Moths in Madagascar
Winner, Adult Fiction Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest
The smell of the 15th floor of the Palisade is a wonderful mixture, at least in small doses, of a swimming pool and old flowers. Rosa was away at school during her grandmother’s 85th birthday last month, and she thinks of this as she watches her feet sink deep into the carpet with each step. The hallway is long, and she can’t help but wonder what it’s like for 50 or so families to live together like this. It strikes her as very primordial—like a bunch of cave-dwellers, she thinks. But she didn’t make that up; her dad has said it before.
Rosa rings the doorbell at 1504—a short ding, then a resonating dong, and for a moment she wonders if she’s on the wrong floor, ringing a stranger’s doorbell. “Just a second,” her grandmother says on the other side of the door. Rosa listens as her grandmother puts her energy into a “one, two, three, up” onto her feet, then slowly walks over. Recently, Rosa has had an inkling that memories and experiences must be gathered up and held for safe-keeping. She pictures butterflies mounted in boxes, labeled with the species’ name.
“Hello, my darling,” her grandmother says as she opens the door and puts a hand on each of Rosa’s cheeks, then kisses her forehead.
“Hey, Sylvia.” Rosa has recently taken to calling her grandmother by her first name. It helps close the generational gap, she once told her mom when asked about this habit.
Rosa has a lot of brown curly hair that she has only recently started to grow into, and only recently started to like. Her eyes are greenish, and her skin is tan enough that people often think she’s Sephardic or Greek or, at least one time, half Mexican. But she’s not any of those. Rosa likes the way her grandmother looks—what gravity and time have done to her body, and how winters, factories, rivers, wars and grief have shaped her face.
The wallpaper in the apartment is light blue with a renaissance motif in gold, but it is mostly covered by photographs—black and white, slowly leading into color. They are arranged in such a way that each seems to have been placed spontaneously, without any regard for those that came before or those to follow, but it looks sort of nice. Rosa stares at the wall in the living room, behind a beige sofa. She tries to come up with a name for the shape the framed pictures form together, but is at a loss. Her eyes scan the images of women in fur coats and men in black hats, then her dad as a child on the beach and her cousin playing baseball, searching for her own face. Startled, she whispers, “Wait,” as she accidentally makes eye contact with Bill Clinton, whose stately portrait is tucked in between her family members. Rosa’s grandmother adores Bill Clinton in an almost romantic way.
There are African violets and rhododendrons in small brown pots in most corners of the apartment. Rosa’s grandmother loves flowers, particularly in unexpected places. Behind the glass doors of a large, red cupboard, Rosa’s grandmother keeps her various collections, which she has amassed over the years. Among the notables are miniature books with gold writing on the spines stacked in three layers, intricate paper cutouts depicting domestic scenes, the baby teeth of her grandchildren and used bullets from the Second World War. But, of course, there are also the more ordinary: salt and pepper shakers, foreign currencies and old soda bottles. When Rosa looks at the cupboard she wonders if all the contents were gathered with the expressed purpose of building collections, or whether, with enough time, one inevitably accumulates what might later be labeled as such.
Rosa and her grandmother sit on the sofa with their backs to Bill Clinton’s face.
“So, how’s school?”
“It’s going well. You know—”
“You’ve always liked school. Your cousin, Jacob, not so much. You should talk to him. He’s not going to class, or something or other. You should call him.”
“Yeah. I will.”
Rosa’s grandmother looks her granddaughter over proudly, and says with loving envy, “You’re so beautiful. And you’re so tall, my goodness,” as she squeezes Rosa’s forearm.
“Ouch.” Rosa does think of herself as beautiful, at least in a sort of quirky way. But she never considered herself especially tall. She looks around the room and sees that some of the plants are drooping. “Sylvia, looks like you need to water some of these flowers of yours.” She gets up and walks to the kitchen, where she fills a tall glass with water. It’s just enough for the two pots in the far corner, so she shakes out the last drops, then quickly walks back to the kitchen to refill the glass.
“I like the way you water the plants,” Rosa’s grandmother says, loud enough to be heard in the kitchen. Rosa returns to the living room with a full glass of water.
“How do I water the plants?”
“You have a real sense of duty about you.”
Rosa tries to make sense of this as she leans over next to her grandmother and pours the water onto the deep green leaves and purple flowers of some thirsty African violets. She stands back up and is about to speak, but her grandmother’s eyes are drawn to a little red stream flowing from her nose. They both watch as first one, then another, bright red droplet falls onto the cream-colored carpet.
“Oh, shit,” Rosa says as she catches a few drops in her hand. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. It’s nothing.” Rosa’s grandmother starts to get ready to stand up. “Let me get you something for that.”
Rosa tilts her head back and pinches the bridge of her nose, which she has heard you are supposed to do at a time like this. Some of the blood slips into her mouth, and she’s surprised that she doesn’t really mind the taste. She licks more blood off of her upper lip and imagines herself as a savage in a jungle somewhere. She decides against drawing two stripes with blood under each eye, at first liking the idea, but then deciding she does not want to worry her grandmother, who would say she was acting crazy. Instead, she offers her grandmother her arm and counts to three.
In Minsk, in the autumn of 1936, Sylvia and her friend, Esther, walk to the Kurapaty forest to pick wild raspberries. It’s Saturday, so according to Jewish law they are not allowed to pick them by hand. Instead, they bite them right off the bushes. They spot the clusters of red, and with their hands behind their backs, they close their eyes and push their faces past little branches to get to the fruit. They get nicked and scraped, but even when the raspberry juice seeps in and begins to sting, they don’t really mind.
A Russian soldier comes by Sylvia’s house. He waits outside while Sylvia’s mother boils him a potato, as is expected when a soldier shows up at your door. Sylvia’s father enters the kitchen and, having grown tired of the Russian soldiers coming by, and feeling hungry himself, he takes the potato as soon as it is ready. The soldier walks inside and is about to ask what is taking so long, when he sees Sylvia’s father eating the potato. Sylvia walks in the door at that very moment, her face covered in red berry juice. She closes her eyes as the soldier whacks her father on the head with the butt of his rifle.
Rosa’s grandmother looks over the shoulder of her granddaughter, who is washing her hands and wiping her nose clean with a wet paper towel. A small painting of a hummingbird on the wall reminds Rosa of something she read about the other day.
“Hey, Sylvia, did you know that in Madagascar there’s this moth that—”
“I’m sorry, there’s this what?”
“There’s this moth. In Madagascar. And it has this extremely long tongue with little hairs on the end.”
“That’s disgusting. Why would you tell me—”
“But wait. So it has this tongue. And at night, with this tongue, it flies up to birds as they’re sleeping and drinks their tears. Just slurps them up.”
Rosa likes the more whimsical side of nature. She also likes to impress people with facts and information, and she’s pleased by her grandmother’s reaction. But her grandmother, who is imagining thousands of birds weeping through the night, is overwhelmed by sadness and has to sit down.
There are moments during their visits when Rosa’s grandmother shows her age. She asks the same question a few times, or forgets that Rosa’s in college, not high school; or a thought that started out whole in her mind passes through her mouth in disorganized fragments. Rosa sometimes likes to think, though, that what might seem like confusion or misunderstanding on the surface is, in fact, a profound, and even poetic, expression of wisdom. A piece of secret knowledge waiting to be decoded.
“I just wonder,” her grandmother says, “what’s upsetting them in the first place.”
Sylvia lies down on the snow-covered grass in the East River park early in the winter of 1938. She looks up with her mouth open, and flakes float down on her as she watches the smoke from the new automobile factory on the Brooklyn side of the water rise and swirl and then become indistinguishable from the clouds. Her brown wool is damp.
Her mother told her earlier that day that in Germany all Jewish families had to give up their pets, because Jews, the government said, torture animals. There were posters to illustrate the point. Sylvia thinks of Chaim, a boy she had known in Minsk, who walked his father’s cattle in and out of the Kurapaty forest every day except for Saturdays. One day the snow was so heavy that he could no longer tell which direction would take him home. At first, he tried to lead the cows in the wrong direction, but they wouldn’t follow. He urged them on, calling them, but they were confused and started to snort, and shake, and buck. Then they ran, trampling Chaim, all the way back home, leaving him by himself in the forest.
When Chaim’s family saw the cows return without him, they gathered together a group of men from their neighborhood, including Sylvia’s father, and went looking for him in the forest. They found him lying on the ground with dried blood under his nose and around his mouth, and splotches of dark red on the snow next to him. They helped him up into a wagon, one leg broken and his stomach in pain. He spent the rest of his life in bed. Chaim told Sylvia, when she came to visit, that he kept having the same dream. He was back on the ground in the forest with a bloodied face, his body aching. But the cows, instead of running away, stood over him. Sylvia asked him what they were doing, and Chaim said it was hard to tell, but it looked to him like they were mourning.
Rosa and her grandmother walk over to the balcony, arm in arm. Rosa slides open the glass door and can feel the warm breeze and the sun. They step out, closing the door behind them. Both lean on the railing, one to touch the wind and peer out over the edge at the street below, the other for balance. On this side of the building, Rosa sees, they are the only ones enjoying the view. From the balcony they can see the woolly tops of trees from the nearby forest, with a couple of church peaks sticking out here and there. Rosa looks at the Metro station off to the right and she can just barely make out people coming and going. But she quickly turns back to the forest now because she notices hundreds, no, thousands of white puffs floating up out of the trees. They’re everywhere. Rosa turns to her grandmother to point this out. “Sylvia, there’s…,” she starts, but realizes her grandmother is already staring at these things, some of which are hovering and bobbing in front of her face. One lands on top of her grandmother’s thin, curled hair. Rosa picks it out, then displays the feathery little tuft in her hand.
“What are these things? Seeds or something?”
“Or little animals, maybe. Hairy bugs.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Seeds, I think. They’re everywhere.” She admires it and considers the miraculous notion that this wisp of silky strands traveled all the way up to the 15th floor. Then she blows it out of her hand and watches it drift off. Far away in the distance a plane flies in a broad arc, and its contrail hangs in the air. The seeds keep moving up and up, out of the trees.
“One sec,” Rosa says, then slides open the glass door and walks back inside. A few seeds glide in behind her. She reaches into a basket of newspapers and magazines and pulls out a section of the Post: “Ted Sampley, Rabble-Rouser, Dead at 62,” “Thoroughbred Jockey, 77, Dies,” and “Millvina Dean, Last Living Survivor of the Titanic Tragedy, Has Died.” Rosa reads these and pauses. Then she folds, creases and pinches the sheet into a paper airplane and hurries back outside. Now it seems like there are even more seeds in the air, floating around, all climbing upward. Everything moving upward.
In 1928, in Minsk, Sylvia walks into the bathroom and almost immediately begins to cry. There is a large carp swimming around, back and forth, in the bathtub. It is red and white, with big, bulging eyeballs. What Sylvia is too young to know at the time is that almost every Friday afternoon her mother buys a carp at the store, walks quickly back to their house with the fish wrapped in newspaper, then drops it into the bathtub, which has already been filled about two-thirds of the way with cold water.
At about 4 o’clock, when Sylvia’s father comes home from work, he will wrestle the fish out of the tub, place it on the kitchen counter with its tail still smacking up and down, and give it one good whack over the head with a wooden cutting board. The tail will stop smacking, and Sylvia’s mother will prepare the fish for dinner.
But Sylvia is too young to know this, and so she is scared, fascinated and confused by the sea creature swimming in the same place where she normally takes her baths. Was this supposed to happen? Did it come through the drain? Should she tell someone about this? She carefully puts her hands on the edge of the tub and leans over to see the fish travel back and forth, so smoothly, beneath layers of ripples spreading out over the surface. Sylvia, feeling a bit more brave now, quickly dips one finger into the water and watches as bubbles float out of the fish’s mouth.
Rosa shows the paper airplane to her grandmother. “Fancy,” she says, pointing to the little flaps folded into both sides of the back of the plane.
Rosa pulls the plane back behind her head. She licks her left pointer finger and pretends to test the wind. Then she takes a big step and flings the plane as hard as she can out over the edge. “You’re so funny,” Rosa’s grandmother says as they watch it dip down against the seeds, pull up, then descend smoothly back and forth, back and forth.
“Moths in Madagascar” combines a brave lyrical sweep with a close attention to detail. Filled with images that look like magical realism, but are grounded in truth and history, the story suggests that the world, however dark at times, is also a place of poetry.
Max Zuckerman, a Chevy Chase resident, just completed his senior year at Washington University in St. Louis, where he majored in anthropology. His story, based loosely on his grandmother’s experiences, was originally composed for a creative writing class.