Death of a Firefly

Error message

  • Notice: Undefined index: taxonomy_term in similarterms_taxonomy_node_get_terms() (line 518 of /home/middleton/www/www/sites/all/modules/similarterms/similarterms.module).
  • Notice: Undefined offset: 0 in similarterms_list() (line 221 of /home/middleton/www/www/sites/all/modules/similarterms/similarterms.module).
  • Notice: Undefined offset: 1 in similarterms_list() (line 222 of /home/middleton/www/www/sites/all/modules/similarterms/similarterms.module).
admin's picture

Late last night, sitting by the side of a snapping fire in a clearing in the black woods, my daughter hopped out of my lap, ran across the damp grass, and caught a firefly in her hands. She trotted back, tenderly opening her dirt-encased fingertips, just a little, to reveal the strange creature inside.

“Look, dad, a firefly!” she said. 

We gazed at it for a moment. We had no vented jar in which to put this being, so I urged her to let it go. She opened her hands completely, like ten pink drawbridges easing down from a fleshy castle, and the bug ascended and hovered in front of our faces in the night for a moment. 

“Hadley,” I said. “Because he was trapped, and then you let him go, this will be the greatest day of his life…”

As I finished my sentence, the firefly took off and plunged directly into the leaping flames of the fire around which we sat. 

“…Oh!” I said. “Never mind.”

We looked at one another, stunned by the incredible highs and lows of his journey, and his ironic end, engulfed and conflagrated by the very embodiment of the light that is at the center of its evolutionary journey and its bright identity. We were sad, for a moment, and then we burst out laughing together, our bodies shaking in the darkness, touched by the occasional lapping of umber illumination from the campfire. 

Once again, the lesson was there, just not the lesson I initially thought it was. I had suspected the firefly would teach my daughter about the inexorable link between the temporal nature of our lives and the meaning of them. But really, what she learned, or perhaps was reminded of again, was that tragic things can be very funny, if the timing is just right. 

Perhaps timing is not the apt word. Because time isn’t a thing, really. It is only the way we experience the things that exist, the way we see, hear and feel the things free from nonexistence, as we are free from it too. We think things come and go. Fathers, mothers, children, flowers, bumped knees, laughter, fireflies. But really, it is us who come and go–it is us who visit these things–and tragedy is funny when you show up at just the right time, and when the light hits something sad just right. 

Last year, I was being interviewed by someone on Northeast Public Radio. We were talking about a book I had written, and as always, I was incredibly nervous. I would huddle in my basement library for these events, locking the door against distractions and surround myself with comforting talismans: books, essays, hot Lapsang Shouchong, blankets and a picture of Anton Chekhov that I really like for some reason. The person interviewing me, though unable to see my room, brought up the Russian writer, who I mentioned in a story. 

“What am I missing about Chekhov?” he asked. “I’ve never found him to be very funny. What am I not getting?”

When you do a string of interviews, you tend to get in the habit of answering the same questions the same ways, over and over again. “Yes, there is also a basketball player named Matt Geiger! Hahaha! Buy my book,” is the sort of thing I said again and again. “The world is a scary place, but I love my kid, and you probably do too, so things are probably fine! Life is funny! Please buy my book!” But this question was new, and of course I had no answer ready for it. 

Crap. I thought. Let me think. I took a sip of tea that, as it turns out, was hotter than the fire in which a lightning bug would perish roughly a year later, let out a little yelp, and gave it a go. 

“You don’t think he’s funny because he is so dreary, right?” I responded. 

“Right,” the host said. 

“But things can be dreary and funny at the same time. Things can be tragic and funny at the same time. They aren’t mutually exclusive. I think they actually go together.” I thought back to a time when someone I used to know issued a list of “Things That Are Not Funny” on social media. Things like starvation and war and disease. I remember thinking she was creating a false dichotomy, suggesting that bad things are no longer eligible to make us laugh. I remember thinking she must not have read much Russian literature. 

When I hung up from the radio interview, I wondered if what I said made any sense at all. I never went back and listened to the show, because I didn’t think I sounded very smart, or funny, or wise–just mostly confused, as if the radio station had called the wrong guy and he was trying to muddle his way through a series of questions about someone else’s ideas. 

There is a theory in writing called “Chekhov’s Gun.” The idea is simple. If there is a gun in a play, or a short story, that gun has to go off later. It cannot just rest on the mantle. If there is a firefly in Act One, it has to burst into flames by Act Three, or something like that. 

Really, we are all are Chekhov’s Gun. The gun is us. An old, black powder pistol with a single shot in it, and by being here in Act One, we know we will go “bang” by the end of the tale and be done. And that, to me, is funny. I do not know why, except that perhaps I am showing up at just the right time, to witness the tragedy and the comedy of existence in harmony. 

We are back home now. I just read to Hadley as she fell asleep in her bed, so comfortable and plush after a night slumbering on the earth’s limestone shelf. No fires. No lightning bugs. Just an assortment of pictures on the wall and clothes on the floor, with solid walls on all sides and a roof on which an elephant could walk. 

At random, I picked a book off the cluttered shelf. It’s called “The Clown of God,” a retelling of an old Italian folktale, I think. A homeless child sleeps on doorsteps and begs for bread. But he can juggle, so one day he begins painting his face like a clown and performing in the street. He always ends his act by juggling a rainbow of balls, finishing by tossing a bright golden orb, “the sun” high above the rest. People laugh and cheer and give him a few coins and scraps of bread. He grows old, and eventually people become weary of his juggling. One day, he drops the balls, and children in the street pelt him with fruit and vegetables. So he washes the makeup off of his face and spends the remainder of his days hobbling from place to place, begging for food and sleeping on hard doorsteps, no longer performing. 

One day, when he is very old, he wanders into a church during a procession of gifts. In the cathedral he sees a statue of a woman holding her baby, on whose face is a scowl. The old man puts on his clown makeup again and throws his colorful orbs into the air. “And finally, the sun!” he says as the golden sphere flies high above the rest. With that, he falls dead on the floor at the foot of the strange statue. 

When I got to that part, Hadley–half asleep but still following the ancient story–burst out laughing. I smiled, too.

When the monks come running out to see the spectacle, they find an old man with the face of a clown, growing cold on the stone floor. Around him are scattered balls of various beautiful colors. Except the sun, which sits in the hand of the baby in the statue, his face turned up, into a smile.

Editor’s note: Not everything is right for a newspaper column. From time to time, certain stories of mine end up elsewhere. My new piece, Bright Lights, is being published in the next edition of Hypertext Review, a literary journal based out of Chicago. I’m lucky my little story is alongside some truly original and profound pieces of fiction, poetry and social commentary. To learn more, please visit www.hypertextmag.com. Hypertext has a reputation for giving to the community, and for helping worthy charitable organizations, all while giving a diverse group of artists a place to feature their work, and hopefully make people laugh, or cry, or both. You might enjoy it.

Rate this article: 
No votes yet