My older sister claims she remembers Grandad before he turned into a firefly and went north into the woods. She says she’s smarter, braids her hair. On most days, the braids are all she can show, honey-colored, long and easily pulled. Still, I defend her when schoolboys try. Talia will only tolerate me teasing her anyhow. If a boy got hold of her braids for real, she’d wallop him so hard he’d fly high over the mill’s fences bordering southside. He’d land in the heat treat furnaces--where steel ingots are cast--and be scorched to cinders.
We doubt Grandmother is blood related. Our mother died when we were too young to remember more than her shadow. Grandmother hounds us with numbers and science, so we can study metallurgy and work steel at the mill. It is our legacy and misfortune. Many nights if we can’t finish the calculations she assigns, we go to bed with growling bellies. Morning chores cleaning and caring for animals, our arms move by will alone. Some days Talia and I are so hungry we crack open eggs and suck out raw yolks, hiding the shells under the henhouse. Grandmother rarely leaves the manor.
The old dwelling has lived better days before her father founded the mill. When she snaps her walking stick to the floor, we come running or suffer a caned backside. Or worse, she whips the pads of our feet, so afterwards, a stone underfoot jabs like glass.
We are not allowed to play near the woods, which makes it all the more astonishing when Talia suggests we seek Grandfather. The woods are wet, fresh and foul on the back of our throats. Talia knows the lore and leaves pebbles to trail our way back. Grandfather is somewhere unseen. Upon sunset, it’s too dark to recognize one pebble from another, and the wolves will arrive soon. We have no means to build a fire. We climb a slope for a vantage and discover the view all the way to the mill smelting white metal and blue alloys. Grandmother’s manor is between us and the industry light.
The place is shrouded by hazy clouds. These approaching insects buzz low when we hold our breath to hear. These fireflies reveal their glow in synchronous patterns up and down the hill. The pale reds highlight a path down. The yellow and greens swirl upward toward us--lightning bolts without heat--moving farther into the woods. We know grandfather is beyond these puffs of light.
He calls us away to the forest, to transform. Talia squeezes her eyes tight. She listens. Fireflies hum around us. I wonder which of us will walk the blood path to town and tend the mill, and who will accept grandfather’s invitation? Wolf howls nearby give us little time. Just a twinkling second for one last hug between siblings.
Cover: Amanda Bergloff