The wooden slats of the timeworn, dilapidated porch groaned underneath my feet as I stepped to the edge and looked up into the vastness. The Georgia night sky was as dark as I’d ever seen it. With heavy eyes I contemplated the black, hypnotized by the millions of miniscule specks that danced and flickered against the velvet backdrop. “I don’t remember there ever being so many,” I whispered into the cool air, knowing there was no one there to hear me. Grief ripping through my heart, I closed my eyes against the pain and began to sway, allowing the breeze to swirl around and wrap me in its tranquil embrace. Instinctively, I reached up and rubbed my palms against my bare shoulders to fend off the chill causing the soft hairs on my arms to rise. The gust continued its twirling path down and around my body, ruffling the bottom of my loose, black dress. Filling with a sense of contentment, I sighed and thanked the night for its attempt at consoling.
I opened my eyes and breathed in, pulling the air through my nose and allowing it to expand into my lungs until they were tight with pressure. The sweet smell of magnolias embedded in the breeze triggered my senses to come alive, sending my mind reeling back to a time of pure innocence. Wrapping my arms around myself, I stared into the shadows and allowed the memories come flooding into my consciousness.
“Watch Momma!” I shouted from the middle of an overgrown field with my arms outstretched to the sky above me, my tiny hand clutching tight a glass Mason jar. My five-year-old self was running and jumping into the air causing my long dark curls to trail in my wake. Dusk was setting in and the sky layered on its bedtime ensemble. Deep blue folds pressed down from above causing the brilliance of the sun to succumb to its power. As the yellow melted into the earth, it hissed its flames into the dark only to be extinguished by the inevitably swelling black.
“I see you baby! You be careful now.” Momma stood watching from our old but sturdy farmhouse. The once white, two-story structure sat in the middle of a forty-acre farm worked by my father from dawn to dark. The expansive wrap around porch provided the house a look of refinement though many of the railing spindles were loose or altogether missing. The wood slats of the floor were always swept and clean and a two person swing hung at the far end, just past the front door.
Hearing my mother’s voice, I turned to see her leaning on the support post, hip resting against the railing. In the fading light of day, I could just make out the expression on her face. A soft smile rested on her lips as she looked at me with adoration. Her dress, though simple and plain, fell flatteringly over her slim figure and accentuated the curves of her waist. Her Italian heritage had gifted her with smooth, olive-colored skin that radiated vibrancy and youth. We shared the same dark, flowing curls though hers were kept shorter with the coils lightly dusting her shoulders. I thought her to be the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Momma!” I cried out again. “I got four of ‘em. See!” I held up the jar with my hand now pressed over the opening. Inside, four insects flitted about, lighting up in unsynchronized choreography. I ran towards the porch as graceful as my little legs could carry me, grinning with absolute pride and satisfaction. I dashed up the steps and rounded the corner to show off my prize. “Look Momma,” I said in between gasps of breath. “Look how pretty they are.” I stood on tiptoes, pushing the thick glass up as close to her face as I could so she might gaze upon my treasure.
“Yes, they certainly are beautiful.”
“I want to keep ‘em inside by my bed so I can look at ‘em every night,” I whispered to her as we both watched the glowing lights with fascination.
“If you do that honey, they’re gonna die. You don’t want that now do you?” She smiled down at me and ran a loving hand over my head, smoothing my tousled curls.
“I don’t wanna let ‘em go.” Large drops filled my eyes and my voice caught as I started to cry. “But I don’t want ‘em to die neither.” I looked up at my mother, searching for an answer in her face. She knelt down bringing our eyes level and reached out a hand to wipe away the tears streaming down my cheeks.
“Sweetheart,” she began in her gentle Georgian lilt that always managed to calm even my most heart wrenching moments. “You should let ‘em go. I know you wanna keep ‘em but you should set ‘em free so they can fly off and light up the sky for everyone, not just us. You want other people to see how pretty they are, don’t you?”
“Ye…eh Mom…ma,” I choked out, my sobs hampering my ability to speak clearly.
“Shhhh baby. Don’t cry,” she soothed, pulling me into her warm embrace. Craving the comfort of her love, I pulled my hand from atop the jar and threw my arms around her neck to bury my face in her hair. The light smells of jasmine and lavender swirled around my nose, filling me with the solace I was seeking. She pulled back to place a gentle kiss on the tip of my nose, making me laugh.
“I think they’re gonna fly back to their families now, Momma,” I said focusing back on the jar in my hand. The bugs had climbed their way to the top but sat just inside the rim, not making any attempt to escape. “See Momma. They don’t wanna leave. They wanna stay with us.”
“No, baby. They’re just waitin’ for you to say good-bye.”
Sniffling, I ran my forearm across my nose and took a deep breath. Taking hold of the jar with both hands, I pulled it in close to my body so I could peer down into it. The anxious insects paced along the ridges of the glass lip but still did not take flight. “Okay,” I whispered quietly to the bugs. “It’s time for you to go on home now.” The bugs halted their movement as if they were listening. “Go on now,” I said again, giving the jar a gentle shake. In unity, they flew out and circled my head. Their tiny bodies illuminated the darkness and danced in the air between my mother and me. I squealed with delight as I watched them rise higher into the sky until they were out of sight. That night I dreamed of fireflies and ballerinas.
That had been my first lesson in saying good-bye. The childhood memory didn’t diminish this new, still raw pain, but it did ease the ache. As I dragged my consciousness back to where I remained rooted, standing on that very same porch, I looked out onto the open field to see hundreds of fireflies dancing in the darkness. My heart yearned for things to be as easy as they had been back then, when it was all so simple and everyone was full of love and happiness.
Another sigh escaped my lips as the breeze took a sudden, bitter turn and snapped an icy switch across my bare legs. The sharp gusts whipped my long curls with violent thrashes and my body released an involuntary shiver causing me to wrap my arms tighter around my shoulders. I hadn’t felt this cold since…since the day I revealed the truth and watched as my mother’s heart froze over right before my very eyes. Though a reaction had been expected, one so severe had been like a slicing slap across an already tender cheek. Her adamant refusal to speak with me, to discuss further what had taken me so long to divulge, caused a piece of me to wither and die the instant I had seen the rejection in her eyes. As the flashes jabbed at my tender soul, once again my mind went plunging back.
“Momma, please,” I had begged. I remembered that fateful afternoon from so long ago as though it was only yesterday. “Please let me explain.”
“No,” she spat. “I won’t hear of this. You will not come into this house and say these things to me and expect me to understand.” Her dark eyes hardened and her lips drew pencil thin. My heart screamed out to beg her forgiveness, but I knew she would grant no such relief. “Be glad your daddy isn’t here to watch you throw your life away!” She had always known how to drive the knife straight into the heart, though never before had I been on the receiving end. With my father’s passing just a few years prior, I still hadn’t quite adjusted to his absence. She had known this and used the barb to wound me as she knew of no other way to redirect the anguish she was feeling.
I walked away from her that day with the hope that time would soften her resolve, open her heart to me, and forgive what she believed to be my indiscretions. That time never came. For ten years I waited. For ten years I fought back the tears and the anger, yearning and hoping she could again see me as that five-year-old catching lightning bugs in the summer night air.
Now, a decade later, I had received the phone call deep in the night. It was one I had known would come sooner or later. My brother was on the line, pleading for me to come, assuring me I needed to be there. So I conceded, and drove the distance to a house I no longer called home. Upon my arrival, I had climbed the wooden steps, sadness stinging me as I noticed how they were now covered with layers of dirt and dehydrated leaves. I passed through the doorway and into the kitchen, lit by only the dim yellow bulb over the stove. The air was tranquil and stale yet still held the faint smell of Momma’s secret recipe pasta sauce. Was I supposed to be sad? Relieved? Angry? Was it possible for me to feel them all at once? Finally, it was sorrow that won out as I passed through the hall and into my parents’ bedroom.
Not taking my eyes from the far corner of the room, I inched my way towards the quiet hum of medical equipment. I reached my destination of the old, sunken rocker sitting next to the queen size bed. I eased into it with a quiet whoosh, doing all I could not to pierce the awkward stillness. The figure that lay in the center, under the blankets, was barely recognizable to me. Gone were the wisps of shiny dark curls and unblemished, tanned skin. They had been replaced with dry, grey stands of worn out yarn and thin, pallor skin that made my fingertips tingle at the thought of touching it. A haggard, raspy sound escaped from her lips, then rattled away. I shot a look across the bed to where my brother stood, his arm curled tightly around his wife. “I didn’t know she was this bad. Why didn’t you tell me?” I said with an edge.
“She made me promise not to,” he said, his eyes shifting to the ground in shame. Tears ran across his face and dripped from the tip of his nose. “I thought we’d have more time,” came in a whisper from his hoarse throat.
I shook my head in disappointment and returned my gaze to the woman dying before me. “Does she know we’re here?” I asked, not looking back at my brother.
“Doctor says no. The morphine is keeping her under, but he says she’d probably be unconscious anyway by now.”
“God, Momma,” I whispered. I took hold of her frail hand and wrapped my fingers carefully around hers. It was the first time I had touched her in years. For an instant, I felt light from the connection. I leaned over and pressed my lips to the bony knuckles and held them there as the grief swelled inside my chest, threatening to burst through and shatter my ribs. The breaths that seeped from her dry, cracked lips were garbled and it became obvious she didn’t have many more left.
A vice began tightening against my lungs and my heart echoed in my ears with a thud so resounding I could no longer piece together a coherent thought. I knew I couldn’t stay, couldn’t remain until the end. I hadn’t the strength. I eased my way to standing, keeping the gnarled fingers still intertwined with mine. Using my free hand I smoothed the top of her unruly hair and bent to place a kiss on her temple. I rested my forehead against her clammy brow and searched for the last words I would ever say to her. A thickness formed in the back of my throat as I struggled to keep the tears at bay. A strangled sound emerged from my lips when I tried to speak. I paused, and then began again, driving down the building anger and regret. “I can forgive,” fell from my lips in a hush so low I barely heard it myself. Large drops now streamed freely down my cheeks. I made no attempt to wipe them away as I bent closer to whisper in her ear. “Go dance with the fireflies, Momma.” I gave her hand one final squeeze and let the gnarled fingers float back towards the sheet. Stifling the cry forcing its way through my lips, I covered my trembling mouth and rushed from the room.
Three days had passed since that night and today we lowered the casket into the ground to remain there for eternity. Still standing in the night air, I blinked away the tears and inhaled with a quiet gasp as I realized time had slipped away from me while I had tumbled through painful memories all the while remaining fixed to the old porch of my childhood home. The winds had all but ceased and my dress now hung limply, occasionally brushing back and forth across the tops of my knees. The sounds of the crickets had disappeared as the cool of the night swept in and silenced the remnants of evening. The quiet enveloped me as I continued to sway ever so slightly. Everything seemed surreal and I could feel the loneliness start to edge its way into me. It nibbled at my fingertips and crawled its way up my arms, seeping into my chest in an attempt to smother my heart.
I was about to relent and let it consume me when the creak, smack of the wooden screen door sounded behind me. Light footsteps sauntered up and a slight smile flickered across my lips. Long, warm arms wrapped around me from behind, pulling me close to the body to which they belonged.
“How are you?” a quiet voice whispered into my right ear.
“I’m not sure. Still trying to believe she’s really gone.” Though the loneliness had fled at the sound of the door, the dull ache still radiated through me.
“Is there anything I can do?” Warm, sweet breath danced across my cheek.
“No, love. You being here is enough.” I smiled and ran my hands along the arms encircling my waist. My fingertips skimmed across tender flesh to the long slender fingers interlocked in front of me. I pulled the hands apart so I could turn. My heart flooded with emotion when I stared back into eyes of bright blue reflecting the love I had known for ten years. I reached up to float my touch along the soft curves of a face filled with devotion, across full lips that smirked back at me, and up into long, silky hair that shimmered between my fingers. The smirk melted into a smile as she tilted her head down to kiss me.
CHRIS EVANS currently resides in Lebanon, Ohio with her wife and three children. She works full time as a supply chain planner for a large plastics company. Chris holds a Bachelors of Arts degree in English from Southern New Hampshire University and is currently pursing her graduate degree in English-Creative Writing with an emphasis in fiction.