Sunday, June 26, 2011

Charcoal Chrysalis

Back in the Autumn, I visited the village of Glimrack. It's a tiny village in a barren corner of the Scalps. The whole area looked as if it had been burned recently; there were plants here and there, but the soil they sprouted from was completely black. It seemed to be mostly ash. On the way to the village, I passed through a whole burned forest, a field of blackened sticks poking into the sky. None of the plants sprouting beneath them looked more than a year old.

There was very little soil, even ash, around Glimrack itself. Most of the village is built on bare stone. The villagers make their living by farming mushrooms in caves; most of their food comes from the nearby village of Gramfimly. All the buildings are made of stone with slate roofs. There are wooden beams underneath, but they're well hidden. When I arrived, the only wood in sight was piled up in tall heaps on the plain outside the village - broken chairs, dead branches, and what looked like several years' worth of firewood. Everyone in the village was running back and forth, adding more wood. Wagons rolled into town, one after the other, piled high with dead logs from the surrounding forests.

All the people I saw were reptiles, which was interesting by itself; even the smallest villages usually have at least a few mammals and avians as well. I asked a few of them what it was all for. "For the moths," they said. "They hatch tonight." None of them would tell me any more. They kept running back and forth, their arms laden with wood. I stayed and watched. Eventually, I started helping; there didn't seem to be much else to do. The piles of wood kept growing until they covered most of the plain. The bare stone was still visible, but more than half of it was buried under the splintered heaps.

After dark, they lit them.

It was the largest collection of bonfires I've ever seen. They turned the plain into a fiery maze, paths of bare stone between walls of flame. The air had been chilly all day, but it quickly grew so hot that I had to back away. The villagers didn't seem to care. They walked out into the maze, shedding their coats and jackets as they went. Slowly, solemnly, they began to dance.

The reason for the burned forest became clear when moths of flame emerged from the bonfires, swirling up and out in cindery clouds, sparks dripping from their burning wings. They swooped in wild curves through the flames, rising on updrafts and whirling around each other. The people danced through the flames, most of them stripped to the waist or further, spinning in graceful circles with the tiny scraps of living fire.

It seemed to be special when a moth landed on someone. Whenever it happened, the person would stand perfectly still as the moth dripped fire on their skin, smoke rising from the singed scales. Everyone else would do wild leaps and turns around them. When the moth finally left, the standing person would press their hands to the burns left behind, then throw themselves back into the dance with renewed vigor. I must have seen it happen more than twenty times during the night.

I learned later that this is actually part of the life cycle of the moths. They return every year to lay their eggs in the ash, the way monarch butterflies lay their eggs on their native patches of milkweed or viperwort. The caterpillars are gray and ordinary-looking. They live ordinary lives all year, eating ash and charred wood, until a fire burns away their solid bodies and releases the adult flame moths inside. A hundred years ago, there was a forest where Glimrack is now; its frequent fires provided the moths' first hatching ground. The trees are long gone, but the people of the village still gather wood all year long for the Autumn bonfire. The moths have been part of the villagers' lives since the days of their forest-dwelling five-times-great-grandparents. They don't want them to find another place to lay their eggs.

I still don't know exactly what the moths mean to the villagers. Whatever happened that night is obviously quite important, to be worth enduring so much pain, but I don't know why. No one I spoke to offered any information, and I didn't ask.

It was almost dawn before the fires finally burned down to embers. The dancing slowed down as the fires died. A few people paused to receive a last fiery kiss; then, all at once, the whole burning cloud of moths lifted into the sky. The villagers watched the moths until they vanished in the glow of the rising sun. Then, silently, they turned and walked back to their houses.

In the morning, they emerged with the shapes of tiny wings burned into their scales.

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