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The Moth and the Way it Ends
by Corey Farrenkopf and Gabrielle Griffis
The last place Otto Glass was seen was a fallow apple orchard on the coast of Maine. Rumor said he’d written his last book, The Moth and the Way it Ends, an investigation into the role of lepidoptera and human perception, while living at the orchard, so that’s where Helena and Marcus began filming. They mostly gathered b-roll of the overgrown trees with gnarled bulbous branches, rotting apples heaped about, hornets hovering like mist, because, of course, Glass wasn’t there. No one had seen him in three years, or so the internet said. Instead, they filmed the sagging deck where Otto observed the moths at night, tracing the beat of their wings.
“Do you think this is where he wrote it?” Marcus asked, sitting at a waterlogged card table left on the deck, pretending to type on an invisible typewriter.
“Possibly,” Helena replied, “but I doubt it. Someone else probably left that table here.” She squinted and focused her lens on a moth eating the pulp of an apple. She had been obsessed with Otto since she was a child after seeing a three-piece documentary about his ill-fated commune on PBS. Her grandmother had a subscription to TIME which ran a similar feature story. The issue had dead bodies on the cover reminiscent of a small-scale Jonestown. It seemed Otto’s story was everywhere she looked for a number of years.
Helena knew Marcus didn’t like to think about the gruesome end, the cyanide, and the supposed meeting with the divine. Ruminations on death made him feel fragile. He always tried to focus on the way her face lit up when she believed they were getting closer to finding the old man and the truth.
Otto started the commune after inheriting the twelve acre, mostly overgrown property from his parents, but the commune was co-opted by his partner Lewis, a sure-voiced man with the beard of a prophet who persuaded the community of the coming apocalypse. Lewis believed they could hasten the end times by breeding the moths who he connected to his interpretation of an old religious prophecy. And their wings will dust the lips of the faithful, showing them the path home. He preached the opening of a portal, a stairway climbing to another dimension of pure bliss once the moths were ingested.
While much was known about Otto’s work and the commune, a lot wasn’t.
Helena and Marcus wandered the property, peering into windows, circling ramshackled sheds and barns. They were tired from their drive to the east coast from Colorado. As they looked at the buildings, Helena compared the crime scene photos in her mind, the long table where Lewis poisoned fifty-eight of the sixty-three commune members. It was strange how easy it was to get onto the property, but given the remoteness of the orchard and lack of surrounding civilization, it made sense.
“Where are we going next?” Marcus asked, staring into the camera lens.
Helena referenced their itinerary, noting the address of the closest bed and breakfast, the next stop on their list. She scanned the sky, hills in the distance, the looming forest beyond. “In his book, he’s always talking about where the moths breed, but he never mentions it by name.”
“What if we don’t find him?” Marcus asked, cutting her off. “What if all the articles are wrong and he’s actually dead?”
“We’ve had this conversation a thousand times. We’ll figure it out, I’ll be disappointed, but it’s not like we can’t use our film for something,” Helena said, stopping along a dirt path. “That’s new,” she said, tilting her head. She pulled up an image from Google Earth on her phone, the same image she’d used for reference when planning their shots. The pixelated screen showed all the surrounding outbuildings, except the one in front of them.
“Film this, please,” she said, handing the camera to Marcus.
He raised the lens to follow her step down the path, plumes of dust rising above goldenrod. At the door to the shed, she paused, looking back at Marcus. She knocked on the shingled side. Helena had always been polite, even when faced with ghosts. When no one replied, she pulled the door open, hinges moaning with age. The setting sun cast an amber glow through the lone window within. The shed was narrow, just enough space for a small desk and a chair, both positioned before the cobwebbed window facing the mountains. The desk’s surface was devoid of adornment, but the drawers leading down both legs were intriguing. Who knew what hid inside? Helena bent at the waist, pulling the first open, the wood groaning against the swollen frame. Her hands drifted into the space, emerging with what appeared to be a taxidermied moth, pinned within a clear glass case.
Helena felt a nervous excitement.
“He’s back,” Helena said.
“How’d we miss this before?” Marcus asked, stepping into the shed behind her.
“The map image must not have been updated,” Helena replied.
The sun was setting. They searched the shed and surroundings for clues, as fireflies cast light over white aster.
“We should have bought a trail cam,” Marcus said, half jokingly.
Because it was getting dark, they walked back to the car, light waning from around the buildings. They spoke in hushed voices as they hurried down the path. Neither wanted to stay in the orchard after nightfall. Coolness and evening moisture saturated the fields. They knew it was just a number of old abandoned, or not so abandoned buildings, but the property’s history, the bodies in the barn, poison and moth scales on their lips, hung in the air. They were trying to film a documentary about what happened to the infamous entomologist and his work, not a cheap knockoff of ghost hunters.
After thirty-nine hours, several dozen rest stops, copious amounts of coffee, the bed and breakfast was the first actual bed they’d seen since they left Telluride. Helena and Marcus were glad the streaking blur of the past few days had finally come to a halt, even if only for a few hours. The house was a yellow Victorian, divided into a number of boarding rooms. They arrived after dark loaded down with camera equipment, the porch steps creaking as they approached the entrance.
Warm incandescent light glowed from the mahogany door’s oval glass.
“Where are you two shooting a movie? Hopefully not up in my rooms,” the older woman at the front desk asked. She was tall, looming almost, with poorly dyed red hair, gray roots bleeding through.
Marcus and Helena laughed, looking at one another awkwardly.
“Good one,” Helena said.
“No, I’m serious,” the older woman said, leaning out over the desk. “We’ve had a problem with those nasty film people in the past. This is a good, god fearing establishment, and I’ll have none of it.”
“I promise that’s not the case. We’re filming Otto’s apple orchard. We received a grant to make a documentary on his life, and the moths,” Helena said, sensing the woman’s hostility.
“Norma never should have given him that property,” the woman said, taking out a pad of paper and scribbling something down in her receipt book. “Not that she had much choice, being dead and all,” she muttered.
“Norma? You knew his parents?” Helena asked.
“Knew them? We were friends,” she said, shaking her head.
“Do you know if he sold it?” Helena asked. “People say he sold it, but I haven’t found any information that says otherwise.”
“No, no. Otto never sold it,” she said, shaking her head. “Every now and again I get people like you passing through here, wanting to know about Otto, about the orchard. Busybodies. Best to let sleeping dogs lie. Leave Otto be. He’s been through enough.” The woman placed a key on top of the desk. “That’s my advice to you, anyway. Cash or credit?”
Helena and Marcus looked at each other before Marcus pulled his Visa from his wallet. Neither dared voice a rebuttal.
“Always credit,” the woman grumbled, turning her back and running the card through the machine.
“So he’s still there?” Helena half asked, trying to hide her excitement. She’d read so many articles speculating on Otto’s whereabouts, the ghost versus corporeal argument, the book he may or may not be writing that would make everything clear. She was excited at the prospect that the answer might be hovering right before her. If he was alive, there were so many things she had to ask him … so many mysteries she needed explained.
“In some ways,” the woman said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Marcus asked.
The woman shrugged and handed them the keys.
She thought finding Otto would be difficult, that she would have to ask around, perhaps do some research at the local library, but judging by the shed in the orchard, and the innkeeper’s comments, it seemed he never really left.
The next day, Helena and Marcus traced the winding road that bisected a forest of fir trees until they reached the orchard and all the unkempt hip-high grass swimming about the property. They didn’t expect to find Otto, but the innkeeper’s comments suggested there might be a chance. They also needed more footage and thought at the very least. There might be things they overlooked. Helena hadn’t fully noticed the holes in the farmhouse roof, for instance, nor the broken windows lining the walls when they first arrived, the leaves that had blown into the entryway, the bird nests in the eaves …
She knocked on the farmhouse door, but, like the shed, no one answered.
The knob was unlocked.
With a light shoulder, Marcus pushed inside, hinges tired from disuse.
While Otto might visit the orchard, and tend to the grounds in the most basic way, Helena doubted he lived there anymore.
Decay swept through the farmhouse, moldering couches and spring skewered armchairs hunkered in gloomy rooms. Mice scurried in the shadows. Scraps of old books cluttered the table in the dining room, paperbacks collapsed shelves in the library.
The sound of something falling to the floor echoed from the second story, heavy like a Bible crashing onto dried timber. Helena jumped, nearly knocking the camera out of Marcus’ hands.
“Anyone home?” Marcus asked, regaining his balance.
Claws scurried over floorboards, then silence crept back in.
“Funny, as if anyone could live in such mold,” Helena said.
“My eyes started watering when I got that first whiff of the couch. Can we get out of here? I’m sure we’ve got enough footage.”
“Give me a minute.”
Marcus sighed and followed Helena through the rooms, filming as she pushed aside curtains and opened drawers, sometimes focusing on the architecture, the once intricate hand-carved molding around doorways, the holes in the floor that dropped away to pitch black basement. They skirted a collapsed table in the dining room, legs having given out years before. A number of shattered plates littered around the warped wood as if it had been abandoned partway through a lavish dinner. The antique stove was the only thing unblemished about the room.
Then there was a closed door at the end of a hall leading away from the dining room. The floorboards creaked as they approached.
“Are you going to knock?” Marcus smirked.
“Shut up,” Helena said, before turning the handle.
Shattered glass covered every surface like a jagged snow storm had swept across the interior. Broken shadow boxes and frames housing moths in various states of decay littered the floor. Insect husks and chrysalis were strewn across shelving units, piled in heaps on the windowsills. Some of the insects were trapped in amber and resin between gold-rimmed magnifiers and silver instruments. Light filtered through the window, glinting off glass that had broken into geometric shapes. An odd book or two was strewn through the room. A cracked mirror reflected the water stained ceiling, blue spores coating the plaster.
Helena and Marcus stood in the doorway, eyes wide. The odd juxtaposition of life and death halted — yet still decaying — was hard to unpack. To Helena, the room seemed like a space where time no longer remembered its proper function.
“Why did he let the house rot?” Helena said, finally finding her voice, confused by how a man who held so much wisdom could let something so valuable fall to ruin. In his writing, he was brilliant. What she saw before her contradicted what she thought she knew.
“I guess that’s something you’re going to have to ask him,” Marcus replied.
Marcus almost walked into the innkeeper when they returned to their Bed and Breakfast, his finger scrolling through the day’s footage, reliving the decay, the sea of insect bodies and fractaled glass. She’d been waiting just inside the front door, a broom in her hands, a pile of dirt with a single dried moth’s wing at its center lying at her feet.
“Did you find the doorway?” she asked once Marcus apologized for his tunnel vision.
“Doorway?” Helena asked.
“All the people who come looking for Otto are searching for that mystical doorway of moths his friend was always talking about. Isn’t that what you want to find?” the innkeeper asked.
“No, we don’t believe in the mystical side of the story — right, Helena?” Marcus asked. “Otto was a man of science. Of truth. He understood how the world actually worked. How insects mirror humanity. How simplicity can be found in the smallest things.”
Helena shrugged, eyebrows raising as if she weren’t a hundred percent convinced there wasn’t an actual portal hidden somewhere close.
“No one who doesn’t believe in the unseen comes looking for Otto. That’s the draw. Everyone wants a taste of the divine. You’d be a liar if you said otherwise. Remember that,” the innkeeper said, before returning to her sweeping.
“That’s not …” Marcus began before Helena grabbed him by the elbow, leading him up the stairs towards their room. They had hours of footage to review, their day tomorrow to map out. There were only so many places in a backwater town Glass could hide, and neither Helena nor Marcus truly wanted to interrogate Helena’s lack of agreement further. They both wanted to believe they were on the same page, despite the reality of the matter, and neither one wanted to call the other a liar.
Three story brick buildings lined the commercial district. The downtown was small enough to walk the entirety of in twenty minutes. Helena and Marcus wandered in and out of stores, passing through book and antique shops. Down the street, children played in a schoolyard. They got coffee and sat outside. The last of summer’s flowers were enjoying the sun, goldenrod, window boxes full of zinnias. Some of the leaves had started to turn yellow and fell to the ground.
After finishing their coffee, they went into the crystal shop, purple amethyst and clear quartz decorated the window alongside a large turquoise geode. A bell tinkled as they entered. Small bowls full of stones lined the counters — jade, calcite, jasper, obsidian. Geode wind chimes hung from the ceiling. Figurines of archangels, fairies, and saints, decorated tarot decks and candles. Wisps of Nag Champa drifted over decorative water fountains.
“Let me know if I can help you find anything,” a woman in her mid-forties with a surprising number or piercings said from behind the counter, pushing her long auburn hair behind her back. She was bent over, sorting inventory.
Marcus thanked her as they meandered towards the back of the store, before stopping in front of a wall full of taxidermied moths.
Helena and Marcus exchanged looks before their eyes roved the area for identifying tags.
“Where do these come from?” Helena asked, staring at a price marker hanging from a gold frame.
“The moths? Those come from Otto,” the woman said, cheerfully.
“You know him?” Marcus asked.
“Oh yeah, he’s a good friend,” the woman said.
“Do you have any of his business cards?” Helena asked.
The woman laughed. “Otto is not the business card type, but he doesn’t live far from here. He’s usually in his workshop around now. I’m sure you could catch him.”
“Are you sure he wants visitors?” Helena asked.
“Not many people come looking for Otto any more. He usually has an open sign out front of his workshop. Just doesn’t have much of an online presence. If you don’t have a website these days, you basically don’t exist,” the woman said. “Anyway, it’s just down the street.”
The woman gave them directions as she rang up their purchase, a white moth in a gold frame.
Incandescent bulbs were strung along the shed housing Otto’s workshop. A wooden, vibrantly painted open sign hung from a twisted iron sculpture, swaying in the light breeze. The doors were left open, revealing the sawdust strewn floor and the two heavy tables laden with glass frames and soldering tools, pins and corkboard. A number of tags with the latin names for Otto’s subjects engraved on them lay beside a collection of dog-eared entomology texts.
Otto stood over his work desk in a white shirt and jeans. His once black hair was snowy, his angular face lined with sun-etched wrinkles. Helena and Marcus stood in front of the workshop before Helena gently knocked on the open door of the shed.
“The sign does imply you don’t have to knock,” Otto said, looking up from his task.
“It's a habit. Sorry,” Helena replied. She was unsure of what to say or where to start.
For years, she had been fascinated by this man’s story. She thought he would be difficult to find, impossible to reach, yet here was much less mysterious than the articles had presented him to be. “My name is Helena,” she said, taking a step forward, “I’m a big fan of your work.”
“Framed moths?” he asked.
“I meant your earlier work — your books, specifically,” Helena replied.
“Does anyone still read those?” Otto asked.
“I did,” Helena shrugged. “He did, too,” she said, pointing to Marcus, who waved.
“Big fans,” Marcus echoed, rolling the word around in his mouth like the sawdust from the barn.
They explained their journey. How Helena had learned about his commune from her grandmother’s magazine, how as a teenager she tracked down the books through the interlibrary loan system, how she received a grant to make a film about his life.
“I’m assuming you already got enough shots of the orchard. That’s where everyone stops first,” Otto said.
Marcus and Helena nodded.
“And now you’d like an interview?”
“I mean, I don’t want to intrude. I didn’t actually think we were going to find you, so I hadn’t really planned this out,” Helena said.
“Eh, I’m always happy to talk. You bought a moth. I appreciate the patronage,” Otto said with a smile, pointing to the framed moth Marcus clutched to his side. “Moth people are my people.”
It took twenty minutes to set up the shoot. Marcus angled the shot inside the work shed just right, displaying the tools of the trade and heaps of scrap wood in the background, making sure the framed moths hanging about the space were clearly visible. The light wasn’t perfect, but he figured that would add to the authenticity of the scene.
“As you know, I grew up on the orchard, watching how nature worked,” Otto began. “We didn’t have television. I watched bees pollinate apple blossoms, observed life cycles and seasonal changes. When I went to college to study biology, I still came home to help my parents with the orchard. It was one night while watching the perseid meteor shower, I noticed the moths fluttering around in the apple trees, not just a few, but … hundreds. Then I saw the raccoons, which were eating them. The raccoons got kind of drunk, tottering around a bit. Strange things happen at night, but most of us, being diurnal, have no idea what animals do after the sun goes down.”
Otto paused, dusting a bit of saw dust from his shoulder.
“So anyway, this raccoon behavior and all the moths — it intrigued me. I had never seen anything like it, but, also, you couldn’t miss it. All these moths fluttering around, the raccoons, it was a bit ridiculous, you know? So I decided to catch my own moth and see what all the fuss was about. I did like the raccoons —” Otto mimed plucking an insect from the air and placing it on his tongue. “ — and ate one.”
Marcus chuckled when Helena mimicked the gesture, as if she would glean the same understanding from the ghost action, knowledge through kinesthetic osmosis.
“At first,” Marcus said, continuing, “I didn’t notice anything and then things started to change. I felt myself dissolve and unfold into another dimension, one that was always there, just inaccessible. I don’t know what the raccoons experienced, but I had a profound sense of transcendence, unlike anything I had ever known was possible. It didn’t last very long, but after, everything was different, I felt reborn. I felt like I knew something new, but didn’t understand what it was, and have always struggled to communicate this in language.”
“Was it spiritual for you?” Helena asked.
“Well, as you’ve probably surmised from my books, it’s hard to say. Certainly, reading my work, you could interpret it that way, but not in the way some people like to think,” he said.
“Like your partner?” Marcus asked.
Helena winced and scanned Otto’s reaction. She had wanted to broach the topic in a more delicate way. Otto winced, too, a shadow falling over him, hand dropping to his stubble-lined chin. He looked off into the distance, away from the camera as if someone unseen had called his name, but there was no one there.
“Yes,” Otto sighed, air falling out of him like a pin pricked balloon, nodding slightly, acknowledging the gravity that exists in the world. “It’s hard to know sometimes how people will change. Kesel was always very forceful, lively, but in an unrestrained kind of way. He wanted there to be more, wanted his life to mean something. He was always telling stories. I liked that about him. We were friends, and then business partners. I just never thought his stories would go so far off, but … I suppose, it’s not really unusual when you look around at places of worship, at history. People need meaning and usually go one of two ways in life. They can become spiritual and reach towards the immortal, or they can be like me,” Otto said.
“Like you?” Helena asked.
“A nihilist,” Otto replied. “Certainly there are laws that govern the universe, but insofar as the import of our lives, well, I think we go back to where we came from. I don’t believe in an afterlife.”
“Why do you think Kesel did?” Marcus asked.
“See, that — I really haven’t quite figured that out,” Otto said. “I think he just got further and further into his own delusions and distorted his experiences to create meaning for himself. It’s in our nature to want to create meaning. I think sometimes we aren’t really aware of how dangerous that can be.”
Everyone grew quiet for a moment, as if the ghosts of Kesel and the moth cult had gathered close, as if they had somehow insulted the dead. Otto exhaled, eyes moving off to something unseen. Helena had so many questions to ask Otto — why had he allowed the property to decay? What was the shed for? Why didn’t more people know about his work? The moths? His story?
He answered her questions one by one: sadness, lack of money, ability, community. The shed, with the viewing window, kept the bugs out while he worked at night.
Otto explained that there had been others like her. People who wanted to tell his story, but each time he explained that if the word got out about the moths, they would be harvested to extinction.
“Look at the bufo toads in New Mexico or any other psychoactive animal or plant.”
“Then why let us interview you?” Helena asked.
“I’ve told everyone who came before you the same story, but it’s up to them what they do after. You can’t control people, but I believe people who care about the moths, like you two obviously do, will understand,” Otto replied.
Marcus and Helena exchanged a look. He hit the record button and the screen went blank.
“We understand,” Helena said, nodding slowly.
Otto smiled and turned, plucking a jar off the shelf.
“I have my own beliefs,” he said, handing her the jar with a few dried moths curled at the bottom. “You can find out yours for yourself.”
“Are the raccoons necessary for the full experience?” Helena asked.
Otto grinned like someone who has gone through the carwash of a cult and come out the other side. “They certainly help.”
Gabrielle Griffis is a musician, writer, and multimedia artist. She works as a librarian, and lives on Cape Cod with her husband Corey Farrenkopf. Her fiction has been published in Wigleaf, SplitLip, Matchbook, Monkeybicycle, Gone Lawn, Bending Genres, XRAY, Okay Donkey, and elsewhere. Her work has been selected for Best Microfiction 2022 and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize. Her writing also appears in Repair Revolution: How Fixers are Transforming Our Throwaway Culture and Libraries and Sustainability: Programs and Practices for Community Impact. To read more or to listen to her music, visit her website at GabrielleGriffis.com or follow her on Twitter at @ggriffiss.
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and also works as a librarian. He is the fiction editor for The Cape Cod Poetry Review. His work has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, The Southwest Review, Catapult, Wigleaf, Uncharted, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Tiny Nightmares, The Florida Review, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere . To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on Instagram @farrenkopf451 or on TikTok @CoreyFarrenkopf or, if you aren’t exhausted by all of that, the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.