by Lorna MacDonald Czarnota.
The blood on Becky’s cracked lip had begun to dry by the time she stepped from the bedroom into the living room. The door creaked loudly on its hinges. Becky froze, hoping Jeff wouldn’t wake. The only other sound was a low hiss from the television station that had gone off the air an hour before. In the gray glow from the TV, Becky saw Jeff sprawled out in a drunken stupor on the sofa. He didn’t move.
Becky walked across the living room toward the front door. Her foot kicked something in the dark. An empty whiskey bottle rolled under a table. Jeff still didn’t wake.
She looked back once. In that light, while he was sleeping, he looked so childlike and innocent Peaceful Maybe she could fix it. Try once more. But no, she tasted blood. There were too many pieces missing. Becky clutched her black canvas satchel a little closer to her chest. She stuffed the fistful of dollar bills she’d taken from Jeff’s top dresser drawer into her pocket, and stepped into the night.
It was cold and dark, and a light rain had begun to fall. By the time Becky walked the six blocks to the bus depot, she was completely soaked. A man, carrying a sleeping child to a waiting taxi, held the door for his wife, and Becky slipped past them. Inside’ there were only two passengers waiting for their buses to arrive — and a little woman behind the ticket counter. Becky hadn’t noticed her at first. She was so tiny her chin barely reached the counter. Her face was all but obscured by wrinkles’ and her hair was wrapped in a turban-like bandana. Becky couldn’t tell what color it was.
“Can I help you?”
Becky put the dollars on the counter. “I need a ticket.“
Where? She hadn’t really thought of where. Anywhere would have been better than here. But now she had second thoughts. Jeff was going to need her in the morning when he woke and his head hurt. She put the money back in her pocket and turned to leave.
The office door opened and the little woman stepped through it “My name’s Mildred. Why don’t you come in for a while?”
Becky didn’t know why she followed but she did. The office wasn’t plain and stuffy like she thought it would be. Instead she found herself sitting at a chrome and Formica table in a brightly colored orange and yellow kitchen. Before she knew it, a steaming mug of tea was cupped between her hands.
“You gonna tell me how you hurt yourself?” Mildred asked.
Becky wanted to tell her that she ran into a door, but she told her what really happened.
Pa left Ma when I was a little girl. But it didn’t take Ma too long to find herself another good lookin’ man. He was a travelin’ salesman and so handsome. He was good to us. Whenever he ‘d come home he’d bring a gift. But after a while he started losin’ customers. That’s when the yellin’ started. Then one night, I heard a loud thud, and my ma screamed and then she cried. When she came out of the bedroom, she had a black eye.
“What happened, Mamma?” I asked.
“I ran into a door,” she said.
One night, Ma musta run into a big door cuz she had a cut over her eye. When I tried to help her, my new pa, who was really mad, picked me up and slammed me against the wall. I heard a crack, and a pain like I never felt before shot up my arm. Ma stepped between me and him.
“Don’t you ever touch my girl.”
He picked up the first thing he could find and smashed it over Ma’s head. Then he stormed out the door. Ma got down on her knees and wiped the hair out of my eyes. She dried my tears.
“Baby Girl, I’m gonna take you to the hospital and them doctors are gonna fix your arm up right. But, Baby Girl, ya gotta promise. Promise me, when them doctors ask about your arm’ you’ll tell ’em you fell down the stairs. Cuz Baby Girl, if you tell them about your pa, they’ll take him away. And I love him, Baby Girl. And I know he loves me. He don’t mean it. He’s just on some hard times. Promise, Baby Girl.” Well, when them doctors asked, I told them. I told them I fell down the stairs and Ma, she ran into a door trying to help me. Pa never did come back and things got a whole lot better after that. Before I knew it, I was all growed up, in high school. That’s where I met Jeff.
Jeff was captain of the high school football team and so handsome. When he stood on the field in his jersey, he took my breath away.
“Becky, one day I’m gonna take you away to a far off land. We’ll get married, have cars, a castle. And, Becky, you can even have a kid or two if you like.“
We did get married. And it was the happiest time of my life. But one day Jeff started to change. Maybe it was that accident his baby brother had. He never did forgive himself for that. But Jeff started to drinkin’. And when Jeff was drinkin’, he reminded me of Pa in so many ways,
I was working two jobs cuz Jeff had to stay by the phone, just in case one of them big football scouts called. One night I came home after workin’ late. Jeff’s supper weren’t ready. And when Jeff wanted his supper, he wanted it now. He threw me against the wall and put his hands around my throat.
“Woman, “ he said, “you git my supper and you git it now or I’m gonna wring your neck!”
I ran into a lot of doors after that.
Mildred went to the window and opened it just a crack, then turned off the lights. The bright orange and yellow kitchen was plunged into darkness. She struck a match and lit a candle on the table in front of Becky. She sat across from Becky, and in that light, Becky thought she looked like a much younger woman. Becky watched the fire dance in the old woman’s eyes.
Then a moth flew into the room. It flew around the candle flame, once, twice, three times, and dove into the fire. Becky watched as its wings curled up and it died. Then another moth flew in, and, as the one before, somersaulted around Becky’s head and dove into the flame.
In the half glow of the candle, Becky looked at the window and saw the moths lining up outside, fighting to get to the fire, beating their wings against the glass. A small white moth flew into the room. Before it could dive to its death, with hands much too quick for such an old woman, Mildred reached up and caught it in mid-flight. She held her fist out to Becky, the moth’s wings still beating against her fingers.
“What do you think this moth is gonna do when I open my finger Let it fly. Let it fly.” Becky wished.
But when Mildred opened her hand, it flew straight into the fire and died. Mildred reached over and
took Becky’s hands in hers.
Now. What are you gonna do? Becky took the dollar bills out of her pocket and slid them across the table. Then she took the deepest breath she had ever taken, and blew out the candle.
Using Moth to the Flame” with at-risk teens:
I always call the shelter before coming for my sessions with the teens and ask what issues that particular group might be dealing with. Sometimes, they tell me abuse or perhaps just “hanging out” with the
wrong people. That is when I use this story.
I wrote “Moth to the Flame” to empower abused women but have found it useful when talking about
either empowering self through choice or in discussion regarding giving control to others. In fact, I see
the latter as an issue central to what many troubled teens find frustrating in their lives. They often feel as though others have all the control but when we look deeply at what is happening to them, they have quite often given that control away. This is not always the case but when it is, this story works.
“Moth” is more than a story about an abused woman.
It is essentially a story about a woman who finds her power and makes a positive choice toward changing her life. Yet, as with many of us, we don’t always do this alone. It is the elders, the wise women, our deepest intuitions that guide us and provide us with the answers. Sometimes these answers are in the form of example and question such as when Mildred captures the moth, releases it and asks Becky, “Now what are you going to do?” She never has to tell Becky but uses story in a visual sense. I believe this is where we find the power of story to reach these young people. They don’t need more adults telling them what to do, what is right, what is wrong. That hasn’t worked for these teens. Instead, the subtle metaphors in story reach them if framed with a question or theme.
When working with a small intimate and specific audience through this story, I have each person light a candle after writing on the votive holder one word that represents whatever they want to bring into their lives. We talk a little about self-empowerment and our ability to make choices even at those times we don’t feel we have any. Put another way, we sometimes choose not to choose. And, we can always choose how to behave in any situation. For example, whether or not to accept it.
Following the story we discuss how we must give something up to make our wish come true. Nothing happens without sacrifice. Each person is asked to say what he or she thought Becky gave up. Just as Becky did, we blow out those candles one by one, saying one thing we will give up to make our “wish” come true. The teens are given their candles and invited to light them in celebration each time they make a stride in a direction toward their goal. (Note: the shelter must take these candles away from the youth due to fire hazards but are supposed to return them to the youth as needed. They don’t always do that.)
“Moth to the Flame” is not always an easy story to listen to and sometimes stirs up emotions that I, as the storyteller, do not feel is my place to handle. Because of this, I require a staff person to be present at all my sessions.
Another story I use to represent giving power to someone else is “Mary Culhane and the Dead Man.” though the story does not say she has a mentor, I feel we are the sum of an entire lifetime. Each person we meet plays some role for good or bad in our lives. Sometimes, it takes a lifetime to know just who they are and how they have contributed. This theory is part of our pre- and post-story discussion.
Another story I use to talk about intuition and mentors is Vasalisa. In this case, the little doll given the heroine by her mother helps her through the adventure.
In all three stories, “Moth,” “Mary Culhane” and “Vasalisa,” the girls become young women by trial, find their own voices, and discover their own strengths. They are able to defeat the dark places in their lives and are successful.
Whether our mentors take form as the story nemesis who pushes us in directions we never expected, or the kindly stranger who advises us by asking questions, the stories we tell and listen to run deeper than what is at the surface. Teens appreciate and need non-threatening moments of genuine care from our adult society. As with Becky, finding the courage to face the truth and follow through to find self is often a gift from places unseen. Story holds that power.
“Moth to the Flame” is an inspired story. It is one of those rare stories that seems to come from nowhere and I consider it a gift. I would like credit as the author if anyone should decide to tell it. Because it was given to me, I now give it to you for telling in the oral tradition.
This article first appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.
Lorna MacDonald Czarnota, storyteller and author, specializes in using metaphor to unlock the power of story. She is president of CROSSROADS Story Center, Inc., a not-for-profit using story, music and art to reach at-risk youth. Lorna tells folk tales, fairy tales and original stories in a traditional style often using music and song. She is co-director of the Western New York Storytelling Institute.