Machine to Describe a Moth

An essay by Dr. Phillip R. Bates, as provided by J. Lee Strickland
Art by Leigh Legler

I found the street, although my anxiety about the city would often turn the simplest directions into a trial. It was lined with attached single homes of Gothic aspect, steep gables fronting on the street and windows with leaded panes set deep in the stone facades. The entrance to the house I sought was set to one side and raised above the street three or four feet with a stone staircase and landing leading to it. Beneath the landing, obscured by the overhanging masonry, there appeared to be a downward leading staircase and perhaps a door–a basement door of some sort, I thought.

I looked at the note in my hand. The number was correct, but I could not bring myself to mount the stairs to the door. I was not expected. Doubts clouded my mind–to arrive unannounced at the home of a stranger–and the object of my visit was unsettling even to me. I strolled to the end of the block. The trees that lined the street gave it a pleasant air that contrasted with the dour, colorless stone of the buildings. A carriage rolled by on the avenue, the horse’s hooves echoing as it passed. I turned and made my way back, but again hesitated at the stairs. Another walk to the end of the block, and I began to feel I might be making a spectacle of myself, although no other person was in evidence.

I reversed my course, determined now to abandon my project, when a figure emerged from the house in question–a woman, plump and short, wrapped in a heavy cloak with a market basket in her hand. She descended the stair and, without a glance in my direction, made her way toward the opposite end of the block, where she disappeared around the corner. What motivation this gave me, I don’t know, but I returned to the house, climbed the stairs, and rapped smartly on the door.

I waited a moment. Nothing stirred. I was dressed in my best, hoping to offset any negative impression my unexpected appearance might convey. I even carried my finest cane, its ebony shaft tipped with a chased silver boss, the silver grip fashioned as the head of a bird. I used the cane to knock on the door. I imagined I heard activity inside, but the door remained closed. I was about to knock one last time, when the door opened a crack. The crack widened. Fingers curled around to grip the edge of the door as it continued to move until it had reached its full swing.

The person who opened the door was dressed elegantly–his attire rivaled my own–but no veneer of elegance could mask the strange form of this human who stood before me. He was short–no more than four and a half feet tall–broad at the shoulders with a barrel chest. His legs and arms were foreshortened, giving him a comic disproportion. His head, perched on that unlikely torso, was enormous, his eyes bulging, luminous orbs. The pleasing bilateral symmetry that defines us as humans was in him distorted and confused. From head to foot, he was like a puzzle badly assembled.

“I am sorry. My housekeeper just stepped out. How can I help you?” His voice had a hollow quality like an echo, and it did not seem to issue directly from his mouth, but from the side, like some ventriloquist’s trick.

“I’m looking for Dr. Monard. I hope I’ve come to the right place.”

“I am Dr. Monard.”

Taken by the unsettling quality of his voice, I hesitated. I had my card in hand, and I offered it to him. The card was modest, just my name followed by a sprinkling of my academic titles, and beneath that, “Patents Consultant.”

“My name is Phillip Bates. Please forgive my calling unannounced. I have a matter of some importance I’d like to discuss with you.”

He looked up from the card to my face. His eyes seemed to grow larger. “Is this some sort of solicitation?” He made no attempt to hide his irritation.

“No, Sir,” I cried. “I assure you it is not.” In my naiveté, I had not imagined that I might make such an impression. I gripped my cane with both hands, a kind of supplicating gesture. He seemed to focus on the cane, stared at it, silent for a few moments.

“Please come inside, Mr. Bates.”

Art for "Machine to Describe a Moth"

“Moths, as you know, are one of my specialties.”

To read the rest of this story, check out the Mad Scientist Journal: Autumn 2017 collection.

Dr. Phillip R. Bates is a patents inspector working under contract for the Office of Patents. He is also available as a technical consultant. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Nottingwood College, an M.A. in Dialectics, M.S. in Applied Technology, and a PhD. in Advanced Etherics, all from Caledon University. His broad knowledge of steam technology, hydraulics, and miniaturization, as well as machine theory, makes him uniquely suited to assist in the development of projects that broaden both our practical and theoretical understanding of the universe.

J. Lee Strickland is a freelance writer living in upstate New York. In addition to fiction, he has written on the subjects of rural living, modern homesteading and voluntary simplicity. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sixfold, Atticus Review, Icarus Down Review, Latchkey Tales, Scarlet Leaf Review, Workers Write!, Pure Slush, Small Farm Journal, and others. He served as a judge for the 2015 and 2016 storySouth Million Writers Awards. He is at work on a collection of connected short stories vaguely similar in format to the long-defunct American television series, Naked City, but without the salacious title.

Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at

“Machine to Describe a Moth” is © 2017 J. Lee Strickland
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Leigh Legler

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