Black moths line the walls of Allerdale Hall. They crowd together in the cracks in the plaster, only visible by the fluttering of their wings. At night, Lucille can hear their feet scrabbling over wallpaper, the soft shuffling noise as they climb over each other or take flight. Sometimes Lucille wakes to see moths batting the air around her burning candle, perched upon her exposed hands. She raises a hand to her hair and feels something tangled there, pulls a squirming moth free from her dark curls.
Thomas couldn’t tell the difference between moths and butterflies, not reliably. It was Mother who taught Lucille to watch the way their wings spread, to look -- or better, feel -- for the difference between a moth’s furred antennae and a butterfly’s smooth, clubbed ones. Lady Beatrice was the one who held four-year-old Lucille in her lap, alone together in the nursery, and whispered to her that there was one more difference between butterflies and moths, one most people didn’t know.
Moths are heralds of the dead.
Lucille is drawing a bath when she feels it. This is the tub Mother died in, and the memory of that day, that moment, invades Lucille’s mind every time she bathes; the shock of the hatchet hitting Mother’s skull, the reverberations up Lucille’s arm. Lucille stands outside the tub as she fills it with warm water from the stove; her feet are bare and cold against the bathroom floor, her slim figure cloaked in a silk dressing gown, her hair loose.
She lets the robe drop from her shoulders; it hits the floor behind her, leaving her completely naked. She steps into the tub, ankle-deep in hot water, and the shock of warmth against her cold feet overwhelms her for a moment, so that she almost misses it.
The faint tickling sensation, the feeling of tiny jointed legs picking through her pubic hair, wings fluttering against her clit. Lucille jumps, slips in the tub and hits the porcelain hard. She lets out a short scream and bats at the monster between her legs and watches in horror as one of her beloved black moths breaks free. It falls, wings skimming the water, and then catches flight, and in a moment it is gone.
Frantically, Lucille combs through the soft, curled hair between her legs, reassuring herself that the moth is gone, totally gone. She settles into the water, letting the scalding temperature distract her, soothe her. She smoothes her hair back with shaking hands.
How long had it been there? she wonders. Nestling against her, curled up in her short tangle of pubic hair. How many times had it touched her without her so much as noticing? Had it lighted upon her when she got undressed to bathe, or had it possibly been there all day, ever since she woke up this morning?
She thinks of the moths surrounding her bed at night, touching her skin, touching her closed eyes, touching her hair. A shiver of dread wracks her body. They could crawl under the blankets, she knows that. What protection did her nightgown offer?
What protection did she need?
Lucille’s eyes slide shut. Her shaking subsides. Soaking in the warm water, all she can think about is the brush of the moth’s wings against her clit, the spark of electricity it had sent up to the pit of her stomach a moment before alarm took over and wiped out any pleasure. Her hand slips between her legs and she tries to imitate that feeling, that gentle touch, almost imperceptible -- but how can she replicate it, really? There’s nothing she can do.
She opens her eyes again, hands lax, and stares at the ancient rusty stain on the bathtub, near her head. Mother’s blood hadn’t sprayed when she died; it had oozed from her wound slowly, even as Lucille struck again and again, widening the gap between Mother’s hair and skull. Big droplets of it had dripped on the porcelain and dried there -- Thomas had never cleaned them, and Lucille didn’t have the opportunity before they stained.
Lucille gives up her attempt at pleasure and touches the bloodstain tenderly, as though it were her lover. Despite herself, she misses Mother sometimes. Mother wouldn’t understand about Lucille and Thomas, no -- but she would understand about the moths. She always had.
Lucille is sitting on Lady Beatrice’s lap with a black moth perched on her small hand. Its footsteps tickle her; its wings are soft like Mother’s hair. And Mother watches silently, never speaking, only watching as her only daughter plays with the moth, learns to enjoy its touch.
Mother’s hands are on Lucille’s hips. Lucille’s dress front is unbuttoned, her skirt rucked up above her waist. She’s so focused on the moth, her eyes wide with fascination, that she doesn’t notice when Mother’s hands dip further, her fingers teasing at the hem of Lucille’s white, lacy undergarments.
Mother’s head comes forward, heavy against Lucille’s shoulder. She kisses Lucille once, gently, on the neck. Her fingers are warm but dry, and after a moment of shock, they almost feel like an extension of Lucille’s own body.
She’s never touched herself down there, where Mother is touching her. She didn’t know it could feel so good.
Lucille’s breath hitches and Mother’s lips find her neck again.
“Mama--” Lucille says. Her hand twitches, her spine stiffens. The moth ruffles its wings, offended by the sudden movement, and flies away. It lands again in the far corner of the nursery, perched atop one of Lucille’s broken dolls. She watches it crawl into the doll’s missing eye.
“Shh,” Mother says. She is pressed against Lucille’s back, soft and warm and welcoming, and Lucille succumbs to the feeling of comfort, of safety, of electric pleasure radiating through her small body in a way it never has before. She wants to feel this way forever; she wants everyone to feel this way. Herself, Mother, Thomas, the moths...
“Mama,” Lucille gasps. Her voice is almost soundless, and Mama’s hands seem to be everywhere, pressing down on sensitive parts of Lucille’s body she didn’t know existed, curling inside her, tracing slick patterns over Lucille’s flat chest so that her rose-colored nipples harden and raise.
Lucille’s vision whites out. Her sense of self is altered; it disappears entirely, until all that is left is Mother’s hands, Mother’s hands, Mother’s hands.
Lucille opens her eyes, sees the moths drawn to her candle’s flame, perching on her hands, tangled in her hair.
“Mother,” she whispers, and turns to stare at the bathroom door.