Fireflies and Falling Stars

This August, I’ve spent many evenings on the thirteen floor of a large metropolitan hospital in Saragossa keeping an elderly relative company. When he nods off, I work on a text, but the naps are short. He wants me to listen to stories. His voice is tremulous and I have to lean close to follow his narratives. He tells me about a mule named Castaño, describes step by step how to weave a fruit basket, and sings a few bars of a jota. He asks me if I remember his wife’s brother who died shortly after the Spanish Civil War and I tell him no. “That’s right,” he says, “You’re a foreigner. You weren’t here back then.” After a short silence, he asks me where I’m from. When I tell him New York, he crows back, “French!”

To get him back on familiar territory, I ask him to describe the different plots of land his family owned or rented. In rural Aragon, each small plot has a name: Canova, la Verga, los Chopos . . . Chopos are poplar trees. Where there are poplars, there’s bound to be water, and where there is water, the harsh, dry landscape of Aragon comes alive. “Were there fireflies in los Chopos?” I asked. “Yes,” he told me. “A million. As many as there were falling stars at the Feast of San Lorenzo.” The Tears of San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) is the popular name in Spanish for the Perseid meteor shower, as it always begins on or near August 10, the date of  the saint’s martyrdom in AD 258. Saturday was supposedly the best night to see this year’s trail of sparkling dust left by the comet Swift-Tuttle.  “Maybe that’s why the naps are so short,” I tell myself. “He wants to see the shooting stars of August one more time.”

When he dozed off again, I remained near the window searching the night sky for just one bright flash, but the only shooting stars and fireflies that glimmered that night were flickering memories of other times and other places. As I looked down at the broad expanse of the Ebro River, I thought about how the room of the Chinese poet Du Fu  so near the banks of the Yang Tze filled up with fireflies. That was a good story, whether it ever really happened or not. As Marilyn Kallet  wrote in her poem “Fireflies”

If you stay, the fireflies become fireflies
again, not part of your stories,
as unaware of you as sleep, being
beautiful and quiet all around you.

I looked down at my companion, but he was somewhere far away, maybe in a field of fireflies, looking up at the night sky. His legs moved in the hospital bed as though he were following a mule named Castaño across the broken furrows of a hardpan field.  I then leafed through my notebook,  a transcription of a new documentary film by the young Spanish filmmaker Irene Bailo. Perhaps now I’d have a few minutes to work on the subtitles. This time out, Irene is weaving home movies she shot with a Hi8 camera when she was a teenager with more recent footage. “What were you like when you were young?” she asks her grandmother. “Not pretty, but not bad-looking either,” her grandmother replies.

The slender mauve ribbon of dawn outlines the faraway hills. My shift is almost over. “If you stay,” the poem goes, “the fireflies become fireflies again.” As the stories of the night fade into the physical objectivity of the day, I’m hoping the person asleep next to me stays just a little bit longer. One steely blue eye opens; then the other. “Tell me another story,” I say. “Later on,” he replies, and nods off again, leaving everything beautiful and quiet around us once more.

Fireflies in the Garden

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.

                                                                                                                     Robert Frost

At Wu Shan, of an autumn night,
The fireflies come flitting
Through the curtains
Into my room,
And flutter on my garments.
So warm they seem
That my lute and book
Are chill to my touch
In the dark.

They settle on the walls and eaves,
And my room is agleam as if with stars.
They circle round the courtyard,
And, in clusters,
Cling to the old stone well-curb.
They enter the flowers
And make of each a tiny, glowing jewel.
I stand, an old, white-haired man,
By the broad Yang Tze,
And watch you, little fireflies,
And wonder if, when next year comes,
I shall be here to greet you.

Du Fu (Chinese poet 712 – 770)


In the dry summer field at nightfall,
fireflies rise like sparks.
Imagine the presence of ghosts
flickering, the ghosts of young friends,
your father nearest in the distance.
This time they carry no sorrow,
no remorse, their presence is so light.

Childhood comes to you,
memories of your street in lamplight,
holding those last moments before bed,
capturing lightning-bugs,
with a blossom of the hand
letting them go. Lightness returns,
an airy motion over the ground
you remember from Ring Around the Rosie.

If you stay, the fireflies become fireflies
again, not part of your stories,
as unaware of you as sleep, being
beautiful and quiet all around you.

Marilyn Kallet

Painting Fireflies at Night with children’s book illustrator Paige Kreiser.