By Sarah Gundle -
The first fireflies of the season are out. They’re a bug that never made sense to me, one that would rather call attention to itself than scurry back into the dark. When you stare out into the blackness long enough, when you smoke a joint and sit on a hill and let your arm rest against somebody else’s arm instead of talking about all the things that you need them to know, they’re like misplaced stars. Little shining moments like the ones you’re trying desperately to hold on to by not speaking, by letting the hairs on your forearm brush against the hair on theirs, hoping your bodies have their own language, hoping you never have to speak again.
I don’t like fireflies, not really. I mostly just like the idea of them. Paul liked everything about them, though, so I grew used to keeping track of the seasons the way he did: Basketball season. Hunting season. Firefly season. Except he didn’t call them fireflies, he called them “lightning bugs”, which always made me feel slightly uneasy in ways I still can’t place. I understand it, the name, but lightning is too unpredictable. Fires can be set. Controlled. Contained.
They always seemed more like sparks than lightning, anyways.
My mother told me that she used to chase them as a child, that on summer nights she used to take a mason jar from the pantry where Grandma kept the canning supplies, run around the quarter acre behind the house, down the fence line, and out back to the empty space between the houses. Somebody must have owned it, that land. It must have been somebody else’s fireflies she was hunting.
She would wait for them to come close enough for her to catch and she’d pluck the wings from their body and place them in the jar. There is no known record of the kind of trauma the fireflies suffered, but they could not escape the jar and so this child who would one day be my mother collected jars of stars night by night, falling asleep with them on her bedside as they blinked an S-O-S to the world around them. She’d wake up and all the stars in her universe would have died in the night.
They’d be resurrected come nightfall, though. She could catch more then.
I told this story to a friend once and she got mad at me. She said it wasn’t my story. But my mother wouldn’t tell it, and anyway we were out drinking in cracked plastic chairs on a road in Bangkok surrounded by tourists, the men proving themselves by drinking shots of cobra blood, the women squealing appreciatively but shaking their heads when men tried to kiss them. Nothing here belonged to anyone, so what did it matter whose story it was? It was a story. She said I took a lot of things that weren’t mine and put 100 baht on the table and walked away. Her bunk was cleared out of the hostel by the time I got back, but she’d left the book she loaned me half-covered in my suitcase under a pair of fisherman pants and the tank top I hadn’t been allowed to wear into the palace. Two weeks later, when I took my seat next to her on the plane home, I tried to hand it back to her and she wouldn’t even look at me.
I don’t know why I talk about Paul in past tense. I don’t mean to. I know why I’m supposed to, I get it, I know it’s what we do but also I don’t know why we talk about anybody we’ve lost in past tense, anyway. When you think about them they’re right there with you, aren’t they? Same as they were before when they were home on their couch and you were on a trip or out to the store. They weren’t with you right then, you couldn’t reach out and touch them, but they were still around somewhere. It didn’t matter that they weren’t next to you because you knew you’d see them later. And if most people in the world believe in some kind of life after this one, then can’t we assume it’s basically the same thing? Can’t we believe for a second that gone is not gone? “Gone” really only means “not here”. We’re just a different kind of separated.
Not that Paul’s dead, or my former friend, or my mother. I can’t hold onto people, I’ve never been good at that. Never known how to hold people who want to be held or known how to do it when they need it. Never known how to hold people that were only mine, either, or let them hold me. But is anybody ever just one person’s? I’ve had to share everyone. Everyone’s had to share me.
Have you ever noticed how summer nights seem fuzzy? They’re softer, their edges less defined, almost as if they’d been shot on one of those video cameras they use for soap operas that makes everybody look retouched. Winter nights are HD, you see every line and bump and the lights seem brighter and everything is sharper in the cold. If I said I wondered why that was, my former friend would have pulled out her phone and had an answer in 3.5 seconds. She couldn’t stand not knowing, my former friend. My life is more uncertain now.
I mentioned to Paul one day that I thought the nights were nicer in winter, that the stars were clearer, but he always liked the nights when the stars came down to us, when they fluttered around us and twinkled on our skin. It’s not that I mind that, not really, but you need to make your own kind of haze to really understand that kind of thing deep in your body, to let yourself feel stars rest on your skin, and so he’d pass me the joint or the pipe or whatever we were smoking that night. I’d put my finger on my nose because it held the world together and because nothing made sense anyways and that’s how I sat when he said the things I didn’t want to.
His words flickered in and out and in and out, and sometimes I heard them and sometimes I just heard the pauses between them, the way that the stars are millions of miles apart but we treat them like they’re all the same, all part of one big whole. The night sky as a thing unto itself and not a collection of stars and galaxies and the space between them. But I sat and he talked and the smoke in my lungs turned his words to thunder and when he couldn’t talk anymore I brushed my arm against his, waiting for the quiet.
When it finally settled in, we were letting the universe spin around us, our heartbeats at the very center, speaking the language they’d created between them while we rested in the dark.
Sarah writes while trying to escape the Texas heat and as a reminder to herself that everywhere is more interesting than wherever she happens to be. She has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and her work has appeared in Catapult, The Toast, and various lit mags around the globe. @sarahgundle