Small Fiction Awards Flash Runner-Up: “Hatching Moths” by Emily Pegg

November 13, 2023

“Hatching Moths” is a striking and poetic story that builds and accrues meaning with an incredible use of repetition, unfurling language, and a brilliant weaving of memory and the present. It feels very intimate and also cosmic, and every sentence carries more than its weight in meaning and depth. From beginning to transformative end, this story creates a portrait of a relationship and its hopes and perils in a way that feels like it’s woven into the fabric of the world, heightening the stakes and bringing us toward the sublime. — Guest Judge K-Ming Chang


She insists the rodents are ruining us, not the moths. Acorn shells hoarded on the sunken porch steps, twice a year tragedy on the side of the road. Mice too clever for kill-less traps, racoons scaffolding the oak trunks to pillage goldfinch nests, rats swimming in the pool next door. I hang sticky traps while she bangs the windowpane, spooking a black squirrel from her lilac birdfeeder. She checks her watch, the sky, and dread eels through me—that outer world beyond the blue glaze of August haunts overhead, an unseen, dark omnipotence so vast it becomes abyss, as unknown as glooming ocean. I don’t need a reminder that it’ll take nothing to end us. Meteor, slow roast, the sun going supernova. How one rock in a syzygy can suck all summer from the air. But I ask her the names of planetary rovers, Jupiter’s moons, until she draws towards me again. It’s not that we’re not happy; it’s that she hasn’t cut her hair at 2:00 AM in six years and she misses the silvery noise: a sleepless, solitary severing of ends.

I bag her wool scarves to freeze while she rattles on. Four minutes of totality, the lenses in our cardboard sunglasses. I pollute closets and drawers with vinegar, cotton sachets of cedar. They’re in everything, all our favourite clothes. When I get like this she calls me a freak, but I can’t help finishing things. The first time we fucked, she left behind her broken necklace and I replaced the silver clasp. When I need to, I set my head inside the freezer and listen to her syncopated clapping, how she kills the moths. Most nights I dream of them in everything, their fucking larva, our whole house turned to nothing but a porous, pock-marked sponge, even our own bodies. Light and dark squeezing into us where it doesn’t belong. Then it’s time. We exhume the colander from its far back lost space in the cupboard, lay our bodies on the roof like people in love—well-draped limbs, skin touching skin.

I forget the moths, for a minute, watching the moon snail towards the sun through darkened plastic.

When she strikes my arm I surprise myself and believe her violent. It is peaceful, a misty acceptance. It’s not that we’re unhappy; it’s that she’ll never accept it, not yet born to see Halley’s comet in ’86 even though I tell her all the time that it’ll be back in forty years. That’s just how hard she loves. Six years ago I liked the way she said her mother’s last name, how her attention could make anything, even me, the center of the known universe.

She has left a red handprint, a moth snapped dusty against my skin. Her teeth flash proudly: she has protected me. I brush the death away and we laugh into the sticky air.

In the darkening, she exalts Tereshkova, Savitskaya, Ride, and I can spend months like this, never interrupting, all the nerves in me dulled to a deep, bleaching ache. Another moth flutters out of the house, sickly and beige—I lose track of it in false darkness. Shadow swallows the August light. It’s not that we’re not happy, we just can’t see each other anymore in this unnatural dusk, the sun vanished in a planetary sleight of hand. We lay in a sticky lull, humidity painting baby hairs to our faces. I can hear a squirrel gobbling birdfeed off our deck. And it’s too easy to believe the moon will never move again, that this is the end of us and everything. And even if it does and we last, in forty years we’ll be laid out on some other roof under the comet, and it won’t be bright enough, how could it be after a lifetime of waiting.

The curtain of dark pulls back. She positions the colander over my legs and sunlight slips through it, the moon withdrawing. I want to ask her to wait, to stop. Too late—a hundred golden, hatching moths widen their mouths across my thighs.

Emily Pegg’s short fiction has appeared in
PRISM International, Iron Horse Literary Review, CAROUSEL, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. In 2023, her story “Trick Walls” was runner-up for the Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction. She currently resides in Vancouver, BC, where she is working on her first novel.


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