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Firefly Rising

by Ruthie 2 months ago in humanity · updated 2 months ago
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how to be in the world

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Sarah looked out her window at the water and remembered an afternoon in the bronze heat of the sun, feeling warm and belly-full. She lay on a thin strip of sand between the ocean and the craggy stones that violently rose up around them, and they were laughing. At what, she couldn’t remember, now. “The devil’s symphony,” he loudly intoned, making fun of her shrieks, while doing all he could to induce them. She hadn’t known she could laugh like that, before she met him. She turned away from the window to finish packing. They hadn't talked in years, but she'd tried to get a hold of him last week, after the wave. He hadn't answered.

She had fallen in love with him when as she saw the way a piece of redwood looked in his hands. He would turn it over and rub his fingers over the grain, almost as if he was having a conversation with it. Paul took her out to the forest once, to the top of a mountain where they could see the ocean below. Everything he said sounded like poetry to her, then. Like, “If you listen, you can hear the forest breathing.”

He was a carpenter, a farmer, an off-key singer of Dan Fogelberg songs. She had once seen him shoot two deer with one bullet, the fawn standing unseen behind the mother. He hung them both up. He’d admired her for her dedication and her passion for her work... or at least he had in the beginning. Then, things changed, much like the weather, a joke she continued to make even though she knew he hated it. He wanted her barefoot in the kitchen, focused only on him and them and breakfast. He thought he could understand why she did what she did, when he saw it from afar, or through the hazy smoke of the bar where they met. But when it came close - when it came to being gone more often than she could be there - he didn’t get it.

They always went out to the barn to really fight, to have the one that mattered. It was as if their feelings were too big for anyplace inside. She would find him there, tiny specks of wood dust floating upwards in the light like the cottonwoods in July. The last time, she’d stood outside and listened to the soft shuffle of his boots on the floor that looked like earth. The years of dirt and waste and grime had been shined into a soft brown patina on top of the hand-formed floorboards.

They wouldn’t make it past this one, she knew. It was a felt sense that came from deep inside her, that she couldn’t find words for. Everything else - meaning mostly her work and his indifference - they’d already fought enough about those things. She closed her eyes and placed both of her palms against the rough shingles of the barn. After a moment, one that contained all of his pain at the broken anticipation of things she knew she would never be, she pushed off the wall and walked back down to the house.


Ruth listened for the hum of the orchard cicadas as she settled into a chair on the porch. She was ready for the trip tomorrow, as best she could be. There was nothing else to do now except wait for the passing of time, until it was time to go.

Her sister would follow them in a few days. It was summer, and Isaac always spent the last week before his daycare began again for the fall with Ruth. She had taken Isaac away before sometimes when things were bad, when bottles and hearts were being broken. His father wouldn’t expect any contact from them for at least a week. By the time he figured it out, they would all be on their way east. He could look for them, but he wouldn’t find them.

She watched as the sun set over the islands to the west, and swatted at a mosquito that hummed around her face. She was a little older than Isaac when she'd had those frog holler nights with her father. He'd started taking her down to the ponds, where the frogs would make a kind of symphony of sound that carried all the way down the valley, all the way to this porch, and the fireflies would rise blinking out of the earth as the sun set.

They walked down without headlamps, moving slowly by the dim light that broke through the clouds above them. They carried chairs out in between two of the shallowest ponds, that had been built for migrating birds. They sat without speaking, and after a few minutes, all of the creatures adjusted to their presence and forgot them. The midnight sounds became so loud, overpowering and overwhelming. There were big daddy bullfrogs making noises that her heart followed, until she could feel her own blood pounding in her ears to the rhythm they created. Smaller ones, a different species, cried out in higher, piercing echoes that hurt her ears.

She hadn’t seen the firefly rising or heard the frogs, not like that, in years. She looked out at this last, perfect sunset over the water, and then closed her eyes and listened for something else in the night air that her heartbeat could follow.

It was so quiet now. It made it easier to leave, somehow.


Gabriel turned the handle to his children’s bedroom slowly, closing it with the silent prayer every parent says in that moment. He walked the distance down the hallway to the living room with soft and padding feet. His wife was sitting on the couch, in silence and a full and determined stillness. He sat down beside her and reached for her hand, trying to bridge the distance that was between them and the one that would come. It hadn’t always been like this. When they’d first arrived, he had been on the short, local routes. He’d been home for dinner, for basketball games, for salted ice cream trips in the afternoons. Things had been good, once they got to California, and they’d allowed themselves to dream that they would only get better.

He rubbed his thumb over the knuckles on his wife’s hands, not saying anything, yet. There was too much and not enough to say in this moment, and nothing would be the right thing to say, not now. There had been four waves so far this year, and two of them had taken out coastal routes. He wanted to say that things were safer to the north… but he’d said the same exact words years ago, and now they were north and he was headed further north, and he couldn’t bring himself to say it again. He brought her hand up to his cheek, breathed in deeply and tried to fix the smell of her and masa in his mind, and said, quietly, “I’ll be back soon. I always come back. Don’t worry. It’s only a week, and most of that I’ll be out past the mountains.”

He was on an early train in the morning, where he’d do a few short routes for a few days, and then take the 901 eastbound from Vancouver to Winnipeg. He gathered himself up off the couch, and walked down to the other door, to hear the soft breathing sounds of his parents asleep in the back room. He put one hand on the wall, and remembered when the walls around them were clay colored and rough underneath his hands. He had journeyed, several times now. The first time, he had been too young to understand, and only remembered that they walked and walked and walked. Then, he was older and married, and knew that walking might be the only thing that could save his family. And now, he was going north again, for the same old reasons. For the same old hope, that wouldn't quit. He listened to the whistle of his parents snoring, and then continued down the hallway to the last, smallest, bedroom, where he would try and sleep for the next few hours.


The little boy shifted his weight in the wide, blue patterned seat and rolled his head off of her shoulder once, then again. He tried to open his eyes, and yawned and pushed wispy blonde curls across his forehead with a small and tight fist. His eyelids lolled lazily up and down, as he tried to open them. He didn’t know where he was. He only knew that there was a large window beside him that was letting in too much light.

“Shh, shh, hey honey, it’s okay,” Ruth said, as she played with the hair falling down into his eyes. “Remember we were going on a train today, I told you all about it this morning.. Do you remember, honey?” she asked in that low, sing-song tone, that his body knew and instinctually recognized. Isaac softened back into her shoulder, even though he didn’t remember getting on the train or even really understand any of her words yet. Just her voice was enough, for now. He was almost four, and she probably shouldn’t have let him keep sleeping, but she had opted for the convenience of his unconsciousness over a potential tantrum that might make them miss their train.

“We’re riding through the forest, now, see? I told you we would be going through a lot of trees, and past a river, and maybe through some mountains, too. Do you want to see a mountain?” Ruth said, using the same quiet voice. It always helped him come around back to consciousness without too much of a scene, the way kids can sometimes make when they wake up someplace unfamiliar, or with someone unexpected.

She realized, though, a second too late, that she had asked a question - much too soon, before he was really awake enough to consider the options or figure out how he wanted to answer it. It’s dangerous to ask a child a question or give them too many choices, too soon. She saw his small features scrunch and his eyes stayed glued on the window, and then the inevitable pools of tears of confusion began to spill from his eyes, and his voice got high.

“But.. but… where are we, Mama?” Isaac asked in such a desperate voice she had to try not to laugh, tried to just keep things real level. He didn’t call her Mama that much anymore. When he was younger, he used to tell people that he had two mamas. As he’d gotten older, and realized that she had a name that other people called her - Ruth - more often now he called her “Roof,” rather than “Mama.” She wasn’t sure how many more times she would hear him say it, and she wanted to remember every time. He would be the only one to ever call her that. She hadn’t ever let herself fully look at it, the circumstance of that word coming out of the mouth of a child, and she wouldn’t now. But she could cherish it, just for right now, when they were alone.

“Well,” she said calmly, “We just left home this morning, and we’re going to see Mimi and Papa, but we haven’t gone very far yet. But soon we’re going to go through some really, really big fields, where you’ll be able to see so far away, and then, we’ll be there.”

Isaac brightened faintly at the mention of his grandparents, warm memories and smells flooding his brain and making him forget, briefly, the unfamiliar sounds and movement of the train.

“Will there be salalamanders-” he began, just as the attendant moved down the aisle toward them. Ruth took out her ID and ticket, holding her breath as he scanned them. Her sister had never taken her husband’s name, so she and Isaac shared a last name if it came to that, but the attendant didn’t even ask for his ID. He handed her back her documents. “He’s only three,” she explained rapidly and softly, hoping Isaac wouldn’t hear the lie and protest, “so he doesn’t have a ticket, and he can sit in my lap, but..” she motioned to the empty seats around them. The attendant just smiled and said, “No, of course, it's not a problem.”

He moved to continue down the aisle, but Ruth put her hand gently on his arm. “There won’t be any stops, not until we get to Winnipeg, is that right?” she asked softly, again, and the attendant registered the breathless quality to her voice. He said evenly, “That’s correct, m’am,” and smiled again at the little boy. Isaac's cheeks were still flushed with the anticipation of finding salamanders in the creek with his grandfather. His eyes moved back to Ruth’s, and he nodded in a small gesture, and moved toward the next passenger.

Ruth let out her breath and turned back to the boy.

“Yes, I think there’s going to be a lot of salamanders, and frogs, and maybe even a snake, at Mimi and Papa’s new house, “ she whispered to Isaac, as if she was sharing a secret. He loved secrets. They had a game, where they would whisper nonsense words and whistling sounds into one another’s ears - “secrets”- and then he would shriek with laughter when she stopped.

She looked away for a moment. There wouldn’t be any frogs at her parents’ house. The desperate attempts to grow one more grain of wheat, from what had once been golden fields that stretched to the horizon and fed the world, had made sure of that. They had disappeared so quickly that Isaac still remembered their cool and slippery skin, the surprise and delight of turning over rocks in the creek and finding a salamander underneath. But he probably wouldn’t remember much longer, as he got older. Maybe that was a good thing.


Sarah held up her ticket without looking, gripping a pencil tightly between her teeth and shuffling through the papers in the seat beside her. She heard a voice that sounded far away, and as her vision and hearing focused, she realized she’d forgotten to include her ID. She fumbled in her bag, the computer in her lap almost sliding off onto the floor, and snapped out her ID. The attendant continued to smile in a patient manner, scanned them, and then handed them back to her. Sarah tucked them into her bag and mumbled a quick “Thank you,” as she took the pencil out of her mouth.

She just needed to figure out why her model didn’t line up with what she had seen last week on the coast, when the wave hit. It wasn’t quite a tsunami, and no one wanted to say that word yet anyway, so they just said, “wave.” The rhythm and white noise of the train was helping her concentrate. She heard the faintest click then, and the rhythm changed slightly. Had they started speeding up? She looked around at the other passengers, but no one else seemed to have noticed. They were almost through the mountains, so maybe they were just going downhill. She brought her focus back down to her computer. The simulation was done.

While the last wave had been relatively small, it had come up out of nowhere, out of a small low pressure system moving through the area that no one had even thought to pay attention to. Now a few dozen people were dead. Sarah had heard that there were still people trapped in some of the lower valleys, but with the roads blocked and most channels of communication down it was hard to know.

Usually they had more warning. The model she’d built had been working well enough the last 8 years or so, giving plenty of warning when high tides were expected on an incoming storm. That was usually when the waves came. Sarah suspected the ocean temperature had passed a tipping point recently, one that wasn’t expected so soon at their latitude. She was headed east to Winni to meet with a colleague who had helped her build the model. The ocean was doing things now they didn't understand. Now, it was all about predicting unpredictability.

She felt a thought tickling in the back of her mind, something about the people and the valleys. Paul. Of course. She wished she'd tried harder to reach him, and her face changed shape slightly. She glanced down the train at the woman with the little blonde boy sitting across the aisle. She had helped the woman with her luggage when they came on, as her son was slumped over her shoulder. They had sat down in the big, wide sleeper seats, and she'd watched the woman’s face soften and relax as his weight settled into her lap, his head just underneath hers. She would occasionally rest her chin on the top of his head, tilting her head for a different angle out the window. She was facing forward, seeing the landscape they were headed towards. Sarah always found it too distracting to face forward, and this struck her as phenomenally funny at the moment. The woman had eventually become at ease, maybe even content, as the boy slept on. Sarah thought she had looked content, at least. She wasn’t sure she’d recognize the feeling.


Gabriel smoothed down the dark navy blazer of his uniform and stepped from the first car into the vestibule between the second. He felt for the scanner in his right pocket, gripping it tightly in anticipation of when the scanner would blink red instead of green, and he would have to escort a passenger to the waiting area in the first car.

He knew what it was like to be turned away from safety and comfort, from shelter. He'd made a similar journey once, almost ten years ago now, carrying his daughter and holding his son’s small hand as they walked through a heat that seeped into their flesh and bones until they were walking flames. It felt like they were suffocating alive, moving across the Great Western Desert. They traded pain for one more step. To just get a little further north.

Undocumented passengers were more common this year, as the trains filled up with people moving eastward towards the interior. It was too easy to cross the border - people braved the cold, snow filled trails through the mountains just as they had the simmering blood orange heat of the desert. Or, they took a boat from the coast of Washington, and hoped they would land before they went too far north.

There was a collective ache that could be felt between the people waiting, who didn’t know where they would be sent when they stepped off the train. Gabriel pulled his phone out and glanced at it. He still hadn’t heard from his parents. He hadn’t wanted to take this last shift without talking with them. But life, astonishingly it seemed sometimes, hadn’t stopped because of the wave a few days ago. People were getting used to them now, it almost seemed.

He paused for another moment between the cars. He pressed a few buttons on his phone and held it up to his ear. It went straight to voicemail, again. His parents and his wife were probably fine. There was a blackout. They were probably helping the neighbors, or down at the church, and just couldn’t charge their phones. He briefly remembered what life was like before marriage, and children. He couldn’t have imagined the weight of worry he now carried, and if he could have, he would not have believed he could survive it. That anyone could. And yet, they all did, somehow.

They were probably fine, he told himself again, as he put his phone back in his pocket and opened the door to the next car. He tripped just a bit on the door frame as the train jolted forward, almost imperceptibly, and gained a kilometer of speed. He didn’t even notice, and slid closed the door behind him.


John stared out at the silver rails ahead of him, two thin lines glistening with the remnants of the morning rain. It had been longer and harder than usual today, and there were small pools ahead like coins on the path forward through the forest. He’d only done this route a few times. He had been transferred from the Rocky Mountain Route, which had been shut down a few weeks before, after a landslide took out a mile of track on the west side of Denver.

They’d abandoned the line after that. There weren’t enough riders to justify rebuilding. The prairie was creeping further and further west, especially the last few years, and the rain that did come came too fast and too hard. The mountain tracks couldn’t handle it, especially after the drought killed so many of the trees that some slopes were left almost bare. No one had come up with a plan for how to deal with water that poured out of the sky that violently. Like God’s own tears, John thought, sometimes.

They re-routed everything to the north onto the Canadian tracks, which were still in good condition. For the most part. The mountains protected the interior land from the ocean. John concentrated on the map in front of him, as he calculated how much he would need to slow down as they approached and climbed through the mountains of the Northern Rockies. It was routine, and the computer could do most of it, but he liked to do it by hand, too. When he first started running trains it took all of his focus and concentration to make his line the fastest, and the safest. How much could he push a pitch, how fast could he take a curve - it was a conversation between the steel hull of the train, the landscape, and the track. As well as the rain, or ice, or snow, or heat. Every day was different, and he would put his hand on the lever in front of him and try to feel what the rail felt that day.

When his girls were young, and he was on the local line, they would ride with him up front sometimes, on a Saturday or Sunday. Their little hands couldn’t even fit around the levers, much less have the strength to move them, so they roamed free to play with all the turnout signals and switches. They just had to stay away from the buttons, they knew. John looked down at the control panel and focused on the speedometer for a moment. Had they picked up some speed? He might need new glasses, he thought wryly. The needle read the right speed, but the vibration of the train coming through the turnout signal felt.. off. That was all he could describe it as.

John made a mental note to keep an eye on it, and then ran his finger over the rabbit’s foot on his keychain on the console beside the speedometer. It had faded down to almost nothing now, the bones visible through the thin layer of fur. The girls gave it to him before his first long trip. They were so sure of its power. He had to show it to them when he returned, and give it back for safekeeping. The next time he left, in a solemn ceremony, they would exchange it again, and watch as he tucked it into his suitcase. His chest suddenly and faintly ached, as he felt the sweetness of their faith in the little token. His next breath caught, with the longing that he could have given them something that would keep them safe, always.

It had been a long time since he had felt that desperate urge to protect them. It had been almost unbearable at first, when they first came and he was astonished to discover how soft their skin was, and how unsteady their balance. The long haul trips always made him think of the girls.. or maybe they gave him time to. They were grown now, of course, with kids and lives of their own. They talked when they could, and John stopped by when he was near and saw the grands. There was a comfort to knowing that they would be there, or at least somewhere, for the rest of his life. It was a false comfort, he knew intellectually, and one that could be shattered any moment. But there wasn’t really anything else to hold onto, was there?

All at once, the train surged forward, more noticeably this time. There was something wrong, John thought. With one hand he reached for the control panel schematic from the small shelf beside him, and with the other, he called the attendants.


After a few weeks, the railroad put out a statement that blamed the accident on “a combination of human and mechanical error.” The black box, like the ones they had on airplanes, had captured the progressive series of failures that led to the crash. It also captured the conductor’s attempts to slow down and stop the train, and to override the locking mechanism on the doors. Not many people heard those parts of the recording.

There was much discussion about the wiring system and its susceptibility to extreme heat. It might have even been damaged by the wave - the engine had been in short-term storage outside the terminal when the wave hit, and the saltwater flood had certainly reached the undercarriage. At the time, they thought they were lucky that it hadn’t made it into the cars. Either one of those circumstances could have “injured the connections to the brake pipes,” the official report said. They still hadn’t figured out why the train had started to pick up speed, but it wasn’t necessarily a mystery they had to solve. If the brakes weren’t working, isn’t that all that anyone really needed to know? The black box recordings were never shared.


Around 3:00 pm, John had called for Gabriel and the other attendant. As they made their way back into the passenger cars, Gabriel tried to reach his family again. Then, he decided to stop trying. His wife might not be the one who answered her phone, and he might not want to know that, now. He sent her and his parents the same, simple, text: “I love you. Tell the children, they have all of my heart,” and he started slowly making his way through the cars again, trying to keep people calm. He was headed back to the first car, where he would sit with the two young men and the small family that he’d escorted there earlier. There, they would all wait together, again.


At 5:00 pm, John made the announcement, choosing his words carefully. The children on board didn’t need to know.

Shortly after, Sarah noticed that they moved off the main line and onto a track that was obviously older, and not in regular use. It turned them slightly northward. They had to be going close to 200 km an hour by now. She closed her computer, pushed the papers into her bag, and moved across the aisle to a seat that faced forward. She wanted to enjoy the view for a little bit. She felt the strangest sort of relief, actually. She didn’t have to worry anymore. There would be no more midnight dreams of waves, each one bigger and bigger. No more crushing sense of responsibility for the path and the things she had chosen, and those she had not.


Ruth listened to the announcement, until the conductor’s voice faded from her consciousness and she focused on Isaac, who was bouncing toys off the table and her leg and arm. He was playing out a great drama of an afternoon adventure between dinosaur friends. She had been as astonished as anyone to learn she could love someone so fiercely. Her mother had always maintained that she- Ruth - didn’t like children. She tried to remember when her mother had first said that, or when she had started believing her.

But then, Isaac came. She’d held him as he cried, over and over again, until sometimes they were both crying, as they tried, together, to figure out how to be in the world. Once, soon after he started walking, he was wandering around in the yard and he toddered over to a rotting log by the big oak tree. She glanced over and saw the little yellow flashes racing out of their nest and beginning to hover around him. She had started running before she even realized it, racing to get to him, to protect him.

They were just wasps, she thought now, laughing softly as she moved to the seat across from him. This is how she would use her body now, she thought, and it wasn’t enough, but it was all she could do. She pulled him into her lap and held him, not too tightly, and then she leaned down in his ear, and said, “Do you want to know a secret?”


About the author


Singer in storms.

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