short stories

Fireflies – A Short Story

Sitting on a wooden swing in her front yard, Brigit watched Selma ride up and down the road, her wiry frame cutting through the air like a finger in a pool of water. Oblivious to the heat, her pale skin layered with freckles, she coasted and swerved amid tumbleweeds that lay like desiccated clouds fallen to earth. The heat energized Selma, her heart beat at the urging of the sun. She glanced over at Brigit, blithe on her pink “Flower Girl” Raleigh, gap-toothed as she smiled. On any other kid that smile would mean envy me, but on Selma it meant I forgive you—Brigit did not have a bike. Still, it was a proud smile, even if it didn’t last. The next moment there was a dull bang and a clanging rattle. The bicycle’s chain had come loose. Selma sputtered to a stop.

She parked her bike in the shadow of the white clapboard house directly across the street. That old house seemed so brittle some days Brigit stared at it with sinister intent, as if her eyes were magnifying glasses aiming to set it aflame under the fierce Texas sun. Now she turned those magnifying glasses on Selma. Selma who brushed away the strands of hair clinging to her sweaty cheeks and gave Brigit a look that said, How will I bear this tragedy? Brigit looked away. Swinging back and forth, the uncut grass tickling her bare feet, she guessed how Selma saw her; how, if they became friends, Selma would know her. People always would put you into some kind of context, make you familiar. They did it to hold you close when you weren’t, really. Maybe I remind her of a cousin, she thought, maybe she thinks I’m close. I’m not. Brigit stopped swinging and dug her toes into the lawn. She thought fleetingly of her mother—that’s how she moved through Brigit’s mind, like a ghost in an attic—and how life had been before until the rude scrape of misfortune stopped things cold. Brigit glanced at Selma with contempt; I know what it’s like to lose more than a some childish summer diversion, she thought. Weak, she muttered. So weak.

Selma stood back and stared at her crippled bike. She reached out and touched its seat, as if silently promising to return, then ran off to her house three doors down from Brigit’s. Gone to get her dad or a brother, Brigit thought. Her salvation. She imagined them swearing at her, Damnit, Selma, why didn’t you bring the bike home with you? But that was Selma. Going off with so much hope she forgot why she needed it. Brigit dug her toes into the grass, thinking how fast it would turn brown if she didn’t water it soon. She had never lived in such a dry place and never so far from the ocean. Though Texas had a coast, she couldn’t help feeling breathless sometimes, knowing the land went on for so long before touching water. In California, life had been an endless summer of bare feet and beaches, an unassuming contentment in a fertile land that gently pushed upward, the sky draping down, tangible blue. It all had seemed as if it were made just for her and her delight. Then it all turned barren.

In her father’s car, the memory of her mother rode like another passenger across the monotonous miles. Flagstaff…Gallup…Tucumcari…the world shifted from generous green to stingy brown where heat warped the air, making the road, the sidewinders, and the Winnebagos rise up before them and float like indifferent mirages. Brigit watched it all rearrange, imagining some invisible hand turning a kaleidoscope, the colored pieces fading and settling, finally, into the blackland prairies of northern Texas. She felt as if her father had taken them into a kind of sympathetic exile; her mother had gone off to some unknown place, beyond the familiar and beloved, and so, too, had they.  

The only live thing in the yard when they arrived, besides the elm tree, was milkweed, wild and stubborn. She left it alone because her father said it would bring caterpillars, and in time they would turn into butterflies with blue wings. He knew such things, yet his knowledge of the natural world no longer seemed to move him. Or maybe, she thought, it moved him too severely because it just kept on going, exuberant, breathing, insistently alive. If Brigit left the yard to his care, the grass and the foliage would be brown, brittle, dead. So she took care of it. Before they even finished unpacking the silverware, she asked to go to a nursery. He agreed, stolidly pulling the little red wagon behind her as she went up and down the aisles of flowers. His only comment was, “Roses die here–it’s too hot,” when she picked up an Old Glory variety covered in red buds. But he lacked conviction and so she put it in the wagon.  

Planting the roses and the other flowers, the bulbs and camellia bushes, she began to feel rooted. She ran outside each morning before breakfast and watered everything, gasping a little at the touch of cool water on her skin. She felt a kind of relief in watching it all grow, as if there were a pulsing heart beneath the earth, as if the world were determined to defy her’s father’s resignation. He sat in the den with his crossword puzzles and his books, thick, creaky volumes that intimidated her. They seemed like old men in wigs, like they were pointing fingers. He let her do as she pleased. And what pleased her most was to be outside; she felt safe there, not crowded by the insides of things, the walls and the ceilings that held her too close, that threatened to trap her in a gray existence.

As if someone had picked up the twilight and given it a firm shake, fireflies sprang out of the dusk. They bobbed and weaved around the elm, daring her to chase them and bottle them up. Brigit had never seen fireflies before and she felt an urge to capture them, to keep their light for herself. But their light wasn’t transferable. Like other bugs, she knew, they died when you put them in a jar. The day’s heat faded slightly with the descent of the sun. Stars burned through the balmy air, emerging here and there, a few at a time, to sit shining in the expansive sky; then she felt surrounded by fireflies, some twinkling below, some above, making the night seem more awake, more alive, than the day.

The street fell quiet and for a moment, with eyes closed, Brigit felt what it must have been like long ago, before concrete and freeways and suburban tract houses, when cowboys and Comanches roamed the land and things were started and settled with a six gun. Then voices broke the silence; mommas and daddies called out from doorways to their children, and the children came racing in red-faced and sweaty on bicycles or on foot, climbing into yards of twilight and elm. She leaned back and saw above her the moon on its back like a cradle for a star. This was her favorite time of day, the sky grown indigo.

A sudden burst of light flooded the yard. She heard her father clear his throat, the sound softened by the hour.

“Dinner’s ready,” he said through the screen door. “Come in and wash your hands, Brigit.”

A train whistle drown out her reply. The locomotive chug chug chugged away to the east and Brigit wondered if it had come all the way from California, its cars loaded with oranges and avocados. She imagined running alongside it, fast enough to jump aboard and disappear with it into the wide darkness of the prairie.

“Brigit, come in and eat,” her father repeated, attempting sternness.

“I said I’m not hungry.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re hungry. You have to eat. Can’t live on Popsicles.”

Eating—it was the one thing he persisted at. He wouldn’t have her go hungry. He wouldn’t have people say she was too skinny. As if food were the one thing, the concrete thing, that anchored him to the moment and to his duty as a father. Did he think worrying extra about her diet and nutrition would free him from worrying about more complicated things? Things she needed? Brigit dutifully went inside. The rooms felt hot and close. She sat down at the table and she made a show of eating a chicken wing.

“Have some salad,” he said, pushing the wooden bowl her mother had bought at a Bullock’s department store in her direction. He put some salad on her plate. She ate patiently, letting a reasonable amount of time go by before excusing herself from the table.

“Back outside?” He looked at her in a tired way that made her stop and bite her lip. The act of asking such an unnecessary question seemed to Brigit to depress them both just a little. “Taken up permanent residence out there, haven’t you?” He peered at her over his wire rim glasses and brushed back what scant hair remained on his head. Brigit noticed that it was grayer now than it was last year, and the lines around his eyes were deeper.

She shrugged.  “It’s summer, Papa.”

“But what is there to do this time of night?”

“I don’t know…”  The weight of the room and the moment pressed on her; she took a deep breath and tried. “It’s not as hot as it was earlier.”

“Well,” he said, picking up the evening paper and turning to the crossword. Brigit hesitated, hating to leave him alone hanging onto a last word that didn’t mean anything. Throughout her mother’s illness she’d worried equally about both her parents. Had it been her father who was dying, her mother would have cried, shook her head in bewilderment, gotten angry. But he suffered mutely, peering out at the world from a kind of helpless exile. He didn’t surrender, it seemed to her, because you first had to understand what you were surrendering to. She didn’t think he knew even yet.  

She snatched a plum from the bowl on the sideboard and went outside to her swing. To her father, she knew, embracing life was the same now as embracing death. And life was vegetation and illumination, flora and fauna and stars. She was life, small and needy—yet another green thing trying to grow. Selma had returned to her bike, alone. She was fussing with the chain. Brigit noticed another girl was now also watching. Callie stood in the upstairs window of the white clapboard house across the street, glaring down. A miniature version of any fairy tale queen with malice on her mind. Her gaze lingered on Selma only for a moment; then, as suddenly as she had appeared, she was gone, the curtains left trembling. Brigit counted. One, two, three, four, five…as long as it took Callie to descend the staircase and emerge from the front door, the queen now transformed into a garden variety eighth grade bully.

She moved towards the gate, her head tilted to one side so that her shagged hair obscured half her face. Selma took no notice. She didn’t hear Callie’s flip-flops drag along the cement or the insincere sigh of sympathy Brigit imagined her exhaling. Brigit nearly called out to warn Selma, but refrained; an overwhelming sense of witnessing a play she didn’t dare alter without offending the writer kept her mute. She knew as well as anyone that fate didn’t take kindly to direction.

The yard gate’s hinges groaned loudly as Callie opened it. Selma turned, winding a strand of white-blond hair around her index finger. Selma smiled, instinctively friendly. Callie smiled too, but it was too perfunctory to be friendly. Selma gestured helplessly toward her bike, explaining the trouble, as if it weren’t obvious, as if, Brigit thought, Selma was the one with the loose chain, not the bicycle. Callie nodded, her eyes wandering over the street, the sky, and, briefly, Brigit. Finally, she put out a hand and Selma fell quiet. Stepping forward, she appraised the bicycle. Her arms crossed under her precocious bosom, she looked it up and down, her head still tilted; she took in its dented frame, its worn handlebars, its bald tires. She even reached out and rang the bell. It seemed to amuse her. What was the point of this, Brigit wondered. Then Callie looked over at Brigit again. Why? Brigit maintained a poker face, though she was suddenly aware she lacked ladylike grooming–her face was dirty and she hadn’t brushed her hair since yesterday. It was just easier, somehow, to ignore it. Pushing loose strands, bleached by the sun, out of her eyes, she watched Callie lift her foot and remove a flip flop. What the heck? Brigit scowled. A second later, Callie gave Selma’s wounded bicycle a swift kick in the axle. It offered no resistance, falling with a metallic rattle onto the street.

Brigit swallowed a gasp. She wouldn’t give any bully the satisfaction of showing she was shocked. When Callie looked at her as if in triumph–over what, Brigit wanted to ask–the poker face held. But Selma gaped. She stammered something, her eyes moving from Callie to the bike and back again. Helpless. Despite a feeling of disgust, the moment gave Brigit a sense of validation. Now she knows, she thought. Now Selma knows how the world really is. It may be just a bike, but she’ll always remember this moment, always look over her shoulder and wonder about what might happen. About life. Good, Brigit thought. Good.

Selma wiped her cheeks with greasy hands so that she had the look of someone who‘d come through fire. As if the sun had finally succeeded in charring her. Then she awkwardly picked up her bike and jogged it home, the chain dragging along the pavement. Callie once again turned her bully’s smile on Brigit. Why? What is her need to impress me, Brigit wondered. Brigit swung back and forth under the elm tree, indifferent. She was not impressed. Nor was she afraid of anything like Callie. When a plump woman called out from the veranda of the white clapboard house, Callie turned nonchalantly and walked back up the sidewalk, flip flops dragging, then went inside. Brigit leaned back in her swing as far as she could, parallel with the sky and as weightless as a firefly.

The next evening, and the next, were much the same, except Selma no longer rode her bike up and down the street. Sitting at home in her room, Brigit thought. Angry? No, Selma would be the type to cry. To be sad in the face of meanness. She had withdrawn, now listening when her brothers or her father told her to stop being a silly girl. How had Selma ever learned to be cheerful at all surrounded by that tribe of bumpkins? Brigit, despite her delight that someone else had tasted the bitterness of betrayal, felt a little bit sorry to see her innocence go. Too bad she was alone.

It was after dinner, and Brigit sat on the swing once again. Across the street, a silhouette moved across the lace curtains in the upstairs window of the white clapboard house. Callie. Eventually the curtains parted and she looked out. Her eyes zeroed in on Brigit. My God, what is your obsession, Brigit thought. The curtains fell closed and Brigit counted…one…two…three…as many steps as it took for Callie to descend the staircase and appear at the open door. She was a scrawny kid, Brigit noticed, despite her blossoming bosom and her larger than life reputation. As if most of her were only reflection. Brigit wasn’t intimidated by the aggression in her crossed arms or her tilted head, the shagged hair across her right eye. But all this time, Brigit realized, Callie had been waiting for circumstances to align–she was bored and Brigit was alone. Only the street, lit by the intermittent flashes of fireflies, separated them. Callie opened her moaning gate and and waded into the dim light; she stood for a moment, eyebrows arched, peering past the boundary of Brigit’s yard. Brigit swung back and forth, eating a plum.

“What’s that?” Callie finally demanded. Her voice was lazy and little-girlish. How had she convinced the neighborhood children to dread her? Maybe people needed something to fear, Brigit thought, when the real threat of life was only a shadow.  

“Nothing.” Brigit spit the plum pit onto the lawn.  

“You’re weird.” Callie made the pronouncement as if it had been something she’d long been considering upstairs in that clapboard house. “You never leave your yard. You just sit there, spying on everyone.”

“If I were spying, I would hide,” Brigit said. “You wouldn’t know I was watching.  I don’t think spying is the word you mean.”

“Whatever.” Callie tossed the wedge of hair out of her eyes but it fell right back again.

 “Don’t you get bored? I mean, what do you do all day?” As she spoke, she began plucking the petals off the Old Glory rose bush, scattering red around her feet.  

Brigit watched the petals fall, silent.

“I’ve never seen anyone here but you. My momma says you’re an orphan.” She looked at Brigit’s bare feet.

That stung. Brigit didn’t show it. She didn’t share that she felt like an orphan, that no one tucked her in at night anymore, that she was too embarrassed to ask her father to read the fairy tales that put her to sleep.

“So–are you an orphan?” Callie grabbed at the roses, pulling apart the blossoms and dropping them to the ground. Brigit stopped swinging. A puddle of red gathered around Callie’s feet, causing the red to rise in Brigit’s face. Blood pulsated against her lips and behind her eyes. She wanted to lash out, to scream. Instead, before she could stop herself, she was crying. Callie appeared dreamlike through the tears, her edges losing definition and spreading, as if she were a tear herself, suspended and about to fall. Brigit didn’t hear her words. They too had lost definition and were falling.  

Brigit didn’t know how long she cried; time had no context in her grief. It was boundless, nameless, mysterious. It was a world of its own and she stayed there until she was empty of tears. When her breathing became regular again, when she had calmed and her head ached, she felt the sense of relief one must have who crawls gasping out of the desert into the rain. She saw Callie over in her own yard, watching, then turning to go inside. Her porch light went out and the midsummer night swallowed the old clapboard house in darkness. A coyote yipped somewhere out on the prairie amid the mesquite and the switchgrass. Brigit wiped her face with her shirt sleeve and watched the fireflies flicker in the darkness.

***

Selma. Brigit sat in her swing, watching the girl ride up and down the street, smiling blithely in the late morning heat.

“You got it fixed,” she called out when Selma rode by.

“What?” Selma smiled and veered away from a squirrel carcass. Roadkill from the day before.

She’d forgotten already? Brigit smirked. Why was that not surprising? “The chain,” she said. “You got it fixed.”

“Oh. Uh huh.”

Brigit was restless. She kicked her legs out, as if to push away the hot, monotonous summer that had settled in with such confidence. And why not? It would last well into the fall. Standing up, she stepped back as far as she could so that the swing’s ropes were taut in her hands; then she let go, her legs buckling beneath her. She soared forward, high above the yard–the butterflies and the milkweed, the roses and the stones. From the zenith, she jumped…landing hard but upright on her sandaled feet. Her father hated when she did that. Brigit turned to see if he was watching through the window. He wasn’t. Moving to the edge of the yard where the sidewalk met the street, she squinted into the sunshine. “I wish I had a bike,” she muttered. Selma, passing by, heard her. How, Brigit wondered, will I pay for my words? She couldn’t bear the idea of Selma’s pity. The girl swerved around and pulled up beside her. “Can’t you get one?”

“Probably. Yes. Of course I could get one.”

“Then we could ride together. That’d be fun.”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

“Do you want to sit on my handlebars?”

Brigit considered. Did she trust Selma? Not really. “OK.” Why not, after all? The summer was long and the summer called for drastic measures.

Selma held the bike steady as Brigit climbed up, positioning herself inside the u-shaped handlebars. It was a snug fit.  

“You have to hold your legs out so they don’t hit the tires,” Selma said.

“I know.” Brigit held on, her body braced for a skull-shattering fall as Selma stood up and pumped the pedals. Slowly, steadily, they moved into the street, gathering speed. Selma giggled. “This is fun.”

Brigit’s grip held tight, her eyes locked on the pavement. How was she going to look without any front teeth, she wondered. Did it cost a lot of money to get fakes ones?

“Don’t you think it’s fun, Brigit?”

“Uh….”

“Wow–look!”

“What?” Brigit tore her eyes from the pavement.

“There,” Selma took her hand off the handlebar long enough to point at a small, single coyote standing in the street. It was mesmerized by a rabbit in someone’s yard.

“It won’t bite us,” Selma declared.

“I know. We had them in California, too.”

As they bore down on the wiry creature, it darted off onto a side road that led to the banks of the Trinity River. Brigit watched it disappear as Selma veered left, circling back to where they started. “Do you want to stop?” She asked as they approached Brigit’s yard.

“No. Keep going.” She’d relaxed a little. The butterflies in her stomach had been replaced with…what was it? The movement was exhilarating. Yes–she would ask her dad for a bicycle. Of course, he’d ask what happened to the bike she already had, forgetting she’d given it away to a cousin before they left California. She’d remind him and he’d say yes, that’s right. I remember now. And then he’d buy her a new bike. She didn’t want a pink one like Selma’s. A little girl bike. She wanted a grownup bike–an Electra, maybe. Her father wouldn’t even care that it cost $200.

“Isn’t this a blast?” Selma said, laughing as they shot past the white clapboard house where the curtains were closed against the day.

Brigit laughed a little. Mostly at Selma. Selma and her enthusiasm. Selma and her damn joy. As they made another circuit, riding past the white clapboard house once again, Brigit saw movement upstairs. The second story curtains parted.

“Hey,” she said to Selma. “Look up there.”

The girls turned their heads toward Callie. Right eye obscured by a wedge of hair, she wore her usual glare of–what? Not hatred. More like jealousy, Brigit thought. Brigit gave a dismissive snort. “Just ignore her.” But Selma–Selma waved. “Oh God, Selma. Really?” “Hi, Callie!” She called out. As they swerved around the dead squirrel again, Brigit laughed, loudly this time. She glanced up at the white clapboard house once more, expecting to see contempt on Callie’s face. But she had gone, leaving only the curtains trembling.

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