At last the little firefly broke the silence between him and the stranger on the branch. “Lovely night without a moon. Bulb’s still dead on the farmhouse porch to boot. Yes sir, nice and dark.”
“Paradise indeed,” the bigger fly responded. Not feeling like small talk, he kept watching the field in silence, waiting. Still, the little fly continued.
“I have to say, that is an incredible bulb you’ve got there, the best I’ve ever seen. Last time you lit I saw my uncle way over by the water trough, making it with one of those split wing flies from the poplar grove. Remarkable.”
As if an exclamation point to the flattery, a female landed on the branch. She shuffled towards the bigger fly, turning as she did, clarifying all intentions. They made love with clicking noises, rear-to-rear in true evolutionary efficiency, each looking out into the night to guard and plan. The smaller firefly stared. The female glanced his way in disgust before flying off to find damp soil.
“See! You’re a rock star. How do you do it?” The little fly’s wing covers shot up with this outburst.
The bigger fly’s fierce light pulsed on, bringing with it an equally overpowering pain. He closed his eyes and hugged the branch as a supplicant while the heat climbed from his rear and abdomen, into his thorax, finally erupting into fireworks behind his eyes. Just as it had a thousand times before. The little firefly turned his head from the brightness. In all the light, the little fly could count twelve cow patties lined up like footprints in the field. Surely a record, he thought. The crickets even stopped their calls, their own horny rhythms confused by what seemed to be sunrise.
The bigger fly’s light dissipated, his pain following as a shadow. His grimace softened to a smile. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve been doing it all night, a regular Ringo Starr.” He paused and considered the smaller fly’s lurking question. “I can’t tell you why it’s so bright though.”
The smaller fly lit up. His light barely revealed the bigger fly’s wing covers, only inches away. The pain was proportional and so the little fly hardly flinched. Then he leaned closer. “So how many tonight?” he whispered. “How many have you made it with?”
The bigger fly already felt the heat rising again as the next pulse of light wound itself into a ball of chemicals and pain deep in his thorax. It seemed that his light was gaining strength as his time in the world pressed on, each pulse sucking a bit more of his soul up and burning it off. So he knew as it came that this would be the worst pain of his life. He pulled his wing covers in, his antennae back. His right legs gave out and he slipped from the branch, but managed to catch himself with two lefts. He moaned. Finally, a queasy relief descended with the dark and he pushed his antennae forward.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Maybe sixty times.”
“Holy shit!” the little firefly shouted. “Sixty times.” He danced a jig, spinning on the branch and shouting the word “legendary” over and over into the night. Then his own little bulb stopped him with its gentle prick of warmth. His face went flat. “Guess it hurts something awful,” he said.
The big fly just nodded. The little fly flicked his wing covers in thought. “Totally worth it though, right? I mean, sixty times is worth it, right?”
The big fly turned this question over in his mind. Was it worth it? It was a question he’d never considered. He looked out on the field and the thousands of lights, all those flies latching their own moments and together making a rhythm. They looked to him like holes through a veil, each new light letting out a promise of something infinitely more important than his own light and pain.
Before he could answer, another orb of light radiated from the big fly. He clawed at the branch, picturing a raccoon or a vole cutting his time short if he fell. After the burst of light, the little fly looked out into the dark himself. As his eyes adjusted he too saw all the other flies bouncing around in each other’s lights, disappearing and appearing at the same time, together everywhere and nowhere at once. “Never mind,” he said, “it was a silly question.”
A pale yellow glow suddenly drowned out the fireflies. It came from a new bulb over the farmhouse porch, only yards away on the edge of the field. A soft-skinned young couple had just moved in, bringing with them enough energy to fix the place up. He’d wanted it for the fruit trees and pasture, she for the two bedrooms that could even be split into three. She’d told him as much when they closed on the place. He’d just smiled. Then tonight, when she’d brought it up again he had not smiled, but rather said something about timing. And so she’d stepped onto the porch and replaced a light bulb, flipped the switch to test the wiring. Or had he said “inconvenient”? She turned off the light now and watched the fireflies, wondering.
Ethan Plaut is an attorney and farmer who lives in eastern Maine. His writing has appeared in Glass Mountain and Ecology Law Quarterly.