Twinkle division: “I Love Lucy [the Elephant] Memory Contest”
It’s time for candy canes and twinkle lights.
And if you’re feeling a bit chilly, the recollection below of a summer childhood will warm your heart and soul. Fireflies are the twinkle lights of the summertime. (If you missed the other stories in the Lucy [the Elephant] Memory Contest, you can start catching up here.)
The Fall of the Summer King
by Paul Nettles
Once upon a time.
But this isn’t a fairy tale. This is real life. This all happened in a real place, to a real little boy who was not the handsomest of all, was not a prince, not even a squire, and he didn’t have companions with fey powers that were perfectly suited to his need to win the fair princess’ hand.
No one ever gave him three tasks, each harder than the last, in order to win unimaginable riches.
He did have a kingdom he could visit, though. Not a kingdom with a king who wore a gold crown, but a king who wore a black felt fedora, and old, faded slacks and button-down white cotton shirts. His queen wasn’t the most beautiful woman in the world, but she ruled her kingdom with a strong and fair hand alongside the king, whom she loved very much. Together they raised four boys who were kings in their own right, kings without titles or fiefs who rode out in the mornings with the dogs and hunted all day, then came home at night and brought wild game they had caught, and together they prayed and sang songs with the king and queen.
Those young men grew up into men, and claimed lands and took what power was in their hearts to hold. They had children, boys and girls of their own. None of the children were cursed by witches who weren’t invited to the christening. None of them were locked in tall towers and forced to spin hay into gold, nor were they in any way involved with magic kettles, frogs down wells or ogres who lived in castles placed conveniently right up the road.
Not that I know of.
I do know about one little boy, however. A son of one of the four young kings. He loved the kingdom with all his heart. It was far, far away from his own home, and it was magical in its own way, heavy with age and memory and subtle differences. It had pecan trees like his own home but these were old, and the nuts were shaped differently. It had pine trees like his own home, but the ones in the kingdom were taller, so much thicker, and girt the kingdom like a fortress wall. His mind peopled the forest wall with giants and rocs and serpents of immense size, but those were just the imaginings of a young, impressionable, fantasy-prone young boy. There were no giants and no rocs and the serpents that lived in the lake and the little tiny pond were of the regular variety. The kingdom had creeks, beautiful clear running streams that leaped and burbled over stones like they could speak, and all the prince had at his home was bayous, which were brown and muddy and smelled like rotten mud and dead fish.
The kingdom had something that the little boy’s home didn’t have, however. It had fireflies. At the little boy’s home were huge rocs, giant metal flying creatures that sprayed mists from their wings over the crops belonging to other kings, and those mists killed most of the little flying bugs that populated the air, so when summer came, hot and cloying and the prince went outside in the dark of night there were just the usual noises of giants rolling over in their sleep and huge feral wolves prowling at the edge of the porch light and the soft wet hop and plop of toad frogs in the grass. But no fireflies.
The kingdom had fireflies in the warmth of summer, though. The kingdom, ruled over by the kind and gentle king, whom the little boy loved with all his heart, loved with the blind and unquestioning love of someone who has never had his heart broken, never been hurt. The kingdom whose air smelled different, whose bayous were clear and bright and burbled and almost spoke aloud, the kingdom whose tree-girt walls made it the safest, most pure place ever, had fireflies.
They moved in the air like faeries dancing in the dusk, gyreing and gimbaling to a music that we kids couldn’t quite hear. They filed out of the forest walls by the hundreds, each drawn to the wide open spaces of carefully groomed lawn, there to dance for the sheer pleasure of being alive. And when the old king would sit on the front porch in his swing and push himself slowly back and forth, and dispense quiet, calm wisdom to his sons and their wives, the princes and princesses would leap and caper off the wide grey porch into the huge green expanse and dance with the faeries.
Those nights would never end, it seemed. If you were a very careful prince or princess with a very clear, very innocent heart you could track the on-again, off-again flashes of the fireflies, track them the way a hunter tracks his prey by where it has been, postulating where it will be, and you could cup your hands around a tiny black speck and suddenly you held in your hand the most magical of all things: a tiny speck of life whose sole power enabled it to make light at will. Looking down at this tiny piece of magic in your hands your face would be limned with that yellow-green fire that didn’t burn, didn’t consume, simply existed, simple Was.
Those nights, those endless summer nights, parceled out like chartreuse pearls strung on a black wire. We knew they’d last forever. But they didn’t. They never do. One day the king faltered, grew weak, and died. The prince had to put aside chasing the faeries for a time to carry the king’s coffin, the first time he had to assume the mantle of Manhood. After that the kingdom felt empty, the gentle absence of its king manifest in his empty throne, in the lack of his voice carrying out softly across the faeiry-dappled night.
Nights still passed when the fireflies would dance and the heart of the prince would stir, and he would leap off the porch and chase and plot trajectories in the dark with his eyes and hands, but always, in the back of his mind, something was missing. The ogre had closed up his castle and moved to a nice bridge in county Cork. The rocs had taken wing, leaving behind the remains of nests made of tree trunks and boulders. The stalking wolves had shrunk to the size and shape of foxes and racoons, and trundled in the dark reaches away from prying eyes. The king no longer sat on his throne, and the kingdom would never feel quite the same way again. Only the faeries remain, with their cold green light, stitching unread messages across the night.