New Leaf

“Lightning bugs,” Nora says. “I forgot you don’t see these up North.”

There seem to be hundreds of them, their flashes coppery and bright.

“Nat, come see,” Elaine calls.

The children run after the glimmering bugs, catch them, cupping their hands gently. “Can we get a jar?” Phoebe asks.

“Sure,” Nora says, before Elaine can try to dissuade. She’s thinking of the teary fuss Phoebe will make if they die or if they must be abandoned, and Elaine certainly doesn’t want to take the jars with them when they head out tomorrow. So much of motherhood is like this–avoidance and prevention and then when that fails, the sopping up of messes.

A jar is retrieved, holes poked into the lid. The neighborhood children disperse, and it’s only the Tates and the Gordons, the parents joining the chase, running and lunging.

“What a night,” Jim says, later when the children are satisfied with their bounty. They sit in the soft grass watching the jars, the adults in folding chairs. “What a night.” The bugs’ flickering is sporadic, brilliant for a moment and then nothing. And then bright again.

“Why do they light up?” Nat asks.

“Is it to see in the dark?” Phoebe suggests.

“It’s probably to attract mates,” Nora says. “Or distract predators.”

“Both useful skills,” Ed says.

The adults laugh and Ed squeezes Nora’s hand.

“Will we have lightning bugs in Missouri too?” Nat wants to know.

“Lightning bugs aplenty,” Jim says, scooping him up and carrying him into bed.


In the morning the fireflies in captivity seem listless, though not yet dead. And perhaps they will revive, who knows? Elaine helps Phoebe and Nat set them free in the garden, while Jim checks the air in the tires. And then they are waving good-bye until the Tates are out of sight.

In her purse, Elaine has a number of recipes written in Nora’s faint scrawl. She will type them up later on index cards and file them in her wooden recipe box, where she will turn to them, trusted staples, for many years. At some point, the families will lose touch in the way that such things happen with a certain kind of friendship. There is no rift or big break, just the dwindling of correspondence, fewer and fewer opportunities to see one another. And then, of course, lives veering off in unexpected or unforeseen ways. When Elaine prepares Nora’s roast chicken or zucchini tart, an apple cobbler made with cardamom–and she will regularly–she will recall the visit to Ohio, the velvety night, her own brimming hopefulness.


The children are torpid after their late night, bleary-eyed and docile in the back seat. Perhaps they will nap.

“Mom?” Phoebe asks.

Elaine turns to the back seat. Phoebe has slept in her braids, and they’re messy, fraying ropes.

“I should’ve brushed your hair,” Elaine says. “You’re a ragamuffin.”

“What’s an open marriage?” Phoebe says.