It happened in the turn of a page. One minute I was sitting with my feet up on the dashboard, lost in a book, the next we were being dragged two hundred metres across the motorway by an articulated lorry. I looked out of the rear window at the cars speeding towards us and I knew with unflinching certainty that we were going to die. My heartbeat became an external thing. My fear sucked up all of the air in the car so it became impossible to breathe. I screamed the scream of a twenty-six year old woman who is not ready to die.
That was the day the tiny black moths hatched in my head.
When I was a child, searching for ways to entertain myself on Saturday mornings while waiting for my parents to wake up, I used to play the jumping off the armchair game. Being very small, the ground felt like a long way down. I was convinced that if I tried it just the right number of times, if I just wanted it enough, then one day I would jump off of that armchair and I would be able to fly.
The domestic silk moth cannot fly. Post-metamorphosis, a few can take off and stay airborne but this is not considered flying.
After the moths hatched, they took over my body. I could hear the rustle of paper-thin wings as I drifted off at night. Sometimes they got into my ribcage and fluttered against my heart and I had to sit down with my head between my legs until I stopped feeling as though death was imminent. I walked through Hyde Park with a group of friends, laughing and chatting in the sun. The sky was a boundless blue. There was too much space, too much sky. I became convinced it was going to fall in, that the world could stop spinning at any moment. I held the fear in my palm, too afraid to open my hand until we were under a roof, inside four walls.
I went to the cinema and sat in an aisle seat, the fire exit clearly visible and my escape route painstakingly mapped out. The moths grew more agitated in the dark. They scratched furtively at my thoughts as the film began.
Moths use the moon as a guide to help them fly in a straight line. Some say they’re attracted to artificial light because they mistake it for the moon.
The actor on-screen whispered words not meant for the audience and the moths flapped their wings as though it was the end of the world. I couldn’t concentrate. My heart was beating too fast. It was too loud. I had to get out.
I went home and googled ‘moths’. Aporophyla nigra, Ascalapha odorata. The black witch moth. Linked to death and misfortune. But these were not my moths. Anarta cordigera, Charissa obscurata. When read aloud, they sounded like an incantation, a spell to whisk you away to some enchanted land. But these were not my moths.
I thought back to my childhood. Had they always been there? Just waiting to hatch? I remembered Saturday afternoon shopping trips with my mum, carrier bags entangled in branches, a child’s mitten blown onto the butcher shop’s awning. Boredom. Like something wriggling around under your skin that you can’t name, you can’t reach. But if you stood in the High Street at just the right angle and opened your mouth at just the right moment, you could swallow the wind and feel for a moment breathless, like rolling your car window down and sticking your head out to taste the freedom.
At home I felt too old for my toys. The sound of my parents arguing played in the background like a radio show you were only ever half listening to. Sometimes the arguments would settle like a thin layer of dust which, if disturbed, could trigger my brother’s asthma. Sometimes I’d draw pictures in the dust with my finger, just for something to do. I’d cut up tiny strips of paper, throw them up in the air and watch them flutter back to earth. We were spoilt by the films and TV shows of the ‘80s. We were promised adventure. Portals to magical, faraway lands. Through mirrors, wardrobes, books. I searched for those doorways. They did not exist. I was stuck.
When my parents separated, my mum bought a new silk blouse and once a month she’d put on mascara and go out with her friend. I felt the wriggling of writhing, wrinkled creatures in my stomach that would not be soothed until she came home.
The first night she wore the blouse, she met the man who would later become my stepdad. He was born on Fetlar, one of the North Isles of Shetland, population sixty-six. He’d just left the Navy. When he visited for the first time, the doors in our house became fairy doors and our tables and chairs suddenly looked as though they would fit inside my dolls’ house.
The day before their wedding, my mum bent down to watch as I held a green and blue pencil together and drew the ripples of the sea. It was a warm day and the slightest movement from my mother released the smell of mothballs, gentle waves of camphor mixed with toxic pesticide. By now the silk blouse was a distant memory, moth-eaten and crumpled in some forgotten corner of a charity bag that never made it out of the garden shed.
At night my stepdad told me tales of selkies and mermaids. He wrote down magic words on pieces of paper which he folded up and put under my pillow to keep the bad dreams away. There’s a primary school on Fetlar, he told my mum. My brother stopped needing his inhaler.
I grew too old for those stories. I started secondary school and made new friends. My dad told my mum we could move to Fetlar over his dead body. My nose suddenly looked too big for my face. I outgrew my childhood clothes. I felt like those flightless moths, permanently grounded, bodies too big and bulky for their fragile, tiny wings to carry them. My new friends and I squeezed lemon juice in our hair and pointed our bare legs at the sun, toffee apple lip balm melting, tasting nothing like it smelt. We rolled up our skirts and sought popularity with the same fervour I used to seek magic portals. I found my own magic doorway in a litre of cheap cider and a couple of hours spent out of my mind with a spotty boy from the year above who’d bathed in his dad’s aftershave and hadn’t read any books. I shed my childhood so completely that the next day I pictured it like a bear’s pelt discarded on the floor, moth-eaten and reduced to dust by each successive Friday night. I wondered how I looked without it. With the smell of aftershave and cigarettes clinging to my hair, a shadow would dart across my stomach, as weightless and dark as a forgotten name and I would run to the bathroom and vomit furiously.
I grew a shell. I became self-contained. Nothing could get out and nothing could get in. I could not escape myself.
The day the moths hatched, I felt the crack. I was released. I was adrift.
Ten years later and my daughter gurgles in the pram while I drink coffee on a park bench, overlooking London. We are moving away. We need to put down roots. Though I am tethered now by motherhood, by marriage, there is freedom in no longer just having to worry about myself. My daughter’s breath is lighter than the flap of a moth’s wing, her grasp more urgent than their porchlight dance.
A few years on and, yes, some days I am made dizzy by the oestrogenic hum, the clutter-strewn labyrinth of the homestead, but the moths disappeared long ago. We live by the sea now. Early in the morning I keep an eye on the boats. I listen to the shipping forecast. I am learning everything there is to know about celestial bodies. Yes, I am tethered. We are bound together but we are not bound to the land. I tell my daughter stories of mermaids and selkies and I point at the starless sky and I tell her if she ever gets lost, just follow the moon.
Fiona Goggin lives and works in a noisy, happy house halfway between London and the sea. She carves out tiny pockets of time to write in between looking after her two small children. She is currently writing her first novel but it is taking a while. She tweets here.