The Painted Moth by Jennifer Fliss

My boyfriend Mark and I were painting the walls of our shitty little rental. The landlord gave us permission, though he refused to replace, or even spot-clean the haggard carpet – dotted with who knows what from who knows when.

We taped up the door frame and windows and the perfect place where the walls meet the ceilings. Blue tape like bodily outlines saying a death had been there.

“You idiot. You did it wrong. Let me,” Mark said, as he used his body like an insult and pushed me out of the way. As he grabbed the tape roll, he left a patch of scratches on my wrist, like a special plaid. He was not a man who bit his nails and he rarely trimmed them, preferring to go for monthly manicures. He liked them in points. His daggers often left marks, and I often ran my own fingers over the cuts and felt the burn again and again.

In the quiet of a cricket night, the screen door open, I stood on a ladder painting the upper reaches of the bedroom. Mark crouched at the floor, working near the baseboards. I closed one eye for precision. Ran the brush in a smooth line, impressed with my even lines.

About two inches from the ceiling, I discovered a moth on the wall. It was the size of a half dollar, beige, as moths are, mottled like it was diseased. I saw its whisper thin wings flutter. Well, it was really more of a tremor, so faint was the movement. But as I got near, the moth stilled its subtle beating. I blew at it and thought about flicking it with my finger, but imagined it immediately turning to dust and crumbling, and I don’t know where I got that idea. I decided to leave it, but when I bent to dip the brush in more paint, it had moved. Spectral. The ghost had departed.

I painted a few more lines, and dipped again and continued to search the walls for the creature. It only took a moment to realize that the moth had moved a couple feet back and I had accidentally painted it over. It’s wings, thorax, even the fine antennae, now a relief, but not quite a work of art. I dropped the brush. Horrified. I stared at the winged creature, wondering what to do. I tapped its body with a fingernail, came away with a smear of blue. The moth only twitched its antennae and then stopped moving altogether. It stayed on the wall, a tempest blue fresco of a moth; it could’ve been a butterfly for all the paint.

The color we had chosen was Hawaiian Blue. It’s like we’ll always be on a honeymoon, Mark had said. I’d never been to Hawaii, so I wouldn’t know. And we never talked about a honeymoon since, or the pomp and circumstances that would lead to such a trip. The color was closer to the tears painted by children. We adults know that tears are clear and they dry white and phantom-like on our skin. They aren’t blue at all.

Up on the ladder, I felt a sudden surge and dropped my paintbrush. “Gotcha”! Mark growled as he grabbed my waist. I slipped down the rungs of the ladder and my head whacked the corner of the counter. I saw speckles. They looked like the wings of a moth. Of my moth. Of a moth shaking off its paint, its bindings.

“Ha,” Mark said, and went back to his corner to continue his important work.

Mark painted as I nursed my head with a bag of frozen corn. Mark called me lazy a few times with a smile. But he never noticed the moth as he went over to fix my mistakes.

We stayed in the house for four years. I’d made up many stories for the stains on the carpets. Stew. Coffee. Love. Miscarriage. Death. And nearly every night, under the great heft and misguided love of my boyfriend – who was still my boyfriend and not my husband, or even fiancé despite his move-in promises – I watched and waited for a sign from the moth. Whacha looking at? Mark would say before he came. Whacha looking at? as he rolled over and turned out the light. He never waited for the answer. I know because his snores quickly replaced his oh gods.

The moth, I understood was dead the minute I coated its not diseased but beautiful wings.

 

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, F(r)iction, and in the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology. She is also the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. Her debut short story collection, THE PREDATORY ANIMAL BALL, is forthcoming from Okay Donkey Press in November 2021. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or on her website at www.jenniferflisscreative.com.

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