Andoval returned to the Royal Menagerie the next morning. He was sure this would be his last day as there was nothing else he could learn from these sorry creatures. The beast keeper let him in without a second glance. To Andoval, it felt like he was being regarded more like a beast than a scholar of the Court. Most rude, he thought with a huff.
Ipus was waiting for him.
“You have more questions,” the little Mothran said.
“Why do you presume such a thing?” Andoval asked.
“Because you’ve returned here.”
“I might have a few more. But I’m afraid I will be done with you after today.”
“That is fine. What questions do you have?”
“I would rather speak to an elder if it’s all the same to you.”
“Okay,” Ipus replied.
The little creature led him to the interior of the enclosure where a group of adult Mothran laid about lethargically. In the center was a bulbous and wrinkled old thing that vaguely resembled a Mothran in shape. It turned its multi-faceted eyes to Andoval as he approached.
“Greetings, elder Mothran. I have questions for you.”
“What… do you ask?” the Mothran struggled to say.
“Firstly, I wish to inquire your name.”
“My name… is Zeppeppaduwali-pocoretondrekfizizzzil.”
“I… see… and what about a shorter version?” Andoval asked.
“Very well. Padu. What can you tell me about Mothran ages?”
Padu rocked slowly back and forth, trying to get comfortable. It was difficult in his sadly misshapen body.
“What… would you like to know?” Padu asked.
“I want to know how you measure a Mothran life.”
“That… is a question Mothran have asked since Time began.”
“Oh no no, I didn’t mean in a philosophical sense.”
“What I want to know is… well… Ipus here informed me yesterday that you Mothran measure everything by Mothran measurements. Your times, weights and so on are drawn up against your own biology. So, what is the context you use to get precise and specific measurements of things?”
Padu rocked again, shifting from side to the other.
“How… do you?”
“How do I get precise measurements? Well we use machines and measurement devices. Rulers, clocks, that sort of thing.”
“Where… does their preciseness come from?”
“They… well they… the, um, College of Measurement determines the preciseness.”
“And… where does the college get their measurements?”
“Enough of this. You never answered my question.”
“That… is fair. You answered many of mine.”
Padu shifted again. There was a long silence. Andoval was about to give up on this exercise when he decided to try one more time.
“Padu, I’m curious.”
“Exactly how many… erm, well, how many ‘Mothran’ has it been since the First Story? Since the beginning of the world? According to you.”
Padu thought for a moment, then said, “Eight… million Mothran.”
Andoval nearly fell over in shock.
“What is wrong?” Ipus asked.
“Current scientific understanding puts the age of the world at two million years at the most!”
“Your… understanding is incomplete, it seems,” Padu replied.
“How dare you! How… I should… Hmmph! That is it. I’ve had it with you. With all of you! You are tricksters, the lot of you!”
“Father… why is he so upset?” Padu asked.
“Father? Who are you talking to, you daft old thing?” Andoval asked.
“I don’t know, son,” Ipus replied, patting Padu’s head. “He is a very confused person.”
“Wha? You… but you… you’re… you’re an adolescent. A… a young Mothran. You can’t be… Heh. Heh heh. Ha ha ha! And you call me confused! You don’t understand what it is you say,” Andoval chortled.
“Why do you say that? I do not swirl my words. My son is old, but he will be born soon. That is the truth,” Ipus said.
“But he is old! How could he be ‘born’ soon? You are not making any sense, you stupid little creature!”
The other Mothran began to stir. Andoval suddenly felt very vulnerable, seeing them all look at him.
“Speak father bad,” one of them said.
“He insults Big Father,” said another.
“No! No mean words Grandpapa!” a third one said.
“No. No, that’s a child. A baby. He cannot be what you say. He cannot!” Andoval said, backing away from them.
“Mothran are not young. Mothran are not old. Mothran are,” Ipus said.
“Are what? What are you talking about?” Andoval asked as he scrambled away.
Andoval dropped his notes and fled the enclosure as the sluggish creatures sprang toward him with renewed vigor. He crashed against the wall of the cage and yelled for a beast keeper to set him free. The beast keeper on duty laughed as he tumbled out of the enclosure when she undid the gate.
“Mothran too much trouble for ya?” she asked.
“They are feral little things. Those wings… yech! I will not be returning to this sanctuary ever again!” Andoval harrumphed.
“If you say so,” the beast keeper said, ignoring his distress.
Andoval didn’t sleep that night. His mind was plagued by visions of the moth-like creatures. Being born, dying, being born again. Over and over and over and over. Nothing in nature behaved like this. “As far as you know,” Ipus’ words rang in his mind.
The following day, as he was on his way to his usual place of work at the Royal Court, he realized he didn’t have his notes with him and remembered he’d dropped them in the Royal Menagerie the day before. Quite reluctantly, he made his way back to there to retrieve his work. The beast keepers chuckled when they saw him approach. He asked if they would be so kind as to fetch his notes. They refused. He sighed and asked to be let in again.
“Okay, but tread lightly. One of the old ones died yesterday,” a beast keeper said.
“Oh. Was it the one named Padu, perchance?” Andoval asked.
“I don’t know their names, scholar man,” the beast keeper scoffed.
Andoval simply nodded and stepped inside the cage. He ventured through the transplanted foliage until he came upon a dreadful scene. The lumpy, swollen form of the one called Padu was lying on the ground. The other Mothran gathered around the body, swaying back and forth, as if in a trance. Ipus turned and saw Andoval, who tried to beat a hasty retreat, but Ipus was quicker, flying to block his path.
“Do not leave. I wish for you to see this,” Ipus said.
“See what? There’s nothing to see here,” Andoval snapped.
“Please,” Ipus said. Was it begging? Andoval awkwardly shuffled his feet, then agreed to it. Whatever it was.
Ipus led him back to the other Mothran. They flapped their wings rhythmically to a beat only they knew. They hummed in a low tenor, a sound that was almost beautiful if it weren’t so alien. They did this for a minute or so, before the body of Padu began to undulate.
“Goodness! Is Padu still alive?” Andoval asked.
“Padu has always been alive,” Ipus said.
Andoval watched in terrible fascination as Padu’s body swelled, contracted, jerked this way and that, then was split down the middle in an explosion of goo. Andoval had to move back to avoid being hit by the stuff. From Padu’s body, a small, larval Mothran crawled out, testing the air with it’s mouth parts. Ipus picked up the delicate creature and held it close.
“My spawn is born! Zeppeppaduwali-pocoretondrekfizizzzil is born!” Ipus cried.
The other Mothran cheered. Andoval stood dumbfounded. What he’d just witnessed had never before been seen by human eyes. The larval Mothran turned to look at the scholar, with tiny little eyes that were unmistakably familiar. Tiny, newborn, wise eyes that recognized him as well.
Old and young. Born and reborn. Andoval couldn’t wrap his head around it. These creatures, these functionally immortal little creatures… there was so much to learn about them. So much to learn from them! He had to record it all! He had to find out what these creatures, these… these beings knew about the world, about everything, before the Mothran flew their last.
Ipus floated over to Andoval and handed him the tiny wriggling form of his son, Padu. Andoval reluctantly accepted the slimy thing. The larva coughed and looked at Andoval, its little mouth trying to form the sounds of Andoval’s name. That’s when Andoval realized, truly realized: no human eyes would ever witness the last flight of the Mothran.