We wait in the night for their jade-winged appearance. Blackberry wine in the fog of our breaths. The deck light crawls with ever-shifting action – phototactic, nocturnal, north Florida fauna. Life crowding to light. A barred owl’s multisyllabic call reverberates through the darkness of the forest: whocooksyourfood-whocooksforyouahh. I imagine it out there on silent wings, triangulating for a mate in a maze of creaking canopy. Leaving no trace.
Whocooksyourfood-whocooksforyooooouahh. The moon climbs through the branches of an ancient magnolia, its silver light lining the leaves and bark. Inside the cabin, my classmates sleep off the rigors of the day, wrapped in blanket cocoons on their bunks. Cut off from the living world outside.
Dr. Pittman breaks the silence, staring off into a place only known to him: I’ll ask around about land management work. But funding has been slashed, and positions cut. Things were different before this current administration.
I nod my head as I consider his words, their implications for my future. No one cares about the trees anymore, I say in my best gruff-toned, Treebeard impression. He nods his head and mimics a smile, pinches his chin and beard hairs between his first finger and thumb. Whocooksyourfood-whocooksforyooooouahh: further off in the forest this time. I take another sip of wine, studying the chaotic amalgam of bugs crawling across the cob-webbed glass of the deck light.
I appreciate you asking around, I say. Money’s been tight, and life has been tough. I hung a lot on my pursuit of this degree. Going back to school at my age…
He nods again, takes a sip of wine, stares off into the darkness – somewhere inside that head, an encyclopedic mind full of botanical knowledge that would take a decade to transcribe.
Trade-offs are a bitch, he says. But they’re a fact of life. Sometimes you have to be willing to take the hits just to have a chance at possibly changing things for the better. His rocker creaks beneath him, like the stressed trunk of an old conifer snag. I consider his words, roll them around a bit in my mind, let them settle. Still no sign of emerald wings. The fireflies continue signaling in the darkness. We watch them appear and disappear between tree trunks, across the open space of the clearing to the south of the cabin: cold, luciferin light popping in and out of existence. Like magic brought to life.
I think of the tidal wave that’s coming from the East. It would only be a matter of time before it crossed the oceans to our shores. Sparked the fears and reactions of the masses. Blew the lid off this whole damned thing. Just a rickety framework of a nation waiting to be toppled from the inside-out. Like the marriage I thought would last forever – now just scattered shrapnel on a forgotten, storm-tattered shore.
A meteor pulls my gaze star-ward, and off on a southwest trajectory. It burns briefly across a wilderness of nuclear beacons, enters the earth’s atmosphere… Dies an unspectacular death. Dr. Pittman yawns, his eyes fluttering shut and then open again. Like beating wings. His lips quiver within the tangled nest of his gray beard. Or that was my imagination? Another one of those unreliable cognitive lapses? He’d wait out here all night if he had to, he’d said. Just for a glimpse at their spectacle of brightly colored wings, and stunning sonar-confusing, hindwing tail structures. They’d eluded him for so long. But that was six hours ago. Four bottles of wine ago. Many conversations ago. We’d watched the others retreat inside, one after another, until only two of us remained. His head dips to his chest once again. I expect him to startle awake and then call it a night. Push himself up to his feet with a grunt. Retreat back into the crowded cabin. Leave me on the deck to face the night alone.
Lord, will the pieces go back together?
I struggle against the currents of where my mind fights to take me. Somewhere far down in the vast blackness of the gorge, the Apalachicola River continues flowing out toward the Gulf of Mexico. The fragmented moon climbs higher through the canopy. Soon to break free into the Milky Way sky. My eyes strain as I search for a smudge of bright, green wings flapping – eyespots like primitive photo prints of the moon. The swirling thoughts flood through my head once again, but I keep kicking to stay above the surface.
Dr. Pittman’s breathing has deepened to almost a snore – his coffee mug of wine in danger of tumbling from his hand. I smell the wooden deck beneath my feet, feel the remnants of warmth from the day. Insect legs continue scrambling over the glass of the deck light. The bulb inside still burning. Somewhere out there in a hostile darkness, a luna moth careens unscathed through the Florida night, narrowly avoiding attacks from above. I wait for the light to draw it in.
Randy Goggin lives on the gulf coast of Florida, where he works as park ranger for Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources. With an interest in the biological sciences and the literary arts, his writing grapples with the brokenness of the natural world and the human soul. He loves nature, cephalopods, and his daughter, Liv, and he was once assaulted by a red-winged blackbird while reading at the beach.