A couple of weeks ago I re-read Annie Dillard’s story of the Polyphemus moth in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This little story also appears in Dillard’s An American Childhood, and it is a beautiful and gut-wrenching bit of memoir. Dillard has said that this encounter with the Polyphemus moth when she was a young child changed her life.
I can understand why. Even though it’s easy to interpret the episode as pure metaphor (the pain of being unable to “spread one’s wings” I suppose) I think the story is more potent when read literally. Whenever I read it, I think of young children, those moments when they truly perceive the nature of suffering for the first time, and how devastating those moments can be. Here is the story:
“The mason jar sat on the teacher’s desk; the big moth emerged inside it. The moth had clawed a hole in its hot cocoon and crawled out, as if agonizingly, over the course of an hour, one leg at a time; we children watched around the desk, transfixed. After it emerged, the wet, mashed thing turned around walking on the green jar’s bottom, then painstakingly climbed the twig with which the jar was furnished.