This article was originally published in the June 2018 Princeton Echo.

Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

It’s finally summer in Princeton. We had to wait until late spring to get warm, but now the roses are blooming and the air is dripping with fragrant honeysuckle. The town is slowly settling into the lazy hazy days of summer. My daughter prepares to say goodbye to her classmates who will be traveling all over the world. She already misses her brothers, who flew the coop last year. “I thought that we would always be together as a family,” she says, sitting by herself at the kitchen table. Now she has to make do with us, her parents, who give her just a bit too much attention.

Luckily, today two of her girlfriends from the Netherlands are visiting. After an evening filled with barbecuing, playing volleyball, and chasing the dog, they are relaxing in the hammocks, tired, their cheeks flushed red, their summer dresses showing colorful traces of the sugary sprinkles they scattered on their ice cream.

Twilight descends and the moon is pale yellow against the sky. We roast marshmallows in the fire pit. The Dutch girls enjoy their s’mores; finally, jet lag sets in, their voices reduced to a whisper, their eyes closing.

Suddenly one of the girls jumps up, her long blond hair bouncing up and down. “Fireflies!” She runs after them until she catches one. “Look,” she says, as we admire the insect glowing in the little cage shaped by her hands. As if the lawn has been transformed into a magical twinkling carpet, we all start chasing the flying lights, trying to catch them in jelly jars. The flies light up briefly, then quickly disappear, playing catch-me-if-you-can.

“They are writing your last name,” the other girl says. With her red curls she looks as if she just stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. “They are making the letter ‘J’ in the air”
“Not all of them,” the blond girl exclaims. “That one over there keeps giving off short flashes. They are writing something else, like Morse Code. Maybe they have a message for us.”

“They have their own language,” our daughter says. “They communicate through lights. What do you think they’re trying to tell each other?”

“The boys are trying to get the girls’ attention with their lights,” the blond girl claims, studying the flies closely with her nose pressed against the glass. “And the girls are letting their little lights shine for the cutest boys.”

The girls are lucky. The fireflies are around for just a short time and only this time of year. They live just long enough to find a partner and lay their eggs. In three weeks, their evanescent dance of lights will be over.

Later that night, when the young guests have left and the grass is dark, I keep thinking of the girls, running across the grass with their bare feet under their summer dresses, floating, impossible to grasp — they are the real fireflies.

I go to my daughter’s room. She is fast asleep, next to her is a jelly jar with the lid removed. As I turn off the light and stop for a moment to look at her silhouette, a firefly lights up against the wallpaper.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.