“It’s a massacre,” Jingu’s father said, his voice shaking with anger and sorrow.
He grabbed Jingu by the shoulder, dragging her from where she sat eating breakfast with her sister so that the two of them were out of earshot. His hands were shaking as much as his voice.
“Dead,” he said, “all of them. Not a single conservatory spared.” Then he screwed up his face and fought to hold back tears.
Jingu closed her eyes, too. She could still see them, their fireflies, little green ghosts dancing behind her eyelids. But it was just an illusion. The fireflies were all gone. We’re ruined, her father’s expression told her, even if he himself could not speak the words aloud. Their little farm was finished.
“What’s a massacre?” Jingu’s little sister asked. Jingu didn’t know what to say, but she knew she mustn’t cry.
“It’s nothing, Little Glow Bug, nothing. Finish your toast,” she said with a smile. She knew she couldn’t hide it from her sister for long, but for now, at least, for a moment, she could keep her from the realisation that their conservatories, once so full of light, would now lie dark and indistinguishable from the dusk. “And drink up your glow juice, now, come on. It’s good for you. Listen to Big Sister.”
Jingu picked up the jar lying next to her sister’s plate and shook it vigorously to activate the liquid inside. Slowly, with the languid ease of a dawn that no-one had seen in years, it began to shine, to radiate that peculiar green-golden glow of their fireflies, soaked up in one of their conservatories over several long nights and now re-emitted in all its concentrated glory, a glow that Jingu knew she would never see again.
She popped the cap and handed the jar to her sister, who took it and downed the incandescent contents in one gulp. “There, all gone!” she said with a grin that broke Jingu’s heart. Her sister always smiled after drinking her glow juice. It made people feel good to have light inside them, what with a rusty grey-brown sky forever hanging over their heads and the cost of electric lighting—sterile and malnourished as it was—growing more prohibitive by the day.
She wondered what would happen to them now that their living has been wiped out. Perhaps they, too, would have to move to the lower levels of Greater Taipei, where even those brave rays that did get through the smog seldom penetrated, and where her Little Glow Bug would now be doomed to spend the rest of her days in darkness.
“It was that bastard Old Huang. I know it,” her father said, forgetting, in his temper, to mind his language in front of his daughters. He paced back and forth, running his hands over his face. When he finally stopped pacing, his eyes were bloodshot, and blood was blooming from a scratch on his face that he’d made with the long nail on his right pinky.
Old Huang—he’d been their neighbour for years—a sullen, cantankerous man, true, but a neighbour nonetheless. But now his jars weren’t selling so well—the light of his fireflies, a tawdry monochrome green, lacked lustre—and he must have become desperate; the slopes of their mountain were getting crowded; it was only a matter of time before someone fired the first shot, gave in to the temptation to slash and burn, poison, purge.
Saying nothing more, her father strode to the kitchen. Jingu heard the sound of drawers opening, the clatter of metal. And when he came back he was tucking something into his inner jacket pocket.
“I’ll be back soon,” he said.
“No, Baba! Don’t go!” Jingu said, grabbing his sleeve. But he brushed her off.
“I’ll be back soon,” is all he could say before punching a newly charged battery pack into his scooter and riding off. The plate of turnip cakes she’d made for him steamed on the table top, untouched, soon to turn cold.
Her mother used to say: “Little Jin, your father is a stubborn man, as stubborn as dry rot.” Then she’d shake her head and exhale deeply.
Jingu remembered hanging her head, unsure of how to reply, feeling that she was somehow responsible for her father’s stubbornness. After all, her mother often said that she took after her father. “You Hsiehs are all the same,” she’d say. “Each one more stubborn than the next. Why I married into a family of oxen I don’t know.” But then when Jingu started sniffling her mother immediately softened and said, “Oh, my dear one. Don’t cry. It’s not the worst thing in the world, being stubborn.” Then she pulled her close and held her tenderly. “You know, despite what I say about him, your father, stubborn ass as he is, I know that if we needed him, even if he were dead and buried, the God of Hell himself couldn’t stop his ghost from coming back and doing right by us.”
That was before Jingu’s mother passed away, and, not being as stubborn as dry rot, her ghost stayed where it belonged, in the afterlife, where Jingu was sure she looked over them in her own way.
Jingu saw her mother a lot in Little Glow Bug. She had their mother’s kindness, but also her pride, a pride that was easily hurt.
The sound of her father’s scooter died away. In the vacuum left by the hum of the motor, Jingu suddenly feel entirely helpless, abandoned by everyone except her little sister, who held to her with one hand and wiped chocolate spread from her mouth with the other.
“Let’s go upstairs,” Jingu said to her sister, doing her best to smile. “Let’s go speak to Guanyin.” Together, they climbed to the top floor of the house where they kept a large teakwood altar with a portrait of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, hanging on the wall above. Jingu lit some incense and handed three sticks to her sister. They prayed with the lightly smouldering incense pressed to their foreheads. The smoke, which hung like draped satin in the air, smelled strong and sickly-sweet, of sandalwood and agar, rich but fleeting. Of life, Jingu thought, and death.
“Please let Baba come back safely,” she whispered, screwing up her eyes and wishing with all her heart. “Please, Guanyin Pusa, please.”
They both bowed three times and put the sticks into the urn on the altar. Jingu’s eyes stung with tears, from the incense smoke, she told her sister.
They went downstairs hand in hand and sat in the living room to wait for their father to return.
The front door was still open from when he’d stormed out, and in through the door, scuttling along the floor like a discarded peanut shell, blew the dry lifeless body of a firefly, coming to rest at the feet of Jingu’s sister. She picked up the small weightless body between her fingers and looked open-mouthed at Jingu, before turning her gaze to the courtyard. Her father, too, must have, in his frenzy and rage, forgotten to close the doors of the conservatories that lined the front courtyard, for drifting across the concrete, like dark ships on a moonlit sea, was a scattered fleet of small black corpses.
There was no hiding it any more. “They’re all gone,” her sister said between deep tear-sodden breaths. “All the little lights. All gone.”
Jingu held her sister tightly, trying to squeeze the sight of the dead insects out of her.
“Let’s make a bet,” she said, suddenly. “How long before Baba comes home?”
“I—I—don’t—know,” her sister said between sobs.
Jingu let her sister go and looked at her squarely in the eyes. “I don’t think he’ll be home until after dinnertime,” she said, affecting a tone of big-sister-knows-best. “How about you?”
Her sister’s wet breaths become more abrupt, controlled less and less by grief and more by her. “Be-before l-lunchtime,” she said.
“OK. Then it’s a bet,” Jingu said, holding out her hand. “If Baba’s home before lunchtime, I’ll go and buy you an ice cream from the grocery store down the mountain. And if he’s not back by dinner time, you go buy me one, OK?”
“Oh-Okay,” her sister said, putting her small hand in Jingu’s. The ice cream would be crumbly, freeze-dried, but Jingu knew her sister had never known any other kind.
They shook hands, and her sister’s sobs retreated into sniffles. Jingu was sure that her father would be home soon; if he wasn’t home by lunchtime, something terrible would have happened to him, and that was something she couldn’t bear thinking about.
“We should make the house nice for him for when he gets back, don’t you think?” Jingu said.
Her sister nodded.
“Let’s clean up these bugs.” It stung to say the words, but she couldn’t show sorrow lest it set her sister off again. She took a couple of brooms from the closet and they began to sweep the little husks up into a pile beside the packing shed, where they would be sheltered from the wind.
“What do we do with them now?” her sister asked when the pile was the size of a molehill. She was right, they couldn’t leave them piled up in the courtyard.
“Let’s take them to the bell tower,” she said. “The wind will scatter them across the mountain. That’s a nice way for them to . . . go,” she finished, unable to think of a better euphemism.
“But what about their friends?” her sister said, looking, suddenly concerned, at the open doors of the conservatories, which, now no more than mausoleums, still held hundreds on hundreds of tiny insect corpses. “They should all go together, don’t you think?”
Jingu nodded quietly; it would be a cheerless task, sweeping out the conservatories, but knowing that doing so would save her father the insult of it was, at least, a small comfort.
After the task was done, they scooped the husks into a wheelbarrow and pushed it together through the old orchard and up the hill to the derelict viewing platform that they called the bell tower. A tarnished bronze bell hung there. Their father said it had once belonged to a local temple, long since fallen to ruin. Their grandfather had acquired it and hung it up there, back when the place was still a leisure farm. Guests would pick fruit in the orchard: dragonfruit, mangoes, guava, starfruit, and then climb to the top of the viewing platform and ring the bell, which could be heard all across the mountain top, and, depending on the weather, in several of the villages on the plain.
The bell had lost its clapper long ago, but even if it hadn’t, the villages below had long since been swallowed up by the city, whose tendrils of concrete, steel rods and cables crawled ever closer, flustered, for the moment at least, by the steep mountain slope.
At the foot of the steps, they transferred the fireflies into a bucket and carried them up to the platform. At the end of each journey, they tipped the bodies onto the wooden boards beneath the bell before returning for the rest. In a little while, a breeze kicked up, caught them, and, one by one, like seeds being scattered by a sudden gale, they floated off over the edge of the mountain to rain down between the trees, amongst which their distant ancestors must have flittered and flirted, but which they, having been born and bred in the farm’s conservatories, had never known until now.
Tears came, unbidden, and too quickly this time for Jingu to stifle—she cried out, clutched her chest, as if the brambles of a thornbush growing silently in her veins has just clutched her heart and squeezed it.
Jingu looked down, expecting to see her sister’s face racked with shock and fear. But her sister was laughing, dancing, pointing at the insects aloft once more in the wind. “They’re flying, Big Sister, look! They’re flying! They’re not dead anymore. They’re flying!”
Jingu put her hand on her sister’s shoulder and smiled with eyes brimming: “Yes, my dear one,” she said. “Yes, you’re right.”
Her sister insisted they stay at the bell tower until the last of the fireflies had flown off; she even helped the slower of them into the air by holding them aloft and puffing them into flight.
When they had all taken to the wind, Jingu and her sister walked back to the house. By now, it was almost midday. Their father would surely be home by now, Jingu thought, waiting for them in the living room; he’d probably already reheated some of yesterday’s leftovers and was wolfing them down the way he always did; then he’d get indigestion and become bad tempered and sharp. Jingu didn’t mind, though. As long as he was back, she didn’t mind one bit.
But when they entered the living room, they weren’t greeted by their father’s gruff “You’re back. Where have you been?” Only the uncomfortable silence of an empty house.
She mustn’t see me worried, Jingu thought, so she smiled and asked her sister if she was hungry. Her sister nodded, bobbing her head like one of the bobbleheads their father used to keep on the dashboard of his truck. Keeping a truck was too expensive now, even for them, even with the rise in demand for firefly glow. The thought pinched Jingu; it—harvesting firefly glow—was a world they, as of this morning, no longer belonged to. As of this morning, she imagined there would be many things that they couldn’t afford.
Jingu quickly fried up some scrambled eggs and onions, and some cabbage with garlic, and heated the braised pork that they had left over from last night’s dinner.
But still: “Where’s Baba?” her sister asked, through a mouthful of cabbage and egg.
“He’s not home yet,” Jingu said, trying her best to hide the worry from her voice.
Her sister swallowed her food and put down her chopsticks. Her eyes began to tear up. “So does that mean—I don’t get ice cream?”
“What?” Jingu asked, cursing under her breath. She’d forgotten about their bet entirely.
“You said, if Baba’s not back by lunchtime, I have to buy you an ice cream.”
Jingu shook her head hastily. “I said if he’s not back till after dinner. You didn’t win the bet, but you didn’t lose it yet either.”
“I didn’t lose?”
“No, my love. You didn’t lose. Now be a good girl and finish your food.”
Her sister finished her food, and Jingu let her play games on the tablet for a while. It’d drain the battery, Jingu thought, and it would cost money to recharge, money she knew they could no longer afford to waste on luxuries; but it was worth it to see her sister calm and happy.
As evening approached, however, her sister became more restless. “Baba’s not home,” she said. “Where’s Baba?”
“Don’t worry, Little Sister,” Jingu said. “I’m sure he’ll be back soon. He’s just having tea with Old Huang. He lost track of time is all.”
“I don’t like Old Huang. He’s scary,” her sister replied, her face pursing like a balloon suddenly sucked clean of air.
“He and Baba are old friends,” Jingu said. “There’s nothing to worry about. They’re just catching up; talking about the old days; you know what Baba’s like.”
“But—but why would he do that?” her sister said, suddenly unhappy.
Jingu asked her what she meant.
“Why doesn’t he come home? Now I have to go all the way down the mountain to get you an ice cream. I don’t want to go. It’s far.”
She was still thinking about their stupid bet.
“No, no,” Jingu said. “No. It’s all right.”
“But I promised,” her sister said with a dour determination. “If I don’t keep my promises, bad things will happen. Baba said so.”
Jingu tried to undo the damage: “Oh, my dear one, he didn’t mean—” But her sister was already running out of the house and scrambling down the hill.
Jingu went after her, but she was faster than a ferret-badger.
By the time Jingu got to the door, her sister was already through the front gate, and before Jingu could grab a hold of the scruff of her shirt, she’d veered off the main road and ducked through some bushes onto an old deer path, which snaked down the mountainside through thick tropical forest.
“Come back! Little Sister! Come back!” Jingu shouted after her, but all she got in reply was the rustle of her sister’s small body fighting through the undergrowth; then, nothing.
It was almost dark, the twilight of the day giving way to an inky moonless night. There hadn’t been a visible moon in years, not for as long as Jingu could remember. Up until a few years ago, the city below had given off a lambent pink and green glow until dawn—the light of a thousand thousand lives rebelling against the setting sun—which had, hazy though it was, made the darkness up on the mountain a little less absolute. But no more. Now the night was truly dark.
Jingu followed her sister, as best as she could, slipping on leaf meal and brushing against the hanging roots of weeping figs, the fissured bark of old cypresses. With every step she took, the deer path seemed to retreat from her, like an old friend grown distant and uninterested.
Before long, she was lost. More than lost—the forest, suddenly malevolent, had her trapped.
She sat down, not knowing what to do or which way to go. She shouted for her sister, but only the cicadas answered her with a pulsating drone that Jingu interpreted as at best, indifference, at worst, contempt. She stayed in this state for how long she didn’t know—huddled and helpless. The night should not have been cold, and yet, the forest air felt icy—an ancient, primeval ice that hadn’t felt warmth in millennia. Jingu heard something crashing nearby, and, hoping it was her sister, she shouted for her, but a great grey moth appeared in her stead, and flapped about her head, intent, she was certain, on beating her to death.
Then, through the beating of the moth’s wings, she heard something else: her own name, being shouted, in a deep, urgent voice. Her father.
“Baba!” she shouted. “I’m over here!”
Ashen-faced with worry, her father burst from a clump of bracken and wrapped his arms tightly around Jingu.
“I’ve found you,” he said, breathless. “I went home, but you weren’t there. Only your sister, sitting on the floor, holding two packets of ice cream.” He looked at her with his black, bottomless eyes. “I asked her where you were—she said you must have got lost in the forest, so I came looking right away.”
“How did you find me?” Jingu asked, hugging her father tighter than she’d ever held anything before.
“Can’t you see it?” he said. “The place is full of fireflies. They must have escaped from somewhere. I’ve never seen anything like it. You were the only dark spot in the whole forest.”
Jingu looked up at him again, and he smiled back at her, a stubborn, loving smile.
“The path is over here,” he said, gesturing. “You were so close to it.”
Jingu looked to where he was pointing and saw the path at last, a thin dark tendril snaking upwards to their farm. Then she considered his words for a moment, and said:
“The fireflies—Baba, where are they? I don’t see them.”
But her father wasn’t there, and neither were the fireflies. The forest was as dark as ever, and the only light Jingu knew of was sitting in their living room holding two packets of freeze-dried ice cream that would, like her love, never melt. She went to it—that light—like a moth to a flame. My Little Glow Bug, she said to the darkness, I’m coming.
“Green Ghosts Dancing” © 2017 by Dafydd McKimm. All rights reserved.