Oh the wonder and magic of this beautiful creature, visible only in those dim moments between evening and darkness. Almost like a dream where you’re not sure you could have possibly seen something so beautiful, then fleeting, gone in just a moment, only the hum of fluttering wings ringing within your memory.
It came out of nowhere. In a flutter of wings it was suddenly near the light as if drawn to me, knowing its destiny and assuming it just the same. It was beautiful. Enormous, flickering wings fanning the bright light. Every so often, you could catch a glimpse of salmon-ish, pink red along its wings, broken up by thick black lines and softer, muted brown and bright white stripes. I couldn’t believe this living thing had made its unfortunate appearance on this night, the night I was to be finishing my 6th grade science project which involved finding, killing and impaling insect specimens with straight pins. The final result would be a cigar box version of a scientific shadowbox. As scientific as 6th grade could get, with one wing held open and the insect’s genus and species info listed below, it would be displayed permanently, held forever in a moment. It was an opportunity I felt had fluttered directly into my hand, an opportunity to have the biggest, the best, a beautiful, mysterious moth destined for my project. Surely no one would have a moth like this. This was no mere insect, this had to be a rare winged mammal of some sort. I had never seen a moth so furry, so wondrous, so . . . big.
My parents helped me. We somehow trapped the huge winged insect against the ceiling near the bright light with a glass mason jar. It was like a bird, with wings so broad, it couldn’t flutter into flight from within the jar. It was doomed.
Next came poison, in the form of a cotton ball soaked pink with nail polish remover. I still remember dropping the wet cotton ball into that glass jar, my heart aching, wishing I wouldn’t do it, but knowing . . . I would. Before even dropping it, regretting what I was about to do. Taking the life of something living, something beautiful, something that would have wanted us to release it back into the dim dusk of evening, content with the just the memory of its beauty.
The problem was: I had friends, teachers to impress. I wanted to be the best. I doubted anyone else in my class had ever laid their eyes upon such a majestic creature of the insect world, let alone displayed it proudly in their cigar box for all to see. Surely, this would all be worth it.
The day of judgment was to come, the due date for our cigar box projects. Grasshoppers, beetles and spiders all with their dead legs splayed out in unnatural, natural form, held in place with silver straight pins and labels, like headstones beneath them, with their common and scientific names listed. Some legs went missing, cracked off in their frail states. Grasshopper wings crackled in their delicacy, leaving miniature shards of glass-like transparency underneath their bodies. The spider specimens seemed to be the most difficult. Getting their dead, dry legs to appear normal and alive with pins didn’t work in any of the displays, our cigar boxes with nothing more to show than black and brown spider bodies, legs curled up in rigor mortis underneath them.
My majestic, rare Sphinx moth, it turns out, wasn’t that rare. There were others, two to be exact.
I’d like to say this experience in the 6th grade was the last of its kind, that I learned my lesson by way of moth brutality. Sadly it’s a battle that reappears often. The desire to be the best, to have more, to win at all costs (moth lives not withstanding) is a constant battle in our society today. Aren’t we engrained with these thoughts from early on? That 1st place wins, winners take all and that 2nd place is just the first loser? Blue ribbons, trophies and medals are things we are taught to want, to work for and to covet. But at what cost?
Today’s society has alternately morphed into one of political correctness, of fairness and equality. Maybe it is in response to the over-competitive pressure that we felt growing up. Now every child gets an award. Is this better or worse? Have we only just diluted competitive desire with the notion that an award will come, regardless of our effort? Are we creating a false sense of achievement, maybe even dare I say, the “entitlement” that we hear so much of now with younger generations, mine included?
It is a fine line in today’s world between wanting it all and feeling we deserve it all. We can’t have it all and we certainly don’t deserve it all. Maybe we too, find ourselves in the dim light between day and dusk, wanting to land lightly upon all the flowers. But with impending darkness looming in the horizon, we too are forced to do what we can in a short space of time, with only the hope to return tomorrow to do a little more.
I still harbor guilt over the innocent moth, that happened upon the wrong bunch of fragrant flowers that led him to the bright light inside my house that night long ago. And that instantly regrettable moment, where he was caught, stolen out of his natural habitat and suffocated with chemicals, only to be pinned in death’s dark drab within a cigar box as his final, lonely resting place.
This past summer, my Sphinx moth reappeared reincarnated, brought back to life by the pungent perfume of purple petunias. It had been years since I had seen one. He became a regular nightly visitor, lured by flowers bright enough to notice in diminishing light. He would make his rounds, fluttering easily upon the evening air, lofting this way and that. Never in the bright light of day, but just as the sun would sink into the Western sky, he would magically appear for an evening dinner with the sun’s last light fading into night’s darkness.
I think of the old moth, pinned haphazardly by 12 year old hands, wings spread as if in frozen flight. It reminds me that beauty cannot be caught or stolen, pinned down and held in a moment forever. Rather beauty lives on by memory of that fleeting, perfect moment that cannot be captured, but wafts gently upon the sweet summer breeze, lighting upon purple flowers before disappearing into the dark edges of our souls again.