The Danger of Fireflies

The Danger of Fireflies


            Make the sky purple. The tender purple of a bruise. It can be pink at the horizon where the sun is still trying to strain through, and blue still in the upper sky, but there—where the two just meet—it must be purple.  You can see it, a wide watercolor wash, painted between the big square houses across the street.  Behind the old magnolias and the live oaks.

            Say that it is August.  Late in the summer but still in the summer so that the child can still be there, sitting with the woman in wicker chairs on the wide porch, watching the purple sunset. Others are watching, too.  Across the street, from another of the wide porches, Mr. and Mrs. Lipscomb, who keep cats but have no grandchildren of their own, lift their hands to wave. Someone else, an old man who used to be a soldier, who still wears a tiny American flag safety-pinned to the sleeve of his shirt, is picking his way down the decaying sidewalk with his cane. He is on the Lipscomb’s side of the street now, but at the corner he will cross over and return on this side. He lives in a yellow house at the end of the block and has the street lights under his power because they will not come on until he has passed on this side.  Tonight he is slower than usual, stopping to lean on his cane and to tip his head back to look at the purple sunset.  He is doing this so that the child can fix him in her mind. So that later, when she remembers the street and the evening of the purple sunset, the old man will have his place in it. He will be a part of all she remembers.

            On their own wide porch the woman and the little girl are waiting for the ice cream. They rest, after their dinner, side by side on the wicker settee. The old woman’s hand rests in the child’s lap and the child hums a little tune, stroking the soft, speckled hand in her lap, making little tents of the loose flesh on the back of the woman’s hand. It is a curiosity, this thing of being old. It is a novelty and a wonder, like the trees on this street that grow so large that their roots push up the sidewalks. On the child’s own street, which is far from here and in another city now, the sidewalks are new and smooth and good for skating. The woman in that other house is new, too, and her hands are smooth and young. She wears bright polished nails and her hands are pretty to look at, but, except for the rings she wears, three of them on each hand, there is nothing curious about her hands.

            The ice cream should come now because James McGhee has had time to fetch it. He has come earlier to the house and waited on the porch while the old woman counted out the money from the little red purse and then he had gone away, walking his swinging walk to the sundry store and now he is back again, walking his swinging walk up to the house, holding the white carton of ice cream high in the air on the palm of his hand, behind it his white teeth flashing in the twilight.

            James McGhee is a black man who lives in the little house over the garage behind Mrs. Wilsey’s big one. He works mostly for Mrs. Wilsey and polishes her black car and drives her in it to the doctor and to the grocery store and to church on Sunday mornings, but James McGhee cuts everybody’s yards. All morning long in the summertime James McGhee is cutting grass with the little push mower that sounds like an eggbeater.   Every Monday he starts at the end of the block on the Lipscomb’s side of the street and by Friday he has finished on this side so that every night in the summertime there is the new green smell of the grass, mixing itself with the smell of honeysuckle and camellias. So that a person who knows this street, who knows James McGhee and his habit of cutting the yards, can sit in the deepening twilight on any of the wide porches, telling the day of the week with her nose.  Say that today is Friday. Let this yard, and the one next to it, be the ones that James McGhee cut this morning. So that the green grass smell will be bright and sharp in a child’s nose and the fresh new clippings can lie on the smooth lawn like a sprinkling of soft cool feathers under a child’s bare feet.

            Say that it is Friday and there are no yards to cut tomorrow and James McGhee, who is always happy, is happier than usual tonight and when the child comes down the steps to meet him he extends to her the white carton of ice cream with a deep sweeping bow and the three of them laugh because James McGhee is in one of his joking moods. While the old woman goes inside the house to dish up the ice cream, James McGhee will sit down on the steps and take from his pocket the knife and the little chunk of soft pine wood and the child will sit down, too, because James McGhee is going to whittle.

            The backs of James McGhee’s hands are brown and at the knuckles they are gray, but the palms of James McGhee’s hands are the color of tarnished gold, and while he whittles, turning the little chunk of wood this way and that, the hands keep changing, gold to brown and brown to gold, with the sharp knife flashing in between.  In a minute the chuck of wood is a little Scottie dog and James McGhee twirls the point of the sharp knife twice, once for each eye, and the little Scottie dog stands in his palm.

            “Lookie here!” says James McGhee, because he is in one of his joking moods.  “Look like I got me a little Scottie dog!”  He holds the Scottie dog far out away from him.

            “What I gonna’ do wit’ a lil’ Scottie dog?  Where I goin’ find a chile to give a lil’ ole Scottie dog to?”

            James McGhee laughs out loud but the child snatches the Scottie dog out of James McGhee’s hand and dances it onto the lawn.  Then the ice cream is here in three white bowls and all of them sit on the wide porch eating the peach ice cream.

            Let it be dark now. Let the ice cream be finished and James McGhee gone down the block to his own little house over Mrs. Wilsey’s garage. Have the sky black as ink now with a few winking stars and put a flat white moon over the Lipscomb’s house and a halo around the street lamps. Start the crickets singing in their secret homes in the tall dark hedges.  This part is for the fireflies and it is the dangerous part. There is still the part after they go inside the house and the child has taken her warm bath and put on her nightgown and the two of them lie in the dark room and talk like two good friends.  That is a good part, too, because the old woman knows odd little songs to sing and she pats the child’s back in time to the tunes until the child begins to float away, floating into the good sleep on the sound of the woman singing and the touch of the woman’s hand.  That is a good part and ends with an easy floating into sleep, but this is the part for the fireflies.

            There are hundreds of fireflies.  Thousands.  All up and down the street they twinkle, high above the house in the velvet sky and the deep shadows of the trees, low along the sidewalks and against the black hedges. There are more than a child could want, than even a quick child can catch, running crazily in the cool grass, leaping at the fireflies, whirling in circles around the lawn, catching fireflies by two and threes to watch them light in a cupped hand, letting them go when they tickle too much.

            But this is the danger of fireflies:  that they will lead you into darkness.  That a child, chasing their twinkling lights on the dark lawn, becomes like one of them, moving invisibly for a time in the shadows, disappearing for a time behind the solid pillars of the trees, fading into the shadows near the tall black hedge.  So that an old woman, blind under the bright lights of the wide porch, must stand to call the child’s name aloud, tossing the name like a line into the dark. And the child, stricken by the strangeness in the old woman’s voice, steps onto the walk to show herself, steps quickly into a pool of the streetlight, onto the walk to show herself and be seen.

            This is the danger of fireflies:  that something in the old woman’s voice will make a child’s mind spin ahead when she is only trying to remember a little. When she wanted only the  purple sunset and the green grass smell and the touch of the woman’s hand for the easy floating into sleep. But the fireflies are a dangerous part because the evening of the purple sunset can start to shimmer and dissolve and suddenly a child is far away, in another summer altogether, sitting by herself at the end of the long green hall where the white nurses come and go on padded feet, but a child must wait to be called. Then it will be the woman moving away, invisibly in the darkness, no light in the eyes and no way for a child to follow. “Granny!” the child will call, leaning close, trying to send her voice like a line into the dark.  But something in the bed moves and a speckled claw leaps out, scratching the child’s face, making a scar that will not be healed on the day of all the flowers.

            James McGhee comes.  But he doesn’t stand with all the rest.  James McGhee, who is not so tall as before, stands away off on the hill and only once, when it is time to get back into the long black car, does James McGhee pass close, pressing the small whittled cross into the child’s hand.

            For a long time after the scar has become only a pale thin line, roundly curved and shaped like a question mark, a child’s cheek will burn in the cold early dark and under her pillow the whittled cross will have to be fingered a certain way and a certain odd little tune hummed before sleep. Sometimes it helps to remember things.  To gather all of the times into just one time.  To remember it hard and to remember it right.

            Start, always, by making the sky purple.

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Short Story
writing Cynthia
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Rating: 10.0/10

short little story