Selected for Best Australian Stories 2006
GO DOWN TO the rock pools when the evening tide is out and there is a chance you will see them. Sometimes one will swim in among the mangroves in the tidal flats but the rock pools are best. Flame bugs are what we call them. I do not know if they have other names. I do not know where else they are found but our island. I have never heard them spoken of by anyone who doesn't live here. The north-east wind comes in spring and blows the flame bugs to our shores. One October in boyhood, I took to going down to the rocks alone to look for them.
I never asked the boys to come with me. If I had asked one, the others would have been jealous, not for any particular fondness of me but only at being left out. Also, I was worried they would try to catch and torment the creatures, though they are rarely caught by hand. I thought about how those boys dragged mud crabs out from under rocks with hooks and tried to crack their shells.
The most precious time I went looking for the flame bugs was with the girl we called Shell. We called her Shell as before anyone knew her she was seen collecting shells on the south beach, and because she wore a necklace with a by-the-wind sailor pendant. She belonged to that tribe of children whose European blood naturalises here; whose blonde hair the sun and saltwater turns white and the white skin olive.
One afternoon I saw Shell sitting bored in her front yard and, though I had planned to go alone, I asked her if she wanted to come look for flame bugs and she said that she did.
We left Ooncooncoo Street at twelve years old and six o'clock.
Shell had only recently moved to Moreton Bay, which is so close yet so far apart from the big city. She was lonely and a little intimidated at school. Most of us had grown up together and there were more boys than girls and we boys were very rough unless isolated. First I pitied her. Then I wondered at her: at her way of sitting with her knees beside her; at her speech and her interests that were cultivated and strange to me. I made a habit of noticing her. But I did not know how to introduce myself. This night looking for flame bugs was the first time we had truly spoken. Walking off her street I got the feeling she was excited at the prospect of making a friend, even of me, and that she would have followed me anywhere; far further than the rock pools.
She told me how at her old school she had played the violin but here there was no teacher. Her mother was doing her best in a proper teacher's stead. She told me she liked the island but for that. I told her I knew a girl who played piano, which was true. I told her my mother, being a school teacher, could let us into the community dance hall any time we liked, where there was an assortment of old instruments and the opportunity to nurture a band, which was not true at all. Between fact and fantasy we decided her musical ambitions did not have to end. We arranged public concerts that would never take place.
We walked off the bitumen streets, through a paddock of cattle on saltwater couch, to the Esplanade lined with wooden buildings and drooping streetlights not yet lit. We came to the sand where a more than a dozen tidal pools reflected the twilight arch. The sun sets quickly here and amidst the pools we stood in true twilight.
I wonder if I had hoped we would be left alone, or if that jealousy is mine – the man's rather than the boy's.
No one came on to the beach to disturb our isolation. The ocean was uninhabited but for a lonely mast-light far away.
I gave her my torch. I told her to shine it into the pools and look for the reflective eyes that would indicate the animals. You almost never found them in the tidal pools on the sand and mud and I did not hold any serious hope, only I was hoping to stretch time by putting more movements into it. A thing I knew was possible. She checked every pool on our way toward the headland where my true hope was.
We left our shoes on the sand. Our children's feet found all the footholds in the rock, and a girl of twelve gives up nothing in agility to a boy. Soon we were kneeling by a captured pool, a deep one the sea had only recently left. We did not need the torch now. Its light would not penetrate that depth of water. And anyway, all that was needed was to swirl your hand in it and if the pool held a flame bug it would light like an underwater candle.
She told me she had never seen one. If there was a flame bug there tonight I wanted it to be her find.
She put her arm in past her elbow and stirred the water.
Two came alight. She cried with delight.
"It's a good pool," I said. "We're lucky."
"Yes. We're lucky, all right."
Though she did not know how lucky we were. It was possible to come for days on end and not see one.
"Should we look in the other pools?"
"Stay here," I said.
"Yes," she agreed. "We should stay here where we've been lucky, as long as we can."
I want to say she was beautiful then, when she spoke those transcendent words. It is impossible for a girl of so few years to be truly beautiful, yet I think she must have been as normally I would have gone checking the other pools and left this one that was certain. Instead I wanted to stay where she was pleased.
I told her how flame bugs were rarely seen together like this. How their eggs float on the foam, through the air. At first she did not believe me. I assured her it was true. This was what my father had told me. Perhaps he had been speculating or restating a myth, but nothing I have learnt since has falsified it. Our shores are protected, still the flame bugs seem to have no device for coping with even small waves – no muscular foot like a limpet, nor the ability or inclination to bind themselves into crevices like urchins. They are only ever seen at night. I do not know if they are resistant to high rock temperatures and drying out or if they die when low tide coincides with the heat of day or if instinct tells them when is safe to come close to shore.
The existence of flame bugs seems to have no practical point. Nothing in the pools ever rises to snap at them. Though if they are prey to some furtive thing, their glowing when disturbed can only aid it. They cannot be eaten by humans or used for bait and they die when put in tanks. Flame bugs seem to exist only to carry light.
"Try to catch one," I said.
"I don't want to hurt it."
I laughed, happy in my better knowledge; happier I had the opportunity to share it.
She stirred up their lights then made a grab at one that was at the far side of the
pool by the time she closed her fingers. She tried again and we laughed together.
"It's nearly impossible," I said.
She sighed agreement. They could not be caught.
We sat contentedly watching them for I do not know how long. Their unpredictable movements and light meant there was no possibility of boredom. Children do not possess the accumulated pasts and anticipated futures that dwarf the present – happiness in the moment is complete happiness. Since time no longer pained us it was suspended.
THERE MUST HAVE been a point that night when we decided it was late and we should return. I do not remember the decision. My parents were native islanders and did not care how late I came home, but her family was new to the island's customs and would be worried.
I did not wish it, but I found myself delivering her to her front gate later that night. I stayed, hidden behind a fig tree, to see her father come out and pretend to be angry when he heard her footsteps on the path. He hugged her and took her in.
I was jealous. The night might have lasted forever had we not given up on it.
I never spent another evening with the girl we called Shell. Two years passed and circumstance and my shyness meant we never became the companions we might have. Though, if at any time during those two years I had been asked to choose one of my classmates as a favourite, it would have been her. This would have surprised everyone, though not, I suspect, the girl herself. Childhood relationships may be complex and not require explanation.
Our relationship was locked in that night away from the island's inhabitants, when we found ourselves at a perfect distance from both juvenile dependency and adult sexuality, where love was unthought of, unplanned, immediate and inevitable.
She moved back to the city for tenth grade. The day before she left she came unexpectedly to my house. She told me she did not want to leave the island. She had not told anyone else. She took my hand. It was the second time we had been alone together. Then she left.
Three years later I heard she had been accepted into the city conservatorium for violin. It was two years after that, having rowed back from my launch, my mother asked me if I remembered a girl who used to live on our island and pointed to a photograph in the already-old city newspaper, to a face that was hers, though I had to look twice to be certain. My mother told me she had been killed by a man in a nightclub who had baited her drink. She possessed a beautiful future, the paper said, that had been meaninglessly cut short. Did I remember her? I cannot explain why I lied and said I did not.
I went to the beach after my mother had left me. I looked out at the ocean, at the riding light of a distant boat. I was heartbroken, though I had little right to be. I had not seen the girl in more than five years. I wondered if my love should stop now, as the pessimists would have it, since it became futile with the death of its object.
I have heard it said our souls only live after death if God remembers us. I am frightened of forgetting. This clumsy attempt to write the night of her and the flame bugs is an attempt to redeem a night in time that meant something to me, in this world where not all, and ever less, of our time has meaning. Why do I remember the feeling of that night better than its forms? I cannot be sure all I have written here is factual, though it is – in some inexplicable way – true.
I am still here on the island. I will never leave. Men still fish these waters, but they do not live on the island or build their own boats and they say there is no future in living as I do. I am not concerned with the future. I am a man who most say has done little. But I have already seen more than I understand, and lost much more than I have kept.
The flame bugs are few now. Like all beautiful things, they grow fewer as the world moves degraded through time toward its end.
I walked down the beach to the headland and climbed onto the rocks. I stirred the pool, the same pool ... An unlikely flame bug rose and lit.
I spoke to the creature, to the stars, to eternity, to whatever would hear me. I asked it to remember the lost and inimitable movements of that night that time had passed by.
Should we look in the other pools?
Yes. We should stay here where we've been lucky, as long as we can.
Why can't I keep you?
Deep in the pool a second bug lit and rose up beside the first like a fallen tear of light.