I never used to have a problem with moths. Or tuna mayonnaise sandwiches. Moths were nothing but interesting pictures in wildlife books, mild annoyances around candles and occasional subjects for little jar-shaped glass jails. Tuna mayonnaise sandwiches were, well, sandwichy. They carried no more inherent malice than a cheese and tomato sandwich (on brown or toasterloaf – their wheaty bookends had no influence on their fundamental motivation). Perhaps it might have happened differently, if only that moth had not flown down the passage, or I had had a polony, tomato sauce and mayonnaise sandwich that day instead, all of these problems could have been avoided. Fate, random events, Jesus shooting little moths out of a plastic gun when I wasn’t looking… I can’t speculate on the Wheres Whos Hows and Whys of the situation, but when a captured moth and a tuna mayonnaise sandwich collided in a dusty, wheaty mess my young life was never the same.
Moths are disgusting creatures. They exist to butt heads, to drop dust and to fuck for the next generation. Butterflies flit and flap through the air, looking for pretty little flowers to kiss. Moths barrel and stutter, unsure of where they’re going. The sight of a moth, the staccato shadow of its wings across the periphery of my vision, sends cockroaches crickling across my neck. Sandwiches, on the other hand, are really quite amiable things.
The moth was huge. Its outstretched wings would have overlapped the borders of my pink palm. I heard it flapping down the passage, thick and dusty wings beating at the air and the cream-coloured paint. My Mom called me to look at it, ever one to impart knowledge, showed me how big it was, explained the life cycle of the moth. Eggs, caterpillar, blind pupa and finally, crashing through the dried-out walls, a full grown moth in all its fuzzy-antennaed, demonic glory. It came to a stop, halfway up the wall, just above the reaches of my seven year old fingers.
“Shall we catch it?” she asked, despite her fear (which I only learnt of later).
“Okay. I can take it to school,” I replied.
“I’ll go find something,” said my mom, trudging into the kitchen and digging through the cupboard to find an old coffee jar. She returned triumphant, the squared off jar obscured by the remnants of adhesive paper. At that moment, it was no longer a jar to provide coffee to partner her cigarettes; it was a sacred urn, a golden chalice. She strode triumphantly over the tiles and carpet and clamped the jar against the wall.
“Why don’t you get a piece of paper?”
I scuttled off to my room and returned, magical paper in hand. With surgical precision, she slid the paper between the wall and the jar, closing the moth inside. With a deft movement, she righted the jar, removed the paper and screwed on the thick, brown lid.
“We should make holes in the top, Mom, so the moth can breathe.”
The next morning, I had my sandwich packed in my little red lunch box. Tuna mayonnaise. I sat with the moth on my lap on the way to school, checking that it was alive, rattling the jar every now and then to elicit a listless flapping of its gigantic wings.
“Don’t hurt it, Paul,” said my Mom, looking across to the passenger seat. My cheeks burned.
Showing the moth to the class was a success. Our teacher was very impressed, if a little apprehensive of such a large moth. The entire class shuffled past, passed it amongst themselves, tapped at the glass with their clumsy pencils.
“Should we let it free now?”
The class agreed. Mrs Frye and I opened the institution grey-green door and set the jar down on the scuffed clay tiles. I unscrewed the lid and lifted up the jar, so that the moth could get to the floor. It travelled across a tile or two, then stopped.
“Let’s go back inside, Paul.”
And then I forgot about the moth. I was learning to read, which was much more important. In an hour or two, the bell rang. Little break. The only break we had back then. I let all the people who had to be first out the door, then followed at my own pace. The moth crashed through my mind. I wondered if it had flown off, where it had gone.
“Gross! Look at that!” shouted one of the other boys, pointing to the floor. I looked down and there on that terracotta killing-floor, the moth was just dust and insides, not moving. Dead. The split in its body where the guts had spewed out scratched an image onto my brain that’s been there ever since. Its guts looked exactly like tuna mayo. I swallowed a few times, then followed the boys out into the quad – there were games of zap to be had. When I was hungry and tired, I opened up my lunchbox to be assailed with the fishy smell of tuna and mayonnaise, the way it had sogged into the bread, like clammy moth guts. I took one look at it and threw it away.
When I went back to class, the moth was gone, interred in a black plastic bag somewhere. I took the jar home and threw it away. Seven years later, I could eat tuna mayonnaise sandwiches again.