This tale is for Mark Brownrigg
It had been a strange week in this village on top of the Antipolo hills. The days were cool, and night hid itself beneath a thick, blanket of wool.
But I liked this change in the weather, so different from the hot and humid weather before where the sweat stuck on you like a second skin. After dinner of hot chicken tinola, the taste of chicken soup with sliced ginger and pepper leaves still on my tongue, I went to our garden. The fragrance came from the white jasmine called dama de noche, the dame of the night, standing beside our high, steel gate. It seemed to be waiting for a friend.
I walked toward the dama de noche, my head in a daze as I inhaled its fragrance. I felt my body becoming light. It was then that I noticed the three fireflies, like lamps glowing around the small, white flowers.
At the sight of the fireflies, I immediately ran to our kitchen to get an empty glass jar.
Slowly and silently, I tiptoed towards the dama de noche. And there, the fireflies’ tiny bodies blazed around the twigs, flowers, and leaves.
With bated breath, I quickly scooped the three fireflies inside into the jar. One of them managed to escape. But I trapped the two others in the jar. They continued to fly inside the jar, their bodies bumping blindly against the glass. When they got tired, they slowly settled at the bottom of the jar and rested. Immediately, I clamped secured the jar’s mouth with a piece of white cloth, then wound a rubber band around it.
I was humming to myself when I stepped into the house. I put the jar on the low table beside my bed. I suddenly felt tired and drowsy. I decided to go to sleep. I pulled the string of the lampshade and darkness fell in my room. I had assumed that the fireflies would still continue to glow in the dark, but they did not. I wanted them to burn just as brightly in my dark room, as they had burnt brightly outside, in the perfumed garden.
I knocked on the hard, cold, hard glass of the jar, grabbed it and jiggled it this way and that. But still, no more fire came from the insect’s bodies.
Wearily, I dropped off to sleep.
Once upon a time, the young king of Arcadia lost his diamond ring. He loved his ring so very much because it was given to him as a gift by his mother, the queen, when the king was just a child.
The words of the Queen Mother still rang in his ears: “You can only wear this ring after the moment you’ve been crowned as the king.”
His father, the king, died at the age of sixty. Since he was beloved by the people, the whole kingdom grieved at his passing. On everyone’s faces fell a dark veil.
Exactly a month after burying the king, it was the queen’s turn to die. People said she must have missed the king, and she died of sadness. Sharp and bitter were the tears of the prince when he laid his mother to rest. She always had time for him—she had read stories to him when he was very young, and had showed him how love could be possible in this world. On the other hand, the king was always busy with affairs of the state and with slaying the invaders from the arctic North.
Upon laying their eyes on the weeping prince, the whole kingdom realized that, yes, sadness does not spare even those who were blue of blood. To lessen his loneliness, the prince began seeing again a young woman who had been his friend since childhood. She was the baker’s only daughter. For her, the prince still smelled like the fragrance of newly-baked bread. She had a mole on her right cheek, a mole as round as a small coin.
As the days passed by, the prince and the baker’s daughter knew that they were beginning to fall in love. He loved this woman, calm and cool as a river. In turn, she loved him, too, and wanted to save him from his sadness. They knew they needed each other to feel the depth of life.
The kingdom exploded with joy when they were married a week after the prince had become the king.
“The king has married a commoner,” they exclaimed, and yet, nobody complained. Even the gossips shut up and continued looking for lice in each other’s hair.
Now, together, the newly -married couple felt that they could fully savor the color and texture of life. They could hold their love up, like wine held against the light.
Together, they could face life’s gladness and grief. But one month after their wedding, the king lost his ring, the one that the Queen Mother had given to him. He combed the room, the meandering hallway, the great hall. No ring. He asked the palace hands to look for it.
But still, there was no ring. So, one day, the king issued a royal bulletin. It was written in script, tacked on doors and announced in the plazas by the royal barkers: “Anybody who can find the missing diamond ring of the king will have his dreams fulfilled.”
New blood seemed to have been pumped into the kingdom’s veins. Everyone looked high and low for the diamond ring—the rich, who wanted to become richer; the poor, who wanted to have some measure of comfort. Even the birds and the worms, the grasshoppers and the butterflies, looked for the ring.
One day, a firefly crawled towards the king who was sitting on his mauve throne.
“Your highness,” said the firefly with a deep bow. “I have finally found your ring.”
“Where is it, my dear firefly?” asked the king, instantly rising from the soft seat of his throne.
“Please come with me tonight, your highness,” the firefly answered.
It had been a strange week. The days were cool, and the nights hid under a thick blanket of wool.
But the king did not mind the change in weather. In fact, he liked it because the several layers of clothes he always wore made him feel comfortable and warm. That night, he went with the firefly into the garden. They stopped in front of a high, steel gate.
A fragrance floated in the garden, the fragrance of dama de noche. The king seemed to go into a daze as he inhaled the fragrance, his body becoming inexplicably light. He only snapped out of his daze when the firefly spoke.
“Your highness,” it said, “your diamond ring is up there, atop the dama de noche. It fell from your finger one night when you stopped in front of the flowers and inhaled their fragrance. I climbed the dama de noche myself and placed the ring on top, so that no one else could claim to have found it.”
The king looked up. The ring, indeed, was there: a small star amidst the spangle of flowers.
One of the palace hands climbed up the dama de noche and retrieved the ring.
“So, now, pray tell me, what do you want for yourself? What dreams do you want me to fulfill?”
“Just two dreams, your highness. First, I want to have wings of gossamer so that I can fly faster. And second, I wish to have light inside my body.”
The king’s jaw dropped.
The firefly groped for words.
“Please don’t see anything bad in my second wish, your highness. I want to have a lighted glowing body not because I want to compete with the king’s ring, or with the queen’s jeweled crown. I only want a lamp for my body…so I won’t be get lost when I travel inthe dark. You see, your highness, I always visit my friends at night.”
The king’s face lit up. Then he said, “Fine, my dearest firefly. From now on, your two wishes will come true. And from now on, too, all your brothers, sisters, and kith and kin will also have the gift of flight. And your bodies will also glow in the dark.”
“Thank you so much, your highness,” said the firefly. He wanted to kiss the feet of the king or even the hem of his purple robes. But the king forbade him.
“I’m the one who owes you a debt of gratitude for finding the ring that the Queen Mother had given to me. I hope you’ll be happy from now on.”
The moment the king turned his back and began walking to the palace, the firefly felt something growing inside him. It was something fine, like gossamer or gauze, sprouting from the sides of his body. When he looked back, he saw a speck of light beginning to glow on his tail. The warm speck became a body of light, a comet streaking all over him, until the shimmer reached his very face.
He felt warm and buoyant. He felt that he could do anything. So, he flapped one wing, then the other. He did this again and again. Faster and faster. His body slowly lifted from the dead weight of the ground. And he began to fly.
“Now, I can visit my friends even at night!” shouted the firefly as he began to fly in the cold darkness covering the land.
His voice resonated round the garden, jumped over the the walls of the palace, floated over the years, centuries, the different zones of time, until it spilled over into a home ablaze with lights. I woke up with a start. Even though the night was cool, I found my back still soaked with sweat. I tugged the string of the lampshade, and light drenched my room.
Immediately, I rose from my bed and then, I saw the fireflies. They were very still inside the glass jar.
They must be dead! I thought, my heart beating fast. Jar in hand, I stepped out of my room. The whole house was still asleep. Even though I was mortally afraid of being alone in the dark, I stepped out of my room. The glass jar was in my hand, and some inner voice seemed to be telling me to go out. I unlocked the kitchen door in the kitchen.
The chill of the night gave me goose pimples. But the dama de noche was still there, spilling its perfume in the air, waiting for a friend to drink in its fragrance.
I walked towards the small, white flowers. The night was so still. All I could hear was my own breathing.
The moment I stopped in front of the dama de noche, I held the jar tightly. Then I snapped the rubber band and took away the cloth covering the mouth of the jar.
The cold wind crawled inside the jar. I saw the fireflies slowly stirring from their sleep.
Their wings like gossamer or gauze began to move. Soon, specks of light began to glow on their tails. The specks became bodies of light, comets streaking all over them, until the shimmer reached their faces.
I rubbed my knuckles against my eyes. I felt warm and buoyant. I felt I could do anything.
The fireflies slowly floated and left their glass tomb. ”I hope that you’ll see your friends again. I hope that you’ll be happy,” I said to the fireflies as they floated like heartbeats lighting the night air.
In return, the fireflies flapped their wings in a gesture of both farewell and gratitude. Now they could roam the vast world. At last, they were again free.