The fact that I still remember the word for moth in Japanese is a bit of a fluke — I’ve forgotten so much else. But it was etched in my mind because I used to crash on the couch of a guy who had a phobia about moths, of which there were plenty on muggy summer nights in Osaka. We’d be sitting around drinking, and suddenly he’d leap up yelling “Ga! Gaaaaa!” and waving his arms about, as if trying to take flight. Order would only be restored when the intruder was killed or managed to escape.
It happens that he and I were both mooning over the same woman then, though we’d made our peace with each other. There was a certain amount of comfort, in fact, in getting drunk with someone who shared your predicament down to the smallest detail: being in love with someone who had slept with another man — even if, as in our case, we were each other’s other man. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that heterosexual male bonding can’t be a beautiful thing.
The moths were small, pale, dusty creatures, not unlike the majority of moths here in the northeastern United States. Perhaps like our moths, they represented diverse species, some of them quite rare, and distinguishable one from another sometimes only by a careful examination of their genitalia. I don’t know. I wasn’t really thinking about biodiversity back then, and I was years away from reading Fabre’s classic studies that showed how moths’ acute sensitivity to pheromones makes them capable of detecting female moths from miles away. It is this capacity that allows some species to persist at very low population densities, as long as individuals of the opposite sex can still find each other on the far side of a forest, or a city — and can manage to escape moth-phobics with wildly waving arms.
And the lights, the lights. What explained the moths’ perennial and often fatal attraction to light? Centuries of tradition and the analogy with our own hormone- and alcohol-addled brains suggested that it was desire. That’s certainly how it looks. But to a moth, desire is signaled by chemicals — pheromones — picked up through the antennae. It turns out that a moth spirals into a light not out of desire but from sheer confusion. The only nighttime light of any brightness in their evolutionary history was the moon, and because the moon appears at optical infinity — far enough away that its rays are nearly parallel — it makes an excellent navigational aid. A moth can fly in a straight line simply by triangulating off the moon.
I seem to recall steadying myself by gazing at the moon on a drunken walk home more than once myself. Earlier that spring, there had been a full lunar eclipse, and I made a point of staying sober enough to appreciate it. I’ve seen three or four lunar eclipses since, and the only reason why I remember that one so vividly is because of my surprise at the aforementioned woman when, the next morning, she admitted she didn’t know the moon had been eclipsed. She had gone out with someone else, they’d had too much to drink, and when she caught sight of the blood-red moon she’d assumed the alcohol had affected her vision somehow, she said.
I wonder if she’d been with that other fellow, about whom I was still clueless at that point. How he must have danced when the moths lost their bright compass in the sky and came zeroing in, kamikaze-style, on the nearest substitute! When I think back on that time now, I really can’t recall, except in a very abstract sense, the desire I felt — only the confusion. Those lips and eyes I thought I’d never forget are indistinguishable now from dozens of others in my memory. But that soft rattle against rice paper, a small pale form turned suddenly into a figure of menace: that I can recall as clear as day. Ga!
Shortcut through the fields—
a brush of wings against
my moonlit face.