He walks quickly as the concrete path turns to worn dirt under his feet, his jacket collar pulled high around his neck. Night is falling on the forest. There is a kink to the right in the path up ahead, under the spreading limbs of an old willow. His eyes do not follow the kink though, nor do they linger on the tree, but instead dive straight ahead and slightly to the left, drawn by something. He can’t see anything there, not at first; he doesn’t know why he is still gazing into the gathering shadows. He almost looks away. But then he sees it — them — a stray pinprick or two half-seen through the trees. He steps off the path. His thoughts fade to nothing, forgotten with the path to home. The kink passes by without him as he beats his way through the thickening bush, as twigs crunch underfoot and branches are torn aside. As he gets closer the gaps between the trees grow wider, and more and more of the tiny pinpricks emerge. Stars become constellations become galaxies as he pushes through the last of the trees and scrub, to a circular clearing. A glade.
Soft grass lies underfoot. The glade is maybe fifty feet from end to end. A stream runs through its northern edge, and a pile of stones — small, but elegantly constructed, lies in what seems the centre. And he sees this not through lights or lamps, nor the crescent moon now hanging dimly overhead, but by the fireflies that fill the glade. He is overcome. He forget his self, shrugs off the weight of his years and surrenders. He stands ecstatic, gazing up in wonder. He runs across the glade from edge to edge. He kneels deep into the grass, closing his eyes and feeling a firefly perch delicately on the tip of his nose. He steps carefully around the stones in the centre, fancying for a second that no human hands could ever have placed them so. He sits cross legged by the stream, savours this blessing, and for a moment the enchantment is so strong that he forgets his family, his house, his car, his job, his office, and there is only he and the glade. But only for a moment. He hears a voice, a single anguished cry into the night, and is snapped back to himself, in the glade. A voice has a mouth, after all, and a mouth a face, a face a gaze, and through that gaze he sees a sad, ageing office-worker reliving in vain a youth long spent. Sad. The voice never comes into view, nor he into its. But the moment is gone, and in the void it leaves behind come his family, his house, his car and his job and his office and he should be leaving. His legs cry out in pain as he rises slowly to his feet. It’s getting late. His family will be wondering where he is, he thinks, and there’s that 8:30 meeting tomorrow morning. One of the lanes on the freeway is closed for repairs. Traffic will be bad. He shuts his eyes.
His footsteps turn soft, indistinct as the path under his feet turns again from concrete to worn dirt. His steps quicken. On the path home last night he thought of nothing but the fireflies. As he trudged into the brightly lit foyer of his house how much better, he thought, had they lit that glade. As he heated dinner in the microwave the blinking lights reminded him a little of their magic. He could not fall asleep for all his fantasies of them, they who when sleep took hold, finally, filled his dreams with fire and light. He felt his spirit healed, his years wound back, joy exploding in his chest only to wake, one morning, to a blaring alarm in an oversized bed, in a house he should not own next to a person he should not have married. His work that day at work was nothing, just a blur of spreadsheets and meetings, nothing but a boring, faded blur, fading further still as he sees that old willow by the kink in the path, and again spies them burning faintly through the trees. Again he feels the pull, stronger this time for the knowledge of where it leads. Again he veers from the path and again twigs snap broken underfoot and again he almost runs to break through these few last trees into this, this most enchanted glade.
He had steeled himself to to be let down but he is not. This time is stronger, made clearer by the miracle of its repetition. Again he is overcome. Again he stands and gazes in awe. Again he runs from edge to edge. Again he kneels deep into the grass and is again blessed by the touch of a firefly, and is again happy, joyous, calmed and almost completely forgetful of the suffocating waste of his days but, again, only almost. Last night the moment stretched forever, so entranced he was by the sight. But this time he knows what comes next, knows that this time, however long, will end; that he will head back home on the concrete path through the darkened woods to the big house with the safe, comfortable life where everything is known and never changes from its rightful place. He is shaking, he realises, and his face is wet with tears. Can he go home?
He sits down, playing at a refusal he knows he cannot sustain, and as he sits his stomach plunges far down beneath the grass, deep down to the centre of the earth. His palms stretch out dejected on his knees, soft and pale from touch-typing. A firefly lands on his right hand, then, and it is beautiful, so sadly beautiful that he cannot look at it for long, as he looks away, past it, and slightly to the right. There he sees something else, lying down there in the dirt, for however many years. A glass jar, with a copper lid. He reaches to pick it up. It feels solid, like a paperweight or a baby. The lid comes off easily, the inside musty but clean. He wonders how it got here, why it was thrown away, for what reason three small holes were stabbed in the copper lid. A strange find in a forest glade, but a good one, for sure — the glass smooth to his touch even under the dirt. A firefly lands in his left palm. His eyes follow it now, like a cat. In his right hand is the jar, its lid discarded on the ground. The dread of his impending return surfaces once again, but with it is now another, different thought, perhaps even a solution. He knows now what the jar is for. And there it is, the firefly, right in the palm of his hand. Can he do it, though? What’s the harm, he asks — it’s just a firefly after all. Just a bug, he thinks, as the jar hovers above the firefly, as the glass walls comes down and around it on his palm, as he finds the lid and screws it on, as he watches the firefly trapped within struggle weakly against the glass, already giving in. He gets up quickly, and walks head-down to the edge of the glade. He does not stop to gaze at the fireflies, nor does he marvel at the stones. His collar is pulled tightly around his neck as he pushes back to the path. Once he is out of the glade though, back on the path and footsteps quickening onto concrete, he steals a look at the jar, at the firefly struggling weakly within. There it is, he thinks. Like a secret, or an expensive necklace that is never taken out of the box. Something secret all to himself. He shuts his eyes.
He is almost there. That night he came home happy, eager, a child excited but unwilling to share why. He placed the firefly in the second garage, where the children and partner never go. They made love for the first time in months that night, and afterwards he could barely sleep for his excitement, his mind turning over ideas and plans and schemes before at last surrendering to dreamless sleep. He woke up with new and boundless energy. At work that day he was a god, his contributions incisive and his delivery confident. Of himself, the glimpse in the microwave glass looked good, great even, he thought as he lingered on it a little longer. He walked out of work with a swagger, a swagger which didn’t leave his step all through the walk from his office to his train station, from his train station to his house, from his house to his homewares store around the corner and from there to his glade. He is almost there now, can see the kink beneath the willow. He walks faster as his mind turns to the old fish tank in the lounge room, to the wire mesh rolled up in a corner of the garage. He salivates slightly, as ten large mason jars clink back and forth in his bag.
His thoughts circle faster and faster as he passes the kink, as he steps off the path, so fast that he does not see at first the wrongness in the scene before him. At first there’s just a slight unease, excitedly dismissed. But it grows harder and harder to push away, grows louder and louder as he tramps over twigs and pushes past trees and breaks through branches into the glade where his mind catches up, at last, to the point. The fireflies are gone. The glade is empty and dark and he is deflating, now, the weight of his years pushing the air out of him, slowly at first but faster and faster as the seconds pile on. The stream is dry, too. The pile is destroyed, its stones now scattered across the glade. He takes one of the jars from the bag, holes already punched in the lid, uselessly, and hold it in his hands. He is crying, he realises, quietly at first but louder and louder as his knuckles whiten, as his fists clench, as tears wet the earth and a single, anguished cry rings out in the night. As he slowly, ever so slowly relaxes, the jar slips from his hand onto the ground, to be encrusted with dirt again. In his big house, in the second garage where the children never go, the firefly he caught last night has stopped struggling against the glass. It is completely and utterly still and slowly, ever so slowly going out, down there in the dark and the grime. Maybe he could still make it back to the house in time, if he ran, he could pick it up and bring it here and give it back. But he won’t, and never will. Instead he looks down at the other mason jars in his bag. He thinks himself a fool for ruining their lids with holes. Maybe the kids will have some use for them. But there’s already too much crap in the house, he thinks, as he dumps the jars in the dry riverbed instead. He hears the sound of breaking glass, and winces a little, but doesn’t do anything, won’t climb down into the mud, won’t pick out the broken shards he has so carelessly scattered. Instead, he pulls the collar of his jacket high around his neck. He whistles a little tune to himself as he beats back to the path, as his footsteps echo on the concrete through the night, as the light finally fades into nothing.