Image: “Firefly” by Nathan Marcy
By Wendy Fontaine
My daughter runs through the backyard of our rented cottage in Peachtree City, a southern town named for the fuzzy fruit that grow in every orchard. Stars appear in a darkening sky, and the air is sticky-sweet with the scent of magnolia. Somewhere beyond the oak trees, crickets sing and neighbors celebrate with sparklers, beer and the twanging vibrations of string guitar.
In the stolen moments before bedtime, she dashes around, green pajama bottoms brushing blades of grass, dandelion and clover, bare feet falling on cool ground. She sees a tiny speck of golden light and lunges for it, an empty mayonnaise jar in one hand, a silver metal lid in the other. She is fast but the lightning bug is faster. It disappears into the evening only to reappear a second later, the blink of an eye. She giggles and lunges again, desperate to capture that magical dot.
At nine years old, her hair is long, halfway down her back, and her nose is freckled by the sun. Her legs are strong after so many swimming lessons: freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke, dolphin. There are no signs of the baby she once was, chubby and bald, soft and doughy, like bread fresh from the oven. At the end of summer, she’ll be a fourth-grader, ready to celebrate her first double-digit birthday.
Tonight, I want to reach out with both hands and grab her, pull her close, smell the soap on her skin and feel the velvet of her arms. I want to kiss her laughing lips.
But I can’t. She’s too fast.
To catch a firefly, find a clean jar and punch small holes in the lid. Adding a moistened paper towel or a handful of grass will help the bugs breathe and give them a place to hide. Keep the jar in a cool place out of direct sunlight. After a night or two, release them. Fireflies live such a short time. It would be a shame to contain them for too long.
Nine-and-a-half years ago, my husband and I sat in a sonographer’s office in our hometown of Ellsworth, Maine waiting for the first glimpse of our child. Would it be a boy or a girl? Would he be an artist or an athlete? Would she have blonde hair or black? Blue eyes or brown?
The technician smeared cold gel on my abdomen, then maneuvered a hard plastic wand in widening circles just below my belly button. As he searched for the baby, images of the days to come flashed through my mind. I’d teach our child how to walk, how to talk, how to tie shoelaces and write the alphabet. I’d take him or her to the park, to museums, and eventually to school. We’d read books and go on vacations at the beach, collecting shells and tasting the briny sweetness of saltwater on our fingertips. Our days would be endless and magical, full of surprises.
Then suddenly there she was, in shades of silver and gray, surrounded by amniotic fluid. Forehead, chin, chest, shoulders. Her heartbeat, a small flicker on a dark screen. When we got home, her father taped the sonogram to the refrigerator. He called her Smudge, because that’s what she looked like – a smear of ink on a picture the size of a postcard.
I called her Bug.
A firefly’s flicker happens in its abdomen, where a compound called luciferin mixes with oxygen, calcium and adenosine triphosphate to create light. By drawing in more oxygen, the insect changes its flash pattern to attract a mate, to lure prey or identify itself to other members of the species. The light produces no heat in the bug’s body. If it did, it would burn itself up.
As a newborn, she fit inside my arms like a football, toes nestled in the crook of my arm, soft head resting in the palm of my hand. Our first winter together, we sat like this on the couch six or seven times a day, her nursing and me studying her face – the slope of her nose, the curl of her eyelashes, the blonde fuzz on her cheeks. Most days, it was nice. Quiet and serene. But other days, when she was fussy or sleepless, it was almost unbearable. I felt like a captive in my own living room, pinned to my seat for hours, waiting until I could get up and do something, anything, else. I craved mobility. I wanted sippy cups instead of nursing bras and breast pads. I longed for whatever was going to come next.
When Bug finally weaned herself, the sadness took me by surprise. Instead of relief, I felt an ache in the pit of my stomach. For the first time since we caught glimpse of her on that sonogram, her body no longer needed mine. That night, in a dream, she and I were playing on a blanket on the floor when she suddenly turned into a butterfly and fluttered away.
Female fireflies lay their eggs in damp soil, beneath a protective layer of leaves or other debris. When the larvae hatch, they burrow underground to feast on snails and slugs. In the spring, they begin their transformation. After two weeks of pupation, they emerge, no longer wiggly worms but winged creatures with the ability to make light.
The summer before she turned one, we started swimming lessons at our community pool. Bug wore a blue-checkered suit and a curious expression as I lowered her body into the cool water, my hands wrapped firmly around her pudgy torso. While the instructor sang nursery rhymes, we joined the other parents and their babies in a giant circle, bobbing our little ones up and down and side to side, helping them float, showing them how to kick and blow bubbles. The classes were simply something to keep us busy during the monotonous months of infancy, but Bug took to the water right away. She loved the games and the songs and the thrill of splashing her mama.
After several weeks, the instructor introduced the idea of submersion. The plan was to sing “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and when the last line came, instead of lowering our children into the water to their shoulders, we’d dunk them completely, their heads momentarily dipping beneath the surface. Our babies, the teacher promised, would instinctively hold their breath.
It seemed easy enough. But when the last line came, I couldn’t do it. What if she stopped breathing or gulped in water? Would she ever trust me again after that? It was too big a step. Neither of us was ready.
Fireflies aren’t the only creatures with the ability to luminesce. Certain mushrooms and jellyfish can glow. So can worms, snails, squid, even marine plankton and various types of bacteria. Scientists say each organism evolved in its own time, for its own reasons. These biological adaptations are necessary for survival in a world that is always changing, whether we want it to or not.
By the end of the summer, all the other parents were dunking their babies. I could no longer hide my resistance from the instructor, who had begun positioning herself next to my daughter and me during every round of the submersion song. Each failed dunk resulted in her glare of disapproval. But on the last class, I decided to take the chance. I listened to the song, waiting for the cue, repeating in my head that line about babies instinctively holding their breath. Then, pop goes the weasel.
I pulled Bug under, her tiny head disappearing into the cool blue of the pool. My heart dropped. I held my breath, as though it would somehow help her hold her own. In a flash, she popped back up to the surface, wide-eyed and sputtering but splashing and asking for more.
As the southern sky goes from cobalt to navy, the fireflies become easier to spot, blinking on-off, on-off, like a secret code. I listen to the crickets and watch my daughter glide through the night, her movements quicker and more precise now. For years, she continued swimming lessons, moving up the ranks from tadpole to minnow to guppy. At some point, parents stopped getting into the pool with their children, resigning themselves instead to soggy bleachers on the sidelines, watching their little ones doggy paddle and float like starfish. After her father and I divorced, it was just me in the stands, looking on as she kicked and splashed and began going underwater all by herself.
Now, at nine, she is an advanced swimmer perfecting her butterfly, a complicated stroke in which her arms push and pull, with strength and grace, like a pair of wings. Sometimes during practice, she looks over to see if I’m watching.
As darkness falls on Peachtree, I tell her it’s time to go inside and get ready for bed. That’s when she catches a lightning bug in her mayonnaise jar. With the flick of her wrist, she twists the lid to keep it from escaping. Inside, one tiny light shines, flashing its somatic message.
Fireflies aren’t actually flies. They are nocturnal members of the beetle family, found on every continent except Antarctica. Lampyridae, as they are called, have slender bodies, long wings and very short life spans. Adults live only a few weeks, time enough to mate and lay their eggs.
There are two thousand different species, and not all of them flash. In some areas, like the Great Smoky Mountains, fireflies can synchronize their bioluminescence, like countless birthday candles glimmering in the dark.
One night during our vacation, Bug wakes to tell me her chest hurts. Instinctively, I climb out from under the covers and feel her forehead. There is no fever. Even so, we make our way to the medicine cabinet for some children’s Tylenol, just in case she’s coming down with a cold.
In the dim light of the bathroom, I pour thick, red liquid into a tiny plastic measuring cup and glance down at her, half-dressed and groggy, hair tangled from fitful slumber. Her torso, once smooth and pale as porcelain, now has two small breast buds. The discomfort she feels is not illness. It is a growth spurt, the beginning of puberty.
While she drinks from the plastic cup, I fold my arms around her shoulders, careful not to squeeze too tightly. When will we learn to live in the middle of our metamorphosis?
As the medicine makes its way into Bug’s stomach, I walk her to the bedroom, curl myself around her, and rub her back until she falls asleep. In its jar on the nightstand, the firefly is still and quiet. Its light, for the time being, is extinguished.
There is little evidence to prove it, but entomologists suspect fireflies are becoming endangered, as humans encroach their natural habitat and artificial lights disturb their mating rituals. Scientists face a challenge in collecting data to support their hypotheses, however, since lightning bugs are too small to tag and their lives are too fleeting for long-term study.
In the morning, when the southern sun shines like butter and long dusty rays flow into our cottage, she stirs, arms stretching overhead, legs extending toward the edge of the bed. When did she get so tall? This child who used to fit in the crook of my arm has become a whole person, too big to carry, too busy to hold.
Cicadas and sparrows begin their day with clarion calls that drift down from the oak branches. My daughter rises and moves straight to the mayonnaise jar on the nightstand, the firefly inside listless now, small and motionless at the bottom of the glass. She turns and tips the jar, studying her bug, amazed at the magic of its existence but a bit sad to know she can’t keep it forever.
After a moment, she carries her jar to the back yard. I follow, watching as she twists the lid and lifts her arm toward the peach-colored horizon. She is hoping the bug will lift off and fly away, that she will witness the drama of a rapid departure. Instead, the bug clings to the glass, as if it is uncertain whether to stay or go.
We leave the jar on the picnic table in the backyard and go into the house to make breakfast, scrambled eggs and turkey sausages, her favorite. She eats more than I do now, her body growing and changing, moving from one stage to the next whether we like it or not. She and I wash our dishes and brush our teeth. When we go back outside, the firefly is gone.