A Thousand Mouths – Alexander Olson
The little nugget of money that was left went to my father. I inherited a large trunk of my grandfather’s books, notes and scribbles. I was in my twenties when he disappeared. Most everyone assumed he had taken his sailboat out on a final, symbolic trip and never returned. I did not believe that; a mere week before his disappearing act, my grandfather visited me. He knew, of course, that I had worshipped him for much of my life, and that I lusted to accomplish half of what he had. That was when he gave me the trunk. He said very little, only that he knew I liked to read, unlike my father, and that he was getting old, going toward what he called the “beams of golden light”. He patted me on the shoulder, and then vanished a week later.
The trunk was full of madness, and it was only out of love for my grandfather that I trudged through it all. Diaries and notes about different species of insects he’d found in the Amazon, in island jungles and on strange mountaintops. He was not a scientist, not a scholar, so there was no rhyme or reason to his documentation. Excited pages describing rituals he had taken part in, exploring other plains of consciousness, “widening the mind beyond the reaches of man!”
One of his entries described a trip to a jungle, where he met a tribe that claimed to know of another world. Another world, of course, met more mountains to climb, as he put it, so he agreed to take part in their ritual. It was simple; they crushed a certain moth and smoked the dusty remains, and the ethereal gods would grant them with a cinematic preview of the world after this one.
My grandfather claimed to have done this, and gone into a place he assumed to be heaven, because of the “gold beams of light so pure!”
In the trunk was an envelope addressed to me. In it was a letter that told me that, if my grandfather were to ever disappear, I should repeat the ritual he described. Crushing and smoking the remains of a large, white moth, found most likely in places of darkness and misery…
I went to the store with the intent to purchase a bottle of the cheapest, vilest bourbon. I did this with sombre mood of a man who buys the pistol and single bullet that will end his life. I did not like bourbon; I did not like alcohol. Yet, I was a failure, and I needed to punish both my mind and my body for my lack of competency. I had searched jungles and dark caves, mouldy houses and dank crawl spaces, yet the white moth eluded me.
I entered the liquor store, blinking against the glittering neon lights and approached the counter. There were two clerks; a bearded young man who was chucking loose pennies at a rack of pornographic magazines across from the counter, and another young man in glasses, pushing a broom slowly around the racks, looking supremely busy.
The beard glanced at me and nodded hello, while the sweeper frowned at me, but continued his custodial duties. I realized I must look out of place; I wore a suit jacket with pads on the elbows, round glasses and brown loafers; I resembled a university professor, likely with tenor. An elitist in the poorest part of the city; I might have been on Mars.
I approached the register, and pointed at the rack of liquor. “What’s the least expensive bourbon you have there?”
The clerk was ready. Snap-quick, he turned around and motioned to a low rack. “Well, there’s Thompsin, it’s really bitter, and then there’s Wild Grass, that’s too sweet-,”
“Give him Meadow Hill, that’ll do it.”
We both turned and looked at the sweeper, who shrugged. The beard stooped and picked up a small bottle. He rang it up for eleven dollars, and I paid him in small bills.
I was heading to the door with my prize wrapped in a brown paper bag when I heard the sweeper utter words of the correct vibration and compatible syllables to make my hair stand on end.
“Dude, did you know there’s a giant moth in the dumpster? I thought it was a bird until I almost hit it with the bags and it moved.”
“Oh, yeah, that thing is scary as hell. I keep telling Matt to get an exterminator, but-,”
I froze, a feeling of uncontrol, a sense that cosmic hands were subtly shifting the landscape of my reality, molding the sides so I was locked on this particular path. Chance? Coincidence? There was no such thing here.
I raced back to the clerks, nearly tripping on the rug. “Where? Where is it?”
Both men stared at me, wide eyed, perhaps thinking that I was not a professor of overpriced subjects, but a crazed homeless person in a shabby suit.
Think, Morris, think! Concoct a lie!
I tried to smile sweetly, but I probably looked leering. “I’m terribly sorry,” I said, “I was excited. I’m a… scientist, I study insects. Moths, specifically. Um-,” I tapped my hand against the counter. “I uh, I’m studying the effects of urban growth on different species of moth. How they react to…”
“To homeless people pissing in the parking lot?” the sweeper said. I gathered that he was the trash attender, and therefore the local expert.
“Yes,” I said. “Could you show me where you’ve seen this moth?”
He shrugged, and set his broom against the counter. “Okay.”
We went through the employee door, past a jammed stock room full of soda and wrapped cases of convenience snacks, and out the back door. He wedged a small chunk of wood under the door to keep it open.
He led me to a rusting, stinking dumpster. With a grimace, he threw back the lid and hoisted himself up to peer inside. “Yeah!” he called out. “It’s there. Clinging to the back corner.”
“Would your boss mind if I captured the creature?”
The sweeper jumped down. “Oh, no, please take it.” He shivered. “I hate it. Gives me the frickin’ creeps.” He went back into the store, kicking the wedge out and locking me outside.
With some difficulty, I scaled the dumpster and straddled the side. The inside looked the bottom of the sea; littered with cardboard shipwrecks, broken glass and sunken bags, soggy with stale beer and syrupy soda. I removed the bourbon bottle from the bag and tucked it safely in my pocket. I spotted the moth; silver, white, whiskery antennae quivering, looking more slime-covered than the normal, dusty flutter of moths. It was the size of my hand.
After some thought, I grabbed an old pizza box and an elongated bit of flat cardboard; used together, they made a scooping motion, and I pushed the insect into the box and trapped it. It did not resist, nor did it flutter when I dumped it into the paper bag. The sound it made against the bag was the sound of a meatball, covered in marinara, as it tumbled off the fork and splattered against the linoleum. Splack!
Walking quickly, I returned to my car and sped home.
There was little methodology to my search, and little reason for me to do what my grandfather said, other than that part of me that remained a naive boy, full of curiosity and absolutely convinced of my grandfather’s genius. I think that part exists in everyone. It’s why we avoid walking under ladders or choosing thirteen. Small, childish beliefs that will not evaporate no matter the years.
The search for the moth went based on feeling, intuition, revisiting some of his old locations, searching in ruins of terrible, savage cultures.
And yet, as I dumped the moth onto my kitchen table, I found I had a feeling about it. Not a good feeling, but a feeling of resolution. Either this pearlescent mammoth moth was going to reveal the mysteries of the universe, or it wasn’t, and I could go on with my life, knowing I had tried my very hardest to fulfill my dear grandfather’s odd request.
The moth crawled sluggishly about, a fat, pregnant thing, dragging its over-inflated body behind it. I produced a knife, and proceeded to crush the creature with the flat side, sending milky bug juices spewing onto my table. The moth’s innards ballooned out of its orifices, vomiting out its insides like a jelly donut being squeezed. With swift, sharp cuts, I diced up the insect and crushed any solids into powdery, chunky liquid.
After a cursory glance at my grandfather’s journals, I decided that smoking the moth was simply a ritual; ingestion was the key. I brushed the pile into a small bowl, and then tipped it into a glass.
I raised it to my lips, then paused. I felt very foolish, and had the very sad and hurtful feeling that I’d wasted much of my life trying to hold on to a dead man. I frowned, then dumped the liquid into my mouth, swallowing it in a gulp. I shuddered at the taste, but found no other phenomena coming over me.
A wave of drowsiness hit me, rolling my eyes into the back of my head, pressure in my forehead, and the familiar sensation of falling deep into a cloud made me sit down. I laid my head down on the table, and allowed myself to be dragged to the depths.
Yellow light, warm and gentle like a noon sun, tickled my face, causing me to stir. I was on black ground; black like ground hamburger glistening with grease.
I raised myself up, and slowly turned around, eyes widening as this new world rushed to meet them.
The beams! Oh, the glorious beams! Golden yellow light, stretching to the sky, the emanating glow bring with it the greatest feeling of importance, of authority. Tall cylinders of light, shooting up to the sky like a hundred lightning bolts fastened together, harnessed for good. How many there were! Six! Seven! A dozen! More!
Grandfather had been right. Here were his beams. My eyes adjusted, taking in details beyond the glow, my enthusiasm fading as new details popped into focus. I was rooted to the spot, overcome by the sensation of new, of otherworldliness.
The landscape was black. And there was a stench, like old food rotting in a garbage disposal. I took an uncertain step forward, and something beneath my feet crunched, like frozen snow. I looked down to see that my loafer was wedged into the ribcage of a charred skeleton. In fact, the entire ground was covered in remains, like a giant urn had been dumped out, the ashy remnants of a million loved ones creating the terrible, dark landscape.
I screamed, ripping my leg out and falling to the earth, a coating of black dust kicking up, clouding my lungs. I began to cough, bringing my hands to my face, and the darkness was there too. The dusty coating, like soot like coal like death.
I struggled to my feet and began to walk toward the nearest beam. The light was warm and inviting, and I reached my hands out for it, despite being leagues away.
Like a moth! Like a moth!
I continued my trek, the only concrete thought forming in my mind was that I had to the beam, I must touch it, brace it, even, help it with its burden of all reality.
As I got closer, I became aware of a low hum, a vibrating sound that rattled my chest, vibrated my kneecaps, shook my jawbone. My eyeballs throbbed, pulsating in rhythm with the light. My heartbeat started to be breathy and irregular, skipping beats and only making dull, quiet thuds in my chest.
I pressed forward, and I began to see swirling shapes in the beam, rotating and flowing like galaxies and nebulas, morphing and splitting like the amoebas in a lava lamp. The feelings of euphoria persisted, but I had an inkling of doubt shading my mind. The beams were not beams; they were cylinders. What did cylinders do other than store things?
But I was too close, the moth-brain inside me in full control, and the only thing was the light. I had to touch the light, I had to be the light. I strained forward, and pressed my hand against the beam.
The heavens moaned, and wispy, smoke faces appeared in front of me, pressing against the inside of the beam, like children against a window.
“Morris,” my grandfather said. He sounded disappointed. I recognized his face, bubbling in the yellow fluid. “Oh Morris, I am so sorry.” His face split apart, and a snarling, many eyed creatures that looked half octopus and half chimpanzee took his place, swirling gleefully in the yellow.
The euphoria broke, but in tandem my mind was breaking too as I tried to pull my arm back, sputtering and spitting out useless words in the face of this madness. “This isn’t right this isn’t right this isn’t-,” A thousand hands burst forth from the beam, clutching at me like a thousand hungry mouths, and I was their only source of food.