you’re going to die.”
That was the moment Sam turned to me and touched my arm. His fingers rested there, lightly. In the glow of the black light his face was serious, questioning, and it didn’t take long for me to close the space between us. That’s where we made love, that first night, on a blanket in the wet grass, not four feet away from a Luna moth. I had no second thoughts. I had no thoughts at all. It was as if we too were running out of time and only doing what we must.
Two years later I don’t know why we persist. Falling upon one another on a pheromone-drenched night in May is one thing, but where is the urgency in our random couplings now?
“What are you thinking about?” Sam asked last week. We were in bed and he was idly running his hand down my side. I had my back to him. His dresser was a couple feet away. I saw a gray sock sticking out of the top drawer.
“It’s different now,” I told him.
“Us.” His hand paused on my hipbone. I stared at the dresser. “It feels like stealing for no reason.”
Sometimes I think that what I like most about the affair is being in Sam’s cottage, which is musty and dark and nothing like the house I live in. There are books and papers everywhere, odd pieces of furniture covered in snug coats of dust. Sam lives like the bachelor he is (he was married, briefly, in his twenties), with a clutter of dishes in the sink and sheets that need laundering. This peaceful disarray soothes me—I’ve never so much as washed a cup, nor does Sam expect me to. Sam makes no demands. He is happy to see me when I can manage it; beyond that, I don’t kid myself. If Sam had the chance to see a Black Witch moth or me, I know I’d be curling up with a book.
Gretel never gives up on me. Every day of her life she waits for me to have some fun. She cannot understand why something so easy should be so elusive.
“Like this,” she seems to say, dropping onto her forelegs, rump in the air, tail wagging. “Just do this!”
Obliging her, I will sometimes start to run; I’ll put some excitement in my voice, and she will leap and bark encouragingly. It doesn’t matter to her if this eagerness isn’t genuine. She only wants the effort.
We have no idea how it happens, how the death of a caterpillar gives life to a moth. Here is this plump green crawler, busily sawing through sassafras leaves, shedding one loose-fitting suit after another, until, with a hidden nudge from nature, it stops chewing and gets down to the business of dying. If the weather is still warm, it will spin a silk sheath and wrap itself in a leaf. If winter is approaching, it secretes a hard shell and spends the cold months underground. In either case, the bug begins to disintegrate, bit by bit, leg by leg, breaking apart in its own digestive juices. But then, in this wretched dead sea some rebel cells start swimming. Having served no purpose in the larval life, they are finally called to muster. Their task: to make something marvelous, a creature—with wings.
I can’t walk past a moth anymore without stopping to peer at it, to marvel over its tiny, unfathomable dramas. Some nights I walk out on my porch just to see who’s showed up at the light. Sam says that moths are not attracted to light so much as they are pulled into it; stunned, they stay there. Turn off the light and they break away.
I do that. There are times when I step off my lighted porch and slip into the welcoming shadows alongside the house. The night absorbs me. There, under impartial stars, in a perfect wedge of darkness, I disappear.
– A native Vermonter, Jean Ryan lives in Napa California. She has published a novel, LOST SISTER, and her stories and essays have appeared in various journals including the Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, the Summerset Review and Earthspeak. A collection of her stories will be published by Ashland Creek Press in 2013.