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Nothing is more magical than fireflies. Our eyes followed the intermittent green glow of those tiny creatures. We wanted to capture that magic.
The darkness outside fell silent. Firework erupted in slow motion as we opened the paper bag. Our hearts lit up; the drifting stars of the universe shone brightly in our wide eyes under a muslin mosquito net.
The highlighter of our colourless dreams.
As children, my cousins and I were not contributing to the round-the-clock work that took place on my grandparents’ farm and in the paddy fields. To my grandfather in particular, we were a minor inconvenience to his busy routine in the summer. He was out before sunrise; he’s not to be seen again until dusk. He regularly chastised us for not doing anything useful. When the dinner was prepared by my grandmother, my mother and my aunts, instructions were given not to offer us any meat. Meat was for workers. Alternatives were in abundance in the countryside. Instead, my uncles would lead us to catch fresh water eels and frogs by the vegetable patch for our dinner. Occasionally, I would be called to see my great grandmother in her separate annex where she would treat me with chicken drums that she had kept in her food cabinet.
To make myself less of a nuisance, I volunteered to feed the animals first thing in the morning. The pigs were the comedians with their enthusiastic snorts and huge grins from one flapping ear to the other as they pushed and shoved to the feed. Then there were rice and vegetable scraps for the many chickens, ducks and geese that roamed freely on the farm and dipping in and out of the ripply pond and guggling streams in which my aunts would do the washing.
During the day, we climbed fruit trees in my grandparents’ orchard: guava, lembu (bellfruit), dragon eye (longan) and the many lychee trees. Lychees were my grandparents’ pride and joy. They sold them in the market and brought us as a present in bamboo baskets when they came to visit us in southern Taiwan. They said that lychees were best when grown in the moderate climes of the central region where summer was cooler. They were not wrong on either accounts. Their lychees were bigger with meaty flesh that tasted much sweeter. Even the worms were healthier looking when you found them under the stalks.
At dusk, the water buffaloes were brought back in the stables block that doubled up as a linking passage between the two families: my grandparents’ and my great uncles’. To me, these magnificent gentle giants were like immovable guardians. At night, all that could be seen were their great big eyes in the dark. With an hour or two to kill before dinner was prepared, us children sometimes would set up our own make-shift kitchen at my great uncle’s courtyard – sticks for fire, tin cans for pots, the unfortunate caterpillars (they were regarded as pests that damage fruit trees and other crops) would be picked from a low bush and added to the cooking pots. The Torment of a Flower drifted into the cool summer air….
Nothing could compare to the magic of that garden room in the orchard. Whilst adults chattered and listened to the radio away in the main house, we lay with eyes wide open under a dim 5-watts bulb in the mosquito net. Then, we switch off the light.
The magic firework of the fireflies.
Then one of my older cousins would start telling the first story….