In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Tracy Fells’s ‘The Naming of Moths’ is the winning entry from Canada and Europe.
‘He is my son, I created him.’ Miss Bethan’s words fall softly, like a blessing.
Sofia leans closer to hear the old lady, her long black hair falling against Miss Bethan’s nightdress. A noise scratches from inside the pleated shade of the bedside lamp, where a moth has become trapped. She cups it quickly within her palms, ignoring the heat of the bulb.
‘Let me see,’ Adam calls out. He has been sitting at his mother’s bedside since midday, never once leaving her. His eyes shine. He wants to name the moth.
Sofia lets him peep into her hands. The moth has distinctive markings, black bands stretched across crimson wings. A common species for the time of year, though usually found during the day.
‘Cinnabar.’ He names it correctly, grinning with pride. Adam remembers every moth, even the ones Sofia has only described from memory. He can learn, she thinks, despite what his uncles say – the same uncles who gather in Miss Bethan’s house, waiting for the old lady to die.
Sofia lets the moth escape into the garden, then shuts the window, clicking the latch tight. ‘Did you open the window, Adam?’
He shakes his head. Adam does not lie.
‘I opened it.’ A woman’s voice answers, sharp as lemons. One of the uncles’ wives has joined them upstairs. A woman with dark eyes and the shadow of a moustache framing her top lip, hair tightly combed back from her face. She drapes a towel over the mirror on the dressing table. ‘It stinks in here.’ The woman pinches her nose – an unnecessary mime – then is gone again.
Miss Bethan is incontinent and the July air is humid. Sofia no longer worries about how life smells, if she breathes in too deeply all she tastes is ash. Miss Bethan’s milky-blue eyes no longer see, but they open at the sound of an unfamiliar voice.
‘Sofia,’ Miss Bethan begins slowly, ‘I would like to talk with you. Alone.’ Her breath struggles like the last flames of a dying fire.
Sofia understands it won’t be too much longer and gently nudges Adam. ‘Your mother needs to rest now. Kiss her goodnight, then wait for me in the garden.’
Adam doesn’t move from his chair.
Miss Bethan quietly repeats Sofia’s request and Adam stands. He kisses his mother’s cheek then shuffles to the door, stooping so as not to bang his head. Once the boy has left, Sofia sweeps the soil from the chair to sit beside her employer. It takes some minutes for Miss Bethan to recover enough strength to continue.
She asks Sofia to do a terrible thing. Something a mother should never ask.
Sofia sits on the bed, takes Miss Bethan’s hand. A blue vein pulses through the old lady’s skin, which ripples over prominent bones. Her palm is cool and dry. Miss Bethan’s husband, Isaac Whiteman, had long since passed when Sofia first came to live with her. Sofia believed her English was good and that would secure her employment. Her thesis tutor, Professor Assaf, had always encouraged her to read and discuss the latest journals in English. Twisting his ghost-white moustache, brown eyes serious for once, he even proposed she submit a paper based on her doctoral research to Nature. Entomology was her field, Lepidoptera – moths her speciality. He encouraged her to consider the UK, which he assured her would be welcoming. They’d invite her to teach at one of the prestigious universities, and she could continue her research there.
In reality her English was only considered good enough to cook and clean for an old woman. Sofia was just another immigrant whose qualifications earned scant respect without the references and paperwork to support her claims. Ultimately, she had waited too long to act on Professor Assaf’s proposal, misjudged the escalation of events, and left it too late for his endorsement. Realising this, Sofia gratefully accepted Miss Bethan’s offer of a room, along with the role of unpaid housekeeper and carer. Adam still lived with his mother and Sofia quickly understood he couldn’t look after her alone. Over six foot tall and broad as a doorway, with mud-brown hair and eyes to match, he looked only a few years younger than Sofia – even though by twenty-nine Sofia had lived hard enough to look twice her age. Despite his size Adam was like a child, an innocent in a world he barely knew or understood.
Miss Bethan’s eyes are wide and staring, her voice shakes as she begins: ‘I was so lonely after Isaac. I summoned Adam, but out of love, you understand.’ The old lady’s words echo with shame. Was she seeking Sofia’s forgiveness? Surely, only Miss Bethan’s God could grant that? She continues, telling how she breathed life into Adam. How she created her son. Her story was incredible, but Sophia had seen so much wickedness out there, beyond Miss Bethan’s net curtains and best china. There must be a balance: Adam was that balance.
One of the uncles arrives to relieve Sofia. Miss Bethan is silent, eyes closed as if she is sleeping. He grinds his foot into the carpet. ‘That dumb lump leaves dirt all over the house. How can you stand it?’ The man is talking to Sofia. His overlong silver hair makes her think of a wolf. She squeezes past, but he grabs hold of her arm and doesn’t let go. He makes Sofia take an envelope, stuffed with cash.
He doesn’t look at her, mumbles instead at the carpet. ‘Tomorrow we’ll take her from here. I’m sorry, but there is no longer a job for you.’ He swallows quickly, as if this helps to get it over with. ‘We are grateful for all you’ve done. This should help you, while you find something else.’
He means, ‘Find somewhere else to live.’ Sofia has lived with the old lady for almost two years, ever since she first arrived in England. Miss Bethan’s garden is fragrant with shrubs and flowers attracting the nectar-hungry butterflies and bees. At dusk the bats skim the half-light for insects. The moths come later to feast in the moonlight. Each moth she discovered was named and shared with Adam. Sofia taught him how to recognise their markings. This is what she is leaving: Miss Bethan’s garden.
‘He’s not her real son, you know.’ The man’s breath is stale, tainted with the echo of his last meal. ‘She couldn’t have children, so it’s impossible. We don’t know where he came from.’
‘Adam came from the earth,’ says Sofia.
‘He’s just another waif with a sob story that Bethan fell for. He can’t stay either.’ The man seems to hiss at her. ‘Social services can look after him. He should’ve been in care years ago. Can’t even read or write for pity’s sake.’
Sofia pulls away from his grip, tucks the handkerchief Miss Bethan gave her into the pocket of her apron. She thinks of Adam, alone in the world. Maybe Miss Bethan’s request was a kindness after all.
When Sofia hurries through the kitchen she feels them not looking at her. The waiting relatives sip coffee from Miss Bethan’s bone china, and Sophia knows that once they are outside they will talk of nothing but her face.
The door of the downstairs bathroom is open. The woman with the moustache is refreshing her lipstick in the only mirror left uncovered. She is talking loudly to nobody in particular. ‘What was Bethan thinking, bringing that sort of girl into her home? Along with that lurching creature. At least poor Isaac is no longer here to see his wife’s shame.’ She pauses, pouting her lips together like a fish, sees Sofia watching but still continues, ‘He wouldn’t have tolerated this refugee circus – not for a minute.’
Outside, Sofia closes their world behind her, breathes in the lingering scent of lavender and the Buddleia bushes, flower-heads drooping like bunches of purple grapes. Adam waves from the bottom of the narrow garden, waiting where they’ve set the moth trap. The flutter and flap of wings from the trap greets her as she approaches. Adam holds out his cupped hands to show her his prize.
‘Lime Hawk-moth,’ he says, then lets the moth fly free. From the back pocket of his jeans Adam pulls out a spiral notebook and a blue biro. ‘Do you want to write it down?’
This is their nightly ritual: the naming of moths. Sofia records each species in the notebook in careful print. Adam repeats each one, learning the new names.
‘No,’ she says softly, looking back to the house where Miss Bethan’s room is now dark. Sofia waits for the wailing to begin, the sound of grief, but the house remains still and silent. As she tugs at the buttons on Adam’s shirt, done up to his neck, her fingers shake.
‘What are you doing?’ he asks like a child.
‘I need to honour your mother.’ Sofia wipes at her eyes and struggles to pull open his shirt. How is she going to tear it with her bare hands? ‘It’s her custom. You need to rip it here, above your heart.’
Adam obeys and easily tears the fabric with his fingers. There are marks on his chest, letters written in black ink. Sofia pulls open his shirt.
‘What have you done?’ she whispers, her fingertips tracing the names that cover his skin.
Ruby Tiger. Cinnabar. Dusky Peacock. Brimstone. Rosy Footman. True Lover’s Knot.
‘Mamma helped me,’ Adam says brightly. ‘I told her the names and she wrote them . . . before she got sick.’ He rolls up his left sleeve. ‘Look, this one I had to write myself, Mamma told me how. I put it here so I could see it every day.’ Adam speaks the name as her fingers flit over his skin, ‘Hummingbird.’ He grins. ‘It’s your favourite moth.’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Because it hovers like a hummingbird.’
Sofia nods. He learnt this from her, as Adam has never seen a hummingbird. Miss Bethan didn’t keep a television or computer, not even a radio, in the house. She wanted Adam to remain an innocent.
‘I didn’t know you could read,’ Sofia says quietly.
‘I just remember the shapes and how they sound, that’s all.’ Adam rubs his arm. ‘Mamma has numbers, here on her skin. I wanted numbers too, but she said I should pick names I love. I chose all our favourites.’
‘Your mamma told me names are important.’ Sofia can see he is listening carefully as she speaks. ‘When she first came here after the war she had another name. Did you know that?’ Adam shakes his head. ‘She was sent to live in Wales with her sister. They both chose new names, believing their own sounded too foreign.’ Sofia realises he will understand little of what she is telling him, but feels he needs to learn something of Miss Bethan if she is to keep her promise.
He touches the left side of her face, where the burn scar has calmed, turning almost white. When her hair grew again she didn’t cut it, letting a mask of tangles cover her cheek and neck, but the scar tissue scalds most of her shoulder, snaking over her chest, back and arm.
The soldier had promised to help her across her the border, once she’d paid him, of course. With her sisters and mother gone, what was the point in hoarding the money she’d saved? When the truck was hit by a shell, the soldier ran abandoning Sofia and the others to the burning wreckage. She didn’t blame him. He still had a family to run home to. After the university suffered a direct attack, her research lab ground to rubble, Sofia finally accepted there was nothing left to stay for. On the day a rocket targeted the university, the fire chose to absolve her, let her slip free, while it rampaged like a rabid animal devouring both the living and the dead. It consumed the newly emerged Striped Hawk-moth larvae as they gorged on hand-picked leaves. It flamed the pupae, expectant in their glass cabinets like paper-wrapped Mummies. It burned through the Department of Zoological Sciences, including Professor Assaf’s office. All Sofia could salvage was his promise of the dreaming spires of England. That is if she could make it across the border and onto a boat.
Sofia was blasted out the rear of a truck, somehow crawling free of the inferno, her body alight like a slithering beacon.
Phoenix was another favourite moth, though disappointingly dull in its subdued camouflage colours.
‘There are more letters here,’ Adam lifts his own heavy fringe to reveal three symbols, thick and black, etched into his forehead. ‘Mamma says they were there when I was born. Can you read them?’
‘I think they are Hebrew,’ answers Sofia.
Miss Bethan had explained how the three characters spelled out ‘Truth.’ On the back of Sofia’s hand, Miss Bethan had weakly traced out the shape of the character that she was to erase. Then she pointed to the drawer where Sofia found the handkerchief. ‘Remove it and truth becomes death,’ Miss Bethan told her. ‘Adam will not feel anything. He will simply crumble into dust, cease to be.’
‘The letters – what do they say?’ Adam’s wide eyes beg. ‘Did Mamma tell you?’
Sofia pulls the crisp white handkerchief from her apron and spits on it, like her own mother used to do. ‘It is your name,’ she lies and reaches up to his face. ‘Here, let me wipe this away.’ Sofia presses the handkerchief to his mouth. ‘You have a smudge of dirt.’
Standing on tiptoe, Sofia kisses Adam on the lips. She expects him to taste of the cold, damp earth, but instead he is warm and sweet. His skin smells like Miss Bethan’s garden after spring rain.
‘Did you like that?’ she asks.
‘Yes.’ He is grinning.
‘Good.’ Sofia knows he can only tell the truth. Adam was not created to lie.
Sofia points to the blue biro. ‘Write on me.’ She pulls up the sleeve of her sweatshirt to expose the paler skin on the underside of her arm. ‘Write the name of your favourite moth.’
Adam’s tongue pokes from his mouth as he thinks on this. ‘There are too many to choose from!’ Eagerly, he presses the pen to her skin.
The letters are wobbly, messy and the K is backwards. ‘Dark Beauty,’ reads Sofia.
He shuffles his feet, fringe falling over his brown eyes. ‘You are beautiful,’ he says.
Soon she will have to explain how his mother has passed. Tell him he is free to choose his own name, if he wants to. Let him explore and learn what the world truly holds for the displaced and unwanted.
For now, she is content to name moths. ‘Go on,’ Sofia urges him, holding out both arms, ‘write as many names as you can. Every moth we’ve ever found together.’
As he writes, Adam carefully names each one.