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Thread: The Death Heads Moth

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    Registered User Steven Hunley's Avatar
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    The Death's Head Moth

    The Death's-head Moth

    Robert Henry Forester sat at his antique oak desk writing and drinking. Both were what he did best. He’d always like writing. It had been his passion. Dipping his pen in India ink, swirling his Cognac for maximum effect, then measuring out the best words. Behind him, the tall dark shelves of his library were stuffed will all sorts of books by all sorts of authors, and on one special shelf, a glittering assortment of his best-sellers. They deserved to be apart from the rest.

    Like him, they were special and precious. Special and precious and privileged. He finished an especially good line.

    “This line is a superior line,” he thought. “Let’s celebrate.”

    He reached into the drawer and took out a cigar. He cut it, lit it, and puffed, blowing a billowing cloud of smoke into the Cognac, took a sip and savored the taste. Re-reading the words, he savored the line.

    “This line is so good,” he mused, “It will keep them reading the entire paragraph.”

    He chuckled aloud, “Perhaps the entire page!”

    The fire hissed and crackled and sputtered. Wind drove rain against the panes of the tall French windows. A fierce winter storm lashed the rocks of the hard Cornish coast just as the clock on the mantle struck twelve. Robert heard none of it, he was too busy writing.

    He coughed a consumptive cough, and continued his chapter. Another book, another pound sterling. One more page, one more cigar, one more drink, and finally one more cough, and he was off to bed. Although he slept alone, this night he slept soundly without a care in the world. He’d traded his passion for glory long ago and suffered no regrets. He was aware the devil was his unfelt bedfellow, and it didn’t bother him one whit.

    The next day Forrester was lose in the garden with his net, foraging for butterflies. This is what he did when he wasn’t writing and drinking. After years of rampaging here and there over the Cornwall countryside he’d hit upon a plan. Make the delicate creatures come to him. First, he arranged his trap by planting the plants they liked best in his garden. That explained the prominence of Carnations, Roses, Vanilla and Lavender.

    He’d stopped using chloroform too. He’d allow them to alight and study them through his glass, magnify, quantify and identify them, then allow them to go free. Beneath his gruff exterior beat a heart of electrum. One day he had an inspired idea.

    “I’ll use the perfumes and essences of particular flowers to attract them. That way I can attract any sort I like, in or out of season. Who knows how far away they can attract and smell? A Cecropia moth has the ability to smell his mate seven miles away with his feathery antennae.”

    Being a butterfly man, that was the sole fact he knew about moths.

    Forrester was good at attracting things, at getting their attention too. Good at getting what he wanted, scads of money, fame, social butterflies, the whole lot. Sometimes he didn’t know what to do with them.
    One such example was Lady Bonacieux, daughter of the Duke and Dutchess. Tall, blond and fair, short-sighted, live-for-the-moment kind of girl. He’d attracted her one afternoon at a tea for bored socialites during a reading of his latest novel, Undercover of Darkness, the Adventures of Sin Cargo.

    Soon after the reading, in a light-blue flower-patterned dress she spoke up and snared his eyes with her own.

    “Oh, Mister Forester, I have poetic ambitions. I’ve written hundreds of poems.”

    Eyes rather doe-like, soft spoken, young woman, well-mannered, good-looking.

    His eyes moved from hers and fell quickly down her cleavage like Alice down the rabbit hole.

    “You write too, do you? We have something in common.”

    Sometimes course, sometimes plotting, the cad, the man, sensuous to a fault.

    “We should go somewhere quiet,” he continued, “and discuss our styles.”

    Her face, as fresh a spring day in its clearness, shot straight with beauty through and through. Her eyes spoke nothing but adoration.

    “You’d be surprised, I agree. Although we seem different in our styles, we undoubtedly have something in common. I’m sure you can teach me something. Let’s meet next Tuesday at the Pony and Rider, shall we? Could you bring a manuscript to discuss?”

    “Of course.”

    “We can go somewhere quiet.”

    “In the shade of the oaks if it’s warm and sunny,” he suggested.

    “We can stay at the inn if it takes all night, or if it’s raining,” she countered.

    Both knew it was November. Always rained like the Devil in November.

    Warm fires, comfortable lodgings, two half-filled whiskey glasses on the dressing table. White fluffy Egyptian cotton pillows on a pillow-topped mattress. Lady Bonacieux’s hair streamed down over the pillow and onto the bed. Forester’s pupils dilated as he regarded the twin curves of her breasts. Sheets and blankets piled up in strategic positions. Wet spots scattered here and there. Lady Bonacieux wrapped herself in a sheet, took the white cotton curtains embroidered with pink and blue flowers, pulled them to the sides of the windows, and tied them back in a bow.

    “Now we can just cuddle and watch the rain. We don’t have to say anything.”

    ‘That would be fine with me. I like to cuddle.” "What were we going to talk about anyway." he considered. "The weather ?"

    He was relieved. In fact there was nothing to say. Forrester had run out of small talk some time ago, and whispering sweet nothings just wasn’t his style. After each of these encounters it was always the same. After satisfying their sexual appetites they would notice they had nothing in common. The girl’s thoughts would return to her young man, the one who worked as a gardener on her father’s estate, or the one in class that sat behind her and tried to dip her fair hair in the inkwell. Forester’s thoughts would return to his correspondences, especially the foreign letters with exotic stamps, which he treasured.

    Just lately it was the letters from the woman who lived near San Francisco. The one whose words were so bright and engaging. She had something to say. She was nearer his age, and though he’d never seen her, or even her picture, he thought of her constantly. Considering the distance and the fact it was highly unlikely they’d meet, he was head over heels in the matter.

    Forrester liked being head over heals.

    One woman in your bed you don’t really care for, and another thousands of miles away that you’re mad about. Until he found that certain someone, he was determined to keep his distance. All the young curves and cascading blond hair in the world didn’t matter to Robert Henry Forrester. Not one iota.

    Love and life, so damned complicated. As crazy as a clockwork orange.

    That’s how his days were. His nights were a terror. The deaths of Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme and Satine in Moulin Rouge were portrayed as romantic, even tragic events. Not to his way of thinking. There was no romance in night sweats and chills, and bloody coughing that never ceased. Blood-stained handkerchiefs littered his laundry and no matter how much he ate, gradual wasting away kept him in trim. In trim for the devil’s new red suit.

    When the symptoms subsided he seemed almost normal. When the coughing started and he knew he was in for a spell. He changed his appointments and canceled still others. The state of his health was a well-kept secret. When Brehmer opened an in-patient hospital in Gorbersdorf, Forrester left England in secret to be surrounded by mountains with ragged horizons of fir trees and clean mountain air. He ate like a king and for a few months it worked.

    Eventually he returned home and relapsed. M. tuberculosis came and went in his life at irregular intervals, leaving him hopeful at one stage and despondent at another. His health was a maelstrom. No telling how many debutantes with literary aspirations were infected with his poisonous breath.

    His good days could be good. Seeing and sketching a new and rare species. Following up with the watercolors later like Aoki, or Tasuke, on fine Strathmore paper with the best Kolinsky sable brushes.

    Then, on a potato flower, landed a moth. Forrester knew nothing of moths. It stood on the flower like a sentinel surveying his grounds. Looked like a tiny statue of a moth with a weathered patina, grey and black and white. Stood looking like a delivery boy with a package waiting for a tip.

    Like lightning, Forrester made his way to the table and took up his tablet and pencil. Skilled movements here, touches of pencil there, lines of graphite and clay marked out the magnificent moth, complete with a notch on its antennae. On the lip of his glass of lemonade it modeled. The creature regarded Forrester like Michelangelo’s David. Like a small thing about to bring down something much larger in the same way the M. Tubercular bacillus regards a man. Then, somewhere between having his eyes on the moth and then on his paper, it was gone. He labeled it Luna. It was a hardly a hanging offence.

    Forrester suddenly took chill and started to cough. An Armada of grey clouds whipped in from the south. Bent over, now stumbling, Robert Henry Forester made his way to the French windows and passed through, then collapsed in the arms of Planchet on the edge of the Persian carpet. For two days he was assigned to his bed.

    Rain and storm started in earnest. The house grew cold and damp. Wind and water made such a racket the first knocks on the door could hardly be heard. The lightning cracked, startling Planchet, who opened the door with a jerk.

    A woman in a raincoat stood dripping.

    “Come in Miss. You’ll catch your death.”

    “Me? Not likely,” she answered matter-of-factly.

    Stepping in, she placed her umbrella in the elephant’s foot.

    “I’m Miriam Nightingale, come to see Mr. Forrester and have him sign my book.”

    Her hair? Wet and wild at this moment, but tameable later. Her eyes? Hazel and too sure of themselves for comfort. Her voice? Rest assured, sweeter than royal jelly.

    Forrester could hear them downstairs, but with the storm only barely, and misinterpreted the whole thing. He gets upset first and mad later, and begins to talk to himself.

    “Probably that floozy from the inn coming for a midnight rendezvous with my man Planchet!”

    Despite the fact he was still half-asleep and wholly under the influence of the bacillus he bounded from the bed and threw on his dressing gown and assaulted Planchet with the question,

    “Where is the woman anyway?”

    “In the study drying off by the fire, your lordship.”

    “Damn you Planchet, you impudent and disrespectful servant! I am not, and will never be your lordship! I’ll take care of this!”

    He flew to the stairway like a comet on fire.

    On the top of the stairs he muttered, “Tart.”

    Half-way down it turned to, “Trollope.”

    At the bottom it had grown to, “Woman of Questionable Morals.”

    Robert Henry Forrester opened the door to the study. A figure, now back-lit by the fire, turned to regard him, and looked rather angelic. Angel of what or whom he had no idea.

    “I’m Miriam Nightingale,” it stated. “I’ve come all the way from San Francisco to have you sign my first edition. It looks as if…” she gestured to a pile of unopened letters on the desk, “you didn’t expect me.”

    “My God, it’s you!” he stammered, and then noticing the puddle her shoes made on the floor, regained his aplomb immediately.

    “Please, allow me to remove your wet things and sit here by the fire.”

    During introductions and explanations his hand touched her shoulder while making a point. While laughing at his witty remark she touched his chest lightly with the tips of her fingers inscribing the shape of a heart by way of explanation. Things couldn’t have been more magnetic.

    Then the bacillus decided to remind Forrester of his place in the scheme of things. Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead. Chaos entered the room. He collapsed again. Forrester is practiced at collapsing.
    Within minutes he was back in his bed and Miriam found herself in a room facing her image in the dressing table mirror.

    “He wasn’t ready. I don’t know why I thought he was ready!”

    She tapped on the face of her watch with her fingernails. The hands were stuck fast. It was a technical mistake, a mechanical failure, an interruption of the cosmic wheel hanging on her delicate wrist by an alligator watch-band with a gold clasp. Her brows furrowed as she grew cross with herself.

    “I hate return trips. But sometimes it can’t be helped.”

    In his fevered state Forrester dreams of Dumas. In one of his lucid moments he decided to study Dumas for his style. The two men’s styles mated. Every writer is only a refection of what he reads, even if it’s through the glass darkly, so Forrester dreams of Twenty Years After.

    ‘The morning was beautiful, and in this early springtime the birds sang on the trees and the sunbeams shone through the misty glades, like curtains of golden gauze.
    In other parts of the forest the light could scarcely penetrate through the foliage, and the stems of two old oak trees, the refuge of the squirrel, startled by the travelers, were in deep shadow.

    There came up from all nature in the dawn of day a perfume of herbs, flowers and leaves, which delighted the heart. D'Artagnan, sick of the closeness of Paris, thought that when a man had three names of his different estates joined one to another, he ought to be very happy in such a paradise; then he shook his head, saying, "If I were Porthos and D'Artagnan came to make me such a proposition as I am going to make to him, I know what I should say to it.’

    A. Dumas—Twenty Years After

    When his fever finally broke, Forrester opened his eyes and went to the balcony. The scene wasn’t France, it was Cornwall, and in its own way just as pretty.

    Meadow larks sang endless cantatas while a Kawarimono Koi glittered and jumped in the pond near the lotus pads. Grey thundering clouds from the day before were replaced overnight with white wooly cumulus silently racing over fields of endless azure. Red and white Herefordshire cattle grazed peacefully on green pastures marked by well-tended fences. There was only one thing wrong with the picture.

    The woman was missing.'

    No telling where she went. Planchet had no idea when she left. He could not make up his mind , almost as if he’d been stunned or hit on the head. His memories of Miriam were muddled and faded; to even describe her was difficult, like trying to describe an apparition. Yet Forrester recalled her in detail.

    Hair dark as a pagan forest. Teeth like pearls from the Marquesas. Sparkling Milky-Way eyes. Touch like an anvil or feather; always at her command. Forrester remembered her well. His memories were serious and meaningful. She possessed an illusion of beauty yet not an illusion and that made her more exciting. No more nights inscribing ink marks, clever words, and calligraphy on paper. He was a personal witness to smooth flesh and warm coursing blood. One touch made more of an impression than ten thousand words, and still the words flowed.

    Each day he watched for a letter. For a week none came. Then came letter after letter followed by note after note, each closing or opening with a term of endearment more intimate than the one before that.

    “Something about me has taken her fancy,” he said to his image in the mirror one morning while shaving. “And I feel a certain attraction to her myself. I know what to do. I’ll woo her with words.”

    By the beard of the profit, give patience to the woman a writer decides to woo his with his words.

    “She hasn’t a chance,” said Forrester smugly.

    With each letter he upped the ante. Each letter was more intimate than the one before and not quite as intimate as the one that would follow. She assumed, from experience mind you, that it was impossible to fall under any mortal man’s spell, yet she was charmed.

    In Cairo and then Budapest, she followed the cold weather. It was exhausting work. One afternoon she decided to stop writing, but a letter from Forrester appeared under her door. After reading it she changed her mind once again, a tendency patented by the feminine half of our race.

    Brushing her hair at the mirror, she examined for small lines near her eyes. Nothing. She hadn’t aged in years. She felt sorry for Forrester.

    “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, but I can’t help myself. The man is absolutely fascinating.”

    Forrester followed suit in his feelings about her. Each of his letters greeted her with a new pet name. It was Dear and then Dearest Miriam, then Sweet and Sweetest Miriam. He thought for a spell that Darling would be the last and most precious then Precious was used after that.

    She was on the continent on business. A cholera epidemic in Europe was impeding her travel plans. They had only the letters, no meetings, but what letters they were.

    The entire thing seemed unreasonable. A woman touches him once, they exchange a few pleasantries, and now he was head over heels. He tried in vain, after she’d disappeared, to be reasonable. Each of her letters made it harder. He felt his reason escape for the first time in his life and tried to bind it. But each letter, with its intimate terms of endearment, shook him like a gust of wind, like a natural force. Reason flew away like strands of kite string in a storm, leaving him grasping ineffectually at the ends. The strands of string became the strands of his being, and her storm left him naked. The essential, the core, the true Forrester, was all there was left. Her essence completely unraveled him. This mature worldly woman was no ingénue with misplaced literary aspirations.
    Like Maestro Maupassant, she arrived like lightning and left like a comet. Reason or no reason, Forrester was completely enthralled.

    Weeks passed finding new species, A cabbage butterfly on the cabbage. A Monarch on the Milkweed. Then endless talks with publishers, flotillas of galleys to read, arranging for hand-sewn limited editions bound in red Moroccan leather with gold-embossed titles for the Illuminati who could always afford luxuries.

    A summer came and went. One autumn afternoon in the garden, Robert Henry Forrester found another moth on a pile of red rotting leaves. Same kind as the last. He sketched it quickly, in haste, rough sketch, well done, under pressure, as it moved on its’ six nervous feet. While placing the sketch on the dresser next to the first sketch, sliding it into the mirror, he noticed they were twins.

    “Or it’s the same bug. How curious.”

    He placed the two pictures side by side near the French windows. In the sunlight it was obvious.

    “That’s impossible. They don’t last that long.”

    The thought disturbed him, so,

    Martel poured in the snifter, cigar in the ashtray, later… Forrester almost passed out on the desk, until the coughing started again.

    Back to the bedroom, dissipated writer covered with blankets, red-stained handkerchiefs and wine-spotted white towlets, in heaps, near the porcelain pedestal lavatory, faucets glittering gold, with yellowed ivory handles. Time and words lost or not accounted for. Night sweats and delirium. T. B. sheets, T.B. sheets. Remembrances of dark-shaded afternoons turning to inky-black nights stuffed full of strange opium dreams.

    How could Forrester measure time? By the clock on the mantel, or the dozen small bottles of Laudanum clustered on the night table near the sickbed?

    Forrester, against all odds, survived that night and three more. Late in the afternoon he opened his eyes and saw his angel sitting beside him, holding his hand. The soft delicate hands that grasped his were cold. She looked marvelous, not a hair out of place, incredibly brilliant. He was so weak he whispered when he said,

    “Do you always look so good in the morning?”

    “You’ll have time to compare. There will be thousands of mornings. You can go with me now, the timing is right, but go softly, go softly, into that good night. Forget Dylan Thomas. I'll be your Mary Magdalene and you, Robert, will be my sweet little lamb.”

    Miriam pulled a lock of hair from her teared face, revealing a notch on the top of her ear and kissed Forrester’s cheek. So smooth and silky was the kiss, not a wrinkle was formed in the cosmic cloth of immeasurable time and space.

    W hen Planchet came upstairs with his master’s wheat toast and Sumatran coffee, Robert Henry Forrester had already gone. Since there was no doctor present he called the coroner. The coroner arrived at two, and wore a black silk hat. Tagging along was a burley policeman from the local constabulary. The officer examined the house and grounds and showed great interest in Forrester’s butterfly collections, the garden, and drawings. In Forrester’s bedroom he noticed the sketches of moths placed on the mirror.

    “He was a competent butterfly man,” he mentioned to the coroner. “But definitely, that’s where his knowledge stopped.”

    “How’s that? What do you mean?”

    “Well, I’m a moth man myself. These drawings are mislabeled.”


    “Yes, this is a Death’s head moth, not a Luna moth. See the death’s-head?”

    The coroner took of his hat and scrutinized the drawings, tilting his head to the right.

    “Don’t see what you mean, Old man.”

    “Here, they’re up-side-down.”

    The constable turned the pictures the other way around. They were so obvious that it hurt. The heads, in bone-white, against a black back ground, hung like ivory specters on a black velvet wall in an obscure castle, in an unknown country, and the brass plate below, engraved in a lost language no one could read, a silent monument to an invisible race.

    ©Steven Hunley 2011 Tears for Fears - Head Over Heels - 2014 Van Morrison - TB Sheets.
    Last edited by Steven Hunley; 03-26-2018 at 11:19 PM. Reason: title

  2. #2
    Registered User Steven Hunley's Avatar
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    Like I said, these mugs, these silent readers, they don't say nuttin'!

    So here's a story about a pandemic!

  3. #3
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    Wow!!! Missed this one before.

    Intriguing, intricate and absorbing Steve. I'm still seeing the different unspoken meanings, even after reading a couple of times.

    Well done and take care buddy.


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