I was never told about love, where I come from. They all said, “Just find a mate, lay your eggs, and then you’re done.”
Once you spin your cocoon, time comes to a complete halt until instinct tells you to break your way out again, back into that blistering hot sunlight—or, hopefully, soft inviting moonlight. The world I emerged to was not the same one I had left, when I was a plump, contented caterpillar. Only later would I find out I had been sent to live in a human-built garden, an attraction for observing my cousins, the butterflies, who are absurdly backwards creatures: they fluttered around during the dreadfully bright daytime, and settled down to sleep at night. They did not seem to mind this prison, since they always have plenty of nectar to drink, and there are no birds who would try to eat them.
For the first two hours of my adulthood, I had to pump my new, crumpled wings full to their lime-green glory—for someone who only has about five days left to live, two hours is an awfully long time. Once I could fly and tour my new home, I was having the darnedest time finding another Luna moth, like myself. My instincts ordered that I find a male immediately, but none were to be seen. Worse than that, no matter which direction I flew in, I was quickly met with a wall of black netting that confined me to this place.
Once Luna moths become adults, we lose our mouths (thus why we don’t eat anymore once we emerge), so I couldn’t exactly ask anyone what was going on. At one point I was ecstatic to finally spot another Luna, but when I flew over to it, I smacked straight into a flat surface. To my dismay, it was only a picture of a Luna moth on the garden’s identification board. A curious swallowtail butterfly hovered nearby, and apparently understood my frustration as I pathetically scrambled across my picture.
“You are looking for other moths like you,” she confirmed. “It is common that not all chrysalises or cocoons survive the trip here. It’s likely yours is the only one of your variety to have made it. There won’t be another shipment in for a week.”
I began to crawl helter-skelter all over the sign in panic. This, too, must have been typical of newcomers to the garden, because the swallowtail just shook her head sadly. “If you’re looking for a mate, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The human keepers who run this place make sure none of us reproduce. Everyone here is female.”
That night, I flew by myself around the moonlit garden, wondering what good I was now if I couldn’t even fulfill my only purpose. Eventually, I settled down on what I thought was a nice brown leaf.
“Do you mind?”
I quickly fluttered up, surprised that I had landed on someone. To my shock, I had landed on a face, with two eyes that stared at me like a ravenous owl. I darted away in terror, and hid behind a sunflower.
A gentle laugh came from the face. It folded in, revealing that it was a pair of wings even larger than mine, and the eyes had been two large spots on the lower wings. Beneath those giant wings was a furry body, which pivoted around to face me. “They’re just my eyespots, like the ones on your wings.”
Oddly enough, I hadn’t really noticed them.
The stranger flicked his antennae at me. “I’m Cy. And you are?”
I shivered, unable to respond. I noticed that he, too, lacked any mouth parts, so I wasn’t sure how he was speaking to me.
He chuckled. “You must have just come out of your cocoon. You’re not used to speaking without your mouth. Talk with your antennae.” He showed me how he did this, as he transmitted some silent signal directly into me, his words crisp and clear in my head.
I, clumsily, managed to jerk my antennae to ask, “Are you a Luna?”
“I’m a Polyphemus,” he replied easily. “We’re in the same family, but not the same species.”
My hopes dropped like a petal off a dead flower. “We can’t mate,” I hesitantly said.
“Are there other Lunas like me in here?” I asked.
“Not that I’ve seen. But I came out of my cocoon about two days ago, and I’ve spent most that time hiding here.”
“Why are you hiding?”
Cy lowered his head. “There was only one other Polyphemus that emerged with me, but she fell asleep on the pathway down there. The keepers didn’t see her, and a child stepped on her. That’s why I’m just staying right here, where it’s safe.”
Another question sprang to my mind. “A swallowtail told me there were only females in this garden. How come you’re male?”
Cy laughed at my question. “If you mean, ‘how did a male slip past the humans,’ it does happen from time to time, so I understand. They really can’t tell the difference. And I suppose, since I’m the only one here now, it doesn’t matter much.”
Any other Luna would have just flown off then, since a moth of the wrong species doesn’t do her any good. But, for some reason I still can’t explain—perhaps it was because this human-made garden made me act strangely—I asked, “Would you like to take a flight with me?”
Cy twitched his antennae in confusion. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“I mean, why just sit there all night, when we have this whole place to ourselves? The garden looks so much better at night.”
“You want me to fly with you? But we’re not the same species.”
I shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. You’ve been here longer than I have. Maybe you can explain some things to me.”
Finally Cy, still rather confused, abandoned his leaf and began to traverse the garden with me. He showed me where I shouldn’t choose to nap during the day, in case visiting humans might step on or try to pick me up while I slept. He also warned me not to sit on the big wooden thing called a “bench,” because humans sat there without looking and might crunch you under their rears. He also pointed out where the “doors” were that humans entered and exited the garden, and when I asked him if we could go through the doors, he shook his head.
“The keepers have nets to catch the butterflies that try to get out the door during the day,” he explained. “And the doors are always closed all night long, so we’d never get an opportunity.”
I realized that even if I had a chance to leave this garden, I did not want to. The logical side of me should have weighed the prospect that a male Luna might be outside, just waiting for a mate, but this different side of me, this “defective” side, seemed perfectly content to stay in this place, with a moth of a different species.
This did not make sense to me. This wasn’t the urgent drive to mate that I had been feeling when I first emerged from the cocoon. I had an inexplicable wish to have Cy keep telling me things, to keep flying around with me as the moonlight shimmered on our wings, to just spend the entire nighttime having him explain the subtle differences between the Viceroy and the Monarch butterflies. What was this ridiculous desire for a companion that did not serve a function? Why was I so fascinated by the wrong moth?
The next day, I overheard something while I uneasily slept on the netting, as two human visitors stood on the walkway pointing at me. One of the humans, a female, laughed as she said to her male companion that he must be bored by all this “butterfly stuff.” Then he replied that as long as she was there with him, he couldn’t be bored. He placed his upper leg around her body—I’m sorry, his “arm”—and she rested her head on him as they walked away down the path.
That night, I asked Cy about those humans, and why they acted so oddly.
“That’s how humans display affection for each other,” he said.
“They were mates?”
“Maybe. But humans are funny. They don’t always have strict delineations like that when it comes to mating. They could be in love, but not necessarily mates.”
“Love?” This term completely confounded me.
“I don’t quite understand it myself,” Cy admitted. “It’s what makes a human want to be with a mate other than producing eggs. Apparently humans choose one mate for their whole lives, and they live a very very very long time, so love is what keeps them together for so long.” He fanned his wings a bit. “It seems to have no real purpose, but they are obsessed with it.”
“So…love just makes you want to be with someone, for no reason?” I said.
“It would seem,” Cy replied.
I thought about this bizarre concept, “love.” It might explain why I wanted to spend my time with Cy, forgetting my purpose to lay eggs. Already I could feel my body wasting away, using up the stored fat from my larva-hood. Cy was thinning too, and he was already a good two days older than I was. It was terrible to think they neither of us had every stood a chance, that we were forced to live in this garden where we were just part of a pretty exhibition. But, if that was the case, what was the point of being miserable for our last few days? What if this “love,” this seemingly useless notion that moths never took into account, actually meant something?
“Cy?” I asked him on our fourth night together, as we hung from the branch of a small tree overlooking a wading pool.
He didn’t say anything, but he was listening. He was very weak now, this being his sixth night as an adult, and he was almost worn away to nothing. Yet he still looked as beautiful as ever.
“I was wondering,” I continued softly, “are you sad that you couldn’t be with that other moth, the one that got stepped on?”
“I am sad she died,” he admitted. “but I’m not sad about not having her as a mate.”
He was quiet for a moment, then said, “When she died, I gave up on the hope to mate. I would have spent all my remaining time hiding under that leaf, too afraid to show myself, if you hadn’t landed on me. I’m sure a lot of moths might never fulfill their ‘purpose,’ but at least these past four days, having you to talk to, I’ve been…happy.” He let out a long sigh.
“What happens, when we die? What do the keepers do?” I asked.
“When they find a dead butterfly or moth, a keeper takes it out through the doors. I don’t know what they do then.”
“Do you suppose there’s some special place, beyond those doors, that they take us?”
“I don’t know.”
I had a very disheartening thought, then, of Cy being taken through those doors without me. “Cy, do you think, if you could, you could hang on for one more day or two? So maybe…we can go out those doors together?”
He was quiet for a long time. At first, I thought he thought my question was ridiculous. Then, he answered, “I’ll do my best.”
You aren’t told about love when you’re a caterpillar. But, as I lay nestled next to Cy on the branch of that tree, two wrong moths spending their last hours on earth together, I knew I wouldn’t have traded my five days of love for a thousand days without it.