This story is by Laura Porter Taylor and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There’s something about a Mason jar. It holds so many things, some practical, some not. Garden fresh tomatoes, summer’s crisp green beans, the first plum preserves of the season. For the more practically inclined, it’s a repository for nuts, bolts, nails, and screws leftover from some forgotten or unfinished project.
But what it holds most dear cannot be seen. Sweet smells of summer in a few cubic inches of empty space. Blades of grass fresh from the field just below my grandfather’s house, where two little girls would wriggle excitedly on summer evenings before dark. We would anxiously await for him to plunge his timeworn trusty awl into the brass-colored metal lids to make small conduits for air inside the glass vessels for their soon-to-be occupants.
As lightly as the evening breeze, bare feet calloused by scorching summer sidewalks and squealing with delight, we ran through the endless acre. Surrounded by Queen Anne’s lace, bee balm, foxglove, and wild phlox now bathed in the cool dew of dusk, we captured fireflies that finally left their secret daylight hiding places. Thousands of drifting amber lights twinkling on and off, then on again. In my childish imagination, they were fairy princess carriages transporting their magical passengers to woodland castles, illuminating the way with delicate, insistent beacons.
When the jars glowed like lanterns and the black velvet sky was full of stars, we placed them on bedside tables next to a creaking iron bedstead with a hand-sewn feather mattress in an antique room smelling of aged wood and the dust of ancestors. The twinkling lights warded off any specters or monsters that may have entered through the walls or hidden under the bed unnoticed as darkness fell. We snuggled down beneath the layers of gaily patterned quilts worn with time and waited impatiently for our grandfather to reach into the pockets of his faded gray sweater. Awaiting inside were sweet treats hidden there. It was our secret – two conspirators of childhood and a youthful mind that remembered when there were no sweets for a small boy living underneath the ancient sheltering mountains both time and fortune forgot.
We pleaded for stories of when he was a boy. Our youthful inquiring minds were enchanted by tales of a time when there were no cars, and everyone rode by horseback or in wagons when there were no city lights blotting out the glowing stars of the Milky Way. He spoke of parties where ladies dressed in silk pastel ball gowns with flowers in their hair and men in dapper summer suits, smelling of Bay Rum and moonshine. They gathered in grand columned Masonic halls, illuminated by gas lanterns and candles with flickering dim flames barely lighting the rooms enough to dance.
He’d then tell us stories about the sounds of night crickets singing in rhythmic cadences, and cool breezes rustling the leaves of green maple trees. We could almost hear the silver sounds of icy-cold water tripping over primeval rocks in the rivers near the old place where he played as a boy and fished for his supper. When we pleaded for just one more story, instead he would whisper, “you are daughters of the moon and warriors of the stars” in Tsalagi, the words of the native Cherokee people, before sleep would overtake us. I still remember the lilting, vowel-rich sounds of the language spoken by those first to live in that land surrounded by the blue-tinged mountains they called Shaconage, the Land of Blue Smoke. Then he left us to dreams.
Once we were engulfed in their soft, sheltering arms, he slipped back into the room, careful to miss the loose wooden slat that creaked loudly enough to wake the slumbering ghosts of those who once lived there and had gone on before. With the stealth of a cat ready to pounce upon its unsuspecting prey, he removed the now darkened jars on the tables and moved soundlessly from the room.
Tiptoeing out into the night, he released the temporary captives from their glass prisons, freeing them to return the next evening to find a mate and complete their short cycle of life. When we questioned upon waking why they had disappeared into the night, poetic words fell from his lips, and we listened rapturously to secrets about fairies, elves, and magic.
“Of course, they had to return where you found them. If they didn’t, who would take the fairy princesses to their hidden palaces before dawn breaks?”
We would nod solemnly in agreement as we were gently shooed into the kitchen for a breakfast of oatmeal with cinnamon sugar on top.
Change always comes. Along with its companion, death, it is one of life’s two certainties. On a bitter, snowy, February day, long before we became young women, my grandfather left us to join the ancestors of whom he had spoken so often. He took the magic of those purple clover days with him, hiding it in the shadows of the stars. His storied mountains with their fabled blue haze weren’t as beautiful, the starlight in the heavens grew dimmer, and the siren call of the fairy-laden carriages became less urgent. We grew older and fancied things more important than jars full of beetles and sweets before bedtime.
Life took on the things growing up requires. Time moved inexorably forward as we went to college, married, and I had children and grandchildren of my own. The rambling whitewashed farmhouse left my life as well. Nothing lasts forever, not even the primeval mountains, which stand as silent sentinels over my grandfather’s mortal remains and of others who went both before and after his passing.
Now the house, with its hazy heavenly summers, is lost to my children. They won’t know the enchantment of a cool summer night replete with the smell of flowers on soft breezes or hear the sounds of dancing waters in the creek at the edge of the field where green moss grows on rocks worn smooth by time. There will be no discovery of the world where the secrets of fairy princesses stay hidden. It is so much the lesser for them, and I grieve for the loss of something they will never know. But the grief is not theirs, it is mine. You cannot weep for something your heart has never loved.
I return often to the field to gaze at it from the side of the road. No one seems to mind. It is neatly mowed by its new occupants. The plum tree that marked its geographic center is gone, along with the fragrant flowers my sister and I used to run through with such expectant and breathless glee. The house is also a stranger to me. Its once gray, hand-hewn shingles have been replaced with a raffish red tin roof I imagine the color of hell to be. Its wide front porch is devoid of the old hand-carved rockers, replaced by a worn faux-leather bench seat from a discarded car. An unsightly pocked tin star hovers above it. There are no longer fireflies rising from the short, scalped grass. I have no memories here.
Last spring, I found a forgotten box tucked in a corner of yet another attic as I packed away the earthly things of someone both my grandfather and I had loved. In it, I discovered it wasn’t the shadows of the stars that held his secrets, but the interior of a Mason jar. The top, still pierced with holes now rusted with age, held a sliver of silvered field grass at the bottom where fireflies were once held captive on placid summer nights, trapped in their transparent towers.
My heart returned to those gilded green summers as I rolled the jar slowly between my hands, feeling its cool, smooth glass beneath my now much older fingers. Within were his secrets in that seemingly empty space inside. It wasn’t those I’d lost. I own nothing on this blue celestial orb hurtling through an ever-expanding universe. Everything I have is borrowed from the transient future during my short stay here. As my grandfather did, I will take the blessings I’ve found along my journey, the love of those who once walked with me and of those who will grieve when I enter realms unknown to this world. Memory. It continues to give me everything my heart holds close. One day my sons must pack up and give away my earthly remnants they will find hard to part with but know they should. But that is not where their treasure lies.
A Mason jar is never empty. Mine is filled with the light of remembrance, transparent as the wings of dragonflies, etched with time, edges worn thin by years of longing for half-forgotten dreams from a simpler time and place. For me, it still holds a mystical world where happily ever after once lived, contained inside a few cubic inches of glass which now resides safely within the sacred spaces of my heart.