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The Firefly Artist

Note: it’s a metaphor. I’m not calling for mass firefly imprisonment.

Two hours after dusk, a crowd gathered by the dozens, by the hundreds, to see the firefly artist’s yearly performance. They spread out blankets in the clearing, sharing snacks by the light of flashlights and lanterns, filling the chilly night air with laughter and anticipation.

The firefly artist arrived in a tiny beat-up pickup truck filled with crates, and the crowd flowed apart to let her inch carefully through to the center of the clearing. She parked, glanced at the expectant faces starkly illuminated by her headlights, and took a shaky breath. Then she turned off the truck, opened her door, and stepped outside.

She ignored the crowd’s cheers and applause, flicked on her headlamp, and began to unload the crates and set them down in precise positions, waving away offers of help from nearby crowd members. Once the crates were all in place, she ran her fingers along the top of each one, inspecting the little notches and grooves she’d made to guide her hands, and cleared the nearby ground of twigs and pine cones.

When she was ready, she turned off her headlamp, and darkness rippled out from her as the crowd switched off their own sources of light. It was a new moon, and they were far from the city. The world was dark and growing colder.

For a time, she let them stew in silence. Then she opened a small hatch in one crate and waited.

A few moments later, a single spot of green light danced in the darkness, and whispers shot through the crowd.

She opened another hatch, and soon, two spots of orange blinked briefly, then another green firefly flickered, then another. She opened more hatches, and fireflies began to pour out of the crates into the open air, some soaring above the crowd, others flying low. Sometimes a firefly would light up right next to a crowd member, and half of an amazed expression was visible for an instant. The firefly artist, preoccupied with managing her crates, barely noticed.

Soon, the sky was alive. Fireflies flowed outwards from the firefly artist in a flurry of beauty and color and light. The fireflies danced and flew, blinking in quiet rebellion against the night, and the crowd gazed skyward.

For one glorious minute, they were transfixed. For one minute they witnessed something unexpected and beautiful, something to remember for the rest of their lives.

Then that minute passed, and the fireflies began to disperse. The crowd seemed to hold its breath, and the firefly artist let them dwell in a silence that seemed entirely different from the one before. Finally, as the crowd started to grow restless, she turned her headlamp on and began to load the now-empty crates back into her truck, shooing the last of the fireflies out into the night sky.

Only now, the show complete, did she allow herself to listen as the crowd came back to life. She heard laughter and cheerful farewells and murmurs of awe. A child nearby lamented about how hungry he was. She watched two distant silhouettes exchange a hesitant kiss. She was too exhausted to feel pride or fulfillment, but she watched the crowd now so that she could remember these moments tomorrow and in the days to come.

“Excuse me,” someone in the crowd said, pushing through towards her, “excuse me—Hi! You’re the firefly artist?”

The firefly artist answered with a grunt. Tradition dictated that nobody bother her after the show, but every year, the crowd grew larger and less polite.

“What a night,” the woman said. “You’ve created a truly magical experience, and I have to say, I’m so jealous. So many fireflies—and I heard you collect your own, you don’t breed them or buy them. Is that true?”

“Yes.” The firefly artist hefted a now-empty crate into the bed of her truck.

“Unbelievable,” the woman said. “Just…wow. May I ask where you live?”

The firefly artist paused, confused. “Where I live?”

“Yes! I’d love to visit. It must be like something out of a dream,” the woman gushed. “When I go out at night, I can barely find anything. I could search for hours and only capture a fraction of the fireflies you’ve brought here today. To live somewhere where such beauty is everywhere, where it’s so abundant that an event like this would be worth my while—well, I guess that’s the difference between people like you and the rest of us, isn’t it? Most of us have to fight for every glimmer of color we can find, but then the lucky few get showered with beauty and light and occasionally spare a little for everyone else. Well, I, for one, appreciate it. So, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

If it had been daytime, the woman would’ve seen the darkly amused smirk on the firefly artist’s face, and the bags beneath her eyes. Her home was just down the road, not even two minutes away, yet she was so drained that she planned to pass out in her truck before she made her way back. For the past three weeks, she’d spent her nights roaming these woods with jars and a net, squeezing in naps after dawn so she wouldn’t collapse at work, and she’d let every last firefly loose tonight.

“You’re welcome,” the firefly artist said. “I guess I’m just lucky I’m so different.”