Like a Moth To a Flame
In a cabin in the mountains north of New York City, wondering how the war on Iraq is going
Christopher Ketcham
October 3 , 2002

"As part of our plan for Iraq … we're going to run the oil business… we're going to run it well, we're going to make money and it's going to help pay for the rehabilitation of Iraq." - Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.)

Summer rain and humid night, the door is open, the candles are wide. Tree-frogs and crickets pump their antiphonies. From the murmurous, rain-stunned forest, big black moths and white and orange moths are beating on the window screens, scratching like dogs, hungry for the 20 candles that light the cabin. And when they at last find the wide open door with the welcome mat they charge the candles and die.

The image takes on a gruesome cast – something like an insect reenactment of Gallipoli or Pickett's Charge or any bloody battle of man; great charges, crackling gunfire, followed by crying; another charge, more crying.

The night drips, very black, moonless. My pack of tobacco, the rolling kind, smells like old shoes, smokes lightly, goes out fitfully. I'm guessing that the heat and humidity has brought the moths out in such numbers tonight. Perhaps cocoons were burst in the lancets of rain; or the hot wet week past has raised them to a fever of fornication. The fact is they are out in armies, flicking across the low rafters, nuzzling my ears, shedding golden dust when I smash them against the walls. Some I'm loathe to kill, say the diaphanous white-winged thing that just perished under my pad. I examine her (must be a woman, dressed in chiffon). I turn her over: pure white. But at the edges of her feathers, I see where she has burnt herself.

I am guard at the door, feet half out on the wet deck; they must pass me to reach the light, and soon, out of courtesy for their suicide, I remove myself to a corner of the room to watch the processions. They come flitting and clicking and whispering against the bright wood where the candles, ensconced in iron candelabra, shed burnished light. They make the same swoops as eagles dropping down thermals in canyons, round and round the light, but they lose their composure fast, they grow more frenzied, more jealous, more insatiable with every pass, until at last they draw too close to the fire. Among the first victims is a bright creature, creamy orange, with very wide wings – the flame gutters, spurts large, the moth crackles, bounces sputtering like a cartridge from a pistol, skips against the wall, goes into a tail-spin, regains her senses, pulls out of the descent (screaming burning plane) and perches on a chair for perhaps a tenth of a second. But she has tasted the source. And so there's nothing to be done but drive directly into the flame.

Now by twos and threes and fives, they converge on the candelabra, they hum and jerk and plow through the air, pinging off the fire like pinballs. A candle goes out in an explosion of sparkling dust and a puff of smoke and splattered dollops of white wax that runs black with ash and there is a sound like a tiny turd dropping as the victim plummets to earth. They singe wings and sing out in hissing, and they limp along the shelves where the candelabra light their shadows, dragging their ashen wings, gathering themselves for another attack – and they attack, driven by greed and sick desire, a desire over which they have no control. Soon, their murders, the dozens and dozens of them, turn cacophonous, amplified by the closeness and the quietness of the woods. I stare at the fallen. Beneath one candelabra, there are sixteen of them, charred and crawling among themselves, over each other, battering each other with their wings. Some are being slowly sealed in wax. Some expire in restful sighs. Others throw a tantrum, epileptic, jumping and ricocheting and rattling, seizing up and calming down, breathing hard – and crawling toward the light, still, insane with acquisition, dooming themselves to fire and death.

After a while, I get sick of it, and I wonder if my reaction is colored by the distinct humanness of their behavior. I close the door, and shut them out, and begin to clean up the bodies, for there are many bodies and they smell like burnt hair. And I'm thinking of them now, more and more, in this the autumn decline of 2002, which the president of the United States has taken to calling "a war year."

Christopher Ketcham is a freelance reporter based in New York City. He writes for, Maxim and Penthouse, among others.

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