I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.
My father ran off when I was three years old. He emptied the rent money out of the biscuit tin and took my mother’s only piece of silver—a tarnished sugar bowl she’d found in the rubble of a Third Avenue fire.
“Don’t go . . . ,” Mama would call out in her sleep, begging and pulling at the blanket we shared as if it were the sleeve of my father’s coat. Lying next to her, I’d wish for morning and the hours when she’d go back to hating him. At least then her bitterness would be awake enough to keep her alive.
She never held my hand in hers or let me kiss her cheeks. If I asked to sit on her lap, she’d pout and push me away and say, “When you were a baby, I held you until I thought my arms would fall off. Oh, child, that should be enough.”
I didn’t mind. I loved her.
I loved the way she’d tie her silk scarf around her head and then bring the ends of it to trail down her neck. I loved how she’d grin, baring her teeth all the way up to the top of her gums when she looked at herself in the mirror, how she’d toss her shawl around her shoulders and run her fingers through the black fringe of it before setting her fortune-teller’s sign in the window for the day. The sign had a pretty, long-fingered hand painted right in the middle, with lines and arrows and words crisscrossing the palm. The Ring of Solomon, The Girdle of Venus. Head, Heart, Fate, Fortune, Life. Those were the first words I ever read.
It was my father who gave me my name. Mama said it came to him at a place called Pear Tree Corner—“whispered by a tree so old it knew all the secrets of New York.” The apothecary who owned the storefront there told my father that he could ask the tree any question he liked, and if he listened hard enough, it would answer. My father believed him.
“Call the child Moth,” the twisted tree had said, its branches bending low, leaves brushing against my father’s ear. Mama had been there too, round-faced and waddling with me inside her belly, but she didn’t hear it.
“It was the strangest, most curious thing,” my father told her. “Like when a pretty girl first tells you she loves you. I swear to God.”
Mama said she’d rather call me Ada, after Miss Ada St. Clair, the wealthiest lady she’d ever met, but my father wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t care that Miss St. Clair had a diamond ring for every finger and two pug dogs grunting and panting at her feet. He was sure that going against what the tree had said would bring bad luck. After he left us, Mama tried calling me Ada anyway, but it was too late. I only ever answered to Moth.
“Where’s my papa?” I would ask. “Why isn’t he here?”
“Wouldn’t I like to know. Maybe you should go and talk to the tree.”
“What if I get lost?”
“Well, if you do, be sure not to cry about it. There’s wild hogs that run through the city at night, and they’d like nothing better than to eat a scared little girl like you.”
My father had thought to put coal in the stove before he walked out the door. Mama held on to that last bit of his kindness until it drove her mad. “Who does such a thing if they don’t mean to come back?” she’d mutter to herself each time she lifted the grate to clean out the ashes.
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