This story is by Natalia Angel and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There was no dance more beautiful than the dance of the fireflies. That was the thought in Sutomo’s head as the seven-year-old watched in wonder as the insects moved around in his garden. The fireflies were carrying fire in their stomachs, yet they could move with the grace of the dancers in the Yogyakarta palace, trailing over the air with a lingering, sensuous movement to the music only they could hear. The light in their stomachs twinkled with a serene rhythm, and Sutomo always thought that their fire was their music, the one that could never be heard by humans.
That was the view that Sutomo had seen for many times at night and it never failed to leave the boy in a peaceful, almost holy, trance. But that night, on November 9th, 1945, when the air was filled with dread and a slight smell of blood, the fireflies didn’t come.
Sutomo had studied their pattern. They would come out from their hidden palace two hours after sunset. It was 7 o’clock in the evening. The time for Isha prayer had come, but the majestic creatures were nowhere to be seen.
It was 8 o’clock now. Sutomo couldn’t stop thinking about his friends. Why didn’t they come? Was it because of the soldiers that walked past his house this afternoon? His father was with them. Come to think of it, his father had left earlier at 4 in the evening, saying they must prepare to face the White Men.
At 9 o’clock, his mother entered his room, and she was crying.
“The White Men will come to Surabaya tomorrow,” she said before sitting down on his bed. Sutomo was silent. He was told that the White Men were people who only knew how to kill and take things that weren’t theirs. Their eyes were the eyes of demons, and everyone said that they were dangerous, with guns in their hands and greed in their hearts. Did they make his mother cry?
She then looked at the clock. It was almost 10. “We have to leave tomorrow, at four in the morning, when the cock first crows,” she said with dread in her voice.
“Leave?” Sutomo asked, confused.
“Yes,” she answered briefly, “we have to leave Surabaya. The White Men will come to this city first.”
The boy was gripped with fear. Tears pricked his eyes. “Are they going to kill us, Mother?” he whispered.
The woman pulled him into a hug. “Sutomo,” she said slowly with a tired smile, “Don’t be afraid. Right now, your father is with the other soldiers. They will chase the White Men away.”
Sutomo looked up and found that his mother was crying again. He thought that maybe the fireflies had decided to come now. If they did, they would dance and then his mother would smile again.
“Mother,” he said, “can we look at the fireflies in the garden?”
“Why are you not dancing?”
Sutomo was frustrated. The fireflies were there, but they weren’t dancing. They were floating serenely in the air, looking at the boy with an undecipherable stare. Sutomo didn’t know that the fireflies had sensed in the air the herald of the inevitable war. The smell of blood and the vision of unnumbered tears that would forcefully enter the reality in a matter of hours had quenched their desire to dance. What was there to dance for? The fireflies were crying silently. They looked at the boy and only saw his innocence that would soon be brutally torn to shreds.
“Come on, dance for me. For my mother, too,” Sutomo said again.
It was 10 o’clock when Sutomo desperately asked his friends to dance despite the death that loomed in the atmosphere.
He was about to leave when he saw bursts of stars in his garden. No, not stars. The fireflies had decided to dance for him. Their fire twinkled more fiercely than usual, and the silent performers moved around in a ferocious dance that Sutomo had never seen before. The movements were beautiful yet jerky, almost desperate, as if the fireflies weren’t using their fire for the music, but their life itself.
His mother stood in awe beside him. There was a faint sound from the radio inside the house. A warrior was talking in a rousing speech. Yes, the people of Surabaya would not bow to the demands of the White Men. They would die before being enslaved. The warrior’s words would have burned their blood, but Sutomo and his mother couldn’t hear it. They were too entranced at the sight before them. It would be impossible not to be enraptured by the last dance of the fireflies.
They left their house at the first cock’s crow. It was 4 in the morning when they exit the door, and Sutomo was almost certain that they had walked for more than an hour. There was still no news from his father, but last night Sutomo had prayed that the three of them would be able to see the fireflies dance again. God would listen to him, right? He was a good boy.
They reached the edge of Tunjungan, where people were still bustling around the area. The silent dread was suffocating, and then it was shattered when a siren blared through the morning fog.
“6 o’clock! The White Men are here!” his mother said in panic.
There was a sickening boom and, across the grey sky, a huge star fell, burning bright like thousands of fireflies. His mother pulled Sutomo and they started to run.
More comets clawed the sky with their tails, and birds of steel followed. They thundered high in the sky, and hurricanes raged from their frozen wings. The birds screeched, and hundreds of armies of fireflies emerged from under their bodies. They dived straight unto the city, destroying everything that they landed on. They kept coming, one after the other. The sky was glowing red. The fireflies had burned the air with fire in their stomach. The fireflies continued to dance like torches, and they set the sky ablaze with flames of hell.
What was happening? They were so peaceful last night. They even danced for him and his mother. The boy could still hear the silent twinkling of their music. Now, the fireflies were mad, and they sang of death as if they were possessed by all the fallen angels.
There were shouts everywhere. The streets were filled with fire and smoke. Half-burned yellow papers, that earlier were spread by the White Men as the ultimatum for the citizens to surrender, were flying half-heartedly in the air.
In the distance, he could see shapes of people through the heavy smoke. The White Men. They were very tall, and their faces were cold with burning eyes. Every one of them was holding a weapon tipped with a sharp blade, and they walked through the terrible hell as if it was their paradise. A loud voice shouted something that sounded like an order. The White Men instantly went into the same pose, aiming to the front with that weapon in their hands.
There was a loud bang, and his mother fell to the ground.
“Su… tomo… run…” his mother whispered, before closing her eyes.
Sutomo was seized with horror. An inhumane sound he didn’t know he possessed grated through his dry lips, coming out in the form of the word ‘mother’. He could taste iron in his mouth, with a terrible clenching in his stomach.
Then that same deafening, unholy bang was heard again. This time, they came repeatedly, drowning his voice, and with every loud bang, someone fell down and stopped moving – just like his mother. Why couldn’t they get up?
He was about to call for her again when an army of fireflies decided to attack him. In a solid ball of fire, they buzzed through the air with hatred in their wings. They landed not far from him with a boom, creating a fiery pit on the ground. Their flames raged on, as if furious that their shot missed him. The boy started to cry. He loved the fireflies! Why did they hate him? What did he do wrong?
Another ball of fire crashed in front of him. A scream tore through his throat. He threw himself on his mother’s unmoving figure, wrapping his arms around her. His arms were sticky from red liquid, but he didn’t understand. Why won’t his mother wake up? It was dangerous. They should go. They should run…
Yes, that bloodthirsty November didn’t have a gentle way to introduce death to Sutomo. All around him fireflies rained down in balls of fire. The steel birds were roaring with hurricanes from their beaks, signaling the fireflies to continue their ballad of destruction. He could hear shouting in a language he couldn’t understand, and the booming sound chased one after the other to no end.
‘Mother, why are the fireflies so angry? Mother, why won’t you open your eyes?’