by Rebecca Winslow-Pandey
I was nine years old the first time I saw a firefly. We were staying at my grandmother’s house in the village. She couldn’t have been older than fifty-five then, but that way of life ages people, and she bent slightly as she walked, as though she was carrying a heavy weight. Her hands were calloused and wrinkled but strong as they led me on walks. They were the same hands that had raised my father, the same hands that had buried two sons. We were walking back towards the house in the evening; I was a city girl and eager to return to the one electric light in the house.
“Stop here, Granddaughter,” she ordered.
I froze, my heart in my throat. Was it a snake? A panther?
Grandmother pointed her wrinkled finger into the middle distance and my eyes strained against the dying light to see what she was pointing at.
“What’s there?” I asked, my voice trembling slightly.
She gently took my face in her hands and directed my gaze. That is when I saw them. Small points of light, more gold than green but with a mixture of both. One darted past my ear and I squealed and jumped back into Grandmother, who laughed.
“Don’t be scared,” she said, “they won’t hurt you.”
I reached my hand out to touch one and it weaved around my arm and flew past us. I moved to chase it, but Grandmother put her hand on my shoulder and turned me around. The growing darkness around us was full of the little lights, bouncing and cavorting in the evening breeze. Some hovered near the grass, some hung so high that I had to bend my neck back to see them.
“Is it God?” I asked Grandmother.
“We can see God’s hand here, as everywhere,” Grandmother responded evenly, “but these are called fireflies.”
“Fireflies,” I breathed, turning around.
Grandmother smoothed my hair back from my face, “When I was a child, my own grandmother told us fireflies hold the souls of those who have left us. They come to make sure all is well. That is why I come out every evening to greet them.”
“Do you know which one is your grandmother?” I asked, “We can take her into the house.”
Grandmother made a noise that might have been a laugh or a sigh, “No, you cannot keep the fireflies with you. They must remain here or they will die.”
It was fully dark by then, and Mama began calling to us from the courtyard of the house, shining the flashlight into the darkness. Next to me, I felt Grandmother wince at the noise and the artificial light hurt my eyes.
Later, Grandmother said to Papa, “Did you know your daughter had never seen a firefly before?”
Papa looked up from the newspaper and squinted at me over his reading glasses, “Of course she’s seen them.” He looked to me for confirmation.
I shook my head. Papa shrugged and went back to his newspaper.
Grandmother snorted. “That’s what happens to people in the cities. The lights of buildings are so bright, they can’t see the fireflies or the stars. And they can’t hear the birds sing in the mornings.”
Papa sighed and turned the page, “We have birds, Ma.”
“Pigeons,” I added helpfully.
“Granddaughter, you listen here. People were not meant to live in cities. I’d rather be dead on this farm then alive in the city.”
“Ma,” Mama snapped at her, “why must you say such things?”
Papa and Grandmother snorted at the same time, sounding so alike that everyone started laughing. Grandmother’s complaints were forgotten for a little while. But I never forgot the fireflies.
Every summer, my parents sent me to stay with Grandmother. I was always eager to see her, apprehensive at the many physical discomforts of country life, excited to see my friends in the village, and sad to leave my friends in the city.
As my visit approached, Grandmother would call me up and say, “The fireflies are waiting for you, Granddaughter.”
My parents would always drop me off there, and spend a few days fussing about the cleanliness of the kitchen and the drinking water, the lack of screens on the windows. Grandmother would allow them to do as they liked, but inevitably once they left, the house would revert to its original state. The screens my parents had so carefully attached to the windows would begin to fall off in the wet summer heat and Grandmother would allow me to eat fruit from the trees without washing and peeling it.
My friend — and sometime adversary — was a boy known as Lizard. Back when Lizard was in his first year of school, he and his brother were walking to the schoolhouse when they happened upon some lizards sitting on a fallen tree. The two boys put some lizards in their pockets and schoolbags. Predictably, the lizards did not enjoy school and made good their escape in the middle of class. Lizard and his brother must have had some special radar for my arrival, because they’d always be sitting in Grandmother’s courtyard when we arrived. With my parents’ warning to be careful ringing in my ears, we’d tear off through the fields, whooping and hollering, trying to push each other into the mud. We were destructive in the good-natured sort of way that curious children often are. We’d try to ride the cows and put them off their milking for days, or we’d dam up the small river by the house and accidentally flood the neighbor’s garden. We’d be roundly scolded — smacked if the aggrieved adult had time and energy to catch us — and then sent back out.
I would always return to the house by evening so that Grandmother and I could see the fireflies. One evening, as I was saying goodbye to the boys, Lizard asked why I always left them before it got dark.
“Is your Mama scared you’re going to get eaten by a panther?” Lizard teased me.
“Stupid,” I said, getting to my feet, “Grandmother said that the people who die come back to us as fireflies and we must greet them.”
Lizard and his brother started laughing, “Like ghosts? Your grandma’s just a crazy old woman.”
Furious, I chucked a large clump of mud at his head and took off for the house, ignoring the yelled curses and threats behind me. Grandmother was already waiting for me at the edge of the field when I arrived, sobbing.
“Granddaughter, what happened?” she asked, drying my tears with the edge of her scarf.
I told her what the boys had said.
Grandmother laughed, “It is a privilege for me to live to be a crazy old woman, so I don’t mind Lizard calling me so. And why does it matter what they think? Do you believe in the fireflies?”
“Yes of course,” I said, sniffling.
Grandmother smiled, “Well then. Let’s go say hello.”
We walked into the fields and towards the creek. The first fireflies began to glow with magical flashes of light. They moved lazily around us, floating up, dropping down, dancing through the growing darkness. Grandmother squeezed my hand extra tight as we watched the night come alive.
I was preparing for my final year school exams when Papa got the call; Grandmother had suffered a stroke and dropped dead right among her tomato plants.
“Doctor said it was instant and she probably didn’t feel a thing,” Papa told us.
Relatives came in from all over the country for the funeral. Uncles, aunts, cousins and dozens of people I didn’t know poured through the house, laughing, crying and telling stories about Grandmother. I caught a glimpse of Lizard at one point, but I was busy helping Mama bring out plates and when I looked again he was gone.
After a while, I stepped out on the porch to get some air. Papa came out behind me holding two glasses. He handed one to me and we clinked them together.
“To my mother. In the end, she died right here at the farm, where she wanted to be.”
“To Grandmother,” I said, smiling as I looked out over the fields.
By evening, the party was still going on. People had spilled out to the porch; someone was playing the guitar. I walked out into the fields, trying to get away from the light and noise of the house. When I’d visited Grandmother the previous year, she’d had to lean on my arm to walk through the fields. Her arm had still been muscled but the skin seemed paper thin. It had occurred to me as I was leaving that I might never see her again. I reached the river and sat down on a rock. A few fireflies had emerged, floating low near the water. A twig snapped and I whirled around, it was only Lizard. He smiled and sat down next to me.
“Do you remember when you told us that fireflies were, like, the souls of people who have died? And I said you were crazy?”
I laughed, “Actually I think you said Grandmother was crazy. And then I threw mud at you.”
Lizard laughed too, then his face became serious, “Do you really think that’s true?”
I shrugged. I could feel tears welling up, but I felt shy about crying in front of Lizard. I felt his warm hand rest on top of mine and squeeze my hand for a moment. The fireflies appeared, blinking into gold-green life all around us. I looked at Lizard, and saw tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Yes,” I said softly, “I still believe.”
Then we sat watching the fireflies drift upwards until we could no longer tell them apart from the stars.