The Moth in the Stair
Etta Boone stepped onto her back porch to the sound of voices from the neighboring hillside. Being unaccustomed to human noises so early, she cupped her hands around her coffee mug and strained to hear the spirited conversation through the morning mist. A line of trees in her backyard, a mix of evergreen and deciduous species thick with late spring foliage blocked her view, and she couldn’t imagine who might be arguing on that particular hillside at this hour of the morning. Earlier, she’d heard Tim Martz drive out for work, and it would be a half hour before the Martz kids clamored down the road toward the turnaround where the schoolbus would pick them up. It would be especially unusual, she thought, for it to be the Smiths who lived a little further on down the holler.
Surely they were arguing, louder now, whoever they were, and she leaned over her wood porch rail, tugging at the sounds with her ears, willing them to make sense. Was that an “at?” Was there a “Jack?” Did she know any Jacks?
The flock of geese burst out low over the treetops in front of her like a honking blitzkrieg come in under the radar. Etta flinched, spilling coffee as she stepped back, inhaling harshly as if in imitation of the barking mallards flying low above her.
Recovering her wits, she watched the last of the V fly past overhead and listened to the argument fade away on the other side of the house.
Startled by ducks. She shook her head as her breathing slowed.
Still she found herself cocking an ear toward the hillside. She’d been so certain it was bickering. Now there was nothing but the morning birds, the occasional buzz of an early fly, and the wispy cotton sound of the fog creeping slowly across the yard, whispering the world to sleep for just a little bit longer.
She walked to the far end of the porch, opened the wooden bin that was secured to the railing and, using a plastic flour scoop, shoveled bird seed from the bag inside to the feeder that hung on a shepherd’s hook planted just outside her kitchen window. When she finished, she sat down in the camping chair that she’d bought at Walmart and waited for the chickadee who always braved her presence first. She used to sit on the swing in the mornings, but these days it was just too hard for her bony behind, even with the cushion. The camping chair was a little harder to extricate herself from, but for her morning coffee she preferred the comfort. And what was coffee for, if not for getting out of chairs?
This was Etta’s time of the day, when the world belonged to her alone, and sometimes she would sit out here in the early hours and watch the ghosts of children play, ducking in and out of the grape arbor, swinging on the tire that no longer hung from a high branch on the walnut tree down near the garage. For years a fragment of the rope, knotted and frayed, had clung to the branch, strands dancing in the breeze, but now even that was gone. Often she would sip her brew and remember Frank, working in the garden or emerging from the garage, in either case dirty, and ready to be intercepted before he tracked up her clean floors.
Today her thoughts remained fixed on the geese. How was it that some things could just turn into something else, all of a sudden, just like that? The morning felt askew and the water fowl put her in mind of her drive to Trevelton just the day before, to deposit her Social Security check and pay her property taxes. Driving past the first dwellings at the edge of town, she had stepped on the brakes to avoid a scurrying chipmunk, only to see it change into a leaf, pushed along the road by the wind. The driver behind her laid on his horn.
At the courthouse, an out-of-order sign hung on the elevator. Etta braced herself and climbed the stairs to the third floor tax office, stopping briefly at each landing to recover. On the second floor landing she saw the most beautiful gray moth, motionless and flattened to the stair like a perfectly mounted and framed butterfly. She leaned down for a better look but it receded into the pattern of the marble as she drew close.
Thinking now about the three occurrences together, it seemed to her a disturbing pattern, an omen of the sort her Granny Prescott had spoken when she was a child. “A sparrow in the house is death,” she said. Things could change on you just like that, into other, terrible things. She flailed for a better thought. Maybe God was speaking to her. Maybe He was showing her that it was possible to become something else, that maybe you could do it all over again differently.
She thought a lot about doing things over.
Etta hauled the step-stool from the pantry and set it up in front of her sink, careful to straddle the soft spot in the kitchen floor where the board needed replaced. She climbed to the top step, hanging onto the aluminum handle for support. Thursdays were cabinet dusting days and from her hunched stance, she extended the elongated feather duster to the top of the painted cabinets and began dragging it across the top, one hand preserving her fragile balance.
Sunday was the Lord’s Day, though she didn’t know what that meant anymore. Maybe she had never really known, but it’s what she’d been taught growing up and the idea stuck, stubborn as thistle.
The days all had their chores, a promise she had made to herself when Frank had passed on ten years ago. Mondays were for tending to the outside. Tuesdays she dusted the living room and dining room, regularly pulling out the china, wiping it, and replacing it in the cabinet. Wednesdays she changed linens and dusted the connected upstairs bedrooms. Fridays were for sweeping and vacuuming, and Saturday was for the wash. But Thursdays were for the cabinets and the refrigerator and the old baking cupboard with its trinkets. She stretched perilously from the top of the stool to reach the ends of the cupboards, her “dance with disaster,” she called it, when she had a mind to talk out loud to the spirits of the house.
There were no chores on Sunday. Sunday was the Lord’s Day, though she didn’t know what that meant anymore. Maybe she had never really known, but it’s what she’d been taught growing up and the idea stuck, stubborn as thistle.
It was at a church social in 1951 that Franklin Boone had first asked Etta to dance and she had first found his crooked nose cute. She was so fascinated by how his large hands enveloped hers completely, captivated by their immensity on the small of her back. The year before he had dropped out of school to work as a mechanic for Chickasaw Logging and she had forgotten about him until that night.
She wondered what might have happened had she waited on Terrence Rivers, the dark, attractive boy she’d been set on back then. He never approached her to dance, but she had been hoping he would until Franklin had swept her from her seat. Terrence moved away from Dogleg Bend after high school and she never heard tell of him again.
She married Franklin a year later, they bought their little house, Frank built his garage and started his business, then along came Donny, and everything seemed fine. But sometimes chipmunks changed into lifeless leaves, tossed by the wind.
Etta stepped down and moved the step-ladder to the baking cabinet. She wondered where Terrence Rivers ended up and if he was still alive. In what exotic places might she have lived? What normal family might she have had?
Robin Martz stopped by around two thirty, long after Etta had finished her chores and eaten a tomato sandwich. Etta put on another pot of coffee and the two sat in her kitchen, watching the birds at her feeder.
“Etta, it worries me, you going up and down those stairs in there all the time. You ever thought of getting one of those chair lifts?”
“Oh honey, I could never afford something like that. I’m fine. Those stairs ain’t beat me yet.”
“Still though,” said Robin, “you over here all by yourself with no one to look after you.”
“Well, I got you, now don’t I?” Etta patted Robin’s hand and smiled.
Etta counted young Robin and her husband Tim to be her only friends in the world. They’d moved here a couple years before from Ohio with their two kids when Tim got a drilling job with Appalachian Gas and Oil. Robin came over to introduce herself and they hit it off, two women who both needed someone to talk to. The idea of being old and alone stunned Robin. She’d quizzed Etta about the family picture on her hutch, but short of learning that both the husband and son were deceased, she could never get any real information out of her and there were no other pictures to compare it to. All Etta ever said was, “I ain’t got no family no more. It don’t matter the why or how or wherefore.”
In no time at all, Robin and her husband became a help to her. Twice, they’d even driven her over to Trevelton and taken her out to dinner with their family.
“Oh, what a beautiful cardinal,” Robin said, eyes toward the window.
“They’s beautiful birds, alright,” said Etta. She sighed, almost imperceptibly. “Seems a fine thing to fly around and make the world a prettier place.”
Robin admired her, once again trying to fathom the pain behind the old woman’s eyes as Etta smiled at the bird, distant.
“Oh shoot, Etta, I can’t put this off. I gotta ask you a huge favor.”
Etta laughed. “Well then I expect you better ask then! What is it, sweetie?”
“Truth is, Robby waited until last night before giving me a note from school about an end-of-the-year bake sale.”
“You want I should make ya some of my cookies?”
“Oh, would you? Anything! Whatever is easiest for you. You’re such a marvelous baker. You remember how those women ridiculed my baking. I’m still ostracized. I swear, you’d think I was the new kid in school.”
Robin grimaced when she admitted that she needed them the next day and offered any help she could give. When she left, Etta could still hear her question echoing.
“Are you sure?”
Later, stirring her soup on the stove, she thought fondly of Robin and her family and how they made her feel like the grandmother she’d never gotten to be. Etta set the spoon down and glanced up through the sheer curtain on the kitchen door toward the Martz home, only the top of which was visible from here. Her breath hitched in her throat as smoke roiled and billowed over their roof. Etta ran for the door, pushed aside the curtain, and the rolling smoke turned into gray slate roofing tile, obscured by a shaggy pine bough bouncing in the wind.
She had already sifted the flour and sugar when she discovered she was nearly out of vanilla extract. It wouldn’t do to call Robin who would surely have none. Etta looked out the window at the fading day. She hated to drive after nightfall, but if she left immediately she might have time. Etta gathered her pocketbook and umbrella. The wind was still blowing and the weatherman had said storms were moving in. Locking her door, she walked to the drive and started her old station wagon, turning it onto Tanners Road, a one-lane road pretending to be a two-lane road, like so many in West Virginia. After a few miles, she turned left onto Jackson Road, marginally better.
It was the turn onto Route Twelve she dreaded. The coal trucks were merciless. Luckily there were none in sight when she turned left toward the Walmart, still another seven miles up the road. Already she could see she wouldn’t make it back before dark.
Storm clouds rolled in over the hills, bringing a violent darkness. The clouds were the color of bruised sky, streaked like a tornado that was rolling instead of dancing. It would be a toad strangler as Papa used to say, like the one in 1984, the night after Donny drove the bus off one of the high turns on Kevin’s Way.
She remembered the night Donny was conceived, Franklin sneaking into bed freshly showered, gently slipping his giant hands around her and pulling her close. She’d known earlier that it was coming from the life in his eye. The memory slipped like a dream to Donny as an infant, and then dissolved into his toddler image trying to walk in his father’s boots that fit him like hip waders floating downstream to his first day of school, his Lone Ranger costume, that time he’d been allowed to row the boat merrily out onto the lake, the time Franklin had handed him the keys and said, “It’s yours,” and then plummeting like a cascading waterfall to the night his father first beat him for drinking. But that’s where it often ended.
She hated this road.
In her rear view, the overly zealous truck driver could not be seen, only his massive grill, ornamented with beast fangs and belligerent headlights. It would be this way for the next several miles, but she was afraid to go any faster.
She loved Franklin dearly, adored making love to him, but she wished she’d never let him touch her that night.
As she pulled into the Walmart, the coal truck made a show of passing her, and by the time she left the maze-like structure, darkness was upon her world, the first thick drops of rain spattering the pavement.
The worst of the storm didn’t hit until she made it safely off of Route Twelve back onto Jackson Road, four miles or so from home. The lightning birthed stark and fleeting shadows, beings given two, maybe three, flashes of existence in the negative world, long enough to witness Etta creeping by, bent over the wheel, trying to see through the glare and the liquid thick upon her windshield which was agitated only by two rubber strips ineffectively flipping back and forth.
The deer poked its head out into the road just as she was about to pass it, her headlamps already too far in front to set the creature’s eyes aglow with the country driver’s warning light. It startled her and she turned to see it looking at her through the watery passenger window as she drove by. Too slowly she applied the brake in fear of others. She came near to a dead stop before looking into her mirror to find that the deer had turned into a mailbox, a mailbox she’d passed a million times.
The eyes, though. The eyes still preoccupied her.
At home, as she baked, she thought about them, beautiful dark globes, lashes holding water at their tips. She could have sworn they blinked at her as she drove past. She could have sworn it was chewing, its lower jaw moving side to side. It was a deer, if only for a moment.
The smoke, the deer, the voices from the hillside, the chipmunk, and the moth, such a beautiful thing. Were they all real for just a moment? The question preoccupied her to the point that she almost burned her first batch of cookies. She laid them on wax paper to cool and then arranged them in a Tupperware box that held four dozen or so. As the layers grew, she separated them with wax paper. She set to filling it. She’d forgotten the purpose for her baking and wanted as many kids to get a cookie as possible.
Only one child remained on the bus with Donny when it went over the side of the mountain. She too was killed.
Perhaps it was a world coming into being just for her, where a beautiful gray moth with opaque and delicately veined wings would rise up out of the marble, alight on the tip of her fingers and she would be able to start anew.
It was the next day that the storm had blown in, the police came to talk with Frank and Etta and the long, slow change began. When told about the girl’s state of dress, Etta responded with, “Well, I’m sorry but I just can’t believe our Donnie had anything to do with that.” She didn’t want to accept any of the speculation and neither did Frank, even as the knowledge spread and Frank’s business dried up and they quit going to a church filled with hypocrites.
And now, she thought, waiting for the cookie timer, the Lord is showing me a different world. Perhaps it was a world coming into being just for her, where a beautiful gray moth with opaque and delicately veined wings would rise up out of the marble, alight on the tip of her fingers and she would be able to start anew.
By the time she loaded the last of the cookies into the Tupperware, it was past eleven thirty. She made her way up the stairs to Donny’s old bedroom, long since purged of any trace of him. The storm had moved on but occasional flashes of far-flung blue light filled the darkened rooms. Passing through his room, the lightning flared once more and there he stood in the corner. “I’m sorry Mama, so sorry.” Then he morphed into the silhouette of a lamp.
In bed, sleep overtook Etta briefly, but only long enough to see the little girl standing there, undergarments held at her side, saying, “He is sorry. He was then too.” It brought her to full wakefulness. She arose in turmoil. Some strange vitality had seized her as surely as a cold winter wind. She could feel the mystery of her existence pressing in around her. Etta teetered at the edge of the steps before descending slowly to the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of milk and stared out the window into the dripping darkness.
“No ghosts,” she said, gazing until the darkness itself began to change and she understood it was about to transform into something else, something made of light.
A trembling haze enveloped the kitchen yet Etta didn’t feel dizzy. Everything emanated waves of energy like heat, even the space between things. She felt it was all about to burst, to reveal the world as it was supposed to be. She readied herself for the chance to begin a new life, God willing. The room began to spread out around her, the floor fell out from below her, the ceiling receded into the heights, and Etta was floating free, her moment come at last.
Robin Martz came over in the morning for the cookies. Etta sometimes missed her knock, so she let herself in with the key under the spider plant and called out to her. Thinking she must be on the back porch, she walked on through the dining room, past the antique hutch that she loved so much, past the picture.
The first thing she saw as she approached the kitchen was the Tupperware container on the table filled, bless that woman’s heart. Then she turned to what seemed to be a pile of rags in the corner. Etta.
She rushed over to check for a pulse but Etta was cold and beginning to stiffen. A wide smile remained on Etta’s face and her eyes were open with expectation. Robin reached out and gently shut Etta’s eyelids. They began to slowly open when she removed her hand and she held them closed again until they stayed. Robin cried, partly for the loss of her only real friend, partly because she never really knew the woman, and partly because she knew that there was no one else to weep. After a few minutes, she called 911.
When she hung up she turned to see the cookies sitting there. It felt wrong to take them now, a violation somehow. Then again, the last thing the woman had done was a favor for her. It also felt wrong to let that gesture go for nothing.
The paramedic said it was probably a stroke. Robin couldn’t watch when they moved Etta’s body onto the gurney. She looked away and out the window at the bird feeder. Despite being nearly empty of seed, several species of small birds crowded the perch and occasionally a millet hull would pop up into the air and fly over their heads. She remembered hearing that birds came to rely on feeders and could die if you stopped putting out food. Maybe Etta had told her that. She wondered if she should start feeding them, if that could be one way of remembering her friend.
When the paramedics had finished, she signed the form and told them she knew of no living relatives. The cute one put his hand on her shoulder, told her he was sorry, and gave her a sympathetic wink. She insisted they take the cookies.
Robin was reluctant to leave the house, even after they were gone. It was as if to leave, to close that door one last time, would shut the door on the woman’s entire existence. She decided to take a last look around, periodically touching items, her mouth drawing tight and wide, squeezing a few more silent tears as she contemplated lonely oblivion. She stopped in front of the picture of Etta, her husband, and the little boy. It was the only one that she’d ever seen and she’d never found out what happened to them.
Back in the kitchen she saw a cardinal at the feeder. It reminded her of a small porcelain cardinal figurine that sat in the baking cabinet. Barely an inch high, Robin recalled the day that Etta had pulled it from a box of teabags, so surprised and pleased. “It’s the West Virginia state bird, you know,” she had said. Now, Robin walked over, opened the glass door at the top of the cabinet, and took the figurine, putting it in her pocket. It would go in her kitchen window to remind her.
She walked back to Etta’s kitchen window to see if she could get a better look at the cardinal eating from the feeder. As she leaned over the sink he suddenly cocked his head and turned his eye toward her. Robin took a step backward, turning away, startled.
The bird, also startled, flew to the branches of a Catawba tree filled with small, white blooms in Etta’s back yard. Summer was coming on and the sun had long since dried up the rain from the night before, leaving a fresh, green scent that pulled the plants from the ground and prompted the cardinal to puff out his chest, ruffle his feathers and sing. He was a striking bird, bright red, every feather of his wings tipped in black. His tufted crown rose in a gracefully curved triangle and his symmetrical mask, the blackest black, gave him the air of royalty.
The cardinal was the father of four generations of offspring. For his entire adult life this place had been his domain. Some months back, in the last throes of winter, his mate had died.
And now something else had changed. Something was missing beyond the seed, some vital energy. He knew there would be no more food in the same way that animals flee long before the tsunami and the forest falls silent before the earth erupts. His time here was finished.
The cardinal flew from the Catawba into the face of an oncoming gust of wind, a straggler from the night before that lifted him up above the top of the house where he could see a woman walking down the road. He flew out over the treetops that marked his territory and, bolstered by a sudden buoyancy, let himself be lifted even higher until the knobby green mountains lay spread out before him.
The bird flattened his crown and climbed, a tiny red speck in the blue, intruding upon the realm of the hawks and buzzards and pushing further upward. The cardinal did not ask himself why he did this. For all of his three years, he only ever did what the moment required of him, acting on deep instinct and awareness. His small lungs, not made for these heights, struggled to take in oxygen as he penetrated a cloud.
Beating his wings with all his strength, the cardinal punched through the other side, back into blue sky, climbing, ever climbing, until in a sudden explosion of brilliant red, gold, and white light, he discovered he was not a cardinal at all.
C.M. Chapman has appeared in Cheat River Review, Limestone, Dark Mountain, and the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He is the author of the chapbook, Music and Blood, from Latham House Press (2017), and was a finalist in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award for fiction, judged by Joyce Carol Oates. He is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he serves as the McKinney Teaching Fellow for 2016-17.