The king of the fireflies

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Category : fiction

It is then too that one sees the great belt of light, some ten feet wide, formed by thousands upon thousands of fireflies whose green phosphorescence bridges the shoulder-high grass. The fluorescent band composed of these tiny organisms’ lights up and goes out with a precision that is perfectly synchronized, and one is left wondering what means of communication they possess which enables them to coordinate their singing as though controlled by a mechanical device. Synchronous Rhythmic Flashing of Fireflies, John Buck, 1988

“I see you floating on a wooden raft bound by slippery green veins. Watch your step, it’s too mushy for your heavy feet here. You are welcome in my kingdom of shiny pulsating reflections.”

“The fire of our species does not burn, and yet you call it fire. I have memories of many moist summers enveloped in fires that spread through the river, and the forest. Let me tell you the story of how they come to be.”

“My blood flows down from a long ancestry of fireflies, ‘Vietnamese in all respects’ my uncle used to say. This always annoyed my grandma who would get pedantic, perceptibly more than usual, and remind us that ‘It is Thailandish we are and we should never forget we were once separated for hundreds and hundreds of miles from our people. This matters’. “

“My grandmother also used to say, in an unusually warm-hearted way in these occasions, that she knew another firefly in our line that shared the same memory particularity with me: remembering a past that does not end where it does for most of us, at the otherwise insignificant moment of birth, but extends far, far away. Where exactly my memory ends I do not know, but I can tell it is very old. Like sometimes you see one of these crooked figures sitting on a lonesome branch, gazing down in a melancholic and stoic way that makes you wonder what thoughts age begets to you; this is how my genes’ memory make me sometimes feel about myself.”

“One day, I was dozing off by a lake, it may have been one of these ghastly lakes whose fumes give you funny and deep thoughts if you linger long enough, when I was all of a sudden transported to a place so different that I almost fell from my Mangrove branch. True, I was on the same branch, still in South East Asia, but, how to put this feeling across, everything was subtly unfamiliar. Less wet I noticed. Different flora certainly, although I could never name a flower for my life. Then everything began trembling, first the leaves, then the birds flew off, then the roots of my tree started shaking until the whole earth roared in what must have been the biggest earthquake in our jungle’s history. Yet no one else noticed, my uncle said it was ‘a lovely day for fishing this one’. This made me realise it was the memory of a very distant relative who must have lived when our islands were still far way from the big continent and everything looked different, especially the crabs. “

“These are memories that do not evoke feelings. And while as a single firefly I can see the world clearer than a whole firefly colony whose members have to die and rely for their continuity of understanding on books, this is not what made me the king of the fireflies. As my grandma used to say, it is ‘my perfect sense of time’.”

“I wake up when my dreams become thoughts. It’s a dark, dewdrop-scented time and no other firefly has left its grass-coated bed to mount on a Mangrove branch. They will, it’s this time in summer when my fireflies need to give birth to new fireflies and they can only do so if they attract the right kind of attention. The right kind of attention; it must sound unimportant to you who never entered a bar worrying that the other customers’ genes differ so much from yours that reproduction is impossible. But, last time I counted, our part of the jungle had seventy-five different species of fireflies, hard to estimate of how many thousands members each. My fireflies are needles in a haystack and I am their farmer.”

“In these days I like sitting under wooden domes covered by heavy green fur. Perfect for fungi and day-dreaming. It all starts when a certain vibration oscillates out of my unconsciousness and electrifies my internals. I twitch and contract, until the electric wave reaches my skin. I then feel as if my body will break into pieces of charged oxygen and magnesium. But no explosion breaks the tropical silence; instead every pore of my abdomen skin illuminates in a vibrant and noble yellow. And yet to you I must look like a Christmas bulb lighting up at a blink.”

“The after is interesting and pleasant. My new state of being is a vibrating non-ego. A largely spiritual and introspective state that is, except for the shadow play my abdomen flashes spread on the leaves around me.”

“The leaves around me. Only then do I become aware of the external world. For at least two hundred pulses I stand in the silence of my visual monologue. My body flashes in a frequency I cannot control. It could be that I acquired the taste for it through the centuries. Slower than a cricket’s song and quicker than the leaves’ throttle, my silent song must be pleasant to your eyes too, since you are still watching.”

“Soon I notice the other firefly flashing on a nearby branch. Does it feel the same? It took me some centuries to realise that questions of such nature are pointless to ask.”

“At the beginning our dissonance is deafening. The other is flashing in the right frequency, proof that we are of the same species, but the gap in our phases makes me think that soon the whole forest could be flashing like an epileptic’s nightmare; unless I do my king’s part. “

“I first establish contact. A simple thing but it takes a certain authority. Then I begin pulling, not knowing exactly how and what; as if an imaginary string is tied around the other’s waist, I start exercising my control to shift the other’s flickering pattern closer to mine. Deafening dissonance, turned into an intense disagreement, irritating disharmony, subtle misstep, to perfect match. We are in sync. Does the other know?”

“But if you are to philosophise every spark, you will never start a fire. And so I jump on another branch and look for the next dissonant firefly. Not a hard task, as my people are slowly awakening. After I have tuned twenty or thirty fireflies, the fatigue is tangible. On a good night I cross two hundred meters of rainforest before my part is done. I then rest on a reasonably elevated branch and gaze down; the sync has propagated to our patch of land and a whole forest is vibing to the rhythm of my internals. Such luxuries belong to a king.”

“Now you know why we flash in unison. How can millions of fireflies act as a perfect orchestra but if a maestro is hiding among them? You can call me a mechanical device, I pride in my accuracy after all.”

“But why do we flash at all? “

“The answer is literally under your nose: our flashing organs are your mouth. It took me centuries to realise this myself but rest assured; we flash to communicate.”

“Yes of course all we ultimately care about is reproduction (I think this is the latest conclusion of your scientists, but keep in mind this would be a very blatant thing to say to us, like ‘We gaze at the sky to look up’ or ‘We fly around the forest to change places.’ and you could never bother a firefly for more than three flashes with such concerns. But I happen to have a thing for philosophical dead-ends, I think they lead to more places than a four-way cross-section.)“

“So indeed our flashing is a mating call- by now you must have noticed how we furiously flash to catch the eye of passing-by female fireflies, a lighthouse of love you may call it.”

“For reasons unknown to each firefly, even obscure to my long memory, there came a moment when we started flashing to communicate. My ancestor must have gone to bed early that night, so he missed the occasion: according to legend it was a particularly dark and cold night that forced the fireflies to all gather together on the side of a high, sturdy rock. Sheltered from the wind, the fireflies found it unusual and irritating to be so close to others without the need to copulate (it was late autumn or early spring). Atypical synchronization they later called it, when a firefly broke the visual silence with a pattern vaguely familiar to everyone that they nevertheless did not know how to respond to in the occasion. It took twenty-seven socially agonizing flashes for another firefly to respond with a pattern that felt naive but welcoming to everyone. And soon the fireflies were flashing, one after the other this time, until the wind and the night settled down. Some left thinking they talked about how much they hated the cold and some about how fed up they were with tropical humidity, but they all kept gathering and flashing, atypically.”

“Today my fireflies tell stories more than they prey for love, slightly more than they day-gossip, certainly more than they argue about politics. Stories that flush, stories that burn, stories that tremble. The other day a firefly told me this story-I did not know what to make of it but since you are still on this raft …”

“I was minding my own business, to be frank I have no such thing as a business so I was cherishing my unbusiness, watching how the wrinkles on a certain Mangrove branch formed circular and pointy patterns and how could you know how many patterns were on the whole tree and how many on the whole forest. I was in full flashing mode, my wings a blazing blue, my youth leaking out of my body. I was very relieved to see that the other nearby firefly was a male of another species, I was not in a combative mood. I found the frequency of the other male vulgar, an unpleasant species that must be, oscillating at such disagreement to the low frequency of the night. In short, he was like a steaming pot. You couldn’t miss two steaming pots vocalising next to each other: a female firefly, his own species apparently, approached at a close distance that sent a clear message. I would have of course immediately looked away, but something irritated me. The two were totally at it: his veins protracted, her hairlets raised, his breath irregular, her muscles trembling, his eyelids rigid, her whole body flashing red; could the vigour explain why her flashes turned slightly off-beat? Nothing shamelessly obvious, the change was noticeable yet subtle. Was she off-beat from the beginning? That would mean she was from another species and this whole love thing made no sense. Maybe they had not realised? I squinted my eyes to focus and then, a flash, acute and aperiodic, her wings enveloping his torso, his head hitting the branch and splashing in the lake, the rest of his body twitching. I would have certainly looked away this time, but I was petrified at the exuberance of her performance: she kept flashing to the beat while devouring him.”

“What a grotesque way to end one’s story, don’t you think?”

About Eleni Nisioti

I am a post-doctoral researcher at Flowers, Inria working on learning in multi-agent systems. I like analyzing how environments and group properties create challenges and opportunities for agents adapting individually and collectively. What this means in practice is that I I train agents with reinforcement learning and evolutionary algorithms and design environments with dynamics inspired from ecological studies. You can see my recent publications here. I also like fiction, especially science fiction inspired from ideas in complex systems. Here are some of my short stories.