"Fireflies" by David Albahari
for Eva Cossee
Serbia, Yugoslavia, literature, fiction, insects
Tuesday, July 10, 2007 20:14 GMT
I met David Albahari at the Festival of the European Short Story in Zagreb in June this year, where he read his wonderful and mysterious story, "Fireflies", which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce here.
David, a Serb of Jewish origin, is one of the leading writers from the former Yugoslavia. He is a writer of novels and short stories, as well as a prolific translator into Serbian. He has said of his writing, "If you understand what is going on inside the family, you will understand what is going on in the world. Patterns repeat themselves, only the scales are different."
The outbreak of hostilities in 1991 forced David to turn to politics. He agreed to chair the Federation of Jewish Communes of Yugoslavia and to help evacuate the Jewish population from Sarajevo. It was a dangerous and distressing role, and one that he eventually could not endure. In 1994 he went with his family to live in Canada. He lives in Calgary, and continues to write in Serbian.
The English translation is by Ellen Elias-Bursać,
When she was a little girl, Eva loved catching fireflies. She would put them in a jar, and then, at night, with the covers pulled up over her head, she would watch how the points of light flew around their limited universe. The fireflies flew into the glass, slid to the bottom of the jar, and Eva felt her eyelids grow heavy. At the last moment, before she drifted off to sleep, she would tuck the jar under her bed, where it waited for her until the next evening. By then, most of the fireflies would have stopped moving, but she would have new ones in a matchbox that still held two matchsticks, and so the cosmos in the jar would come alive again. The flashes of light crumbled like stale bread, scattering every which way. That, wrote Eva in her diary, is kind of the way I imagine the world came into being: as a chaotic disintegration of light and dark. Several days later, she added, in pencil: Without the jar, of course.
And then, one evening, the jar stayed up on the shelf, and the next morning, when she woke up, Eva wrote down, rubbing her sleepy eyes a few times: Yesterday I grew up, and from now on I’m no longer a child. She tipped the fireflies out into the bushes, tossed the jar into the trash, along with the lid, though later it occurred to her that she ought to have saved it and used it for something else. Meanwhile the garbage collectors came by, so when Eva peered into the trash can, there was nothing in it. Too late, Eva thought. She felt a wave of sadness rise in her and for a moment she had to take hold of the edge of the trash can, sure that she’d fall.
She didn’t fall. She kept growing. She had forgotten about the fireflies altogether, though she still liked there to be a light on at night in her bedroom, whether she was alone in the apartment, or there was someone else with her. When asked why, she would tell any number of stories about moments of fear, scary dreams that she had not, in fact, ever dreamed, about how her parents once, without meaning to, had left her alone at home, and about a winter night when a stranger pressed his face up against her window and stared at her for a long time, pressing his lips up against the windowpane. She wanted to scream, call for help, but fear clamped down on her throat and stole her voice, and all she could do was see how his warm breath condensed into droplets, and how the droplets froze into ice.
She thought of the fireflies again for the first time twelve years later. She was sitting on a bench in a park and waiting for a boy who was supposed to take her to the movies. The evening was descending across the sky like a dark sheet spread out from the wash. The boy was late, Eva could see he was when she turned and looked up at the clock on the City Hall, and then, as she moved to look back, she caught sight of a firefly. What she caught sight of, in fact, was the glow of its light, and then, several seconds later, the glow of another firefly, about three-four paces off. Then the first firefly glowed again, the second replied, and then a third chimed in with its glow, then a fourth and fifth, and soon two bushes and the grass around them were glimmering as if they were decked out for Christmas. Eva watched them until she felt her neck ache. She looked up at the clock and realized that the movie had started awhile ago. She did not, however, feel any anger. In fact, she told the girl she was sharing the apartment with, I was happy.
The girl laughed when she heard what had made Eva speak of happiness. Where she was from, the girl said, fireflies were practicallly pests. Before she came to the capital city to study at the university, there were so many fireflies where she used to live that sometimes you couldn’t breathe. Whole fields, the girl said, flashed on and off at once, like some sort of blinking ad. Once, she added, she could see how several bushes were flashing in sequence, one after another, as if the light was moving from the closest bush to the furthest, and then returning, the way news travels when it is sent by smoke signals. When she was little, said the girl, all the children where she was from had boxes in their pockets full of fireflies, and then all the fireflies would vanish, and all of us knew, she said, that the summer was about to end. A stray firefly would survive in our boxes, she said, but their lights went out pretty soon, too, and when they were all gone, that was when school began. Another reason not to like them, said the girl and laughed again.
Eva laughed too, and then she remembered her jar. She remembered the moment when she went to the trash can, lifted the lid and tossed the empty jar into the trash, and then she remembered that other moment, when she had to hold on to the edge of the can so that she wouldn’t fall. Strange, thought Eva, but we grieve the most profoundly for lost absence, for a space no longer inhabited by those we loved. Afterwards she straightened up and told the girl she shared the apartment with that it was all about those we thought we loved, because we can’t love anyone really, except, of course, she said, ourselves. The girl didn’t believe her, you could see that in her suspicious eyes and the shaking of her head. And besides, she had been with the same guy for six years, Eva concluded, so the world already must look to her like a thoroughly studied subject.
In that sense, Eva said to a couple of guys she met at a singles bar, I am an eternal repeater, I’m still in first grade. She laughed, banged her hands on the bar, the guys exchanged glances, turned around and left. I won’t cry, thought Eva, but the tears were already dripping onto her napkin. She brushed them away with her arm, and only then, when she had caught sight of the splotches of color on her skin, did she remember the make-up she had put on a little over a half hour before she went to the bar, paying special attention to glitter on her temples and eyelids. It is not easy to be a firefly, she whispered to the napkin. Then her shoulders began to shake with sobs, and the barman had to call a cab to take her home. He gave her a sack of peanuts for the road, and while she licked the salt from the big nuts and stared at the shimmering neon lights, Eva promised herself that she would go back and start over again. I am turning a new page in my life, she told the cab driver. The cab driver said nothing. I know you don’t believe me, said Eva, but you’ll see I’m serious. Extremely serious, she added. The cab driver started whistling then, but Eva, no matter how hard she tried, couldn’t remember the name of the song.
Many years later, perhaps it was spring, she remembered another song, but that was a song a different man was humming. They met at a bookstore. Eva was leafing through books about insects, and he, when he saw her studying pictures of bugs and butterflies, stopped humming and offered to help. He was an entymologist, he explained, and insects were, in fact, his life. I am interested in fireflies, said Eva. Ah, said the man, fireflies are wonderful, but they don’t have an easy time of it, because there is one female for every fifty males. Are you telling me, said Eva, that they glow so that they’ll find a female? Precisely, said the man, first the male glows, flying low over the grass, then the female glows, who has no wings and is crouching on a grass blade or twig, and after six or seven exchanges of light signals like that, they start to mate, although some females, when the mating is done, devour their lover. I didn’t know that, said Eva. She felt sick to her stomach and her mouth twisted in disgust. The man smiled. In the world of insects this often happens, he said, but the mating doesn’t stop, even if it means loss of life. There are things, Eva said, I will never understand.
The next morning, after she had had her shower, she looked at the reflection of her body in the mirror. If I were a firefly, she wondered, which part of my body would glow? She thought about a yellow-greenish glow in the stomach, then on the forehead and cheeks, and then finally decided on her breast. She put a blouse on, buttoned it up, but the glow shone through the cloth, like little halos. At most, fireflies live a week, said the man, and during that time they do nothing but glow. Then he fell asleep. If I put something else on, Eva consoled herself, the glow will be hidden. She opened the closet, lifted her hand to touch the folded clothing. She thought at that moment of the fireflies that never did find a female in that week, and then no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t remember what it was she was looking for.