The Third Task

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.

4 thoughts on “The Third Task”

  1. I really enjoyed the sense of open mystery and the descriptions of the soft, muted moth world. Love how much is unsaid throughout.

    I found this paragraph ,’“David, David. Never tell a lady!…” a little out of place and the sexual connotation odd and disconnected.

    For me the montage of moth keeping duties is wonderful especially, ‘sorted discarded scales by colour and size.’ – very fairy tale.

    Like how little is shown of our lead character, just a canvas on which to express the story.

    1. Thank you!

      I’m glad you got the feel of the place – the textures and colours of this strange place. It’s modern myth of some sort – I had something like American Gods in mind, an old power living in the new world.

  2. Interesting piece; I enjoyed it. It’s about David, who somehow is accepted into someone’s life to look after their moths. Both David and the moths are in some way mystical, and they teach David various things specific to themselves. The moths are clearly able to speak to him. This is the third of a sequence of tasks which David has to perform for various different people, and it ends when the Moth Lady feels that David is ready to move on to the fourth task. I assume that David is travelling along a mystical path of some kind.

    The setting that sprang to mind was New York City, since I think of Macy’s as a stereotypical NYC chain.

    What I enjoyed the most is the slice-of-lifeness of this, where there is no explanation about what is going other than what we can glean from the story.

    Some nits:

    > Audrey Hepburn sort of way.
    How is she “sort of” like Audrey Hepburn? I think that the vagueness possibly works here because it comes across as what someone is thinking.

    > so far[,] then?
    Possibly missing a comma?

    > the fourth task is hard.
    This is a choice about a character’s voice, but I would have preferred “difficult” over “hard”. In this section our Moth Lady has a bit more of a formal way to her speech (“that will be all”), and “difficult” fits this better (in the sense of how “hard” is being used).

    1. Thank you – I definitely aimed for NY, with Audrey Hepburn, Macy’s and tiny creaky lifts to 4th floor apartments.

      Your summary is spot on.

      I take the nits – the comma can go either way, I think, in this case. I agree “hard” is too colloquial, but “difficult”‘s 3 syllables doesn’t flow right. I’ll have a think about it :)

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