Our Wings

Peppered Moth

Fair is fair, and clear is clean. Clean air is clear, clear air is clean, though I fathom the factories fair fouled it up. Particulate, exudate, aerosols, mud, benzene, dioxins, DDT, blood. Filthy factory runoff grimes up our groundwater. Oozes thin. Gurgles thick. We slide and we slip on greased oilcloth earth. Our dirt is all dirty, our water oil-slick. But the air looks clear. It seems clear. So it’s clean. How do we know? Well! The moths are all white. Though something coughed cigarette ash on their wings. Moths. Peppered moths. We did them in school. Plaster moths, smeared on chalky tree bark. Hiding. Safe. Such dull country life. Flew to the city. Bit of life. Bit of light. Good honest wages in a dirty old town. Factory birds there, stains all down their wings. Snapped up the moths. Swallowed them down. Peppered perfect. No sauce needed. Too bright. Too white. The moths went dark. Their lights went out. Factory birds saw the bright lights tonight. So shoot out the lights. Hide. Safe. Fall in ink. Paint it black. The moths went black. But then they went back. Factories closed. Went somewhere else. Less soot in the air. Less soot you can see. No hiding place with the lights back on. The black moths died. Snapped up. Drowned in sauce. White ones came back. Lovely white, bone white, Aschenputtel spray. Dirty dirt, oily water, ashen air? Gone clean. Clean now. Must be. Factories gone. All gone now. Other side of the world.

 

Air drift. Wind currents. Runoff. So what? Natural selection called, said we won. Air’s filthy? We’re not dead. We’re black moths, dark and hearty. Air’s cleaner? Here we are. We’re white moths, barely blemished. Whatever happens, we win. That’s progress, energetic. Select. We’re elect. We survive and protect. What’s the other side of the world to me? What’s the other side of town to you? Factory’s over there. They like soot in the air. Black moths like it. We’re white moths, far away. Three, five, ten, twenty, thousand miles away, upwind. Maybe down. Can’t tell up from down but my air’s clear, so it’s clean. My air’s beauty. My air’s an aria. Sing arias, sing out for fresh clean air: O alveoli! I miei bronchia! Pretty words, how they dance up and down. Pretty words, pretty dancing girls, pretty names. Bronchia, set the table. Your inhaler, Alveoli. Breathe. Deeper. You can do it. Dinnertime, girls. Factory farms favor us with fine food. Peppered moths shake, tremble. Terrified. They know what factories mean. Shake them up, girls. Let it flutter on your food. Make it spicy. Pepper it up. We’re not scared. Not at all. A little bit of shrapnel never hurt anyone. Factory farms fashion fine-fettle food. Every good girl deserves favor. Fallout. Flesh. Peppered moths shake. Shake us. Don’t break us. Took Mr. Darwin a long time to make us. A thousand wings, select white, dirty, pale. Only takes a good shake to feel clean. In the clear.

 

A walk after dinner. That settles your hash. Breathe deep. Girls, look around you, all your senses reel. Wind them in, keep walking, no need to linger. Our insides remember. They collect all we see. Soft tissues, sweet Cilia, sweep up all the ash. Ash-blackened coins drop in fragile silk bags, purses hidden deep in our chests, our breasts. Share the wealth with your sister, Alveoli. Share. Wander. Drift. Don’t know where we’re going. Feel breathless. Kind of tired. But plenty money. Ashen wealth. Coins clink in a thousand pockets deep inside. It’s a heavy trip, man. I’m weighted down. Want to drift. Like the wind. Like the French. They don’t walk, they dérive. Derive ideas, like potatoes, from the sad black dirt. Every step’s discovery. That’s how the French walk. Do they fly? Are there French moths? Just English? Long ago? Take it all in, girls. The ground we disrupt, dust sighing from dust. Caustic clouds, sudsy, soak dust into grime. Sunlight, sulfur-saturated, dries it to soot. Soot like our wings. Too much soot on our wings. Evolution’s a struggle, girls. You’ve got to fight dirty. Look, girls, look. I told you to look. Bronchia, stop lagging. Lollygagging. Use your wings. Look, let’s stop here. Just a minute. Catch my breath. Tired lately. Can’t shake it. But I’m well. All’s well. Our wings are white, dust white, with the dust we can’t see. When dirt can’t be seen, it’s not so. So walk. Keep your coins. To be rich is glorious. Be selfish. Keep them all. I’ve got to rest, girls. A minute. No more. But you keep going. Dust your wings off and fly. Wander downwind. Or up. Go everywhere. Anywhere. Get clear and clean. Clear of here. On a clear day, still can’t see a thing. Can’t see. Breathe. Think. Got to rest. Rest a while. But you get up, girls, get up, it’s time. You’re selected. Life’s winners. So go. Run. Fly. Escape. Drift. Breathe.

 
 

Part of The Learned Pig’s Clean Unclean editorial season, March-May 2015.

Image credit: Ben Sale

 
 

The Learned Pig

Hilary Hall

While writing science fiction under another name, Hilary Hall became interested in edgeland exploration, emotional geography, and the hidden histories of suburban and industrial landscapes. She is writing a novel about memory, identity, alienation, and the psychogeography of Chicago's Calumet Region, where she lives and works. "Our Wings" is her first short publication.