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A Domestic Lepidopterist

Natalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar from Greece, currently based in the United Kingdom. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Crossed Genres, Interfictions, and elsewhere. She is a 2014 Rhysling award nominee. You can find her at natalia-theodoridou.com and follow her @natalia_theodor on Twitter.
After extracting the sphinx moth from the mother's deepest fear, tucked away carefully within the smallest chamber of her heart, the lepidopterist held it in the light, trapped between a pair of forceps. It fought, kicking its legs, its wings fluttering, almost transparent, tinted gold.
"Paonias Excaecata," the lepidopterist said. "Very rare. It nests in the most tender corners of the human psyche and hides from sight the ones you love." She put the insect in the open killing jar that lay on the table before her and sealed the lid. "There. That should do it." She turned to the mother. "What's his name?" she asked.
"Tommy," the mother said.
"Call him."
"Tommy?" the woman called, her voice trembling. "Tommy love, come here. Stand next to Mummy."
The moth struggled against the invisible agent that was snuffing out its life. It wasn't long before it lay helpless at the bottom of the jar. Its hindwings jerked one last time.
"Magnificent creature," the lepidopterist whispered, but she realized the mother was no longer paying her any mind. Tommy had reappeared at her side, a bit worse for wear than his usual self, the lepidopterist suspected, but otherwise whole and healthy. And visible, at last.
The lepidopterist put the jar with the specimen in her sack, collected her payment of three gold heads and retreated discretely, letting mother and son enjoy their reunion.
Orphan children pestered her on the street on the way back to her home. There seemed to be more and more of them every day lately. One of them had found shelter under the stairs by her front door a few weeks earlier. "Mother, give me something to eat," he'd say. "Mother, take me home." She'd often entertained the thought. She had come this close to taking him in, but she'd changed her mind at the last moment. Her science required her full attention. And with this new and mysterious infestation that plagued her home--no, she had no time for children.
As she approached her house, she made out the sorry figure of the boy. She was eager to tell him all about the moth; he seemed to like her stories very much. Walking closer she saw the boy lying on the cold cobblestones like a pile of rags. His skin was ashen.
The lepidopterist knelt by the child's still body, and pushed the hair out of his eyes with her forceps. His forehead was wide, his nose straight, his eyebrows arched, like her own. He would have made a handsome lad. Why didn't I take the boy in when he begged me to? she wondered. She could even have taught him her science, once the child had grown a little. She could have used an apprentice in her old age. Or a son.
The lepidopterist let the boy's hair slide back upon his face and climbed onto her feet. She had no use for regret, she told herself. Neither did the boy.
She pushed open the front door of her home and the breeze made a wave of dead insect wings swirl around her feet. They covered everything: her desk, her killing jars and displays, her books that had been unable to tell her what this new invader was, where it hid, what kind of curious unhappiness it caused. She'd racked her mind, checked her body and her home, asked her most learned colleagues in the city to no avail. Their homes were overtaken, too. The whole city was under siege, and yet nobody could decipher the secrets of the white, membranous wings, their whispered fluttering at dawn, the light touch of tiny legs on dreaming eyelids. This unexplainable feeling of loss.
The lepidopterist waded through the layers of wings, making her way to the back of the house. She stood at the door of the little back room, the one that held a child's clothes, a child's bed, a child's toys. Why hadn't she given them away all those years ago, when she realized she would never bear any children? She'd grown so accustomed to them over time, they'd almost started to look worn, slept in, played with.
She picked up one of the diaphanous wings that lay at her feet. She held it up to the light: a delicate blade, she thought. Who knows what it has hacked away.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, March 11th, 2015


I owe "A Domestic Lepidopterist" to at least two people: Michael Haynes, who provided the prompt to which this story was a response, and artist Mikhail Karikis, whose doctoral thesis inspired my protagonist's profession.

- Natalia Theodoridou

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