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One summer night when I was a young child, I went to my aunt’s house for a visit. We were planning on watching candles burn and drip hot wax in low-light as everyone sang slightly off-key. It was, of course, her birthday. However, I remember almost none of what occurred looking back on it now. I can’t recall the flavor of the thickly-frosted cake, the shiny gift I’d help select from the glowing glass cabinet in the mall, or who couldn’t make it to the party due to illness. Nevertheless, there exists a memory I can summon with ease, a memory engraved into my psyche like a tune on vinyl. Perhaps the needle just chose to skip the rest, latching onto this memory rather than the slippery ones that are so scarily similar that they can be considered as one.
The track skipped once, returning to a spot that had already been played: I'd heard the song before, most likely during the practice held earlier that day for the musical based on the musings of a bored British author. However, now, instead of being at a party or being seated in a mildly uncomfortable, yet majorly hideous chair, I stood in a wide, branching hallway. The doors that led into the imposing auditorium now sealed shut against the notes threatening to consume the hall just as they had done to the audience that remained. All manner of instruments slowly stirred to life and died in succession as the intermission dragged slower than the dripping of honey into a cup of tea: Brass... Drip. Percussion... Drip. Strings…
The waters of the creek babbled, carrying tinted autumn leaves in between uplifted stepping-stones. Droplets of water rested on a few, sparkling in the afternoon sun like stars against their deep brown setting. When the curled edges of the leaves caught the sides of the rocks, they twirled around before continuing to follow their foamy, silver path that wrapped around the park and then under the bridge my mother had driven across down the road. From where I was standing, I could make out the silhouettes of geese strutting through tall grass on the opposite bank. They rustled the reeds and shoved their beaks into the cool water, pecking around for a late lunch or early dinner. I wondered briefly about what they could possibly be eating over there in the rocky shallows besides tough roots. I made up my mind to take a closer look at them and their goslings that tagged along behind the group. Then I glanced down at the smooth rock barely an inch above the waterline that somehow appeared underneath my sneakers. Hopefully, my shoes wouldn’t squish on the walk back.
In the hallway, which was gradually becoming increasingly crowded, the whining and moaning of horsehair could still be heard. It clicked into gear some realization, and a memory jogged through my mind: there was someone I knew who made strings sing the high notes. Strange it was for my mind to skip over, if only for a millisecond, the same person who had never ceased offering help. When I struggled through a class I had never cared for in the first place, the violinist had reassured me that my grades would tick up as a speedometer on a dash board, all the while making remarks that sent me into fits of concealed snickering during class, bouts of laughter once the bell rang. The constant in my life had become the quiet background whispers of a single set of strings that had the power to drown out all other manner of wretched noise, some of which was still echoing through the building, through my mind.
The doors reopened and more members of the audience flowed out into the hall, blood from the heart to the arteries. I was able to peer back inside, picking apart the crowd of dark figures near the stage. Sure enough, I caught the glare of light reflecting off the wire-ringed, rarely worn glasses, casting a soft beam on the familiar face, deep in concentration as always.
Perhaps it was the late hour of the evening or the catnap I’d taken the night before after the conclusion of a late-night comedy show that fogged my head. But now, it was clearing; the clouds had lifted finally, and through the dark, I could see the stage and the violinist both shining through the night like stars, millions of miles away.
Still, because of that momentary memory lapse, I find it rather strange what one can recall and what one cannot.
A joke of some sort was uttered in hushed tones and laughter exploded in the kitchen. I believe that when my family arrived at the party, it was light outside; however, as the hours and knee-slappers wore on infinitely, the sun dipped below the horizon until the smaller stars began to shine. The moon reflected the light of its dormant partner and provided a low gleam, so that one could only make out the shapes of plants in the yard.
I gazed out the window as lights appeared one at a time above the garden, now cloaked in darkness and devoid of its once vibrant color. I remember trying to get my parents’ attention, so I could scope out the scene. They agreed, as long as my uncle went along too to ensure my sister and I didn’t run outside the fence. He retrieved a butterfly net from the garage, and I began the trek through the grass, on the hunt.
I raised a wobbling leg with caution, sizing up the feathered prey across the rippling expanse. Extending it over a jet of oncoming dampness was not for the seven-year-olds who were faint of heart. I lowered my foot onto the stone, testing it for wobbles, before pressing any weight down. I repeated the feat with the other leg. The first one was easier than expected; not a drop of water licked the cuffs of my jeans. I jumped the next time, maybe a little ambitiously, the soles slipping a bit on the glossy surface. I decided to go back to square one, examining each before trusting it to keep me from falling. But then, the smooth stones ended. A boulder stood in the way.
Apprehensively, I concluded that some channels have to be crossed; one way or another, I had to give thanks for all the help I’d received from my classmate, who had sacrificed time designated to complete projects just to clarify terms and solve problems that I thought to be unsolvable, who had made certain that I understood, and that I knew I wasn’t alone. I saw my chance before the orchestra stopped, before the final drop slipped into the cup, out of sight, falling with the curtain:
Crisp, snowy petals were wrapped tightly around each other, as if trying to defend against the cold air blowing in freely from the open door. They were displayed on a thin, straight stem the color of fresh spring grass. Carefully spreading out from the stalk, the rough-edged leaves circled the newly-cut plant, pulling my focus back to the centerpiece of the display: the white, sweet-scented flower with dew drops that glinted like minute diamonds, like stars. There were others, too, that I could’ve easily claimed, all swaddled in the same crinkling, slick cellophane. A painter’s palette variety of colors—pinks, oranges, reds, combinations of them—were clustered in a dizzying array, but the one that struck me the most was plain in comparison to the others, plain yet elegant. With shaking fingers, I lifted it slowly from the artificial garden, requesting that it be sent out to its recipient.
Dashing out into the darkness, I approached the lights with all the stealth of a ninja in training. I remember chasing after the quiet, swirling cloud of bioluminescence that glowed in all of its pale green glory and drifted through the air. At times, it appeared as if it were blending with the star-dotted sky above. I don’t know why, but I tried to catch each of those droplets of life with the cheap, thin net that snagged on low-lying branches. Fishing twigs out of its center, I leaped and lunged at those blinking points, and they, in turn, dodged the circle of metal and mesh, gently floating in and out of their orbits, displaced satellites or leaves on a stream.
It felt like I spent hours under the lights, but in the end, I only managed to capture one of them in a slightly-cloudy mason jar. It flickered on and off, a stubborn bulb staying on for a ten or fifteen seconds before darkening again. But it was there, and it was alive, and I’d like to believe that the blinking was a signal and that it didn’t want to be forgotten.
Of course, after trapping it, I sought after more, swinging my arms, hoping to catch the others, trying to catch the stars. But I couldn’t. Now, only the memory remains, the congregation of glowing celestial bodies and the fireflies illuminating my psyche to this day. But the one that still burns the brightest was mine. Then again, sometimes I wonder what it would’ve been like to catch more.
The boulder stood in the center of the current with no clear way around it other than the stream that gushed at its sides. There were two options: continue on over the rock I didn’t spot until it was in front of my face, or turn around, skipping back across the flat, disk-like stones. I took the risk. Leaning slowly across the flowing water, I braced my hands on the top of the boulder and swung over a foot. The rock trembled, but I stood up, pulling up my other leg. Once more, I could see clear across to the feathered figures that still shuffled through the cattails and tall grasses. Now, the path again became a series of smooth stones, spread about an arm's length apart and stained dark from the splash.
I remember not how many geese I counted, nor if my leaping legs or my mother carried me back across. I recall not how many flat Frisbee rocks there were nor where they were in the park. But the out-of-place boulder still floats on the stream bed in my memory, a rough edifice that my mind, for some reason, is unable to release from its grasp, though the majority of my quest beyond it has been erased. Whatever the reason was that the rest of that memory, along with countless others, was filtered out, I may never fully understand. But perhaps some memories, not all that different from the rocks, are simply lost through the holes of the mental sieve while others are too substantial to be forgotten.
That night, I released the lightning bug from its crystal prison. It hid at the bottom of the jar, so that a hand couldn't nudge it out. I tipped it upside-down, and the light began blinking once more. Floating like a feather in the wind up to the tree branches that appeared black against the light of the moon, the creature blended with the flashes of airplane headlights and twinkling stars, finally home, back where it belonged.
We headed home at ten or so that evening. The rest of the party was a blur of wrapping paper and frosting, or so I assume, for I cannot clearly remember anything else that happened. Like filling in potholes on a highway, one can only imagine what was there before, but never will truly know, though assumptions can be made: rock salt? gravel? both? a smaller divot in the otherwise pristine road?
I think she liked our gift, whichever piece of jewelry it was. I presume the bug enjoyed being let go more than being trapped, but I'll never know for sure. What I do know is that a glowing bug remains in my mind rather than a glowing rainbow candle, which makes me question the inner workings of the brain: what it keeps and what it can afford to release.
Drip. The song began to play again, the one that had ended at the start of the brief intermission. As I dashed back through the doors, I searched for the empty seat near my friends. The reverberating drum beats transformed to match the pounding of my heart. I’d taken the risk, and I hoped it was worth it.
I cared not much about what would happen, and I suppose I would do it again if given the chance.
After all, everyone, not only in the room, but across the country seemed to sense the stronger, more prevalent change in the air with each passing day, and, after all, who knew how long roses could be sent without worry, to those without care, from those without reason, with the status quo slipping down ceaselessly towards darkness.
Once more, as always, the track will repeat. Until the day dawns anew, I hope that somewhere in the infinite night which seems to stretch past where the eye can see, the clouds will lift, the sky will clear, and the stars, in all of their ageless radiance, will light the path and walk it with me.