“Once a group of children played in the creek, but a storm sprung up around them and a young brave could not find his sister. His father joined in the search and knelt in prayer, asking the Great Sprit to help him find his little girl. Suddenly a swarm of fireflies appeared, forming a ball of light that cut through the blackness and hovered above the little girl. As the search party turned to offer thanks, they were amazed to watch the fireflies grow brighter and brighter, larger and larger, then float into the sky, where they became stars of the night.” — Cherokee Legend
Though many years have passed, if I close my eyes I can still remember how it felt. Sitting with my eyes shut on the maple log worn smooth by sitting bodies, fingernails burrowing into its tiny fissures and crevasses, scraping my toes against the thin loam dusting the sun hardened earth, as I waited, muscles tensed and heart racing, for my father. He’s a few yards away collecting firewood, his heavy footfalls scattering leaves and breaking twigs louder than any animal, and I also hear the sinister wind blowing through the canopy and the agitato hum of cicadas pressing in from all around the little clearing, and I’m unable to open my eyes until I feel his hand close around mine. It is so broad, the knuckles so thick, that the best I can do is clench my fist around his ring and little fingers, as he encompasses the whole of my hand in his palm. He sits down next to me and with the free arm places fresh kindling in our fire, casting a shower of glowing embers into the velveteen black sky.
“Megan, the woods are full of fireflies. Do you want to see them?” he asks, but he doesn’t object when I shake my head and press closer to him in response. While my mother used to scoff at my refusal to retrieve things from our basement, tell me to act my age, my dad understood my fear of the dark. He told me about how his father, a grandfather I never knew, forced him to stoke the fire that boils sap day and night during the maple run. How he would sprint through the woods and then slump against the house, shaking and sweating. So he leads me back to our tent, where he zips the flap, sealing out the night. The darkness is less daunting with his presence close to me, and I peer out from my sleeping bag, transfixed by the tiny dots of luminance blurred through the translucent canvas. The last thing I remember before drifting off to sleep is watching what I think is a mosquito resting its transparent wings against the side of the tent, only to see it spark a soft green, and being surprised that they are bugs after all and not just disembodied light.
Humans think in the present tense. We don’t think about things that came before us or how our actions will shape the future. We look at the firefly, not the glowworm. Love is all consuming, and in its grasp we forget how it was to feel otherwise or think our future will be anything other than a continuation of the now. In Wisconsin, spring brings rebirth. When the ice thaws and sets free the streams, marsh marigold and bleeding Susan carpet the forest floor in eggshell and pale yellow, snowy down forms on the buds of pussy willows, the glowworms break free from their eggs. Along waterways and damp places, from under the decaying leaves and roots of grass, the larvae of lightning bugs enter the world. They glow like their parents, but their nervous system does not control it, as the glow warns predators of their toxicity, keeping them safe. This gift is taken for granted as they hunt along the riparian, preying on the smaller larvae of mosquitoes, gnats, water beetles, and no-see-ums. They spend their summer gorging themselves in the warmth and fair weather, don’t notice as the days begin to shorten, the leaves of the birch turn flaxen and fall, and on that first morning of frost they are trapped in their earthen abodes. There the glowworms slowly change beneath the snow, and when the sun next shines they emerge as fireflies.
Like the glowworms, I took my summers for granted. The countless afternoons in the woods with my father and our two dogs, learning bird calls and chasing tracks. He taught me the names of wildflowers, the origins of hollows and hillocks, how to count the moments between lightning and thunder to gauge the distance of a storm. In the sun scattered shade of the oak trees, I grew from a tomboy in overalls and braids to a pre-teen worrying about boys, cliques, and the size of my hips. As I grew I learned to appreciate the azure hues of the evening sky, to recognize the sweetness in the calls of killdeer and whip-poor-will. There came a night where I didn’t run to my father at the sound of cicadas, when I instead ran into the darkness chasing lightning bugs. I still needed him with me to feel safe, to be at home among the specs of living light, yet somehow, in spite of our closeness, I didn’t realize he was fading away.
Sickness creeps on loved ones as winter does on glowworms. I didn’t notice my dad’s sanity slipping, the part of his mind that understands empathy slowly dying. At first my dad tried to imitate the appropriate reactions. He would nod and grin when I chattered about my day but had stopped asking, and when he smiled the warmth didn’t reach his eyes. Eventually he stopped listening altogether. That was when the fighting started, when my mother started yelling at him, desperate to elicit some kind of emotion from a man made of ice. I began yelling, too, in the times when my pain and loneliness became inseparable from rage. On the night he said I was unlovable, I punched him. Fueled by an agony no child should know, I reached high and slammed my fist into his jaw, feeling his teeth slam and my knuckle split. In an instant he had my wrist clamped in his iron fingers, crushing my veins and twisting it above my head so I was forced to look in his manic, inhuman eyes. He released me and I fell, sobbing uncontrollably, to the ground, clutching my chest with the bruised and bleeding hand. But on his face, I never left a mark.
I cannot recall the year my dad stopped chasing me when I darted off the trail, or when I had to refer to books to learn the names of trees. I couldn’t say when my parents stopped talking, or when they started yelling. I don’t remember when their fighting no longer upset me, or when I started defending my mother. I wish I did not remember the days she was so forlorn she couldn’t get out of bed. I can’t count the number of nights I spent curled around my sister as she wept. I have no estimation how long it took me to learn to cry without tears, so when my friends came to the door I could smile and conceal both my pain and my family’s demise. I don’t know when he stopped loving me. But by the time I was sixteen, whatever virus had taken hold of my father’s mind had eaten away everything that made him mine. What was left was a man who was hollow, emaciated: a man who would rather watch television than talk to his wife or walk with his daughters. I had to make the woods my own; I had to outgrow my fear of the shadows.
Fireflies don’t learn to glow. Their luminescence is internal. Evolution has shaped them over eons with its graceful powers to be something beautiful. Scientists call it a cold light, generated by the chemical combinations within the firefly’s abdomen. No heat is produced. Evolution has graced other species with the ability to emanate the stars, but mostly they dwell in the depths of ocean abysses or deep beneath the earth, where it is so dark pale creatures have lost their need for eyes. Unlike these alien animals, so bizarre and forbidding, fireflies have a softer yet still unearthly kind of light. Firefly and lightning bug are names that represent over 200 species of beetles of the family Lampyridae. These bugs have been found in fossilized amber dating back millions of years, and they still exist on six continents. Called minna-minni in India, luciole in France, a blinkie in Jamaica, hing hoy in Thailand, and moon bugs, glow flies, golden sparklers, lightning bugs, and fireflies in the English-speaking world, these beetles have inspired people thorough space and time, from ancient Philippine Island myths to the sonnets of William Shakespeare in Victorian England. Fireflies don’t try to captivate the human psyche, probably aren’t even aware that humans exist. They live their tiny lives oblivious to the significance of their light, but perhaps they have their own purpose. They hold that secret close as they illuminate the night, fulfilling their predestined lives while they flicker on their filmy, delicate wings, leaving us humans to guess.
As a teenager, when my family was decomposing, I could have easily disengaged myself from nature, from the painful memories unearthed by being alone in the woods. But I chose to find solace in the dense and sap-covered boughs of spruce and cedar; my dependence on the natural world evolved through me, and it became my sanctuary. In those moments free from commitment I could be found wandering the plowed fields and rolling countryside with my beautiful thoroughbred, Oliver. Our first rides were tense with uncertainty. Oliver would bolt at the snap of a twig and dance in place instead of standing, the veins popping from his muscled neck turned earthen red by nervous sweat. I wore my knees bloody gripping the saddle, scared to fall. So we started slowly, with victories like weaving through ears of corn, vaulting over fallen logs, and galloping through fields of golden barley. Through each other we learned to trust, and we kept each other safe.
Once I came to the stable just past sundown, when the last rays of orange faded over the horizon and the sky lingered with borrowed light. I mounted Oliver without a saddle, feeling his ribs shift as he breathed beneath me, as if we were part of one being. We rode through a meadow of tall grasses, the timothy, Indian paintbrush, and clover engulfing his legs and swirling around my knees as we swam. Lightning bugs surrounded us, hovering above the swaying fronds, contrasted overhead by an indigo sky, glowing from within the sea of grass. They shared their delicate radiance as we wandered through their world, and I felt as if I had stumbled into a half-forgotten dream. I dropped the reins and circled my arms around Oliver’s neck, breathing in the sweet smell of his mane as I gave myself over to him, trusting him to find our way through the darkness. We lost ourselves in time and beauty, in each other’s safekeeping. During a time of personal turmoil Oliver was my connection to the magic of nature, which was no longer just a median of interaction with my father. Through enchanted evenings with Oliver, nature became part of my essence, the very core of my being. And through it, I became strong.
In the daylight hours, fireflies are identifiable for that they truly are: beetles. Not the embodiment of departed spirits or the stars descending to flutter on frail wings or any other story created by humans to explain their mystical presence. They are nothing more than insects, something most people would squish with a tissue if one ever had the misfortune of wandering inside a house. Fireflies make their home in places sheltered from strong wind and blistering sun, among the tall prairie grasses or in the tightly knotted thickets of poison sumac, and in places cool and damp, where they quench their thirst among drops of morning dew. Simply bugs with a pretty evolutionary trait. But there is still an air of mystery about them, as scientists have yet to discover what the mature beetles eat, and the reasons for their luminescence. Entomology is a little explored field, and though the same can be said for many disciplines, fireflies especially capture our imagination through their daily metamorphosis from beetle to the embodiment of natural light.
Just as people do not notice the point at which glowworms transform to beetles or beetles to fireflies, I didn’t notice the exact point when I could think of my father and not suppress a surge of grief. The realization dawned during the summer after my freshman year of college, when I was working as a camp counselor. A year far removed from the turmoil of my parent’s divorce, surrounded by new friends and experiences, and the amputation of my old life had transformed me. No longer dependent on any crutch, I was someone children depended on as I led them through the darkened woods. Night was the only time that was left unscheduled; it was then that I felt my life had shifted. On clear nights I took my girls from the confinement of the cabin to the prairie meadow, where we watched the skies. Lying on our backs on the dry and brittle grass I taught them how to find Orion and the Big Dipper and tell stars from planets. Sometimes I put out plates of leftover jelly and bananas, then tried to keep my girls from giggling long enough to watch the bats swoop in and feast on insects attracted to the rotting fruit. Other nights we hiked to the lake and, burying our feet in cool sand, watched heat lightening in the distance. Occasionally one of the younger campers would become frightened, so I would sit behind her and run my fingers through her hair so she could feel close to someone. One night we were caught there in a sudden gale and we ran barefoot through the growing mud, then left our clothes to dry in the low hanging branches of a maple tree. Later, when we tucked away in our cabin that smelt of damp hair and warm breath, I woke up and saw a single firefly hovering over the forms of my sleeping girls. Spectral, unearthly, and so heartbreakingly familiar, tears welled unbidden in my eyes, but I could not bring myself to let them fall for fear of breaking the spell.
Scientists are unable to answer why fireflies emit their pale twinkling lights. Some think that the patterns of lightning bugs’ fading and emerging lights reflect the temperature, likening it to the chirping of crickets. One professor from China theorizes that the lights warn predators to their toxicity, in same way the bright orange of a monarch’s wings does. Some entomologists think it is a way to attract mates, and others admit that we just don’t know. But there is a reason for the light. There are countless species of fireflies that spread across the entire globe, and nothing in nature happens by chance. Everything evolves to fill a niche, to serve a purpose. The superficial do not persevere. I like to think that the insects are comforting each other, that lights seen from near or far reassure them that they are not alone. Perhaps that is just my anthropomorphic musing, but in my experience no organism can survive without the knowledge they are a part of something more.
The last night I see my father I ask him to ride with me on the same motorcycle he once let me pretend to steer. On that sweet summer night, under a mauve sky that sparkles with faint silver stars, my bare arms prickle with goose bumps as I wrap them around his waist, and I inhale the perfumes of clover and honeysuckle as I watch the night speed by, my check pressed against his broad shoulder. I feel him turn and sway with the motorcycle, and I wonder how someone so physically close can be so incredibly distant. He stops the bike at the crest of a ridge overlooking the valley that I call my home. In the fields of alfalfa and soy, millions of fireflies glow more brightly than I’ve ever witnessed before. An ocean of light, they rise and fall in shimmering waves, reaching towards the heavens and fading back to earth. Far below our lofty ridge the trees glitter, their leaves lit by an internal radiance. In silence, my arms still wrapped around my father, I cry tearlessly for the realization that I no longer need him, and we gaze at the luminescence for minutes that compose a lifetime.