Things That Don’t Keep a Lightning Bug Alive

Last summer before we set out looking for my mother, I let lightning bugs die in jars. I didn’t mean for them to die, they just did. My dad is all the time telling me to get quick to the point, to go way back at the start and tell the long whole thing being a trait I family-inherited. Like how just the other day he was in from work and washing up (he paints houses), and I said, You’ll never guess who I saw today, Dad. I was thinking to tell him of the great horned who sometimes shows herself out of our back woods and who just that afternoon had done so. I saw he was watching me with his listening face so I went on. I was wanting to give him the whole story right up to the surprise of seeing her eyes on me (my dad always calls the great horned a her whether she is or not) and how Harold (that’s our dog) didn’t even bark to scare her away, and I was halfway down the hill (in the story) when my dad said, Who? Who, child? Just tell me who. Which was all of a sudden a pretty good joke, I thought, until my dad’s voice changed, seeing me giggle. Who? my dad said, like a sad hopeful owl. Then I saw, and it wasn’t funny, because it was only the great horned I’d seen. But I acted like it was funny, and said, The great horned! Who, who! And my dad, he acted like it was funny too.

Evenings before the sun sets on our yard the air will go alive with handfuls of lit-up heartbeats, tiny flashes in the dog lot, above the grass, on the road, up into the trees, everywhere. (I might could see calling them fireflies, like I’ve learned some call them, if they didn’t flash how they do, but lightning bug is the better name. My dad agrees.) I got a mason jar whose lid smelled like sweet pickles and I stabbed holes in the lid with my pocketknife, aiming for not too big, and you could see my dents all over from learning how hard I had to come down with the knife. I put the jar on the back porch railing with the lid and chased where they lit, running to where they looked to be heading and waiting for them to show again, getting low to see the dark little blur their wings make on the sky when the sky hasn’t got all the way dark. They don’t sting or bite and they are easy to catch, though be gentle, because I’ve crushed some, or swung too hard with my hand. They go green then forever and make a shooting star to the grass and don’t move and you can see them and feel sorry when you pass with ones more gentle in your hands to put in the jar. At night they flash from my dresser while I watch in bed, like a jar of stars my dad said, or he said, like airplanes you for one second thought were stars. But only at first because if you wake in the night and can’t sleep they’ll be flashing all at once together and how that could happen I don’t know. In the morning almost all the time, especially the first one, they’ll be up on the side of the jar or under the lid and won’t be moving, but they will if you tap on the lid or shake a little. That night they’ll all light like when you first caught them, but only if you switch off the overhead and the lamp and sit in the dark. You can make any sound in the room, it doesn’t matter, or none at all. Once you start finding them down at the bottom they’re dying, you’ve killed them in the jar.

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