My family is in the firefly business. I like watching them flit about in their fragile, glass containers. Their elongated, ochre bodies are tipped with ruby on the head, with a delicate yellow globe of light on the bottom, suspended and hollow. It reminds me of miniature fires that are continuously snuffed out and rekindled, ruled by cosmos, something bigger than man. They are so quick and delicate, furtive in their short life spans, beating against time’s sand. Their wings are perfect: almost navy, save for a few inordinate shades of pearl.
I’ve named my favorites. The fat one, the male, I’ve named Hotaru. He is greedy with his nectar, and is constantly illuminated, aggressive and kingly. His wife—a real golden beauty, I’ve christened Lucciola. My mother tells me not to do this; afraid I’ll get too attached. I name them anyway, though. I like the idea of bits of me spread out over the world.
Today, my mother is sifting through a pile of bills. I’m patted on the top of my head by her left hand, and she strokes my rough, rope of a braid. Her hands are lovely and sad. Father likes to recount how he fell in love with those hands. At first sight. A straight arrow into my heart. My God, I worshipped them.
“Go find your sister. She’s supposed to help me with these,” Mother says, nodding toward the neat stack and nibbling at her pen top. “And I know you won’t do any good.”
She is teasing me. It is gentle.
“John—the alchemist, I mean—is coming for tea to discuss some business. I’d like to get these paid and sent out by three,” she stumbles to explain.
Bright patches of heat. A shy glance. These are the things I notice.
Recently, my mother has seemed more cheerful. She hums little tunes to herself in our bright kitchen. Nervous, twisting her rings, all chatter, jittering about, her apron loosely tied in a wilting bow. Having made friends with the new alchemist, she regularly invites him over for tea or talk. He’s moon-faced and shy and blushes a good deal of the time. I think he feels more comfortable with his boiling glasses and funnels than he does with my beautiful mother and her two waif daughters. I’m glad she has a friend, since Father is usually outside with his flies, dreaming, and the women in town are predisposed to more trivial activities than charting bug statistics.
I’ve forgotten to mention that I’m a twin. The less pretty one, but my father’s undisputed favorite. We’re the dreamers in the family. My mother and sister, Daphne, are on the business end of things here at the bungalow. The only way you can tell my sister and me apart, besides her prettiness, is our eyes. Mine turned out mossy and dark, ancient and wise, like those wild things, the midwife had told my exhausted mother fifteen years ago. My sister’s maintained the warm, honey-brown color of my parents’.
She’s very good with her eyes. I’ve seen people melt into them, charmed by their size and hue. I find mine strange. Father calls me Kitten, because he says they glow in the dark like a cat’s.
I find my sister sitting at the kitchen table, scribbling numbers, her hair tied up in a messy bump. We are both pale and freckled. But while mine are a constant cause of concern and embarrassment, she wears hers well.
“Daphne, Mama wants to see you.”
“Tell her I’m finishing up some calculations,” she says. “We’ve gone way over budget this month. Gonna have to cut back on a few things.”
“For starters, we need to cut back on all the nectar we’re importing. Those gypsies down at the bayou give me the creeps. Do you even know how expensive that is?”
At this, she looks up at me for the first time. Incredibly lovely as always. Bright eyes and all frenetic with purpose. I shake my head.
“Of course you don’t. You and Father just like planning ways to spend money.”
“We’ve got to feed them,” I say, defensive.
“The Milkweed nectar we’ve been using is exorbitant! We have a business to run. As long as we keep those bugs alive, I’d say we’re doing pretty well.”
“The Milkweed makes their lights stronger. Father and I proved that to you and Mother last month.”
“It’s a light. As long as they’re lit, and buzzing, we’re good. I was happy with the nectar from the Turk’s Cap.”
“It smelled funny,” I say.
“You smell funny,” she retorts, back to her papers—a dismissal.
Arguments with my sister never end well. She gets red-faced and threatens to go back to school and leave our farm to rot. But I know she never will. The people at school were far crueler to Daphne than she lets on. One time, about three years ago, she came home with a crescent mooned gash on the tip of her cheek. It was swollen for days, and then turned purple like the jellyfish we caught that summer back when we were children, when Father took us to the seashore. She never once cried, but I recognized the hurt in her eyes just the same.
“Go find Mother when you’re done, hothead,” I say, in mid-turn through the doorway.
I walk into the slate-gray shed to visit the fireflies. We’ve separated the males and females for mating purposes. The males are my favorite, in part because they’re the hardest workers. Father says they use their fire more because it’s their way of blinking love to the ladies. He always chuckles to himself at this. Sometimes, Father and I will turn off the lights and sit on the earthen ground and watch this tiny fireworks show. To me, it’s like watching them burst out their souls into the darkness; a sacred, small thing.
I place my forefinger on the nearest of the glass jars. This draws a stray fly up to it like a Plasma globe. Its wings are almost imperceptible through the thick glass. It quivers and then zips away to the other side of the jar, turning somersaults in the air—a lightning bug circus of sorts.
I hear soft padding behind me, and turn to find my father standing in the doorway. He grins at me. I run towards him and clasp my arms around his steady chest.
“Visiting our friends?”
“I just came from Daphne. Milkweed is too expensive.”
“Humbug! Expenses. Let’s just worry over these little guys,” he says, nodding to the closest jar of flies.
“Can we take the bugs out tonight, Father?”
“Of course, it’s a full moon.”
And he gives me that wild, adoring look—wide-eyed and mouth splayed open in a sloppy grin that is truly, wonderfully terrifying.
It is after dinner, and the deep, velvet glow of the day is just barely peeking over the treetops. The weather is still balmy, but there is a damp chill in the shadows, and the grass is wet with dark. I look back towards our home—dim and compact against the backdrop of Grancy gray-beards and Loblolly pines. We are adjacent to the Mermentau River, a few miles north of Skull Island.
My father holds the metal lantern in his right hand, and a case of four glass jars filled with fireflies in his left. I walk behind his soft steps, carrying six more of the jars, meticulously balancing them in every possible crook of my body. When we reach our usual place by the river’s edge, we set the jars down, and I scan the lemon-green land bordering it. I always look for bones that may have washed up from the island. I found one once, or so Father says. I was quite young, and had escaped the family picnic to explore the river’s grim underbrush. I’d come running back, my little cheeks stinging with excitement, flourishing a grey-brown stick. It turned out to be part of a finger. Mother, of course, was horrified; Daphne began to cry. Father had picked it from my small fingers and laid it out onto his palm. We later washed it off several times, scraping away the time-grown grime. We set it out to float down the river again, a friendly offering to the swamp spirits.
“You ready?” he asks, unscrewing the top to a jar. Instead of answering, I grab a jar for myself, yank off the top, and watch as a cloud of bright bugs explode into the night air. I hear the familiar buzz, one bumps into my cheek, and I feel the soft tickle of wings. It smells sweet here.
“They’re so happy,” I say, my head thrust up to the stars.
My father and I have been taking our bugs out for a fly for years now. We experienced a few dozen deaths from keeping them cooped up, so Father remedied this by arranging nightly strolls. We’ve trained them to come back to us. Even the smallest of creatures recognizes kindness.
We sit there for an hour, letting the flies play. They spin, light on our fingertips, teasing us. Sometimes we hear the swamp spirits’ calls. It’s a lonely sound, but not frightening. All I feel for them is pity. They belong to the weeds, making their dwellings near Skull Island, bound by an eternal mourning.
When it is time to go, my father places two fingers to his mouth and lets out a clear whistle. We gather our bugs, now demure, sleepy and sedated with exercise. I look around once more to the shaded river and see nothing.
It is morning, and my jasmine duvet cover is swathed in fresh sunshine. The smell of coffee has infused our room. I get out of bed, placing my feet on the scraped oak floor. The crumbs from my late-night sauerkraut sandwich stick to the bottoms of my toes like snow. I walk down the wooden steps to the kitchen and hear Daphne’s raspy, morning voice.
“Honestly, mother, it’s not like they’ll even notice. They’re bugs.”
“I know; it’s just what Papa and your sister will say. You know how attached they get. And I don’t think your father likes the new alchemist that much. His predecessor was a friend of his.”
“Some friend. Leaving that suicide note tacked to the shed out there. Creepy.”
“Still, there’s bad blood there. You know your father.”
“Mother, this is a business,” Daphne says, her voice thick with impatience.
“And it’s just a sedative. It’s not like we’re killing them. And even if the first batch doesn’t work out, we’ll know what to adjust for the other ones.”
I finish walking down the steps, and see my sister’s face contort, nostrils flaring. My mother looks nervous and ceases to spoon sugar into her mug.
Daphne cuts my mother short.
“Oh, God, Kitten. It’s just a way of cutting costs for food. We’ll be able to easily transport them, too.”
“Sweetheart.” My mother tries to be soothing. “It’ll make them cooperate better. It’s easy for the customers. They wake up after, anyway. We’ve been talking to John. He’s given us a good bargain. And, we’re just using a small batch to experiment on. So if anything does go wrong…”
Mother glances at Daphne for reassurance.
“We? I’ve never seen her talking to him,” I say, directing my glare at my sister.
The alchemist stayed late last night. He and mother drank endless cups of tea from her wedding china. She and Father haven’t used them in forever. And his eyes were hot and her skin looked milky in the lamplight.
“But what if it doesn’t work?” I feel myself flush hot. “What if they die? Does Father even know about this?”
“We were going to tell him soon,” my sister says.
“Soon? This is his business. Those are his bugs.”
“Father’s a dreamer and an irresponsible business man.”
“Last time I checked, we were pretty well off. Also, who made you in charge?”
Daphne squints her almond eyes at me. Her delicate features are pinched and flushed. And I run out the door, flinging myself into bright sunshine.
My father—ritualistic and steady as always—is feeding nectar into the jars with a large syringe. He looks up when he hears the soft crunch of gravel from my bedroom slippers.
“Kitten, what’s up? We just got new larvae in. Wanna look? They’re beauts!”
“Do you know about the formula or whatever they’re planning on feeding our flies? John, the alchemist. Some experimental sleep.”
He looks at me blankly. The syringe hovers over the jar, a tiny amount of yellow nectar caught in its tip.
“The alchemist?” he says.
“Mother said he’s been talking with her about some sort of sleep medicine for the bugs.”
“Finish the feeding.”
He stands abruptly, dusting off invisible specks of dirt, and leaves me alone with the bugs’ breakfast.
I’m taking the bugs out alone tonight. The air feels dusty. My mind is a rapid-fire succession of questions. I have never seen my parents fight outright. Their marriage is in a constant state of flux, but it’s a silent thing that no one discusses.
The flies are lazy tonight. They glide—almost hover—in the breeze like dandelion seeds. I watch them, twisting my fingers back and forth until they are red, and ache. Father once said that his greatest fear was to sell his bugs into the wrong hands. To enforce a twilight on these things seems like a murder, because they choose their owners. It’s something my father prides himself on—the unique relationship that he allows to form between customer and fly.
A fly nudges me on the tip of my nose, surprising me into the dusk again. It zips away, blinking. I pluck at a few strands of Bermuda grass, and toss them towards the water. I watch a cottonmouth raise itself from the river—a languid, silent “S” figure.
We are a disappearing people. This land of ours is a precious thing. The water claims us each and every year. The few families we know are diminishing, and sometimes I wonder whether they are also swallowed up by the sea along with their lands. The bottomland hardwoods that nestle our home are so silent these days. I cut my wrist on a Cyprus knee once. They look like the earth’s daggers with their sharp, nettled points.
The shed is lit at once with the collective blaze from the jars. The flies that I’d left behind—the ones from last night, as well as the new larvae—greet me with glow. Their familiar light language makes me waver on my decision, because what is goodness when everything’s in shadow?
“I’m about to do something terrible,” I confess to them. “But I think it’s less terrible than what could happen to you.”
I pause, lulled by the sound, the warmth—this fabricated safety that I have come to know so well. I rub salt from my eyes, and smell the swamp in my hair. One by one, I open the lids, the dozens of copper and brass lids that hold our entire livelihood, letting the thick glass fall to the floor. I sense the bugs’ confusion at this unceremonious gesture. They fly out, pausing, swaying, some dipping towards the nectar hoses that are neatly looped on the wall like lassos.
I hear footsteps approaching. “What on earth are you doing?” Daphne says, a ghost of a girl against the night.
“Go,” I say, ushering, waving the continuous tide away from me.
She steps forward, and grapples for the jar I am holding in my hand. When I avoid her, she begins grasping at the bugs themselves. Her hand closes around one, and I hear a sickly smoosh from her fist.
I scream and lunge towards her, pry her hand open, and see something terrible and brown in the middle of her glowing palm. It’s smeared with firefly fluid. and I feel sick. I slap her across the cheek.
I turn, then, and run towards the remaining bugs, waving my arms in mad shooing motions. Sensing danger, the flies begin releasing their blood juice. It stings my face; small, acid droplets fall like a night shower.
Daphne stands watching me for a moment, wiping her smeared hand against her nightgown.
Once the flies have flown, I fall to my knees, retching as a rush of nausea overtakes me. My face throbs with the flies’ poison, and I smear my muddy hands on my cheeks like war paint. Letting out a loud sob, I curl into a ball.
I feel my sister standing over me. “You know, you just ruined everything,” she says, her voice steel.
“You’re so stupid.”
“It wasn’t right,” I say.
“Right? You and Father are so caught in the ethics of this imaginary world you’ve dreamed up. Have you ever stopped and considered that it—this—isn’t real? I’m going to bed, sister. This is your mess. Clean it up.”
I wake on the floor of the shed, stiff with sleep and incredibly dirty. I shift, rising, gingerly avoiding the particular stiffness in my neck. Raising my head to the door, I see my Father sitting on the oak bench, watching me.
“I know why you did it,” he says immediately.
I don’t know how to respond, so I continue sitting up, and draw my dirtied knees to my chin and cradle it between them.
“What you did was wrong,” he says, “but I understand.”
He offers a tight smile, but there is no gladness around his lips. He looks at me, and at once I see a heaviness in his eyes.
“Your mother left this morning. She’s…she’s staying in town for now. With Daphne.” He looks humbled. The steadiness is all gone.
“We are alone.”
“The alchemist?” I ask, too afraid to voice the question in its entirety.
There’s an emptiness to these words. There’s a finality to them that refuses hope or any clear ending in sight.
“What about the larvae?” I ask, finally, distracted by the thought of my twin’s absence.
“We still have that.”
He shifts, running a hand through his thinning hair. This man is no longer my father.
No one attends the funeral besides me. It’s a windy day. The clouds hang in low ripples in the sky, and the earth is beginning to think like summer. I found a cardboard box that used to contain a pair of earrings I’d been given for a birthday years ago. I’ve nestled a small Christmas light on some cotton inside of the box. With a few large sticks, I’ve poked and plodded a hole in the earth. It is shallow but the best that I can do. I place the box into the hole, fitting it in—a small square in an awkward circle. Rising up, I cover the hole with my foot. I stamp down on it, flattening the earth, giving it my own imprint, or blessing.
Mary B. Sellers
Mary B. Sellers works as a publishing associate at Blooming Twig Books, as well as a freelance writer for various lifestyle magazines. She is coming out with her first collection of short stories, published by Blooming Twig, in the near future.
Photo: Oleg Oprisco