Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
I didn’t want us to move, but my parents didn’t give me a say in the matter. My father’s new job paid much better than anything he could have landed within driving distance of our home in the city, and the new company agreed to hire my mother, too. Not only would she have the chance to go back to work for the first time since I’d been born, but the two incomes would afford us the money to buy a house — an actual house, my father stressed — that even came with some land attached. They promised me it would be a welcome change from our apartment in the city. To them, our home was merely a cramped little space where we lived on top of one another, and that we didn’t even own. It rankled them to shell out more and more money every year to an unseen landlord for permission to occupy space, simply because that person had wealth and we did not. It was if we would not be granted the right to exist if we were any poorer than we currently were.
My parents didn’t much care that I liked being in the city. There, I never had to confront my fear of the dark. A light always burned somewhere in the city — the sky by day, the streets by night.
More than anything, it was the lack of light in the countryside that I wasn’t prepared for. Things weren’t so bad in the daytime, when the sunlight shone in the grass and speared between the tree branches to dapple the ground below. Come nightfall, however, our new home and its vicinity became a different world entirely. The darkness in the countryside was absolute. No matter how long you stared into it, your eyes would never adjust. Unless there were a strong moon in the sky, you would be condemned to blindness once the lights went out, and forced to rely on your ears and touch and imagination until the sunrise restored your eyesight.
I fell into the habit of leaving the blinds in my bedroom open at all times, including at night, so that the sunlight could start streaming in as soon as it breached the horizon.
* * *
We had finished with the move in the spring. The dark and seemingly endless nights in the country had me on edge within a week. I looked forward to the summer and its progressively longer days.
I came to learn that it wasn’t the dark itself I was afraid of, not quite. I hated what it did to my senses. Imagined motions — particularly flurries of static like on the screen of a broken television — rushed over my eyes when they remained open in the darkness and found nothing to draw their focus. My ears would pick up sounds that drove me crazy if I couldn’t immediately put a source to them: the creaking of the house as it settled into its foundation, the yowling calls of animals out in the distance, the lonely and sorrowful moans of the wind through the pines. Then there was the problem of my own body, and discovering that no position in bed was comfortable once I started thinking about it.
Mostly it was the feeling of abandonment I couldn’t stomach. Nothing in my life had prepared me for how isolating rural living can be. In the city, you never want for human contact; the streets are never empty, and the public venues always crowded. In our new home, hidden away among large swaths of field and forest, there was nobody around but us. Once my school day ended, I was effectively done with seeing other people. In the evenings I felt like a castaway marooned in the middle of a sea of grass, and at night, that sea seemed to swell and broaden, pulling me even further from the world I knew and loved.
I never could deal with the overwhelming sense of space the surrounding fields gave me. Open air was not something I had ever experienced in the city. I soon discovered I didn’t like it. What did I care about a bunch of grass? Where other kids my age might want to roam the fields and explore, I found I would much rather stay inside, surrounded by the safety of walls and floors and ceilings and the finite. Plus, there were no mosquitoes indoors.
And there was no computer outside to connect me with the friends from back home that I hadn’t yet lost in my great uprooting. I spent fewer hours basking in the sun than in the glow of my monitor, trying to maintain friendships that slowly slipped away as life happened differently to each of us, and brought my friends new excitements that I had no part in to replace our shared memories.
* * *
“You should eat some more,” said my father at the dinner table. “You’ve lost weight these last weeks.”
I tried to put down seconds.
“Try going outside tomorrow, too,” he added. “You’re looking pale.”
“If I have time, sure.”
It was obvious they worried about me — but not enough to reconsider the move.
“Why don’t you call your friends tonight?” my mother suggested. “They’d be glad to hear from you.”
“Yeah. I’ll do that.”
It was easier to tell them what they wanted to hear. I could have mentioned that the silences when I called my friends were now longer than the sentences. Yet somehow it didn’t seem right to let my mother know that my friends and I didn’t have much to talk about anymore.
* * *
In wishing for the change of season, I hadn’t accounted for the heat. We’d always had an air conditioner in our apartment in the city. The new house, however, had no means of cooling down besides opening the windows. I had thought the nights in the springtime were miserable by virtue of their length. I knew nothing of the unpleasantness of summer nights, of simmering sleepless in one’s own sweat no matter how many sheets and layers one shed. Sometimes I caught myself exhaling a low, lonely moan, like I’d heard in the trees.
One summer night, when it was too hot to sleep, I found myself staring through my dark window, wishing the pinholes of starlight above were enough to brighten the earth. They sparkled, winking at me through passing cirrus clouds as if they were teasing me. Some even seemed to descend from the sky, lighting on the fields below. It occurred to me that stars don’t really “fall” like that — despite the fears and warnings of the world’s early civilizations — and I began to wonder whether my mind was playing tricks on me again.
When the fallen stars started to shimmer and flash, I realized what I was actually seeing: fireflies!
I had never glimpsed one before, having only the fakes from movies and television for reference, but I didn’t think there was anything else the lights outside could be. They certainly moved like fireflies, tracing lazy arcs between blades of grass before disappearing into the darkness, and surfacing from the blackness again some distance away. I watched them flit and flicker until I felt tired enough to sleep through the heat.
In the morning they were gone, but the fireflies returned the next night. The soft white glow they trailed through the field’s tall grass gave me a sense of deep comfort, like what children must feel around their night-lights. With each brief flash, I felt as if the fireflies were calling me to play. Few things seemed more fun to me in those moments than chasing the little white motes around. Yet I worried about being eaten alive by the mosquitoes that surely swarmed out there — and about finding my way back to the house in the dark — so I remained indoors.
Inwardly, I was already preparing myself for the season to come, when the fireflies would pass from the field, and into memory and regret. If our abrupt move from the city taught me anything, it was that nothing lasts. It was best to inure myself to it sooner than later.
* * *
The cold season struck early that year, snowing in mid-October before the trees had the chance to drop their leaves. They couldn’t bear the extra burden, and their limbs snapped beneath the loads they were never meant to carry. Oftentimes they took power lines with them, and we spent several days without electricity. The wreckage outdoors looked to me like the world had ended — in ice rather than fire, answering an old question. I wondered how the fireflies had fared in the unseasonable cold, figuring that few of them had survived.
Imagine my surprise when I peered out my window one night at the tracts of snow, faintly blue beneath the crescent moon, and saw clusters of fireflies glittering over their favorite haunt. At first, the sight left me bewildered — how could cold-blooded insects endure the premature winter’s chill? Then again, I knew nothing of firefly ecology. Perhaps they were hardier bugs than I thought. My confusion soon gave way to joy, for the fireflies’ soft glow filled me with the same warm feelings it always had. Their playful glint seemed to promise all the pleasures I had wished for through the years, and never attained.
A thought arrived, unbidden, as if it came from outside of me: that nothing would make me happier than to stand amidst the procession of fireflies in the field, to let their glow wash over me, to reach out and touch the light I’d craved.
I resolved to venture out into the field once the moon was full. With all the fallen snow to reflect the moonlight, it would be as good as daytime; I could find my way back to the house in it easily. And surely the cold snap would have killed off all the insects out there that wanted to drink my blood.
* * *
Before the end of the month, the night came when the moon shone full like a silver sun. I waited until my parents had gone to sleep. Then I headed downstairs, put on my snowboots and bundled myself in my winter coat, and went outside. The glassy scent of the cold shocked my airways and stung my lungs as I trudged toward the firefly field. The blanketed snow muted every sound, making my footsteps seem yards away, and my breath belong to somebody beside me though I saw it cloud and disperse before my eyes. In the distance, the fireflies rose from the ground like snowfall in reverse. Even through the frigidity of the air, the sight of them warmed me. I picked up my pace.
As I neared, the fireflies drifted away from me like dandelion tufts on a breeze. I thought I had startled them, so I slowed my approach. I crept toward them, planting my every step lightly enough that the thin layer of frost over the snow made no noise as it broke beneath my weight. The fireflies retreated, but less than before. A few cautious steps later, and they hardly moved at all, floating in space as if I were not there. They allowed me to tread into their midst.
Surrounded by the little glowing sparks, I felt a happiness unlike any I had known. I giggled, delirious with pleasure. I was pricked by an urge to hurl myself onto my back and make a snow angel while the fireflies settled on my face. I threw out my arms. Several fireflies drew closer. One landed on my outstretched finger. Delighted, I brought it toward me. How thrilling it would be to see a firefly in the flesh!
It took me a moment to see the thing at the center of the soft white glow. Squinting, I could discern a few of its features. Then, as its image came into focus, I gasped as if I had been struck.
Whatever I held, it was no firefly.
I could not have told you exactly what it was. It resembled a human skull in miniature, ringed in pulsating white flame. It seemed to stare at me — into me — as I regarded it. There was a certain predatory intelligence behind its empty gaze.
My glance averted by instinct, and darted among the other glowing things. Were they the same as the one on my finger? I shook my hand, and the spectral skull drifted away. The rest of them encroached, gradually but deliberately. The low moan I had formerly ascribed to the wind soughed across the snow through the still air.
I heard a crack like a breaking bone, and my heart sank.
For I realized what I had never discovered hiding indoors: it was not a field the glowing creatures had led me to, but a bog.
The ice gave way, and I plunged into the freezing water. My boots dragged me down, dunking my head below the surface. The terrible cold forced the air from my lungs as my muscles began to quake. Above, the white lights bobbed like jellyfish, their outlines undulating in the turbulence.
The blackness under me looked darker than sleep. Small white spheres rose from it like bubbles. They skirted my cheeks, revealing bone grins inside their glow. I started to flail, but I found I could not move one leg — something grasped me by the ankle!
The shining little skulls gathered in the shape of a hand where I felt clutched. It tugged on me, and something like a white human silhouette raised itself from the depths. I thought I could see bones beneath its luminous skin. It brought its face up to mine, restraining my head between its palms. A bottomless loneliness radiated from its empty eyes, devouring, insatiable.
Then, as I fought to break free, it pressed its mouth to mine in a cold, hungry kiss that tasted like everything I had ever lost.
* * *
My parents tell me they found me in the morning, pale and emaciated, lying on the bank of the bog. They said I was shivering and unconscious, and feared I had gone into shock. At the hospital, I was supposedly treated for hypothermia. I remember none of it. The doctors discharged me with a relatively clean bill of health, advising me to pack on a few pounds in the meantime. They claim there’s nothing wrong with me.
But I know better.
I tremble beneath blankets even when the air is warm. I feel no hunger, and steadily drop in weight even if I can manage to eat anything. My skin picks up no color after hours in the sunlight.
It doesn’t matter what I lost, or where, or to what. I have no answer; nobody does. All I know — and all I need to know — is that some precious thing of mine is gone.
And I doubt it will come back to me, even if I knew where to look for it.
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