There is a game that Faysa and her sisters Lailah and Rania used to play as children, when the moon hung low in the sky, and the northeastern air was incensed with the smell of crushed pine needles and fresh rain. They would dodge moths and catch fireflies, behind the house that floats in a fog; it feigns invisibility and disappears momentarily like a caterpillar transforming inside of its cocoon. The caterpillar grows and develops as it sleeps deep behind the veil of time. And when it emerges, all of nature is witness to the majesty of its strange metamorphosis. It gracefully hovers in the air, spreading its wings as an embodiment of hope, wonder and renewal. Like a cocoon, the girls’ house, which seemed to be eternally enshrouded in a dream-like fog, was a safe haven; a place of refuge, where Faysa and her sisters would enter, after school, and then at the end of the day, reemerge with all of the beauty and celebration of a flurry of butterflies; the most captivating and enchanting to ever exist.
As children the sisters would spend their evenings chasing and collecting fireflies in glass jars. The small jars would sit on their desks inside of their shared bedroom at home, full of glowing, pulsating little orbs of light. These little creatures would brighten up their otherwise dim room, in the evenings. Faysa and her sisters would name each one, and make up silly stories about their lives. They pretended that the fireflies had travelled a long distance from an undiscovered land of tiny paris, or fairies (in Urdu). The girls believed that when a fairy would die, its soul would escape its body and transform into a firefly. Each jar then carried the souls of various fairies, and before bed, they would always say goodbye to each one and then release them back into the night.
A generation ago, and miles away in Pakistan, Faysa’s father and his sister Nafeesah used to catch fireflies with nothing but her silk dupatta (sheer head covering) used as a makeshift net. She would gallantly take off her dupatta, and then ecstatically hold it above her head, and her brother’s head, eager to collect the pulsating fireflies. When they were caught, she would then victoriously hold up bundles of them in her dupatta as they played with them beneath the moonlight. The fireflies would glow luminous and strong behind the thin transparency of her cloth. They would then use the light emitted by the friendly insects to guide them on their way back home, and when they reached home, they would always release the fireflies back into the night. They wondered out loud where the tiny beings would go during the day, and where they came from in the evening, when the moon started to show its round face in the sky. In Pakistan, late at night, the pitch black jungle would light up with swarms of fireflies, a strange spectacle, but a natural phenomenon; millions of them instantaneously lighting up, making the night seem like day.
Who controls them? Faysa wondered. All of them lit up in synchronicity and at the same time. It was a glittering and marvelous display, second only to the dance of the moth and its beloved flame.
Once Faysa reluctantly shared a single dorm room with a moth, at an art school in Brooklyn. One night, it entered swiftly through an open window, but then disappeared behind a heavy wardrobe. She could hear its wings beating in a mad frenzy, and the nervous scratching noises it would make, but over some time, it remained unseen. All she had to do was imagine what it looked like. Its scuttling noises and its very unnerving presence deeply unsettled her. She loved fireflies and butterflies, but there was something very insidious and menacing about moths, and her sisters used to tease her mercilessly over her irrational fears, as she would try to avoid many of them outside of their house, at night. She remembered how afraid she was of moths; their jittery antennae, their six hairy legs and their large gray, furry bodies segmented into three parts — the head, thorax and abdomen. Their compound eyes seemed horrifically vacuous to her; so much so that she firmly believed that if she was ever unlucky enough to stare into a moth’s eyes, she would most certainly lose her soul to it.
After some time passed, and the moth still remained hidden in the room, behind the wardrobe, Faysa acknowledged that she didn’t know what to do. It wouldn’t leave. It seemed attached to the room. Or attached to her, like a ghost. She wondered whether it was, in truth, the physical embodiment of a spirit of her past, present or future, which had been summoned by God to haunt her as punishment for her sins. Perhaps it was sent by some malevolent force to torture her for all of the bad things she could have ever done. Something deep inside of her, that felt very primal, rose up hot and vicious, like a growl issuing from her throat. This feeling turned into a real indication that either she or the moth had to go. It was as if the fluttering wings of this moth had become like the urgent and frenzied beating of a loudly throbbing tell-tale heart; it had turned into something furiously foreboding and seeking retribution; but, retribution for what? It was now a symbol of something troubling, which would either remain forever unrevealed; or cause within her what had started to feel like impending insanity. So, without missing a beat, she promptly packed up all of her belongings and insisted to the dormitory’s residence office that she be moved to a different room, claiming that the previous one was “haunted.”
On the Day of Judgment will there be a jury of moths trying me for all of my invisible crimes, she thought. Outside the rain was flooding an ant hill. And a mass exodus of ants escaped through small cracks and crevices in the sidewalk, gravel and dirt.
The moth is a reckless creature. It flies into the flame like a blind man jumping into a bottomless ocean. It disintegrates into ash when it crosses the line. What is the reason for its attraction to the flame? Is there a paradise, which no one else knows about, in becoming one with the flame? Is heaven itself conjured by the act of being scorched by a bright white heat? Faysa’s mother once sat on a moth. It was flattened as if it had been caught in between the heavy pages of a very dense book. When her mother turned around, unbeknownst to her, it was stuck to her bottom, and Faysa wondered what its afterlife would be like. Did it go straight to heaven, or was it ushered to a limbo full of spirit moths, relegated to dancing in the invisible shadows of the night?
There is a repulsive beauty in the face of a moth. It stares at one as if it has always existed and will always exist; unashamed, like children who used to play, behind the house that floats in a fog.
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Originally published at medium.com