MIFF TO THE FLAME

Wendy De-Veryard

Oftentimes life in the tunnels was peaceful, tranquil even. Generally Saturday mornings were noted for such a time. There were no chores and no school. Those that helped throughout the week in the general running of tunnel life took it easy on Saturday mornings, the helpers choosing Saturday afternoons to visit to restock, and that generally being Williamís larder.

One particular Saturday morning found Vincent and Father sat in quiet solitude in Fatherís chamber. Both were reading. Father was pouring over one of his newest books, and Vincent was marking the homework he had set one of his classes the week before. Heíd told them the story of the Moth and the Candle and asked that they find some comparisons.

Some of the results of the homework were pretty good, others were amusing and as Vincent chuckled for the about the fifth time, Father lifted his head and asked, "What amuses you so, Vincent? Care to share it with me?"

Looking up at his father and then down at the work he held in his hands, Vincent chuckled harder and shook his head. "I doubt you would find it quite as amusing, Father." He told him, and that was an understatement.

"Father is a moth to the flame when he is drawn to incur Williamís wrath at pilfering his newly baked cookies," Geoffrey had written.

"Father was a moth to the flame every time he let one of Devinís pranks get the better of him. (Devin only did it to rile his old man. Father could never see it Ö I sometimes wonder whether Devin intended Father to have a heart attack.) This was signed as anonymous but Vincent had a feeling it was Kipperís handwriting, albeit disguised.

"Mouse is a moth to the flame every time he invents something he deems will better the community, and blows Fatherís gasket when he tells him of his brand new idea. Idiot! If I were Mouse, Iíd learn from that, and not keep getting my wings singed by Fatherís wrath." Again unsigned.

Vincent turned the pages, finding one that Father might not find so aggravating. It was similar to one he had previously read, but Vincent felt Father would enjoy it this way round.

"I set the children an assignment. We have been discussing ways in which people can be drawn into temptation. By the by, I told them the story of the Moth and the Candle and I asked them to go away and write something along the lines of how people they knew might be drawn to doing something wrong just like a moth to the flame. Hereís one of the replies that should amuse you.

ĎVincent is like a moth to the flame every time he pilfers one of Williamís cookies. "

Father roared with laughter. "You most certainly are, my boy! Not only have you literally got your fingers burned in the past, but William has been fuming. Have to admit though, in this there are many culprits. However, in Colleen McCulloughís words from the book ĎThe Thornbirdsí, of which I have a copy here before me, I quote, ĎThe bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.í And in actuality, when you think about it Vincent, there is a great similarity between the thorn bird and the moth and the flame. Each impales itself in one way or another, the moth in that it impales itself in the fire, the thorn bird in that it impales itself in the thorn bush. Both are drawn to die, relentlessly pursuing their own destruction."

Vincent was thoughtful. He had a feeling that somewhere there was a message therein for him when it came to his relationship with Catherine. Such a bittersweet relationship, one that would be the death of him he expected in one way or another, yet... one he was reluctant to break... for like the thorn bird her song (Catherineís company) was joyful... and he could not live without it.

Strangely, he turned to the next page of the folder on his lap and began to read. Then he stared and stared, and stared some more until Father, still watching closely, was prompted to ask,

"Vincent? Is something wrong?"

"Iím, not sure Father. That is..." He paused and took a deep breath, "I canít seem to understand what is written here or why."

"Whoís it by?" Father asked.

Vincent had looked at the signature several times, and knowing the juvenile years of the author had done little to help him understand her way of thinking.

"Christy." He replied.

"Christy? I didnít think she was in that particular group?"

"Ordinarily no, she isnít, but she wandered by as I was telling the story about the moth and the flame and stayed to listen. She neednít have written anything, as the homework was not intended for her. Let me read you what she had written. Thereís a title." Vincent drew in a deep breath and sighed raggedly, "Sheís called it ĎThe Miff, spelt M - I - F - F, and the Flameí."

Father chuckled, "The Miff?" His eyes danced with humour.

"I can only conclude that she has become confused. After handing out this assignment, I told the class that next week we would be discussing myths and legends, and that they were to read as much on it as possible between the two lessons."

"So what has she written regarding this, Miff?" Father asked with laughter.

"Thatís it, Father. I donít understand what she is driving at. She says that Catherine is like the Miff, and I am like the flame."

Father laughed harder, "Then itís easy to see, isnít it? Christy meant moth not miff, and she obviously sees Catherine as someone who dances around another knowing full well how dangerous that might be for her... but, still she does it... still she does it. Christy is obviously beyond her years. Out of the mouths of babes huh, my boy?" Father chuckled.

Vincent blushed. To think that Christy, no older than seven years of age had noticed Catherineís behaviour around him made him embarrassed. Who else might think likewise? And the way Father was looking at him... shrewdly... as if he expected him to accept the truth behind Christy words...

"Out of the mouths of babes? I donít think so Father. Christy doesnít even know how to spell for one thing, either that or she confuses myths with moths." And with his pen he crossed through her word, ĎMiffí, and wrote the word Moth above it.

"I donít believe so, Vincent. I do think... " Whatever he was about to say, Vincent didnít allow him to finish. He stood up, deposited the folder from his lap to his recently vacated seat and mumbled that he would be at the mirror pool if any one needed him.

Father watched him go, his blue eyes twinkling merrily. He made a mental note to speak to Christy about her assignment when next he saw her, unable to shake off the feeling that the child saw things beyond her years.

***

ĎThe bird with the thorn in its breast... the moth to the flame... the bird with the thorn in its breast... " Vincent mused as he sat idly trailing his fingers through the still waters of the mirror pool. Was his and Catherineís relationship truly like that? Would Catherine deliberately throw herself into the fire... deliberately impale herself to utter the sweetest of songs... to be loved... just once... by him?

It was incomprehensible that she... so beautiful... might... think... about... that kind of... relationship... with him. Yet...

He thought of her now. Her eyes, green and dancing, lighting with love for him... at the merest sight of him... how... when he appeared at her balcony... she would run and fly into his arms... even though... he was, for all intents and purposes... the very thorn that would bring her harm... the very fire that would consume her...

Vincent swallowed with difficulty... oh yes... he would... consume her... therein lay the truth... a simple truth brought forth by some misspelling at the hand of a small child... incomprehensible... that she should know and understand what she had written... could she have known too what reading it would do to him? Vincent doubted that very much. Christy had written what she had seen to be so... did they all see it the same way? Did every one in his community see Catherine as one who would foolishly and relentlessly throw herself where she may be harmed?

Startled, Vincent gasped... was that what Christy saw? Did the child imagine that he, Vincent, truly was a dangerous one, so dangerous that Catherine the foolish one did not realise danger when she saw it? Vincent had to know.

Uncurling his long legs he stood and began the short journey to the hub. From there he made his way to where he hoped Christy might be at that time of day... and then he backtracked... running toward Fatherís chamber... rushing in... snatching up the folder, still where he had left it on the seat... noticing Fatherís amused look, but each saying nothing... then dashing out again... intent on finding the child... He found her... where he expected she would be... in her chamber... reading books.

"Vincent!" She looked up startled as he entered, bidding her parents good morning. Christyís eyes were averted to the folder in Vincentís hands and she looked momentarily awkward and afraid.

Seeing her fear, Vincent put her at her ease, "Christy, nothing is wrong... I have read your homework... I just want to ask you a question?"

Vincent extracted the page and handed it to the child, who frowned and asked, "Why have you crossed this out? Itís not wrong, is it?"

Their faces peering over their daughterís shoulders, her father was first to speak, "Ah Christy, you have spelt Myth wrong. It should be M-Y-T-H."

Christy shook her head. "No, it should be M-I-F-F." She looked around at both her parents, begging them to understand. Neither did.

"Can you explain Christy?" Vincent asked.

"You know?" Christy told him. Vincent shook his head.

"Did you mean moth, sweetheart?" Her mother asked perplexed.

Christy shook her head. "No. Catherine canít be a moth. Vincent could be a moth. But heís not heís a candle." The three adults looked to each other hoping for enlightenment.

"Iím sorry sweetheart but we donít understand." Her mother told her.

Christy sighed heavily, "Catherineís a girl so sheís got to be a miff. She canít be a moth. A moth is a boy. Catherineís not a boy... " Christy eyes were round and appealing as she asked in all honesty, "Is she?"

Thinking of Catherine... her parents could have laughed aloud... thinking of Catherine...

Vincent could have done more than laughed... thinking of Catherine... Vincent felt a wealth of emotions... impossible to put names to...

"No darling," her father smiled, "Catherine isnít a boy... sheís all woman... isnít she Vincent?" Her father smiled at Vincent begging him to differ...

Uncomfortable... Vincent had an inkling... that no matter what Christy had written... or why... she had only stated what everyone else had already known... Too late, he realised that by bringing Christyís homework here, by showing it to her parents... he had set a trap for himself... now everyone knew that he knew... how they felt about his and Catherineís relationship... Alas, that didnít answer the fundamental question. Did they really view him as dangerous? Or did they view Catherine as stupid... to relentlessly pursue her own death knowing the dangers existed but flogging herself regardless?

"You see..." Christy was explaining, in her matter-o-fact childlike way, "A miff is a female moth. And Catherine is like a miff because she loves Vincent so much and even though he looks dangerous, he isnít. Catherine only wants to be where itís warmest, she doesnít see how dangerous it can be."

"Darling..." Her father was laughing, "A miff isnít a female moth..." He looked to Vincent for verification. "Itís not, is it?"

His thoughts elsewhere, Vincent said nothing and Christyís father went on, "I do believe you have got mixed up somewhere sweetheart. The only thing a miff can be is something one places oneís hands inside to keep them warm on a winterís day. Or some people wear miffs around their neck. It depends where a person originates, as to its meaning, Christy. But it is in no way a female moth."

Christy looked confused. "But Vincent said, next week the class would be discussing miffs and legends. And this week he was talking about moths and flames."

The parents laughed, understanding the mix up at once, and as carefully as they could they explained it to their daughter, while from moment to moment they sent sidelong glances toward Vincent who still stood seemingly perplexed in the centre of their chamber.

"Vincent?" Christyís father beckoned after much time had lapsed and the younger man had not moved, just appeared withdrawn... confused...

"Thatís cleared up the matter hasnít it? Christy thought a miff was a female moth." He laughed. "Was there something else you wanted to ask her?"

As if coming out of a trance, Vincent stared at the other man, "What? Oh... er... no... " He looked down at the child, "Thank you, Christy." Then he made to move away then stopped, turned and came back to kneel before the child, "Can you answer me one thing?"

Christy gazed up at her parents who looked to one another, obviously bemused and nodded. In turn, Christy nodded to Vincent.

Sighing heavily, Vincent asked, "Do you think Iím dangerous?"

Her face wreathed in smiles Christy threw herself into Vincentís lap, almost bowling him over and wrapping her arms around his neck, "You? Dangerous? Are you kidding, Vincent? Youíre soft and cuddly and warm... and Catherine knows that!"

Bewildered, Vincent prompted, "But then why did you write that Catherine is a moth" (ĎMiffí she corrected him). "And I am a flame?" He continued raggedly.

"I didnít say that... look at it again, Vincent... it says ĎCatherine is like a Miff, and Vincent is like a flame."

Drawing his brows together, Vincent could only stare at what was written in front of him seeing nothing different to that which he had asked.

Christy sighed, "You donít get it do you? Youíre not a flame, Vincent you are like a flame. Catherineís not a miff, Vincent. She is like a miff."

"Care to run that by us a second time, honey?" Her father asked equally as confused as Vincent appeared.

Sighing heavily, like children do when adults canít see their noses in front of their faces, Christy meticulously explained, "Just like a miff, Catherine is a beautiful butterfly, daddy, and all she wants to do is stay close to Vincent where its warm and cuddly. Only Vincent pretends to be dangerous, and Catherine can see that he isnít and even though Vincent pretends, Catherine keeps getting closer and closer because she knows he isnít really. But Vincent keeps her away. If Catherine really was a miff and Vincent really was a flame Catherine would be burned... but she isnít a miff and heís not a flame... " Christy shrugged her shoulders and said nothing more, as though the world and all its questions were answered in that one shrug.

Bewildered the adults looked to one another and Vincent felt he might never understand the minds of children as long as he lived. It made no sense... or did it?

Children he knew saw things in the absolute. They rarely saw dangers. And he knew that most children in the tunnels regarded him as a friend. And some like Christy saw him as soft and cuddly, so he could understand why Christy thought Catherine would think along the same lines. The only problem with that was as adults, both he and Catherine knew that just as the moth who came close to the flame would be burned, she could be injured if he allowed her to come too close to him. However... A little voice inside reminded him of the thorn bird... no matter the danger that presented itself... the thorn bird sung its sweetest when impaled...and...a childís innocence was such that it saw no wrong in what was plainly obvious to everyone else.

And that being...

Vincent wandered back to the mirror pool... he had a great deal of thinking to do... and all of it... through the eyes of a child...

***

Much later, he returned to Fatherís chamber, and finding it empty sought that which he needed, leaving a note that he had taken it and returned to the mirror pool, with Colleen McCulloughís book in his hands. There he sat, and opened the first page and read aloud; ĎThe bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.í

So engrossed in his reading was he, that he did not realise Catherine had arrived in the tunnels and sought him. Going first to Fatherís chamber, she found it empty and after waiting awhile wandered to the desk where she found Vincentís note and drawn by the unmistakable handwriting did the unthinkable, read what was not intended for her and knew at once where to locate Vincent.

Therefore, as he read the parable over and over again, Catherine arrived and paused to listen, wondering not only why Vincent recited the words, but also acknowledging the imperceptible way in which he quoted them, as if by so doing he was trying to import their meaning into his mind and heart in such a way to be taught by them.

Tears in her eyes... Catherine knew only that for whatever reason Vincent recited the verse so poignantly, it had something to do with their relationship... and she could do nothing... but stand and listen... and hold her breath as he spoke...

ĎThe bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law... unchangeable... " Vincent added softly and nodded, "Like Catherine... driven by she knows not what to impale herself... and die singing... Oh Catherine... if I were to hurt you!" Anguished, Vincent closed his eyes, and tears squeezed through his lashes wetting his cheeks. He brushed them away with the back of one furred hand and resolutely read on.

ĎAt the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come... the very essence of her love for me... I could hurt her and she would not blame me even then... but still that does not make it right that she should take the risk... It simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note... No blame at all... Ah Catherine... if only... I might impale you and not cause you harm... " Vincent shuddered as he suddenly became aware of a double meaning behind his innocently spoken words.

Behind him in the shadows Catherine shuddered also... and due to it, he became aware of her presence...

Hairs on the back of his neck bristled... and his shoulders tensed... as the bond enlightened him to her presence... how long she had been there he couldnít ascertain... it grieved him only that she had overheard his last comment... and she too had recognised its double meaning... He did not turn... could not face her... did not move from his spot, just took up the narrative once more, his voice a little unsteady now... aware of her presence...

"But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand..."Vincent paused as he sensed movement behind him, surprised when Catherine laid a hand on each if his shoulders and bending to kiss the top of his head uttered very softly; "And still we do it. Still we do it."

Out of the mouths of babes... a moth to the flame... the thorn bird singing in its thorn bush ready to impale itself and die for what it believed to be right... an irrefutable unchangeable law... something that was just so... just so...

And in her arms Vincent turned as she knelt before him, their eyes meeting and acknowledging... the truth... The indisputable, undeniable, unwavering truth as seen through the eyes of a child...

... And the miff was consumed by the flame...

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