On Fireflies

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Yifan Xu

Pulsing is defined by vitality: the rushing of blood, the rhythmic recurrence of strokes and electricity, the contractions of life, the abrupt repeated emissions of light. The word itself consists of two syllables –reminding us of events that consist of two phases: the coming and ebbing of the tide, the turning on and turning off, the waxing and waning of the moon. It is more intentional than flickering or blinking because it is more physical than pure light. It includes the ability to course through arteries and veins, it implies the beating of the heart, the closing and shutting of eyes on a bright day, the coolness and heat of a cloud passing quickly by on a sunny afternoon, the earth circling around the sun so that you can feel champagne bubbling up your nose on New Year’s Eve exactly once every twelve months. It implies a circle and a repeating path. Pulsing seems innocent, oblivious even –it believes in the continuation of life. It seems to believe that everything ends at the beginning in a consistent, beating manner.

I once held creatures that pulsed, and caught them in my palms, in jars, and in bottles. In my first neighborhood, the children used to play until we could barely see ourselves silhouetted against the night. We watched as the porch lights flickered on one by one; watched as, in window after window, the blinds closed and left razor strips of fluorescent energy escaping through them. We slapped at the mosquitoes which landed despite having sprayed ourselves with layers of commercial Deet, sometimes smearing their thin legs against our skin and seeing a trail of our own newly-consumed blood. We played tag in the growing grass, and waited. Finally, with the rising moon, we could see them, a slow rush from the bushes and the trees: slow to light, slow to fade. Soon we were surrounded by the small buzzing of quick wings.

I would open my arms wide to welcome them, bumping against their small bodies as I twirled around, cupped my hands before me and waited until the yellowish-green glow synchronously waxed, and waned, located a firefly and caged it between rounded palms. I remember feeling fresh ecstasy every time I relaxed the spaces between my fingers and brought the jewel closer to my eyes, peeked in and waited for the entire chamber of my hand to light up, then dim down. The three bulges of the little insect appeared buffed and polished, the veins on its wings intricate for a small second before it faded back into mystery. We collected the fireflies in jars that once contained strawberry jam, where the glow effused, diffused, suffused, spreading like lantern light. We were Indian princesses, using only nature to light our night. We believed we were innocent even as the pulsing slowed, ebbed, and stopped altogether. We watched as they flew repeatedly against the unyielding glass until still shells collected on the jar floor. Cold stars brightened one by one over our heads before the games were stopped and we were called indoors for bed. If we forgot to release the captives from the jars until the next morning, they would look smaller in the sunlight, tiny black legs stiff in the air. They would tumble onto the dewy grass one on top of the other, never flying away.

We were not afraid to touch them. One of the neighborhood children decided one day that she wanted to glow. She grabbed a flailing firefly and pinched the tail until the green gel burst out of the soft belly of skin, then rubbed her finger through the mess, on the back of her hand, and along the length of her arm.

“Look!” she shouted at us to come over. Her green arm looked like a twisting and bending line as it flailed in our direction, disembodied by the dark. We rushed to see this new game, saw the glowing particles smoothed over her skin, a thick band collected where her arm creased at the elbow. She reached into the jar and pulled out a few more by their wings, wrote her name in firefly blood on the concrete sidewalk.

“I want to try!” another girl shouted, and soon her hands glowed green. The light that seemed so natural in fireflies gave us an extraterrestrial edge. We pushed our hands close to each other’s faces to scare ourselves, and pretended we were monsters. Our games of tag turned the same color: we chased each other through the grass, clutching to the “safe,” indestructible tree, tagging each other with green, and collapsed over ourselves, giggling.

“That will give you cancer!” one parent scolded. She dragged her protesting child into the house, promptly washed off the smears, and sprayed more Deet onto her skin before releasing her back among her friends, calling us “little savages” under her breath. After crunching dozens of fireflies beneath our plastic sandals, we drew glowing shapes on the concrete sidewalks with our calloused toes. Hearts and circles cut through the dark, waves and sickle-shaped moons hummed with yellow energy. Night after night that summer, the fireflies never stopped coming. And we never stopped suffocating their pulse with our bare hands.

My guilt grew only years after that summer, and now it strikes most of the time in broad daylight. Once, I sat with a friend watching a TV movie that both of us had already committed to memory. A commercial for tissues appeared, featuring a monk that dared not kill living things. We watched as he painstakingly released a spider in his garden, and my friend asked me if I believed in karma: if I believed what goes around would come around. If our lives, in essence, possessed its own pulse. I said no. I was afraid to say that I had once taken the pulse away from countless fireflies, had spent their lives on my skin and choked them on concrete. That if I believed in karma I would probably be spending my next life hiding from stubby fingers and plastic sandals, pulsing light into an empty jam jar. Or worse, it could mean that those close to me would suffer in my stead.

Maybe for that reason, I remembered the fireflies when my mentor and friend recently passed away from melanoma. I continued to work beside him as dark tumors stretched their tentacles from the surface of his skin into his lungs and brain. As his disease progressed, pulsing took on another meaning: it came to mean the administration of medication in interrupted and concentrated dosages, the abrupt emissions of radiation with much higher energy than visible light. It meant weight loss and premature aging. It meant fatigue and memory loss. It meant morphine and codeine. Through this one-year decline, the act of stopping a pulse meant wielding a double-edged sword: it meant both freedom from tortuous treatments and the subsequent loss of life. It meant inflicting emptiness, isolation and pain onto family, friends, and children. It meant that we had to grieve, to give up on what was being built, to scramble onto our feet the best that we could, and to start over.

Pulsing is lastly defined as a throbbing wave of emotion, whose intensity crescendos and descends with the passing of time. In a way, what went around has come back around. I’d like to think that my karma has traveled in a non-canonical pattern, has come in pulses of small events repeating itself with variations in rhythm and rhyme. I remembered the simplicity of stopping a pulse in my childhood; death once had meant nothing more than a small clump of nocturnal insects lying under the spectrum of the morning sun, each one faceless and weightless. The moon and stars had still risen and the mosquitoes had still continued to bite; I had gone on playing and writing in glowing ink. However, my friend’s death had dizzily borne me to the crest of the wave before dropping me back onto Earth, to the rocky ground that had arrived again after being pulled out from under me a year ago. While falling, I had seen the world below me, had begun to see the ghosts of fireflies not as a reason for guilt, but as a banner of innocence.

Pulsing is innocent; it still believes that life will continue. But the blood in our heart is not new with every beat. With each contraction, the same blood passes through the same arteries and returns through the same veins, but travels through a slightly different body. We grow older, we live a little longer, and we learn to go on, in the manner that seemed so natural when we were children. Yet, unlike children, we survive while also seeing the value in pulsing things, in vitality, in the rarity and complexity of life. Thus, the pulse of life is not a circle but a helix. We do not end up at the beginning. We pulse in spirals, seeing past experiences from above with more reflection, more feeling, more appreciation, more affirmation. The path is never closed.

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One thought on “On Fireflies

  1. I cried for the fireflies. Innocent? Even children know it’s wrong to hurt other living things, especially to do it just because you want to, as a game.

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