Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
No one knows why fireflies glow. There are of course a few theories, but there are good arguments for and against each.
The first is the idea that the glow is a warning to other animals. A way of saying, “Nothing tasty here, stay away unless you want a nasty snack.” And many animals that would normally eat insects, especially high calorie large insects like fireflies, do stay away. Bats won’t go near them. But raccoons will, they have been seen grabbing fireflies biting off the tasty half and then throwing the nasty glowing half down. So as a defensive methods it is only partially effective, and if you think about it, that really makes it completely useless. Sure the glowing makes the bats make a U-turn, but for the animals that are willing to eat you, well every time you glow you are turning on the buffet sign.
Another and more widely accepted idea is that the glow is for finding a mate. On the surface of it this seems more likely. You have all those crickets, frogs, and creatures of all kind cluttering up the airwaves with noise at night, trying to find their next hot date. So why compete with all that? Many daylight animals have courtship dances or bright colors to signal potential mates, but at night those don’t make any sense, but a blinking light sure does. Here is problem though, it has been tested on a couple of species of fireflies and while they couldn’t rule out they were using their lights to signal mates, they were also using pheromones. Scientists put females in black covered petri dishes and even though they couldn’t see the light males found them.
The third possibility is predation, one firefly will signal to another firefly drawing them in. Most scientist believe the signals are mimicking mating signals and drawing in potential mates, and then killing them. I don’t disagree but I don’t know why that has to be the only case, because there are lots of scary implications with this possibility, one of those is that this represents bona fide communication in the firefly world. There are light patterns that have meaning behind them and a firefly can manipulate their own light to say whatever they want to say, so for all we know the message could be just a call out to hang out that results in a trap or a firefly saying I need a hand come help. The idea of fireflies communicating ideas this complex is freaky in and of itself. It implies that they could have personalities and before you roll your eyes at that idea think about the other implication of the predation idea. It is other fireflies they are signaling not other animals, which implies that fireflies communicate, that the average firefly is trusting enough to be lured in because the idea of murder wouldn’t occur to them, and that a small number of fireflies are cannibalistic serial killers. In short, some fireflies are evil.
All this I am about to tell you happened in the summer of 1985, the last weekend before school started back. My cousin and I went to different schools, but they started at the same time, so this was the last week of summer for both of us. I was 10 and he was 9, which doesn’t seem like much of an age difference but usually when you are a kid a year is a huge difference, the difference between lifting a half bucket of water or a whole bucket, the difference of being able to run to the end of the driveway in ten seconds or twelve seconds, the difference in being able to make a free throw or a layup. But in spite of this age gap I was very close to my first cousin. We were close because we liked the same things, we liked being outside, we liked playing sports, we liked getting dirty, we liked exploring the woods.
We had spent most the summer playing together, our grandparents were retired and our parents worked days so our grandparents watched us during the day. But despite all this time together we wanted a whole weekend to play uninterrupted and to be able to stay up as late as we could playing games and watching tv. We asked our grandmother first and when she said it was up to our parents we both begged them until they gave in.
We had spent our Saturday tossing Frisbees and footballs, and working on our fort. The plot of land our grandparents house was on seemed to be cut straight out of the forest, there was a dirt road in front of the house, but on the other 3 sides of their home was forest, it didn’t gradually become forest. It was literally one step you were on my grandmother’s thick carpet grass and the next you were standing on leaves with tall oaks, pines over your head and a sprinkling of young trees fighting for every inch of sunshine. Behind the house there was maybe 30 feet of grass and then you were in the woods and it sloped down slowly for maybe a 150 yards before it flattened out again.
At the beginning of the summer we had started to build a fort down in this flattened area of the woods. We had found a reasonably opened piece of land and started clearing the leaves and pinestraw, and we spent loads of time scouring the forest for trees that had fallen but weren’t so rotten they fell apart, but were still light enough for us to carry. As you could guess it took a long time, after a full summers worth of work the fort was about three and half feet tall, we were shooting for at least four. We probably wouldn’t finish until spring but we had located a large piece of tin that could cover the top, so we could still climb inside and feel like we had our own clubhouse. We had spent the last of daylight on that Saturday down at the fort, we had been digging it out a little so that we could stand up inside of it, we would still have to hunch a bit but we were close. We had been digging with our hands because our grandpa would not let us carry his shovel into the woods. We were filthy, the ground was dry but we were still covered from head to toe with dirt, we didn’t mind. As the sun hung low in the sky our grandma’s voice rang out through woods, we heard clearly because we had been listening for it. I shouted back telling her we would be on our way back in a minute.
We stood up and dusted off, and headed back up the path we had made to the house. Our grandmother would not let us into the house until we had cleaned off, but we weren’t ready to come in. We compromised, Grandpa set up a folding table on the back porch and we ate outside, as the shadows of the trees crept further across the yard seeming to devour it.
Grandpa came out on the porch to sit and smoke his evening pipe. Grandpa was a man of few words and he sat there for a time smoking in silence. We had finished our meals and had joined Grandpa in his silent requiem. We had been running hard and chattering all day and now that we had finally gotten still it seemed that exhaustion might have caught us off-guard. Then Grandpa’s thick country patois startled us.
“Look there boys.” Grandpa was pointing with his pipe towards the woods. “Fireflies are out tonight.”
We looked. We marveled at them, as they emerged from the woods. It wasn’t a swarm of them, I didn’t think they swarmed, but there did seem to be more and more of them emerging from the woods as the minutes went by. It reminded me of a nature video I had seen of bats emerging from a cave as night came in Mexico, which I guess is precisely what it was like.
It was my younger cousin that had the idea. He looked at me and simply said, “I bet I can catch more than you can.”
I laughed and flapped a hand to indicate how ridiculous that idea was.
“Winner sleeps on the couch, loser sleeps on the floor?” he proposed.
I pretended to ponder the challenge for a moment. I was going to agree, I always agreed to his challenges, but this time I didn’t feel bad about. When my cousin challenged me to basketball, badminton, or some other sport, I always felt bad because I would win, I was bigger, stronger, and faster. When he challenged me to board games and video games I felt the same way, I was year ahead of him in school and my reflexes were just a hair faster, my brain a tad more developed. I didn’t hold back or ever let him win, he would have known and been mad if I did, he believed one day he would catch up to me and when he won he wanted it to be fair and square. This competition seemed perfectly fair though, no different than an Easter egg hunt or hide and seek and he had beaten me at those before. I held out my hand and he slapped it, the challenge had been formalized.
Our grandmother would not give us the jars we wanted to put the fireflies in. she re-used all her jars, but was willing to part with a couple of opaque ice cream containers, they had handles so that would make them easy to carry.
We took our buckets, stood on the edge of the porch and asked our Grandpa to count to 3. He slowly counted up, and on three we both jumped off the porch and ran in opposite directions trying to catch one.
If you have never chased fireflies, it is like playing Marco Polo. Instead of being blindfolded it is just dark and you can’t see a tiny bug. Instead of saying Marco, you are just willing the little lightning bug to light up. Instead of saying “Polo”, the firefly lights up for a second. Sometimes they stay lit for as much as two seconds, then will be black for as little as three seconds or as long as maybe ten or fifteen seconds. When they light up you run to where you last saw them, but just like Marco Polo, they aren’t there anymore, they have moved. You try to move in the direction you think they were headed and hopefully they light up again right in front of your face and you snatch them.
They seemed to be everywhere and every couple of seconds I snatched one out of the air, I would then pop the lid up from bucket just enough to shove it in without looking, I was trying to track my next catch. I probably lost as many as I actually got in the bucket, but I didn’t care, this was summer and I was a boy and this was as good as life got. I hadn’t been paying much attention to where I was going as I chased the bugs and before I knew it I was at the edge of the forest. I glanced around and didn’t see any more fireflies in the yard, I watched for a few seconds and saw no more light up, I could see my cousin too and he stood there at the edge too, looking. The fireflies didn’t all disappear they just seemed to have moved to the woods. I watched them for a few seconds as the entire forest seemed to be full of glowing orbs. After a moment I glanced back at my cousin, expecting to see him walking over to where I stood. Instead he was still rooted to the same spot looking into the woods. I started walking over to where he stood and then he looked over at me. He looked at me, and in the failing light I could see a devilish grin on his face, then he turned back to the woods and bolted into them. I was surprised for only a second and then I bounded into the woods myself without a second thought, our grandmothers voiced chased us as we dived in telling us not to go too far, stay where we could see the porch light.
That first 150 yards of woods that sloped down had a few young trees with low hanging branches, but it was mostly large old trees with big roots that bulged out of the ground all over the place. What I am trying to say, is that it wouldn’t have been advisable for most people to just go barreling out into this forest in the dark. But the woods had been our home for the last few years and every inch of this part of the forest had been well travelled by us, we knew this area as well as we knew our bedrooms. I stepped over holes I knew were there and ducked under low hanging branches without taking my eyes off the fireflies. The air around me was thick with them and I was grabbing one out of the air every couple of seconds. They were constantly in front of me, every time their butts lit up they would be a foot of two further in front of me. I moved further and further into the woods after them.
I never glanced around at my cousin or wondered where he was, I assumed he was chasing his own swarm of fireflies down the hill too. My mind was full of nothing but the joy of the chase and a supreme confidence that I was winning. With that elation coursing through me the forest all of a sudden went completely black.
All at once every lightning bug blinked out and didn’t light back up. It had all been staggered up to that point, there was always some light from a fraction of the bugs. But now suddenly I was plunged into darkness. I wasn’t immediately frightened, I wasn’t a boy who was afraid of the dark and like I said I knew the woods. But I was disoriented.
I turned and looked back and could still see the porch light, I had come to the bottom of the slope that ran down from my grandparents house. The trees had cleared a bit and I was only a few dozen feet from the fort my cousin and I had spent the summer building. I debated what to do next, go back up to the house I figured, the game seemed to be over. I thought it was odd the fireflies all disappeared at once, but I wasn’t really inquisitive enough to wonder why that happened and I certainly didn’t read anything sinister into it. And just as I was getting ready to head back up the hill suddenly all the fireflies lit up.
It was the opposite of what just happened with them all going out, all of them near me lit up at once and stayed lit for maybe four seconds and then went out. They stayed out for a couple of seconds then lit back up for a couple of seconds. They were blinking all in time with one another. I stared slack jawed at this. Once again, I wasn’t scared, in the wild animals act in strange ways sometimes. This was amazing and I was curious why they were acting this way but I didn’t feel scared until I realized something else, they were all around me.
The fireflies were circling me. There wasn’t any fireflies ten feet away from me, none off in the distance ten or twenty yards. Literally every firefly I could see was within arms reach of me. I turned and they were completely surrounding me. The light was almost blinding because there was so much of it and when they went out the night blindness kept me from seeing anything else. This was all wrong, it felt oppressive and at first I couldn’t put my finger on why and then I could, it felt like a blinking neon sign. The fireflies felt like a blinking “open” sign on a storefront, or maybe an “all-you-can-eat” sign blinking on a restaurant. At that moment I wanted to be away from them, I couldn’t even see how they could harm me in anyway but this fun evening suddenly felt scary and the bugs blinding me and pointing me out to the world felt menacing.
I was just about to take my first step towards home wondering how the fireflies were going to react when the forest felt different. I didn’t hear anything but it felt different. The forest felt heavy and quiet. I couldn’t hear anything and thanks to the lightning bugs I couldn’t see anything either, but nonetheless I felt something near and I felt like it knew I was here too, of course it did, the fireflies were pointing right at me.
Panic was beginning to set into me, pushing out all rational thought, but before it did this last thought came to me.
“You can’t make to the house it is too far, hide in the fort and maybe it will pass you by.”
As terror wiped even that thought from my mind I darted for the fort, instinct took me straight to it. One of the last things me and my cousin had done was dig a small ditch under it because we could no longer climb in from the top, it was just deep enough to crawl under and wiggle into the fort. I went under it head first when the upper half of my body was through suddenly i felt stuck with my legs and butt naked and exposed. The fear that something would grab me and pull me out caused me to start weeping. I worked my body faster and faster in a panic, scared I wasn’t going to get in, finally my butt squeezed through the opening and I was in. I crawled to the very center of the fort, sat down and hugged my knees up to my chest and continued to sob.
Slowly I began to get myself under control, and inexplicably felt safe and foolish. I just ran from fireflies. The longer I sat there the more together I got, I begun to hope that my cousin didn’t see me running from the lightning bugs and that he definitely didn’t hear me crying. A new worry started to creep into me, how long had all this taken, were my grandparents worrying about me, maybe stomping around the forest with flashlights. I had just begun to crawl back to the exit when the fireflies came back.
Just like before it was all at once. One second pitch black the next every bug is lit up. They weren’t inside the fort, they had surrounded it. There was about an inch or so of space between each of the boards and it was all light every couple of seconds as they flashed their rears. I jerked back to the middle and curled back up. And this fort with its walls that felts so safe a second ago looked just like what it was, a pile of dead trees with a flimsy piece of tin on top.
I sat frozen staring at nothing and seeing nothing but alternating pitch black and light pouring in the through the walls. But after some interminable time something was approaching. I sensed it before I heard it and saw it. As it approached it didn’t make a lot of noise, it took slow heavy steps and it didn’t seem to break branches but I could hear it rustling leaves as it moved, which made lots of sense; we had cleared out a lot of leaves from where the fort was so there were more than usual in the area around the fort. It’s steps didn’t shake the ground but they did seem very much to thud. It seemed that when it’s foot came down it put roots in the ground and would never move again, but then it would. Each step sounded final but for along time they weren’t. Soon though it was on the inside of the ring of fireflies.
Now when the light blinked on there was a blank space in the light, it’s shadow stretched into the fort each time they blinked. I wept silently and began to shake. I still had not looked at it, but I knew where it was and that it was staring at the fort, but not into it yet. I kept telling myself not to look, that looking wouldn’t do me any good, it would just make me crazier with fear, it might make me scream and call attention to myself. I had no covers to pull over my head but I was trying to act just like a child that does that when they fear the bogeyman is in the closet. The reason why the child does that and why I was doing that is simple, it is a stupid idea still stuck in the ancient lizard part of our brain that says that if I can’t see them they can’t see me. I was too old to believe this but I tried very hard to. The creature started to walk around the fort, the fireflies would blink out and then back on and that shadow would be in a different spot. It’s heavy footfalls would continue for a bit and then stop.
At first I had hoped the thing didn’t know I was in here and if I was just quiet it might move on. After a few minutes I felt sure it knew I was here, it had to, and it was just taunting me, playing with it’s food before it smashed apart this pile of dead wood and snatched me out to my death. But that didn’t happen. It kept pacing but it never even bumped the fort. I was still terrified and most of my mind was just a white panic but I had begun to think again, I had an idea and I latched onto it, put all my hope in it and willed myself to believe it. All these years later I am still sure my 10 year old self was right.
It couldn’t come in, because this was a house. That is how I understood it then, over the years I have come to believe it like this. Whatever that thing was it can’t cross barriers. The borders we make in our world blocks it, it couldn’t come into the fort, it couldn’t have come in my grandparents house, hell I don’t think it could have come up to their house, I think the edge of the woods would have stopped it, where those trees end would be it’s border. What would happen if it crossed the border? I don’t know. Maybe it is just physically incapable the way you are incapable of touching your nose to your elbow, or maybe it would cause terrible pain, maybe it even would cause death. I really don’t have a clue, maybe it wouldn’t do anything and it was all in the thing’s head.
I was still terrified to the point of panic and only just barely holding on to my grip on myself. Then I realized that is exactly what it was trying to do, it was trying to scare me, it was trying to make me go into a blind panic. When an animal goes into a panic it is just as likely to run into the arms of danger than away from it. It wanted me to try to run so it could catch me, I had no doubt it could, even though it was taking slows steps I was sure it had a faster speed. Knowing this calmed me a bit, if it couldn’t harm me inside the fort all I had to do was wait it out. Soon someone, probably my grandfather, would come looking for me. Yes this creature, was big and yes it was clever, but my grandfather would have his rifle on him. I wasn’t sure this creature could be killed with a gun, but it seemed likely, it was clearly not an unstoppable all powerful monster, otherwise it would be able to pull a ten year old boy out of a child’s fort.
Feeling more confident and little less scared I finally decided to try and see what was hunting me. In the slowly blinking light of the fireflies, I couldn’t make out much about the creature. It was brown, not a hairy brown, but a gnarled kind of flesh, it looked almost like tree bark. It was very tall, or it had very long legs, the fort stood just over 4 feet high and the only thing I could see were legs. I leaned forward to get a closer look.
The creature recoiled a bit and made a strange noise, it sounded a bit like someone shaking a maraca or a little like playing cards on the spokes of a bicycle tire, but lower and more guttural, it sent a chill down my spine and raise gooseflesh on my arms. Still I leaned closer, and in response the thing began to lean down to look at me and the fireflies blinked out.
Without their light I was completely blind at first, but slowly I could see again and the first thing I saw were red eyes, not glowing red, but just a deep crimson with a spot of black in their centers. As my eyes adjusted further i realized just how impressively tall this thing must be, it was almost laying flat just to look me square in the eyes. It’s head was long and misshapen, with strange protuberances coming off it in places. Far down from it’s dead and disquieting eyes I found it’s mouth, it hung open and long daggers of teeth were visible, they didn’t gleam though, they were stained dark, I could still tell that it’s teeth were white by looking at their bases but the teeth themselves were dark, stained with blood no doubt, hopefully not fresh blood. Suddenly I remembered my cousin and hoped that this thing didn’t go to him before it came for me.
The thing studied me and even leaned in a little close, in response I leaned back a bit. It started it’s clicking noise again and I knew I was about to scream, about to shout for it to go away, I was going to start bawling again, beg it to leave me alone. But before that could happen I heard my name shouted in the distance. The creature sprang up and I began to shout. Not shouting for the creature to go away, but shouting for my grandfather to hear me. I shouted, “I’m here!”, I shouted his name, I shouted for him to watch out there was something down here. The thing stood where it was for a minute longer and then it was gone in a flash and confirmed what I knew, that there would have been no way for me to out run it. I continued to shout, and didn’t stop until my grandfather through off the tin from the top of the fort, then I stopped shouting and started weeping.
I raised my arms to my grandfather like a toddler wanting to be picked up, he was still a strong man and he scooped me up. I continued to weep, I said it was going to get me, he patted my back and I buried my face on his shoulder, he began to walk up the hill, I kept repeating it was going to get me, he said there was nothing to get me, I protested. The greatest relief I have ever felt in my life was when we emerged from those woods. Until that very moment I was sure I was going to die and at that moment I knew I was safe and nothing could ever make me go in there again.
Grandpa sat me down.
“Do you know where your cousin is?” he asked.
My heart dropped. I had hoped and thought he was here, finding out he wasn’t caused a wave of grief to slam into me. I dropped to my knees and began to cry, mumbling through my sobs that it got him. I saw my grandfather walk back towards the woods and realized he didn’t have his gun on him. I ran to him and grabbed him. I begged him not go, he said he had to and he would be right back, finally I just begged him to take his gun with him. He relented.
He didn’t believe I had seen anything, he thought maybe we went too far away from the house and lost sight of the porch light and panicked, maybe I heard something then and it scared me. But he didn’t believe there was anything dangerous in the forest. Not until he couldn’t find my cousin, even then I am not sure what he believed.
Grandpa had been gone over an hour and I was still sitting on the porch with my grandmother, she had given me some hot cocoa and had wanted me to take a bath and get ready for bed, I stayed on the porch though. Occasionally I would see a light in the woods and my heart would stop thinking it was a firefly, then I would realize it was my grandfather’s flashlight and I would ease up. He came back and they called the police.
The next couple of days are a blur, there were so many people, so many tears, so many questions. No trace of my cousin was ever found though. I never told anyone exactly what I saw, having had some time to get myself under control I realized no one would believe me, best case scenario they would think I was traumatized and my imagination ran wild, worst case scenario they would think I was covering something up. In the end I told a lie that was very close to the truth. I left out the circle of fireflies, I left out looking at the creature, just saying I hid in the fort and whatever was in the woods didn’t find me. The cops believed it, my parents believed it, and I thought given enough time I might even believe it.
My family talked in whispers around me for months, I finally heard what was the official theory from some guys at school. This was still the 1980’s and the satanic panic was still a thing, most people believed that a cult had kidnapped my cousin and did unspeakable things to him. There was no cult, but I was sure unspeakable things were done to him. A few more rational people thought that he had just gotten very lost and maybe got snake bit or broke a leg and died in the woods. That was a perfectly logical theory, but he would have never gotten lost in the woods to start with and the family knew it. I think the family always believed the satanic cult theory, but it was never spoken of. Which almost made my cousin’s death worse, it is almost like he never existed.
I don’t know what that thing in the woods was, I don’t want to believe there is anything supernatural about it. I want to believe it just something that evolved differently than us and that may be true, but there is something that seems mystical about the control it had on the fireflies and on the way it couldn’t come into my fort. I think it was a creature of intelligence but I don’t know if it was evil or just hungry. But I do think it is still in that forest and I wonder if it is alone.
Credit: Brandon Michael Collinsworth