For Anna-Marie McLemore, a true lantern heart
June in Buffalo was Komal’s favorite time, particularly early June after twilight. The gloaming, she’d read once, a fancy word for the mysterious time when day merged with night. That was when the fireflies came out.
Late one such evening when she was thirteen, she sneaked downstairs, leaving the silver lotus charm she’d been assembling from kitchen foil and scraps of green cotton, and opened the front door to check the lawn one more time. Still nothing, even when she stepped outside onto the concrete footpath. “Night-lights! Oh, night-lights! Where areeee youuuu?” she whisper-sang, trying not to disturb the hush.
Something rubbed against her ankles, a kitten so little it was really more of a ball of black fluff with ears. It stared up at her, the glint in its jewellike eyes suggesting it knew what she was looking for. She bent down to stroke its fur, but it dashed out of reach, mewling. Come on, Komal imagined it saying. An adventure!
“I can’t,” she said, striving to sound like she meant it. She started back up the walkway, and the kitten padded after her. Giggling, she knelt beside it to search for a collar. There wasn’t one. “Wait, are you lost?”
Keys jingled before her mother appeared in the doorway, dressed for a shift at the hospital. “Go to bed, jaan,” she said, balancing a pair of sneakers and her phone. “You know you can’t be out here this late.”
“Mom, look!” Komal said. But her mother frowned at her phone screen instead.
“I’ll see you in the morning.” She strode past Komal, heading for the car in the driveway, and suddenly she was zooming down the street.
Komal felt so small that she almost gave up and went inside. Mom didn’t notice anything—not how their yellow sedan could be the sun’s chariot racing between the clouds or how an acorn was a puzzle box you solved by planting it. She couldn’t even get how two sewing needles crossed was the mice version of swords. And it wasn’t only Mom; nobody except Komal ever saw those things.
But the kitten was watching her, its gaze oddly aware, and it mewled its invitation once more. Won’t you come?
No one was around to stop Komal, so this time she accepted, chasing the kitten around corners and over grassy knolls and eventually slinking toward the abandoned community playground.
The kitten paused at the rotting, graffitied boards nailed over the entrance to the drooping chain-link fence and glanced over its shoulder, plainly asking her permission to continue. Komal took in the fading sign—no trespassing—and quickly high-stepped over the half-collapsed wire.
They hurried by shards of beer bottles like jagged confetti, discarded potato chip bags as resistant to degradation as alien spacesuits, and a tattered umbrella that might as easily have been a grasping skeletal hand. Across the playground, Komal glimpsed a huddle of the bullies from school, who’d splashed coffee into her locker and posted memes of her as a barking dog. The hair on her arms bristled. She shouldn’t be here. It was so dark, and she was all alone.
Ahead, her fluffy guide—because this was an adventure, and Komal knew it—swerved under a rusty swing set and pounced into a partially concealed thicket. Relieved, she scrambled after it. But she’d been a beat too slow. The kitten had melted into the gloom, as if it were one of the myriad shadows hulking everywhere.
Komal, though, didn’t mind. The bushes were close enough to create a chamber, and thanks to the kitten, she’d stumbled upon the most delicious secret inside them.
There in the thicket, a sea of floating peridots performed a wordless opera, each note scored in gentle flashes of glowing yellow-green. No, she realized, awe sweeping through her, not peridots but fireflies. Enchantment saturated the air, dense yet drifting like mist in time with the silent symphony. Her heart thrummed in response; it knew this song. Magic. Real and true magic.
She crouched in the bushes for hours, fighting off sleep to soak up every last ounce of the fireflies’ gift, before reluctantly heading home.
It was her secret, and only hers. Not for the kids at school who looked straight through her, or the ones who treated the playground like their personal trash can while completely missing what scintillated right below their noses. Not for her parents, who had no time for anything but their hectic careers. Hers, to be sipped and savored like the best cookies-and-cream milkshake.
Every night for the rest of that summer and the one after that, Komal returned to the same hidden spot, praying and praying for an encore.
When it didn’t come, she spent her days in search of answers, turning from biology websites to tomes of older, more slippery truths.
She pored over folklore and spellcraft from all over the world—India, Scotland, the Caribbean—through interlibrary loan and public-domain rare book archives, until at last, when she was fifteen, she discovered the strange little incantation, sandwiched between a chant to charm an apsara and another to repel an aswang.
Bewinged lanterns, the folklore text had called the fireflies. Lighting the dark. They could, if invoked correctly, even light the way into those ever-elusive shifting and interlocking lands collectively labeled as Faerie. Yield up all you were and all you are, and hold your gaze steady; the cost to touch the numinous is no less than the known world.
The yellowed, silverfish-nibbled volume had cautioned her over and over that she would cease to be Komal within the boundaries of Faerie, that she’d be no better than a blank slate, someone with no history, no opinions to call her own. Untarnished as the day she was born. Komal knew that was supposed to scare her off. It didn’t.
After all, she’d never been anybody. The world had spelled that out in cosmic Sharpie. Sometimes it even felt stamped on her skin.
On the summer solstice, when the night had lifted its lace sheath to reveal the first shining rays of dawn, and the film separating the realms grew gossamer, Komal fled her house on a wave of yearning, invisible wings at her back. She raced across the playground, through the garbage blowing around, to the very brink of Faerie, and grazed its outskirts with her bare feet. The shadow kitten, just as tiny as when she’d first seen it, waited there, its head tilted in a question.
Thorns of roses the color of sapphires pierced her hands as she threw herself before the vine-clothed gates. “I have it,” she whispered, triumphant, her breath giddy and shallow as if she’d already crossed over.
Fifteen years of recollections, of attitudes and observations and experiences, all painstakingly and agonizingly excavated from her spirit and her cells, then bound together. She was ready to trade everything she’d known, especially her pointless daydreams about making magical art people couldn’t help but love, for the chance to disappear into the lands of myth and all they held.
Even though the sun was up, a cloud of fireflies emerged from beneath leaves and branches to blink at her. Do you truly desire this?
Yes, she thought, and cast the spell. All that remained was to offer up her essence, consigning it to obscurity. Her sacrifice would transform, bright as a firefly’s flame, and like a door responding to the turn of its key, the gates would swing open.
She flung the contents of her heart free of her chest.
They found her then, the jerks from school. An offhand taunt as they stalked past—“Nah, man, too ugly for me. Even I’ve got standards”—accompanied by barks and snickers right as a halo of chartreuse illuminated the gates, and Komal startled, her head whipping toward the bullies’ already-receding figures.
When she looked back at the gates, they were gone. Just another chain-link fence surrounding the deserted playground, blue roses switched out for rings of barbed wire. The fireflies, the kitten, even the vicious bullies had left her behind.
“No,” she begged the magic, her knees buckling. “Wait!”
Komal sobbed and pleaded and banged on the fence, but aside from the growl of a car engine in the distance, all was quiet. At last, she slumped to the ground, throat hoarse with shouting, knees clutched to her chest.
She’d given over everything, only to have the reward ripped from her. The book hadn’t said what would happen if the offering had been accepted but the spell disrupted. Komal knew, anyway: she’d wasted her chance, and she could still remember all of it.
The morning gave way to day, and day to evening. At dusk, Komal surrendered and returned to her lonely life, the one she’d thought she’d escaped. Where else was there to go?
A year had passed, and Komal had long since quit searching for the fireflies. She’d quit reading her books and crafting, too. She’d been fooling herself, and she knew it. Anything she ever made was childish and stupid.
She crept through the world like the ghost other people acted like she was, their eyes sliding right over her unless they needed to borrow a pen or tell her to fold the laundry. Not even the bullies bothered with her now, too busy cruising through town in their cars and making out in the cemetery.
That piece of her—had she really thought it would get her into Faerie? Why would magic want her when nobody else did?
But at sunset on the solstice, out of habit as much as boredom, she followed the memory of the opera into the desolate playground.
A boy she hadn’t seen before sat in one of the rusty swings, his feet kicking at the dirt.
Komal stiffened. She hadn’t expected anyone else to be around.
A corona of fireflies hovered over the boy’s head, blinking a language Komal couldn’t speak. Their light wreathed him, transforming the dilapidated swing set into an ivory throne and him into its ethereal monarch. He seemed amused at their message, answering in words she strained to hear.
When he caught sight of her, a luminous smile spread over his face. He hopped off the swing, delicate, filmy wings unfurling behind him. Something brilliant and yellow-green, like firefly flame, flared in his chest.
He was stunning, she realized, too stunning, like he’d fallen out of a fairy tale about rajas and apsaras. Suspicion made her eyebrows draw together. “Who are you?”
“A name?” The boy considered, then broke into a wicked grin. “You may call me Roshan.”
Roshan, Komal knew, meant “light.” She stared pointedly at his lambent chest. “Is that supposed to be a joke?”
“I waited for you beyond the gates,” he said, “but you failed to come through.”
Her own heart lit up. His eerie beauty, the fireflies’ doting attention, the impulsively picked name. A prince of the lampyrids, here to escort her to her real home. “The spell—”
“Was corrupted, and is no more.”
The hope, newly woken, winked out. “You talk to them?” she asked, because she had to think about something else, anything else, before the pain crushed her all over again.
His grin widened. “I do.”
Curious, she edged closer. “What do you talk about?”
“They report all the scandals. Which of the fawns is the biggest mama’s boy. Which hare ate the other hare’s lettuce when his back was turned. Such drama in the forest!”
“No, they don’t!” she blurted, suppressing a laugh. “Really?” The idea of her magical little night-lights gossiping was so ridiculous.
Roshan held up his hands, and his crown of fireflies twinkled like a constellation. “All right, all right; you found me out. The fireflies of your world do serve as our scouts, but they tell us tales of marvels such as electric carriages and machines that spit out treats in exchange for a coin. Naturally, I had to come see for myself. And”—he turned a thoughtful brown gaze on her—“meet you.”
“Me?” Komal longed so badly to believe him, but it made no sense. Why would he possibly care about meeting her?
“You think you’re nothing.” Anger tinged his melodious voice. “But it is always the outsiders who see more clearly.”
Komal eyed him, then his peridot heart, confused. He spoke in riddles, and she’d never been very good at those.
Roshan’s mouth curved up, and he offered her his arm. “I believe you have things to show me?”
The last thing Komal wanted was to leave the playground without her impossible firefly prince, but she explained that she couldn’t just bring a strange boy home at night. While her parents might generally be oblivious, they did have their rules.
“Is that all?” Roshan said, and laughed. He morphed into a firefly and flew next to her ear. When he blinked, she could understand him, her heart pinging and swelling with the recognition of magic, exactly as it had the night of the opera.
They wandered home through the dark, trailed by Roshan’s dazzling companions, who chased away the menacing silhouettes like steadfast sentries. From all her research, Komal knew not to count on that loyalty; the fey often twisted the truth to trick mortals out of their dearest qualities and possessions, leaving them brimming with regret for what they’d lost. But she was willing to take that risk. After all, she’d asked for magic.
She unlocked her front door with the stealth she’d perfected over many nights of sneaking out and slipped up the stairs, washed in Roshan’s subtle glow.
In her room, Roshan became a beautiful boy again. Having him there should have been scary and thrilling, and it was—but in a mesmerizing way, not a romantic one. Roshan wasn’t like the boys at school. For one thing, even folded, his wings glimmered in the light of her lamp. His ornate kurta had been woven from grass and threaded with gold, and his matching gold dupatta rippled as if in a breeze. He demanded to know everything about her phone and her laptop and asked her to play a movie for him. “Fascinating,” he said, his peridot heart smoldering as she scrolled through the options.
It had been a long time since she’d thought like that, but watching him investigate the power strip that plugged into an outlet on the wall, something most people wrote off as mundane, she could almost remember how it felt.
Close to dawn, when Komal couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer, Roshan resumed his firefly shape and nestled on the windowsill. She tried hard not to sleep, sure that when she woke up, he wouldn’t be there.
But she did sleep, and when she emerged from her dreams of blue roses, he was sitting in the chair, reading a novel from her bookshelf. He closed the book, marking his page with a finger, and smiled. “Mortal imagination is its own kind of portal. How did you sleep?”
“Fine. Don’t go anywhere,” she ordered, and he flipped open his book. She brought up frozen waffles with berries and syrup and mismatched glasses of orange-pineapple juice. Roshan marveled at each of them in turn.
Mostly, though, Komal noted, he studied her. Assessed, as if there was anything special about her. It made her flush, and it made her mad. She wasn’t special, but going to Faerie would have fixed that.
Once he’d assured her that both his peridot flame and his wings would remain invisible to most people, Roshan reminded her that he’d come here to play. He began to make requests—first, a visit to a grocery store. Komal protested; she couldn’t think of anywhere more tedious, but he insisted.
The aisles and aisles of processed food and waxy produce, the harsh fluorescent bulbs, and the self-checkout counters all astounded him, as did the shoppers on their phones while pushing their carts. “This is the most peculiar market I have ever come across. I cannot decide whether I find it wondrous or horrific!”
“Horrific, obviously,” Komal told him.
“Perhaps,” he said, his expression mischievous. “Or perhaps wonder and horror are not so far apart.”
“What does that mean?” she asked, wary, but he busied himself examining a candy bar.
Another afternoon, they walked past the high school, keeping the concrete monstrosity at a safe distance. Komal made a face. “This is my school.”
“Ah, a center of knowledge! Is that where you learned of us?” Roshan asked. He’d been weaving her an elegant circlet of daisies and violets to go with her silver lotus charm after he’d found it shoved in the closet along with her other former projects. Burning with shame at his discovery—they were so painfully clumsy—she’d changed the subject, but she hadn’t been able to stop him from claiming the charm for his own.
“Yeah, right. I hate this place,” Komal confided. “I hate it here. I hate this town.” She gestured to the circlet. “If I wore that here, I’d never hear the end of it.”
Roshan frowned but said nothing.
Another day still, they took a bus to a nearby theme park and rode all the rides until they got dizzy. “There’s hardly any real risk of falling,” Roshan grumbled, “given that I can save us with my wings, and I see no good reason to wait in such long lines for the privilege of feigning otherwise.”
But before they left, he asked Komal to buy him a souvenir from the gift shop, an enamel pin of a gleeful, pink-furred fox with a purple tail. To her chagrin, when he touched it, the fox leaped clear of the backing and darted away before they could catch it.
“Free,” Roshan observed, visibly pleased with himself.
“Hey!” said Komal, much less enthused. “Not free. That cost me twenty-one bucks!”
For two weeks, they played complicated video games and cooked pouches of broccoli-cheddar macaroni and cheese for picnics in the forest with the fireflies and traded stories while drinking icy bottles of cherry Coke. “This tastes nothing like a true cherry,” Roshan announced, but he gulped his soda down, anyway, and then stole hers.
Komal knew this couldn’t last—she’d been incredibly lucky that he’d sought her out to begin with, despite the spell having failed. School would resume soon, and her parents, mostly absent as they were, had been wondering why the food in the fridge and pantry kept dwindling so fast and why she was rarely home anymore. But with Roshan at her side, everything about her life felt better. Like someone had taken a paintbrush and dabbed on a much-needed coat of gloss.
Best of all, he’d only asked to have adventures. As he’d put it, to play. So far, he’d never tried to flirt, never pushed for anything else. All she had to do was enjoy the fact that, for once, she wasn’t alone.
“Why are you sad?” Roshan asked one evening, interrupting his own story about a yaksha and a selkie. From his descriptions so far, it seemed to Komal that humans had gotten some details about the mythic lands right and invented the rest. “You cast the spell because you’re sad. Tell me why.”
He’d taken her off guard, and the familiar pain gushed forth. “What is there to tell? I don’t belong anywhere. I used to be stupid enough to tell people I believe in magic, and they laughed at me. Now they all ignore me. Even my mom and dad have more friends than I do.” She sucked in a huge breath and added, “I’m a capital-L loser, and everyone knows it. Happy?”
For a moment, she hated Roshan for making her admit how pathetic she was. Then it turned to panic. Now that he knew, he’d leave, too. Her magic prince. Her—if she was honest with herself—only friend.
His gemstone heart coruscating with its firefly flame, Roshan rose from his spot on the floor and sat down next to her on the bed. She braced for a lecture, something along the lines of don’t feel sorry for yourself when so many people have it worse, but he only held out his arms. When she nodded, he pulled her close and stroked her hair.
“Everybody else knows how to get along, you know?” she went on, laying her head on his shoulder. “I’m the weirdo. The freak. How am I supposed to live my whole life like this?”
Roshan hugged her tighter, his wings enveloping them both like a blanket.
“I know my parents love me,” she babbled, because she did know and because she didn’t want to seem ungrateful. “I know their jobs are really important. But do they really have to be so busy all the time? Shouldn’t I be important, too?”
Foil crinkled as he wove the lotus charm into a lock of her hair.
“I thought . . . I thought people might love my art, at least. But they don’t. I don’t matter. It hurts.”
“There is a sort of alchemy possible in liminal spaces, the kind outsiders inhabit,” he said, but one of her tears dripped onto his shoulder, and he stopped talking and just let her cry.
A few nights later, as the weather slid into the languid heat of mid-July, Roshan asked if they could go back to the swing set where she’d first stumbled upon him.
Komal felt uneasy, but she agreed.
Hand in hand, not caring how it looked or who might notice, they strolled through the streets and into the playground. Roshan’s presence made everything feel like the borderland to Faerie, even the garbage and graffiti. Overhead, the stars sparkled like a cool imitation of the fireflies and their flame, and the moon silvered her steps.
She’d been satisfied, Komal finally conceded, even happy. Having her own firefly prince had changed everything.
They reached the other side of the playground, stopping short of the chain-link fence with its curls of barbed wire. “This is far enough,” Roshan said.
“Far enough for what?” Komal asked, though she didn’t think she’d like the answer.
Roshan grew fainter, his shape vaguely translucent. “What if I told you I didn’t come here merely to play?”
There it was, the trick all the folklore had warned her about. The price of their unspoken bargain. He wanted something from her. The tension Komal had been holding for weeks relaxed, only for her body to steel itself against whatever he was about to say next.
Roshan smiled as if from behind frosted glass. But nothing could dull the jewel in his chest, which glowed like an enchanted ember. It didn’t matter that only Komal could see it; it was more real than any other part of him.
She dropped her head. Seeing him this way hurt too much. “You want to go back, don’t you?”
“Fireflies don’t live long in your world.”
“I know,” she said miserably. “A couple of weeks.” He nodded, cupping her chin so she had to meet his attentive eyes. “But you’re not just a firefly!”
Sympathy flickered from his peridot heart, its sheen reflected in his face. “No, I am not.”
“Take me with you,” Komal begged. “I did the spell.” She didn’t know how she was supposed to live what was left of her life in this boring world if she couldn’t at least have the balm of magic.
“I cannot. The spell was—”
“Corrupted. I know. But my offering was accepted!”
“Komal,” Roshan said sternly, “hear me now, and hear me well. It was not accepted.”
The word struck her like a cudgel. “Of course it was. I saw it.”
“It was transmuted, then held in trust for the day it could be restored to you.” The peridot blazed fiercely, a living gem calling to her. “You never passed through the gates, so the offering was incomplete. I came to give it back to you.”
Somewhere deep inside, Komal had nursed the thought that if Faerie had her essence, there was still a chance. That Roshan had come to find her for that reason, and he’d put off telling her so. But if even her gift hadn’t been good enough?
She sagged, the old loneliness too heavy to bear. “Nobody wants me, not even you.”
“You misunderstand. We chose you.” Roshan’s heart flashed, so warm and captivating. “I’m returning your wonder. Your vitality. Both things far too precious to discard so heedlessly, as you would have done.”
Chose her? As what, his princess? Komal didn’t understand.
“Let me show you,” he murmured.
He was so close, and his mouth looked soft. She leaned forward in spite of herself, eager to know what he had to share. Their lips brushed with the slightest of flutters, as if he’d already dissipated, and she was kissing a zephyr. Light circulated between them, the diffuse yellow-green radiance staining Komal’s vision.
When Roshan stepped back, his fading chest was dark. Now Komal was the one with a lamp for a heart, chartreuse and softly blinking like she’d swallowed one of her beloved night-lights. Its luminescence, the core of her she’d tried so hard to erase, flowed swiftly, a gleaming river with tributaries throughout her body.
Roshan beamed at her. “This was always yours. I was only keeping it for you.”
A veil had been removed from her eyes, or maybe added back: she could see the shimmer of the shadows and hear the sigh of a moth. She felt so many things, mostly sorrow. So many S words; was this sacrifice or suffering? “If this is wonder, I’m not interested. Not if it means you’re leaving.”
“The others will watch over wherever you are in the world,” he said. “You bear the key now; with it, you can open the gates.”
“I just can’t go through. Great.” But she laughed a little to offset the bitterness.
“These gates will not open to you again—but one day, another pair will. When you are done here.”
The illumination in her chest was so sweet Komal was afraid to breathe. “Why do I have to wait?” she whined, hating how petulant she sounded. “What’s here for me?”
Roshan gestured to her heart. “Faerie marked you as an ambassador. You’ll be a night-light to others who need help through the darkness, and when your work is done, should you still wish it, you will find a place among us.”
She tipped her chin down, taking in her peridot heart. It was her, so strong and vivid.
Roshan circled around and tapped her shoulder blades. The wings she’d always longed for, the wings she’d always been certain were there, but pinioned so deep she’d never be able to reach them, unfurled and began to beat. Over her shoulder, she could glimpse their iridescent veining.
“No one will ever see them,” she mumbled, overcome. “Will they?”
“Those with lantern hearts like yours will, those also in search of the gates. How you view the world,” he whispered, his form less than an outline now, “that’s the key. You know how to seek the magic, and as long as you look, it will always be revealed to you, through all the fluorescent lights and misunderstandings and alienation. Your duty will then be to remind others.”
Out of words, Komal nodded. She had wings. She had a peridot heart. Faerie had chosen her after all.
A perfume a nagini queen might wear wafted through the night. The silver lotus charm materialized in Komal’s grip, its aluminum foil softened into the silky petals of her vision, its stalk no longer cotton but alive. Maybe no one else could perceive the difference, but she did.
“You are not invisible,” Roshan said, an instant before he vanished altogether. “Those who matter will always see you. I do.”
As though to underscore that, the shadow kitten twined itself around her ankles and purred.
And as Komal gazed around the forgotten playground, the fireflies soaring above like miniature comets, her own lantern heart igniting the darkness, she knew he was right.
(Editors’ Note: Shveta Thakrar is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2021 Shveta Thakrar