Moth Short Story prize winner: The Brain Named Itself by Jude Whiley

The winner of the £3,000 Moth Short Story competition 2023, chosen by author Ottessa Moshfegh

Mol thought she might die in a nuclear blast. For about a week she’d thought that.

It was on the pagoda she’d started to believe it. It was on the pagoda, too, she had the idea of taking ketamine. The pagoda was built to honour the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It had no connection to ketamine. Simply, the pagoda made Mol realize how lame it was to die, that no monument compensated for death and that living was better than a headstone of any size. Fourteen-year-olds like Mol had died by those bombs without having truly lived. Doing ketamine was almost like living, Mol thought.

Things were happening in Ukraine which scared her.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian became Pornhub’s top trending category. Russian was second. Mol was told this by a boy in her class who made her watch these videos to decide, based on the performance of each country’s actors, the probable fate of Ukraine.


Mol had no idea of anything’s fate, she certainly could not care about Ukraine unless its fate affected hers. Really, Mol couldn’t think of much unless it affected her. Before Ukraine, wars were novel. Once, she’d listen to her dad talk about Afghanistan as though it were a marathon. Now wars were as frightening as anything else.

Mol told her sister, Annie, about the boy showing her the porn, and that he said Russia would win the war. He said after Russia beat Ukraine they would blitz Britain with ballistic missiles because all they knew how to do was destroy things, as the actor had done his co-star in the porno. For a day Mol was terrified because a rumour floating round school said the Russians would bomb London on Sunday.

“They wouldn’t bomb London,” Annie laughed. “The winds would carry the fallout back to Moscow, and that would be disastrous.”

They went to the pagoda a few days after Mol made her decision. The boy who’d pushed Ukrainian porn sold Mol the ket for 20 quid and Mol wanted to honour her idea by executing the plan at the place of its conception.

“Plus, we’ve got Russians at school,” Annie continued. “Felix’s dad is Russian.”

Annie was 17. She had ADHD, a shaved head and purple braces. Lately, the braces had been fitted with elastics which restricted the full movement of her jaw.

“Countries can’t just bomb whoever any more,” she continued. “Not without killing their own nationals. And that must make lieutenants wonder, you know, what’s the point?”

This settled Mol somewhat.

Unlike Mol, Annie had no desire to do ket. She’d heard horror stories from teachers, and – again, unlike Mol – Annie believed authority figures. As the day passed, she had toyed with trying to convince her sister of the risks associated with ketamine and that doing it was more likely to do her damage than any nuclear weapon, but she decided against it. Mol was stubborn and if Annie embarrassed her about her plan, Mol would do it anyway, alone. Mol’s stubbornness had led her to make odd decisions, like changing her name. Mol was born M___, but had lately become Mol. The family, Annie included, thought it was just a phase, like her nuclear neurosis. Annie hoped the ketamine was a phase too. For a week then, she’d listened to Mol going on about wanting to live as if she wasn’t alive at all.

Mostly what bothered Annie was Mol’s drug of choice. It bothered her more than, say, cocaine, and she didn’t know why. Thoughtlessly, Annie said to Mol while they walked, “You know, ket’s dissociative. People do it because they don’t want to live.”

Immediately, Annie regretted that. Mol stiffened at Annie’s side then did not reply. The sisters carried along the sunblasted path, quiet for a while. Over by the lake, bees dozed in rhododendrons.

Finally, Mol said, “I want to swim today.”

To which Annie said (while still worrying), “You shouldn’t swim today.”

Mol fired a harsh look.

“Algae,” Annie insisted. “You’ll get sick.” Then she said, hushed, “Algae.”

The lake sat at the bottom of the town, a manmade concrete bowl. When it rained, overspill from fields flooded the lake. Often, these floods carried fertilisers to the water. The fertilisers stimulated the growth of weeds, so that when it later sunned, the vegetation grew uncontrollably. The sun triggered toxic algal blooms which covered the surface of the water until the sun was blotted completely and the fish below the blooms starved. Annie had been told this by a kayaker on the lake, who had been paddling to collect the bloated corpses of carp and trout. He was a fisherman, too, and lamented to Annie, “You know, two in five people alive today owe their existence to the fertilizers which killed these fish.”

He gestured to a carp. Its belly was distended. Worms roiled in its mouth.

“The man who invented it worked out that you could synthesise ammonia from nitrogen. Haber. And do you know what he did next, after solving the issue of famine?”

‘What?’ Annie asked, kicking a carp.

“He developed chlorine gas. The processes he pioneered were then used to make Zyklon B, which was used during the Holocaust. Killed members of his own family, that gas.”

“Gross,” Annie replied.

“And his godson said–” the man coughed. His kayak drifted to and from the lakeshore. Reaching his paddle to the grassy bank, he pulled himself close. “It was an excess of patriotism . . . that made him give his genius to the military. People really abuse science, huh?”

A crow landed a little way down the bank, stabbing a dead carp with its beak.

The man added, “Yeah, they abuse science. And don’t get me started on the atom–”

He proceeded to start on the atom.

Annie and Mol circled the lake for another 10 minutes before the pagoda came into view. It shot above the treeline, gold and white, itself looking like some mushroom cloud annihilating the notion of innocence in what you would otherwise believe to be a blameless town.

The pagoda was like a secular monument to original sin. It reminded everybody in the town that humans are geared both to the creation of statues and levelling of cities and that they are all at least capable of evil, if not evil already. This was unfortunate for the town. As Mol understood, it had no connection to the bombings. Seventy-five years ago, it didn’t even exist. The space was pasture. Mol’s town was a spillover town populated solely with commuters. It didn’t even have a history, let alone the will to destroy 200,000 people. Why the monument had been placed here was something of a mystery, but Mol thought it was because of the town’s anonymity. Some jobsworth could say they built a statue and that they were sorry, and the people who looked at the statue could say, well, it had nothing to do with me, so nobody felt bad any more.

When they arrived at the pagoda, Annie said, “That had nothing to do with us.”

Mol did not think that. She felt wracked with guilt.

Annie continued, “I dunno why we always align ourselves with America, even with the shameful stuff.”

Annie thought that often. Americans weren’t Brits and Brits weren’t American. Any insistence on the contrary was damaging. There was an American in Annie’s class, called Dirk. Every morning, he produced a shiny yellow apple from his blazer to place on his teacher’s desk. This rattled Annie. When Dirk was not looking, she would steal the apple and eat it herself. Dirk always asked who stole his apple and though the whole class knew it was Annie, nobody ever let on. This made Annie feel somehow patriotic.

The girls sat beside the monument and watched a monk praying in a scabby red robe, the fabric gathered round him like so much excess skin. On the vast field surrounding the pagoda, people were barbecuing. The smoke drifted from the meat to the monk’s closed eyes.

Mol produced the baggie and analysed its contents. The inside was not so much a powder as a heavily crushed crystal: the shards which sat inside the bag were yellowish and glimmered. Mol then wondered whether it was actually ket she had bought, or more likely crushed glass, or washing detergent. Maybe it was something different altogether.

“Lemme look,” Annie asked.

Mol moved her hand towards Annie, the baggie pinched open between her fingers. Annie looked inside, then said, “I heard something once about this guy who K-holed beside a fire.”

Mol ignored her, then said, “I do want to swim, I do.”

Annie touched Mol’s thigh pleadingly. ‘He K-holed, actually, on to the fire. And his friends k-holed too. They’d driven out to a field in Buckingham and planned to camp the night there. Then this guy fell on the fire and was burned alive. His friends just watched.”

“K-holes aren’t real,” Mol said.

“Are,” Annie said. “They are. Really.”

“I’m going to swim,” Mol replied. “And won’t you stop? You’re doing what adults do. First you tried persuading me ket was boring, like a teacher. Now you’re trying to tell me it’s dangerous.”

“It is dangerous,” Annie said. “You can’t deny that.”

Sprouting around the perimeter of the lake were a thick brush of bulrushes between which insects droned. A daddy longlegs now hummed over a little boy who stood on a clearing by the lakeshore. The sun was setting, blowing up huge behind his head.

“Everything feels dangerous,” Mol said. “But some stuff, just . . . It’s exaggerated.”

“Like nuclear destruction,” Annie suggested.

Mol scoffed. A wasp landed on a square of marble a little way up the pagoda. “I didn’t ask for you to be here,” she said.

“I know,” Annie replied.

“So go.”

“I’m not here for you.”

“I’m going to do it now.”

“Go on.”

Mol peered inside the bag. Her heartbeat accelerated.

Now the monk behind the sisters was banging a gong. Annie thought to call Mol’s bluff.

“Go,” she said.

Mol licked the end of her smallest finger then inserted it into the baggie. Pulling the finger back, the end was dusted in a sulphuric ash which Mol licked away tentatively. It tasted like the tip of an AA battery.

The girls sat together as the sun again fell further to hang over the lake like a blossoming flower. It consumed the city beyond the lake until everything seemed nothing but a white-hot sun. After 15 minutes the light died, and the sky above turned purplish.

Mol felt nothing at first but for herself softening. Her shoulders fell away from her ears, and her bowels loosened. No longer was there that heat around the temple or any concrete, terrifying thoughts.

She didn’t know what she had expected.

The girls sat together. When Annie saw that Mol did not immediately overdose, she calmed. They sat together as the first brightest stars penetrated the city’s light pollution to form impressions of constellations.

All the while, Annie spoke. She said, “I never did mind you naming yourself. You know that. Or you doing drugs, really.”

“Hmph,” Mol replied. Lifting her pinkie, she again dipped into the baggie, this time twice, and gummed what was inside. Then she used a key to snort some.

“I really don’t care what you do. I mean that in the most caring way ever. I don’t give a shit about you.”

Maybe something was happening now. Mol couldn’t tell. She didn’t reply to Annie and Annie felt disappointed in herself for wasting such an important sentiment. But she continued talking. For some reason, she thought she should say everything.

“Who says you can’t name yourself? Musicians change their names, like, whenever. The brain named itself, even.”

“I might swim,” Mol replied.

Annie looked at the lake, which had turned a profound blue, and whispered. “If there’s no algae, perhaps. Paddle.” She held Mol’s hand.

Mol didn’t know what she had expected. Somewhere once she’d read drugs were mind-expanding. But nothing happened in that regard. Just a dullness affected her. She lay back and recognised a lag between her limbs and her mind. A lag. She hadn’t expected a lag.

Now the monk left the pagoda, retreating to a temple hidden behind cypress trees to the west. Gradually, Mol became bored. She became bored periodically and with each emerging sensation of boredom she decided she would take another dab of ket. With each dab she sank further into herself and came more to feel that nothing mattered very much or required any immediate understanding. Still Annie talked.

“And I’m happy to help you experience things, even if I don’t want to do it. Some sisters will try to derail their sister’s lives. But I’m happy to help you become the woman you want to be.”

Mol looked into the baggie. There was little ket left. A canyon of crystals tucked into the bag was all, and Mol asked her sister whether she would use her nail to tease it out. Annie obliged and Mol snorted the crystals off her sister’s acrylic. Then Mol stood up and marched towards the lake. Annie followed.

“Let’s just see the algae, Mol,” Annie said. “See.”

She supported her sister’s arm as she walked with unbalanced, shuffling strides to the shore of the lake. When they reached the tide, the thick grass and thistles gave way to goose shit and mud. A swan on the lake watched Mol and recoiled as she strode forward, then paddled in a circle around, curving its neck to consider her again. It hissed like a snake.

Normally Mol cared about her body, but all that had receded. Under her hoody she wore a sports bra, and she stripped down to that. Then she shimmied from her shorts to her boxer-briefs. After, she stepped her feet into the water.

“Just feel how thick the algae is,” Annie said.

It was solid, clumps washed to the shore of the lake like so many discarded green wigs. Immediately when Mol stepped in, she felt the clumps wrap around her ankles like zombie hands. The mass of the weeds created a bog around the perimeter of the lake. Annie said, “See how thick it is. See how hard that’d be to swim in.”

Mol strode forward.

Annie added, “Especially out in the dark. And bugs nest in them. You’ll get swimmer’s itch.”

Mol pulled her foot out of the water and let it touch the bank. Annie held her half-tight, still fully clothed, and smiled as her sister seemed to think better of her plan. A breeze blew the baggie into the bulrushes then. Mol looked at the expanse of water and felt good, and felt she loved her sister and that she was happy for her support. Then, very suddenly, she decided swimming was something she must do. Breaking away from her sister, she strode with uncoordinated legs into the algae. Each leg, not knowing its end, not feeling when it had left the water, lifted from the surface comically high before plunging down hard, not feeling its speed. She cut her feet on mollusc shells and laughed all the time.

“Mol!” Annie called. She pulled her ankle to her groin and yanked off her shoe. Then, thinking to get her sister’s attention, she called her by the old name, “M­­__!”

But Mol did not react. She was still laughing, still pulling herself through the water.

Annie strode into the water half-naked. Screaming for Mol to stop, she snapped the elastic in her brace. Looking back, she hoped to see frantic bodies running to her aid. All she saw was smoke rising from barbecues, some small fires orbiting the pagoda.

Now Mol felt the lag for real. Though she was laughing, she noted that something was wrong. No matter how strong she commanded her limbs to move, they would not. Gradually, a paralysis took hold. Faintly, she noted some degree of panic. In fact, to say she felt even panic would be untrue. She felt a feeling she thought she should be feeling but was not. Looking towards her palm as it was swallowed by a black wave, she commanded her hand to close into a fist, then watched the command go unheeded. Mol thought she should be crying or screaming. She willed herself to cry but emitted only a low chuckle. She did want help. Like always, she wanted help. But she could not say it.

Then she disappeared under.

Annie crashed into the water. Striding in, she watched the lake before her unfurl apparently infinitely. Across, at the farthest reach, a dogwalker with a torch aimed a light at ducks in the water. She could not tell whether he recognised her struggle.

First she paddled forward, then she paddled sideways. She thought she felt a current. With weak arms, she dragged herself to the bulrushes. She heard the swan return, and the swan hissed, and she screamed at the swan. She thought, it was this, this anonymous patch of black water, or this . . . Slowly, the algal blooms transformed into bodies floating face down, drowned, all with the same small shoulders as Mol.

Annie pleaded with the water. She bargained with it to take her too. Chew me up and belch Mol out, she thought. Then she dived under. Swallow me with her, then, Annie thought: if you are capable of killing one girl, you are capable of killing another.

But it would not kill her. Instead, Annie paddled another hour, cycling through her horror and grief and disbelief until she consoled herself with a dream. She imagined the two of them sat on the shore in a minute’s time, both soaked and covered in toxic algae. Mol would be laughing while Annie screamed at her.

“To think,” Annie would say. “To think you feared the atom bomb!”

Jude Whiley is a freelance journalist and PhD student living near London.