The Firefly

Cynthia and Mia loved being outdoors. Late in the evening, after dark, the two young sisters would stroll down to the end of their sleepy cul-de-sac, quietly talking, or singing, listening to the breeze in unseen oak leaves, gazing up at the ever-changing moon. Night was a place for dim lights and deeper feeling. In the darkness they’d steal aboard the slow backyard swing to float among infinite stars. Those beautiful nights were better than any dream.

“There it is again!” said Cynthia.

The firefly had returned. It seemed to show up every night an hour after sunset. The small light zigged and bobbed above the ghostly lawn. It disappeared behind the black shed. Suddenly it appeared right in front of the two sisters, who sat motionless on the swing.

“We should try catching it,” suggested Mia.

“Why?”

“We could bring it inside and use it for a night light.”

“That’s silly.”

“I’m serious!”

“You shouldn’t ever catch a firefly. You’ll be cursed.”

“Says who?”

“I don’t know.”

It remained a very great mystery–why there was always one firefly. Cynthia and Mia watched the small light flit here, there, here again, but always a shade beyond reach. Both young sisters understood that the small insect’s ballet was not arbitrary. Windblown, indecisive–but not without purpose.

The following night the two sisters walked down the cul-de-sac looking for bats. But it was getting too dark, almost a new moon.

After returning home, Mia couldn’t resist her heart’s desire. She darted into the kitchen through the screen door. A few minutes later she plunged into the darkness clutching an empty glass jar. She showed it to Cynthia on their swing. “I’m going to catch the firefly!”

“Why?”

“Because I want my own lightning in a bottle!”

“But a firefly is alive. If you catch it you’ll kill it.”

“No I won’t. I punched air holes in the lid.”

“The poor thing will starve.”

“Just this one night. I don’t want to hurt it. I’ll take it back outside and let it go free in the morning. I promise.”

“You’re silly.”

Mia unscrewed the jar’s lid and sat on the swing with her sister quietly waiting. They could barely see one another. A trillion bright stars whirled above. Somewhere in the night, a lonely cat yowled. An owl hooted. The firefly appeared like magic.

For a long while the two watched the dim light swing through the air like a falling star. With a bound Mia jumped up clutching her jar and raced beside the star.

The firefly darted away.

“Almost got it!” Mia laughed.

Cynthia laughed with her.

Mia chased and veered. A metal lid clapped on glass.

“I got it! I got it!” Mia shouted.

“Quiet! You’ll wake everyone up.”

“But look! I really caught it!

Mia crossed the gray grass and quietly came up to Cynthia with the dark jar in hand. “Look!”

Trapped at the bottom of the jar was a small, indistinct shape. The sisters put their noses to the glass to see better. The captured thing looked like nothing but a plain beetle.

“Are you sure that’s the firefly?” asked Cynthia.

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Well, there. You got your lightning in a bottle. I hope that makes you happy.”

Mia carried the jar into her bedroom. The firefly was in reality just a tiny, rather plain-looking beetle. It crawled awkwardly around the bottom of the confining glass jar, its chemical light off. Mia stared at the hobbling beetle for several minutes, then placed the jar on the corner of her nightstand. She switched off the bedroom light and lay on her back in bed. Her eyes were on the jar. The room was pitch black.

Mia waited. Her eyes focused on the exact spot where the jar should be. She anticipated, hoped, held her breath, waiting, waiting. She wished for a star. She yearned for a rising star. A star of her own. But why would anything happen? It was merely a dull beetle.

Out of the darkness a soft light appeared before her. It grew slowly brighter, slowly brighter, filling the room. The light intensified, enveloped her, blazed and shimmered, lifted her into a dazzling universe of infinite stars.

The alarm clock jolted her from the dream.

Sunlight streamed through the bedroom window. Mia sat up and looked at the jar on the nightstand. The beetle was dead.

Mia stared at the dead thing.

Somehow she stopped her flood of tears when she finally joined Cynthia for breakfast. Mother as usual was drunk and said nothing. The two young sisters headed out into the glaring daylight and trapped themselves in the school bus.

“I told you you’d kill it,” chided Cynthia.

The two sat motionless on their swing in the darkest of nights. A cold night with no moon and no firefly. They sat outside anyway. Alone in blackness was better than nothing.

“I told you,” insisted Cynthia, “but you wouldn’t listen. Why did you have to catch it? Why did you have to kill it? Now our one and only firefly is gone. There’s nothing left. You murdered it.”

“Stop it! Shut up!”

The two sat motionless on the swing, like twin dead planets in that cold, black night. They didn’t see the bright stars. They didn’t look up.

Cynthia broke the silence. “Now that the firefly is gone, what’s the point in sitting here? I’m starting to freeze. Let’s go back inside.”

“I don’t want to go inside,” protested Mia, thinking of their mother.

“But there’s no longer any reason to be here.”

“I don’t care.”

The sisters had nothing more to say. Each young girl had reached a dead end. Inside and outside, nothing was possible but the suffocating emptiness. There was no place left in the world for either to go.

Two hearts had died.

They sat like gravestones into the night.

A new moon night.

Suddenly, in that cold blackness, a ghost light appeared. A light flitted in space before the two sisters.

A firefly zigged and bobbed in front of astonished eyes.

Mia caught her breath. “Look! I don’t believe it! There’s another one!”

The tiny light had appeared from nowhere.

A new firefly bobbed and danced, twirled and weaved, like living magic suddenly risen from a well of utter blackness. Where it came from, neither girl understood. Where on Earth had it come from?

The firefly was a spark from an unseen fire, moving mysteriously, from silence to silence, from heart to heart.

Cynthia turned on the swing to face Mia. “That was wrong what I said. It was mean. I promise I will never hurt you again.”

“I’m sorry, too,” replied Mia. “I was wrong to kill it.”

Relief. Freedom.

The firefly danced. Simply, brightly, joyfully.

In two hearts, new life.

One Magic Bubble

Every morning, during my walk to work across the East River, a man would be standing on the bridge conjuring bubbles. I never saw such fantastic bubbles. He produced them by dipping a loop of string at the end of a long wand into a bucket of his own secret concoction. Then he’d lift his wand up to the breeze and watch the bubbles fill and grow exactly like living things.

Then, woosh–there each would go! Lifting into the sky, undulating like crazy. Bending the morning sunlight into spherical rainbows.

Out across the sparkling river the bubbles flew. The bubble man and I got to know each other after awhile and we’d make preposterous bets.

“I bet it makes it to the next bridge. That’s got to be at least a quarter mile,” I offered with a smile.

“Farther ‘n that. I had one go all the way to those roofs, over by that silver building.”

“You could actually see it that far away?”

“It was a big one. I saw it pop.”

Most of the time the man just silently conjured bubbles, and we two would stand on the bridge watching them birth and take flight. Some burst too soon. The duration of their flight seemed completely unpredictable.

The ever-shining river welcomed bubbles along its endless path. Our backs were to the rushing cars.

I’d slip a few dollars into the man’s hat when he wasn’t looking. I always meant to ask him if there was anything he needed.

“Check this one out!” Holding his wand above the river, he suddenly became enthusiastic. An impossibly gigantic bubble filled with the wind’s breath, taking form. Somehow, without bursting, the quivering globe launched from his upraised wand.

It must have been a world record. It was at least six feet in diameter. The conditions must have been exactly right. The living bubble rose into the sky and floated on the unseen wind out over the river. Its changing colors were fantastically vivid.

The once-in-a-lifetime bubble rose and rose and rose, became smaller and smaller as it vanished down the river. We stood very quietly and watched.

One morning I passed over the bridge and the man was gone. I never did ask his name.

The Taste of Flies

A child raced out of the kitchen’s back door before bacon and eggs were ready and hid under a branch of the old acacia tree.

The child caught sight of a shining web. Diamonds of dew glittered before surprised eyes like a bright, luring treasure.

A curious hand reached out.

“Please don’t break my web,” said the spider. “It took me an awfully long time to make.”

“Hello,” said the child.

“Shouldn’t you be eating your breakfast right about now?” asked the spider. “Why did you come running outside like some sort of crazy person?”

“I don’t know.”

“That can be very dangerous. Just because a door is cracked open doesn’t mean a body should rush through it.”

“Sorry.”

“I can’t help but notice you admiring my spectacular feat of aerial engineering. Isn’t it amazing? Are you curious how long it took me to create this miracle?”

“Why did you make that?”

“Good one!” laughed the spider. “It’s what I do. It’s what all spiders do. We knit our silk into a perfect geometric pattern and weave a beautiful trap.

“What you see is my tangible essence. My daily masterpiece spun from insatiable instinct.

“It’s my Sistine Chapel, my Starry Night, my Water Lilies. It’s my Persistence of Memory, my Guernica, my Night Watch. It’s my Garden of Earthly Delights, my Last Supper, my Mona Lisa.

“It is my self-portrait. It’s the place where I stand. I really can’t help myself. We spiders have to eat, too, like you.”

“What do you eat?” asked the child

“Silly flies that I trap.”

“What does a fly taste like?” the young child asked, suddenly thinking again about breakfast.

The spider laughed ominously. “Bacon and eggs.”

“You’re horrible! You’re nothing but a nasty little spider! What will you do if I break your web so you can’t kill any more flies?” demanded the child.

“I will eat my own miracle and weave again. But you won’t destroy my web because I can see you are exceptionally wise.”

“What does wise mean?”

“It means you speak to tiny things like me.”

The Silver of Ice

Leslie’s open eyes were vulnerable. With one mittened hand she tugged the wool cap down over her eyebrows. With the other she held up the scarf, to smother her nose.

The bitter New Year’s wind drained the heat of every living thing.

Leslie could feel her eyes freezing. It was a peculiar feeling. She blinked rapidly, trying to summon warm tears.

Fragments of ice torn from the frozen world blew past her eyes. She flinched. The flakes seemed white ash from a dead fire.

Leslie hurried down the sidewalk–as fast as she could without slipping. The convenience store was only two blocks away.

The entire town had vanished in colorless snow. Nobody in their right mind would venture outside in such inhuman cold. Just a Ford pickup equipped with a scraping snow plow, and a few creeping cars behind it.

With relief she exploded through the store’s door.

“Cold enough for you?” asked Freddie. He was sitting on a stool gazing out the frosted window.

“I’m out of cough syrup. Jack can’t stop coughing, so I have to hurry back. I’m so tired. They said on the news it’s almost a record. Thirty five below, or something.”

“Yeah, everything’s dead. The cold has stopped everything.”

“Happy New Year,” he added as she departed.

Leslie rushed back into the white world, determined to be home and out of the wind’s teeth.

She almost slipped on the sidewalk, but miraculously regained her balance. She crossed the empty street, avoiding hard slush. Someone was scraping thick ice off a windshield. She didn’t turn her head to see who.

Leslie ran as best as she could against the cold.

She could feel her eyes beginning to freeze.

The mailbox.

It was frozen shut. With an icy rock from the ground she broke ice off.

She pulled out a letter.

She stood in the piercing cold, and with clumsy mittened hands opened the envelope.

A New Year’s card.

She paused, looked for a long minute upon a scene of carefree skaters on a silver lake, lost in a forest of bright silver trees. They skated under silver stars, in a world that was shining like unearthly heaven. Around the lake hovered a few snowflakes–perfectly formed snowflakes like silver dreams.

It was so beautiful.

A flake of snow landed on the card, melted.

Leslie despaired that the beautiful card would be ruined. She quickly opened her jacket and put the silver next to her heart. Shivering deeply, she turned about, hurried for the door.

The Ghost Ship

Lynn sat alone on the gray rock at the edge of the pond gazing into the distance. Different day, same rock, same pond. The same dirty water. The same life.

The breeze was slight; the humidity was stifling.

Lynn’s break time at the factory was strictly 15 minutes. That left nowhere else to go but out the back door, past a pile of broken pallets and to the edge of the pond. And that’s where Lynn sat. Her eyes sought the distance.

Something moved on the water. A snake, probably.

Far across the pond were the shade trees. They appeared like an oasis mirage in a desert, so green, so inviting, but never within reach. At the factory workers had only 15 minutes. And of course a quick lunch in the cafeteria. And after work one hurried home to beat the traffic.

The water of the pond was just as muddy as the ground surrounding Lynn’s rock. Where the water came from, Lynn didn’t know. The torpid pond seemed a shallow bowl of dust mixed with tears, broken earth, rusted things, time’s remnants.

As always her time passed.

Soon time to go.

The thing on the water appeared closer. The slight breeze seemed to be pushing it.

Lynn sat on the hard rock and watched the mystery as it moved.

Garbage, she assumed.

The thing moved slowly across the water, drawing closer, closer, into focus. It was nothing more than a piece of dead bark.

Lynn watched the bark inch across the dust-specked pond, until it finally bumped up against her rock. Lying upon the bark was something white.

The tiny flower was perfect, white, inexplicable.

Like a snowflake.

Lynn looked down. A flower? From where?

Almost time to go.

Something urged Lynn to gently pick up the small flower. Quietly she placed it beside herself on the rock.

A change of air.

The ghost ship departed, its cargo delivered.

Walking on Light

The crosswalk’s white rectangles shined in the sunlight. Crossing the intersection, Angel stepped on the reflected light.

A narrow band of sunlight brightened the edge of the sidewalk. Like a tightrope walker Angel walked along the brightness, balancing atop the light.

From time to time Angel had to skip over the shadows of people who plodded homeward.

A patch of darkness, cast by a building, could not be overstepped, so Angel once again crossed the street, continued along the edge of a parking lot, steadily moving toward the falling sun on a winding path of light.

To avoid the deepening shadows Angel had to make small leaping flights.

“Watch where you’re going, you idiot,” someone said.

Sprinklers made puddles beside a long hedge. The puddles were silver in the sunlight. Angel stepped onto them, walking on the light.

Angel started across the town park’s green grass. The sun had reached the horizon. Long slender tree shadows made easy hurdles. A small sunlit pond at the center of the park sparkled.

Angel came to the edge of the pond. A breeze stirred the water. Upon every little crest of every little wave a momentary glint of sunlight winked. Angel stepped onto the water and walked across glimmers of reflected light.

Angel stepped onto the coin-like reflection of the moon. The pond became dark as the sun set. The moon’s ghostly reflection formed a small island of celestial light.

The moon’s reflection inched very slowly across the water. Standing easily upon the moon’s light, Angel gazed up at the stars.

The brilliant stars were beyond count. Beyond knowledge. Their infinite light was present.

The air had calmed. A bird flew invisibly overhead.

Angel longed to be home.

Angel found the trail of the Milky Way reflected upon the black water. The jeweled path led across the pond to the opposite shore. Angel stepped off the moon and walked along the galaxy’s edge.

Angel stepped onto Hazel Street and walked beneath the wavering light of street lamps.

Angel’s porch light was on.

The front door swung open wide, flooding the sleeping world with radiance.

Angel was home.

How to Paint Angels

Another angel, not quite perfect. Carol snatched the canvas off the easel and balled it up hard. She flung her creation into the fireplace and watched the devouring flames turn wings black.

Like a dead weight Carol sank to the carpet, then lay on her back and shut her eyes. She tried to shut out the world.

That evening, after some television news and a bite to eat, she was compelled to place a new white canvas onto the empty easel. She stared at the blank space. She dipped her delicate brush into silver.

As usual she began with the angel wings. Her strokes were precise, slow.

The most difficult part was always the eyes. They never came out right. Angel eyes were a puzzle. She would do them last.

A knock at the door.

“Come in!”

It was her new friend Monique. “I’m sorry–I didn’t know you were busy–here’s the jacket you left in Tony’s car. I’ll leave you here to your work.”

“No! Please stay for a minute! The apartment can feel so empty. It’s nice to have some company for a change.”

“What’s this? You painted all these?”

Carol laughed. “It’s my hobby, I guess.”

“Seriously? It beats making tin foil Christmas tree ornaments, or any silly thing I’ve ever attempted. I didn’t know you were an artist! They’re absolutely beautiful!”

“Sometimes I wonder.”

“Wonder what–if they’re beautiful?”

“If they’re as perfect as angels should be.”

“They’re angels. How can they not be beautiful?” laughed Monique, wandering slowly about Carol’s small apartment, turning right and then left. She gazed with increasing wonder at a dozen silvery canvases on easels. There was such a clutter of angels that it was difficult to maneuver.

Monique looked quickly at each canvas. The heavenly paintings were exquisite but something about them was odd. They felt unnatural. Something vital seemed to be missing. And there were so many. She didn’t want to say anything. That would be impolite.

“You might have noticed that none of my angels have eyes,” Carol remarked, trying not to sound embarrassed. “Not yet.”

“Oh my gosh! I was just thinking there was something kind of strange about them. Now I see why! They’re absolutely wonderful but the faces are wrong. So you’re waiting to paint the eyes on all these? Are they difficult to do?”

“I always have trouble with my eyes.”

“Me, too,” smiled Monique. “That’s why I wear glasses.”

They both laughed.

Carol rolled in a nightmare. It was another lucid dream of Hell.

Blackness swallowed her. She was spinning, drowning in an infinite void, suffocating in ungraspable nothingness. There was no light, not a trace of substance or form.

A tomb.

In the blackness she struggled to find her hand. She was desperate to lift her hand and touch something, feel anything. She could find nothing. Spinning, spinning, she was alone, less than nothing in the consuming nothingness.

It was a Hell without flames, without demons or evil, without time, only emptiness. A devouring nightmare that had erased her entire world.

No hope.

Panicking, she strained in her mind to remember some known thing. A face, a ray of sunshine. Something in a vanished life she understood. Something near. Deep in her mind she tried to grasp at anything, a momentary spark, an atom, to cling to, to push back the black, ruthless, eternal Nothing.

Nothing.

In the blackness she caught a glimmer.

She woke.

Her dark apartment was strangely aglow. She lifted her head from her pillow. All about her were living eyes. Eyes of pure light, living light. Warm light.

Carol jumped out of bed and flipped on the cold apartment light.

She began painting eyes.