Monday, September 21, 2009


From my childhood I remember the magic of fireflies.  I associate them with vague memories of warm damp summer nights when I was up past my bedtime.  They would flash like impossible beings that symbolized the magic of childhood.

The kids in the neighborhood would chase them with nets and jars, and sometimes our bare hands, for they were one of the few bugs that we were not afraid to touch.  They were good.  A few holes would be punched into the top of a jar and the poor bugs would become night-lights, shaken until they lit up or until we fell asleep.

There was always someone who would squash one and we would look in amazement at the continuing glow that outlived the fly itself.  This was a cruel act of childhood, like burning your friend's foot with a magnifying glass in the hot sun while he was busy trying to burn ants with his magnifier.

I live in the country now in a place where the nights are so dark that the milky way is brightly visible and the stars burst through the clear night sky vividly.  There are no kids in the neighborhood except for mine.  The woods are alive with sounds that could be crickets or deer, but are always wolves to my children.

One night I was out looking at the sky and I was surprised by the flash of a firefly.  I hadn't seen one for decades.  I felt the same excitement I had as a child, a response that I think is a part of the human genome.  I rushed to find the butterfly nets from where they had last been carelessly thrown, and a jar.

There were only a few fireflies out and I ran from one end of the yard to the other as I saw them appear, and then disappear, the flicker turning into just a dark bug, barely visible, flying higher out of reach into the night.  Finally I caught one and breathlessly placed it into a jar.  I proudly brought it upstairs to my sleeping daughter and woke her to see it. 

I think it was one of those moments for her that was hard to distinguish from reality.  One minute she was sound asleep, dreaming and the next she was looking at a bug that could produce light, a strange concept to accept, perhaps blending with that night's story about something equally fantastic.

In the morning we released the fly together.  The next night I caught two.  I would have liked to have her catch them with me but they were out too late.  It became my nightly ritual, rewarded by the glow of excitement my daughter showed as she cupped the jar and took it into bed with her, the only bug I can think of that she would happily hold next to her. 

It remained a nightly ritual for about a week, at which point the fireflies stopped coming, and the wonder it all faded, as things do once kids accept them. 

Now, a year later she barely remembers them, but for me they were a moment of my childhood relived and shared.  A happy moment. 

Next year maybe she'll be up late enough to catch them with me.

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