Cocoon

by Julia Pike

It began with the worms.

I saw the first one while on a run after work. It was hot out, humid and teetering on the brink of ninety, and I spotted the fuzzy shape inching across the asphalt. I slowed, glad for an excuse, and studied it. It was half the size of my pinky finger, woolly and speckled with white. I spotted another one as I walked to the dining hall for dinner, another the next morning on my way to work.

There were a dozen of us friends at school that summer, working at the Admissions Office or the library, doing research for professors or working on our theses. The pace of the town had slowed as college students flooded out after the year ended, but we had remained. We oozed through our days, swimming in the pond near school despite its ever-present sheen of sunscreen, drinking beer on the fields behind our dorm as the sun set, making out in various permutations on roofs and in tiny college-issue beds. We all noticed the worms around the same time. We thought they were sweet with their furry bodies and tiny eyes, and we avoided stepping on them as we walked on the paths or biked to work.

In the first week of July, the moths started to appear.

“Did you know that they liquefy in their cocoons?” a friend asked me.

I tried to picture this, building a house around myself only to turn to fluid inside it, emerging as something new, beautiful, winged.

“Do you think they remember it?” he asked. “Being liquid?”

*

At first, we related to them with bemusement, swatting them out of our hair with dramatic shrieks and making jokes about the End of Days. They clustered around tree trunks, rising in great flapping clouds if you came too close.

We thought that it would die down after that first week—“They’re born, they fuck, they die,” my friend told us—but it didn’t. The clouds around the trees grew thicker, even as the pale carcasses with their paper-like wings began to pile up on the paths.

We continued with our routines—why wouldn’t we? We listened to the same four songs on repeat, screaming the lyrics into the orange, darkening sky. We put our hands over our heads and ran inside, fleeing the summer thunderstorms that were coming more and more frequently. We snapped at one another, made the same jokes over and over, sighed smoke out of the dorm room windows. Still, the moths multiplied, exponential growth in the midst of our looping.

The moths were making it hard to give tours. Still, I persisted, walking backwards and swatting as I moved. One day, though, a moth flew directly into my open mouth. I choked and spit it out, but not before the feeling had been seared into my brain—wings in a too-small space, the taste of panic, a flapping on my tongue.

*

On the last day, we had a picnic. We took too-strong sangria, day-old dining hall sandwiches, and ice pops out to the football field. We threw a Frisbee that was bent out of shape and wobbled through the moth-flecked air, rested our heads in one another’s sweaty laps, drank until our teeth were stained purple. One boy ran, like he always did when he was drunk, and we watched his dark head bobbing off into the trees at the edge of the field.

When the moths came, we realized that we’d been expecting it all along.

But when they arrived, they did it in a more spectacular fashion than we’d anticipated. They committed to their performance of catastrophe. At first it was a small fluttering, a couple dozen of them executing arabesques through the twilight air—the intro. Then, suddenly, it was torrential. They were a rush, a pale wave. The sky disappeared under the weight of all those wings. I heard someone scream near me, but it was as if she was screaming through sheets hung out to dry in the sun, faint and muffled. The moths were in my hair, beating and tangling in the strands. I closed my mouth but not before I felt that familiar taste of flapping panic on my tongue. I brought my hands up to my face, plugged my ears and nose with my fingers, but I could still feel thousands of insistent wings against my skin, still hear screaming.

I didn’t know how long it lasted, but after a time I became aware of a new noise. It was a sound like someone dropping paper packets of sugar all around me—a shaking, a quiet thwack. The pattering at my skin lessened, but I stayed as I was, crouched and plugged up. It was only when I heard the others talking that I unclenched, feeling my joints screech and whine. I opened my eyes.

It had snowed in July, the moths’ suddenly-dead bodies like a flurry of flakes. The shapes of everything—the trees, my friends’ figures, the once-red plastic cups—we all softened, blurred. We stood up and wandered around, children of summer unused to this winter of carcasses.

It was the first die-off.

This was before the rest of it, before the water crises, the Climate Wars, the infestations that made the moths look quaint. We were young and ignorant then, liquid in our cocoons, the potential for anything fluid and shifting inside us.

Julia Pike is a senior English Major at Amherst College, currently working on a novella for her thesis. Her work has previously been published in The Common and Two Thirds North. She is from Brooklyn, New York. 
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