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“I didn’t know elephants lived in England!”

My comment seemed to catch Ms. Hartford off guard, but her surprise quickly melted away into understanding.

“Oh, not elephants, Marcus! We’re going to see a gathering of Elephant Hawk moths.”

The name befuddled my year-five mind – for my brothers and sisters over in the U.S. and elsewhere, that’s fourth grade. How could a moth also be an elephant, and a bird? Ms. Hartford continued,

“These moths are nocturnal. Do you remember what nocturnal means?”

I paused for a moment, rummaging through my disordered memories of our “Live and Kicking” class.

“Um… does it mean they come out at night?”

“That’s right!” Ms. Hartford beamed with a warm smile.

It was a Thursday night in August, the sort of night accompanied by a warm and gentle breeze. The school trip was previously planned for Friday night, but almost the entire class protested at this. No kid wants to spend their Friday evening participating in curricular activities. That isn’t to say we weren’t excited. The night lends a certain mystique to the world, that draws you in. What might we find ahead, just past the darkness?

Honestly though, it was more likely because I was with my best friend Clyde. He had always been a rowdy type, always trying his damnedest to squeeze a giggle out of me during class until being scolded. I admit his antics did distract me from my work, but I never found myself lagging behind the rest of my classmates.

At the time, we didn’t really care for a bunch of moths, but Mr. Aulbin sparked our interest as we walked with him, down the path behind the old brewery.

“Has Miss told you anything else about what we’re going to see, boys?”

“Just a bunch of insects, right? I hope they don’t land on me,” said Clyde. I never expected him to be the squeamish type when we first met, but that was revealed to me when he screamed to high hell and back after a grasshopper jumped onto his face the previous summer.

“Well, yes, it is a bunch of insects. Moths do gather on occasion, but that tends to only happen with ones that come out during the day, and never on the scale we’re about to see. Trust me, just wait and see.”

“Okay!” Clyde replied. He set his focus on the path again, like he hadn’t taken in a word Mr. Aulbin had just said.

I had, though.

“Why are there so many?”

“No one knows. A friend of Mrs. Gillan stumbled onto it taking her dog for a night walk the other day. She said they looked like they were being attracted by something, but that’s it.”

Mrs. Gillan used to be my teacher in year 2, but she seemed to have aged in only a year, after her husband’s death. I didn’t fully grasp the strength that woman had at the time, but I do now. She retired from teaching and opted to be a school nurse and counsellor in one. Her sympathy was so pure and honest… I’ll never understand how she did it. She was along on this trip too, since her granddaughter Lily was in the same class as me. I saw her walking ahead of us, holding onto Lily’s hand, though only barely restraining her unbridled excitement.

We made our way down the wide, sloped field, in the direction of the treeline. The pine forest was separated at the boundary by merely three reels of barbed wire, held up across the weary, yet steadfast chestnut posts. The way they swayed in the breeze reminded me of a guitar being strummed, but the night was quiet. Unnaturally so. We’d all been given flashlights to boost our chances of meeting these elephant hawks, but they were cheap and flimsy little things. The shadows seemed unfazed by their meagre beams. I didn’t feel scared though. Being amongst my classmates and teachers brought comfort to me, dispelling that fear of the darkness that children know all too well.

“Catch!” Clyde yelled, and I turned to see a stick flying in my direction. I just barely caught it, and before I could even get my bearings he was on me, swinging his own stick like a pirate with a cutlass.

“Have at you!” he exclaimed, as I blocked his feral assault with my own weapon. Our battle was short-lived as Ms. Hartford grasped Clyde’s imagined greatsword mid-swipe.

“Clyde, behave yourself, or I’ll take you back up to the car park.”

He averted his gaze and nodded meekly, setting off again with the rest of the group.

The sudden burst of action left me energised, but I bottled it up as well and followed.

We were walking along the old fence when we first saw them. I’d expected nothing more than little brown blurs flitting about the air, but the dazzling yellow and pink patterns they sported caught me off guard.

I heard Lily cry out in wonder, “look nanny! They’re so pretty!”

They were beautiful. I’d never thought of insects as matching in brilliance with the rest of nature, but I was proven wrong that night. The more we went on, the thicker the storm of colours became. Clyde was hesitant at first, but even he became allured into the moment. His expression morphed from one of distrust into one of amazement. I took notice of the flowers that spotted the field alongside us. There were galiums, cow parsley and willowherbs from what I can recall. Strangely, the moths seemed to have no interest in the flowers, choosing instead to dart around aimlessly at the forest’s border.

If the sight of the moths wasn’t incredible enough, a bat zipped by just inches from my face, swiping one of the insects mid-flight and fleeing from view. I heard Alexandra – another classmate – gasp behind me, then let out an upset groan. I never understood why some people were so shocked to see the food chain’s natural cycle, but I’ll cut her some slack. She was only nine, after all.

“Hey, Mark, look there!” I heard Clyde whisper from my left. I turned to see his flashlight pointing into the darkness between the pines, just barely illuminating something. I focused on it, and realised it was just more of the moths.

Not “just more”, but a lot more. Only faintly illuminated, it appeared as if the hawk moths were swirling in a dense mass, akin to a school of fish, but more tightly packed.

“What are they doing?” I found myself asking Mr. Aulbin to my right.

“I… don’t know,” he replied after a moment, “it looks like they’re being drawn in by something. Never seen anything like it.”

His expression unsettled me. His eyes were wide, but not with the same amazement as earlier – closer to an intense focus, or a bewildered fascination. I looked back over to Clyde, only to see the same look on his face. My confusion grew as streams of moths fluttered their way into the trees in a voyage towards something. Their flickering bodies merged to form more bizarre masses of quivering wings, still barely visible beyond the shadows. My attention was pulled back to my friend once more when I heard him mutter something.


It was a sound of pure enthrallment. No sooner had I turned to face him when I saw he was already halfway through climbing between the barbed wire.


I got no answer. Only the quiet crunching of leaves and twigs as he staggered his way into the trees, and disappeared from my torch light.

“C- Clyde?”

I looked back to Mr. Aulbin, hoping he would say something, anything. To sternly call Clyde back from the woods and make everything well. But still, he gazed off into the forest, fixated on something I couldn’t see. I tugged at his sleeve, trying to pull his attention, but it was no use. I looked around me to see similarly captivated faces. No one said anything, and the silence was deafening. I began to feel scared, like I wasn’t safe.

The fleece I gripped pulled itself away, and silently, Mr. Aulbin pushed the wires apart, stooping down to step through the fence. I could only watch as his ear was torn raggedly by a rusted barb, but he didn’t even flinch, completely ignorant of the warm red stream trickling down the side of his neck. I called out for him as he got through, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. Just like Clyde, he only walked calmly into the thick darkness. One by one, my classmates whispered in mind-absorbing infatuation as they clambered through the loose wire, tearing clothes, skin, and hair. There was something in their eyes. They glinted, twinkled. I don’t mean they had a “look” to them, but literally, like they reflected something that, once again, was hidden from me.

I heard Mrs. Gillan say, "so bright… I never thought I’d see you again,” while Lily pulled at her hand frantically, to no avail. She lost her grip and tumbled over backwards, lying there as her grandmother left her alone.

The whole thing felt so unfamiliar. This wasn’t something that was supposed to happen. I felt tears run down my cheeks, those of a terror I’d never felt before. It was so different from other scary situations. I couldn’t understand why they would just wander off into the forest with no care for themselves or anyone else. The moths were gone now, down the same path my class had taken. The rustling footfalls had grown distant, and faded away into the night, leaving empty silence in their wake.

Only I, Lily, Ms. Hartford and a boy called Jay remained. The only adult left in our midst looked scared and uncertain, as were we. She glanced between us and the dark forest a few times before making the decision we’d been fearing.

“Wait here, children. I’m going to find them and bring them back. Don’t worry, I’ll only be five or ten minutes.”

Her voice was shaky, but she was brave nonetheless, and climbed through the fence, vanishing into the all-consuming darkness. And so, we waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Thirty. There was no sign of Ms. Hartford, not a single muted shuffle of footsteps. In spite of the warm breeze, I shivered. I felt cold. Hopeless.

The others didn’t notice it. Something glinted between the trees. Only for a moment, but it looked slick, and wet. I did not dare shine my flashlight, hoping that the dark would hold back whatever was inside it. With the flicker of movement I'd seen, came a smell. It was pungent. An old, musty, earthy scent, that reminded me of a dead, mushroom-infested log. A hot breeze carried it, like the breath of something unearthed from deep beneath the soil.

The thought alone sent me into fight or flight – I chose flight. My legs bolted me upright and I found myself sprinting back up the hill, back to the car park where we’d started. But in truth, I just wanted to be away from that place, not caring where I might end up. I heard Jay and Lily’s thumping feet moments later, my panic having spread to them just as quickly. More than once I tripped and fell, clawing at the grass, as if at any moment I might feel a cold hand wrap around my ankle, and drag me back, screaming, into those terrible woods.

I burst out into the gravelled car park, covered in grass stains. For a long moment, I dreaded that there would be no more to follow me. I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding when Jay, and then Lily, emerged from the dusty path and skidded to a halt. The 20 minutes before parents started arriving was a lonely eternity for the three of us. A woman I recognised as Alexandra’s mother stepped out of her silver Ford and scanned the car park in confusion. She made her way over to our small, shivering congregation.

“Hey, where are the rest of you?” she asked, to none of us in particular. All I could muster in response was a feeble point in the direction of the field. She looked over, then back at me, then back at the path with a frown of concern. Before she could interrogate me further, I saw my dad’s minivan pull up, and I scrambled my way over to the passenger side door. Even as a ten year old, I tore the door open so hard I thought it might fall off entirely, then jumped into the seat without a word of greeting.

“How was it? Fun?” my dad asked, blissfully unaware of the events that had taken place. I only sat there, staring out the windshield, saying nothing.

“Mark? Are you oka-“

“Can we just go home?”

“Can we go home what?” he asked.

I chose to stay silent, and after a few seconds without the expected “please”, my dad grunted, started the ignition, and we drove away.

School was off the next day, but I wasn’t any the happier for it. My parents told me to just rest in my bedroom, play with my toys, that sort of thing. Even if I wanted to go out, who could I meet with? I wasn’t really friends with Jay nor Lily. None of us wanted to leave the safety of our houses, in any case. It was when my stomach began growling that I left my room to go and grab a snack from the kitchen. I paused on the bottom step as I heard low-toned voices conversing in the dining room.

“All of them?”

“None of them?”

“I was told that all they found were-”

A floorboard creaked as I shifted my weight, cutting off my mum from whatever she was about to say.

“Oh, hello darling! Are you hungry?”

“What are you talking about?”

My parents looked at each other, communicating through expressions alone. It’s easy to see why they were hesitant to be bearers of morbid news, but I think the lack of closure hurt me the most at the time. It only left my imagination to run amok with the possibilities of what happened to my class.

That’s why I’m writing this: I still have no idea. I might have been blessed with the gift of forgetting if I hadn’t, by complete chance, stumbled upon an online news article pertaining to that godless night. It was dated two months, give or take, afterwards, when the case had been closed. Some of the details were wrong - the article stated the class had gone out searching for badgers, and that we’d been out until midnight, when I distinctly remember arriving home closer to eleven. Those were but simple nitpicks, though.

The part of it that brought me to attention was the second to last paragraph. It was told that shortly after the search party set out to find the missing children and teachers, their remains were found only a few hundred feet inside the woods. Dozens of clumps of hair, a few scraps of torn clothing, and scattered, yet pristine finger and toenails, all found in a small circular area. DNA profiling confirmed that the remnants were those of my missing class, but that’s as far as the trail went before going cold.

I don’t know where they ended up, but I can only hope they found peace, where I only found questions with no answers. What did they see that compelled them to abandon everything they knew in its favour, and why was I spared? What process occurred that left only hair and nails behind? Where did the rest of them go?

So I’ve posted my story here, in hopes someone can shed any light on this, where our cheap flashlights couldn’t on that awful night.

Can anyone help me figure out what happened to my fourth grade class?

Credited to rephlexi0n