Written in narrative verse, Slave Moth depicts the life of Varl Perry. Named after her master's prized Kentucky racehorse that dropped dead the second she came screaming into the world, Varl, who her mother named Free, is an educated slave. A subversive and powerful tool for resistance. A means of escape.
The story is told from Varl's point of view, as she creates a cocoon-like dress made from spare fabrics that she embroiders with her innermost thoughts and truths. Unable to speak her mind in the confines of the Perry house with Peter Perry and Ralls Janet, Varl wears her cocoon underneath her regular clothes, forming a thicker layer between her skin and the breathy-closeness of Peter Perry.
Perry loves Varl as a 'master' (for it is truly Varl who is master), should not love his slave. A man of eccentric tastes, Perry has a fetish for deviance and deformity:
"My master is a collector.
Rare things delight him.
Deformity piques in him an unwholesome joy
that encourages repeated fellowship
But Varl manipulates that deviant taste - uses it to give her more leverage, more power - power of Perry, power over Ralls Janet, and power over her own body and self. With each embroidered stitch she makes sitting on the old tree stump she named Jimbo, Varl grows in her power, and in her freedom.
Varl is the product of Perry's pseudo scientific experiments:
"Peter Perry demanded an experiment
with reading, curious about how well could a black girl
do it; I am his experiment, me benefiting
from great minds and arguments he was exposed to
in college out east near Chesapeake, interrupted
when he inherited this farm and had ideas"
Perry delights in Varl's intelligence and quick wit, which she both resents and feeds into through her clever interactions with Perry's daughter, Lusa, and her strained relationship with Perry's illiterate wife, Ralls Janet.
The experiment hinges on Varl being aware of herself, her position, and of a larger world around her, and not running away from her master and enslavement. Indeed, Varl ponders this very paradox for herself, and for her mother, Mamalee, who is also literate, and in fact, sometimes reads aloud to Peter Perry in the dark wood - a fact Varl cannot herself understand or reconcile. The triangulation between Mamalee, Peter Perry and Varl culminates in a tensely erotic scene where Mamalee and Varl stand in opposition to Perry and other males over the stitched words on Varl's cocoon. I won't tell you what comes of the confrontation - you'll have to read to find out.
Slave Moth embodies several genres at once: slave narrative, romance, and lyrical poetry, forming a complex and intersecting narrative on love, desire, freedom, enslavement, and power. The narrative -verse style Moss writes in is nothing short of beatific - poetry and prose lovers alike will delight in her lyrical but sparse technique - telling the reader just enough to ground them to the story, while leaving enough detail out to force our imaginations to wander.