The firefly flickers in my loosely closed fist, its light seeping between my fingers like silent Morse code. It could be sending an insect S.O.S. out into the world for all I know, calling for help to escape the cage of my hand. I unlatch my fingers one at a time, ready to seize the tiny creature if it tries to fly off. But it stays put, blinking its mysterious iridescent message. I study it for a moment, as I imagine the first entomologist studied it hundreds of years ago trying to understand the witchcraft of its light.
My mother used to look at fireflies in just this way when I was child. The spring I turned seven, she taught me how to reach for them delicately with cupped hands and coax them from the air and into my palms rather than swiping at them wildly and scaring them off. My mother was the most delicate woman I’ve ever known, like a porcelain ballerina who seemed to glide on tip-toes through the house whenever she dusted, gathered dirty laundry, cooked dinner. She also taught me how to fill a blue Mason jar with dozens of fireflies, turning it into an ethereal nightlight that flickered with an otherworldly green on my bedside table.
My mother taught me these things after my father left us the winter I turned six. Before then, my mother devoted most of her energy to him, doting on him, fussing over him, and generally answering his every beck and call. I’m not saying that my mother neglected me. I’m not saying that at all. She made sure that I was fed good meals, that my long, dark hair was always clean and braided, and that I fell asleep every night to her voice reading Grimms’ Fairy Tales in hushed tones. But spending time teaching me how to catch fireflies in just the right way was something that she had little time for when my father was still with us. The day he left seemed to close one door inside my mother and open up another door to a place where she found me waiting. From that day on, my mother devoted all of her energy to me, doted on me, fussed over me, and answered my every beck and call, though I rarely becked and called her without good reason.
I loved my mother, and I loved all the attention that she paid me. But I also felt sorry for my mother. I knew that the empty, dented place on her left ring finger was a wound that would never scar over completely. She never wore another real ring on that finger, and I watched her rub that spot absentmindedly every day for the remaining years of her life. When my mother died of ovarian cancer nineteen years to the day after my father left, I knew that whatever tumor grew inside her had been planted there by my father on that day. I held her hand as she drew in then released a final small breath, rubbing her wounded ring finger for her until she died.
I call Lillie over, pulling her away from picking a bouquet of the pink and purple columbines that grow wild in our yard. I show her the glowing jewel glittering in my hand.
“Remember how I told you that Grandma was the one who taught me to catch fireflies in just the right way?” Lillie drops the flowers at her feet and nods, transfixed by the light at the center my palm. “I was the same age you are now. And we used to fill jars up, too, like your jar. And just like you will do tonight, I used to fall asleep with a firefly nightlight next to my bed.”
“Did Grandma read you bedtime stories?” Lillie asks, never taking her eyes off of the light.
“Yes she did. Every night. The same stories I read you.”
“Did Grandpa read you stories?”
I stiffen for an instant, hopefully without Lillie noticing. She has never asked about my father before, and I have never mentioned my father to her. As an only child, a child born from an anonymous donor, a child who never had a father of her own, a child who seemed unfazed and perfectly happy with all the ways I have devoted all of my energy to her, doted on her, fussed over her, and answered her every beck and call, she has never asked about why she has no father in her life.
“Here,” I say, as I pinch the head and thorax of the firefly between the forefinger and thumb of my left hand. “Let me show you something beautiful.” I twist the pulsing fluorescent tail off with the forefinger and thumb of my right hand, let the head and thorax fall to the ground, and then stick the glittering jewel on the ring finger of my left hand. “See? It’s a ring. A firefly ring. I can make one for you so we can be twins. Would you like that?” Lillie, mouth agape and eyes wide and bright as two small moons in the dark, nods slowly. I don’t tell her that my mother taught me that, too.
Kip Knott’s writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Flash Fiction Magazine, MoonPark Review, Still: The Journal, and trampset. His debut full-length collection of poetry, Tragedy, Ecstasy, Doom, and so on, is available from Kelsay Books. His new full-length collection of poetry, Clean Coal Burn, is forthcoming later this year, also from Kelsay Books. More of his work may be accessed at https://www.kipknott.com.