Clara Mae had heard about this kind of thing years ago when she was on the Grand Jury. Being on an Alabama Grand Jury was a lot of what you’d expect: drunken brawls, drunken driving, drunken property damage. But it also had a lot of the unexpected. The first day of Grand Jury they warn you—much as it’s a negative stereotype about the South, and much as you don’t want to know about it—you’re gonna hear some incest.
Most of the cases the Grand Jury heard were explained by a barrel-chested, heavily-accented DA who looked like Boss Hogg; he performed each case like a Matlock monologue. 65 cases in three days. Clara Mae felt like little more than a rubber-stamp; the DA’s thunderous voice, hypnotic storytelling, and down-home-honest accent leading to unanimous vote after unanimous vote, one after the other, a blur of cases until they were sent home at 4:45.
But one case wasn’t so cut-and-dry. The DA passed around pictures first thing, before he even started speaking. They were pictures of a man—a man in soiled tighty-whities, bound with clear mailing tape to a card-table chair. The tape was tight; matted dark body hair and white skin strained against its binding. A frosty glass jar—the kind that holds pasta sauce—sat on the table, half-filled with something: maybe white beans?
The DA went to the door and whispered angrily to his assistant. Clara Mae gathered that the day’s agenda hadn’t been at his choosing. Though he appeared rattled, he went through the case with his trademark grandiosity.
“This woman you’re about to hear about, she’s the worst kind. She tortured her poor husband, drugging him, tying him up, binding him, force-feeding him insects and maggots until he nearly choked to death.
“This man went into a coma because of it,” the DA pointed to the man in the chair. “But today’s case is a unique situation. This man has come out of his coma, and he does not want to see his wife prosecuted. Sometimes the abused is addicted to the abuser, and they don’t want to leave.
But we have a duty as citizens to make sure all criminals are properly prosecuted. Just remember that. Today we will hear from this man, Mister X, in the courtroom before we vote to indict.”
Then a withered old man was wheeled into the courtroom and to tell his story. His words escaped slowly, labored through breaths of weary wheeze. Yes, that was him in the picture. Yes, he had been tortured. And yes, he had been drugged—he thought she’d spiked his Miller High Life during dinner. The jar in the picture wasn’t filled with beans, but cocoons. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. He wondered aloud to himself on the stand where she had gotten so many. Probably the internet? One by one, he recalled, she took a pair of her eyebrow tweezers counted them out upon his tongue: one fading to twenty, twenty to two hundred.
He remembered thinking that he was getting used to it—that the worst was behind him—when the eruption came. She was shoveling them in now, spoon funneling the piles down his throat. The sudden warmth coaxed the moths awake, the acid of the throat eroding their cocoons. “Butterflies in the stomach” is the saying, but as the awakening moths emerged the fluttering was nothing like nerves. Dozens of moths dizzily flapped their way up, brushing against throat and uvula, a wide geyser of sick erupting from his stomach. A blackness was spilling from him, drowning the awakened moths in mid-flight on their virgin voyage, and the dark shining bile poured from his mouth. The tunnel of projecting vomit reminded the old man of spraying ceiling texture—the way it covered the ground in a multitude of little piles, cocoons and larvae one on the other, all coated in sick. But even through the man’s misery his wife continued, spooning them faster as his consciousness waned. He took a sharp inhale to try to keep himself awake, but he sucked something into his airway—a moth?—and he tried to cough it free but couldn’t find the energy while everything faded to black.
He awoke to find his wife asleep in the vigil chair next to his hospital bed, and newfound feeling in his skin of, well, freedom. Even with plastic up his nose and down his gullet, he did not claw or choke. He just enjoyed the peace, the rhythm of her sleep-apnea snores, the light filtering through the blinds and scattering against the dust in the air, landing on his hospital blanket and warming half of one thigh.
He felt free again. Free from what had ensnared him. Free from what he called “sister-love.”
He—like Gerald—had met up with a long-lost sister after being separated at birth. He said it was like having the part of himself that was missing finally found, the emptiness that had been there for years finally filled. He couldn’t get enough of her: called her first thing when he woke up, saw her several times a day, called her last thing at night. He knew he was becoming obsessed (and so was she), but he couldn’t stop himself—and a part of him just didn’t want to. His wife had been patient with them, accommodating of the new family, but she could see the unhealthy attraction.
“Like a moth to a flame,” his wife had said. His wife was a part Creek Indian, and her father had been a medicine man to her tribe. She knew things.
“You see, when you grow up with a sibling, you get a bit of natural dislike for them when you see them every day. A little dose of repulsion. A steady drizzle of sibling rivalry. Just enough hate.” the old man explained to the Jury. “But when you’ve been separated your whole lives, you don’t have none of that. You just see the other, and (like a moth that sees a flame) you fly, head first, fast as you can into it. It blinds you, ‘til it burns you up.”
So what his wife had done, he told the Grand Jury, was not torture.
His wife had saved him.
Her father had passed it down to her, squirreled away in a ceremony log somewhere in the attic. It was an old, secret Creek tribe cleansing, a recipe to remedy Sibling-Love. It was scrawled on the page in his handwriting under the title: The Mothway. She’d heard rumor of this ritual, and knew it was dangerous, but never knew of it actually being done—much less to try it herself. She was no holy woman, not like her father. She had scoffed at his tradition and spirits and mumbo-jumbo. But when she’d had nowhere else to turn, she turned to his pages.
And no, the old man hadn’t wanted her to do it—like an addict, he thought he was fine, he could handle it, he could end it, he could walk away. But he couldn’t. She knew he couldn’t. He fought her.
“But she wouldn’t give up on me,” he said.
The old man was ushered out, and the door barely closed behind him before the DA was blustering about “hoodoo from the hills” and backwoods rednecks. And when the time to vote came, Clara Mae was sorry to remember, she had raised her hand along with the others on the jury, one more rubber stamp for the DA, one more unanimous vote to True Bill.
Clara Mae opened her closet and felt around on the top shelf above the boxes, but she couldn’t feel anything back there. Boxes flung to the ground and spilled open, but she didn’t notice; she was aware only of the discovered absence of The Doll.
Where was it?
She could have sworn that she had laid it here. Maybe she put it in the attic with the other of her mother’s dolls? But she knew she hadn’t.
Clara Mae pulled everything out of the closet: old purses, warped cardboard boxes of photos and albums, tangled costume jewelry in a zipper bag. She piled rows and rows of her clothes—still on their plastic hangers—on the bed, until her bed was nothing but a mountain of fabric and boxes.
But still no Doll!
Once the closet was cleared she stood in front of it, studying how foreign it was to her, free from the clutter, empty and alone. She could feel the scattered photos of years past staring behind her: their wedding, their babies, one of Gerald at the grill with hair. The photos buzzed with their stories of years past, yearning to be touched, flicked through, remembered. But in front of her the empty closet beckoned. Nothing but delicious void. She slipped inside, closing the door, letting the dark envelop her. In her fantasy, she had never existed.
Later, when her granddaughter appeared at the door, clutching The Missing Doll, holding it—arms outstretched—as she sobbed, confessing, Clara Mae felt shame. Shame for the wallowing. Shame for caring about The Doll the same way her mother had cared about it for all of those years. Shame for the self-indulgence. As Clara Mae lifted The Doll from her granddaughter’s hands, it looked a little like The Doll itself was crying, the wailing seeming to project from its contorted mouth. And while she hugged the young girl, forgiving her—
So sorry, Grandmom—
in the other arm Clara Mae held The Doll tighter.
When her grandchild left, after the tear-stains had dried, Clara Mae returned to face the mess on her bed, making an excuse aloud—to no one in particular
(to The Doll)
—that she had just been cleaning her closet, that was all.