By the time he reached the washboard path that led up to the house, the mud on Remy’s face had begun to dry. Scrunching his nose, his skin felt tight as he brushed away flakes of dirt that fell on his soiled t-shirt. He exhaled and winced in pain, clutching at his side.
A light flickered by the porch door and the mammoth shadow of a man danced across the warped clapboard floor. Remy froze. Fingering the shredded hole at the knee of his tattered jeans, his heart hammered. His stepdad was home.
Remy, damn it! Where have you been?” Jim’s deep voice bellowed through the twisted branches that sheltered the shotgun house. Black squirrels peered over tiny worried hands. Their eyes followed Remy as he slunk up the steps.
“What happened to you?” His stepdad grabbed him by the chin, shoved his head side to side and inspected a still oozing gash on his forehead.
“Nothin’.” Remy jerked his head away and stared at the floor boards that still bore the mark of the lumber company where Jim worked.
“What’s wrong with you, kid? Don’t you know how to stand up for yourself?” Jim shoved Remy’s shoulder, his voice strained through a tense jaw. “What kind of a wimp just lets someone shove them around?”
“Jeez. Mary, your damn kid’s a mess.”
Jim let the screen door slam behind him while Remy stood outside and kicked off his sneakers. His mother groaned and mumbled from the couch, her coherency lost between vodka and oxycodone. A drop of something warm slipped down his cheek and he brushed it away. The only thing that made Jim angrier than his inability to fight was the quickness of his tears.
He stepped inside; his bare feet stained with dirt from holes in the cheap canvas of his shoes, and leaned down to kiss his mother.
“What happened to you, Remy?” His mother groped at his battered muddy face with clumsy hands. “Have you been fightin’ with that boy at school again?”
“I’m not fightin’ with anybody. They won’t leave me alone.” Remy sat on the couch, his head hung, waiting for his mother’s gentle touch. She began snoring instead.
“I don’t understand why you can’t fight back,” Jim called from the kitchen. “It really ain’t that hard.”
Yeah, says you, Remy thought. He rubbed at the drying blood above his brow. “I can’t fight back. They’re bigger than me.”
“Fine then, get your ass kicked.”
“I just wish I was invisible,” Remy whispered. He stood, eyes remaining on his sleeping mother, when Jim knocked in to him and hit the sore spot on his side. Remy flinched and knocked Jim’s beer to the floor where it shattered.
“Watch it!” Jim pushed him and Remy stumbled into the broken glass. He yelped in pain.
“Be more careful, Remy,” his mother slurred, sleepy eyes looking to him then rolling back into nothingness.
He staggered out the door just as a flood of hot tears stung the open scrapes on his face. Bloody footprints followed him as he fled into the embrace of woods.
Remy ran until he dropped to his knees in exhaustion. Screeching cicadas sung to him while he buried his heavy head in his hands. The world became a blur and his breath shook as he exhaled.
Resting back on his haunches, he scanned the sky, his injured feet throbbing in time with his heart. Around him the world was still and quiet, just the gentle sway of leaves and Spanish moss that hung from tangled branches. Sitting just above the horizon, the moon hung in the air like a naked sun, stripped of its brightness and heat. He’d never seen anything like it. Large and full, tinged with a haze of orange, he reached out for it as if he could capture it in his hands.
The burning image of its light remained when he drew his eyes toward a soft glow coming from the centre of a clearing. From the east, the wind blew in the softly bitter scent of fresh cut foliage.
Remy gasped. By the light of the moon, he saw flowers – acres of flowers of every size, shape and colour Broad pink petals of hibiscus tickled sweet yellow honeysuckle blooms. How could it be?
Remy inched closer, the pain in his feet subsiding. A gentle blue light hovered above the carpet of blossoms. It seemed to come from nowhere, there only for itself.
The earth beneath him warmed as he walked mesmerized toward the heavenly light. He almost didn’t notice the old man sitting beside a stalk of white bougainvillea in a lawn chair, spindly legs crossed and hands clasped in his lap. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he invited Remy with a kind smile.
“Hello there, son.”
“Hi,” Remy said softly, weary of the man’s sudden appearance.
“What brings you all the way out here?”
Remy shrugged, limped closer. “What’s glowing? Lightning bugs?”
“No,” the old man chuckled. “What’s your name?”
“Remy. Who are you?”
“I’ve never seen this place before. Where’d it come from?”
“Well, Remy, do you know why the moon looks like it swallowed fire tonight?”
Remy shook his head. The hovering glow now appeared more like a swarm, tiny sparkles of light flittering in the cloud.
“It’s a Harvest Moon. Only happens once a year, when the summer winds start to blow cool.” He paused as a spark jumped from the cloud and on to his shoulder before spinning upward into the air.
“Is it like the Northern Lights? Does the moon do something funny to make the garden glow like this?” Remy scratched his head. His fingernails were caked with dried blood.
“Nah, it’s not like that. You see, nobody ever notices this garden because of the high trees that grow around it. Do you know,” he leaned closer with scraggly eyebrows raised, “that fairies dance in this garden at night, but they can only be seen during a Harvest Moon?”
Remy stifled a laugh. Fairies? Who was this guy kidding?
“They live here all the time among the leaves and petals, in peace, invisible to the world except one night every 365 days.” His rheumy eyes scanned the moving cloud. “That’s a long time to wait. I don’t know how many more of these I’ll see…” He trailed off, eyes falling to a cluster of white stones under a tree with buttery yellow buds.
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Follow me.” Jacob stood, hobbled to the white stones. He held out his palm. “Thomas! Thomas, come here my boy.”
Remy backed away, suddenly frightened by it all.
A sharp spark lit from behind a lavender bush and shot toward them, bringing with it the plant’s clean herbal scent. It landed in the man’s palm.
“What is that?” Remy’s voice was hushed. The spark dimmed.
“This is my boy, Thomas. Thomas, say hello. This is Remy.”
Remy squinted at the tiny creature in Jacob’s palm, no bigger than a clothes pin. It was a boy, his hair lit in tones of fiery red with a dusting of freckles across his nose.
“What is that?”
“It’s okay.” Jacob raised his palm. Thomas’s tiny hands clutched the old man’s thumb. He had wings that twitched as his guardian stroked them with his ring finger. They were full and beautiful, veined in a pattern of old lace.
The old man cupped his hand and brought it close to his ear. He smiled. “Thomas thinks you’re afraid.”
Remy shook his head. Could this actually be happening? Maybe he got hit in the head and didn’t realize it. “Does he…does he really talk to you?”
Thomas’ wings fluttered in greeting. The creature knelt on Jacob’s palm, bowed his head. Remy jerked back and turned to the old man. “I don’t understand. What is all this?”
“Have a seat, Remy.” The old man gestured to a patch of grass by his chair. “Let me tell you a story.” As he sat, hundreds of sparks jumped in and out of the cloud, encircling him and Jacob. Thomas flitted up and nested his tiny body in the hollow of Jacob’s neck.
“I grew up here, about half a mile back from the garden in the little house by the creek. Back then, there wasn’t nothing here but the hard trunk of a dead willow. When my own boy was little, I’d bring him out here on nights when the moon hid behind the black sky. It was so dark, you couldn’t see nothing except millions of sparkling stars.
I raised him by myself, you see. His mama died not an hour after holding him for the first and last time. Then one spring before his sixth birthday I took him with me into the city. I was gonna buy him a telescope. But…” Jacob coughed away the choke in his voice.
“He wandered off in the supermarket. I didn’t see him run out in the street until it was too late. Big dumpster truck came barrelling down the road. He was here one minute, gone the next. Like that.”
The old man’s face was wet with tears. The quivering cloud nestled closer and Remy felt their electricity on the back of his neck.
“I buried him here, so he’d be close, so he could still see the stars at night in the forest. Every day I came out here and sat with him. I cried so much I barely noticed the willow was growing. Suddenly, the leaves hung so long and green it was the fullest tree in the forest. So,” Jacob waved his hand at the mound of flowers around him, “I planted all this – for him.
A year after my boy died, I had the Garden of Eden in my backyard. But all I wanted was him and he was still cold and rotting under the ground. It made me angry. So I tore it all up, pulled the fruit from the trees, the roots from the earth. The only thing left was the weepin’ willow and the cluster of white stones there where my boy lay.
But the next night – now I ain’t kidding you – the plants came right back. Thought maybe I’d been hallucinating. So I pulled it all up again, burned it and bagged it up, kept it in the garage so I’d have evidence. But sure enough, the next night, life had returned. This time the garden seemed to glow. At first I thought it was the Harvest Moon playing a trick on my eyes, but when I got closer, I saw a tiny cloud – just like this one only smaller. I swore I heard someone talking, and when I knelt down by the edge of the ferns, there he was. My boy Thomas, tiny and light, a smile on his face, whispering his love. He flitted and flew and jumped back and forth from leaf to branch.”
The smile returned to Jacob’s face and he patted Remy on the knee.
“What about the others?”
Jacob shrugged. “After a while they just started coming. Maybe got wind of what was out here. Knew that they were safe. They’ve built a happy home.”
“So the firefly is your son? And you only get to see him on a Harvest Moon?”
The old man’s eyes softened and he nodded. “It’s enough. At least I have that much.”
Remy brushed his stringy black hair out of his eyes and stood. The hovering cloud parted for him. “That’s crazy. This is all just a trick of the light. You need to see a shrink, old man.”
The flittering light on Jacob’s shoulder swirled in his face and back to the swarm. He sighed. “You can believe what you want Remy. But this is real. As real as the bruises on your face.”
“Shut up!” Remy swung around. “You don’t know nothing about me!”
“You look like you’ve had a rough time.”
“Yeah? So what?”
Jacob shrugged. “Nothing. Just making an observation.”
“What do you know about anything? The world’s stood still for you ever since your kid died.” Remy limped across a patch of wildflowers, leaving spots of blood on the broken stems.
“There is a way, you know.” The old man’s voice echoed in the forest.
Remy stopped. “A way for what?”
“For you to join them, if you want. Do you?”
He scoffed. “If there’s a way, why haven’t you done it? Don’t you want to be with Thomas?”
“Well of course I do.” Jacob straightened. “But somebody’s gotta take care of this place.”
Remy looked down at his clothing, torn and ragged, then to the creatures dancing above the foliage. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it? A life in hiding, invisible save one day each year. He shook it off. The old man was obviously crazy.
“It’s a better life, Remy,” Jacob whispered.
Tears burned in his eyes as Remy darted under cover of shadows and back up the path to the highway.
He got lost somewhere along the way. Through a curl of sycamore, he squinted at the sole source of light in the warm August night. Now high above him in the sky, the Harvest Moon cast his twisted path in shades of crimson. He stumbled over knotty roots protruding from the hardened earth, bumping already bruised arms and legs. By the time he reached a cluster of holly bushes for the third time, he was hopelessly lost.
He’d never been this way before, certainly never come across a crazy old man and his fireflies. It had probably been a hallucination anyway. Three passes around and he hadn’t seen evidence of the magical garden anywhere.
Branches stabbed at him. The headiness of nectar in the air turned his stomach. A sudden animal cry cut through the still night, reverberating across the miles of forest around him. He shot up and squinted in the darkness.
“Hello? Anyone there?” His voice sent echoes far into the distance. His heart thudded in his chest.
It’s just deer, the woods are loaded with them this time of year.
He stepped forward carefully, his feet trampling a carpet of decaying wet leaves. The cry sounded again and Remy’s heart leapt into his throat.
“Who is it?” The forest was silent.
Behind him a branch snapped and Remy broke into a run. A quick, hot breath pulsated on the back of his neck as he struggled to move faster. His throbbing feet now numb, he gasped for air and pushed forward. In a quick movement, he glanced over his shoulder but saw nothing.
“Who are you? Leave me alone!” Remy choked.
Just before he reached the sycamore, he caught his foot in an ancient root and stumbled forward. A heavy weight fell on him from behind. His face pressed into the dirt and the taste of earth lingered on his tongue. With teeth full of grit, he gnashed at the figure attacking him.
“Please let me go. Please.” His breath came in gasps as the moonlight dimmed and blurred. Strong hands squeezed his neck, pressed away the pain throbbing through his head. His windpipe crackled like a piece of tissue paper until he heard his own gasping through the purr of cicadas. His air narrowed to a pinpoint hole, consciousness hovered in precious seconds.
A sparkle of golden light flickered before him just as his world dimmed to black.
Remy woke to warmth on his face, the heady smell of lilies in the air. He shot up, heart pounding. Where was he? Had he fallen asleep in the forest?
He blinked in the bright sunlight, staring around at the tall stalks that surrounded him. His throat ached, pains stabbed at his back. What a night. Fairies and people trying to kill him. He sighed.
His bare feet stumbled across knotted roots as he pushed down the towering leaves to make his way out to the highway. He must have somehow ended up in the cornfields behind the railroad tracks, probably in his panic to escape the wild deer after him.
On and on, through a maze of green, he searched for the railroad only to find himself hopelessly lost again. Threading through a cobweb, he reached a mound of dirt and climbed to the top. Only endless green stood before him, broken by a crisp blue sky.
His feet began to sink in the soft dirt. He scrambled off the mound to find himself surrounded by a moving swarm of giant ants. He gasped, tripped over their jointed bodies.
His heart hammered. What had happened? Why had the world become all fun-house mirrors?
The swarm headed for him and he took off running, feeling resistance from the soft breeze blowing through the crops. He ran faster and faster until his feet became so light he couldn’t feel them touching the ground. A strong wind caught him and suddenly he was airborne, gliding high over the stalks. His arms and legs flailed, body twisting back and forth until he careened into an oversized dahlia. He tumbled to the ground, flecks of pollen stuck to his chest.
When he stood, his trembling hands reached along his back.
This isn’t happening.
His fingers traced the nape of his neck and between his shoulders he felt a silky ridged wing protruding out. It twitched involuntarily. Remy spun around as if he could catch it.
“Help me!” His stomach churning, he shouted into the empty air, nothing returning his cry except the lilting call of a lark nearby.
Frantically, he pushed through the tangled brambles and ran again. This time, his heart nearly burst when he slid into the breeze. The wings on his back pumped as the world passed below him in a blur of colour. His breath steadied and he stretched out both arms as if to embrace the world.
A few feet to the east, a patch of garden stood at the foot of a willow. Thomas sat in the old man’s palm, his fiery red hair alight. As Remy passed overhead, the boy took off and flew alongside. He waived his arms, a look of joy radiating from his face. Remy dove and danced around him. He smiled back before a gust of wind sent him flying high through the branches of a grand oak.
Joanna Owen is a part-time writer and full-time registered nurse living on the coast of southwest Florida. She’s a graduate of the William Allen White School of Journalism. “Harvest Moon Shadows” has recently appeared in Yesteryear Fiction (link).