by Mira Mattar
Having tired of my own species – their predictabilities, their unending need for safety and their emotional hungers – I turned my mind during middle age to entomology. Nowhere else could I find a more concentrated stream of unstudied and resolute life. Nothing is superfluous in the life of insects, not their colours, shapes, exoskeletons, scents or poisons.
My particular obsession is the Death’s-Head Hawkmoth, the Acherontia, of which there are three species: atropos, styx and lachesis. My collection consists of some fifteen or twenty specimens, pinned, mounted and labelled behind glass. I study them as often as I can to burn their shapes into my mind, dormant and beautiful. Sometimes however I enjoy removing my glasses – I have suffered from bad eyesight since I was a boy – and observing my moths through a thick haze, making their structures dissolve and blend into amorphous blankets. The configuration of their thick, velvety but still fragile wings can appear to transform into entirely new and different creatures. The reliability of even illusory change comforts my mind.
When it comes to archiving however my methods are less romantic, my notebooks devoted to all scientific, evolutionary and mythological characteristics of Lepidoptera are stacked vertically in chronological order over two shelves in my workroom.
What fascinates me most about these insects is not the skull shaped pattern of markings on the thorax which gives rise to the satisfyingly death-related etymology of their names, (in Greek mythology Atropos and Lachesis are two of the three Fates, the apportioners of life, feared even by the gods, and Acherontia stems from Acheron, a branch of the river Styx, which names the third species of Death’s-Head). Nor is it their position in superstitions around the world – a wandering death bird for the Polish, carriers of blinding dust for the French and more frequently than not an omen of death – but another capability of this common creature; the Death’s-Head Hawkmoth is able to emit a loud shrill squeak by forcing air out of its pharynx. There are many reasons for this moth to make such a sound, like many animals (though not usually insects), this moth squeaks when irritated or attacked, suggesting the sound is reflexive and instinctual.
The most telling reason however, and that to which I and many fellow researchers have devoted much of our work, is that the Death’s-Head Hawkmoth squeaks in order to mimic the pre-swarm noise made by the Queen Bee in a hive. Having a shorter and stronger proboscis than most other moths means that my Death’s-Head cannot reach to take the nectar from flowers but it can pierce the hexagonal honey cells of bee hives and suck the honey out. Its biological method of survival necessitates venturing into danger, for existence depends on sweet and intoxicating pleasure.
I heard the characteristic squeak for the first time when I was very small, unable to attach the strange sound to where it seemed to be coming from. I have ever since found myself drawn to this phenomenon. Considering I am a man with few memories, human life for the most part having disappointed, I remember only the most ephemeral or brutal. Each memory stays permanent and fresh, as loud as in every recollection of it as it was the first time. I presume this accounts for the haunted look people see when they look at me.
Another sound of this ilk has recently been added to my violent memory: at the funeral of a distant friend I stood opposite a woman I assumed was his wife. An uncontrollable sound scratched its way out of her like an animal she was struggling with, caught in the air, grabbed and twisted into illiteracy.
Perhaps it too had some purpose.