She wore brown angora and carried folded paper bags from Macy’s. A shawl cascaded down her back, a profusion of warmth. She peered at me over oversized sunglasses. “David?”
“Ma’am.” She was magnificent, in an Audrey Hepburn sort of way.
“Would you…?” I took her bags and held them as the elevator creaked its way to the fourth floor, her shoulder pressed softly into my chest in the tiny space. Her flawless skin smelled like powder.
The apartment was stylish, furnished in dark woods and dusky velvets. Intricate lanterns cast complicated shadows, revealing little of the cabinets which lined the walls. Behind their thick glass, darkness moved.
The woman settled into a deep armchair with a sigh. “How are you getting along so far then?”
The bags smelled like mushrooms and fresh bread. I set them down, careful not to look inside. “It’s… not bad. You are the third – “
“David, David. Never tell a lady!” Shadows deepened around her as her brow creased. My face fell, but she added: “You are sweet. I will take you on.”
And so the third task began.
* * *
I looked after her moths.
After the first week, my eyes adjusted to the perpetual twilight. The glass terrariums, alien and strange at first, gleamed with dark colours: blue like starlings’ wings, red like dried blood. Moths are a glory of muted tones, of subtle expression, impeccable taste. I learned to discern their moods, to tend to their whims. I brushed them and stroked them, carried their messages; sorted discarded scales by colour and size. They were pleased with me, taught me their ways: to disappear in darkness, to discern certain scents.
* * *
The woman came and went in her own ways. She did not speak to me, but the moths said she was not displeased with my work. One day, without warning, she looked at me.
“That will be all, David.”
I shied away, surprised at the sound of a voice.
“You have done well.” She held out her hand, gloved in silk. Two emperor moths fluttered from her fingertips into my cupped hands. “They will be your guides. Beware: the fourth task is hard.” She smiled at me.
I did not know what to say.
The moths, familiar friends, wove through my fingers, whispering wise words.