That day the city was woken by the absence of birdsong: no dawn chorus, no cocks crowing, no rowdy parrots in the palms, just a flutter in the air, like a feather duster in another room. People stumbled to balconies in lacy nightshirts or flannel pyjamas, trampled on carrots in their vegetable terraces, stood naked but for bedsocks in rooftop gardens. They peered at a dark cloud of smoke drifting down the mountainside. It hovered over the canopy of the forest, probing forward to the shanties on the edge of the city. Then it shifted like a giant shoal of fish, and the first of the moths descended.
What seemed black from a distance was brown as the haze of moths landed on the whitewashed walls of villas in the suburbs, then purple as they settled on benches in the squares and the bandstand in the barracks, and blue as maids closed the windows. Orange roof tiles were smothered in a seething mass of iridescence, and the jacarandas and frangipanes teemed with a new shiny green. The air flickered; daylight was held at bay.
Moths found their way down chimneys, they flew up plugholes, they pulled themselves under shutters. They hung in doorways, from crystal chandeliers, from rafters in the abattoir; they crept inside rosebuds, and dangled from the gold fringe of the curtain at the opera house. They teetered on stacks of ducats in the bank vaults, they hopped between leather spines in the library, they shimmered in the rigging of yachts at the quayside. They eavesdropped at confession boxes, and crawled through peepholes in the brothels; they danced between the bars of the torture chambers, and swarmed on the scars of chained and naked prisoners, tickling them to helpless ecstasies with the soft felty folds of their wings.
Ferries to the mainland were cancelled, schools were closed, and the customhouse doors remained bolted. Moths suffered too, falling foul of workers going about their daily business: they were bashed by cobblers’ hammers, branded by blacksmiths’ tongs, and whipped by the twirling tassels of the dancing girls at the music hall. Street cleaners swept gutters of moths squashed by the pneumatic tyres of motor cars or trampled by the clumsy hoofs of horses, and not even the vegetarian philosophy professor could stop himself from crushing insects under his boots. Yet however many perished, millions more were flapping, gliding, plummeting, swooping, tugged in the air like puppets held by invisible strings.
No one had seen moths like these before. Their furry bodies were longer than your little finger, and their wingspans as broad as a grin. Where had they come from? The mountain’s crater? Deep in the jungle? On a mission from heaven, or hell? The telegraph operator tried to cable the mayor of the municipality in the next valley over, but he failed to get through. Grandmothers described a plague of ladybirds in their childhoods, and a veteran sea captain recalled a faraway mandate where the harbour writhed with a wriggling mass of worms. It will pass, they said, just wait and this will pass.
The densest infestation swarmed into the market hall. Moths crawled into the ironmonger’s watering cans, they trickled through the haberdasher’s silks and wools, they buried themselves in buckets of bullets and tubs of screws. Then they spiralled into the food bazaar, where they crusted the buckets of shellfish, and clustered the racks of ryebread and sourdough, and decorated coffee éclairs and passion-fruit creams in the chocolateria.
An adventurous chef, impatient for his delivery of imported snails, snatched a handful of flutterers from his windowbox of herbs. He flung the moths into a frying pan of sizzling olive oil, along with a sprig of rosemary and a shredded clove of garlic. The moths turned black in the heat, and tasted sooty yet sweet; they were crunchy, and they were delicious. They’d be perfect with fried potatoes. He chopped moths into slaws, and tossed them with chilli in deep bowls of spaghetti; he used them to flavour yoghurt, and mayonnaise, and chutneys. He scattered them into his churns, and mothed pats of butter were placed on all his tables, for the lunchtime dowagers to spread on their moth-dotted fruitbread.
Recalling the popularity of his pickled monkeys and the roaring success of his devilled emu eggs, the chef’s regular diners needed no coaxing. Elbows out, they tucked in. Highly agreeable, said the banker of the moth soufflé. Downright delicious, said the glover’s apprentice of the moths served with salted bacon on soft white baps. Damned good, said the steeplejack of his ginger moth trifle.
Word spread. Newspaper editors rewrote headlines so that the plague of moths became a fabulous flying feast. Songsheet-sellers composed lepidopterist ditties and played odes to the moth on their accordions. Every cook, every kitchen, every grillroom and coffeehouse: all were soon devoted to dishing up moth, and acquiring plentiful stocks. Chandlers and sailmakers created elaborate snares that caught hundreds and thousands of moths with a snap. Tramps baited flypaper, and children skipped the streets with fishing nets until their jam jars were crammed. Their winged bounty was too stupid to resist. Moths zoomed willingly into cockroach traps, into shopping baskets, into emptied rain butts and beer barrels. Resigned to being flambéed, suicidally casserolable, they seemed to have a deathwish.
At teatime devoted kitchenmaids did their best with recipes their mistresses had brought home, tossing scoops of stunned moths on to baking trays, tipping bagfuls into blancmange bowls, and flinging moths into flan cases and drowning them in jelly. Moths were dusted in icing sugar, and stirred into custard, and boiled down for marmalade. There were moth shortbreads, to be dunked in smoked moth tea, and sucked slowly. Antennae were crisped to wafers, rolled in mint, and served on persimmon ice cream.
By dinnertime moths were on every menu, from the lowliest back-alley shack to the viceroy’s favourite steakhouse. They were spiked on cocktail sticks, with cubes of blue cheese and pineapple, and their brains were served on crackers. There were moths en croute, moth crumbles, moth sausages. Moths stuffed chickens, garnished salads, were pureed into mashed yams and glazed. They were layered into triple-tiered mousses, between avocado and lobster. Wings pulled off, they were eaten live with a raw egg and onions: moth tartare. Patissiers constructed tiny balled cages of golden spun sugar, with live moths imprisoned within, the whole morsels consumed for kicks.
Everyone gobbled together. The anarchist served the priest from a tureen of moth chowder. The circus strongman chopped up roast moths, and balanced them on his fork with boiled potatoes and runner beans, and fed the lot to the librarian. The courtesan popped whole crystallised moths into the mouth of the schoolmistress; what were the best lepidoptery colleges, she inquired, and how might her son be admitted? Wingdust on the tips of their noses, vintners and brewers concocted ways to make moth clarets and ciders, while the guild of master grocers set dates for a mothicurean festival.
Thoraxes were masticated, feelers were picked from teeth, final flakes were wiped from greasy lips. As dining tables grew mucky with shellac, statisticians rattled their abacuses, for demand far exceeded supply. Cooks scraped the bottoms of canisters, servants were sent into the forest with panniers, and moths were picked from coalholes and dredged from toiletbowls. Over mothwing cigars and moth-and-pomegranate liqueurs, navigators and military engineers discussed uncharted possessions in the outlying islands, and plantation owners and their investors pored over blueprints for moth-houses. Beekeepers set fire to their hives in order to clear new pasturelands. By midnight queens and drones sizzled, and the smell of burnt honey rose to the moon.
Shopkeepers and civil servants, pensioners and gardeners, booksellers and balloon pilots: all were merry on moth. They ambled home, and took themselves to bed, and everyone dreamt of moth porridge.
The very last moth was hidden in a cracked teapot at the back of the adventurous chef’s pantry. He dipped his fat fingers in, and flipped the flapping moth in melted chocolate. He tilted his bald head and stared as it struggled to open its wings in the coagulating sauce. Its truffled antennae stiffened, and the chef flicked the titbit into his mouth. It crunched, it crackled, it coated his tongue with its secrets. And then it was gone. A great sweet burp rose from the pit of his belly, and he fell asleep at his kitchen table.
* * *
It’s that moment when we wait for the thin orange light of daybreak to crack the horizon.
All across the city, pillows and bedsheets are dusty with finger-length silhouettes of soot. They shimmer: black-brown, purple-blue, black-blue, green.
The people are no longer what they were before. Who knows what they know, what they feel, as their wings unfurl.
They take flight, circle the chandeliers, slide through the shutter slats. They zoom up from courtyards, spiralling higher to join the gathering black cloud. There are many islands in the archipelago, and each shall be visited in turn.
A magpie squawks in an empty church. A duck quacks, a cock crows, the dawn chorus shall roar today.
(First published in Bombay Gin 34.3)