Fiction by Erin Calabria
Did you know, I begin, though I can’t be sure I’ve reached you: you, hunched over headlines that must be read twice. Morning sun stitching the grey in your hair, frail and fine as threads of spider silk. And maybe if I’d fallen in love with someone else, they would tell me to hush after so many years, but instead, I fell in love with you, and you still turn to let my words drift full into your ear.
Did you know the stuff from a firefly’s lantern will shine in the presence of any living cell?
Of course, the chemistry is a little more complicated than that. But you and I have always tried to give each other the sparkly bits of everything, tiny specks that glint in each of our minds whenever the other breaks a dish, or leaves a window cracked open to the rain, or stacks old photo albums instead of newspapers into the kindling box by the stove.
Someday, they might use that lantern light to test soil from Mars. To search for life.
But it’s too early for you to do much more than nod; the pills you took half an hour ago are still sifting into your blood, so I pour you a little more coffee, top it up with a swirl of cream, and remember how, years ago when we were young, we used to drive before dawn into state forest, deep into dark, cathedral-tall trees, and hike to a lookout tower carved with initials and hearts, this name plus that name forever and ever. At the top, we would point out the places we knew: the liquor store next to the highway with its blinking bulb sign; your grandparents’ church, the steeple thin as a toothpick above the plots they’d purchased in the yard; the farm up on a hill whose barn burnt down one sugaring season, but then you and I and half this valley raised a brand-new frame the very next spring, everyone sore and sunburnt after, planets pricking the velvet dusk as we trained all our headlights towards home.
Those mornings, we would stay for as long as we could at the top of that tower. Breathing in pine and sweet fern. Watching the sun swing up over the rim of the world, the river wind its golden rope through green fading blue before haze blurred it all into sky, into all of the places we never would know. Afterwards, we’d have to hurry back down, rushing to return to our responsibilities, except for once when a crackling in the trees made us stop, and a boulder the size of a windshield bounced down just ahead, cratered onto the path, then kept right on rolling, like it had things to do, places to be. Like we had nothing to do with the rest of that boulder’s day, or millennia for that matter. Which I suppose was true.
But even months later, I used to dream about what would happen if a giant asteroid were about to collide with the Earth. And if we were given the choice to leave on a rocket or stay, how I might choose to go, but you would choose to stay, so I would also stay. There’d be goodbye after goodbye as the ships sailed off. That stone would glower down and down, growing bigger and brighter above us. And maybe, when there was nothing left to be done, all us final earthlings would get special glasses from the government to see the asteroid’s wake—a vacuum blossoming out into space, cascading darkness and stars, and for just a split second before impact, it would be like we’d chosen both leaving and staying at once.
Did you know a firefly only winks towards the end of its life?
And just when I think I’ve been talking to myself all this time, you stir, you look up from your headlines, your coffee, your pill dispenser, and say, Yes, I did. I did know that. And in an instant, you flash back to me: you, here, all here and nowhere else, brief and luminous enough to make me believe at least some endings pulse with light, the way stars dissolve into each day’s edge, or how those fireflies snuff out glow by glow at the tail of every summer.
Which is why I tell you how much I hope that, millions of years from now, someone will search for us. That there will be something of this life left—a few particles huddled against thermal vents, some cells half-asleep inside slivers of ice. And if only they look hard enough, they’ll find us.
They’ll see how we can shine.