White Moths

Fiction by Mollie McNeil, Fall and Winter 2014/2015


Jack yanked at the oars and slammed my shoulder hard against the aluminum side, but I felt nothing. I was watching my mother’s blood web across my arm and drip into the boat bottom, my breath quick and shallow under the weight of her damp body. 

Like a daytime nightmare, this memory rushed me every morning, making my lungs tighten and getting me up fast. First thing I’d do is check on the worms. They were always busy, marching up the twig jungle gym I’d rigged.  While they nibbled mulberry leaves for breakfast, I chomped raw marshmallows. Sometimes I took them out of their box and let them nose around in the dirt for a while.  They never minded the fog with its cool gray tendrils drifting off the ocean encircling us. 

But this morning I was barely awake and still lying in my sleeping bag when I heard boots crunching down the gravel path towards my tent.   Outside the flap I saw my aunt’s shoes.  Nobody else on this planet wore purple cowboy boots as far as I knew.  I watched her shaking her head as she poked around my camping equipment, my beat-up patio furniture.

“Marshmallow?” I held out the bag.

“Sure.” She chewed one and smiled. “What have you got there?”

“Silkworms.  Mom gave them to me. ” I put one on her hand.  It clambered up her arm on its miniature dark legs, its white rubbery skin bunching and gliding.

“Pets or science project?”

“Neither. I’m photographing their life cycle.”

“You always take great pictures. You got that from your mom.” She gave the worm little strokes with her finger. “Your Dad told you why I’m here?”

More boots clomped towards my tent; Jack’s combat lace-ups.  Tall and gangly with pale skin, Jack, at fourteen, wore an oversized army jacket.

“Freezing out here.  Can’t believe you’re stupid enough to still be living in the yard,” Jack said, flipping back his bangs and stuffing his hands in his pockets.

“Thanks for coming out, Jack,” said Aunt Gemma.

“No choice.  Seeing as someone here has become retarded. You’re freaking Dad out, you know.  Why don’t you just move back in?”

Dad wasn’t freaking out. When I went in to get food I saw him hunched over his desk in the same frayed brown v-neck that matched the crease on his forehead.  He’d nod at me and then go back to his papers. The house stunk of stale wine and greasy styrofoam take-out containers. He didn’t even open the drapes, much less water the plants.  Better to be outside.   

 “Your Dad thinks it’s time we spread your mother’s ashes.” Aunt Gemma looked down and fidgeted with her bangles.

“At Granite Harbor?” Jack asked.

Gemma fluttered her eyelids.


This was a terrible idea.  I wanted Jack to reject the plan outright, but he just stood there.  Maybe he was tempted by all the good fishing up at Lake Cascade.

“It seems soon to go up to the lake . . . ” Aunt Gemma’s voice thinned, “but there will never be a good time. If we don’t go in the next couple weeks, the weather will change, and we’ll have to wait a whole year.”  She pulled at her rings before continuing.  I liked the way she dressed with colorful scarves and gypsy skirts, her hair wild.  “It doesn’t seem fair to leave her in that box when we know where she’d rather be.”   We had been camping and fishing at that lake since we were little kids -- just Jack and I and my mother.   Sometimes Aunt Gemma came, too, but Dad hated to camp.

“Don’t decide now. Think about it. I can come back tomorrow.”

Jack eyed the worms.

“What are these?”

“Silkworms,” said Aunt Gemma with a smile. “Addison’s next photography project.”  She gave me a quick hug goodbye and headed out.  As my aunt disappeared around the house, Jack turned to follow her. But not before he grabbed the box of silkworms and hurled them over the back fence.

“ Your photography projects suck.”

A week later, at Granite Harbor, I set up my tent up as far away from Jack’s as possible.  He choose a rocky area overlooking the lake, so I picked a spot by the creek near the aspens.  Aunt Gemma’s tent was nearby, too.  She had chattered nervously during the long car ride to the lake, trying to fill the angry silence between Jack and I.  She seemed exhausted by the time we arrived in the dark, dropped into her sleeping bag and fell asleep.

I listened to her soft snoring, but I couldn’t sleep. The sounds that I once loved -- the wind rushing the trees, the water lapping against the rocks, the distant hum of a June bug – now set me on edge. I wandered along the beach thinking about my smashed silkworms.   Bats streaked through the night sky, skimming the lake, scooting in and out of boulders. The half-submerged rocks, slate gray and covered with black moss, looked like huge slumbering beasts. I wish we had never returned. Once the moon had sunk low in the night sky, I finally crept back into my tent and slept for a few hours.

At dawn, as the horizon purpled, Aunt Gemma presented me with a mug of hot chocolate.

“Wake up, it’s the best time for fishing -- boat’s being loaded at the beach.”

The sun had yet to come over the ridge, and my breath came out like drifts of smoke. I shuffled down to the beach. Jack was filling the boat with nets, bait and rods.  I almost turned around, thinking it would be just Aunt Gemma and I fishing, but then I didn’t want him to tease me about being scared, so I got in. But no sooner did he start rowing towards Pinnacle Rock than I was slammed by the memories of last June.

When taking photography trips with my mother, I always chose a theme for the day. “I’m photographing things in motion,” I had said as I grabbed my camera and scrambled into the boat on that cloudless afternoon. I snapped pictures of silver minnows darting through emerald water, ospreys hovering above in a wide blue sky, and Mom kicking up gold-flecked dust, ascending the mountain trail. 

“Give the pictures a rest, Addison,” said Jack.

“Do something dramatic, Jack. I want one of you climbing that pine tree.”

“Yeah right, I just ate.”

“Mom, dive off Pinnacle Rock?”

“Maybe tomorrow. It’s been a long day, honey.”

“But we’re leaving tomorrow . . . and the boat’s already there.  Just jump . . . c’mon Mom, please, just go off Pinnacle – it’s such a good shot.”

“Quit bugging her, Addison.”

Jack was always protective of Mom.  They were close.

“Oh, I guess it would feel good this time of day,” she said.   I began yanking her excitedly down the trail.  Mom was a good diver: it would be a great portrait as well as action shot.

“Hang on, Mom . . . “ I said, flinging the camera over my shoulder on a strap. “Wait ‘til I get just across the cove.” After a few minutes of scrambling, I reached the boulder that would give me the perfect shot of the diving hole.

“Ready,” I said. 

I snapped one of her blue eyes glazed with sun, laughing. I took another of her scaling Pinnacle Rock to a sandy ledge, fifteen feet above the water. Then I got her with her knees bent, arms overhead, ready to spring.

Then I stopped taking pictures. Mom’s foot shot weirdly out from her, and she seemed to lose her balance. This triggered a small landslide, and Mom made a shaky effort to skirt the tumble of rocks, but her dive was all wrong -- too far from the safe sandy part of diving hole, too close to the spot crowded with shallow boulders. I held my breath as she hit the water.  I waited for her head, slick as a seal’s, to bob to the surface. 

I waited longer.  There was no head.

“Please . . .” I whispered, scanning the cove for Jack.   He had just been there with the boat.  I slid down a jumble of boulders to get to the water’s edge, scraping skin off my shins. “Jack! Where are you? ”

He rowed around the corner of the cove. I launched into the water without him.

“She’s still under,” I sputtered.


“Mom!”  I stroked through the water as fast as I could.

Understanding, Jack rowed over to the diving hole and jumped in. Through the water, I watched him reach her first.  He tugged at her, crumpled in the rocks; her head was slumped over her chest.  There was blood, too. I kicked down to grab a shoulder, and we brought her to the surface.

“Get the boat,” Jack said after hauling the body on to a slab of granite.  I raced to the boat and oared over while Jack pounded Mom’s back, then flipped her over and tried pumping her heart. No breath. We dragged her into the boat, and Jack power-stroked back to the campsite. I cradled Mom’s damp head in my arms, pinched her nose and blew air into her mouth like I saw on t.v. rescue shows.  I pressed my ear to her heart and listened. Nothing.  The gash at the temple was bleeding steadily.  The blood ran down my arms and dripped into the boat. I pressed my hand against Mom’s temple but couldn’t stop the bleeding. 

Hours later, after being helicoptered to the mountain hospital, the doctors officially confirmed her dead.  When her skull crashed into the submerged rocks, she had broken her neck and drowned.

Seeing Pinnacle Rock once again, I dropped to the metal floor of the boat and wedged my head between my knees.

“You ok?” asked Jack.

There was a rusty smudge on the bottom of the boat.  When I tried to look away, the horizon flipped and reeled.  All I could think about was Mom’s fast-pooling blood.  My mouth opened and shut like a fish gasping for breath.  I had to get out of the boat.  I catapulted overboard and made for the center of the lake.  I swam for a long time in the frigid water until Jack planted the boat right in front of me.  I skirted it again and again.

Then Jack jumped in the water and grabbed me.  I spat at him and kicked him; I knocked my fist into his eye. But this only made him hold me more tightly.  I struggled for a few minutes, fighting him.  I dragged him under the water with everything I had. I even bit him hard on the hand, but he continued to hold on to me. 

“Don’t, Jack . . .” I hissed.

“Don’t what?” he sputtered, trying to keep from being pulled back under.

“Drown me.”

He spat water out of his mouth, and looked more surprised than angry.

“Why the hell would I do that?”

“I made her dive.”

He narrowed his eyes.

“I was messing with the stupid fish bait around the cove. I could’ve been watching – maybe even stopped her.”

We were breathing hard in the cold water, kicking to stay afloat but holding each other’s gaze. 

“You could just as easily blame me for it,” he said, “Or fate. Why would she write in her will to have her ashes spread up here?”

It seemed easy to give in. I was so tired. I knew I would sink heavy and fast if I stopped kicking.

“Your face is gray. You know what hypothermia is?”  Jack stuck out his hand.

“Truce. Another drowning isn’t going to help anything.  C’mon shake it, Addison.  I’ve been an asshole.  I’m sorry.”

 He was sounding slightly more like a brother and less like the creep he’d been all summer. I slipped my hand, wrinkled as a raisin, into his.   He looked solemn as he shook it. Then he flipped around and swam back to the boat.  I kicked after him and climbed back in the boat.  We rowed back in silence, listening to the squeak of the gunnels, watching the fish leave widening circles on the lake surface and wisps of clouds streak the sky. 

Back at the campsite, Aunt Gemma looked at us suspiciously as we tromped in with drenched clothes.

“No trout?”

“Swam,” mumbled Jack.

“Awfully early for a swim . . . what happened to your eye?”

“Hit it with an oar,” he lied.

I smothered a smile.

“And your hand! It looks like something bit it. “

“Chipmunk,” I said.

“No big deal, got my tetanus shot,” Jack smirked.

“I don’t think this is funny,” said Aunt Gemma. “What if the chipmunk was rabid? Was it acting crazy? ”

“Yeah, it was acting crazy alright,” Jack glanced at me. We laughed together. It felt good, even if it was at my expense.

Aunt Gemma looked irritated and a little pleased at the same time.  Maybe she sensed something had shifted between us.

“You didn’t sprinkle those ashes already?”

“No,” I said, “we’ll get to it later.”

That evening Jack sat on the beach slicing rocks across the lake surface.  I skipped a few, too.  The sun had just dipped below the mountains. Flattened in relief, the tree line looked like paper cut-outs against the magenta sky.

“What was all that about today?” he asked.

“Thought I saw some blood.”

“We were stupid to get back in that same boat. ” The sky deepened to plum and the first stars began to appear.  I felt him thinking.

“You ever consider moving in with Aunt Gemma?”

“Want to get rid of me?”

“No. I just think you should quit sleeping in the yard.  Maybe it makes things worse lying out there in the fog all alone.”

I listened to the deer mice scuttling in the wood pile, and the papery rustle of the aspen in the occasional puff of wind.  The house was so still.  And when Jack came home from his friends’ houses, he was mostly a jerk.  I rested my chin on my knees and waited for the bats to come out. 

Jack went back up to the campsite and returned with a box. Now was as good a time as any to scatter the ashes.

I saw he had also brought my camera down.  This seemed strange until I pulled the lid off the box and found my silkworms.  There was the full lifecycle -- eggs, larvae, pillowy cocoons and dozens of white moths fluttering.

“Most of them were unhurt when I got them out of the neighbor’s yard, but I bought some new eggs just in case.”

I cupped the worms eagerly, letting them wriggle up and explore my wrists and arms.  Then I gingerly lifted the moths out one by one and set them on the beach. 

“Won’t they fly off?” asked Jack.

“Silkworm moths can’t fly. They spin around and fan their wings but stay put with their families for the most part.”

A nearly windless night, we stretched belly-down beside one another and watched the moths dance. Their movements were alternately graceful and clumsy, dipping and circling, as they explored the uneven terrain.  As they clambered up the gullies of sand, I thought about Jack and I as little kids jumping off logs, flapping our arms, trying to fly ourselves on this same beach.  We had laughed as we failed, landed and floundered, but then we popped up to try it again, over and over.   

The moths beat their wings in a frenzy one moment and then quieted to stillness, seeming strong and delicate at the same time.  I felt something lighten and open in my chest as I watched them flutter and swirl, creating patterns in the dark sand.

“Good night for staying on the beach,” said Jack, “I’m going to skip the tent and sleep down here.”

He flipped on his back and molded a sandy pillow for his head.  Then he piled one up for me. A warm night, the moon shone full over the dark water.  As I listened to the lake water lap, its rhythmic swishing sounded comforting.  Above, the sky was dotted with stars and planets.  We debated over which one was Venus, Jupiter or Mercury; we traced Cassiopeia’s Chair, Orion’s Belt and Scorpio’s tail; we counted shooting stars and were fooled by satellites until eventually sleepy, we let the Milky Way roll over us like a gauzy white blanket.


Mollie McNeil lives, writes and makes fine art in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Crack the Spine and The Penmen Review, and there is a piece forthcoming in Blue Lake Review.

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