speculative prose

Moths to the Flame, by Daniel Rosen

Moths to the FlameThese letters have been ordered in as accurate a sequence as possible. Needless correspondence has been eliminated, that we might more clearly depict the events which led to revolt in Gom Ilsa. Our gratitude and apologies to the Reynard family, who made all of this possible.


10th – XI – 542

Dearest Elodie,

Finally saw a full eclipse of Mangeshkari perform tonight. The singing moths chittered in perfect harmony, far superior to those owned by the street performers back home. The moths here are bigger. They’re healthier, their tympanic organs hugely oversized. They were conducted by Ghandide, the reigning Lord Siddharmonic. The show was a madhouse. You’d have loved it.

Men and women packed so tightly into the symphony hall that the ticket takers had to stack the tables and chairs in the alley. They erected awnings at the doors and windows so the overflowing audience could listen to the symphonies without ruining their coiffes in the monsoon rains.

It was an epiphany. The moths sang like the crash of waves against the shore, like the cries of lovers long kept apart, like chimes rung by hurricanes. When Ghandide hit the third movement of his suite and brought the eclipse into a roaring climax, the crowd melted. At that moment, at the apex, it seemed that Ghandide hadn’t raised moths, but a chorus of otherworldly spirits.

All things end, though. When the movement finished, he lined up his moths along his arms and bowed with them before returning them to their cages and ducking backstage.

Never seen anything like it. Wish you were here.

Ever yours,


13th – XII – 542


I hope you’re well, and that you haven’t been terribly bored in my absence. Sorry I didn’t write sooner. I’ve been absolutely swamped with work these past few weeks, and getting settled in, all of that. Rest assured, you’re the first person I’ve written.

You must convince Mother and Father to let you come down here sometime. It’s nothing like Veringia, where music is sung and chanted, played on drums and cetara. The songs here are old and sacred, the product of generations of animal husbandry and carefully honed technique.

If you send me money, I can see about buying you some eggs, or perhaps even a trained moth. Gom Ilsans revere the Mangeshkari, but they’re everywhere, and I ought to be able to get ahold of some. You’ll have to give me time, however. I’ve heard smugglers are killed, or imprisoned on a desolate rock off the coast.

Father always said that to be a musician was to follow the oldest profession in the world. Older by far than the women who coat themselves in coloured veneers and dangle shapely ankles out of balcony windows. Older than the soldiers who spend their days hacking flesh. As old as time itself. In the beginning, and before it, Father said, there was rhythm. There was melody.

As you know, Mother is less flattering. To her, the musician is the beggar who never asks, but always expects to receive.

Mother had the right of it, I think. I’m a beggar here.

In stories they will tell you that Gom Ilsa is a city of beautiful music, a city of symphonies, but the truth is that most of her citizens would not be able to tell a meticulously crafted string epic from the screeching of sharp nails against ceramic. The other musicians and people who listen to them are all old, steeped in mystical tradition.

When I sit and play for them, they don’t recognize the beauty. No matter how fast my fingers dance on the strings, no matter how the notes tug at the hearts and tapping feet of the listeners; the elderly of Gom Ilsa clap dully and murmur with each other about what a strange and outlandish instrument I’ve brought along.

They have ears only for the Mangeshkari. Their precious singing moths.

This is a city ruled by musicians, and musicians in Gom Ilsa are ruled by the Siddharmonic, who’s chosen every ten years at the Festival of Dust, the competition that draws Mangeshkari trainers and composers from all over the world. An old man who I see often at the symphony halls told me that Ghandide, the current Siddharmonic, didn’t raise his moths at all, but caught them in the wild islands to the southeast of Gom Ilsa, where men pierce their lips and eyelids with fishbones and sail on boats of hardened treesap.

That’s one familiar thing, at least. Even in Gom Ilsa, old men love to tell tall tales.

I’ve purchased several of my own moths, and hope to incorporate them into my songs over the next few weeks. The merchant wouldn’t sell them to a foreigner, but her son was more amenable to persuasion.

Despite the general lack of interest, I managed to convince one of the smaller symphony halls to let me perform once a week, in exchange for room and board. I’ve been promised wine and bread every night. My fortune is made! Ha. Hope you are well up north. Please write.



14th – XII – 542


I must apologize for my negligence in returning your letters. It’s been a busy month. The money you sent was most welcome. Honestly, it’s all that’s kept me going. I appreciated it tremendously and it came during a very difficult time. I’ll tell you about my last month, but you must swear not to tell a word to Mother or Father on the subject.

Residency at the symphony hall went badly. Poor showing on my part, and even worse reactions from the crowd. Evidently my Mangeshkari were dissonant, my playing clumsy and uninspired. Even worse, I spent the last of my funds on the damned moths. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how the Gom Ilsans manage to make them follow a single pattern around a flame. They seem to fly in every direction but the way I want. I’m powerless to control them. Besides, I think the merchant sold me bad moths. They’re thin and brittle, raining dust everywhere they fly. I need to find moths somewhere else.

I’ve got one grace performance before I get the boot. The owner won’t even give me a place to sleep anymore. “Can’t support every hungry mouth that comes through,” he said.

These moths are all I have left now, even if they’re small and stunted. They just don’t sound good. I wonder if I can get the damned things to procreate. Perhaps I’m better off setting aside the music entirely in favour of insect husbandry. Damian Reynard, Mangeshkari moth-egg salesman.

Wouldn’t Mother and Father just love that?


P.S. If you can spare any more money, I could use it.


21st – XII – 542


Hope you weren’t put off by the somber tone of my last letter. All is well. Had a breakthrough over the last week. My search for new moths brought me to an old manufacturing building on the outskirts of town. They used to make textiles there, and I figured it was as likely a place to find moths as any others I could think of.

The building was abandoned, but the weavers had left cloth bolts lying everywhere, and by moonlight I could clearly see that it was all eaten through. There was a faint humming sound coming from the floor above. I followed the humming up several flights of stairs to the top, and there they were.

A skylight let down a single moonbeam into the dusty room, and around it there flew thick ledger lines of moths. They weren’t as loud as some of the others I’ve seen since coming here, but I’d found my own eclipse of Mangeshkari.

Then something curious happened.

I was strumming my cetara when some bats flew down from the corners. Huge bats, Jean-Baptiste. Great furry things with gleaming eyes. They circled the moonbeam in time with the moths, hunting them. They squealed beneath the chittering harmony, and the moths fell into a pattern I’d never heard.

Strange thing was, it matched my playing. I’d never been able to control the moths, but the bats were another tune entirely. They dipped low between my rhythms and rose with my arpeggiations. They flew in perfect time, forced the moths into a sort of harmony in their bid for escape.

And the sound. I wish you were here to hear it.

Jagged edges and deep rumbles. Frantic triplets and slurred sixths. The moths were terrified, unhinged in their attempts to escape the monstrous bats. Every time a moth was caught, its fervour was renewed. Before long I felt as though it was I accompanying them rather than the other way around. I was harmonizing with the hunted, and the hunters. I was one with it all.

I played all night, until the sun rose and the moths and the bats stopped their dancing.

Final performance this evening. Suppose I’ll know how it goes before you receive any letters. Wish me luck in any case.



27th – XII – 542

Dearest Elodie,

Things are looking up. I’ve begun incorporating the Mangeshkari moths into my performances, as well as some local bats. The bats chase the moths around in circles, and I accompany. Key of D minor, basic syncopation.

The Gom Ilsans go mad for it. Literally. People have been packing into the place, more than the hall has room for. They’ve had more fights at the symphony in the last three nights than they’ve had since they opened. Bar sales through the roof. Owner is thrilled.

Beyond that, I’ve begun to develop a little coterie of patrons. We play cards and drink late into the night. The young people here are mad for something new, and they won’t let me stop until sunrise. Every night there are more and more people. It seems that I’m at the head of something larger. It’s a cultural renaissance. We’re taking back music from the traditionalists. We’re repurposing it, growing it. We’re making something new, and I’m in the thick of it.

In any case, let me jump directly to the point—this evening, Ghandide came and joined our game. The man was pure nonchalance. He ignored the nervous gazes, the sweaty hands. Didn’t say a word. Seemed to enjoy pretending he was a regular man.

When Ilam, the bouncer, dealt him out of order, he only raised an eyebrow and asked what variation of farra rules we were using. You would have laughed at Ilam’s face. The poor man turned white as a virgin’s bedsheets, I swear to you.

We all wondered what the Lord Siddharmonic wanted at a second-rate symphony hall on the outskirts of town, but not a one of us had the nerve to ask. We just played cards. Ghandide came out on top more often than not, though I took a few hands when I had the courage to call his bluffs.

Eventually, as it does, the sun rose and shot daggers through the windows, burning away the haze of liquor and smoke. Ghandide blinked his dusky eyes as if surprised, and put a hand on my wrist as I stood to return home with my winnings.

“You played well tonight,” he said, smiling faintly. I wasn’t sure if he meant cards or music. “Do you have plans tomorrow evening? Why don’t you stop by my estate for dinner? We’ll talk business.”

For the first time I could remember, I was speechless. It was a strange thing, Elodie, to talk with a man straight out of stories and legends.

I’ve enclosed a new composition. Wrote it for you, as always, in between dreams. You know how I have trouble sleeping at times like this. It should be performed in a curious tuning, with the lowest two strings tuned down to give the impression of a bass accompaniment.

Playing with the Mangeshkari has opened my eyes. I’ve made something new, a melange of our Veringian rhythm and Gom Ilsan harmony. Think you’ll find the changes in the first movement especially clever. You really must come down here, if only for a month or two.

I’ll write soon to let you know how my dinner with the Lord Siddharmonic goes.



30th – XII – 542


Was invited to take dinner with the Lord Siddharmonic, Ghandide. Huge honour. The man was curious about my music, and I hoped not to disappoint. The funds you squeezed out of Mother and Father went into a new tunic and jacket (one doesn’t wear rags to a meal with the ruler of a foreign city).

Arrived several minutes late, as one does. Forced to wait at the front gate for a rather thick-looking guard to call a servant who had the authority to let me in. Knew my name, though.

“Damian? You’re late,” he said, dour-faced. I laughed. I wasn’t late, not truly, and eventually he took me up the path in the rattling carriage he’d arrived in.

Ghandide set a meager table, for all his vaunted wealth. That was, I suppose, my first indication that something was amiss. There were several places set, but the dining room was empty, and Ghandide had already started eating.

“Won’t you join me?” He wiped his mouth with a silk square and gestured towards the bowl of soup opposite him. “Sea urchin soup. A traditional Gom Ilsan dish, and a specialty of my chef.”

I sat and fiddled with my spoon. “I’m honoured, my lord.”

He chuckled. “Honoured? Are you a man of tradition, Damian Reynard?”

“In most respects.”

“What sorts of traditions do you follow?”

I swallowed. At this point, I sensed something wrong. Where were the rest of the dinner guests? Where was the meaningless gossip? My invitation had become an interrogation.

“I couldn’t quite hear you, I’m afraid.” He took another sip of soup. “We’ve noticed, however, that you don’t have much respect for Gom Ilsan traditions.”

“What do you mean?”

He wiped his lips. “The Mangeshkari are sacred to our people. Your performances piss all over our history. The moths are not meant to be killed on a whim, treated like common flies. They are vital symbols of our country.”

I ought to have been diplomatic. I should have just nodded. I should have agreed and sipped at the sea urchin soup and let the Lord Siddharmonic tell me what a bad boy I was. But I couldn’t. You know me, JB.

“Times change, I suppose.”

Ghandide set down his spoon and pushed his bowl aside. “Am I making myself difficult to understand? Do you know why you’re here?”

I shrugged, and the Lord Siddharmonic sent his bowl flying off the table, splashing soup all over the floor.

“Leave. Get out of town, boy, and never come back. You can never perform here again. Is that clear?”


His face grew red. I don’t think he was accustomed to people talking back. “I don’t owe you an explanation. You are a foreigner. You are fomenting disrespect and disorder. You pollute the ears of our youth. Now.” He cleared his throat and stood. Another dull-looking guard came in, better dressed than the gatekeeper had been. Ghandide turned to the man. “Please escort our guest off of the grounds.”

I wrote another song when I got home, JB. The score for a revolution. Worked all night, and through dawn. Chorus in C sharp. Prestissimo a piacere. Play it as fast as possible. Smash instruments and burn them in the last four measures. Moths fly to the pyre, set themselves alight. Coda in their dying chirps. Titled Moths to the Flame. We’ll see how the damned Lord Siddharmonic feels about this one.



3rd – I – 543

Dearest Elodie,

Happy new year, my love. I’ve been installed in a new apartment. I say installed because I had very little to do with it. A new patron purchased me the land, which had evidently belonged to some foreclosed banker. My patron belongs to the same neo-republican group that’s been so keen on Moths to the Flame. A lot of young people in the bunch, always talking art and revolution. You’d love them. Why don’t you visit? Passage on me, darling. There’s always room for you here.

We host concerts in front of the house, in the gardens. There’s a small amphitheatre in front of the house, overflowing every night. Has JB played my new piece for you? Make him play it again. Were you here, I’d play it for you myself. Promise you’ll visit soon.



9th – I – 543

Urgent. Enclosing copy of this letter to Elodie d’Amrienne, Jean-Baptiste Reynard, Maurice and Minrose Reynard. Please help.

My friends and patrons are all gone. All the neo-republicans. It happened in the dead of morning, before sunrise. They came while we slept, and they took them all. I saw the shackles go on myself, I swear to you. Don’t believe them if they say otherwise.

I’ve been imprisoned off the coast, opposite the bay from the city. There was no trial. I was told my crimes were “sedition, corruption, and general immoral conduct.” My holdings here in Gom Ilsa have been seized by the Lord Siddharmonic, copies of my scores burned. Ironic, the last bit, although I doubt Ghandide appreciated it.

Get the government to pitch in, won’t you? The Gom Ilsans can’t just go around imprisoning Veringians. If the ambassador comes forward he ought to be able to do something about it.

Please send word quickly. At night, I can see fires across the bay. The city is burning and I’m trapped here, away from it all. If there’s revolution, will they remember their sweet singer? I fear everyone’s forgotten me. Please help.



13th – I – 543

There is no more paper. There are no more fires across the bay. I have nothing to eat or drink. There is a sound, though, from nearby. A plinking echo, a drip. The sound floats at the top of a secret chord, resounding over the cries of birds and crashing waves.

Sometimes as I listen, the chord roars louder. It fills my ears, and so I’ve recorded each movement of the chord. Each interval and the spaces between, the arpeggiation required to bring it to the roar I now hear.

This is my last song.

I wish you could hear it.



Issue 14 (Spring 2017)

Story copyright © 2017 by Daniel Rosen

Artwork copyright © 2017 by P. Emerson Williams

Daniel Rosen writes speculative fiction and swing jazz. He grew up anchored to a tiny farm in northern Minnesota and now drifts through the Midwest as an itinerant musician with The Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League. His fiction has appeared in Apex, IGMS, and The Saturday Evening Post.

P. Emerson Williams is an artist, musician, actor, and writer who works on a creative continuum that draws upon an interest in the arcane and esoteric. His passion is for embodying the mythic in visual media and melding visual art with narrative form. He has collaborated with writers James Curcio and Nathan Neuharth, and illustrated Bedlam Stories: The Battle of Oz and Wonderland Begins, the first novel in Pearry Teo’s series. As a musician he has worked with SLEEP CHAMBER, Jarboe, Manes, and kkoagulaa among many others.



This entry was posted on August 23, 2017 by in Stories.
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