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Undertow

 

The unlabeled bottle contained these little 

yellow pills with letters and numbers—SR6—

engraved in them and I wondered when I’d

taken those and what they were. Another bottle

was full of large, oblong, white pills, no writing

on them. There were bottles of nasal spray,

dust-covered, and some herbs, like milk

thistle and lion’s mane and Korean

ginseng. I’d awakened one night in

September to a black witch moth opening

and closing its wings in the spray of half-

light where only a nightlight shone.

They say if you are ill and the moth visits

all four corners of a room in your house

you’re basically done for. I’d had a headache

and plugged-up ears for a week. Without 

blinking my eyes I snaked my hand under 

the covers and tried to awaken Peggy, who was snoring

lightly. The moth was like two halves of

an old Viking vessel. It must have weighed

2000 pounds. Peggy stopped snoring

and I could see her eyes glowing in the darkness

we were sunk inside of, the deep end

of the mortality pool. (She’d also had a sore

throat the last few days.) Then I noticed

the two pink pills on my bedside table,

something I’d read can make one feel more

optimistic about reality (available without a

prescription). I managed to swallow them

without scaring the black witch (I chewed

them, as no water was readily available). I

whispered then, without opening my mouth,

like a ventriloquist might. Mmotthhh. . .Peggy 

only blinked her bright eyes in the dark. The moth 

lay flat on the wall, like an open bible. I didn’t

want it to start visiting different parts of the bedroom.

It batted its massive wings a few times, almost

as if it’d been startled, and the resulting wind

moved across the bed, blowing Peggy’s hair 

back away from her forehead. The black witch moth 

inhabits the Southern United States down into Brazil

but in rare instances can be found as far north

as Duluth, Minnesota. Our bed was in rural

Indiana, outside of Captainlainberg, which is 38

miles east of Plymouth, which is 34 miles south

of South Bend, which is where Peg and I both

had jobs. Our house was in the country on a river.

I kept hallucinating the moth as a clock on some

make-believe wall, as if in a castle in Transylvania,

the numerals more decorative than legible. If I

concentrated quite hard I thought I could hear 

a ticking sound coming from the brain of the 

velvety insect. It had been twenty minutes

since I’d awakened to the black witch

in our room, ten since I’d downed the optimism pills.

I tried to think about what I’d seen on the news

but it just made things confusing (gold dust had drifted

off the black witch’s wings due to the disturbance).

There were other pills in my bedside drawer—

yellow ones and brown ones, some with a coating

and some without. Chemicals danced at their

very centers. I remembered an ad on YouTube

for Dupixent (I could recall the music that

accompanied the ad), including the fact that by taking

Dupixent you might die but ask your doctor

about once-a-day Dupixent. I heard Peggy make

a humming noise and I followed her eyes.

The moth had lifted its wings like a crinoline

wedding gown and was tip-toeing sideways on its

many dainty feet. Dawn was breaking, and as the moth

drew closer to the window it shuddered,

light being absorbed into its intricately patterned

wings. It was still dark where we lay, as

if we had awakened at the bottom of ten feet

of blackwater water in the Okefenokee swamp.

Small shrimp-like creatures spun past. I feared

the arrival of crocodiles. We survived that night,

Peggy and I, and woke to coffee and scrambled

eggs and toast and the New York Times on our

screened-in porch. A great blue heron lifted

from the river and rose into the sky and flew in circles

for several quiet minutes and then landed about

five feet from where it had originally been feeding.   


 

DAVID DODD LEE is the author of eleven books of poetry, including the forthcoming book of collages, erasure poems, and original poems, entitled Unlucky Animals (January, 2024). His poems most recently have appeared in New Ohio Review, Ocean State Review, Guesthouse, Copper Nickel, TriQuarterly, The Nation, and Willow Springs. He writes and makes visual art and kayaks in Northern Indiana, where he lives on the St. Joseph River. He is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University South Bend, where he is also Editor-in-Chief of 42 Miles Press, as well as the online literary magazine The Glacier.











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