A summer night, a porch swing, Grandma Clara gently rocking.
A girl comes out from the house. She stares in the dark. “Mom wants you back inside,” she says. “Now.”
“No, baby, not yet. Come sit with me.”
Clara makes room for her on the swing. The girl stares.
“Just one minute, Izzy. I promise.”
Isabel is careful to sit an arm’s length apart (Clara’s arm’s length). Clara rocks the swing. The girl’s legs dangle. Inside the house people laugh at something — the girl listens. Clara feels her minute ticking.
A firefly ignites in front of them. Isabel takes a swing, misses. Two more go blinking by, out of range. She glares at them.
“I want one. Get one for me.”
“No, that’s bad luck, baby. Let ’em go.”
Isabel looks at Clara — the same way her mother looks at Clara. (Don’t start your crap, just get her a damn bug.)
Clara says: “Do you understand why they’re flashing?”
“Becuuuz they’re lightning bugs.” (You old fool.)
The girl stares forward. Clara studies her profile: the thin locked lips, the upturned knifepoint nose, those gray unblinking eyes. She imagines a long sticky tongue uncoiling from Isabel’s mouth to snatch a firefly in midair.
“That’s right, sweetie, but there’s a reason to leave fireflies alone. It’s a reason very few people know.”
Clara gets a quick lizard glance up the side of her head. “And are you going to tell me this special secret reason?”
Clara gazes into the yard. “My grandfather told me, long ago, on a night like this, sitting on a porch swing. He said some of those tiny flashing lights are trees talking to each other.”
Isabel clucks: “Try harder.” (Her mother’s favorite admonition.)
“I didn’t believe it either. I was your age, smart and pretty, almost as smart and pretty as you. Grandpa was old and slow. All he did anymore was sit on that swing.”
Isabel is quiet.
“Look at that lonely tree over there, baby.” Clara points. “Look at that other one. It’s a hard life being a tree. Dogs pee on you. Woodpeckers drill holes into you. And if you get too big, people cut you down and turn you into a cabinet. But the worst part is, nobody hears your screaming.
“You’re stuck there all day, right where you were born, all these feelings inside. You reach out your arms farther and farther, but somehow you never can quite touch.”
Clara stops to light a cigarette. Isabel says nothing — a first.
“On my Grandpa’s farm, in front of the house, there was a dogwood tree. And every spring this tree bloomed into thousands of flowers, big beautiful heart-shaped petals, a huge white bouquet as tall as the house. People used to come from miles away just to look at her.
“Grandpa said the dogwood put those flowers out because she was in love, with the ugliest tree on the whole farm, an old twisted elm by the barn. And he said on summer nights, fireflies carried words of love dancing through the air between the dogwood and that old crippled elm.
“He said their flashing was some kind of code, a language only trees could understand. Like phone messages.”
Isabel whispers, “Texts.”
“Texts, right.” Clara smokes.
“I thought it was a fairy tale. But Grandpa swore that a few elite fireflies carried these love letters, and in the dark you couldn’t tell them apart from the ordinary ones, so until I got older I should leave them all alone.”
Clara leans forward, crushes her cigarette on the heel of her shoe, holds the butt in her hand. “I didn’t, of course.”
“I’d never gotten a love letter, from an insect or anybody else, and I kept thinking about those fireflies. One night after Grandpa went to bed, when I could hear him snoring down the hall, I got a jar from the canning room and sneaked out there.
“I was only going to take one, just one. But it was so easy. There were more fireflies in that yard than all the stars in the sky, all I had to do was wave my hand. Empty jars were bigger in those days, baby. Pretty soon I had dozens in there, my own little galaxy.
“I could still hear Grandpa snoring when I tip-toed back in. I got under the covers and laid there watching those fireflies glitter and shine until I finally fell asleep. But in the morning they were all black, every one of them, dead.”
Isabel gasps. She pulls on Clara’s arm. Softly, confidentially, she whispers, “Did you remember to make air holes?”
“No, no, but that’s not what I did wrong.
“A week later my parents took me home. I forgot all about it. But the next year when I visited Grandpa, that dogwood tree didn’t bloom. She never bloomed again.
“And that same winter, the old elm tree finally died.”
Clara turns and sees the warm glistening clay of her granddaughter’s face, her eyes moist and shining and open.
“My mother said it was the only time she’d ever seen Grandpa cry. I didn’t find out till years later, when I was grown up, that’s where he’d buried my Grandma’s ashes, under that beautiful dogwood tree.
“He never knew, nobody ever knew a little girl in her pajamas had stolen their feelings, just for my own amusement.”
Now the girl collapses into Clara with a long wet sigh. She holds Isabel close, stroking her hair, kissing her ear. Isabel says, “But you didn’t know.”
“No, baby, I knew. But I didn’t believe.”
In the kitchen doorway a loud throat clears itself. On the swing, two heads turn in unison. Mom switches on the porch light and stares directly into the old woman.
“You know what else happens to old trees that make little girls cry? They get trimmed.”
Mom curls a retrieving finger. Isabel leaps free of the swing. She does not look back.
Michael Plemmons’ most recent work is a history of the American Fenian movement — Fianna — from 3APublishing. His short story, “Noel,” was published in The North American Review and has since been anthologized in five collections, including Sudden Fiction and Robley Wilson’s Four-Minute Fictions. It was featured Christmas 2009 on NPR. For the record, Michael does not have a granddaughter.
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