It started with flapping, hiding, and a high-pitched holler.
“Shit fire, it’s a bat!” Sara screamed as her steps scraped against grayed porch planks and she took cover behind me.
Flailing against the pine crossbeams was a bug as big as the little brown myotis bats that cut flips through the sky each night when the stars shone, but I knew differently.
“It’s a Polyphemus moth,” I said.
“It’s a moth.”
“I’m going inside.”
Sara ducked and dodged as the moth bounced in Us against the ceiling and tried to find sky. The screen door slapped shut, the oak door slammed, and Sara was inside peering through the window when the moth finally settled underneath the porch light.
I walked over and gently spread the wings of the moth against the cabin to try and see the “eyes” the moth was named for. Beneath the forewings on each hind was a giant eye outlined in black as dark as mascara, with fading gray eyelids, and giant yellow sclerae (normally the whites of the eyes). The image warranted the name: Polyphemus being the giant Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey, the Cyclops that kills and eats six of Odysseus’s men before the Greek’s blinded the monster and escaped on the undersides of sheep. But I wouldn’t tell Sara about Polyphemus, “rapping them on the ground, [and] knock[ing] them dead like pups.”
In reality those eyespots were a beautiful adaptation, one meant to deceive predators into thinking they were looking into the face of an owl, but being a Lit nut, I fancied the Homer allusion more than the evolutional path.
I tried to nudge the moth onto my hand, careful not to rub off any of the colorful scales on the wings, but as the moth’s legs first tickled my fingertips, wings flapped, the moth flew, and this time found air. I watched the giant silhouetted by moonlight for an instant before it disappeared into the forest. I wouldn’t see it again.
In Appalachia, we’re lucky enough to have four giant moth species that occasionally wander onto back porch walls: Polyphemus moths (Antheraea polyphemus), luna moths (Actias luna), regal moths (Citheronia regalis), and imperial moths (Eacles imperialis).
Most folks are familiar with the Polyphemus and the luna (lime-green wings rimmed in purple, hindwings tailing into a spiral). The giant moths fly to the glow of fluorescent bulbs, land on the outsides of houses, and are often found near death, barely able to flutter or even crawl, come morning.
The adult moths die shortly after breeding or laying eggs. Perpetuation is the only goal in life, and just as with sunsets and early morning fog, beauty evaporates in an instant. As with most insects, life is short-lived: born to breed, dead by morning.
Such was the case with a luna moth I found beneath the Sterling one morning at the firehouse. The moth had flown in the night before, drawn by lonely lights in darkness, and had landed under the fire truck when its wings could no longer bear its weight.
The moth could barely move its legs or shift its wings when I scooped it into my hand. There was no sense in laying the bug on a limb to wait for sunset. The moth had no use for trees anymore.
But something so magnificent had no business dying beneath tires. I carried the moth into field grass and rested it on the roots of a blooming dogwood, the tips of the tree’s flowers that same shade of purple lining the luna’s wings. It wouldn’t be long now. Soon, death would come.
The night after the Polyphemus moth flew from my fingers, I was surprised when I saw a giant triangular outline on the window screen to the porch. I knew it wasn’t the Polyphemus again (the shape a sure sign of another species), but it was a giant nonetheless.
On the porch I found a regal moth, one of the rarest of the four giant moth species, resting against the screen. The regal’s caterpillar stage, also called the hickory-horned devil, is known for eating the leaves of hickories and walnuts, so I knew it had probably flown from the black walnut tree at the edge of the property. Unlike most moths, the regal has no cocoon stage; pupae burrow in the ground and emerge, horned as Beelzebub.
The largest moth species north of Mexico, the regal donned enormous wings veined in crimson, lined with bluish-gray bars, and dotted with dun-colored spots. It was my favorite of the four giants, and all I could do was marvel.
Knowing that adult regal moths have vestigal mouths, incapable of consuming food, and usually die within a week of adulthood, I understood that it was nearing the end. I didn’t want to touch it. I wanted it to pass peacefully amidst the sounds of meadow katydids, to fall in that final hour just as dawn broke the horizon, so I left it there. Come morning, I would place it in the leaves.
Yet, with fog holding tight to the forest floor, dew beading grass blades, and the morning sun glowing yellow behind the pines, I couldn’t find the moth on the porch. I checked around the cabin, looked beneath the porch planks, and found nothing.
I was glad that it had flown, that the gorgeous moth was on the wing, that its beauty would grace the bows of trees scattering the mountainside for at least another day.
Still, there was a beauty in knowing that it wouldn’t last. There’s something spectacular in things that are gone in an instant, and I smiled, knowing that I had been privileged enough to be there when it passed.