The fireflies

Last year right about this time, as I was sitting out on my front porch before bed one evening, I opened my mouth to yawn and a firefly flew in. I tried to spit it out but it was too late. It dove down my windpipe as fast as a spark struck from an anvil and lodged somewhere in my left lung. Naturally, I felt nothing after that: the firefly’s lamp has the unique ability to produce light in the absence of heat. I would’ve forgotten about the incident altogether, except that when I went to the bathroom at 4:30 in the morning, I caught a flash in the mirror.

Now, granted, I used to have what’s known as a hollow chest. But in the last few years, thanks to a slowing, middle-aged metabolism, I’ve filled out quite a bit – and not all of it in the lower abdominal region. So I was more than a little peeved by the fact that this errant firefly’s signal remained visible, at least in the moonless dark of my bathroom mirror. I put my hand over the spot. Good lord – I could actually feel each pulse of its light!

It was with some relief that I realized I was merely feeling my heartbeat. I pulled my hand away. Yep, no doubt about it: the goddamned insect was pulsing in time with my ticker!

You’re probably thinking I’m ungrateful, I should’ve been filled with awe and wonder and gratitude at this gift, this mystery of nature, blah blah blah. Bullshit! I was pissed. That’s my heart, buddy! I’m gonna catch pneumonia and die, like my poor grandfather whose lungs filled up with fluid because of a protrusion on his spinal cord that kept growing into his throat until he could barely swallow. I went back to bed and pulled a thick blanket over myself, despite the heat. My dreams, when I finally slipped back into sleep, are better left undescribed.

The next time I woke up, the sun was shining. I went about my morning rituals and didn’t even remember about the firefly until halfway through my shower, which is when I usually find myself going over whatever I can recall of my dreams. I started chuckling to myself. That one sure had been realistic! But I admit, the whole time I was shaving, my glance kept straying down across the left side of my chest.

That evening, I again sat out on the porch to unwind before going to bed. This was the time of year when the screech owls start trilling pretty regularly; I think that means that their young are just about ready to leave the nest. Only two crickets were calling – nothing like the throbbing chorus we’ll be hearing a month from now. But the number of fireflies seemed to be at an all-time peak.

Listening dreamily to the sounds of the night, mesmerized by the random patterns of flashing yellow lights, I was startled by a sudden flash mere inches from my face. I shooed the firefly away with both hands, but in less than half a minute it was back – just like a damn mosquito! Get away! I yelled, standing up and turning all about, arms waving like blades on a windmill. Then I glimpsed my reflection in the window and stopped short. There was a fuzzy yellow spot in my chest, visible through my t-shirt.

So it hadn’t been a dream! The firefly was still in there, still somehow alive – and blinking out its goddamn Morse code!

I felt like a circus freak: Come See the Human Lighthouse! I went inside and got on the Internet, searching for any reports of similar experiences. I came across several fascinating papers on bioluminescence and the courtship behavior of fireflies. It turns out that we have probably half a dozen different species here, each with its own distinct signal pattern. What I had assumed were individual variations actually reflected distinct genetic differences.

But evidently some considerable range of individual variation must exist, because the evolution of firefly signal patterns appears to be unusually rapid. Females learn to mimic the signals of other species so they can lure in horny, unsuspecting males to ambush and eat while they wait for a proper suitor from their own species. To compete, the females of the other species have to alter their signals in turn. Then members of a third species begin to mimic the new pattern, and are mimicked in turn by another – it was all very complex.

Since it was broadcasting from a stationary position, the firefly in my chest might be a female, I thought. Was it trying to signal for a mate – or a meal?

I combed the medical literature for reports of accidental firefly inhalation, but nothing turned up. I did read plenty of scary articles about the consequences of getting large, particulate matter in the lungs, however. But what could I do? Surgical extraction seemed the only recourse, but I didn’t have any health insurance and didn’t feel like going $20,000 into debt for a stupid firefly. There had to be a better way!

Maybe I could starve it out, I thought. It might fly out on its own. But what if it died in there? If I had something actually decomposing in my lungs, that could be really bad news.

With these kinds of worries flitting around in my head, I spent a mostly sleepless night hatching one plan after another. I finally dozed off an hour or two before dawn and slept in until close to noon, missing an important job interview I had scheduled weeks before.

That evening, as the sun sank low, I found I couldn’t face the thought of another night alone with the goddamn lightning bugs. Besides, I really needed a drink. But I’d have to bundle up if I were going out, and that might look funny if I went to any of my regular haunts – sweltering dives where anything heavier than a t-shirt would attract attention. I needed something air-conditioned, where no one would know me. I looked in the phone book and found a place with a suitably snooty name: Whispers Lounge at the Clareton Hotel. Given proper shoes and slacks, I figured my black turtleneck wouldn’t look too out of place. The fashionable bohemian look. Who knows, I might even get lucky.

So it was that an hour later I found myself with not one, but two women, sitting in a little upholstered booth across from the bar, which we had recently vacated when it began to fill up. My companions, June and Michelle, were here attending an academic conference at the adjacent university: “Ethics, Psychologies and Epistemologies of Possession,” a three-day, multi-disciplinary event with the usual mishmash of the sublime and the ridiculous. This is actually a topic about which I’ve done some reading and thinking on my own, much to the surprise of my companions, who seemed to regard their own attendance and presentations as necessary evils. When I admitted reluctantly that I was an unemployed writer, they insisted on paying for my drinks – “It’s all paid for anyway,” said June, the older and better looking of the two.

After the fourth round of margaritas (not my choice, but whatever), we were all feeling pretty good. June’s casual contacts – touching my hand to emphasize a point, grabbing my arm when I said something funny – became more frequent and lingering, and I noticed her friend flashing her Significant Looks from across the table. I was just beginning to calculate how much longer I would have to act dumb when the power went out.

Oddly enough, everyone remained quite calm. After a couple seconds of surprised silence, we heard the bartender’s voice: “Please just remained seated, folks. I’ve got one flashlight here, and I’ll send the doorman out to look for more. The hotel does have a generator, so we should have the lights back on in half a jiffy!”

Half a jiffy, I thought – what an idiotic phrase. But June wasn’t wasting any time. Her involuntary grip when the lights went out evolved quickly into full side-to-side contact, her right hand rubbing my chest, etc. “You made this happen, didn’t you?” she whispered teasingly in my ear – or perhaps it was me whispering in her ear, I forget.

Suffice it to say that by the time she withdrew her lips and sat up I was feeling pleasantly numb and tingly, like a stunned beef cow. Then I saw it. In the upper right side of her torso, which was now dimly visible in outline. A yellow light glimmering on, glowing brightly for a second, and winking off.

I must’ve stiffened. She fell back against me heavily, wrapped both arms around me perhaps a little more tightly than necessary. “Why won’t the lights come on? I’m getting worried!” “Shhh,” I murmured, “Listen, I have a penlight in my wallet. You have a room here? Let’s go.”

The lights came on before we were halfway there. I’ll spare you the sordid details. June insisted on keeping the bedside lamp burning the whole time – “You have the most dreamy eyes,” she said, but I knew what the problem was. Some time later she pulled away, gasping. “My god, let me breathe! I never met anyone whose kisses were quite so . . . prolonged.”

Hours later I stumbled into the bathroom, pulled the door shut and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Nothing! I stood there for ten minutes, my bare chest a foot away from the mirror, waiting, but still nothing. The firefly was gone!

I eased the door open, crept back into the room and switched off the light. As gently as I could I pulled back the quilt and bent down low over June’s chest.

I must’ve woken her; I heard her breath catch. “Dave – look!” At the far side of the room, just below the ceiling, two pulsing yellow lights bobbed and danced, intricate arabesques forming and dissolving in the darkness.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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