Tilting At Windmills: Night Of The Fireflies
Published: July 14th, 2023
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: Night of the Fireflies

If you are lucky enough to have a front porch where you can plop down on a chair after a hard day’s work, you might also be lucky enough to have a neighbor who decides to join you for a cold glass of lemonade. That’s what happened yesterday when Teri came over and took the wicker chair opposite mine.

Most of our tête-à-tête revolved around Teri’s grandchildren, her visit to the botanical garden, and whether or not dogs should always be kept on leashes.

We paused for a few minutes when a man we recognized entered our peripheral vision. As always, he walked unhurriedly and with a slight limp, looking neither to his left nor to his right, but staring down at the screen of his cell phone. He had been doing this for years.

Over time, and because I am nosy, I had learned from him that his name was James, that he lived five blocks east of us, and that he had several fruit trees in his yard, which annually produced an enormous amount of pears.

Teri told me that more than once, she had seen James walking as far away as the Catholic cemetery, a mile from our block. And when we’d been weeding, planting, or pruning in our front yards, we had both noticed that he would saunter down the middle of the street (we have virtually no traffic) sometimes as often as four times a day.

I’d called out to him, “Hi, James. How are the pear trees doing?”

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He glanced up from his phone. “I have one pear so far.”

“Well, when there are more of them, I want a bushel!”

James spared me a tolerant half-smile, returned his attention to his phone, and continued to walk slowly but purposefully past my house.

Although Teri seemed to accept our wandering limper at face value, as if he were anyone who liked to take long walks, I could never be satisfied with such a plain brown wrapper explanation.

“He’s a retired assassin,” I speculated. “He used to be a hit man for the CIA. He was wounded during a clandestine operation to rescue evangelical nuns from terrorists, and after that he was forced to retire.”

Teri raised an eyebrow. I continued.

“James was told he would never walk again, but by dint of sheer perseverance, he regained his mobility. Now, as a form of therapy, he walks 20 miles a day.”

“What about his cell phone?” Teri asked.

“It isn’t a cell phone, but a heart monitor. Or a pedometer.” I paused for a second, and then added recklessly. “Or more probably, it’s an itsy-bitsy television screen, and he’s watching old episodes of I Love Lucy.”

After James had continued out of our line of sight, I glanced at the houses across from me and began to wonder aloud if the yards on my side of the street were as big as the ones where Teri lived. So, she took out her cell phone and searched a real estate site for property specifications, by which time, the sun was – what’s that naval expression? – over the yardarm.

For about five minutes, neither of us said a word, content to sip lemonade, watch the sky darkening, enjoy the intoxicating scent of stargazer lilies, and listen to the muted twitter of invisible birds.

It grew darker and darker.

Unexpectedly, as if awakening from a stupor, I blurted out, “Where are the fireflies?”

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Teri leaned forward. “You’re right,” she said. “Where are they?”

I peered into my rose garden, studied the leafy branches of my crepe myrtle trees, and scrutinized the air surrounding my huge fronds of hosta. Nothing.

“Shouldn’t they be here by now?” I asked.

Teri nodded. “They usually are.”

We exchanged a grief-stricken glance.

“What if...?” I said softly.

“Oh, no. It doesn’t bear thinking about!”

We fell silent. For long seconds. For long minutes. Then I said with tentative horror, “Maybe fireflies have gone extinct. Like dinosaurs.”

“Or buffalos.”

“Saber-toothed tigers.”

“Passenger pigeons.”

“Woolly mammoths.”

Again, we fell silent, this time, as if in mourning. The silence lasted for an eternity. Suddenly, to the left of the path leading to my porch, I saw a tiny light. It flashed for half-a-second, did a zig that didn’t last long enough to zag, and flashed off.

“Teri,” I whispered. “I think I just saw one.”


“Over there.”

We stared toward a magical oasis between my roses. Then ... “There!” I uttered, pointing to a brief, brilliant flash of light 15 feet away.

Another. Another. And another.

“Phew,” I signed, audibly relieved. “For a while there, I believed we had lost them.” I shook my head, mortified. “That would have been....”

Terry nodded at my unfinished thought. But I finished it anyway.

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“...like the world ending.”

“Like Pinocchio never turning into a real boy.”

“Like Tinker Bell dying.”

Yet again we fell silent. Mesmerized by the reappearance of the fireflies. We followed them with our eyes for about 20 minutes. Then we heard a soft shuffle of footsteps, looked up, and saw James staring down at his cell phone as, once again, he walked steadily down the middle of the street. But this time I did not call out.

Teri stood. “I have to feed my husband,” she said. “Thanks for the lemonade. Good night.”

“See you outside tomorrow,” I responded.

Then I burrowed into the cushions of my wicker chair and thought how sweet it was to have nice neighbors on my street, a retired assassin who limped and grew pears, a garden filled with fireflies, and a porch that could have been imagined by Norman Rockwell – back in the days when life seemed simpler – on which to sit and watch the world go by.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com