A Time After Fireflies | Ellie Cheng

“Whoever incites others by spreading rumors or slanders or any other means to subvert the State power or overthrow the socialist system shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years, criminal detention, public surveillance or deprivation of political rights.”

—Article 105, Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China

She likes the salty slabs of canned spam Maa and Wei-yi only brought out for special occasions, she likes the steamed cheek flesh of wild carp Baba used to steal from the river. She likes to suck the iridescent goop from long-dead fish eyes, and she still dreams of the white flakes of crab meat she tried when the fishermen took pity on Maa and Baba. Jun has never been a picky girl, not even when all she had to eat were week-old potato skins, but she can barely swallow the stringy strands of meat Wei-yi slops into the bottom of her rice bowl. She knows better than to complain. She’s lucky she has any meat at all.

In the laogai, far far away from wherever Baba and Maa must be right now, she plays Nationalist and Communist with the other prisoner children after school, waving their red bandanas like battle standards and screaming praise for Chairman Mao until their throats ring hoarse. The suk-suk watch their games from the rice fields, ears sharply attuned to the rustle of soldier boots in the paddy grass. They play Red Guard and prisoner and make dollies out of grass, but when she first came to the labor camps, they would catch fireflies.

Baba taught her how to clap fast enough so she could snatch the fireflies straight out of the air, how to cup her hands just right so their little insect organs wouldn’t splatter the palms of her hands. She remembers peering at the light of the fireflies splashed on her fingers. She remembers Maa teaching her how to tie up their legs and fly them like kites.

When Jun was just a baby, Maa wouldn’t let her touch the fireflies no matter how hard she said please. She would watch Maa wrap string pulled from old rags around their bodies, hands clean and cold as they were all the time, fingers firm against the slimy scales of their bodies.

One knot after the front legs, and another before the back.

The firefly nips red kisses all over her Mama’s hands, buzzing clumsily into her fingernails.

Leave one more for good luck, let your string go slack.

“Look. They’re almost as pretty as you, jiu-jiu.”

Back at home, when they lived on the edge of a grey cliff and Jun got to eat almost every day, she tried to play with the fireflies before Maa said she was ready. Their light hummed uselessly in her hands and it wriggled, flightless.

Jun cried like someone had just died. Maa said it was because she had fat fingers, just like lap cheong.

“You crushed their wings, baobei. How are they supposed to lead you home now?” Her fingers are skinny just like Maa’s now. She wishes she could show her.

Even though her Maa is the best and smartest Mama in the whole world, Jun doesn’t know if she was right. Maybe God made the fireflies at home different, but in the laogai, they will only lead her to the morgue.

A few years ago, after they took Maa and Baba away, there was a bad accident there. The adults didn’t want her to know anything, but Hong-Hong (who heard it from Qingqing (who heard it from her Mama)) said that the pastor who they secretly prayed with on Sundays was found with an American book sewn into his mattress. Everyone’s Mamas came wailing to the morgue and Wei-yi clamped her hands so hard over Jun’s eyes that there were red marks when she let go. Her palms shook too much to veil Jun’s sight, and Jun didn’t see the point of getting her skull crushed if she could see the pastor’s red tummy anyways.

When her nightmares give her no other place to go, she imagines the sound the pastor’s wife made when her mind cracked. She screamed as if her spine was being hand-dug, disc by disc from her back and she tore her hair apart for her husband. Then a soldier cracked her on the head and she could no longer scream, she could no longer do anything anymore. Jun wanted to cry too; she wanted to stuff her little hands into the hole in the pastor’s stomach and tuck all the tubes nicely back in, but she was happy she didn’t make a sound. She promised Baba and Maa that she would be a strong girl when they left.

She remembers watching the Red Guard toss the pastor and his wife into the darkness, she remembers watching the blood and the wails and the grief and the death scatter the fireflies, disturbed from their wonderful congregation.

She doesn’t think any of them were trying to lead the pastor home.

Before the soldiers took Maa and Baba, Baba had told her all about the beginning of the earth, a time before fireflies. The Jade Emperor demanded that all the animals in his kingdom, both big and small, race across the sky. He would honor them forever, naming the years after the first twelve winners. The Jade Emperor was sure the ox would become the first in the sign of the years, for she was the strongest in the kingdom. His wife placed her bets on the dragon, for no one was faster than he. But the ox was too naive and the dragon too kind hearted—the rat had seen their weakness and out-witted them all.

The Emperor’s wife had woven the Yangtze with trees and branches and the tears of little girls just like her for all the animals to cross. The cat took a nap after telling her good friend the rat to wake her before the ox would come. The rat told riddles to the snake and angered the tiger and let sleeping cats lie, for he wanted the prize more than he cared for his friend. He waited until the ox came close and struck a bargain:

“Take me across the river, sister, and I will give you a song.”

The ox was good and wanted to believe the best of the world. And so she bore the rat across the river until he leapt off her back to victory, songless.

Baba had said the rat is clever; if he could trick the dragon and lie to the ox, surely he could fool little girls like her. The rat knew her weakness—that she slept all alone and he could enter her room at night without any trouble. Baba told her that if she didn’t keep her feet under the covers, little rats would crawl out from the shadows to slurp the meat from her bones.

The morgue is dark. Darker than her room. And she knows the pastor and his wife are there together, but they are too bloodless to stop the rat and his sons and his daughters. She is sure neither of them are wearing socks.

She misses spam and fish and cha-siu bao, but she thinks she misses her fireflies the most. Gong-suk said that eight years old is too big for anyone to play with bugs.

When she dreamed that night, she flew kites made of fireflies. She hoped they would lead her beyond the fences of the laogai and back into the arms of Maa and Baba, where she knew she belonged.

When she dreamed that night, her eyes were still, shut against the insides of the morgue. She imagined itty-bitty teeth worrying nubs into her feet, and death’s cool fingers twisting in her hair.

She has been a good girl, she has swallowed her stringy strands of meat and prepared her rations and shut her mouth as she should. But she has not heard from her parents ever since they were taken from the laogai, and the thought of Baba’s singing voice or Maa’s smile is starting to tear her chest apart. She cannot stay here anymore. She wants to go home.

The suk-suk stare after her with their leather faces and all-seeing eyes, tracking the stumble of her feet up to the morgue. Their bodies do not hold enough strength for their voices to shout, but the break-men will tell their wives and their wives will tell Wei-yi and Gong-suk will know within the hour.

Jun’s knees reach the morgue before her feet do. Her fingers fumble with the cotton string fraying on her red bandana—she knows her Maa is the best and smartest in the whole world and would never lie to her. She just wants one firefly, a lantern to guide her back to Maa, a gift to make her smile and show that Jun forgives her for leaving her behind.

She cups her hands just like Baba taught her to, rough calluses fluttering gently around tear-drop wings. One knot after the front legs, another before the back. Her hands look just like Maa’s now. Soon she’ll be able to show her.

Yellow-bright pours from between her fingers and the light blinks, uncaged from the prison of her knuckles. The firefly flickers in the air next to its brothers and sisters, legs knotted up in red cotton thread.

She can almost pretend that it is river wind that whips at her cheeks and that her face is sore from smiling. Her eyes wonder wide at the twilight dance of the fireflies, and she allows herself a moment to imagine that it was Maa who tied up her kite string, that when she gets home Baba will have caught them a fat trout for dinner. Maybe she could hear them say “I love you” again. Maybe she won’t have to be strong anymore.

She knows that big girls are too old for this, but she can almost make-believe that she is home.

Itty-bitty teeth close around the end of her string. The sweet-sick summer humidity sets alight with the flight of the fireflies, all too frightened of lining a rat’s insides.

She thinks she is about to throw up.

Her eyes drag themselves across the threshold to the greatest, fattest rat she has ever seen, a rat that must have grown rich and plump off the flesh of men so exhausted their sleep turned into death. She looks into the entrance of the morgue, and she thinks of Maa coming into her room and telling her that she and Baba were going away for a long time. She thinks of wet hair and spindly fingers knit from shadow in her braids; she thinks of crying under the covers, her feet barely tucked in, without her Maa to save her. She wonders if the Jade Emperor’s champion will get too hungry and swallow her someday, if he will spit her out toe bones and all into the room with all the dead bodies. When her limbs become too heavy to move and her lungs get too tired to praise Chairman Mao with all the admiration and sincerity he is due, will a little rat run into the morgue to suck the marrow from her bones?

Marrow. Bone marrow soup. Thin and fat and brothy, with whole pork bones to suck the juice out of. Rat bones can’t flavor water in the same way. Not big enough to make a good soup, no.

The tall grass in the rice fields bends and breaks under the angry feet of Wei-yi. She knows that if she wants to act like a big girl, if she knows what’s good for her, she will run back down to their little hut right at this moment.

Feet beat against the muddy hillside. Wei-yi gasps happier than Jun’s ever seen her and begins sprinting, begins screaming at her to catch it, to kill it, so that she has enough meat for a nice tasty meal.


Flat little black eyes bore into her skull, taunting her.

Can I go where you cannot follow?

The rat runs away, seeking shelter in the morgue.

She tries to go after it, she really does. Jun thinks of the pastor and his wife and their wasted spines and their outside insides and she knows she is supposed to be strong, she even promised Baba and Maa that she would be, but it is dark in there and she is so, so scared. What is she supposed to do if the rat eats her and she can’t see them anymore? She doesn’t like this, she wants to go home and she doesn’t want to be here anymore. She wants her Maa so bad, she is tired and scared and she can’t be brave any longer. She huffs and puffs too hard for her to make a sound.

She doesn’t want to die.

The rat’s tail crosses the threshold and disappears into the room with all the dead bodies. Wei-yi collapses onto her knees and lets out a wail more wretched, more desperate than the time the Red Guard discovered a cross in their home and dragged them away to the laogai.



She likes the stringiness of tendons stuck in between her teeth. She likes the first bite into a hind leg when it’s still hot enough that the fat drips off her fingers. She likes skinning the cartilage off a burnt neck with her canines, and she tells Wei-yi that the chubbiness of mouse belly reminds her of the softest pillows. Jun has never been a picky girl, but her stomach curls at the firefly corpses and toe bones she finds inside newly-slaughtered rats. She knows better than to complain. Because when she’s hungry, she will eat that too.

In the laogai, far far away from wherever Baba and Maa must be right now, she does not catch golden bugs anymore. She is eight years old, she is a big girl and big girls don’t play these types of games. But sometimes, when her dreams leave her nowhere else to go, she thinks of home.

She can almost pretend that she’s standing on a cliff like the ones back home, grey and weathered, between the sky and the waves that churn her dreams. She lets the river wind guide her, kissing at her cheeks until she reaches the cliff edge. The fireflies are waiting there. Just for her. She runs after them and she can see Maa and Baba again and she wants to keep running but she can’t help but pause. She is a big girl, but she doesn’t think she’s too old to play pretend. She sleeps, feet stuck out from under the covers, and imagines Maa and Baba smiling at her, all together again.

Ellie Cheng is a first-generation Chinese American writer currently attending Barnard College. This is their first publication.