I waited patiently for them like an entomologist in the field, knowing full well they’d make an appearance—as they must, in a story called The Woman Lit by Fireflies.
Although my patience was rewarded, my high expectations were not. After all, my standard of excellence is Annie Dillard when it comes to the literary treatment of light. If every word of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek were to mysteriously disappear from every page of every copy of the book save the image of “the tree with the light in it,” Pilgrim, now a mere fragment, would still retain its grandeur. This may or may not be hyperbole.
Not only does light figure prominently in Fireflies, but color and water do, too. Green, in particular. The story is awash in shades of Great Gatsbyan green. The pain of a migraine is a “diffuse green light;” cornfields are “dense walls of green,” and a thicket in the field is a “green hole” or “makeshift cave.”
And Clare, 50, needs all the hope and optimism she can muster.
At a rest stop on HWY 80 in Iowa, Clare escapes her husband of more than 20 years in style. She clambers over a chain-link fence and bolts for freedom, disappearing into a dense green cornfield. Truly a woman after my own heart, Clare carries a compass and a copy of the Tao Te Ching. She even purifies water and makes a cottonwood fire, all in the course of a difficult night, as memories rise before her like ghosts, both spooky and friendly.
As for the greatest of all natural symbols, water is both purified and purifying in Fireflies. Clare slips “down the slick, muddy bank into sluggish, dark brown water.” An accidental baptism. You got to get dirty before you get clean.
But what about lightning bugs? Like I said, their appearance, twice, leaves me largely unmoved, especially when you contrast them with Harrison’s fine use of color and water.
Here’s the first one: “A half dozen fireflies had gathered in the darkness around her green cave, and the tiny beams seemed to trace the convolutions of her thought.”
And the second: “Hundreds of yellow dots were whirling about her and above the rabbit that paused beside the dim coals of the fire…. She prayed for her heart to stop thumping and looked up at the moon, and there were fireflies above her…. The fireflies were thicker in some places above the thicket, blinking off and on, whirling toward each other so if you blurred your eyes there were tracers, yellow lines of light everywhere…. Countless thousands of fireflies stayed just outside and within and above the thicket.”
Both passages are perfectly competent. They’re better than what most journeymen can cobble together. I especially like the rabbit and the “thumping” heart in the second one, as well as “tracers” and “yellow lines of light.”
But a Dillardesque treatment of light it is not.