Rosie tried to tell me about fireflies.
She watched a television program all about them, and came to chatter to me as usual. And, as usual, I was too grown-up to listen to it all, but I took in some of it. Fireflies are not like us. They go through cycles of transformation as all insects do. Eggs go into the loam on the ground and hatch as nymphs, “glow worms,” and stay that way for years. They eventually ascend to the air as those strange flashing beetles; they mate, abandon their eggs, and die. It isn’t a long or a pleasant life, but it’s brilliant in its way.
I know that fireflies live in LaBelle, but not everywhere, not all across the neighborhood. Sometimes when I’m walking past a particularly shrubby place where the trees and weeds are thick, they twinkle at me from the bushes– hundreds of dim yellow flashes, as if the tree was growing a crop of Christmas lights that weren’t quite ripe enough to pick. Sometimes they hover over tall unkempt grass, dancing in complicated epicycles. I see them, then I don’t, and then they twinkle at me again from a completely unpredictable place– one that only makes sense in firefly logic. Sometimes they even congregate on a freshly mowed lawn, where Rosie and her friends can run around and catch them in a jar. And sometimes they aren’t there at all. Fireflies won’t come to a lawn that’s been treated with poisons, of course, but they also won’t come to a lawn that grows naturally with a certain type of grass. I have no explanation for this, but it’s what I’ve seen.
Down the street, they don’t have fireflies.
That’s where the people Rosie call her “Corner Friends” live. Their house is next to a vacant lot where one of the derelicts was recently torn down; the result is uneven, rough soil all full of shards of shattered brick, blanketed with a tentative layer of itchy grass. The fireflies don’t congregate there.
I suppose it’s because any nymphs that hatched from firefly eggs didn’t survive, when a bulldozer leveled the house.
I don’t know how the people all fit into the house next to the vacant lot– a woman about ten years older than me and her husband; the woman’s daughter who is about six years younger than me; and the daughter’s five children, from different fathers. The fathers come around to visit occasionally, but mostly they don’t. The children expressed surprise when they found out that Rosie’s daddy lives in the same house she does.
Grandmother was happy to get custody of all five children under one roof. They’d been living in separate homes. Now, they live in that tiny house, go to the Protestant church down the block together, and the rest of the time they play. They tumble around the lot squabbling over toys. When it rains, Grandmother calls them up onto the porch in case of a lightning strike; when the sky clears, they go down again. Sometimes they zip up and down the sidewalk on scooters, trikes and bicycles, fighting all the while about who gets to pilot which vehicle. If they get too close to the street, Grandmother calls them back to the yard. They continue tumbling in zigzagging circles round and round the block until bedtime, after dark.
The boy is Rosie’s age. He has short, sandy hair; freckles; and a nearly indecipherable Northern Appalachian accent. I was told that for awhile he lived with his “Pappy,” his grandfather, but his grandfather died one day while he was in the house. Sometimes, when he loses his temper, he cries for Pappy. The girls have shoulder-length, ruddy hair; freckles; and a nearly indecipherable Appalachian accent. They spend at least an hour a day pushing toy prams with baby dolls around the perimeter of the vacant lot. When they go for a walk around the neighborhood with their grandmother, they bring the dolls along while Grandmother pushes the baby in a real stroller. They are doting mothers.The mother, the young woman from that lost middle generation, doesn’t come along on walks.
Sometimes I hear the grandmother chiding her daughter, the mother of those five children. “You’ve gotta be a mother,” she tells her, but the young woman doesn’t answer.
Rosie plays with the boy most often, because she doesn’t like dolls.
Almost every night in the month of June, she went out with him and some other neighborhood children, to collect fireflies in a neighboring yard. I always made her empty the jar and let the fireflies go when the evening was over. Such beautiful things with such a short time to live, shouldn’t spend a night in a prison like that.
One night this summer, Rosie went out to catch fireflies, but she didn’t stay there. She ended up at the corner house, playing in the lot with the boy. She came to get me when a big kid teased her, and I went over to break up the fight. I expected her to go back to catching fireflies, but she wanted to stay at that house and play with the boy. She asked me to stand guard in case the bully came back.
That was how I ended up pacing the rocky soil after dark, on one of the lots in LaBelle where there are no fireflies.
One of the girls was still outside, pushing her doll stroller over the uneven ground. She grinned at me. “I love babies. When you get older, you should have a baby.”
I reminded her that Rosie was my baby.
The girl continued talking, barely intelligibly– it’s not just that she has an Appalachian dialect. She also has a soft voice and a strong lisp. “Pappy drank too much alcohol.”
I don’t know how she knew the word “alcohol” when there are so many things she doesn’t know.
I murmured that that was terrible.
“Pappy drank too much alcohol,” she said again, “and it made him fall and hit his head and die.”
I didn’t know that. When I’d heard that the boy had been in the house when his grandfather died, I had pictured him dying in bed, surrounded by family– or even alone, overnight, and family finding him in the morning.
I couldn’t think of anything to say, except to repeat that it was terrible.
“We closed the bedroom door because we didn’t want to go in there. He used to live in Mingo. My grandma had to tell the woman who babysitted us, she said pappy was dead.” Her tone was not mournful, but that of a child confiding a secret. “We didn’t want to tell her that Pappy was dead. My grandma had to call 911. When we had nothing to eat we ate Lunchables.”
I murmured that it was terrible again.
Then it was time to go home.
Some weeks later, I was waiting for a bus, when the same girl came by with her pram. She paused in the middle of her orbit to chat with me.
“Gi-Gi,” she said, meaning the oldest girl, who is not yet fifteen, “Is going to Big Red this year.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s nice. She’l be in high school!”
“I’m so excited she’s finally old enough to have babies!” said the girl. “I love babies.”
She pushed the pram away as I boarded the bus.
I do not understand the logic of fireflies.
(image via Pixabay)
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