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The Witch Moth

The Black Witch moth can grow up to 16 cm.
and is known as “La Mariposa de la Muerte.”
Encyclopedia Americana

The Black Witch moth should be seen at night when it cannot be seen because it is so black. In the daylight it is a hole in the universe, one that leads to a world where there is no light.

The first Black Witch moth I ever saw was in the sunlight of Balboa Park, when I went there for a dahlia show to keep my grandmother company—which I did often when I was ten because my grandmother’s love kept me from darkness in my family, where my mother’s spells could reach us all.

The moth flew from a hydrangea bush I had rustled with my hand, hoping something might burst from it—a lizard or butterfly perhaps. At first I didn’t understand what the darkness was. A small rubber bat on the end of a child’s string? A black handkerchief given life by a spell? Or was it just my eyes playing tricks on me, blinded by the sunlight that made the flowers so bright?

It limped through the air and disappeared into the hole it had made in the universe. My grandmother had stopped because I had. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered. I often said such things to her, but she didn’t mind. She knew that all light carried shadow and that there were things in the world—and in every family—you couldn’t see even if you had the entire sun to see them by.

“You saw something,” she said, as if she knew exactly what it was and where everything was going to end.


“I’m sure you did, but if it’s important you will see it again; and if not like this, then later, when you need it even more. Let’s go look at the dahlias now. We can come back here later if you want, if you haven’t seen it somewhere else in the park by then.”

I nodded. She was right. I would find it again if I needed to, and if not today, then sometime, in some way.

Some people who love see only the light. My grandmother saw the darkness, too, and still loved. That made me feel safe in a world where, she’d once told me, “There are more witches than even the witches know . . . ”

Because we lived on a Navy base, one that hugged the bayside of the peninsula, I took my little brother, who was six, with me when I went to the tallest piers, to their oily pilings and oily planks, which you could smell. He felt safer when we went to the floating docks, because the water was close to you. You didn’t have far to fall. But the boats there were small—patrol boats, skiffs, and a sailboat or two for the personal use of officers. We both liked the great steel ships—which could only dock at the tallest piers—and if I promised we would stay in the middle when we walked on them, Tommy could come with me. I held his hand so tight it hurt him sometimes, but I did it because I was scared for him. I didn’t want him running to the edge of the pier and falling to the water far below, which sometimes happened when I dreamed. I wouldn’t be holding his hand tight enough in the dream. He’d pull away and, screaming, run to the edge and not stop running. He’d go over, and the screaming would stop only when he hit the water. It was as if this was what someone wanted (and I knew who). To drown him. To make him go away. To make us all to go away.

Even when we walked down the very middle of the pier, he could look down and see the green, oily water far below through the narrow cracks between the planks. I’d tell him not to look, but sometimes he would, and it would stop him. He’d sit down on the planks, oily as they were, and he wouldn’t move no matter how hard I pulled. He’d start crying. “She’s going to get me, Jimmy!” he’d say. “She’s going to put me in the trash cans, or drown me.” He meant our mother, and he was right—spells can pull you through cracks—but what could we do? She was our grandmother’s daughter, and (so our grandmother said) a witch who didn’t know she was one—or didn’t want to know . . . because it was easier that way.

I thought he might start screaming, like the dreams, but he didn’t. He would instead cry in hopelessness, in the most terrible sadness I had ever heard. I’d have to pick him up and carry him a ways to get him to forget the water.

When I told our grandmother, who lived with us, how Tommy behaved on the pier, she stopped her ironing and said to me: “My little brother did the same thing. His name was Ralph. He had curly hair and died when he was six, taken away by a stranger. He was adorable, and I loved him very much. I don’t think I’ve ever told you about him, have I?”

“No, Grandma. He must have been special.”

“He was. He would get scared of falling through the cracks. He would carry on and on, sitting there on the pier and looking down through them.”

“It’s so silly, isn’t it. Grandma. To be scared like that.”

She looked at me. “No, it isn’t. Your little brother has reason to be scared. I do what I am able, but she never stops. She does it in her sleep, too. She’s just too strong.”

“I hold Tommy’s hand so hard it hurts him.”

“I know, Jimmy. You love him, but sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes they die anyway, even if you don’t want them to. Sometimes people take them away, if not in a stranger’s car then in a dream that is no dream—one you don’t know is coming . . . ”

We would go out to the end of the biggest pier, Tommy and me, because there we could look out at the whole bay and to our right and left the steel ships tied with immense ropes to metal cleats taller than I was. Sometimes a sailor would be there, one we got to know. He would be at the end of the pier looking out at the bay, too, but he would be waiting for something.

He had a rope tied to a cleat that no one used for anything. He wanted something to take what was on the end of it. The first time we met him he said: “Know what’s at the end of this rope?”

“No,” I answered.

“They shouldn’t be this huge this far into the bay, but surfers down on the Strand disappear every once in a while. You never know what’s in the sea—even in a bay.”

“I guess not,” I said.

Tommy seemed scared of the sailor, but I held his hand tight and finally he stopped pulling.

“You live in one of the quarters by the banyan tree?” the sailor asked.


“Must be nice.”

It was—except for the smells at night, and how our father cried. But I didn’t say this. I wanted him to tell us more about the rope and what was down there in the water.

He kept looking out at the bay. His hands were slick with something I’d seen on my own hands before. Fish scales and fish slime. You couldn’t fish without getting it on you, but where was his catch?

“I’ve got a tuna hook on that rope, and I put a whole mackerel on it, case you’re interested. You boys fish?”

I nodded.

“Thought so. I’ve pulled in a lot of leopards and blues out here. Eight-footers and ten-footers. Even a twelve-foot mako. There’s a four-foot steel leader. They can’t get through it—even the big ones.”

I nodded again. I didn’t know what else to do. I loved to catch things. I loved fishing, even if it smelled. It was a different odor from the one that filled the streets around our quarters at night, under the biggest banyan tree anyone had ever seen.

The next time we went, the sailor wasn’t there. It was as if he’d never been there—never existed—but I knew that wasn’t true. I knew what was real and what she could take away. I’d always known. That was why (Grandma said) she hated me so.

Tommy was frightened of how empty the end of the pier was, so we came home.

The time after that, the sailor was putting a live mackerel on a hook that was wider than our father’s hand. He let Tommy touch the hook. Tommy touched it without getting scared. He just stared at it, eyes wide, and touched it more than once.

I knew she would have put Tommy on that hook if she could, but I was watching Tommy, and my grandmother was watching me even when she wasn’t around.

The next time, the sailor was leaning over and making a sound. When we got up to him, we almost left. He was throwing up.

He looked at us and straightened up, embarrassed. His eyes were red, like he’d been crying.

The rope was gone.

He looked so sick.

“You all right?” I asked. My parents and grandmother had raised me to be courteous.

He didn’t answer that. Instead he said:

“I found a dog, a pretty big one, over by the barracks. He was starving to death.” He stopped talking and bent over again, but didn’t throw up. “That’s what I used. He didn’t fight me. He was weak. I don’t know why I did it. I knew something was out there, something bigger than twelve feet, and I wanted it . . . ”

He pointed to the cleat where the rope had been.

“It took the whole thing. What would it have to be to take the rope, the whole thing, like that?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“I keep seeing that dog. I had a dog once when I was little . . . ”

I saw Tommy on the hook—because that was what she wanted. But she’d have to find another hook. This one I was watching.

The next time we went out, and the four times after that, the man was gone. When I asked another sailor—one that worked in the metal shops by our quarters—he said he didn’t know any sailor like that.

“He was out at the end of the first pier a lot,” I said.

“A swabbie catching sharks?”

“It was after work,” I said. “On weekends, too. I think his name was Curt.”

“He’d have been with the shops. No one by that name here. You sure he was a sailor?”

“He wore blues,” I said.

“You must have been imagining things,” he said suddenly, and for a moment he sounded just like our mother. He was our mother. Her voice, her body just below his skin. Not in our heads, but completely real—because that is what witches do. She could do things like this, I knew, and she knew I knew.

I looked away. I didn’t want to see his eyes, which weren’t his. I took Tommy home. I led him down the street between the machine-shop Quonset huts to the dirt path, past the goldfish pond and the greenhouses, into our house with all its rooms, holding his hand tightly because he was my brother.

I missed talking to the sailor, the one with the rope and the hook, even though Tommy had nightmares about the dog. The nightmares stopped. I had bad dreams, too, but they helped me remember that I had a dog—a little one, a fox terrier named Walter. How I’d forgotten him, I didn’t know, or I did, but didn’t want to think about it—that she’d taken him away without my knowing.

I asked her—I was feeling brave—but, busy as she was with her schoolwork, she just looked at me with those black eyes of her, the ones that wanted to kill someone or something, and I finally went away—which is what she wanted.

I didn’t tell anyone I missed the sailor, but my grandmother knew.

“You missed him because he was a piece of you, Jimmy. You’d made him one. You both loved fishing. But he wasn’t scared enough. You’ve got to be scared sometimes.”

I asked her about our dog. She didn’t know either. It bothered her. “Sometimes things die and you just don’t know they have,” she said, looking up at the ceiling as she folded our clothes, trying to remember our dog, not able to, upset. “She’s getting worse, Jimmy. She’s my daughter. I don’t know what to do . . . ”

My father would cry when he got home from the submarine warfare laboratory he directed—the one high on the peninsula, looking down on the bay.

He hadn’t always cried like this. He’d started crying a month before, the day our mother started screaming about how she had a right to be happy but how could she with all of us?

He’d take off his uniform, which smelled like him (I loved that smell), and he’d go upstairs to his bedroom, shut the door, and start crying. Sometimes he wouldn’t come down for dinner. I thought my mother would take him his meal, but she said no, he could come down if he wanted it. When I tried to take it to him once, she knocked the plate out of my hand and started shouting about how she was going to leave us one way or another.

I tried to do it another time, too, and she slapped my face. She wanted to do more than that, but Grandma’s voice—she was at her card group in town, but she was in the room somehow—said: “No, Martha. Do not . . . ”

Later, when she couldn’t see me, I stood by his door and listened to the crying. I wanted to think it was headaches—”migraines” could make a grown man cry—but it wasn’t. He was just very sad. Grandma said he’d never gotten over his mother’s death when he was little, in that epidemic that killed so many in the world, but we knew it wasn’t that really. It sounded, the way he cried, like someone who was dying—because she wanted him to, I knew—and he was remembering what it was like before, and he missed it, so he cried.

We had the quarters we had—a tennis court, a little beach, a sailboat tied to the floating docks, a big front lawn—because my father’s boss didn’t want them. He was an admiral and, like all admirals, liked to give parties. He wanted to live up by the laboratory, in a modern house, looking down on the lights of the bay and the long island in the middle of it where Navy jets landed and took off day and night. He could have parties on the patio there, looking down at everything, he said.

There were other quarters like ours, though not quite as nice, on the other side of the old banyan tree. Another captain and his family lived there. He had a wife and a daughter who was “slow.”

The terrible smells at night, after taps played and night covered the base—and the sailors were in their barracks—didn’t come from the buildings or the banyan tree or the streets that wound among the metal-shop buildings, the two quarters and the great tree. They came from the gray dumpsters and trash cans everywhere.

I thought at first it was dead fish. It might have been at first, but not later. The other captain’s wife—in the other quarters—liked to fish, but she hated to clean the creatures she caught. Even when they were twenty- or thirty-pound Black Sea Bass, she would dump them in whatever garbage cans she came across that weren’t near her quarters.

This was when the bay was still young and the peninsula was still pretty wild. You could see coyotes at night moving like ghosts in packs up by the laboratory. You could catch big fish in the bay, as if no one had ever fished for them before, and so they trusted and bit and you pulled them in. But to catch something as beautiful as a thirty-pound Black Sea Bass and throw it away was a terrible thing.

When I told my grandmother about it, she said, “You play with her daughter—the girl who is slow but is also so happy when she makes a basket, the way you’ve taught her to make one, laughing like a baby even though she is fourteen and becoming a young woman and doesn’t know she bleeds. That brings you happiness, too—to help her like that. But what is it like for the captain’s wife, who didn’t expect a child like Diane, who thought life would bring something else. Why clean a wonderful fish when your daughter will never grow up the way you want her to, never tell by her own life the story you, her mother, want so much to have told in yours? It would make you scream and shout, wouldn’t it? It would make you catch and let die and then throw the most beautiful creatures away, wouldn’t it? Does this sound familiar, Jimmy? Do you know someone else like this? A mother and a special boy—one who sees what he shouldn’t see, knows what his mother is doing and gets in her way, and she can’t stand it?”

I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I could tell from her eyes—which were blue and bright and crinkled when she smiled—that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because I would when I was grown up, a man, understand.

When taps sounded at sunset through the loudspeakers all over the base, I had to stop playing on our front lawn. I had to put my hand over my heart and wait. Standing there as the world got dark, I could smell the odors even worse. When the bugle stopped, I could move again, and I went looking for them. I looked for them every night for a week.

I started in the dumpsters by the machine shops because they were closest. One had the smell, and one didn’t. It wasn’t fish, but it was definitely something dead because she wanted it to be. If it was a dog or a cat or a rat, one dumpster or trash can made sense, but it wasn’t just one. I walked on under the electric lights on wires strung over the street and found another dumpster that reeked even worse.

The third one was just a garbage can. It smelled too, and of the same thing. I knew what was in it, but I also didn’t know. I was afraid to think of it—of what it was—even though I knew. It was a person. A boy whose hand I held every day. I did not want to remember his name  . . .because she does not want you to.

How could it be someone? How could a smell in a garbage can or dumpster be someone and someone I knew?

The next one—a tiny gray dumpster—smelled the same, and I knew who it was even though I wasn’t supposed to. It burned my nose, but that wasn’t why I was crying. I was very sad, sad as he was, knowing that he was dying and crying because of it.

Something stirred in the eighth dumpster and called my name. I knew the voice—it wanted to help me. It wanted to stop the witch, but how? How does a mother stop a daughter she has to love?

When I stepped up to it, the voice stopped. Only the smell, the rotting, stayed.

I was crying now just like my father, and I was scared that someone would find me like that. MPs patrolled in their cars at night—not many, but sometimes. They would take me back to our quarters and say, “We found him crying by a dumpster. Why would your son be crying on a military base street with at night, by a place where people put garbage?”

After they left, my mother would slap me. It wouldn’t matter. I would be waiting for my father to come downstairs, but he wouldn’t be able to. He would be crying and so could not come down, and her slap would be about that as much as how I’d embarrassed her with the military police.

Later, with their door closed, she would tell my father, “They found him crying. Why can’t you both go away?”

She wouldn’t slap him because there would be no need to. He would already be crying.

“They’re all dead!” my mother was shouting. We were in an apartment—a dirty and tiny one—not our quarters on the base. Why were we here? I couldn’t hear anyone else in the apartment.

“How can they all be dead?” I asked, but I knew. She wanted them to be dead. She wanted to be alone because only then, she believed, could she be happy. But she wasn’t completely alone yet.

What to do about Jimmy? she was thinking, and it was like a scream that wouldn’t stop.

I was shivering. I could barely breathe. The air smelled like fried fish, old and burnt. I’d said something to her about my grandmother, and she’d said, “Your grandmother died when you were two! What is wrong with you?” And then, though I hadn’t mentioned him, she said, “You never had a little brother! You couldn’t possibly have held his hand. And the piers—those are on the navy base. You’ve never even been there.”

I hadn’t mentioned the piers.

“And you couldn’t possibly hear him crying.”


“Your father. He’s dead, too. He died three years ago, leaving me like this—with you—what was he thinking!

How would my mother do it? I didn’t know, but I could feel her gathering from the air around us, room by room, every shadow, every light, what she needed in order to do it. It would take her a little while, and then it would happen.

Would I just disappear? Would I become something else? Would it hurt?

That night she kept shouting to herself in the living room of the apartment, and I waited. There was nothing to do. Then, as I lay in my bed, in the dark, the Witch Moth appeared at my window. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it. I got up and let it in and felt its velvet hand against my face. It landed somewhere in the darkness. I knew who it was, and why she’d come. One witch to stop another, a voice had whispered—one who doesn’t know she’s one . . . or doesn’t want to know.

The others came then, too, their wings whispering in the dark even if my mother had killed them and always would.

I opened my bedroom door because they wanted me to. They flew to her, and in a moment she stopped shouting. She didn’t make a sound. I don’t think she was there anymore.

Later, my grandmother, sitting on a chair in my bedroom under an old floor lamp she’d always liked, said, “Your mother—my only daughter—shouted a lot, and did even more terrible things than that, but you don’t have to worry now. I shouldn’t have waited. In this world—listen to me carefully, Jimmy—she went away three years ago, just ran away, leaving the four of us to enjoy these beautiful quarters. Everything is fine now . . . ” She paused. She took a breath. “I love you. I’ve always loved you more than anything else, Jimmy, but you know that.”

She was smiling. She was looking right at me under the lamp’s light, more real than anything I’d ever known. Her eyes—which were like black velvet, not blue glass—were crinkling. The red spot on her nose was like a tiny flower. “Death is no more frightening than life,” she said with a little laugh. “So why shouldn’t we smile, Jimmy?”

I nodded, and I smiled—and, as I did, everyone who really mattered came back to me on black wings.

Originally published in Fearful Symmetries, edited by Ellen Datlow.

About the Author

Bruce McAllister’s short fiction has appeared over the years in many of the field’s leading horror, fantasy and science fiction magazines and in “year’s best” volumes like Best American Short Stories 2007, edited by Stephen King; and been short-listed for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Shirley Jackson Award. His novels include the esp-in-war classic Dream Baby, based on the Hugo-, Nebula- and Locus-finalist novelette of the same name, and, most recently, the Locus Award finalist The Village Sang to the Sea: A Memoir of Magic. He lives in in southern California with his wife, choreographer Amelie Hunter.