I thought for just a moment tonight that I was hallucinating.
I've been a bachelor now for eleven days. Not permanently, just while Mrs. I took Belle (and Penny, the donkey to our racehorse) to the Borzoi Nationals in Sacramento, CA. I've not had a real meal since she left, have been working far too hard and in general have probably let myself slip pretty badly. In other words, it's been fun.
While she was gone I took on the chicken-keeping duties: mornings I trudge out at dawn, Umquayquay trotting gamely along with me to open the little chicken door within the big people door. I check food and water levels, and when necessary I swap the side of the yard they'll spend the day in. I open up the three big shutters so the fresh air can blow through, and I tromp back to the house for breakfast, Quay following happily along, or roaming ahead of me cheerfully, her whip-thin tail swinging wildly.
In the evenings after I've been home for a little bit I go back out, telling Quay "Come on, let's go do Chickens." She gets excited and we go walking back to the coop. I open the big door, let myself in to carefully gather the eggs, and gather up and toss the broody hen outside so she'll eat something and drink a little. On the way back home I stop at the place where the two extension cords meet and I plug them back together, turning on the little coop light so they can find their way back to the roost, and I head back home with the day's bounty in a tan wicker basket. Some are still warm from lying under feathered breasts, and they're all speckled and different shades of tan.
When darkness has fallen good I go back out for the last time, to close up and latch the shutters and to secure the little door in the big door. I resecure the gate behind me, take one more glance at the feeder and the big water dispenser, and I head back for bed.
Tonight was a little different. Darkness fell fast tonight, the almost-full moon obscured by thick clouds. Light from the airport coloured the cloud bottoms soft pinks and greens, and the moonlight filtered through, giving everything a milky wash. The warm south wind was still blowing softly, promising the heat of summer in just a little while, but not just yet. I could hear the soft cooing and clucking of the birds settling in, and the rustles and clucks as they heard me approach, unlatch the gate, secure their little door and close the gate behind me again. I lowered the shutters, talking to them softly like I always do. "Goodnight, ladies." I don't know why I say it, I just do. Perhaps it calms them, perhaps it calms me. Quay was underfoot as always, trotting around, making sure no raccoon had sidled past her in the dusk.
I'd turned to head back when a tiny flash in the corner of my eye stopped me. I twisted around, looked out across the dark field and the darker treeline on the bayou and saw nothing but light pollution from the airport and the distant lights of porches and garages from the few houses back on the bayou. Then I saw it again. A tiny, fast-moving golden flash, a short Morse Code dash in the dark, then nothing. A lightning bug, blown here by the winds from some other place.
The insecticide the farmers use around here doesn't discriminate, it kills everything small and many-legged, an equal-opportunity slayer. Dragonflies, moths, pests and non-pests alike fall to it's vapors. The lightning bugs seem most susceptible to it's effects, some horrible trick of their genetics. I can't ever remember seeing many around, and as the years have progressed away from my childhood they seem rarer and rarer.
When I was very little I can remember July nights at my grandparent's house in Mississippi, running in the big open side yard, leaping and laughing and catching at what seemed like thousands of them. The light from their numbers was so bright it filled the air with a lambent golden glow, as though someone were holding a sparkler far above our heads and letting the tiny embers fall upon our upturned faces. They poured out of the forest that surrounded the house like elves come to steal away our infant children, their tiny torches blinking and flickering in the darkness. No matter where you looked there were points and dashes and lines of gold light moving, dancing, a faerie ring in the air, a mandala whose shape never held still, whose patterns changed like water. I was always let down to return home to our own dark skies, untouched as it was by the infinitesimal will-o'-the-wisps.
Tonight I saw that tiny flash once, twice, then nothing. Darkness, a soft white haze of moonlight on dark fields and quiet trees then. Warm breeze stirring, and the soft noises of the hens settling in. Quay didn't understand why I was standing there, stock still and not heading back toward the house: I was breaking the routine, this wasn't right. There I stood, like a child who has lost their red balloon, their hand suddenly empty of the thin white string. Heat lightning flickered far away in the clouds, drawing my eye, but no bug could make fire like that. A far-off airplane droned it's winking way across the heavens, making me think for a moment that perhaps it was the firefly, but no, it was mechanically uniform, flashing it's hundred thousand candlepower beam out across the miles between us.
I turned and followed Quay back to the house, wondering if I'd really seen it.